The sharp decline of morale amongst the German population in 1943 was not just the result of the intensification of Allied bombing raids on German cities, it also reflected a series of dramatic reverses in other areas of the war as well.
Amongst these, one of the most disheartening was in North Africa. In the summer of 1942 Field Marshal Erwin Rommel had succeeded in capturing the key North African seaport of Tobruk and driving the British back into Egypt. But difficulties in supplying his troops by either land or sea weakened Rommel’s position, and the British stood their ground at El Alamein, where they prepared deep defensive positions and massed their forces ready for a counter-attack. On 23 October 1942, under yet another new general, the meticulous Bernard Montgomery, the British attacked the German forces with over twice the number of infantry and tanks that Rommel could assemble. Over twelve days they inflicted a decisive defeat on them. Rommel lost 30,000 men captured in his headlong retreat across the desert. Little over two weeks later the Allies, their command of the Mediterranean virtually unchallenged, landed 63,000 men, equipped with 430 tanks, in Morocco and Algeria. The German bid to gain control of North Africa and penetrate from there to the oilfields of the Middle East had failed. Rommel returned to Germany on sick leave in March 1943. Defeat in North Africa turned into humiliation in mid-May, when 250,000 Axis troops, half of them German, surrendered to the Allies. Its complete failure to disturb British control over Egypt and the Middle East denied the Third Reich access to key sources of oil. These failures once more signalled not only the fact that the British were determined not to give in, but also the massive strength of the far-flung British Empire, backed to an increasing degree by the material resources of the United States. Reflecting privately on these failures in 1944, Field Marshal Rommel still believed that, if he had been provided with ‘more motorized formations and a secure supply line’, he could have seized the Suez Canal, thus disrupting British supplies, and gone on to secure the oilfields of the Middle East, Persia and even Baku on the Caspian Sea. But it was not to be. Bitterly, he concluded that ‘the war in North Africa was decided by the weight of Anglo-American material. In fact, since the entry of America into the war, there has been very little prospect of our achieving ultimate victory.’ It was a view that many ordinary Germans shared.
Far more alarming to many Germans were the dramatic events that unfolded in Italy after their defeat in North Africa. On 10 July 1943 Anglo-American forces, ferried across by sea and backed by airborne assaults on defensive positions behind the beaches, landed in Sicily, which was occupied by a combination of Italian and German troops. Despite extensive preparations, the attack was far from perfectly executed. The landing forces mistook the planes flying overhead for enemy aircraft and started firing on them, weakening the airborne thrust. The British commander Montgomery split his forces in the east into a coastal and an inland column, as a result of which they only made slow progress against heavy German resistance. Syracuse was captured, but because of the delays in the British advance, the Germans managed to evacuate most of their troops across to the mainland. Still, the island eventually fell to the Allied forces. Ominously for the Italian Fascist dictator Mussolini, too, the citizens of Palermo had waved white flags at the invading Americans, and there were growing indications that ordinary Italians no longer wanted to continue fighting. Hitler visited Mussolini in northern Italy on 18 July 1943 to try to bolster his confidence, but his two-hour monologue depressed the Italian dictator and made him feel he lacked the will to carry on. The dictator’s prestige and popularity had never recovered from the catastrophic defeats of 1941, most notably in Greece. His relationship with Hitler had changed fundamentally after this: even Mussolini himself referred to Fascist Italy as no more than the ‘rear light’ of the Axis, and he soon acquired a new nickname: the Regional Leader of Italy. Hitler, always late to bed, had taken to sending him messages in the middle of the night, obliging him to be woken up to receive them; and the Italian dictator began to complain that he was becoming fed up with being summoned to meetings with him like a waiter by a bell.
While Italian troops continued to fight, they were losing their faith in the cause for which they were being asked to lay down their lives. Mussolini himself began to complain privately that the Italians were letting him down. Distrusting the ability of the Italians to carry on fighting, Hitler had already made plans to take over Italy and the territories it occupied in southern France, Yugoslavia, Greece and Albania. He put Rommel in charge of the operation. As Allied planes began to bomb Italian cities, the prospect of an invasion of the Italian mainland by the Allies became imminent. German forces moved into the peninsula, indicating by their mere presence whose cause the Italians were now fighting for. Serious opposition to Mussolini’s dictatorship surfaced for the first time in many years and came to a head towards the end of July. In February 1943 Mussolini had carried out a purge of leading figures in his increasingly discontented Fascist Party. It had been growing ever more critical of his political and military leadership. This was virtually his last decisive act. Disoriented and demoralized, he began suffering from stomach pains that sapped his energy. He spent much of his time dallying with his mistress Clara Petacci, translating classic Italian fiction into German, or devoting himself to minor administrative issues. Since he was not only Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces but also held several major ministries, this meant that a vacuum began to appear at the centre of power. The sacked party bosses began to intrigue against him. Those in the Fascist Grand Council who either wanted more radical measures taken to mobilize the population or sought to place the further conduct of the war entirely in the hands of the military decided to strip him of most of his powers at a meeting held on 24- 5 July 1943 (the first since 1939). Few details were made known of this dramatic, ten-hour marathon. The leading moderate Fascist, Dino Grandi, who proposed the motion, later confessed that he had been carrying a live grenade throughout, in case of emergencies. But it was not necessary. Mussolini’s reaction to the criticisms levelled at him was feeble and confused. He hardly seemed to know what was going on and failed to put a counter-proposal, leading many to think he had no objections to Grandi’s motion. In the early hours of the morning, it was voted through by nineteen votes to seven.
The Grand Council’s vote played right into the hands of the leading military men, whose dissatisfaction with the war prompted them to get the King to dismiss Mussolini (as he was constitutionally entitled to do, since Mussolini’s formal position was still that of Prime Minister), and have him arrested the very next day. There was no resistance, and the now ex-dictator was carried off to prison without any serious protest. Only one Fascist zealot is known to have committed suicide on hearing the news. As Mussolini’s successor, the monarch appointed Marshal Pietro Badoglio to lead a new government. The Fascist Party more or less fell to pieces under the impact of these dramatic events, and was swiftly declared illegal. Badoglio and the King assured the Germans that Italy would stay in the war, and as a token of goodwill, or perhaps a recognition of the inevitable, the new government allowed them to take over key Alpine passes and other significant positions and begin pouring large numbers of troops and equipment into the peninsula. While the Germans withdrew their forces from Corsica and Sardinia, they also used the troops they had extricated from Sicily to start preparations to defend the southern part of the mainland. Amidst a rapidly disintegrating situation, Badoglio began secretly negotiating an armistice with the Allies, which he signed on 3 September 1943. The same day, Allied troops landed in Calabria, in Italy’s far south, and then on 9 September 1943 at Salerno, further up the coast. On the previous day, 8 September 1943, the Italian government announced its surrender to the Allies. Badoglio, the King and the government fled south, into Allied protection. Ordinary Germans at home were reported as expressing their disappointment that the Italian leaders had not been captured and hanged. Neither the Italian army nor the Italian government had any instructions for the million or more Italian troops still under arms.