Two WWII Strategy Questions

  1. I’m watching a WWII documentary and it talks about the US’s first incursion in the war against Germany. The Germans have pretty much taken North Africa and pushed the British all the way east to Alexandria. The Axis powers had almost full control of the area from the Atlantic Ocean to the Suez Canal. We are told that the Suez was a strategic waterway that the Allies couldn’t afford to lose. So the US sends troops all the way from North America to North Africa in order to attack the Axis powers. The freshly supplied British start pushing west while the recently landed Americans start pushing east. The Germans are squeezed in between and their supply lines are cut off. I get all this. What I don’t get is why start your offensive in Africa when the troops could have landed in France instead (an earlier D-Day) and started pushing toward Berlin? Was it because of the value to keeping the Suez open or to save the outnumbered British troops? Or was it because the Allies weren’t ready for a frontal assault in France? Or for some other reason?

  2. I always marvel at how the Allies were able to fool the Germans and launch their attack on the beaches of France. It seems like it was an extremely risky move, but the Allied forces were able to push the Germans back on their heels. I’m happy it turned out as well as it did, but had it not worked out as planned, for whatever reason, was there a Plan B? I doubt the Germans would have been fooled twice. Were there backup plans in case D-Day failed? The documentary didn’t mention any if there were…

It was basically logistics. The Invasion of Normandy ended up involving about 1.5 million troops, where as Operation Torch was about 100,000 troops. If they had landed 100,000 troops in France, Germany would have had little trouble pushing them back. Torch allowed them to do something while building up for D-Day.

There basically was no Plan B. But remember, the Western front was more or less a side show. The vast majority of the fighting took place in the East, and by the time D-Day happened, the Soviets were essentially guaranteed of victory. If D-Day failed, they would come up with something else more or less quickly. As the Soviets rolled west, the Nazis would send more troops east, making a landing even easier.

  1. We didn’t have the capability of landing or supplying the forces necessary to defeat Germany in Europe in 1942. Our troops were green, we didn’t have control of the skies, and Germany would have had little trouble eradicating any invasion force.

  2. No Plan B, other than Eisenhower’s alternate radio message taking full responsibility for the invasion had it failed.

I am not clear on the timing but I am pretty sure Stalin was pissed at his allies for not opening another front to take pressure off the Soviets.

Whether Churchill and Roosevelt were happy to let the Germans and Soviets massacre each other and then roll in after the fact or that is just how things played out I am not sure.

It would suggest he was not as convinced of success as you claim (he sure didn’t care about dead countrymen at all beyond having enough to fight the war which he had plenty of).

A 2nd front was more important when the Soviets were retreating. By summer of 1944 they had retaken all of the USSR proper, and were in Eastern Europe. There was no real way Germany could have stopped them at that point.

The Germans were getting close, but were stopped about 100 miles
short of Alexandria.

The US was not yet nearly strong enough to have any hope
of success in an invasion of France. Not enough men were in
uniform and trained, not enough weapons were being produced,
and the U-boat menace had not been solved.

Morocco and Algeria were on the other hand defended only
by Vichy troops who were officially neutral and doubtfully
committed. Also, there was room for a lot of the inevitable
mistakes of a green army and navy on their first major mission
of the war against the European enemy.

Good question. I think possibly the D-Day operation consumed
so much resource there was not enough left over for a backup.
I doubt Operation Dragoon in south France could have proceeded
without Overlord being a success. It would have been a real mess.

The Germans had not pushed the British all the way east to Alexandria; as noted above the Commonwealth stopped them at Alamein in July 1942, 4 months before the first US soldier lands in North Africa.

The Germans never had their supply lines cut off in North Africa - more’s the pity, and shame on the Allies for failing to do that. The Axis were able to get a quarter of a million men, with supplies, to Tunisia.

One can only speculate what would have happened had they committed a quarter of this much a year earlier.

The allies were a million miles from being able to successfully invade France in 1942. The first battles between the Americans and Germansshowed the US had a lot to learn about land combat in the 1943 and if they’d landed in France with that level of experience, tactical skill, leadership and equipment they would have been destroyed on the beaches:

The US Army needed combat experience before it was ready to face the Germans on continental Europe. Let alone the fact that the numbers of trained men just weren’t available yet.

And Stalin was furious that the US and UK did not invade in 43, and 42. Churchill was fine with that as he wanted the Germans and Soviets to bleed each other to death. Roosevelt appreciated that the Soviets needed military pressure to help them more than Churchill did. As others have mentioned, the Soviets had the Nazis on the run and it was only a matter of time on the Eastern Front.

I’m certainly no expert but will add some comments anyway. :smiley:

My understanding is that the lack of landing craft (along with other factors mentioned upthread) was a major reason why the invasion of France needed to be delayed. I get much of my information about WWII from The Second World War by Winston S. Churchill (a one-sided, heavily biased book, but written by the one who was at the center); Churchill’s writings imply that it was the limited supply of landing craft that controlled the timing or very existence of campaigns in three theaters.

Since defenders have the advantage, yet the allied defense of France was cast aside easily in 1940, I’m surprised by the implication that an Allied invasion of France in 1942 or even 1943 would have been worth the risks.

“stopped about 100 miles short of Alexandria.”
ITYM 100 kilometers.

Speaking of the fight against Rommel in the North African Desert, my understanding is that depriving him of fuel was a major achievement of Ultra.
It would be nice to hear Dopers’ opinions on:

Keep in mind that the English Channel is very difficult to cross and establish a beach head. Phillip II of Spain and his Armada couldn’t do it. Neither could the Corsican corporal Napoleon or Hitler in 1940. In August 1942 the Allies tried landing 6,000 troops, mostly Canadian, at Dieppe to hold a port for a short time. It was an unmitigated disaster. Almost 60% of the troops were killed, wounded or captured. The Germans lost 311 dead and 280 wounded. Allies lost far more aircraft and one destroyer.

There actually was a second front in Europe in 1943…the Italian Front. Meant to strike into the soft white underbelly, it proved to be a tough old gut, as the Larry Olivier narrated “World at War” mid 1970s tv series calls it. It knocked Italy out of the war and onto the Allied side, although that may have not been a good thing. It tied down relatively few German troops as they fought a stubborn defensive campaign, mainly under Kesselring. Allied casualties ended up at 320,000 (60,000 died) while the Germans lost 658,000 casualties (50,000 dead).

Keep in mind traditional British strategy in European wars was to fight as part of a coalition, use its navy to conduct peripheral campaigns to gradually weaken the enemy. Churchill certainly recognized how monstrous communism and Stalin was but he was also doing what had worked for the British Empire for centuries.

Let’s also remember the British and Americans were fighting on the Pacific front against the Japanese while Stalin’s Soviet Union had a peace treaty with Japan (which probably suited both just fine)

You are right to single out landing craft as a shortage item.

I have Churchill’s entire work , although I have only read the
1st volume enitirely. Nothing that long is going to be error-free
or bias-free, but I have not heard of any credible challenge to
its fundamental accuracy.

I meant 100 miles. I actually did spend 20 minutes or so trying
to google up the exact distance, eventually trying to get close
by measuring map scales with a ruler. I tired again and it looks
like you are right on there too for the town to town distance.
Furthest German advance was a bit west of El Alamein, and that
accords with the following site which says they got within 113km of Alexandria:

El Alamein

DAK was run on a shoestring from the start. After all was lost
in Egypt and Libya the Germans commited maybe 200k to another
hopless situation in Tunisia, where most were captured.

There were a lot more German troops in France than there were in Morocco. We had the capability of landing enough troops to capture Morocco but not enough to fight in France.

Everyone knew we were going to land in France. The big secret was when we were going to land and where exactly we would land.

We didn’t really push the Germans back on their heels. We got our forces ashore and were able to land more troops but we didn’t really get too far past the beach for weeks. The city of Caen, for example, is less than ten miles from the landing beach. It was supposed to be captured on the day of the invasion - the Germans held it for sixty-one days.

If the Germans had been more successful and actually managed to push the allies completely off the beach, we would have evacuated back to England. Plan B was try again in 1945.

The first question - why North Africa - has really been answered. There was just no way an Anglo-American army could have been landed in France in 1942 with any hope of survival - never mind victory. North Africa was “do-able” - always a key question! - it would ultimately release British and Commonwealth troops defending the Middle-East for more offensive operations, it would wear down the enemy, hopefully it would bring additional troops into the “Free French” forces ready to fight with the Allies, and it would start the process of teaching the Allied armies how to plan and carry out a large scale amphibious landing and go on to fight Germans!

Saying Churchill was fine with the Soviets and Germans bleeding each other to death does not really cover it. Churchill had no love of Stalin but he recognised the need to help the Soviets as much as possible. The question was how? Churchill keep searching for alternatives to a cross-Channel invasion. Partly this was his visceral dislike of the idea of fighting the Germans in northern France (based on his mental baggage from the First World War) but partly it was a hard headed assessment of the outcome of an invasion of N. France in 42/43.

The British were very clear about the problems of taking on the Germans - we had been losing to them for years - and in 1942 they were at the height of their power. If there was any doubt about the difficulties of landing on the Continent the Dieppe Raid in August 1942, in which the Canadian landing forces suffered severely, dispelled them. It was clear that a failed invasion would not help the Soviets. An invasion repulsed with major losses could not have been repeated for many months or even years - replacing trained troops and vital equipment (especially landing craft) etc. - so, far from taking German troops from the Eastern Front, it would have released key units from France.

Even in 1944, with the Germans being ground down in the East and effectively complete Allied air superiority over northern France, it took the full resources of Britain and America - resources built up in the UK over the course of two years - to project sufficient force across the Channel to take on and beat the fraction of the Wehrmacht not fighting the Soviets.

As to a Plan B if Overlord failed, it would have been back to the drawing board. How soon another attempt could have been made would have depended on how many landing craft had been lost. Actually, more likely than a failure to get ashore in Normandy (given the relative local strengths) would have been a failure to secure a big enough lodgement and to build up enough strength to actually break out. This was what some of politicians feared had happened through the summer of '44 although Montgomery and the other commanders on the ground never believed it. Even American Generals who disliked Montgomery and his way of running the battle did not doubt that a break-out could be achieved.

Sorry for my “disparaging” comment. (In fact it was intended mainly to forestall anti-Churchill rejoinders.)

I’ve read and re-read all six volumes. The man is, after all, a Nobel Prize-winning writer. But Volume I may be most interesting: it explains why this was “The Unnecessary War.”

And Volume I has an ending worthy of the great epic that it is:

I am a massive admirer of Churchill both as a writer and as a war leader but no one should use Churchill’s *The Second World War *as their only or main source on the history of the conflict. Think of it as a memoir by one of key participants rather than an academic history. The basic facts are right but the interpretation will be Churchill’s own. He does not even try to keep - or pretend to keep - academic “balance”. You can see that in the passage **septimus **quotes.

Having said that, it is a splendid read and this discussion has made me want to start through it again!

Just to add to what’s already been said, on D-Day itself, the Allies landed 5 divisions (and got somewhat questionable support from two airborne divisions that were dropped just before the landing, but had been badly scattered). ALL of these divisions were lightly equipped, and all of them depended on supplies coming in over the beaches, an iffy proposition.

The Germans at that moment commanded 300 divisions on the continent (admittedly not all of them were in France), most of them of extremely high quality, and their tanks and guns were better, often much better, item-for-item. And they had a relatively secure supply line.

Remember that normally, an attack should have a 3:1 strength advantage in order to succeed. And the Germans were very good at taking advantage of military weakness. Putting 7-ish understrength divisions next to an army that can call on up to 300 well-equipped and aggressively led (Rommel was the local commander!) divisions was a breathtaking risk.

Two years earlier, with vastly less transport capacity, fewer airplanes, less combat experience, and without the Soviets taking so much pressure off, it would have been simple suicide.

Thanks everyone. Great answers! I need to do more reading…

Don’t underestimate the massive disinformation campaign the Allies ran. They had to convince the Germans that they were going to land at Calais, and succeeded in doing so beyond their wildest dreams. Hitler kept most of the static coastal divisions around Northern France in place until shortly before the Allied breakout because he remained certain that Normandy was not the “main” landing. Note it involved using Patton, the highest profile Allied commander, as the key decoy (before he was given a real command and used it to charge across France after the breakout), with fake tanks, fake radio chatter, a entire fake order of battle.

If Hitler properly deduced that Normandy was the actual invasion location (and at first he thought it was, but his generals disagreed) and could have in place more troops than he did, the invasion would have been very iffy. He also kept too many Panzer divisions too far from any realistic invasion sites (the topography of the French coast made only Calais and Normandy the only really viable ones) to make a difference in the 1st 24 hours-by the time they got to Normandy (running the Allied air gauntlet) the beachheads had already been secured.

Bolding mine. It was more than the just air gauntlet. French partisans did a hell of a job on the rail lines that were supposed to take the panzers close to the battle zone. One panzer division (12th, I think) that was supposed to get to the front in one day took three. And it was in worse shape since it had to drive there instead of going by rail.

Hitler never advanced beyond the rank of corporal. Napoleon went to military school and was promoted to captain in 1792 and made general by the next year. The implication that Napoleon was not deserving of being promoted misunderstands his career, despite having lost Waterloo and the Russian campaign, he is regarded by military historians as one of the most talented military commanders to ever live. That he was a son of a bitch is pretty much agreed upon by all non-French.