Sideshow? The Mediterranean Campaign

Talk about not getting any respect.  The long Allied campaign in the Mediterranean–from the TORCH landings in November 1942 to the drive into the Po river valley in 1945, from Morocco to Milan, as it were–was the ultimate “sideshow,” and even today it remains the classic example of an unappreciated campaign. 

It’s easy to make the case.  In 1942, a war to destroy German and Japanese aggression suddenly changed course to confront a mere nuisance:  Italy.  The result was a mountain of manpower and materiel devoted to some questionable strategic goals.

A comparison with what was taking place on the Eastern Front is instructive.  While vast armored battles unprecedented in their fury were raging on the Volga and in the Caucasus in late 1942, Anglo-American forces were swatting a strategic gnat–tiny Vichy French forces in Morocco and Algeria.  Even though the campaign ended successfully with the Axis surrender at Tunis, the vast majority of the POWs taken there were Italian.  The summer of 1943 saw more of the same.  The Wehrmacht and the Red Army grappled at Kursk in one of the greatest armored clashes of all time, while the western Allies were invading Sicily. 

They overran the island, sure–which did lead to Mussolini’s fall–and there was an exciting “race to Messina” between General Patton’s 7th Army and General Montgomery’s 8th, a race won, inevitably, by the hard-charging American.  But war is not a race, and the campaign ended in frustration with the defending Germans escaping to the Italian mainland. 

Of course, every student of the war knows that we followed them there.  Montgomery’s crossing into Calabria (Operation Baytown) was vintage Monty, a huge build-up and men and materiel for what proved to be an unopposed landing.  A simultaneous landing at Salerno by General Mark Clark’s 5th Army (Operation Avalanche) nearly turned into disaster when German Panzer formations positioned close to the beach launched a counterattack.  Even after Monty and Clark linked up, the task ahead was daunting:  mountains, rivers, and terrain seemingly designed by the Almighty for tactical defense.  The Volturno.  The Rapido.  The Gustav Line.  Monte Cassino.  Another landing at Anzio in early 1944 that only resulted in more stalemate.  Somewhere, there is a quote from Napoleon that Italy, as a boot, “has to be entered from the top.”  The Allies were fighting their way up from the toe and the heel, and sometimes the fit was just too tight.

It’s a damning operational resumé.  American historians usually blame the British for conceiving it, especially Winston Churchill. And yet, the more deeply we study it, the harder it becomes to assign any blame at all.  Indeed, it is almost impossible to see how the Mediterranean could have been avoided.  “Sideshow”?  How about the “inevitable campaign”?

Tune in next week for more.

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27 Responses

  1. Bill Nance

    well, let’s remember what the postscript of the Kursk battle was: German formations pulled from the battle to reinforce Italy.

    The Italian campaign while surely not covered in a lot of glory certainly meant a pull on resources that hurt the Germans. While it did the same to the Allies, they had more to spare. Basically, it’s “the everyone take a leg approach” of U.S. Grant from the American Civil War. When the Allies then landed in France (in two places), the Germans had to give somewhere.

    So, although it was not spectacular and was very bloody, I give the Italian campaign its place as what it was – yet another step to victory. Imagine what the Germans could have done in France or the East Front with the resources they had to commit to Italy. Maybe not enough to change the course of the war, but enough to significantly extend it.

  2. Rob Citino


    Good points, as always. But wasn’t the “we’re calling off Kursk to reinforce Sicily” really just Hitler’s attempt to save face at the failed offensive in the East?

  3. Luke Truxal

    The Italian Campaign did provide the Allies with one strategic advantage which was air bases in Italy. This moved the 15th Air Force in range of strategic targets in southern Germany and gave them a much easier shot at the Ploesti oil fields. However, do the amount of lives lost in the ground campaign make up for the strategic gains in the air war? Closer bases did allow the 15th Air Force to provide tactical support to ground forces operating in Italy. Second, the Germans did have to divert fighters from the defense of France to southern Germany and the oil fields in Romania. The ground landings in Italy turned the air war from a two front war to a three front war. Again my question is were air bases in Italy worth a large scale invasion of Italy?

  4. Bill Nance

    Oh, no argument that Kursk was a lost battle even before Italy became a factor. However, just because Hitler’s saving face, doesn’t also mean that the Allies have now put him as BH would put it “on the horns of a dilemma”. Imagine what the forces that were pulled off the line and sent West would have meant in Russia.

    I also like the points about the closer bases to Ploesti. As for whether the bases were worth it, I think they were. If for no other reason than the Germans were getting stretched thinner and thinner in manpower, resources, and logistics.

    Luke, just remember, the AF supports the Army!!

  5. Cap'n Dave

    I think a great way to evaluate Mediterranean operations is to look at the allies’ alternatives.

    It seems to me that in 1942 they could have easily landed a force of 100,000 in southern France while the British held the Germans in North Africa. They would have planned to establish a beachhead and ostensibly moved north. However, without dependable air cover they likely would have succumbed to an easily reinforced German operation.

    They also could have landed 100,000 with greater air support in northern France against a much lighter defensive force than what they would see in ’44. However, with logistics equipment yet to be built, this force would have been struggling to replenish losses and consumables as the battles expanded and without a sizable exploitation force, would have risked another humiliation like Dunkirk.

    Yet another, more interesting option is to pile on with the Russians by landing 100,000 troops in the Crimea or some other Black Sea location. While a coordinated effort with the Russians would likely have ensured an unopposed landing, sustained logistics would again have been problematic. I also think the coordination with the Soviets would have a political nightmare, plus I’m fairly certain that Churchill and FDR didn’t mind seeing the carnage on both sides.

    While there are still other options, the point is that in 1942, Mediterranean operations were the most likely to yield operational successes at the least risk to the Allies. These operations did consume Axis resources and encourage the reallocation of men, tanks and aircraft from other German efforts, but that is at best a hoped for second or third order effect for the allies. I don’t think they had enough information on German troop strengths and dispositions to make that a primary operational goal.

    I think the initial American efforts’ primary aim was to be successful, in order to assuage doubts on the home front and bolster the commitment to war mobilization. Imagine the outcry at home had the Vichy French repulsed the 2nd AD in Africa in ’42! An inexplicable and abject failure in the first American operation of the war would have shaken resolve and weakened support. Knowing that they needed to build a string of wins to solidify support, it only makes sense that FDR and Churchill would have picked the Italians and Vichy French as the first round opposition.

  6. Rob Citino


    Good analysis and good questions… the Foggia air complex was certainly important. However, was it really the driving force behind the campaign? or once again, was it a justification for the campaign.

  7. Rob Citino

    Cap’n Dave nails it. But I think even the good Captain is underestimating the infancy of amphibious operations doctrine in this era. 100,000 men in southern France? on the NW coast? in the Crimea? Not sure about feasibility here.

  8. Luke Truxal

    A large scale invasion of Italy just for the sake of the airfields seems to be more of a justification. Unless you are waging war in the Pacific you don’t plan a major ground offensive just for the objective of capturing air fields. I believe after success in North Africa and Sicily the Allies believed they could land a knock out blow on Italy and force them out of the war. From here they could launch a campaign into southern Germany. However, the Allies seriously misjudged Hitler’s reaction to Italian withdrawal from the war. Dr. Citino, what was the reaction on the eastern front to the Italian surrender? It seems that Hitler just wouldn’t let a whole army of Italians march away from the front.

  9. Rob Citino


    I don’t know the Soviet archives on this point, but I would say that the surrender of Italy had no real impact on Stalin at all. The Soviets had just stopped the Kursk offensive cold, and were now deeply engaged in the counterstrokes, especially against German forces in the Orel salient.

  10. Luke Truxal

    Sorry I worded that question incorrectly. What happened to the Italians on the eastern front after their country’s surrender? Did that play a role on the operational or strategic level?

  11. Rob Citino

    Actually, Luke, by the time of the armistice between Italy and the Allies (September 1943), much if not all of the ARMIR (the Armata Italiana in Russia, or “Italian Army in Russia”) had already been evacuated. The Italians were hit hard along the Don and nearly destroyed in December 1942 by the Soviet offensive called “Little Saturn.”

  12. Luke Truxal

    As you can see I have not gotten around to Death of the Wehrmacht: The German Campaigns of 1942.

  13. Rob Citino

    Ha, don’t worry Luke! Someday it will be mandatory reading for EVERYBODY.


  14. dan shepard

    allied operations in the mediterainian gave the allies & especially the us army valuable training that was needed to fight the germans later on in northwest europe.

  15. Cap'n Dave

    That must be why Timgad was razed! It clearly must have been of critical strategic importance – likely the linchpin of the entire Axis effort. One can clearly see the roots of the fall of Berlin and Okinawa in Timgad.

    Tanks Adam!

  16. Luke Truxal

    As you can see the Allies didn’t bother with precision bombing at Timgad. They realized how threatening this vital strategic point was and bombed it into the ruins you now see today.

    Happy Thanksgiving

  17. Doug Thomas

    As I understand it, the joint US British decision to fight first against Germany meant something had to be done and an invasion of northern Europe was impossible. No invasion of North Africa, and the troops, etc would have been sent to the Pacific, reversing the strategic decision and the entire war effort. As well, Roosevelt was committed to keeping Russia in the war at all costs, so there had to be an invasion that pulled away German forces.

  18. BrianK

    The Mediterranean Campaign cost far too many casulaties mainly because quite frankly Mark Clark was an idiot and an egotistical ass.
    Monty was a just slightly less on the idiot part and larger on the ass part.
    In the long run it was only worth it because it drew actually quite a few and many first class formations away from Russia and Normandy.
    Tactic wise the Allies had circles run around them by men who were real professionals. And frankly the Germans had better troops except for the Allied paras, commandos and the Goums who the Italian women feared more than the Germans.

  19. Major D

    Hindsight is one thing, but consider the view from the General’s chair in May 1943.

    The cost to the Axis for the North African campaign had been nearly one million men killed or captured. The Allies were entering into a grand alliance which was not yet cemented by cooperation on the ground. The Tunisian campaign had not gone well. Reverses came as shock but now that the continent had been cleansed, operational momentum had to be maintained.

    The Med had all the pre-requisits to a successful British operation; namely Naval. Control of the Med offered advantages to maritime operations, principally the shortening of supply lines via the Suez Canal and the removal of dependence on the Murmansk run for Lend-Lease shipments to Russia.

    The amphibious assault on Sicily was the cement that bonded the US and UK forces as an Allied command. Control of Sicily ensured control of the Med and opened new possibilities for advance through Tito’s Yugoslavia or Greece.

    To knock Italy out of the war would, it was hoped, send a message to Spain and Turkey that the Axis could not win this war. Operations against Yugo and Greece would give Britain leverage in any post-war agreements with Stalin.

    Allied presence in Italy tied down two dozen A-class German divisions in a side-show. It also tied down German divisions guarding against Allied excursions into the Balkans.

    It was also true that no attempt at Sledgehammer/Roundup could be made until the U-boat menace was delivered from the Atlantic while a quick advance up the boot of Italy might offer opportunities to enter Europe through the south of France either concurrent with or prior to Overlord.

    But the one argument to clinch the reason for an Italian campaign was that to do nothing was the greater evil. And that was the only realistic alternative to Husky.

  20. Lee

    Major D thank you! for such a cognizant, impressive, and well argued post. I find it very instructive and insightful- your clarity is much appreciated.

  21. Flyer

    Don’t forget that in 1942 the American army wasn’t ready to face the German one. Africa and Sicily were where the Americans were “worked up”. So it was valuable in that regard.

    Also don’t forget landing craft. Throughout the war there were never enough and locations and timing of operations were frequently influenced by the availability or non-availability of landing craft.

  22. JohnM

    One of the most overlooked factors for additional “value” that the Allies obtained with the Med Campaign was the live training that the various battles provided.

    There was virtually no experienced large U.S. land formations in existence in the Western Theater before the Med Campaign. The Britihs forces had some experience, but many of those units were already directly involved with the 8th Army fighting the Axis in Egypt/Tunisia.

    Overall the campaign provided a huge training ground for land formations, operational and strategic tactics and most importantly provided a massive testing ground for logistics that would be required by the Allies when they eventually invaded France at D-Day.

    Despite what has been said after the fact by the “what if” camp, the Allies likely could never have performed an invasion like D-Day without both the experience of a number of smaller African and Italian invasions, and even if they had, there would have been massive problems in combat caused by inexperienced units and generals which had senior positions in the the Allied command prior to being weeded out by what was learned in the Med fighting.

    Without the Med Campaign how would the U.S. army have figured out that some generals, such as Patton, were the right men to lead much larger formations in France rather than a number of senior generals who were dismissed and/or relegated to much less important roles once it was determined that they did not have the right skills to win a war when actual combat occurred?

    Unfortunately, most history involves a large element of what if, and the small items such as training and experience is forgotten when compared to the much broader scope of what might have been able to be achived if such minor items are intentionally ignored.

  23. Heydon Buchanan

    I’m new to this forum, and I may be repeating issues already covered. That being said, I’ll toss in a few thoughts.

    First, there’s no question about the immense battles in the Soviet Union. As Hitler said, “When Operation Barbarossa begins, the world will hold its breath.” And FDR’s later statement, “The people of the United States will be eternally grateful to the Soviet Union….” Those are the epic battles of history.

    North Africa was a training ground–a combat apprenticeship–for U.S. troops. The dominant allied force in N.A. was British Eighth Army.

    General Marshall and the U.S. Joint Chiefs were opposed to Torch and stood strong for an initial landing on the French coast to fight straight to Berlin. The British opposed the landing in France (and probably because they lost a generation there in WWI). FDR finally deferred to Churchill and agreed to Torch in N.A.

    My question is: If the U.S. had landed in France in November 1942, how strong were the beach fortifications then? (I don’t think those massive coastal pill boxes were built at that point.)



  24. zurab abayev

    OperationTorch was necessary to prevent another attack on Egypt ( I know that by that time Monty was pushing Afrika Corps westward but Rommel was justly feared by the Allies and could still turn the tables – he proved ii in Kaiserine pass. If Ike would not be such traumatized by the Kaiserine Pass, Allies COULD – AND SHOULD – have landed in Southern Italy instead of Sicily, knocked Italy out of the war early in 1943, trapped Germans in Sicily, and – since Italy was then in charge of South France – position themselves to attack Germany unopposed and to finish the war in Warsaw by February 1944 with Soviets still trying to push Germans out of their territory. However, it was not to be. FDR’s “unconditional surrender” trick at Casablanca – probably influenced by Stalin’s spies Hiss and White – combined with Ike’s cooperation with politicians and/or justifiable fear of Rommel – all of this turned Mediterranian campaign from the potential war-winning knockout blow to the sideshow. However, may be it is for the best, because Stalin at the same time was constantly teasing Japanese with the prospect of alliance with them against the Western Allies, and in 1944 even told them where in Philippines McArthur would land greatly increasing US causualties. If Western Allies would win In Italy like I was mentioning above, Stalin would definitiely turn against them in Pacific. Exact analysis is still impossible to estimate since so many crucial aspects of WWII are still classified.

  25. Mollypitcher

    It seems few pay attention to the lessons learned at Dieppe. The Allies were not sufficiently prepared for an invasion of the continent. North Africa was the training ground badly needed, particularly for a large scale amphibious landing.

  26. James Patuto

    These what if’s games are never very satisfying . Truth be told there were advantages to taking Sicily and maybe even Southern Italy. Holding the line at a point North of Naples would have still kept a fair amount of German divisions occupied. The whole Italian campaign was one of lost opportunities and poor generalship especially on the part of Clark.


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