Karen Russell

Background: Africa, Italy, and the Pacific

Between September 1939 and the summer of 1942, the Axis powers had enjoyed a continuous string of military successes. The events of World War II seemed to predict an Axis victory, and the direction of the war was clearly moving in Hitler's favor. However, at the end of 1942 this trend was dramatically reversed. The shifting tide of World War II is evident in the successful Allied invasions of north Africa and Italy, as well as Allied victories in the Pacific theater. As historian Walter McDougall describes: "Within a year after American entry into the war, Axis powers crested and began to ebb, for critical battles were fought in 1942 in every major theater. The year also saw the forging of a Grand Alliance among the United States, Britain, and the U.S.S.R." (McDougall, 1). The events that preceded D-day, particularly the Allied successes in Italy, North Africa, and the Pacific, played a significant role in shaping the strategy and objectives of both the Allied and Axis powers.

The War in North Africa: Operation Torch

For two years, a desert war in North Africa had seesawed back and forth. The Italians had first launched an invasion of Egypt from their own African colony, Libya. In December, 1940, the British had successfully driven the Italians back some 500 miles, capturing 130,000 of the Italian army while their own casualties totaled a relatively low 2,000 (Hughes, 243). The success of this British counterattack convinced Hitler to send support to his ally. Hitler's assistance came in the form of brilliant General Erwin Rommel, the "Desert Fox", who was accompanied by reinforcements of German troops, who became known as Rommel's Afrika Korps.

By the spring of 1941, the British had been pushed back to the Egyptian border. Rommel's advance stalled soon afterwards, and the two opposing powers remained deadlocked for a year. In late June, 1942, President Roosevelt and Churchill met in Washington, D.C. to discuss plans for a joint operation in Africa. The proposed operations in Africa were controversial. Some American generals expressed concern that the British focus on the African theater stemmed more from a British desire to defend its empire than a commitment to the rapid defeat of Hitler. Stalin voiced his objections as well, urging the Allies to focus instead on opening a second front in France to take the pressure off the Soviet army.

However, despite the American generals' misgivings and Stalin's pleas for a second front, Roosevelt and the other Allies approved Operation Torch on July 25, 1942. Operation Torch involved a "series of landings in French-controlled Morocco and Algeria that Churchill and Roosevelt had decided was to be their major effort for the year 1942" (Hughes, 343). As historian John Keegan describes, the purpose of Operation Torch "was to hem Rommel's forces in between U.S. troops on the west and British troops to the east. After considerable discussion, it was finally agreed that landings, under the supreme command of Major General Dwight D. Eisenhower, should be made on November 8 at three places in the vicinity of Casablanca on the Atlantic coast of Morocco and on beaches near Oran and near Algiers itself on the Mediterranean coast of Algeria. The amphibious landing would involve a total of about 110,000 troops, most of them Americans" (Keegan, 1). As McDougall astutely points out: "The first American initiative in the war was to be an unprovoked and undeclared attack against neutral territory" (McDougall, 1). Prior to the commencement of Operation Torch, a new British general, Sir Bernard Montgomery, had arrived to command British forces in Egypt. In the spring of 1942, Rommel had moved against the Allies and now threatened the British position at El Alamein in Egypt. The Germans were poised to capture El Alamein, a strategic position from which they could seize the Suez Canal and cut British access to India.

However, in late October of 1942 the British artillery opened fire on Rommel's forces at El Alamein. Historian H. Stuart Hughes describes Montgomery's counteroffensive at El Alamein as "the heaviest barrage that the African continent has ever known...after ten days of intense tank and infantry combat, Rommel's lines finally broke, and he was forced to retreat" (Hughes, 343). The success at El Alamein marked a turning point for the Allies in North Africa. Churchill later referred to the Battle of El Alamein as "the turning point in British military fortunes", stating, "Up to Alamein, we survived. After Alamein, we conquered" (Beers, 702). After blocking Rommel's thrust at Alamein, Montgomery systematically pursued him along the Egyptian and Libyan shore. On January 24, 1943, the British captured Tripoli, and the road to Tunisia was opened.

"The advance from El Alamein formed one claw of the great pincers movement that the British and Americans had devised to liquidate once and for all the Axis position in North Africa (Hughes, 343). The second claw of the pincers movement was implemented as outlined by Operation Torch. Problems with the proposed landings arose because of the delicate situation in France. As Keegan explains, "The conciliation of the French on whose colonial territory the landings would be made" was an important Allied objective because "all of French North Africa was still loyal to the Vichy government of Marshal Petain, with which the United States, unlike Great Britain, was still formally maintaining diplomatic relations...American diplomats and generals tried to gain these [French] officers' collaboration with the Allies in the landings, for it was vital to try to avoid a situation in which Vichy French troops put up armed resistance to the landings at the beaches" (Keegan, 1). The war in North Africa was complicated by French politics. At Roosevelt's insistence, de Gaulle and his Free French were not involved in the North African invasion. Roosevelt was confident that the landings could succeed without de Gaulle's help, but this proved to be a grave mistake. Petain ordered the French to resist the landings, and when the U.S.-British landings began as scheduled on November 8, they were met with varying degrees of French resistance at Algiers, Oran, and Casablanca. However, with the help of Admiral Francois Darlan, a high Vichy official, an armistice was signed on November 10. In exchange for his assistance, Eisenhower made Darlan the provisional ruler of French North Africa. (This move was widely criticized, and was followed by significant political changes in France; see section on France.)

Between February 14-24, 1943, U.S. forces in North Africa were pushed back by Rommel's Afrika Korps at the Kasserine Pass in Tunisia, but by the 25th the U.S. troops regained their positions and halted Rommel's advance. On May 7, 1943, the American troops took Bizerte, Tunisia, while British troops captured Tunis. By May 10, the German and Italian troops ceased organized resistance in Tunisia and the commanders began the formal surrender. By May 13, some 250,000 Axis troops will have surrendered (Schlesinger, 492). Finally, on May 13, 1943, with the surrender of the German and Italian commanders in North Africa, the Axis campaign has ended in a crushing defeat, taking a toll of 500,000 Axis soldiers (Schlesinger, 493). As McDougall asserts: "The final defeat of Rommel's Afrika Korps opened the way for the invasion of Sicily in July 1943" (McDougall, 3).

Italy: An Overview (July 1943-June 1944)

A. Sicily and the Fall of Mussolini

In January, 1943, Roosevelt and Churchill had met at Casablanca to coordinate strategy for the coming year. As McDougall describes, "Once again Roosevelt conciliated Churchill, agreeing to put off opening a second front in France in favor of more modest operations against Sicily, Italy, and the 'soft underbelly' of Europe after the liberation of North Africa" (McDougall, 2). Churchill had hoped to gain access to the "soft underbelly" of Europe through the invasion of Sicily and Italy. While the amphibious invasions agreed upon at Casablanca were ultimately successful, they were also very costly. The subsequent course of events in the Mediterranean challenged Churchill's conception of the "soft underbelly" of Europe.

The Axis powers had failed to save its forces in Tunisia, and by midsummer 1943 the Axis forces in Sicily had been reduced to only ten Italian divisions of various sorts and two German panzer units (Keegan, 1). These limited Axis forces were unable to withstand the waves of Allied troops that invaded the island. As historian Arthur Schlesinger succinctly describes:

"On June 10, 1943, Sicily is invaded by U.S., British, Canadian, and French troops; General Eisenhower is the supreme commander of the landing forces that include some 2,500 ships and many airplanes. Several cities in southern Sicily are capture before the day is over, and by August 17 Sicily will have fallen to the Allies. This will assure safer passage to Allied shipping in the Mediterranean and give the Allies a great advantage in their planned invasion of the Italian mainland" (Schlesinger, 493). The attack on Sicily was the largest landing that the combined British and American forces had yet undertaken. Not only did over 160,000 men participate, but "the Allies' air superiority in the Mediterranean theater was so great by this time--more than 4,000 aircraft against some 1,500 German and Italian ones--that the Axis bombers had been withdrawn from Sicily in June to bases in north-central Italy" (Keegan 1).

In addition to military superiority, the Allied invasion of Sicily was a swift success because of the fall of Mussolini. Keegan claims that Mussolini's fall occurred in part because "the successive disasters sustained by the Axis in Africa" had made Italian leaders eager to make peace with the Allies (Keegan, 1). The invasion of Sicily, which constituted a direct threat to the Italian mainland, galvanized the Italian officials to action. According to Keegan: "On the night of July 24, 1943, when Mussolini revealed to the Fascist Grand Council that the Germans were thinking of evacuating the southern half of Italy, the majority of the council voted for a resolution against him" (Keegan, 1). On July 25, 1943, Mussolini was forced by King Victor Emmanuel to resign after 21 years as Il Duce. Several days after Mussolini's resignation, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, the German commander in chief in Italy, decided to evacuate the Axis troops in Sicily.

At this time Marshal Pietro Badoglio was named Prime Minister of Italy. Historian Hughes describes Badoglio as "the conqueror of Ethiopia and a very recent convert to antifascism, to say the least" (344). Badoglio's main objective was to get Italy out of the war, and it was with this aim that he entered into secret negotiations with the Allies while pretending allegiance to the Axis powers. McDougall sums up Badoglio's dilemma: "Italy wanted peace, but to break the alliance with Hitler might provoke a German attack and condemn Italy to prolonged fighting" (3).

By August, 1943, Sicily had been effectively conquered by the Allied forces. Allied casualties total 25,000, but the Italian and German forces have suffered much greater losses, which are estimated at 167,000 (Schlesinger, 493). On September 3, 1943, Marshal Badoglio signed a secret armistice with the Allies "in the hope of synchronizing an armistice and an Allied occupation" (McDougall, 3). Although the Americans insisted that Italy give an unconditional surrender and would not promise Badoglio that they would land as far north as Rome, the Italian Prime Minister was left with little choice in the matter. Badoglio agreed to cease Italian military resistance to the Allied powers on September 8, 1943. When Italy publicly surrendered as scheduled on September 8, Germany accused its former ally of betrayal and immediately began to treat Italy as an enemy. The day after Badoglio's official surrender, the Allied troops landed at Salerno, south of Naples, where they were met with strong German resistance. Four days after the landings in the Bay of Salerno, Hitler sent a team of commandos led by Otto Skorzeny to stage a dramatic rescue of Mussolini, who was then set up as a puppet dictator in northern Italy. By September 14 the Germans were forced out of Salerno, and five days later Sardinia fell to the Allied forces. On October 1, the Allies achieved a key victory and capture Naples. However, before the Germans are forced to evacuate they damage many of Naples' cultural institutions and burn thousands of books to punish the Italians for their perceived treachery. Badoglio's dream of getting Italy out of the war unscathed is never realized: "The new Italian government, far from exiting the war, was obliged to do a volte-face and declare war on Germany on October 13, 1943" (McDougall, 3).

The Liberation of Rome and Northern Italy

The Teheran Conference in late 1943 resulted in the confirmation of a major Allied landing in France in May of 1944. The Allies' formal commitment to a cross-Channel invasion had a tremendous impact on the invasion of Italy. As Hughes asserts: "The Teheran decisions had put the Italian campaign in a paradoxical position. It was to be both an active front and a secondary front. It was the only place on the Continent where the British and Americans were actually fighting, but its needs were constantly subordinated to the task of building up strength in England for the cross-Channel operation in the spring. Hence it was always short of manpower; again and again, a planned offensive dwindled and failed because of a lack of reserve troops" (Hughes, 346). The Allied forces slowly advanced northward, but were unable to dent the German's reinforced Gustav Line until 1944. The Gustav Line extended "for 100 miles from the mouth of the Garigliano through Cassino and over the Apennines to the mouth of the Sangro" (Keegan, 1). After a long stalemate at Cassino, a town and monastery in central Italy that served as the keypoint to the Germans' Gustav Line, the Allied forces launched a major offensive on March 15, 1944. However, their advance encountered stiff German resistance, and the Allied forces were unable to pierce the Gustav Line across central Italy until May 18. By June 1 the Allied forces were able to commence a steady drive towards Rome, which both Axis and Allied forces treated as an open city.

On June 4, 1944, the Allied forces swept into Rome, making it the first of the continental capitals to be declared liberated. Hughes emphasizes the significance of Rome's liberation, stating that "it marked the beginning of postfascist politics--of the reconstruction of democracy on the ruins of authoritarian regimes" (Hughes, 346). However, the liberation of Rome was overshadowed by an even more dramatic event which occurred only a day and a half afterwards: the Allied landings in Normandy.

The Pacific Theater of Combat in Brief (June 1942-February 1944)

At the same time the tide seemed to be turning for the Allies in the European theater of combat, a similar reversal of fortunes was occurring in the Pacific. For six months after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had enjoyed an unbroken string of successes against Allied forces. By the summer of 1942, the Japanese were poised to attack New Guinea, which would have opened the way for an invasion of Australia. However, the Battle of Coral Sea off southern New Guinea, which took place between May 4-8, 1942, marked Japan's first major defeat.


Japanese Mitsubishi fighters on the way to Pearl Harbor.
Animation by Ken Blandon.

Roughly a month later, on June 3, a tremendous battle developed off Midway. The Americans lost their carrier Yorktown, but were able to destroy four of the Japanese carriers and a large portion of the pilot corps. Most historians consider the Battle of Midway to mark the turning point in the Pacific. Although the Japanese continued to fight with remarkable drive and tenacity, the war in the Pacific took an irrevocable turn after Midway. The United States were able to take the offensive, with an aim towards recapturing the Philipines and invading Japan. As Schlesinger states, "The war is far from over, but the Japanese have now lost the initiative in terms of naval superiority" (489).

To achieve their objectives in the Pacific, the Americans employed a unique approach. Historian Burton F. Beers describes their strategy: "The Americans devised an "island hopping" campaign, attacking some Japanese-held islands but bypassing others. The captured islands would serve as stepping-stones to their next objectives. The Americans advanced slowly and with heavy casualties. The Japanese fought with tremendous determination, but they had to give up one strategic outpost after another" (Beers, 704). For a detailed chronological account of the war in the Pacific, including the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, and the invasion of the Marshall Islands, refer to Schlesinger's time-line.

Between 1942 and 1944, the events in Africa, the Mediterranean, and the Pacific had a tremendous influence on both the Allied and Axis powers' respective strategies and objectives. The Allies' successes in these diverse theaters of combat not only paved the way for the Normandy landings, but ultimately shaped the course of World War II. By taking into account the influence of the critical campaigns in North Africa, Italy, and the Pacific, one can gain a deeper understanding of the Normandy invasion. The turning of the tide, which resulted from Allied victories in Africa, Italy, and the Pacific, created the context within which D-day must be viewed. The amphibious invasions prior to Normandy were particularly significant because they provided the Allies with vital experience which they were able to successfully apply in Operation Overlord. As Hughes concludes: "The Western Allies could make their supreme attempt--a major cross-Channel invasion of France--only after gaining experience in the Mediterranean and the Pacific" (Hughes, 333).

Works Cited

Beers, Burton F. World History: Patterns of Civilization. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall,1993.

Congdon, Don. Combat WWII: Pacific Theater of Operations. New York: Arbor House, 1983.

Hughes, Stuart H. Contemporary Europe: A History. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1991.

Marrin, Albert. Overlord: D-Day and the Invasion of Europe. New York: Atheneum, 1982.

Schlesinger, Arthur M. The Almanac of American History. Greenwich, CT: Barnes & Noble Books,1993.

Maps of World War II

NLE Timeline: 1942

Normandy: 1944--Buildup

Normandy: 1944--The Campaign Background

Normandy: 1944--The Diplomatic Background: The Grand Alliance

Overlord versus the Mediterranean