1943: Operation Restored Hope?

Timing is everything, as they say. 

And that is precisely the reason why the year 1943 doesn’t get a lot of respect from World War II historians.  Crammed in between the drama of 1942 and 1944, it will probably never receive the attention it deserves.  The former year, of course, saw the Wehrmacht smashed at El Alamein and Stalingrad.  The latter was the year of the great D-Day landing in Normandy, which for Americans, at least, was the main event of the war; for aficionados of the Eastern Front, 1944 was the year of Operation Bagration, the massive Soviet offensive in Byelorussia, which smashed not only a German army, but an entire army group, and remains one of the greatest victories in the history of land warfare.

By contrast, 1943 saw few events that we might consider decisive.  The western Allies spent the year slogging around the Mediterranean:  Tunisia, Sicily, Italy.  In the east, there was the failed German offensive at Kursk (Operation Zitadelle).  Once virtually unknown in the west, it became the subject of a great deal of interest in the postwar era, and, indeed, one of the things that I learned in graduate school was that Kursk was “the greatest tank battle of all time.”  Today, however, historians have been cutting Kursk down to size, reducing it from an all-out attempt at a strategic breakthrough on the 1941-42 model to a spoiling operation designed to smash the build-up of Soviet strength on the central front, and thus to retain the initiative in the East.

But let’s think a bit harder about how 1943 might have looked to the German army, from Hitler on down to the field commanders.  They knew they had weathered a storm in 1942–a big one.  The new year had begun with German armies running for their lives:  1st Panzer out of the Caucasus and Rommel’s Panzerarmee from El Alamein.  A third force (6th Army) couldn’t run; it was trapped at Stalingrad.  The Germans lost 6th Army, of course, but the other two had mastered their respective crises.  Indeed, by the end of the winter 1942-43, the Germans had re-established a very respectable front and even re-taken Kharkov, hard to believe when you look at a situation map from a few months earlier.  The massive post-Kursk Soviet counteroffensives had inflicted a great deal of pain on the  Wehrmacht and forced it into retreat once again, this time back across the Dnepr.  Field Marshal Manstein’s mobile defense was inflicting its share of pain on the Red Army as well, however, and at any rate, it is a long, long way from the Dnepr to Berlin.  Likewise, the western Allies had had their successes in 1943, above all in Tunisia.  By the end of the year, however, they were well and truly mired in Italy, and they too were a long way from where they wanted to be.

Sure, we all know what happened next, but that’s the advantage of history!  In 1943, no one knew.  Is it just possible that there were some in the German military–and not just Hitler–who looked around at the end of 1943, took a deep breath, and began to hope that with a little more effort here, a little more will-power there, and perhaps with a bit of luck, they might actually survive their ordeal?

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6 Responses

  1. Michael Stout

    I’m sure that a great deal of higher-ups in the Germany military had thoughts of Germany surviving the war. Rommel was one of them, and it was in 1943 that he mentioned to Hitler the possibility of making peace. The July 20 plot a year later was launched for similar reasons; to get rid of Hitler and try to make peace. Repeated attempts were made to resupply the troops in Stalingrad and to break them out. You even made the point of bashing the general staff for the planning and execution of Operation Citadel (I can’t remember if it was in GWoW or DotW or in class last summer) but even as bad as the operation went, it still was the largest possible move that could be made against the Russians to try and get back on the offensive.

    On the other side, 1943 was the year the Allies got back on track – 1942 was as painful for them at the beginning as it had been at the end for the Axis – and the successes in Africa and Sicily were intermixed with Kasserine Pass, the command issues between Patton and Monty, and horribly slow fighting in Italy while preparing for, with a great deal of uncertainty, the eventual D-Day landings. The outcome of D-Day was in doubt until June 7, 1944, and the way I’m seeing it, it was that point that the end could really be in sight for the war.

  2. John Beatty

    Mr. Citino, with respect, your Eurocentric myopia is appalling in a historian. Look into the Pacific, sir, and then say that “nothing decisive happened” in 1943.

  3. Bill Nance

    I understand what you’re saying, but 1943 was the year of the long hard slog for the Allies in the Pacific as well.

    1942 saw the battles of Coral Sea and Midway, the decisive fighting for Guadelcanal, the loss of the Philippines, the loss of Singapore, the loss of Burma, etc.

    1943 on the other hand, though it contained signficant events, most notably the death of Yamamoto, saw a series of bloodybattles that, while important, could hardly be construed as decisive. You might liken some of these early island-hopping battles to the Italian campaign in terms of casualties and overall effect if you were a European focused scholar. They were important to fight, and contributed to victory, but, just like in the European theater, were more of a bloody slog that didn’t produce any immediately decisive results.

    To continue the trend, 1944 saw: The battle of the Philippine Sea (wherein Japanese naval aviation is crushed), the battle of Leyte Gulf (where the Japanese fleet is destroyed as an effective force), the reinvasion of the Philippines (a major base for operations against Japan,) the first B29 raids on Japan, etc.

    In sum, 43 was kind of the “middle child” in all theaters of war. Neither side was completely winning, but neither side was losing anymore either. You could call it the “transistion year” from mostly Allied defeats throughout 39-42 to mostly Allied victories from 44 onwards.

  4. paul penrod

    1943 marked the point where the Alles starting calling the tune, so to speak. There would be no more major German offensives, North Africa was lost, Italy knocked out of the war, requiring the Germans to open a third front and pull resources from the east. Luftwaffe resources were diverted from battle fronts to home defense, and perhaps most importantly of all, the U-Boat force was broken, allowing supplies and forces to be transferred at will by sea for the projected Overlord buildup and lend lease to Russia. In 1943 could only try to hold on to what they had, against ever increasing odds. The inevitable bleeding out of the Wehrmacht had begun

  5. lyndon

    Don’t forget that by USMC 1st division landing at New Britian in 1943, 100,000 Japlanese at Rabaul were effectively neutralised on land.
    Also, by landing at Bouganville Island in the Solomons, Rabaul was effectively put out of action naval-wise.
    Also don’t forget Tarawa in the island-hopping derby.
    The build -up of USAF in Northern Australia meant that the Japanese air force couldn’t penetrate south of Darwin in the Northern Territory.
    This predominance of air power meant that the industrial heartland of Australia could produce war items in complete safety.


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