Important Battles of World War II: THE EUROPEAN THEATER

It is worth keeping in mind that World War II was actually two wars fought simultaneously. The United States first declared war on Japan, and the fighting in the Pacific involved the United States Armed Forces along with those of China, the British Empire and the Netherlands, all of whom had extensive interests in Asia. Nevertheless, military and political leaders both in Great Britain and United States quickly concluded that the greater threat came from Germany and Italy, and additional planning led to the adoption of a "Germany first" posture. The fact that the Soviet Union was already engaged against Germany at the time when the United States entered the war meant that the Russians could absorb a major burden in the fighting while US and British Armed Forces prepared for their assault on Western Europe. Realizing that an invasion of the European continent was not possible in the first years of the war, the American and British staffs turned their attention first to Italian and German forces in North Africa. The Soviet Union did not enter the war against Japan until after Germany had surrendered.

The North African Campaign: Operation Torch: U.S. Troops Land in North Africa

operation torchAlthough the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor came as a shock to most Americans, it cannot be said that America was completely unprepared for war. The first peacetime draft in American history had been instituted in 1940, and the size of the army and navy were being expanded. New equipment was also being tested and built. Americans had watched nervously as Germany overran Poland, Denmark, Norway, and France and were then stunned when Germany turned and invaded Russia in the summer of 1941 just months before Pearl Harbor. Few thought that America would be able to avoid war indefinitely.

But being somewhat prepared for war and being in a war are two different things. With the attack on Pearl Harbor and Germany’s declaration of war on the United States a few days later, America and her British allies were facing a two-front war of huge proportions. The joint American and British staffs quickly adopted a policy of Germany first, based on a prior understanding between President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill. Hitler’s Luftwaffe was pounding Great Britain. Although much of the British army had been spared by the “Miracle of Dunkirk,” Britain was stretched very thin.

rommal and pattonReluctantly or not, the United States and Great Britain had accepted the Soviet Union as an ally in the fight against Nazi Germany. From the beginning, Soviet Premier Stalin urged his American and British Allies to open a second front to take pressure off the Russian armies being driven back by Hitler’s legions. Plans called for an eventual cross-channel invasion against the continent of Europe, but in 1942 such a move was out of the question.

Thus the background was established for Operation Torch.Lieutenant General Dwight Eisenhower, who had been a major only a few years before, suddenly found himself in command of the first American offensive operation against Hitler’s Germany in World War II. The British had been fighting the Italians and Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps on that continent throughout 1942, and the joint staffs decided that the first American operation would be an invasion of western North Africa. Although North Africa was removed from the continent of Europe, control of the Mediterranean was considered vital to the British. Thus securing North Africa was strategically important.

The landings in North Africa began on November 8, 1942. At first the Americans fared badly. They were untested in battle, and had equipment that was not yet up to the combat standards of a fast, mechanized mobile war. At the Battle of Kasserine Pass the Americans suffered a humiliating defeat under poor leadership. Generals George S. Patton and Omar Bradley, however, set to weeding out incompetent commanders and began to restore the morale and combat effectiveness of the American troops.

With Field Marshal Montgomery’s great victory at El Alamein in May 1943 and the Americans applying more pressure on the German armies to the west, North Africa was finally secured. The fighting in North Africa for the American army can be seen as a sort of on-the-job training exercise, though it was fierce and brutal fighting all the same. General Rommel was taken back to Germany and eventually given command on the Western front. General Patton went on to command the U.S. Third Army, one of America’s superior fighting units during the war, and General Eisenhower rose to the position of Supreme Commander of all Allied Forces in Europe. With North Africa secured, the next target for the Allies was Italy, which would be reached via an interim assault on the island of Sicily.

Sicily and Italy, 1943–1944

Because Italy’s military forces were far from as powerful as those of Germany, the decision to continue the advance through Italy—the so-called “soft underbelly” of Europe—made sense. The Italian Army had suffered large losses in North Africa, including a number of its best divisions. The Americans were less enthusiastic about attacking Sicily than the British, whose focus was on maintaining control of the Mediterranean to ensure contact with the Middle East. Sicily was heavily defended, and therefore the German staff was surprised when Sicily was attacked.

Operation Husky, the attack on Sicily, involved two airborne divisions and eight ground divisions that would land from the sea. The airborne operations, always complicated and difficult, did not fare well, but the landings on the south coast of Sicily were very successful. General Patton’s Third Army advanced up the western side of the island while British General Montgomery’s forces advanced east of Mount Etna; both armies were advancing toward Messina on the northeastern tip of the island of Sicily, just across the Strait of Messina from the toe of the Italian boot. German and Italian resistance was stiff in the mountainous terrain, which required the Allies to use a series of amphibious “hooks” to get around heavily defended areas. The campaign in Sicily began on July 9, 1943. By August 11 the German and Italian forces had evacuated their remaining troops and equipment to the Italian peninsula as Patton and Montgomery entered Messina.

The capture of Sicily did no serious harm to the German and Italian forces, most of which were evacuated, but it did cause the Italian government to rethink its loyalty to Hitler’s Germany. Not long after the fall of Sicily, the Italian government decided to throw in its lot with the Allies.

The Invasion of Italy. In September 1943 the Allies began their invasion of Italy when American troops landed at Salerno. Prior to that General Montgomery’s Eighth British Army had begun its invasion of the toe of the Italian boot just across from Sicily. General Marshall and the American staff in Washington had been hesitant to invest large forces in Italy. They believed that an invasion of northwestern Europe, which eventually took place on D-Day, June 6, 1944, was the quickest route to the defeat of Germany. But Hitler had sent substantial forces into Italy, and in order to keep them from reinforcing the western defenses, the Allied staffs felt it was necessary for the Italian operation to move forward to keep that portion of the German Army tied down.

Field Marshal Kesselring, the German commander in Italy, made excellent use of the rugged terrain of Italy, which favored the defense. The combination of mountains, rivers, and deep valleys made it very difficult for the Allies to advance against the well-placed defenders. The American Fifth Army under the command of General Mark Clark began advancing up the coast after the initially successful landings, but they were soon met by strong German counterattacks. As allied reinforcements continued to arrive, however, the Germans were obliged to withdraw to the north. In October the American Fifth and British Eighth Armies established a line across the Italian peninsula and began to advance on a united front.

3The winter of 1943–44 proved a difficult one for the Allied forces as a combination of terrain and weather made the advance extremely slow and painful. In January 1944 the Allies executed a second landing at Anzio designed to disrupt the German forces from the rear. Impeding the Allied advance was the great fortress monastery of Cassino, which lay on the path to Rome. Throughout early 1944 the Allied advance in Italy was slow, and at times the entire operation seemed in jeopardy. During the spring, however, Allied commanders used a combination of maneuver and close air support, eventually captured Monte Cassino, and fought their way into Rome. They entered the Italian capital on June 4, 1944.

The German Army under Kesselring continued to retreat northward and withdrew to a position 150 miles north of Rome. The Allies, however, were unable to pursue closely because Operation Overlord (D-Day) and Operation Dragoon, the invasion of southern France which was to serve as a distracter for the main D-Day operations, were about to get underway, and Allied troops were withdrawn from Italy to participate in those landings.

Operation Overlord: The Invasion of France, 1944

Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, commonly referred to as D-Day, was the largest amphibious operation ever conducted and perhaps the most complicated military maneuver ever undertaken. The mere numbers are staggering:

  • The Allies landed 156,000 troops in one day, including 73,000 Americans, on the beaches, and dropped 15,000 airborne troops behind enemy lines.
  • Operation Neptune, the naval component of D-Day, involved 7,000 vessels, including 4,000 transport ships, 1,200 warships, countless small landing craft, and about 200,000 personnel.
  • Air support for the invasion involved 11,590 aircraft.
  • Airborne (parachute and glider) drops involved 2,395 aircraft and 867 gliders of the RAF and U.S.A.A.F.
  • Hundreds of thousands more military and civilian personnel supported the operation throughout the Allied nations, including underground workers in France.
  • By D-Day + 5, June 11, the Allies had landed 326,547 troops, 54,186 vehicles, and 104,428 tons of supplies.

Eisenhower d-dayPlanning for the Normandy operation had been going on for months. General Dwight D. Eisenhower was in overall command of the Allied forces. British Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery was in command of the Allied land forces. General Omar N. Bradley commanded the American forces. General George S. Patton’s Third Army was held out of the initial landings, partly as a scheme to confuse German intelligence, and partly because of his behavior problems, which irritated General Eisenhower. (General Patton had made a troublesome public speech about postwar issues that had reverberated all the way back to Congress, even after General Eisenhower had cautioned the outspoken general about such things.) The Third Army landed several weeks later and assisted in the Allied breakout from the Normandy beachhead.

German commanders were Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt and Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. Prior to the invasion the Allies had engaged in extensive counterintelligence operations. They created a large volume of false radio traffic using Third Army communications, and even built phony assembly areas packed with dummy vehicles and weapons. German intelligence had never been quite sure exactly where the landings were to take place, and the foul weather preceding and following D-Day contributed to their suspicion that the Normandy landings were not the real thing. The German staff in Berlin was so uncertain about the scope of the Normandy landings that they failed to notify Hitler until hours after the invasion had begun.

The actual operation began just after midnight on June 6, 1944, when British and American airborne forces landed behind the German defenses known as the Atlantic Wall on the Cherbourg Peninsula. At daybreak the U.S. First Army and British Second Army as well as Canadian, Polish, and French troops stormed the beaches of Normandy. The landings for the most part went more smoothly than had been hoped, but the V Corps of the First U.S. Army on Omaha Beach met fierce resistance. Despite that resistance they managed to get a foothold about one mile deep by the end of the first day. (Steven Spielberg’s 1998 film Saving Private Ryan graphically depicts the action on Omaha Beach during the initial landing.) American casualties on Omaha Beach were about 3,000 killed, wounded or missing.

When General Eisenhower received the first reports of the landings, his main concern was linking the American units that had landed on Omaha and Utah beaches and connecting them with the 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions, whose drops had been widely scattered. Eisenhower visited with the British and American ground commanders regularly and established a headquarters in Normandy early in July. The successful Allied counterintelligence operations had led the Germans to believe that the Normandy invasion was not the main assault, with the result that an entire German army was held in reserve for several weeks, significantly aiding Allied efforts.

d dayWhile British forces tied up the main German resistance in the Caen area throughout June and early July, American forces consolidated their hold on the Cherbourg Peninsula. The port of Cherbourg was needed for the unloading of supplies. In July the American forces were ready to attempt a breakout from the positions they had gained since D-Day. General Patton’s Third Army had been moved into France, and the American First and Third Armies were reorganized for tactical advantage. By late July the Allies were well on the move toward Paris.

As the American armored units, which consumed huge quantities of ammunition and fuel, continued to drive the Germans back, keeping the advanced combat units supplied remained a huge challenge. Special motor transport units were established with trucks of fuel and supplies being driven virtually nonstop by teams of drivers who were organized into a unit known as the “Red Ball Express.” The fact that American units were filled with bright young men with varying skills was a positive factor in solving various logistical and technical problems.

One example of American ingenuity came to the fore when it was discovered that tanks had difficulty traversing the irrigated agricultural areas because of lack of traction. A young engineer in the ranks suggested that much of the defen

sive material on the beaches that had been dismantled by engineers could be used to solve the problem by welding onto the sides of the tanks strips of metal that would dig into the turf and give the tanks better traction.

Also apparent during the massive offensive was the force of matériel supplied by American factories. Countless tons of ammunition, spare parts, vehicles, communications equipment, weapons, and every other conceivable item needed for soldiers in battle arrived in huge quantities. An apocryphal story told of an incident during a German counterattack that had briefly captured an American position. A German intelligence officer inspecting captured material noticed a package containing a birthday cake that had been mailed to a soldier from his family in Boston. Furious at the implication, he demanded to know of his commander how Germany could hope to win a war when they were running short of fuel while the Americans could manage to get a fresh birthday cake to the front lines in a matter of days.

Tensions existed from time to time between General Montgomery and the American commanders, and General Eisenhower often found himself acting as referee in what can be described as politico-military squabbles. Not only did he have to deal with strong-willed, hotheaded generals such as George Patton, he also had to deal with the French forces under General Charles de Gaulle. Eisenhower’s initial plan had called for bypassing the city of Paris because it had no strategic or tactical significance. General de Gaulle, however, had other ideas, and thus the assault was reorganized to include the recapture of Paris, which occurred on August 25, 1944.

The rapid advance of the American and British forces in August and September 1944 led to critical shortages of supplies, especially gasoline. Tanks, armored vehicles, and trucks were consuming millions of gallons, but transporting it strained the resources of the quartermaster troops to their limit. As Allied staffs studied plans for the advance toward the Rhine, tensions arose again as different commanders put forth plausible plans for the advance. There were not enough supplies to go around, and General Eisenhower was faced with the problem of deciding where to allocate resources. He was in a no-win situation—no matter who received the lion’s share of ammunition and gasoline, complaining was sure to follow.

Into the month of October various strategies were considered to defeat the Germans, and major units underwent frequent reorganizations to take advantage of the abilities of the different divisions. As winter approached, the Allies settled down to prepare for the final assault on Germany itself.

The Battle of the Bulge, 1944–45

Disappointed by his generals’ inability to defeat the Allied landings in Normandy or to retard their advance across France and through Belgium and the Netherlands, Hitler ordered a massive counterattack against the Americans and British in December 1944. German planners did their best to conceal the impending attack and to confuse Allied defenders once the fighting had begun. They used English-speaking German soldiers dressed in American uniforms and other forms of deception to divert Allied traffic and sow confusion.

The Americans and British had advanced rapidly and had been slowed down mostly by lack of gasoline and other supplies, as opposed to German resistance. Thus they had perhaps grown complacent, believing that the German army was ready to fold. Through a combination of faulty intelligence and bad weather, which hampered the operation of reconnaissance aircraft, the Germans were able to strike the Americans completely by surprise.

4What became known as the Battle of the Bulge began on December 16, 1944, as German divisions attacked on a sixty-mile front. Because American divisions had suffered substantial losses and were therefore manned with many inexperienced troops, the Germans were able to advance rapidly. Many small units were cut off and surrounded, though they continued to fight courageously.

General Eisenhower rushed an airborne division into the Belgian city of Bastogne, which had been surrounded. Closing in on the Americans, the Germans sent an envoy to the airborne commander, General Anthony C. McAuliffe. As the German officer made the offer known, General McAuliffe uttered his famous one word response: “Nuts!” When the German negotiator asked the American major for a clarification, not fully understanding what the word “nuts” meant, the American offered a more blunt translation: “Go to hell!”

As the weather cleared, the Germans were hampered by air attacks and their own shortage of supplies. At one point German tanks ran out of fuel within a few hundred yards of a fuel dump containing thousands of gallons of gasoline. The difficult engagement cost the Americans heavily, and they suffered approximately 77,000 casualties. The result of all the fighting was a large bulge in the American lines, from which the battle took its name.

The German counteroffensive had a sobering effect on the American unit commanders, who now realized that the Germans were by no means through fighting. A rapid shift in the attacking direction of the Third Army relieved Bastogne, and the American advance toward the Rhine resumed. By the end of January all the lost territory had been recaptured and additional German counterattacks had also been blunted. The advance on the Rhine resumed.

The Germans Surrender. On March 7, 1945, members of the Ninth U.S. Armored Division discovered that the Ludendorff Bridge over the Rhine River at Remagen and had not been destroyed by the Germans, and thus a foothold across the river suddenly became available. Americans fought their way across the bridge under intense fire, and following counterattacks the Germans attempted to destroy it. Although the bridge eventually collapsed from the demolitions placed on it, pontoon bridges were set up alongside the railroad bridge, and within a week elements of several army divisions had crossed to the east bank and were fighting on German soil. The end was in sight. By April 20 the Soviet Army was on the outskirts of Berlin. Hitler committed suicide on April 30, and Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945. General Esienhower accepted the German surrender from General Alfred Jodl, Chief of the Operations Staff in the German High Command. Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel surrendered tot he Soviets in Berlin.
Casualties & Costs. The exact number of dead and wounded in World War II can only be approximated. It is likely that the European war cost between 40 and 50 million lives. The physical destruction of toewwns and cities took years to repair, and the signs linger to this day. Millions more died in China and Japan. In the months and years following the war millions of Europeans separated from their homes struggled to put their lives back together. For many, the worst suffering of the war came after the fighting had ceased, as food, shelter and medical aid were often in short supply. Occupying forces did what they could to aid the conquered peoples, but it took years for full recovery to be achieved. And, of course, the millions of deceased persons remained gone.
World War II Home | Updated September 23, 2013