While Imperial Japan provoked the United States of America to war in December 1941 with its surprise attack on the naval installation at Pearl Harbor, Nazi Germany was the primary concern of the American war effort in 1942. The Japanese were a threat, to be sure, but the Nazis held a boot to the other Allies’ throats; France had fallen, the Soviet Union was buckling under a massive German invasion in the East, and the British had only barely managed to stave off invasion in 1940 and their armies were struggling to turn back German and Italian armies sweeping across North Africa toward the Suez Canal. If Suez were to fall to the Fascist powers, Great Britain’s primary route to their empire in the East would be closed and the British war effort severely compromised. Thus Germany had to be stopped.
There was much debate about how to bring the fight to the Nazis. Following Adolf Hitler’s declaration of war in December 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt was under immense pressure, both from the American public and the Soviet Union, to immediately engage the Germans in 1942. The proposed American strategy was to invade Occupied France as soon as possible and drive straight for the German capital, but the British disagreed strongly with this aggressive plan—having already been driven from the continent by the Nazi war machine in 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill argued that the German defenses in Western Europe were still too strong. It would be far more practical, he said, for Americans to join the fighting in North Africa: since September 1940, the British had fought the Italians (and later the Germans) in a bitterly contested tug-of-war campaign across the Egyptian and Libyan desert, coming at times within a hairsbreadth of defeat. Therefore, in order to protect Suez and affirm harmonious Allied relations, in July 1942 Roosevelt approved Operation TORCH, the Allied invasion of North Africa.
TORCH was slated for late 1942, which left American planners with very little time for preparation. The objective of the invasion was to establish beachheads in Moroccan and Algerian ports and then drive east toward General Bernard Law Montgomery’s British Eighth Army, which was advancing west through Libya. In doing so, the combined Allied forces would close upon the German Afrika Korps like a pincer. Fighting on such a front would hopefully provide the inexperienced American armies with the combat experience necessary to invade Adolf Hitler’s Europe.
Under the direction of American General Dwight Eisenhower, TORCH began on November 8, 1942. Within three days, Allied forces had taken the ports of Casablanca, Oran, and Algiers: initially, the enemy was not the Germans but the Vichy French, whose Allied allegiance was uncertain. Once the Vichyites had chosen the Allied side, the new combined forces prepared to engage the Afrika Korps in Tunisia.
Meanwhile, the British Eighth Army in Libya drove the Afrika Korps into Tunisia, while Eisenhower’s landing force moved from behind to lock them in a vise. But now the Americans paid heavily for their inexperience in the art of war.
By January 1943, the Germans still clung stubbornly to Tunisia. Allied hopes of quickly trapping the Afrika Korps were dashed. The individual German soldier was a hardened warrior, and his commanders were lethally efficient. One such officer was Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. In command of the Afrika Korps since 1941, he had nearly driven the British out of Egypt, and now he conducted a superb campaign in Tunisia. A battlefield virtuoso, Rommel was only too eager to school the Americans. In February 1943, Rommel’s forces overran elements of the US II Corps defending Kasserine Pass—the result was an open rout. Over six thousand Americans were killed.
The Tunisian campaign proved a savage but valuable education for the Americans before German forces surrendered in May 1943. Many commanders were deemed unsuited for the rigors of combat; following the debacle at Kasserine Pass, Eisenhower replaced US II Corps’ commander General Lloyd Fredendall with Major General George S. Patton, Jr., who proved himself highly capable. Furthermore, American equipment and weapons were still generally inferior to the Germans’. Eisenhower, who went on to command the Allied invasion of France in 1944, remedied many of the mistakes that plagued this early operation, and made improving American tanks a priority.
1943 turned into a year of lightning advances for the Allies. Operation HUSKY, the invasion of Sicily, came in July. A small island off the coast of Italy, it was in Sicily that Patton—in command of the Seventh Army—cemented his reputation as one of America’s best field commanders. After six weeks of hard fighting, Sicily fell to the Allies.
During this time, Fascist Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was removed from power, and Italy surrendered to the Allies on September 8, 1943. In October, the country declared war on its former ally, Nazi Germany—which still occupied the Italian peninsula.
Operation AVALANCHE, the Allied invasion of Southern Italy, began on September 9, 1943. The US Fifth Army under Lieutenant General Mark Clark encountered heavy German resistance at Salerno. Despite early advances, the Germans battled the Allies to a standstill. In January 1944, in an attempt to facilitate a breakthrough in the German lines, Allied forces landed north of the German front at Anzio. While an ambitious operation, the invaders were slow to advance and soon found themselves bottled up on the beachhead.
In the months to come, the Allied advance into Northern Italy moved slowly—about a mile a day. German Field Marshal Albert Kesselring conducted a brilliant, grudging defensive retreat. But progress was made; on June 4, 1944, American forces entered Rome. A bright moment for the Allies, it was perhaps the last time that the Italian Campaign held the spotlight: for while the pursuit of the Germans into the north would continue, the eyes of the world turned to a distant stretch of the French shore where, on June 6, the Allies commenced the historic invasion of Western Europe.
The Mediterranean Theater