World War II: European Theater

  • Introduction to the War in Europe

    In order to strike a decisive blow against Nazi Germany, the Americans planned to concentrate Allied power in England and then launch a drive across the English Channel into mainland Europe.

    Early in 1942 plans were made for such a cross-channel operation, to take place in April 1943, and possibly as early as September 1942 if either Germany or Russia showed signs of collapsing. The British, with some reluctance, agreed to the plan "in principle" in April 1942, whereupon the Americans began to pour supplies and troops into the United Kingdom.

    In the end, the cross-channel attack did not happen until 1944. Instead, in mid-1942, American planners acceded to the British plan to invade North Africa. After heavy fighting through Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia the Allies finally won the North African campaign in May 1943.

    Meeting in Casablanca in January 1943, President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill decided that the Italian island of Sicily would be their next target. Soon after, in late July, the Allies decided to follow up their success in Sicily with an invasion of mainland Italy.

    The Italian campaign involved some of the hardest fighting in the war. It cost the United States some 114,000 casualties. German forces in Italy did not surrender until May 1945. But this campaign engaged German forces that could have been used against the Allies in France.

    Northern France

    By the beginning of June 1944, the Allies had accumulated in Great Britain the largest number of men and the greatest amount of materiel ever assembled to launch and sustain an amphibious attack. D-Day was June 6, 1944.

    During the weeks that followed the D-Day landings, the Germans fiercely resisted Allied advances in the hedgerows of Normandy. Cherbourg fell three weeks after the landings, but the port had been destroyed and time-consuming repairs were required before it could be used to relieve the Allied supply problem.

    Meanwhile, Allied forces had been deepening the beachhead. By the end of June the most forward positions were about 20 miles inland. The buildup of Allied forces was swift, despite the lack of ports, and by 1 July almost a million men, more than a half-million tons of supplies, and 177,000 vehicles had been landed. By this time General Bradley's U.S. First Army comprised 4 corps with 11 infantry and 2 armored divisions. British strength was about the same.

    At the end of June, British forces made an attempt to break into the open country near Caen. Heavy bombers were used in close support to facilitate this breakout, but the destruction they wrought served to impede rather than to assist the British ground forces and German armored units blocked an advance in that sector.

    General Montgomery now adopted the strategy of attracting German armor to the British sector while American units continued to attack in the vicinity of St. Lo. On 25 July a massive air bombardment was coordinated with an attack by ground troops that achieved a distinct penetration of German lines. General Patton's U.S. Third Army poured through this breach in the direction of Brittany with the object of securing the much-needed ports in that area.

    The Allied strategic plan was to take over Breton ports and then to secure a lodgment area as far east as the Seine River, to provide ample room for air and supply bases. It was then intended to advance into Germany on a broad front. The principal thrust east was to be north of the Ardennes Forest in Belgium with General Montgomery's British 21st Army Group. A subsidiary thrust by General Bradley's newly formed U.S. 12th Army Group, comprising the U.S. First and Third Armies, was to be made south of the Ardennes. This northern route was chosen because it led directly into the Ruhr area where Germany's industrial power was concentrated.

    The Allied strategic plan underwent considerable modification early in August to seize upon the advantages of the breakout and exploit the principle of maneuver. When the Germans counterattacked with the intention of restoring a stable front and cutting off U.S. forces moving toward Brittany, they unwittingly offered the Allies an opportunity to encircle them.

    British forces on the left moved toward Falaise and U.S. troops to the right executed a wide circling maneuver toward Argentan, roughly halfway between St. Lo and Paris. Caught in a giant pocket, the Germans nevertheless extricated many troops before the Argentan-Falaise gap was closed on 20 August, though losing more than 70,000.

    Meanwhile, General Patton's Third Army drove eastward across the Seine and eliminated it as a German defensive line, encircling and destroying Germans who had escaped the Argentan-Falaise pocket. The Germans lost almost all of two field armies in Normandy.

    Originally it had been intended to bypass Paris in order to spare the city from heavy fighting, but, with the crossing of the Seine, fighting broke out in the city between French patriots and Germans stationed there. Lest the uprising be defeated, a column of U.S. and Free French troops were deflected toward Paris, entering the city on 25 August 1944.

    General Eisenhower now altered his original plan, abandoning the idea of stopping at the Seine and instituting instead a determined pursuit of the enemy toward Germany. Because the ports of Cherbourg and Brest now were too far west to support the accelerated movement, the new plans involved capture of Channel parts and especially of Antwerp, the best port in Europe.

    Exploiting the new situation, General Eisenhower now reinforced the British by sending the U.S. First Army close alongside the 21st Army Group toward Aachen in a drive toward Antwerp. Only the U.S. Third Army continued east on the subsidiary Axis south of the Ardennes.

    Cherbourg remained the only major port supplying Allied forces in northern France, and advances to the east had been so rapid that the supply services simply could not keep up. The drive eastward began to grind to a halt for lack of supplies, chiefly gasoline. The British took Le Havre and several Channel ports and on 4 September 1944 they captured Antwerp, its port intact. But Antwerp could not yet be used to relieve a growing logistical crisis because the Germans denied access to the sea by retaining control of the Schelde Estuary. The newly activated U.S. Ninth Army (Lt. Gen. William H. Simpson commanding) in Brittany took Brest late in September, but the port had been completely destroyed, and in any event its location so far from the scene of action precluded its usefulness in solving logistical problems.

    [Click here for more about D-Day, or click here for more about the Allied effort to expand their beachhead after D-Day.]

    Southern France

    With the release of shipping and landing craft from Overlord, it became possible to stage the long-planned invasion of southern France, the so-called Operation DRAGOON.

    While the battle of Argentan-Falaise pocket was still raging, on 15 August 1944, Lt. Gen. Alexander Patch's U.S. Seventh Army invaded the Mediterranean shores of France southwest of Cannes. The attacking force comprised contingents of three U.S. infantry divisions plus an airborne task force and French commandos, and it was assisted by Free French forces after the landing had been made. Basic objectives were to prevent the reinforcement of German forces in Normandy with troops from southern France and to provide the Allies a supplementary line of communications through Mediterranean ports.

    Resistance was comparatively light. Advances north were rapid, and by 11 September patrols from the southern and northern Allied forces met near Dijon. Thereafter forces from the south continued toward Germany in contact with the U.S. Third Army.

    On the western front logistical problems had become acute by the autumn of 1944. Although the U.S. First Army under Lt. Gen. Courtney H. Hodges had penetrated the so-called West Wall in several places, lack of supplies prevented exploitation of the breaks. Bad weather, terrain that restricted maneuver, and the dense fortifications along the German border combined to create obstacles of major proportions.

    To two of General Eisenhower's subordinate commanders, Montgomery and Patton, Eisenhower's decision to advance into Germany on a broad front seemed like a mistake in light of the logistical limitations. Each wanted all resources put behind his part of the front to support one major drive into Germany, in the hope that German disorganization could be exploited to produce capitulation. The debate continued through the late summer and much of the fall of 1944, but General Eisenhower, backed by the advice of his logisticians, stuck to his original plan of advancing with all armies abreast, though with greater emphasis in the north.

    Because of the logistical crisis, General Eisenhower assigned first priority in the autumn of 1944 to clearing the seaward approaches to Antwerp. At the same time he decided to make a bold stroke in an effort to exploit German disorganization before logistical problems brought the Allied offensive to a full stop -- Operation Market-Garden.

    Following Operation Market-Garden, British forces concentrated on opening the approaches to Antwerp, but it was November before the way was cleared for the first Allied ship to enter the port.

    Meanwhile, a supreme effort on the part of the supply services had improved the logistical situation, and in early November United States forces launched a major offensive in an attempt to reach the Rhine. Bad weather, natural and artificial defenses along the German border, and a resourceful defense on the part of German troops limited gains. By mid-December, the U.S. First and Ninth Armies had reached the Roer River east of Aachen, some 22 miles inside Germany, and the U.S. Third and Seventh Armies had reached the West Wall along the Saar River northeast of Metz. But except in the Seventh Army section, they were still a long way from the Rhine.

    In December 1944, Hitler -- against the advice of his generals -- made an ambitious last-ditch effort to halt the Allied advance. America suffered about 75,000 casualties in The Battle of the Bulge. Germany suffered close to 100,000 casualties.

    Exhausted by this over-ambitious counteroffensive and weakened by transfers of troops to meet the new Soviet threat in the east, German forces in the west could no longer halt the Allied drive through Germany. The German military became completely disorganized and wholesale surrenders took place.

    In late April 1945 the Soviets reached Berlin. Hitler killed himself and the last of the German resistance gave up a few days later. Mussolini had been killed by Italian partisans on 28 April 1945 while attempting to escape into Switzerland.

    The Axis was defeated.

    May 8, 1945 was declared V-E Day.

    [The primary source for this text is the U.S. Army Center for Military History. For a more general overview of the war see the Brief History of WWII e-text."]