Sideshow II? Origins of the Mediterranean Campaign

Last week we touched on the subject of the Mediterranean Campaign, and the general disrespect it continues to endure in both the popular and historical mind.  A lot of you posted some very good thoughts on the blog in the past week, and I can’t disagree with any of the things you said.  The necessity to secure the Foggia air complex in Southern Italy for raids on the Ploesti oilfields; the need to give the US Army some badly needed combat experience before it fought the “main event” in Western Europe, as it were; a way to relieve some pressure on the Soviets, then battling it out with the cream of the German armored forces at Kursk; a need to keep inter-Allied peace–folks have justified the Mediterranean campaign on all of these counts and more.

I just don’t think any of them was the main reason we operated in the Med.

In fact, I think the real reason is easy to explain.  The brain trust of the US Army, led by Chief of Staff extraordinaire General George C. Marshall, had a fairly simple strategy for this war.  Assemble massive force.  Invade Europe.  Destroy the Wehrmacht.  The cross-channel invasion was the heart of it, and Marshall had plans drawn up for emergency invasions of the continent in 1942 (Operation Sledgehammer) and 1943 (Operation Roundup).  But staff studies had shown him that ANY cross-channel op was going to be one of innumerable problems and bewildering complexity.  It required not only detailed intelligence about the Germans, but precise knowledge of such arcana as the weather patterns and tides along the coast of the Cotentin or the Pas de Calais, hardly common knowledge in US military circles.  It also required a great deal of specialized equipment, LSI’s and LST’s, as well as duplex drive tanks and engineering vehicles of every description.  They hadn’t even been invented yet, let alone produced

In other words, it wasn’t going to happen soon.  Not in 1942, and not in 1943.  Stalin could and did complain about that, be he was just going to have to wait. 

So, let’s say you’re the President of the United States, and you’ve been at war nearly a year without firing a single anti-Axis shot in Europe.  The heck with Stalin’s complaints.  The press at home is screaming for some action, hollering the two most frightening words in the US political lexicon if you happen to be an elected official:  “Do Something!” 

Moreover, you want to do something.  The country needs it, and so does the army. So, what do you do?  You look around at the available options, and…  you invade North Africa.  And when that’s done (successfully, with thousands of German and Italian POWs), in early 1943, then what do you do?  You look around and survey the realistic opportunities–and you invade Sicily.  You sure aren’t going to be fighting the Germans anywhere else for a while.  And when that’s done?  What’s next?  Just look at the map. 

We like to think of ourselves as free agents, doing what we wish to do.  All too often, however, circumstances force our hand.  Never is this more true than it is in war.

The Mediterranean campaign was unavoidable. 

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20 Responses

  1. Luke Truxal

    It seems that many American operations in the 1942-1943 period in Europe were intended to do something even if the operation couldn’t accomplish much. I think the idea was to start pounding away at targets they could hit until both the air and army branches were capable of landing more decisive blows on the Germans. The first 8th Air Force raid into Germany didn’t take place until 1943 and they didn’t go after the Luftwaffe until 1944. Same goes for land operations as you have already highlighted in your blog. This seems to be more an ETO wide based strategy. Hit them where you can now and when the rest of the army is mobilized hit them where it counts. This also says a lot for the need for American troops and equipment in order to accomplish operations in the ETO.

  2. Bill Nance

    Perhaps the biggest issue that the US faced during this time was that it was spectacularly unprepared for war in 1941 or 1942. The bulk of the army that would fight in Europe wouldn’t even EXIST (in an untrained state mind you) until halfway through 1943.

    Thus, to add onto what Dr. Citino says here, the only place where the US could use its limited available combat power was the Med. Anything else could have been disastrous. Stuff hadn’t been produced to be sure, but the men to man that equipment hadn’t – in many cases – been inducted into the Armed Forces yet.

    Also, looking at it from the UK angle, they were in much the same manpower boat as the US, but their pool was shrinking. Thus, they wanted to peck away at various ‘easy’ targets, as well as close out some other theatres (N. Africa) while waiting for larger nations to carry the load on the continent. of course, this matches the UK way of war for centuries, Thus, both the UK and US had different but intersecting reasons for going into the Med.

    (note – I am in no way disparaging our allies’ commitment, just their ability to influence affairs on the mainland without substantial assistance from US forces. The UK forces fought bravely, just there were never enough of them.)

  3. Luke Truxal

    I agree with you Bill and I should have added the same note that you make at the bottom of your post. It took a combined effort by both the Americans and British to launch a cross channel invasion. Neither country could shoulder the load of an invasion of France without the assistance of the other country.

  4. Bill Nance

    Another interesting point on the whole resources thing:

    Most of the Naval forces involved for a while were predominantly UK as the majority of the US fleet was, well, occupado in the Pacific. The Brits had the same Pacific problem, but they at least had been mobilized for a while. They also had the commonwealth working with them, and I remember reading somewhere that Canada had something like the world’s 3rd largest navy by 1945.

    Kinda funny, but it took the trauma of the both the WW II and Korea mobilizations to get the Army for the first time in US history to maintain a force that could effectively fight a war at the onset of hostilities, so that we could avoid much of the unpleasantness of mobilization.

  5. Rob Citino

    Bill and Luke–

    I’ll just second the points you’ve made. And I also want to add this: Great Britain shouldered the burden of the war against Germany for 2 years+, while the US prepared itself for war. ALL props to our great ally!


  6. Bill Nance

    Roger, just remember who got across the Rhine first!!!

  7. Patrick Hays

    While campagining in the Med was unavoidable, it had a major strategic goal for the Bitish; seccuring the quick route to India, Australia and Middle Eastern oil through the Suez Canel! The securing of French North Africa and the occupation of Sicily and Southern Italy was the way to do this. The highway through the Med was important to the British war effort and had to be keep open, not only for fighting in Europe, but also in the Far East.
    I do not think the Germans had the men and material to spare for offensive operations to dislodge the allies from southern Italy. Still, it would have been had to predict how Hitler would have reacted to a large Allied force just sitting there in Italy waiting to be blitzed!

  8. Mike Burleson

    Robert, this makes complete sense. I still like the think, considering the caliber of the American warrior in the 1940s, the young men having survived the Great Depression, that we could have went into Europe early in the Fall of 1942, expanded our beachhead and maybe even breaking out in the Spring of ’43 (recalling what one division of Marines with Army help did at Guadalcanal).
    This would have been before the construction of the vaunted Atlantic Wall, ie, it would only get harder the longer we waited.

    Still, I’m not 100% sure we could have, and North Africa was a sure, sensible choice. The U-boats weren’t defeated and as you mentioned the specialized equipment just wasn’t ready. Finally, it is better to be “bogged down” than “kicked out”.

  9. Cap'n Dave

    I completely agree! While all the tactical, operational and strategic benefits of experience and such were nice second and third order bonus effects, this is only truly apparent in hindsight.
    As you said, it was the POLITICAL imperative to do something that was motivating the need for operations. I agree with Mike and think that there was public desire to do something decisive to end the war quickly, but beyond mere technological feasibility, I think the overarching planning consideration was political. Whatever the allies did, needed to be a success in order to build momentum in popular support. The worst thing that could have happened in ’42 would have been a rout. I think high casualties at the outset would have daunted public support and hamstrung later operations.
    Would OVERLORD have looked the same if casualties in Africa and Sicily had been unacceptable? I think that SHAFE would have taken fewer risks and may have delayed operations well beyond 6 June.
    Within this construct, it is easy to view North Africa, Sicily, and Italy as a series of operations of incrementally increasing risk.

  10. Bill Nance

    Remember, a rout DID happen in 42, making another disaster even more unpalatable. Dieppe in Aug 42 had been an utter disaster.

    Never intended as a full bore invasion, but rather as a raid, it took 60% casualty for minor successes. Granted this was a relatively small affair (6k Canadians), but remember what the Allied amphibious experience prior to TORCH was – Dunkirk, Greece, Crete, then Dieppe. All bloody messes. Considering that the ONLY UK-US victory till TORCH was literally overwhelming Rommel’s undergunned, under manned army, the folks back home needed a check in the W column.

    Thus, it wasn’t starting the game with a touchdown. Instead, it was going into halftime with a field goal, points on the board, and coming out in the second half with some momentum.

  11. Cap'n Dave

    Good points Bill – pun intended – but I think it can be argued that TORCH was the first real US entry into the war, everything else was noncommittal. Had TORCH failed, it was going to be hard, if not impossible, to overlook or ‘spin’ it into anything other than a loss.

  12. Bill Nance

    Very true, but remember, the US showed up late in the 2nd quarter. As neither the US or UK had the combat power (land, air, or sea) to go off o their own hook here, so they had to find a place where they could both cooperate and win.

  13. Rob Citino

    The Germans managed a couple of first downs at the Kasserine Pass, but not a sustained drive.

    Sorry, I’m just trying to get into the spirit here.


  14. Luke Truxal

    So is Italy what you would call taking the knee after cutting the lead in half at the end of the second quarter and Normandy the start of the second half?

  15. Mike Hegarty

    Along with Dieppe, several lessons were learned by the US Army. First and foremost the amphibious assault. While the Marines were learning first hand in the Pacific, the Army had to pave its own way across North Africa through Sicily and onto the Boot. Also, the Airborne branch was gaining vital experience that proved significant come DDay. C47’s weren’t routed over the fleet on DDay thanks to Sicily.

  16. Rob Citino

    Good point, Mike! All the talk about “amphibious” ops sometimes obscures the fact that they had a key airborne component, as well, and that lessons had to be learned here, too.

    And Patrick, hello again! Good points regarding the British. Certainly, the dynamic of coalition warfare was at work in the Med.

  17. Luke Truxal

    A lot of points have been made about gaining experience in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy. I believe these are all side effects of these campaigns and I don’t think Allied planners intended to launch a campaign with the purpose of gaining experience. I think like the airfields in Italy the experience argument is a justification. I am more inclined to believe what was written in the blog that the Allies were simply attempting to “do something” with limited resources at the time and picked the two easiest Axis countries they could target. The strategic gains were minimal, but the morale implications for these first operations amongst the military planners, soldiers, and civilians were very much at stake. All this has been repeated throughout the last two blogs but I felt like emphasizing the point. Now I pose the question was Citadel more do or die than Torch?

  18. Luke Truxal

    Dr. Citino and Mike what was the thought process behind the Allied airborne drops in North Africa and Sicily? Had the Allies attempted an airborne drop prior to North Africa with which they could look back on or were these the first truly experimental combat drops for the Allies. I hate to phrase this question like this but did anybody in the Allied command know how to conduct an airborne drop or were they operating strictly off their experiences in watching the Germans use successful airborne drops? I hope I am not too confusing because I know very little on this topic.

  19. Bill Nance

    Airborne drops were experimental, especially in divisional size. Really, there are only a handful on the historical record even today. The US had conducted exercises on airborne ops, but Sicily was really the first time it had put it into practice. This is where the friction part of war comes in and the airborne armada got lit up by its own fleet. One of those things that is hard to simulate in training. Should someone have thought of it prior? Possibly, but there are a million and one things going on in an operation like that.

    The US experience in airborne operations would pay off for them in Market-Garden, where for the most part, US forces met their objectives, whereas the 1st British Airborne did not learn from past experiences, and was cut to pieces despite a heroic performance. Cornelius Ryan’s A Bridge too Far is superb in discussing the cumulative allied airborne knowledge gained by that point in the war.

  20. paul penrod

    It was the Axis that furnished the opportunity for the Med to be a theatre in the first place. Starting with Mussolini’s ill advised foray against Egypt, followed by Rommel’s unreinforced intervention and then the ultimate target of opportunity in an impotent Vichy coastal area to hone one’s amphbibious landing skills. Marshall, McNair and Eisenhower all probably knew that their large, but green and untried in combat, would have their best chance of sucess there. It gave the US Army the situations where they could put theory and training into practice- logistics, interservice cooperation, airborne operations, amphibious landings, naval bombardment, signals/communications, armor/artillery tactics, ordnance performance and much more could be assessed, developed and improved. It was a learning on the job situation, going side by side with the more experienced UK forces. Actually, the US had bought into the UK’s playbook of the indirect approach, i.e. their “Mediterranean strategy” which would reach a dead end in the rugged Appenines. Strategically, much of our commitment there was to placate Churchill as much as to assure Stalin, though by 1944 we had superceded the UK as the senior partner in the relationship with Britain.


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