What If the Allies Had Invaded France in 1943?

By Mark Grimsley
10/5/2011 • Battle Films, Dwight Eisenhower

On a mid-spring morning in 1943, 160,000 Allied troops storm ashore in Normandy to create the “Second Front” long desired by American strategists and long demanded by the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. In the days that follow, additional Allied divisions pour into the beachhead while the Germans attempt to throw the invaders back into the sea. Overhead, hundreds of Allied and German fighters vie for control of the air. Assisted by artificial harbors constructed in the waters just offshore, the Allies win the “battle of the buildup,” creating an enclave the Germans cannot breach. And, thanks in no small measure to the new P-51 Mustang—a superb fighter with extended range—the Allies also win a crushing victory over the Luftwaffe.

Hammered by massive Soviet assaults on the Eastern Front, the Germans are unable to transfer enough troops to prevent an Allied breakout. By late autumn, the Allies have raced across France and reached the Siegfried Line along Ger-many’s western border. Trapped in a vise between the Eastern and Western Fronts, Germany capitulates in the spring of 1944.

The above scenario is based upon two revisionist works, both published in 1980: 1943: The Victory that Never Was by John Griggs, and Walter S. Dunn Jr.’s Second Front Now: 1943. Grigg and Dunn argued that by postponing an invasion of northwest Europe until the spring of 1944, the British and Americans committed a major strategic blunder that delayed the defeat of Nazi Germany by at least a year. Rather than commit to large-scale operations in Sicily and Italy, they should have executed Operation Roundup, the initial Allied conception for a 1943 invasion of France.

Although some historians scoffed—one reviewer sneered that Grigg “has been swept out of reality into a Cloud Cuckoo Land”—others were more respectful. The two authors made a reasonable case for Roundup’s feasibility. They pointed out that the Allies possessed adequate sealift capacity—the July 1943 landing in Sicily was actually somewhat larger than the D-Day invasion in June 1944. The Western Allies had a total of 63 divisions potentially available for a cross-Channel landing and buildup. The Germans had just 44 divisions in France, most of which were either badly under strength or “static divisions” devoid of mobility.

The Allies already had on the drawing board the artificial harbors that historically aided the buildup after D-Day. They had already designed the specialized armored vehicles used in the historical invasion. And the British had already discovered that the American P-51 could outperform every other propeller-driven fighter of the war, thereby supplying the air cover needed to protect the invasion.

If the Allies had the ability to execute Roundup, why did they not seize the opportunity? Dunn offered the far-fetched theory that the Western Allies intentionally postponed a cross-Channel attack so that the totalitarian regimes of Germany and the Soviet Union would bash each other’s brains out. Much more plausibly, Grigg painted a picture of strategic drift. When Roosevelt arrived for the Casablanca Conference, he had not rejected the possibility of a 1943 invasion. Nor had Churchill. But the prime minister allowed himself to be swayed by Field Marshal Alan Brooke, chief of the imperial general staff, who was the real advocate of a Mediterranean strategy—but whom Churchill could of course have overruled.

The Americans, for their part, allowed themselves to be persuaded that before other major operations could take place, the German enclave in Tunisia must be crushed. This did not occur until May 1943—coincidentally the same month in which the Allies formally agreed to defer a cross-Channel attack until 1944. But in effect, the agreement simply ratified a decision that had already been made by default. Had the Allies kept their attention focused on Roundup, Grigg argued, they could have contained the Germans with fewer troops and relied upon the naval interdiction of supplies to compel a surrender (which the German commander Hans-Jurgen von Armin stated would have occurred by June).

Morris Janowitz, the dean of military sociologists, praised Grigg’s analysis as a strong example of the ways in which institutional and organizational factors can undermine the realization of a nominally agreed-upon objective—in this case the concentration on defeating Germany first (far too much manpower and shipping went to the Pacific to be consistent with this goal), by means of a cross-Channel attack at the earliest possible moment. That was a notable achievement. Some-times the value of a counterfactual is to illuminate dynamics that a simple historical narrative would have overlooked.

But both Grigg and Dunn overlooked some key factors that would make a 1943 invasion—and certainly a swift defeat of Germany—less viable. First, serious planning for a cross-Channel attack did not begin until March 1943. True, a committee had begun to consider the matter in the summer of 1942, but it was soon forced to turn full attention to plans for Operation Torch. It is highly unlikely that an invasion could have been planned and successfully executed in a few short months.

Second, even if one postulates that robust planning for Roundup continued from mid-1942 onward, in early 1943 American troops were ill-trained and far less prepared for combat than they would be in 1944. Third, it is unlikely that the Allies would have hit upon a command arrangement that, historically, proved vital to D-Day’s success: the appointment of a supreme commander with full authority over all ground, naval, and air forces. It is likely that neither Eisenhower nor anyone else would have amassed enough credibility by mid-1943 to wield sufficient clout for the role. Without that authority, it would have been impossible to induce the chiefs of the American and British strategic bombing efforts to suspend their air campaign against Germany long enough to execute the so-called Transportation Plan—the limiting of the Wehrmacht’s ability to rapidly reinforce coastal areas through the destruction of key bridges and railroad marshaling yards.

Thus, although it is possible, even probable, that Roundup would have secured a foothold in France, that is all that would have occurred. It would not have achieved the breakout and decisive victory that historically followed the D-Day invasion.

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