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North Africa
Italy declared war on June 10, 1940 on Britain/ France. The British position in North Africa seemed hopelessly
outmatched. UK Army General Percival Wavell commanded 40,000 Dominion soldiers caught between 200,000 Italian
troops in Libya and 250,000 to the south in Ethiopia and Somaliland.
Hitler sent the Afrika Korps to help the Italians, led by the effective Generalleutnant Erwin Rommel. Rommel arrived on
February 12, 1941. Technically under Italian command, Rommel led an armored attack that smashed through the smaller
British force, capturing O’Connor and almost all of the British conquests except for the embattled port of Tobruk. The
British settled in for a long siege.
Churchill overruled his advisors and sent precious military supplies and weapons to Wavell, who tried twice to beat his
way through Rommel to Tobruk. Rommel developed new doctrines of desert warfare, using antiaircraft guns against
tanks and employing Blitzkrieg tactics to outflank the British. Wavell had to resign in the face of these defeats.
Operation Torch November 8, 1942
For almost an entire year, the American forces in the Pacific took the lion’s share of equipment and men that America was
trickling out of her factories and training camps. The goal of Roosevelt and Marshall— and declared at the Atlantic
Charter conference of 1941—was that the defeat of Germany would come first. But the American Army existed only on
paper as Churchill and Roosevelt signed their paper on the deck of the USS Augusta that October. Not only would the
Americans need time to train and equip their army, the Battle of the Atlantic needed to be won in order for that army to
cross the sea successfully to engage the enemy.
Not all of these problems were solved when the Americans decided to invade the North African French colonies in
1942. Driven by Stalin’s relentless pressure to open a second front in 1942, and by a desire to get into the fight, the
Americans decided to land an Army in the rear of the Afrika Korps line of retreat from their loss at El Alamein.
The Americans skirted the dangerous U-boat infested sea-lanes to England and sailed their convoys through the less
defended South Atlantic. In a bold move, the ships were combat-loaded in East Coast seaports and did not stop,
disembarking their troops and equipment in Morocco and Algeria.
US Army General Mark Clark was charged with gauging the level of French reaction to the American invasion.
Traveling by UK submarine to the coast, he narrowly evaded capture by pro-Vichy units a number of times but was able
to secure a supposed promise from French Vichy Admiral Jean Darlan that the French would not fight. Darlan did not
actually have the authority to make such a statement, and in any case he was soon assassinated after signing a cease-fire
on November 13.
When the Americans and British landed in several places, including Casablanca, Oran, Tangiers, and others, the
reaction of the French colonial government was varied. At Oran, the USS Massachusetts fought a gun duel with the drydocked French battleship Jean Bart. Jean Bart, immobile, was crippled by Massachusetts and not repaired until after the
The first major Anglo-American operation of the war was commanded by Dwight D. Eisenhower form his base at
Gibraltar. While it was successful, months of hard fighting against the Germans remained that would test both the AngloAmerican alliance and the green American fighting men.
The stiff Vichy resistance cost the Americans 556 killed and 837 wounded. Three hundred British troops and 700
French soldiers were also killed.
Hitler told Rommel to stand and die in El Alamein, but he disobeyed orders and retreated on November 4. Four days later
Americans began landing in North Africa, and the Afrika Korps began its expulsion from North Africa. Months of hard
fighting were ahead for both sides.
El Alamein was the last major battle in the war that was exclusively a Commonwealth affair. After that, the Americans
would begin to contribute the major balance of men and materiel to the war.
The green Americans moved slowly to take advantage of the Axis retreat, and while Montgomery pursued Rommel
across North Africa, taking Tripoli on January 23, 1943, the Americans did not press the Axis western flank. Eisenhower
would later write that the American operations “violated every recognized principle of war.” Nevertheless, confident
Allied commanders planned for the conclusion of operations in North Africa.
Rommel and his junior officers were openly contemptuous of the Americans’ ability to fight. After a buildup that
included heavy Tiger I tanks that mounted the 88mm gun that Rommel had pioneered in antitank combat, Rommel
exploded against the Americans at Faïd on February 14. Rommel drove the Americans back on what would be the
defining moment for the American ground soldier against the Germans ’ Kasserine Pass, in the Tunisian Dorsal
Kasserine Pass would teach the Americans how to fight the Wehrmacht. On February 19, Rommel probed the
American lines, and concluded the Pass was the soft spot in the American lines. The next day, he personally led the attack
that cracked the American defenses and sent them reeling back.
Almost everything the Americans believed was wrong. The M3 Lee and Grant tanks, mounting a 75mm fixed gun, had
a high silhouette and was difficult to operate in combat with the heavy German pzkpfw Mark IV and Tiger panzers. Teh
tank commander always had to point his tank directly at the panzers to score a hit. Also, the Americans fought tank-totank, while the Germans concentrated their fire. The M3 would burn when hit and the riveted construction would shoot
hot flying rivets around the crew compartment when it was hit. Also, tactical doctrine was inflexible and did not account
for the rapid German advance.
The Americans suffered heavy losses of 1,000 dead, hundreds taken prisoner, and the loss of most of their heavy
equipment. The Germans who analyzed the captured American equipment sent back unfavorable reports on the American
tanks and guns, which would entice German commanders to underestimate the Americans in the future.
For the Americans studied Kasserine Pass even more intently than the Germans. They changed leadership where in was
needed, and gave junior officers the authority to make on-the-spot decisions. Major General Lloyd Fredendall,
commanding II Corps, was replaced by the more aggressive General George Patton. The M3 tank was quickly replaced
with the M4 Sherman, which mounted the same 75mm gun in a traversable turret. While it was never the equal of the
German tanks, it was easier to maintain and traveled much further between refits.
Most importantly Kasserine Pass taught the Americans the doctrine of massed firepower. The Americans developed ways
to mass artillery fire, and to coordinate aircraft with ground forces. Three days later, on February 23, massive air bombing
drove Rommel back through Kasserine Pass attempting to reach his prepared positions on the Mareth Line.
Again the Americans paused. Rommel made it to his fortifications, a twenty-two-mile line built by the French against an
Italian invasion of Tunisia. He reached the Mareth Line on February 25. The next day Montgomery’s Eighth Army
attacked, and in a series of probing battles weakened the Axis forces. Coming into conflict with the split Axis command,
Rommel clashed with General von Arnim over tactics and logistics. Rommel had lost the one battle he was never allowed
to direct. Allied forces on Malta had cut his supply lines, and he was running out of food, ammunition and fuel.
On March 20, The Allies broke the Mareth line and linked on April 8, 1943. Rommel had already been flown out, too ill
to continue the battle. By May 13, the day the last resistance ended, 240,000 Italian and German prisoners were rounded
The buildup began for the invasion of the Italian mainland. The first stop was the island of Sicily.
Years of hard fighting lay ahead for the Allies and the Axis. But all the major players were now engaged. Churchill, at the
Casablanca Conference in January 1943, called North Africa “not the beginning of the end. But the end of the beginning.”
The ground operations took 38 days to conquer Sicily. Patton advanced on Palermo, taking it on July 22. Montgomery,
stopped by the Sicilian terrain as much as the German resistance, took Messina on August 17, too late to stop the Axis
forces from evacuating 40,000 men, 10,000 vehicles including 44 tanks, and thousands of tons of ammunition and
supplies under constant and heavy air attack.
The invasion of Sicily prompted the fall of the Mussolini government. On July 25 King Victor Emmanuel ousted
Mussolini and named Marshal Pietro Bagdoglio as head of a new government. Bagdoglio immediately began negotiations
with the Allies for the withdrawal of Italy from the war.
Sicily revealed many weaknesses of combined operations, but was a needed victory for the Allies. The hard fighting up
the Italian ’boot’ eclipsed the fervor over the fall of Mussolini. The rough terrain would cause the Italian front to stagnate.
By 1945, the US Army had 8,300,000 men and women out of 12,350,000 Americans in uniform. When the Germans
surrendered, the Army planned to transfer European Units to Japan for the final invasion. Over 1,000,000 casualties were
expected (although that source has never been identified.) The use of the Atomic Bomb made an invasion unnecessary.
318,274 Army personnel were killed and 565,861 were wounded on the ground and in the air.
Jan 23, 1943 - Montgomery's Eighth Army takes Tripoli.
Feb 14-25 - Battle of Kasserine Pass between the U.S. 1st Armored Division and German
Panzers in North Africa.
March 20-28 - Montgomery's Eighth Army breaks through the Mareth Line in Tunisia.
April 6/7 - Axis forces in Tunisia begin a withdrawal toward Enfidaville as American and British
forces link.
May 7, 1943 - Allies take Tunisia.
May 13, 1943 - German and Italian troops surrender in North Africa.
July 9/10 - Allies land in Sicily.
July 22, 1943 - Americans capture Palermo, Sicily.
July 25/26 - Mussolini arrested and the Italian Fascist government falls; Marshal Pietro
Badoglio takes over and negotiates with Allies.
Aug 12-17 - Germans evacuate Sicily.