World War II (1939–1945)
North Africa and the Invasion of Italy
At the same time that war was going on in the European and Pacific theaters, conflict also escalated in North Africa, primarily as a result of Italy’s aggression in the region in 1940 and 1941. One of the primary flash points in North Africa was the key port of Tobruk, Libya, which changed hands between the Germans and the British several times and was the site of several major battles.
Originally in Italy’s sphere of influence, Tobruk fell to the British on January 12, 1941, building upon the initiative they had seized after Italy’s defeat in Egypt the previous year. More than a year later, in June 1942, Tobruk fell to the Germans after a long and intensive siege by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s tank forces. Then, in November 1942, Tobruk fell once more to the British and remained under their control for the rest of the war.
Perhaps the most decisive battle in North Africa was the Battle of El-Alamein, from October 23 to November 3, 1942, in which a powerful British offensive defeated German forces overwhelmingly. The British outnumbered the Germans two to one, and Rommel, who had by this time earned the nickname “Desert Fox” for his brilliant surprise attacks, was away on sick leave when the battle began. As the battle started, Rommel’s substitute died of a heart attack, and by the time Rommel arrived, the situation was hopeless.
Within days of the British victory at El-Alamein, the Allies launched Operation Torch, the code name for their invasion of North Africa. On November 8, 1942, British and American forces carried out an amphibious landing on the coast of French North Africa (present-day Morocco). The invasion involved more than 100,000 men and over 600 ships, placing it among the largest such invasions in history. Operation Torch was highly successful and enabled the Allies to take more than 1,000 miles of North African coastline.
With Operation Torch completed and many Allied troops on the ground in Africa, the Allies energetically pursued the Axis forces that had begun retreating into Tunisia. The desert terrain in Tunisia was ideal for a defending force, and it was here that Rommel planned to make a stand against the Allies. The Allies did not begin their offensive into Tunisia until November 25, 1942, however, and the delay of several weeks gave Germany and Italy time to airlift more troops and equipment to the region. Thus, by the time U.S. and British forces began their attacks, the Axis forces substantially outnumbered them.
The Allies faced a difficult challenge in Tunisia, and their progress was very slow. Rommel’s forces fought with tenacity in one battle after another as the fighting continued well into the spring of 1943. Nonetheless, the Allies did consistently gain ground on the Axis forces. On May 7, the Allies took Tunis and soon took the remaining Axis forces in Africa—more than 200,000 in all—prisoner. With that, the war in North Africa was over.
Results of the North African Campaign
The war in North Africa was essentially an adventure initiated by Italy in an attempt to seize former colonial territories of Britain and France. As it became apparent that the Italian military had taken on more than it could handle, Germany was forced to come to Italy’s defense. In that respect, the campaign in North Africa was very much like the failed Italian campaign in Greece in November 1940. Unlike Greece, however, North Africa was a large-scale conflict and forced Hitler to divert considerable resources, severely weakening German efforts elsewhere. Ultimately, the North Africa campaign was a serious defeat for the Axis powers. It also marked the first major involvement in the European theater by U.S. forces.
Following the Axis defeat in North Africa, the Allies pursued them to the island of Sicily. On July 10, 1943, U.S. and British forces began Operation Husky, an invasion of the island using troops deployed by gliders, parachutes, and boats. Many of these landings were disrupted by high winds, making it difficult for Allied troops to regroup once on the ground. During the first few days, the invaders encountered significant resistance around Sicily’s main airfield, but it was quickly overcome. On July 22, the Sicilian capital of Palermo fell to the Allies, and Sicily was secured.
The Invasion of the Italian Mainland
The day after the fall of Sicily, Italy’s Fascist ruler, Benito Mussolini, was overthrown by a peaceful coup, and Italian officials promptly began approaching the Allies about an armistice. Prior to Mussolini’s ouster, U.S. and British forces had planned an invasion of the Italian mainland, and the sudden turn of events took the Allied leaders by surprise. Although Italy officially surrendered to the Allies on September 8, 1943, the Allied invasion of Italy proceeded as planned, as there were still a large number of German forces stationed in the country.
Following the success in North Africa, British forces landed at Taranto, on the southeastern tip of Italy, on September 2. However, the main invasion did not begin until September 9, the day after Italy’s surrender. The two forces planned to fight their way across the country to meet in the middle. German resistance proved very heavy, however, and the U.S. forces in particular suffered great casualties. After slow and treacherous fighting, the Allies finally captured the port of Naples on October 1, putting all of southern Italy under Allied control.
Monte Cassino and Rome
Even though the Italian government had surrendered, the Germans were determined not to allow Rome to fall to the Allies. As the Allies secured their position in southern Italy, German forces formed a defensive line across the width of Italy, just south of Rome. This barrier was called the Winter Line and stretched from one coast of Italy to the other, crossing the center of the country at the fortified monastery of Monte Cassino.
The heavily defended Winter Line presented a very formidable obstacle to the Allied forces, who assaulted the entrenched Germans over and over again and each time were pushed back. The stalemate persisted for more than six months until Monte Cassino finally fell on May 18, 1944. Rome was liberated shortly thereafter, on June 5. The Germans retreated a short distance and formed a new defensive line in northern Italy, the Gothic Line, which would hold until the spring of 1945.
Italy’s Role in the War
In sum, Italy’s participation in World War II provided little strategic benefit for Germany; in fact, it actually hindered the German war effort by diverting German forces from more important tasks. All of Italy’s actions were undertaken at the whim of its dictator, Mussolini, whose decisions became so erratic and potentially costly that his own underlings eventually decided to overthrow him. Indeed, the battles that resulted from Italy’s initially frivolous and aimless campaigns became increasingly devastating. The campaign in North Africa ballooned into a huge endeavor that cost tens of thousands of lives, and the battles on the Italian mainland between Allied and German forces proved even more devastating.