Turning the Tide in Europe

Turning the Tide in Europe

Operation Torch

 

From 1939 – 1942, an Axis victory in Europe seemed a very real possibility. Nazi Germany, bolstered by its ally Italy, as well as occupied nations in Europe, seemed destined to win the war. And yet, the Germans also seemed overextended. In fall 1942, the Germans were knocked out of their positions in North Africa during Operation Torch—led by the United States. The following summer, the Allies would claim Sicily and make their way into Europe through Italy. By winter of 1943, the Soviet Red Army forced the German army to retreat, slowly but surely, toward Berlin. And then in the summer of 1944, the Allies would make good on a promise to Stalin to open up a second front in Europe. When the invasion of Normandy occurred in June 1944, the German army was stretched as it fought a multifront war to the west, east, and south. By the summer of 1944, the war had turned in favor of the Allies, as Germany crumbled from within and without. Despite the advances made by the Allies, the last years of the war would prove hard fought for them as the fighting devolved into total war across the European continent.

 

Learning Objectives

  • Examine why the Allies chose to invade North Africa and Sicily.

 

Key Terms / Key Concepts

Operation Husky: the Allied invasion of the island of Sicily in the Mediterranean Sea in the summer of 1943

Operation Torch: Allied invasion of North Africa in the fall of 1942

Tunisia: country in North Africa occupied by the Germans during World War II; location of much of the combat in North Africa

 

Operation Torch 

 

Operation Torch was the British-American invasion of French North Africa during the North African Campaign of the Second World War.

The Soviet Union had pressed the United States and United Kingdom to start operations in Europe and open a second front to reduce the pressure of German forces on the Soviet troops. The goal was to eliminate the Axis Powers in North Africa, improve naval control of the Mediterranean Sea, and prepare for an invasion of Southern Europe in 1943. U.S. President, Franklin D. Roosevelt suspected the African operation would rule out an invasion of Europe in 1943; however, he agreed to support British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Operation Torch launched on November 8, 1942 and was completed on November 11. To reduce German and Italian forces, Allied forces landed in North Africa, under the assumption that there would be little to no resistance. In fact, Vichy French forces, collaborators with the Germans, put up a strong and bloody resistance to the Allies. Soon though, the Allies had overwhelmed the Vichy French forces. The Allied landings prompted the Nazi occupation of Vichy France. Sensing that an Allied victory was imminent, the Vichy army in North Africa switched sides and joined the Allies in fighting against the Germans and Italians.

 

Map
Map showing the Allied landings during Operation Torch, Nov. 1942.

 

Tunisian Campaign

 

Following the Operation Torch landings, the Germans and Italians initiated a buildup of troops in Tunisia to fill the vacuum left by Vichy troops who had withdrawn. During this period of weakness, the Allies decided against a rapid advance into Tunisia while they wrestled with the Vichy authorities.

By the beginning of March, the British army reached the Tunisian border. The Germans discovered they were outflanked, outmanned, and outgunned. The British Eighth Army bypassed the Axis defense in late March. The British First Army in central Tunisia launched their main offensive in mid-April to squeeze the Axis forces until their resistance in Africa collapsed. The Axis forces surrendered on May 13, 1943, yielding over 275,000 prisoners of war. The last Axis force to surrender in North Africa was the 1st Italian Army. This huge loss of experienced troops greatly reduced the military capacity of the Axis powers, although the largest percentage of Axis troops escaped Tunisia. They would fight the Allies in Sicily and Italy the next year. This defeat in Africa led to all Italian colonies in Africa being captured.

 

Operation Husky

 

The Allied invasion of Sicily, code named Operation Husky, was a major campaign of World War II, during which the Allies took the island of Sicily from the Axis powers (Italy and Nazi Germany). It was a large amphibious and airborne operation followed by a six-week land operation and began the Italian Campaign.

 

Map
Map showing the island, Sicily, in the Mediterranean Sea. Sicily was a logical step for the Allies following Operation Torch because it was located between North Africa and Italy, gave the Allies access to the Mediterranean Sea, and had landing strips. It was the site of Operation Husky in 1943.

 

Background

 

After the defeat of the Axis Powers in North Africa in May 1943, there was disagreement between the Allies as to what the next step should be. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill wanted to invade Italy, which in November 1942 he called “the soft underbelly of the Axis.”  Popular support in Italy for the war was declining, and Churchill believed an invasion would remove Italy as an opponent, as well as the influence of Axis forces in the Mediterranean Sea, which would open the area to Allied traffic. This would reduce the shipping capacity needed to supply Allied forces in the Middle East and Far East at a time when the disposal of Allied shipping capacity was in crisis, as well as increase British and American supplies to the Soviet Union. In addition, it would tie down German forces. Joseph Stalin, the Soviet leader, had been pressing Churchill and Roosevelt to open a “second front” in Europe, which would lessen the German Army’s focus on the Eastern Front, where the bulk of Soviet forces were fighting in the largest armed conflict in history.

 

Operation Husky - An Allied Victory

 

A combined British-Canadian-Indian-American invasion of Sicily began on July 10, 1943, with both amphibious and airborne landings at the Gulf of Gela, under the command of American General Patton, as well as north of Syracuse under British General Montgomery. The original plan contemplated a strong advance by the British northwards along the east coast to Messina, with the Americans in a supporting role along Britain’s left flank. However, when the British Eighth Army was held up by stubborn defenses in the rugged hills south of Mount Etna, Patton amplified the American role by a wide advance northwest. This was followed by an eastward advance north of Etna towards Messina, supported by a series of amphibious landings on the north coast, which propelled Patton’s troops into Messina shortly before the first elements of Eighth Army. The defending German and Italian forces were unable to prevent the Allied capture of the island, but they had succeeded in evacuating most of their troops to the mainland by August 17, 1943. Through this offensive, Allied forces gained experience in opposed amphibious operations, coalition warfare, and mass airborne drops.

 

Photo
Allied troops landing in Sicily during Operation Husky, summer 1943.

 

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