World War II Reference Library. Editor: Barbara C Bigelow, et al., Volume 2: Almanac, UXL, 2000.
Between the fall of 1942 and the summer of 1943, the Allies (the countries fighting Germany) won a series of military victories that changed the course of World War II. One of these victories was in the Atlantic Ocean, which finally forced the German submarines, in May 1943, to abandon their attempt to prevent North American supply ships from reaching Britain. (The Battle of the Atlantic is described in Chapter 3.) The other victories occurred on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea and at the eastern end of Europe, in Russia. At the beginning of this period, the possibility of a German victory was still very real. By the end, however, most people knew that Germany, although far from being defeated, could not win the war.
The British Eighth Army had been fighting in the desert of Egypt and Libya in North Africa since September 1940. The Axis forces (the name used for Germany and its allies) it opposed were mostly Italian, but they were reinforced by the Afrika Korps, German armored and mechanized troops. The Axis commander was a German general, Erwin Rommel, known as “the Desert Fox.” Rommel was a daring leader who had embarrassed the British with his lightning attacks and had become a national hero in Germany.
In August 1942, the British appointed a new commander of the Eighth Army, General Bernard Montgomery. Within two weeks, Rommel attacked the British, but this time the Eighth Army held its position, and Rommel broke off the attack.
The Battle of El Alamein
Montgomery prepared the Eighth Army’s next move carefully. The British now had far more troops and planes than the Axis. They had six times as many tanks and most of them, including the recently arrived American-built Sherman tanks, were better than Rommel’s. The Axis troops were dangerously short of fuel and shells. On October 23, 1942, Montgomery attacked, beginning the Battle of El Alamein. He was not aiming to chase the Axis army from Egypt into Libya. That had already happened twice in the war, and each time the British had eventually been chased back. This time, Montgomery wanted to destroy the Axis forces.
Rommel had been home in Germany, recovering from an illness, and rushed back to Africa by plane. But he could not change the outcome of the Battle of El Alamein. The fighting continued for ten days. After suffering heavy losses, Rommel began a long retreat westward along the single coast road. By the end of the year, he had retreated 1,000 miles, deep into Libya. The retreat had cost him 40,000 prisoners; he had only 60,000 troops and fewer than 100 tanks left.
Operation Torch: The Invasion of North Africa
Meanwhile, a new battlefront had opened in Africa, behind Rommel. On November 8, 1942, while Rommel was retreating, American and British forces landed in three locations much farther west. Under the overall command of American General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Operation Torch began with one landing near Casablanca, on the Atlantic coast of Morocco, and two on the Mediterranean Sea, near Algiers and Oran, the two largest cities of Algeria.
Morocco and Algeria, as well as neighboring Tunisia, were French colonies. After France surrendered to Germany in June 1940, the Germans allowed a French government to remain in power in the southern part of the country. This government, known as Vichy (the town where the government was based), still controlled most French colonies overseas. The Vichy government was officially neutral in the war, although it was influenced by and cooperated with Germany, since the German army controlled most of France.
In November 1942, about 100,000 French troops were stationed in North Africa. The Allies hoped that these troops would not oppose their landings. In fact, they wanted the French to join them. American representatives had secretly contacted some Vichy military and civilian officials, as well as opponents of the Vichy government, both in France and in North Africa. Many Vichy supporters were beginning to believe that Germany would lose the war, and they wanted to get on the right side.
There was a great deal of confusion among French officials when the Allies landed. Some pro-Allied French officers arrested those who wanted to resist the Allies—but then they were arrested themselves. In Casablanca and Oran, the landings were resisted. In Algiers, there was little fighting, partly because pro-Allied residents had taken over the city before the landings. The French troops stopped fighting when the Allies made a deal with Admiral Jean François Darlan, the second-highest official of the Vichy government and the commander in chief of all its military forces, who happened to be in Algiers at the time.
The End of the Axis in Africa
Although they no longer faced any resistance, the Allied troops moved slowly. They were heading for Tunisia, between Algeria and Libya, where they planned to trap Rommel’s forces between them and Montgomery’s Eighth Army, which was advancing westward. But their hesitation gave Gemany and Italy time to rush troops into Tunisia, first by air and then by ship. The French authorities in Tunisia followed Vichy’s orders, rather than Admiral Darlan’s, and allowed the Axis troops to enter the country unopposed.
It looked at the time as if the Allies’ delay was a major mistake because they could have taken Tunisia before the new Axis troops arrived. As it turned out, Germany and Italy made the mistake by sending those troops. Although there was hard fighting, eventually all the Axis forces in North Africa—including Rommel’s army and the new troops in Tunisia—would be destroyed or captured.
When they reached Tunisia, the Allied forces faced determined German resistance in the mountainous countryside. Rommel’s forces had retreated into Tunisia and established defensive positions against Montgomery’s troops coming from the east. At the same time, Rommel launched several counterattacks against the Allied forces to his west, some quite successful. At the Kasserine Pass, a narrow pass through the mountains, Rommel took an American force by surprise, inflicting serious casualties on them, capturing some American prisoners, and forcing them to abandon a great deal of equipment. Like almost all American troops, these soldiers had never been in serious combat before. Their generals were also inexperienced, and Rommel took advantage of both of these facts.
But the Axis forces did not have the men or equipment to turn these small victories into bigger successes. Their supplies, coming across the Mediterranean by ship and plane, were not reaching them in sufficient quantities. As the fighting continued through the winter months, the Allied forces, which now included French troops, grew stronger. The Americans, now led by General George S. Patton, became more experienced in fighting the Germans. Believing the situation was hopeless, German leader Adolf Hitler ordered Rommel to return to Germany on March 6, leaving his army behind.
In late March 1943, Montgomery’s troops broke through the Axis defensive positions and attacked from the rear. The Germans and Italians retreated and continued to fight defensive battles for more than a month. Early in May, the Axis troops, low on supplies and ammunition, began to surrender in large numbers. The last holdouts gave up on May 13. Although estimates of the exact number vary, the Axis probably lost more than 200,000 men. The war in Africa was over.
Italy: The Invasion of Sicily
On July 9, 1943, less than two months after the end of the fighting in Africa, the Allies invaded Sicily, the large island at the toe of the boot-shaped Italian peninsula. Ten divisions (about 150,000 men), including two parachute divisions, were involved. Twelve Axis divisions were defending the island, but only two were German. Some of the Italian troops treated the Allies as liberators rather than invaders—in some cases helping them unload their landing boats. Large numbers of Italian troops surrendered as soon as the Allied troops reached them.
The American forces, commanded by General Patton, raced up the western side of the island, while the British, led by General Montgomery, went up the east side. The British met strong resistance from first-rate German units, including two more German divisions sent as reinforcements. Even so, the Italians began evacuating their troops to the Italian mainland on August 3, and the Germans began to do the same a week later. Most of the Germans successfully evaded capture. By the middle of August, however, the Allied troops controlled all of Sicily.
The Fall of Mussolini
The series of Axis defeats in Africa had hurt Germany, but they had been a disaster for Italy. It had lost the empire that the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, had dreamed would bring back the glory of ancient Rome. Now Sicily, part of Italy itself, had been invaded. More than 300,000 Italian soldiers were prisoners of war in Africa. Another Italian army, with more than 200,000 men, had been wiped out in Russia. In both Russia and Africa, the Allies had captured vast quantities of arms and equipment. This was a much greater loss for Italy than for the other major powers, whose economies were far stronger. Most Italians were much poorer than they had been before the war, and there were increasing shortages of almost everything. Allied planes constantly bombed Italian cities, and the Italian and German air forces seemed unable to protect them.
Few Italians had ever been enthusiastic about the war, especially after Italy declared war on the United States. Many Italians had relatives in America, and most admired the country. The alliance with Hitler’s Germany had never been popular with the Italian people, and it became even more unpopular because many Italians believed Germany did not treat Italy as an equal. As dissatisfaction grew, many of the country’s most powerful people, including King Victor Emmanuel III and top military officers, decided that Italy had to get out of the war. The king and the army had supported Mussolini for more than twenty years, but now they plotted to get rid of him.
On July 25, 1943, while the fighting in Sicily was still going on, the king and his men removed Mussolini from his position as prime minister and placed him under arrest. The new leader of the government was Marshal Pietro Badoglio, the senior general of the Italian army, while the king took over direct command of the armed forces. The new government promised the Germans that Italy would continue to fight alongside them. In fact, it immediately entered secret negotiations with the Allies for Italy to surrender.
Surrender and Invasion
The Italians signed the surrender on September 3, 1943, but kept it secret. On the same day, a British force commanded by General Montgomery crossed the narrow strait from Sicily and landed at the toe of Italy. This was not the main invasion; it was only a diversion to draw German troops into the area. It failed, mainly because the region—like much of Italy—is very mountainous, and the only way Montgomery’s troops could move forward was on a few roads along the coastline. These could be defended by relatively few German troops.
On September 8, 1943, British radio announced the Italian surrender, and the next morning the main Allied invasion force landed near Salerno, south of Naples, the largest city of southern Italy. The Allies had hoped that the announcement would mean that they could land without facing any serious opposition. But Hitler had expected Italy’s surrender and had made plans to deal with it. German troops moved quickly to take over all important cities, roads, and bridges. They disarmed the Italian soldiers, who usually did not resist. Some became prisoners and were sent to Germany to work in arms factories. Others were allowed to go home. The fact that the new Italian government soon declared war on Germany had little practical effect.
The Germans rushed their own troops to Salerno and nearly forced the American and British invasion force to return to its ships. But the Allied planes, artillery, and especially the big guns of their nearby warships prevented this evacuation. By September 18, the Germans began to withdraw from the invasion area. But this retreat was planned. The Germans were preparing a defensive position that stretched all the way across Italy, called the Gustav Line. Most of the Gustav Line was in rugged terrain in the mountains. It would be almost impossible to attack the dug-in Germans directly. The Allies would have to advance along the two narrow plains between the mountains and each coast. And these plains were crossed by a series of rapidly flowing—and easy to defend—rivers that came down from the mountains to the sea.
Anzio and Cassino
British troops entered Naples on October 1, 1943. The advance up the Italian peninsula would prove to be very slow. The Gustav Line soon became known as the Winter Line, as the Allied armies attacked it throughout the winter of 1943-44. Unable to get past it, the Allies finally decided to go around it. In January 1944, a large Allied force landed on the beaches around the town of Anzio, north of the Gustav Line and only 30 miles south of Rome, Italy’s capital. Again, the Germans rushed reinforcements to the area, and they kept the invasion force from moving away from the beaches. In mid-February, the Germans counterattacked at Anzio and nearly succeeded in pushing the Allies back into the sea. After heavy fighting with many deaths on both sides, the Allies stopped the Germans, but they were still penned in near the beaches. The Anzio landings had not freed Rome, and they had not forced the Germans to abandon the Gustav Line.
On its western end, the Gustav Line was dominated by the mountaintop abbey (church) of Monte Cassino. As it became clear that the Allied troops at Anzio could not reach the Gustav Line from the rear, the Allies tried repeatedly to attack Cassino. Three major assaults were defeated, with heavy casualties. The fourth attempt, in May, finally succeeded. As British and American armored divisions could now move past the Gustav Line, the Germans at last abandoned it and retreated north.
At the same time, the Allies finally broke through the German encirclement at Anzio. The Americans entered Rome on June 4, 1944. But the Germans retreated to another position in the mountains farther north, the Gothic Line. The Allies did not reach the great cities of the north, where most of Italy’s industries are located, until the spring of 1945. By that time, the British and American troops that had invaded France were fighting deep in Germany, and the Soviet army was at the gates of Berlin, the German capital, itself.
The War in Soviet Russia
While the fighting was going on in Africa, much larger battles were being waged in the Soviet Union. That was where the main part of the German army, including most of its best troops, its tanks, and its air force, was fighting. The German invasion in June 1941 had driven the Soviet army back hundreds of miles, killed 1 million Soviet soldiers, and taken 3 million prisoners. But the Soviets had stopped the German advance in the fall, and Soviet counteroffensives in the winter of 1941-42 had pushed the Germans back from Moscow, the Soviet capital. Although for a while it looked as if a large part of the German army might be overwhelmed by the Soviet attack and the terrible winter conditions, it pulled back and established defensive positions.
A Weakened German Army
When the winter of 1941-42 ended, the Germans prepared to attack again. But the battlefront stretched 2,100 miles from north to south, and the Germans were not strong enough to attack everywhere, as they had the previous year. They had lost too many men, tanks, and horses—a quarter million—which were needed to pull their cannons and supply wagons.
The German air force, the Luftwaffe, was weaker than it had been the previous summer, and the Soviet air force was stronger. (One of the reasons was that the Luftwaffe needed more planes to defend German cities from British bombing raids, which are described in Chapter 8.) The Soviets were producing more tanks than the Germans, and supplies from the United States, especially trucks, were beginning to arrive in large quantities. The Red Army, as the Soviet forces were called, was being reinforced to make up for the huge losses of the past year. It had many new generals, often younger men who had succeeded in the earlier fighting. They had learned the strategy and tactics of modern war and were beginning to equal the German generals in skill.
The German generals also had to deal with increasing interference from Hitler. The Nazi dictator had always made the big decisions, such as the Soviet invasion, but now he was insisting on much more direct control of army operations. In the spring of 1942, Hitler decided that the German armies should capture the Caucasus, the part of the Soviet Union between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, north of Iran. The Caucasus was a major producer of petroleum, and Germany was beginning to experience serious oil shortages.
The Attack on the Caucasus
Early in May 1942, the Germans began an offensive to clear Soviet troops out of the Crimean Peninsula. The Germans were afraid that the Soviets could use Crimea, which jutted into the Black Sea, as a base to attack the Germans in their offensive on the Caucasus. In a week, the Germans had taken another 170,000 prisoners and controlled the entire peninsula except for the fortress city of Sevastopol. The city, which had been surrounded by the Germans since the previous October, did not surrender until July 2.
Around the same time, the Soviet army launched its own offensive, around the city of Kharkov, north of Crimea. Although this attack at first threatened to disrupt German plans, it ultimately played into their hands. German forces north and south of the city moved forward and encircled the Soviet troops. The Russians lost another 250,000 prisoners and more than 1,000 tanks.
On June 28, the main German attack began. Four German armies, with strong tank forces, swept south from the Kharkov area, down the grassy plain that stretched between the Donets and Don Rivers. They drove down into the Caucasus, forcing the Soviet troops back. But the Germans were taking far fewer prisoners than in previous advances. The Soviets were retreating rather than allowing themselves to be encircled by the attacking German tanks. Soviet resistance, intense summer heat, and the ever-greater distance that German supplies had to travel to reach the troops began to slow the German advance. As the flat terrain began to change to the foothills of the Caucasus mountains, the Germans ground to a halt.
Stalingrad: The Turning Point of the War
As they moved south into the Caucasus, the Germans also sent a strong force eastward across the river Don toward the city of Stalingrad, on the great river Volga. Their purpose was to block the route to the Caucacus for Soviet reinforcements and supplies. Stalingrad itself, a city of 600,000 people, was originally not an important military target. But it became important, and partly because of that, it was the most significant battle of World War II.
In mid-August, the German Sixth Army reached the outskirts of Stalingrad from the west. The Fourth Panzer (tank) Army was coming from the southwest. The Soviets rushed reinforcements to the city, dug defensive ditches, and ordered troops not to retreat. The attack on the city turned into a battle for every street and every building. The entire city was destroyed as the German troops slowly pushed the Russians back toward the banks of the mile-wide Volga. One German officer described fighting for more than two weeks to capture one house. Stalingrad, he said, “is an enormous cloud of burning, blinding smoke; it is a vast furnace lit by the reflection of the flames.” General Vasili Chuikov, the Russian commander, said that it was impossible to hear separate shots or explosions: everything was one single, continuous roar.
By the middle of October, the Russians controlled only a few pockets of the city. Although German radio announced that they had captured Stalingrad, the fighting inside the city continued. The Germans were exhausted by two months of the worst fighting of the entire war. Neither side made any progress.
On November 19, 1942, the Soviet armies finally sprang their trap. They had carefully prepared two Soviet forces with vast quantities of artillery and tanks. One was many miles west of Stalingrad, on the river Don. It struck southward, through an area defended by troops from Germany’s allies Hungary, Italy, and Romania. They were there because Germany did not have enough troops of its own. None were as well-equipped as the Germans, and the Soviets smashed through them, as well as any German units they met.
The next day, the second Soviet force attacked from southeast of Stalingrad, heading west. When the two armies met on November 23, they had the German Sixth Army trapped in Stalingrad. There was still time for the Germans to retreat westward and possibly break through the trap, but Hitler personally ordered that there would be no retreat. Instead, Hitler wanted the troops supplied by air while German tank forces attempted to break through the Soviet ring and get into Stalingrad.
But the winter weather and the Soviet air force and antiaircraft guns prevented the Luftwaffe from supplying anywhere near enough food and ammunition. The Sixth Army— freezing, starving, and short of ammunition—stayed in Stalingrad as the Russians began to retake the city.
The German force sent to break through the trap was far too small and did not have enough tanks. It had to travel 60 miles; it went 30 and then was driven back. On Hitler’s orders, the Germans in Stalingrad did not try to break out to meet the advancing column and retreat with it.
Meanwhile, on December 16, 1942, the Soviets attacked again, even farther west. In a blinding snowstorm, they destroyed the Italian Eighth Army and retook much of the area between the Don and Donets Rivers. This meant that the German troops in the Caucasus were nearly trapped too. Even Hitler agreed that there was no choice but to retreat. In January, the German troops managed to escape from the Caucasus before the Soviet army could block the way.
But there was no retreat from Stalingrad, where the temperature was twenty below zero. On January 10, 1943, as the Russians began their final attack to retake Stalingrad, 7,000 cannons blasted the Germans, the largest artillery bombardment in history. The German-held area was split in two and then into smaller pockets. On January 30, the Russians captured the German headquarters, and the German commander finally surrendered. In the battle’s last three weeks, 100,000 German soldiers died. Another 100,000 were prisoners, including 24 German generals. The entire Sixth Army, with 22 divisions, was destroyed. In Germany, all regular radio programming was stopped for three days. Only somber music was played.
The Red Army Advances
The main battle lines were already far west of Stalingrad. In the next weeks, the Soviet army pushed the exhausted Germans back. But the Germans regrouped and counterattacked. The city of Kharkov, already captured and recaptured, changed hands twice more in bitter fighting. By March 1943, the spring thaw again flooded the dirt roads and turned the countryside into marshes that tanks could not cross. Both sides paused to try to replace the men and equipment that had been lost in these battles.
Many of the top German generals wanted to withdraw their forces much farther west and prepare a defensive line that was shorter and closer to its sources of supply. In effect, this meant the German military no longer believed that they could destroy the Soviet armies. Now their plan was a defensive war against Russia, in which they would try to hold on to some of the vast territory they had conquered in the summer of 1941.
But Hitler still believed in the possibility of a total German victory. Instead of a general withdrawal, he ordered the German army to attack again. Its goal this time was to encircle and destroy large Soviet forces—as it had done in 1941.
The winter battles had left the two armies facing each other for hundreds of miles. But the line between them was not straight. In some places, German positions jutted out toward the east. In others, Soviet forces were positioned farther west. These bulges, or salients, were classic military targets. The idea was to attack the two sides of the bulge at its base, cutting off the main enemy forces inside the bulge from supplies and reinforcements. The attack would disrupt the ability of each unit’s headquarters to communicate with its troops and control their movements.
The Kursk Salient
The largest Soviet bulge centered on the city of Kursk. Known as the Kursk salient, the bulge extended 150 miles west on its northern side and 50 miles west on its southern side. It was almost 100 miles wide. Inside the salient were 60 Soviet divisions.
On July 5, 1943, the Germans attacked both sides of the salient. Their force included 2,700 tanks, almost all the Germans had stationed in the entire Soviet Union. Despite this powerful force, they made relatively slow progress. The Soviet military leaders had expected the attack and had issued large numbers of antitank weapons to the troops there. They had laid 5,000 explosive mines on every mile of the front line. The troops and civilians in the area had built a series of strongly fortified positions so that even if the Germans did overrun one, the Soviet troops could withdraw to the next and escape capture. Soviet tanks fought it out with the advancing Germans. The two German forces could not reach each other to cut off the salient.
On July 12, the Red Army began its counterattack. In one engagement, each side sent 900 tanks against the other in a battle that raged all day. The Germans lost 300 tanks that day, the Russians even more—but they stopped the Germans. In other battles throughout the area, the result was the same. The Soviets pushed the Germans back, with both armies suffering heavy losses. On July 13, Hitler ordered an end to the German offensive.
For the next two months, the Soviets followed up their victory at Kursk by pushing the Germans eastward. By September, they were in Ukraine and White Russia (Belarus) and had driven the Germans from all of southern Russia. On November 3, the Red Army entered Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, which the Germans had captured more than two years earlier.
Although both sides had suffered heavily at Kursk and the battles that followed, the Soviets could replace their lost troops and equipment. The Germans could not. Russia had more people and therefore more soldiers. The Red Army also had more tanks than the Germans, and every month Soviet factories turned out more. The same was true for planes, cannons, and bullets. When aid from the United States was added in, the same was true for every other category of military supplies. In addition, the Germans were fighting the British and Americans in Italy and would soon be fighting them in France.
The losses at Kursk meant that the German army would never again be able to launch a major offensive in the Soviet Union. From then until the end of the war almost two years later, the Germans would retreat. Almost always, they fought hard, inflicting heavy losses on the Soviets. Sometimes they would stop the Red Army for a while, especially while the Soviets were being resupplied. Sometimes they would even launch counteroffensives, but these were never major threats. The battles that came later were among the bloodiest of the war. But whatever the cost, the Soviets were prepared to pay it. No amount of blood, German or Soviet, could stop the Red Army now.