As weather slowed operations in Tunisia, Roosevelt and Churchill decided to meet again to sort out the next steps in their world war. The Anfa Hotel, five miles outside Casablanca, served as the conference site. Considerable optimism surrounded the conference, a far cry from six months previously. Now the Allies stood firmly ashore in Africa with Axis forces barely holding on to Tripoli and its hinterland. The Soviets had the German 6th Army surrounded at Stalingrad on the verge of annihilation. In the Pacific, Japan’s thrust at Port Moresby failed and her attempts to retake Guadalcanal led to a bloody battle of attrition that the Japanese lost.
For all that optimism, animosity and division separated the Allies over their next step. Churchill was still worried of any signs of an American shift away from their Germany first focus and toward the Pacific. Most telling was a late 1942 assessment by the US that accommodations for only 500,000 US troops would be needed in England through 1943 rather than the million that BOLERO had called for.
Brooke, speaking for the British, put their European plans on the table – threaten Germany’s southern marches, knock Italy out of the war, and convince Turkey to join the Allies. After clearing Tunisia, multiple targets presented themselves: Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, Greece or the Dodecanese islands in the Adriatic. Air Chief Marshal Portal pointed out that operations throughout the Mediterranean made Germany spread its forces out as well.
General Marshall countered with the US position on the European front: finish the Tunisian operation, then go defensive in the Mediterranean, buildup, and then cross the Channel into France. Anything else simply diverted resources from and postponed the only war-winning strategy – the cross-Channel attack.
Well prepared, the British raised their objections to a 1943 invasion of France: the U-boat threat, scarcity of landing craft, not enough Allied divisions in England, too many German divisions in France, and a French rail system for easy transport of troops. Disingenuously, Brook and his other chiefs minimised Allied reinforcement potential and maximised the effectiveness of the forty plus German divisions in France, most of which were low quality rebuilding units. Underlying these arguments was the main British concern: that American troops were simply not blooded enough to go straight into a showdown fight in France.
Admiral King then shifted the focus of the discussions by asking Brooke exactly what he thought the next step should be.
‘Sardinia or Sicily,’ Brook responded quickly. ‘From Sicily, invade Italy. From Sardinia, Italy or southern France is possible.’
‘What about Malta?’ King asked. ‘Sardinia is useless as a base. And you cannot attack Sicily without dealing with Malta.’
Marshall then put it plainly. To invade Sicily and Italy, the Allies had to have Malta. Adding an invasion of that island would postpone any operation in France beyond the foreseeable future. ‘It’s one island too many,’ he stated flatly, then continued, ‘Postponing a second front wouldn’t help the Soviets, or the allied cause. Without dealing with Malta, the Allies had no use for more US troops in Mediterranean; without plans for a cross-Channel attack in 1943, they needed no more US troops in Europe. They would be sent to the Pacific.’
Brooke had no immediate answer for the Americans; the issue of Malta was political as well as military. Italians kept their word in bringing food to the island, but they also used Malta’s three main airfields for the Regia Aeronautica bases with a garrison of two divisions. Ultimately, the decision remained with Churchill.
Malta presented Churchill with a major dilemma. Throughout the discussion of strategy, the question of a second front had been prominent, abetted by pressure from the Soviets. Churchill wanted a large-scale operation somewhere; his staff had essentially convinced him that an operation in France simply was not feasible in 1943, so the focus needed to stay on the Mediterranean. But his staff had stayed very quiet about Malta.
The Maltese endured more than their share of misery on behalf of the Allies, much of it at Churchill and the Royal Navy’s behest. Virtually all other sections of the British government had written the island off at the start of the war. But she had endured and played a significant role in British fortunes in the Mediterranean and Africa. And politically, he had to consider the George Cross.
But to fulfil the need for large-scale operations in the Mediterranean, Malta had to be a target. Ultimately, Churchill felt he could not politically survive planning any action against the island, and that left a second front landing in France.
Thus Casablanca provided the following Allied priorities: finish the African campaign, launch deception operations to keep Italy engaged, concentrate on beating the U-boats and bombing German industry, and prepare for cross-Channel operations. Stalin, who had been demanding the Allies open a significant second front to take some of the pressure off his nation, exploded when informed that no other major operations would take place until later in 1943. He told the Allied leaders that their delay made his people feel alone against the Fascists. He pointed to the horrendous casualties suffered by the Red Army and called Allied casualties thus far ‘insignificant’. He needed an attack that diverted a significant number of the German divisions facing him. Despite reassurances from both Roosevelt and Churchill, Stalin remained angry, accusing the West of deliberately delaying action and trying to destroy his country.
The Allies could do little, except push their planning staffs to finalise second front plans, ROUNDUP was solidly on the agenda.
Decisions made, the Allies began detailed planning for their cross-Channel assault. In the meantime African operations went on.
In February, the Axis struck hard at the inexperienced US troops of II Corps, attacking at the Kasserine Pass, and inflicting a severe repulse to them. The offensive aimed primarily at delaying the inevitable in Tunisia because Hitler began regretting his impulsive decision to defend his Axis’s North African holdings. His 6th Army had surrendered near Stalingrad and the Eastern Front – the troops in Tunisia would be needed.
However, Hitler could not just abandon Tunisia as that would unsettle his ally, Mussolini. The Italian leader, who six months earlier had been ready to enter Cairo in triumph, had now lost everything Italy had in Africa. The political cost of that defeat began emerging as several political enemies (and one or two political ‘friends’) began shuffling for position against him. German intelligence picked up bits and pieces of a wide variety of conspiracies against Mussolini, all highly vocal but totally disorganised. The logical next step for the converging allies in North Africa: Italy itself through Malta and Sicily, the threat of which made things even dicier. Hitler needed Italy stable while he shored up his Eastern Front. The cost became operations in Tunisia, but he sent word to his commander in chief in the south, Kesselring, to pull out good troops slowly if they could.
The Kasserine defeat and the poor performance of the US II Corps troops made the British all the more convinced that a 1943 cross-Channel attack would be a disaster. They started floating objections and alternative plans, hoping to catch the US reeling from the losses and more susceptible to change; but the US held firm to their demands for ROUNDUP, even while replacing an ineffective Fredendall with aggressive George Patton in Tunisia. Over the next several months the Allies pushed inexorably toward Tunis.
In March, Allied intelligence began picking up mentions of a major offensive planned by the Germans around the Kursk salient on the Eastern Front, ULTRA and on-the-scenes spy rings brought word of a massive build-up in the area. Marshall keyed on that as just the thing to promote a successful crossing – rather than the second front ‘saving’ the Soviets from disaster, he saw the landing now as taking advantage of a Soviet victory.
By May 1943, Axis resistance neared collapse in Tunisia; Allied air power and encroaching sea power all but isolating the African country, especially for incoming supply. Kesselring began pulling his best troops out while he could – the Hermann Goering Panzer, 15th and 21st Panzer veterans were among those that got out sans equipment.
Axis aircraft operating out of Malta supported the pullout as they had the supply attempts and caused concern among Allied commanders, who pushed the limit of operations against the island. Low-level bombing runs combined with fighter sweeps tried to interdict the island. But over 200,000 Axis troops became trapped in Tunisia when Tunis fell. The operation had cost Italy some 400 ships and the Axis nearly 2,000 aircraft.
While the battle in Tunisia concluded, planning and preparations for future operations continued. The process keyed on an effort to make sure the Axis believed that the Mediterranean would continue to see most of the Allied attention. Two deception programs were particularly effective:
Operation MINCEMEAT: launched at the end of April, MINCEMEAT consisted of floating a corpse ashore off Spain complete with ‘secret plans’ showing the Allies were planning to invade Greece, then Sicily.
Operation BARCLAY: a bogus army group established in Egypt preparing operations in the Balkans.
While the Germans struggled to escape Tunisia and absorbed disinformation about the next Allied objective, Marshall diligently revised his BOLERO plans to augment US troops in Britain. Eight divisions had been already earmarked for England (101st Airborne, 2nd, 8th, 28th, 45th, plus 3rd and 4th Armored). He stripped four others from previous assignments in the Pacific (6th, 7th, 33rd, 1st Cavalry). In addition, he pencilled-in four divisions from Tunisia for relocation back to Britain (1st, 9th, 82nd Airborne, and 2nd Armored). Britain’s two fast passenger liners, the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, aided transport immeasurably.
A full headquarters (Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force, SHAEF) was established in England for the coming assault, headed up by a newly promoted Lord Mountbatten on the basis of his success at Dieppe and the fact that most of the troops involved would be British and Commonwealth. The 21st Army Group, commanded by Eisenhower, composed Mountbatten’s ground forces, made up of the US 1st Army under Patton and British 2nd Army under Montgomery. As part of the overall deception plan, both Patton and Montgomery, who had earned kudos from their German opponents for their battlefield performances, stayed in the Mediterranean until the last minute to continue the appearance of major Allied operations there.
Air and naval operations continued in the Mediterranean as part of the plans to keep the Axis attention focused there. In early June, for example, air and naval bombardment – 5,300 tons of bombs in five days – forced the surrender of the Italian island of Pantelleria and its 11,000-man garrison. Brooke used the easy victory to suggest going after Sicily for real, landing an American-British force on the western end of the island and moving east. The US argued that most of the Axis airfields were in the east and threatened any beachhead in western Sicily They countered with a plan to land at Syracuse – following a Pantelleria-style neutralisation of Malta. Brooke’s plan died out.
However the argument did bring about an alteration in the US posture of no-more-Mediterranean operations. US planners saw the benefit of a smaller operation to continue pinning the Axis down. The discussions bore Operation BRIMSTONE, the invasion of Sardinia. Marshall agreed to the plan only when Eisenhower showed him that it would not interfere heavily with the ROUNDUP plans, using US troops allocated for garrison duty in Africa.
On 5 July 1943, Hitler finally launched his oft-delayed offensive at the Kursk salient on the East Front. By delaying to allow new weapons to make it to the battlefield, he also allowed the Soviets to turn the salient into as massive death-trap. Over two million men, 6,000 tanks and 4,000 aircraft participated in the massive battle. After a week of fighting, the German pincers, 9th and 4th Panzer Armies had made minimal progress toward each other.
And on 10 July 1943, the Allies launched Operation BRIMSTONE, landing infantry divisions with armoured support at four separate locations on Sardinia: Oristano Bay, Cape Altano, Cape Pecora and Palmas Bay. The attack caught the Axis by surprise; Operation MINCEMEAT convinced them that Sicily would be the next target and they had reinforced their presence on that island. The invasion overmatched the two Italian divisions on Sardinia, but the 155th Panzer grenadier Regiment put in a spirited assault against the US 34th Infantry Division at Oristano before being repulsed by naval gunfire.
A day later, Hitler called off the Kursk assault; ambivalent about the offensive just prior to the attack, the Sardinian surprise made him pause and pull back. The various deception operations spun by the Allies had forced a number of redeployments in and around the Mediterranean theatre. In addition, Mussolini began recalling his legions from their occupation duties in Greece and Yugoslavia in preparation for defending Italy itself. With Sardinia falling to the Allies (Hitler had no doubt it would) the next step could be northern Italy itself or southern France.
With operations in the west becoming active again, Hitler could no longer simply focus on the east as his armed forces stretched thin. In mid-July, some 210 divisions remained on the East front, forty-four in France, twenty in Scandinavia, seventeen in the Balkans and five in Italy. He needed to keep troops in Scandinavia, especially Finland, to safeguard precious nickel and iron deliveries. The Balkan partisans absorbed additional troops by threatening transportation lines to the East front. He needed troops in Italy to back up Mussolini and help forestall any quick Allied thrust there. His troops in France kept the Allies at bay from a major second front, while serving as a rebuilding and recovery area for decimated and exhausted Eastern Front formations. He found replacement soldiers harder to come by. The use of Russian volunteers, called Hiwis (Hilfsfreiwilligen, or volunteer helpers) to replace Germans in service elements became prevalent, as did the use of recruited Russian prisoners. Orders went to his generals to begin developing some sort of an East Wall against the Soviets, while he rearranged and reinforced his forces. He issued orders to Rommel to form a command in Northern Italy to react to anything the Allies did next. Because he did not trust the Italians he also created Operation ALARIC – a plan to hold the western Alpine passes open and disarm his allies if necessary.
In August, the Soviets launched a massive attack on the Orel salient, seeking to take advantage of the German losses suffered at Kursk. Although they had also suffered heavily during the German offensive, the massive reserves they had collected gave them the means to continue their counterattack and pursuit. The Germans fought a skilled fighting withdrawal to the Dnieper river throughout the month, inflicting horrendous casualties on the attacking Soviets. The loss of 430,000 troops and another 2,500 tanks led Stalin to increase his demands for a substantial second front.