The war in Europe was already two years old when the United States of America entered the fray in December 1941. The Allies had completely failed to stop Adolf Hitler, and Nazi Germany swarmed across Western Europe: France fell in 1940; Great Britain was driven off the continent and narrowly avoided invasion later that summer; in June 1941, Hitler invaded the Soviet Union—the advance left the Russians reeling, and by December their fate hung in the balance as the Nazis closed within sight of Moscow. The Third Reich was the unrivalled power in Europe.
Nonetheless, with a typical can-do attitude, the United States sprang into action to topple Hitler’s empire.
The first order of business was a plan of attack. America was at war with all three Axis powers: Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and Fascist Italy. To engage three enemies across a global battlefield was a very tall order. While the Japanese advance could be contained in the Pacific, the Nazis represented a dire threat to both the British Isles and the Soviet Union.
Thus the conquest of Nazi Germany was the primary aim of the United States in 1942.
Soviet leader Josef Stalin begged the Allies to open a Western Front against the Germans, as his Red Army was throwing itself against the grinding maw of the Nazi invaders and holding them back at the cost of millions of soldiers. Immediate preparations for a Second Front in the West went into effect. The Allies would not invade in 1942—not only were they unprepared in terms of men and materiel, but there were significant fears that a premature offensive would result in catastrophic casualties and the kind of nightmarish stalemate that plagued the combatants of the First World War twenty years earlier. It would be more than two years before American boots hit the French shore. The targeting of lesser German and Italian forces operating in North Africa and the Mediterranean area was the first priority in 1942. Allied armies launched Operation TORCH that November. After landing successfully in North Africa, the Americans ran into German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel at the Battle of Kasserine Pass in February 1943. A master of warfare, Rommel taught the relatively inexperienced Americans—including their commander, General Dwight Eisenhower—painful lessons in modern war. But the Allies marched on to victory, driving the Axis out of North Africa, across Sicily, and into Italy by September 1943.
Meanwhile, American troops—including men of the U.S. Eighth Air Force—trickled into Britain. Throughout the Second World War, the island acted as an enormous staging area for the theater. From airfields throughout the country, thousands of American airmen took to the skies in their B-17 Flying Fortress or B-24 Liberator bombers and raided strategic targets deep in the heart of Germany.
In 1944, the time came for the opening of the Second Front in Europe. Operation OVERLORD, the grand invasion of France along the Normandy coast, was scheduled for June. The purpose of this operation was both to establish a new front in the West, thus taking pressure off the Soviets, and to engage and destroy the German military in the field.
OVERLORD’s unparalleled invasion force consisted of thousands of vessels and aircraft, as well as millions of men from a dozen nations. To command such a force effectively was not a simple task, and in the wrong hands, the complex plan was a recipe for disaster. The man chosen as Supreme Allied Commander—in total control of all Allied forces in Europe—was General Dwight Eisenhower. Now an experienced soldier, “Ike” possessed a genius for holding together all the elements of his patchwork coalition and utilizing the talents of his subordinates to full effect.
Under Eisenhower’s direction, OVERLORD was launched on the morning of June 6. Like a sledgehammer, the Allies smashed through the coastal defenses, carved out a beachhead, and held it. In the days to come, hundreds of thousands of Allied troops poured into France.
In the weeks following the invasion, some of the old fears of stalemate haunted the Allies. After pushing inland a few miles, Rommel—the old nemesis—led fierce German opposition that halted the advance. A breakout was vital. Operation COBRA was born: on July 25, under the direction of Lieutenant General Omar Bradley, three thousand American aircraft carpet-bombed a strip of the German line five miles long. With the defenders stunned, the bulk of the U.S. First Army rammed through this narrow pocket and beyond the German line. Now Eisenhower reinforced First Army with General George S. Patton, Jr.’s Third Army, which blasted through the hole and then swung east. Executing one of the great campaigns in military history, Patton chased the Germans nearly out of France. Resistance buckled, and within weeks American armies raced toward Paris and beyond, supplemented by a second American landing force that arrived on the southern coast of France in August.
Not all Allied endeavors were successful; Operation MARKET GARDEN was a massive airborne landing in German-occupied Holland on September 17. Executed with the hope of circumventing German border defenses, it failed miserably and was repulsed. Allied forces suffered over fifteen thousand casualties.
By December, following their long and successful campaign, weary American armies spanned a line from Southern France to Holland. In the Ardennes Forest in Northern France and Belgium, forces were especially thin.
Hitler seized the opportunity to mount one last offensive in the West. On December 16, six hundred tanks led a quarter-million men through the Ardennes, driving the Americans back and creating a fifty-mile “bulge” in the line that nearly broke.
A few Allied units managed to withstand the assault: in the Belgian town of Bastogne, besieged American defenders held off desperate Germans for several days. When the attacking commander demanded their surrender, American General Anthony McAuliffe refused and replied, “Nuts!”
The German successes were brief. In spite of devastating casualties, the Allies rallied and counterattacked, spearheaded from the south by Patton’s hard-charging Third Army, and by late-January the Battle of the Bulge was won.
After the Battle of the Bulge, the end came swiftly. The Soviet Red Army, which had begun to drive the Nazis back in 1943, was pushing aggressively into Eastern Germany while the Americans and British pushed from the west. In April 1945, American and Soviet forces met at the Elbe River. As the Red Army sacked Berlin, Hitler committed suicide and Nazi Germany surrendered unconditionally on May 8, 1945.
The war was over. Europe was in ruins; its cities bombed out and burned. Hitler was dead, and his Third Reich had died with him. But there was not a moment to pause and celebrate the victory, as American attention turned to the looming showdown with Imperial Japan.
The European Theater