World War II Europe: Fighting in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy

The Fighting Moves South

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Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

In June 1940, as fighting was winding down in France, the pace of operations quickened in the Mediterranean. The area was vital for Britain, which needed to maintain access to the Suez Canal in order to remain in close contact with the rest of its empire. Following Italy's declaration of war on Britain and France, Italian troops quickly seized British Somaliland in the Horn of Africa and laid siege to the island of Malta.

They also began a series of probing attacks from Libya into British-held Egypt.

That fall, British forces went on the offensive against the Italians. On November 12, aircraft flying from HMS Illustrious struck the Italian naval base at Taranto, sinking a battleship and damaging two others. During the attack, the British only lost two aircraft. In North Africa, General Archibald Wavell launched a major attack in December, Operation Compass, which drove the Italians out of Egypt and captured over 100,000 prisoners. The following month, Wavell dispatched troops south and cleared the Italians from the Horn of Africa.

Germany Intervenes

Concerned by Italian leader Benito Mussolini's lack of progress in Africa and the Balkans, Adolf Hitler authorized German troops to enter the region to assist their ally in February 1941. Despite a naval victory over the Italians at the Battle of Cape Matapan (March 27-29, 1941), the British position in the region was weakening.

With British troops sent north from Africa to aid Greece, Wavell was unable to stop a new German offensive in North Africa and was driven back out of Libya by General Erwin Rommel. By the end of May, both Greece and Crete had also fallen to German forces.

British Pushes in North Africa

On June 15, Wavell sought to regain the momentum in North Africa and launched Operation Battleaxe.

Designed to push the German Afrika Korps out of Eastern Cyrenaica and relieve the besieged British troops at Tobruk, the operation was a total failure as Wavell's attacks were broken on the German defenses. Angered by Wavell's lack of success, Prime Minister Winston Churchill removed him and assigned General Claude Auchinleck to command the region. In late November, Auchinleck commenced Operation Crusader which was able to break Rommel's lines and pushed the Germans back to El Agheila, allowing Tobruk to be relieved.

The Battle of the Atlantic: Early Years

As in World War I, Germany initiated a maritime war against Britain using U-boats (submarines) shortly after hostilities began in 1939. Following the sinking of the liner Athenia on September 3, 1939, the Royal Navy implemented a convoy system for merchant shipping. The situation worsened in mid-1940, with the surrender of France. Operating from the French coast, U-boats were able cruise further into the Atlantic, while the Royal Navy was stretched thin due to defending its home waters while also fighting in the Mediterranean. Operating in groups, known as "wolf packs," U-boats began to inflict heavy casualties on British convoys.

To ease the strain on the Royal Navy, Winston Churchill concluded the Destroyers for Bases Agreement with US President Franklin Roosevelt in September 1940. In exchange for fifty old destroyers, Churchill provided the US with ninety-nine year leases on military bases in British territories. This arrangement was further supplemented by the Lend-Lease Program the following March. Under Lend-Lease, the US provided vast amounts of military equipment and supplies to the Allies. In May 1941, British fortunes brightened with the capture of a German Enigma encoding machine. This permitted the British to break the German naval codes which allowed them to steer convoys around the wolf packs. Later that month, the Royal Navy scored a victory when it sank the German battleship Bismarck after a prolonged chase.

The United States Joins the Fight

The United States entered World War II on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked the US naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Four days later, Nazi Germany followed suit and declared war on the United States. In late, December, US and British leaders met in Washington, DC, at the Arcadia Conference, to discuss the overall strategy for defeating the Axis. It was agreed that the Allies' initial focus would be the defeat of Germany as the Nazis presented the greatest threat to Britain and the Soviet Union. While Allied forces were engaged in Europe, a holding action would be conducted against the Japanese.

The Battle of the Atlantic: Later Years

With the US entry into the war, the German U-boats were afforded a wealth of new targets. During the first half of 1942, as the Americans slowly adopted anti-submarine precautions and convoys, the German skippers enjoyed a "happy time" which saw them sink 609 merchant ships at a cost of only 22 U-boats. Over the next year and half, both sides developed new technologies in attempts to gain an edge over their adversary. The tide began to turn in the Allies' favor in the spring of 1943, with the high point coming that May. Known as "Black May" by the Germans, the month saw the Allies sink 25% of the U-boat fleet, while suffering much reduced merchant shipping losses. Using improved anti-submarine tactics and weapons, along with long-range aircraft and mass-produced Liberty cargo ships, the Allies were able win the Battle of the Atlantic and ensure that men and supplies continued to reach Britain.

Second Battle of El Alamein

With the Japanese declaration of war on Britain in December 1941, Auchinleck was forced to transfer some of his forces east for the defense of Burma and India. Taking advantage of Auchinleck's weakness, Rommel launched a massive offensive that overran the British position in the Western Desert and pressed deep into Egypt until it was halted at El Alamein. Upset by Auchinleck's defeat, Churchill sacked him in favor of General Sir Harold Alexander. Taking command, Alexander gave control of his ground forces to Lieutenant General Bernard Montgomery. To regain the lost territory, Montgomery opened the Second Battle of El Alamein on October 23, 1942. Assaulting the German lines, Montgomery's Eighth Army was finally able to break through after twelve days of fighting. The battle cost Rommel almost all of his armor and forced him to retreat back towards Tunisia.

The Americans Arrive

On November 8, five days after Montgomery's victory in Egypt, US forces stormed ashore in Morocco and Algeria as part of Operation Torch. While US commanders had favored a direct assault on mainland Europe, the British suggested an attack on North Africa as a way to reduce pressure on the Soviets. Moving through minimal resistance by Vichy French forces, US troops consolidated their position and began heading east to attack Rommel's rear. Fighting on two fronts, Rommel assumed a defensive position in Tunisia. American forces first encountered the Germans at the Battle of Kasserine Pass (February 19-25) where Major General Lloyd Fredendall's II Corps was routed.

After the defeat, US forces initiated massive changes which including unit reorganization and changes in command. The most notable of these was Lieutenant General George S. Patton replacing Fredendall.

Victory in North Africa

Despite the victory at Kasserine, the German situation continued to worsen. On March 9, Rommel departed Africa, citing health reasons, and turned over command to General Hans-Jürgen von Arnim. Later that month, Montgomery broke through the Mareth Line in southern Tunisia, further tightening the noose. Under the coordination of US General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the combined British and American forces pressed the remaining German and Italian troops, while Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham ensured that they could not escape by sea. Following the fall of Tunis, the Axis forces in North Africa surrendered on May 13, 1943, and 275,000 German and Italian soldiers were taken prisoner.

Operation Husky: The Invasion of Sicily

As the fighting in North Africa was concluding, the Allied leadership determined that it would not be possible to stage a cross-Channel invasion during 1943. In lieu of an attack on France, it was decided to invade Sicily with the goals of eliminating the island as an Axis base and encouraging the fall of Mussolini's government. The principle forces for the assault were the US 7th Army under Lt. Gen. George S. Patton and the British Eighth Army under Gen. Bernard Montgomery, with Eisenhower and Alexander in overall command.

On the night of July 9/10, Allied airborne units began landing, while the main ground forces came ashore three hours later on the southeast and southwest coasts of the island. The Allied advance initially suffered from a lack of coordination between US and British forces as Montgomery pushed northeast towards the strategic port of Messina and Patton pushed north and west. The campaign saw tensions rise between Patton and Montgomery as the independent-minded American felt the British were stealing the show. Ignoring Alexander's orders, Patton drove north and captured Palermo, before turning east and beating Montgomery to Messina by a few hours. The campaign had the desired effect as the capture of Palermo had helped spur Mussolini's overthrow in Rome.

Into Italy

With Sicily secured, Allied forces prepared to attack what Churchill referred to as the "underbelly of Europe." On September 3, 1943, Montgomery's Eighth Army came ashore in Calabria. As a result of these landings, the new Italian government, led by Pietro Badoglio surrendered to the Allies on September 8. Though the Italians had been defeated, the German forces in Italy dug in to defend the country. The day after Italy's capitulation, the main Allied landings occurred at Salerno. Fighting their way ashore against heavy opposition, American and British forces quickly took the city Between September 12-14, the Germans launched a series of counterattacks with the goal of destroying the beachhead before it could link up with the Eighth Army. These were repulsed and the German commander, General Heinrich von Vietinghoff withdrew his forces to a defensive line to the north.

Pressing North

Linking up with Eighth Army, the forces at Salerno turned north and captured Naples and Foggia. Moving up the peninsula, the Allied advance began to slow due to harsh, mountainous terrain that was ideally suited for defense. In October, the German commander in Italy, Field Marshall Albert Kesselring convinced Hitler that every inch of Italy should be defended to keep the Allies away from Germany. To conduct this defensive campaign, Kesselring constructed numerous lines of fortifications across Italy. The most formidable of these was the Winter (Gustav) Line which stopped the US 5th Army's advance at the end of 1943. In an attempt to turn the Germans out of the Winter Line, Allied forces landed further north at Anzio in January 1944. Unfortunately for the Allies, the forces that came ashore were quickly contained by the Germans and were unable to break out of the beachhead.

Breakout and the Fall of Rome

Through the spring of 1944, four major offensives were launched along the Winter Line near the town of Cassino. The final assault commenced on May 11 and finally broke through the German defenses as well as the Adolf Hitler/Dora Line to their rear. Advancing north, US General Mark Clark's 5th Army and Montgomery's Eighth Army pressed the retreating Germans, while the forces at Anzio were finally able to break out of their beachhead. On June 4, 1944, US forces entered Rome as the Germans fell back to the Trasimene Line north of the city. The capture of Rome was quickly overshadowed by the Allied landings in Normandy two days later.

The Final Campaigns

With the opening of a new front in France, Italy became a secondary theater of the war. In August, many of the most experienced Allied troops in Italy were withdrawn to take part in the Operation Dragoon landings in southern France. After the fall of Rome, Allied forces continued north and were able to breach the Trasimene Line and capture Florence. This last push brought them up against Kesselring's last major defensive position, the Gothic Line. Built just south of Bologna, the Gothic Line ran along the tops of the Apennine Mountains and presented a formidable obstacle. The Allies attacked the line for much of the fall, and while they were able to penetrate it in places, no decisive breakthrough could be achieved.

Both sides saw changes in leadership they prepared for the spring campaigns. For the Allies, Clark was promoted to command of all Allied troops in Italy, while on the German side, Kesselring was replaced with von Vietinghoff. Beginning on April 6, Clark's forces assaulted the German defenses, breaking through in several places. Sweeping onto the Lombardy Plain, Allied forces advanced steadily against weakening German resistance. The situation hopeless, von Vietinghoff dispatched emissaries to Clark's headquarters to discuss terms of surrender. On April 29, the two commanders signed the instrument of surrender which took effect on May 2, 1945, ending the fighting in Italy.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II Europe: Fighting in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy." ThoughtCo, Feb. 27, 2017, thoughtco.com/world-war-ii-north-africa-italy-2361454. Hickman, Kennedy. (2017, February 27). World War II Europe: Fighting in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/world-war-ii-north-africa-italy-2361454 Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II Europe: Fighting in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/world-war-ii-north-africa-italy-2361454 (accessed December 11, 2017).