Unfairly overlooked by historians, this crucial year of global conflict turned the tide of war irrevocably in the Allies’ favor.
The year 1943 opened badly for the once unstoppable Axis forces of Nazi Germany, fascist Italy and Imperial Japan. And by the close of that unfairly overlooked but momentous year of World War II, the fortunes of the Axis belligerents had become much worse. Although 1942 had been, in Winston Churchill’s phrase, the war’s “Hinge of Fate” – as the Allies, led by the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union, won near-run victories over Japan at Midway in the Pacific, Germany and Italy at El Alamein in North Africa, and Adolf Hitler’s East Front legions at Stalingrad in Russia – it was the global land, sea and air combat in 1943 that proved pivotal to the war’s outcome. As 1942 drew to a close, the Axis powers still had a chance to win the war; however, by the end of 1943, that chance had been irrevocably lost. Tellingly, during the crucial 12 months of 1943, the strategic initiative on nearly all the war’s fronts permanently shifted from the Axis to the Allies.
Key events and hard fighting – Allied setbacks as well as successes – in all theaters of the war made 1943 World War II’s vital “forgotten” year of victory.
CASABLANCA AND THE GRAND ALLIANCE
On January 14, 1943, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill met at Casablanca in newly liberated French Morocco. The other Allied “Big Three” leader, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, excused himself from the conference, as the crucial Battle of Stalingrad still raged. Even with Stalin’s absence, the Casablanca meeting produced important decisions regarding how the “Grand Alliance” would prosecute the global war, by establishing the broad outline for the Allies’ 1943 operations on all fronts and on land, sea and in the air. Significantly, the leaders publicly proclaimed the Allies would accept nothing less than “unconditional surrender” from the Axis powers, and they reaffirmed the war’s priorities: First eliminate Hitler’s Nazi Germany, then defeat Imperial Japan.
Although from Moscow Stalin again demanded the United States and Britain launch a “second front” against Germany by invading continental Europe, Churchill convinced FDR to postpone a cross-Channel invasion until 1944. Once Allied armies won the North Africa campaign, they would proceed to Sicily to continue offensive operations in the Mediterranean Theater. However, to strike Germany directly, Churchill and FDR agreed to launch a combined Royal Air Force-U.S. Air Forces strategic aerial bombing offensive.
With two-thirds of the German army engaged in brutal combat with millions of Red Army troops, World War II’s Eastern Front remained the war’s greatest clash of arms in 1943. On January 9, after encircling Stalingrad, Soviet General Konstantin Rokossovsky began Operation Ring, a direct assault on the trapped German forces. A month later, German Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus surrendered the remnants of 6th Army at Stalingrad. The Soviet victory exposed German vulnerability – Hitler’s powerful East Front legions could be beaten by Stalin’s resurgent Red Army.
In the north, Soviet troops opened a narrow corridor to besieged Leningrad, although the deadly German siege continued for another year. Meanwhile in southern Russia, the Red Army’s Voronezh Front broke through 2d Hungarian Army and raced toward Kursk and Kharkov. The Soviet Southwestern Front closed on Rostov, threatening to cut off German forces in the Caucasus; yet overextension, stretched logistics, freezing weather and the operational genius of German Field Marshal Erich von Manstein helped the Germans avert a complete disaster.
In the wake of the Stalingrad disaster and Caucasus near disaster, Hitler sought to regain the East Front initiative with Operation Citadel, an attack to pinch off the Kursk salient. Delayed from May until July awaiting new panzer production, German forces attacked July 5 but stalled amid strong multiple Soviet defensive belts. The Red Army launched a counteroffensive on the Kursk salient’s flanks in August, seizing Orel and the much contested city of Kharkov.
The Germans’ failure at Kursk threatened to unhinge their entire East Front line as Soviet counteroffensives carried Red Army troops west to the Dnepr River line. Clearly, by August 1943 the strategic initiative on the East Front had permanently passed to Stalin’s armies.
NORTH AFRICA AND THE MEDITERRANEAN
Despite the fact that German fortunes on the East Front hung in the balance at Stalingrad, Hitler nevertheless diverted Germany’s war effort by rushing reinforcements to Tunisia in the wake of the November 1942 Allied landings in North Africa. The first Allied advance stalled as winter weather reduced roads to quagmires, halting operations for three months with both sides rushing to build up forces.
In February, a renewed Allied offensive into Tunisia faced two German commanders – Field Marshal Erwin Rommel and General Jürgen von Arnim, both under Hitler’s orders to fight to the last. Rommel proved the most dangerous opponent. Before his February 19-25 attack through Kasserine Pass was finally stopped, it overran inexperienced American troops, teaching them and their equally inexperienced U.S. commanders how much they still had to learn about fighting the battle-wise German army.
While an ill Rommel recuperated in Germany, Axis forces in Tunisia were trapped against the coast with no air cover and no hope for reinforcements. On May 7, Allied forces captured Tunis and Bizerte, forcing remaining Axis forces in North Africa to surrender unconditionally.
On May 12, Churchill and Roosevelt met again, at the Trident Conference in Washington, D.C., to review Allied strategy. They discussed the strategic bombing strategy for the Pacific Theater and confirmed planning for the invasions of Sicily, then Italy, and ultimately (based on the situation achieved in Italy) the cross-Channel invasion of France.
On July 10, while the titanic East Front Battle of Kursk raged, American and British forces landed on the coast of Sicily. U.S. 7th Army, under General George S. Patton Jr., took Palermo July 22, prompting Italy’s Fascist Grand Council to oust dictator Benito Mussolini two days later. German combat units successfully evacuated Sicily just days before Allied troops captured Messina, placing all of Sicily under Allied control.
Hitler’s reaction to Sicily’s fall and Mussolini’s ouster was to order German troops to occupy Italy, ensuring the country remained in the Axis camp. In September, the Allies invaded Italy at Salerno but barely managed to hold their bridgehead in the face of fierce German counterattacks – tremendous Allied artillery, naval gunfire and air support proved decisive. By mid-October, Allied armies held a continuous line across the Italian peninsula, from north of Naples to Termoli on the Adriatic. For the next 18 months, the brilliant German defense led by Field Marshal Albert Kesselring would frustrate Allied offensives in Italy and turn the Italian campaign into a costly slugfest fought over some of Europe’s most rugged terrain.
THE PACIFIC AND ASIA
U.S. naval victories at Coral Sea and Midway in 1942 had checked Japanese expansion in the Pacific, opening the way for Allied land, sea and air forces to begin rolling back Japan’s conquests. America’s two theater commanders – Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, commanding Central Pacific Area, and General Douglas MacArthur, leading South West Pacific Area – launched offensives in the Solomon Islands (Guadalcanal) and New Guinea (Buna-Gona) in the closing months of 1942 that concluded victoriously in early 1943. (See Battlefield Leader, July 2012 ACG.) Australian and U.S. troops’ victory at Buna-Gona on January 22 marked Japan’s first defeat on land and began MacArthur’s brilliant maneuvers along New Guinea’s northern coastline that would propel his forces back to the Philippines in October 1944.
Despite FDR’s avowed “Germany First” strategy, offensive operations in the Pacific Theater proved irrepressible. Indeed, since Japanese aggression had embroiled the United States in World War II, American public opinion demanded action against Japan. MacArthur and Nimitz were more than willing to oblige.
As MacArthur’s forces moved inexorably along New Guinea’s long coastline, and a Japanese convoy was decisively defeated in March 1943 at the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, Nimitz’s naval and amphibious task forces continued advancing through the Solomon Islands to New Georgia (June-August) and Bougainville (November). Due to another coup by U.S. code breakers, Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto was ambushed and killed while on an inspection tour when his plane was shot down April 18 by American fighters sent to intercept him.
On November 20, Nimitz launched 2d U.S. Marine Division at Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands during Operation Galvanic. Meeting the Marines at Tarawa’s beaches, 4,500 Japanese defenders fought to the death, killing 1,000 Marines and wounding another 2,000 in 76 hours of savage combat. The Battle of Tarawa stunned the American public, driving home the stark realization of just how costly totally defeating Japan would be. The film With the Marines at Tarawa, featuring authentic, gruesome combat footage of the invasion, required President Roosevelt’s personal approval before government censors would release the movie for public viewing. Even then, it was not released until March 1944.
Meanwhile, Allied fortunes in Southeast Asia and China faltered. In Burma, British and Commonwealth forces were battered by powerful Japanese offensives that threatened to drive north into India. However, the August 24 appointment of British Admiral Lord Mountbatten as that theater’s supreme Allied commander and the November creation of British 14th Army under the brilliant General William Slim would eventually turn the tide against the Japanese – but not until 1944. China continued to face the bulk of Japan’s army as Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists and Mao Zedong’s Communists waged both conventional and guerrilla war against Japanese invaders. Allied support to China was key to keeping it in the war, but the tenuous supply line, the Burma Road, remained threatened by Japanese success in Burma.
BATTLE OF THE NORTH ATLANTIC
In early 1943, over 100 of German Admiral Karl Dönitz’s U-boats still prowled the Atlantic convoy lanes, exploiting gaps in Allied air coverage and attacking merchant shipping using “wolf pack” tactics. A total of 107 Allied merchant ships were sunk in March alone, bringing the German navy perilously close to breaking the Allies’ vital North Atlantic supply link. To counter Germany’s strategy, the Allies increased the number of escort vessels, improved the training of ship commanders and crews, capitalized on technical improvements in direction-finding and radar equipment, and redoubled code breakers’ efforts to crack new German naval codes.
Allied countermeasures combined to have a telling effect: In April, the “merchant tonnage lost vs. U-boats sunk” ratio was cut in half; in May, radar-equipped escort ships notably destroyed five U-boats within hours. Also during May, the mid-Atlantic air coverage gap was finally closed when Allies stationed Canadian-flown B-24 Liberators in Newfoundland. Time was running out on Germany’s U-boat offensive.
By mid-1943, Allied materiel, tactical and technological superiority dominated the Atlantic struggle – U-boat “wolf packs” had met their match in steadily improving Allied countermeasures. By the end of what German captains called “Black May” (during which 43 German submarines were sunk), Dönitz acknowledged, “We had lost the Battle of the Atlantic.” He withdrew his U-boats from the North Atlantic convoy routes.
ALLIED BOMBING CAMPAIGN: EUROPE
Although Stalin continued to pressure the Western Allies for an invasion of Europe in 1943, FDR and Churchill remained committed to invading in mid-1944. The best direct action against Germany they could offer their Soviet ally was to press on with the British-American bomber offensive targeting Germany and Nazi-occupied European countries agreed to at the Casablanca Conference.
Although the air offensive’s directive listed key enemy war industry “priority targets,” Air Chief Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris, commander of RAF Bomber Command, believed the air effort should instead concentrate on destroying German cities, killing enemy workers and wrecking civilian morale. Harris recognized that the difficulty in attempting “precision” aerial bombing was the abysmal lack of accuracy. Even in daylight raids, “pinpoint” bombing from 20,000 feet or higher deposited only half the bombs within a quarter-mile of the aiming point. Under the poor visibility conditions so often encountered in northern Europe, bombs aimed at a three-mile radius target resulted in half the bomb load merely plowing up surrounding farmland.
Harris persisted in concentrating Bomber Command’s efforts in night raids against “area” targets: the Ruhr industrial region, Hamburg, and Berlin. In a weeklong series of raids on Hamburg at the end of July called Operation Gomorrah, 2,500 tons of bombs from RAF bombers created a horrific firestorm that destroyed the city while incinerating 42,000 German civilians, wounding another 37,000, and “de-housing” 1.2 million. It was the most destructive air attack in history to that point. Unfortunately, worse civilian death tolls followed as the Allied strategic bombing campaign progressed against Germany– and Japan from mid-1944 – for the remainder of the war.
U.S. bombers based in England and others flying from bases in North Africa flew daylight bombing raids against targets in Germany and Axis-occupied countries. With General Henry “Hap” Arnold, U.S. Air Forces’ commanding general, single-mindedly pursing strategic bombing as the path to eventual Air Force independence, the American bombing effort sought to bring the German war effort to its knees by attacking key war industries. U.S. bomber targets included submarine construction yards and bases; aircraft factories; ball bearing factories; oil production and storage plants; synthetic rubber and tire factories; and military transport vehicle factories and stores. Bombing accuracy remained problematic, however, and pinpoint accuracy proved beyond the capability of the era’s air war technology.
Yet despite the rising enemy civilian death toll and the dubious accuracy of attacks on enemy industry, one major impact of the Allied bombing campaign was its attrition of German fighter aircraft strength. By 1943, the German Luftwaffe clearly could not provide effective air cover on all fighting fronts. When by mid-year German fighters were concentrated over Germany confronting the seemingly endless waves of Allied bombers – increasingly accompanied by Allied fighter protection throughout most and eventually all of the bombers’ long missions – Luftwaffe air support to other fronts, particularly the East Front, suffered.
In August, American bombers flew from bases in Libya to the oil fields in Ploesti, Romania, in a costly raid on Germany’s principal oil refineries. The price in aircraft and blood was high, at 54 bombers and 532 air crewmen lost.
DARK SIDE OF WAR
Despite the worsening war situation for Axis forces – Hitler’s “strategy” was to issue a series of futile “stand fast” orders that usually proved only preludes to another German retreat – the “dark side” of World War II behind the fighting fronts grew even darker in 1943.
The Nazis’“Final Solution,” the relentless deportation and killing of Jews, intensified throughout German-occupied Europe. Germans’ notorious“efficiency”was applied to the Nazis’ extermination effort, as concentration camps became quite literally“death factories.”Any resistance, such as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April-May, was ruthlessly repressed by both SS and German army units.Yet even as the pace of mass murders in the death camps increased, Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler decided in the summer of 1943 to begin covering up the evidence of the extermination of Jews and Soviet prisoners of war. He sent special squads to every mass murder site to dig up and burn the bodies.
One result was that anti-German partisan activities grew rapidly, to the increasing embarrassment of German forces throughout occupied Europe. Brutal reprisals – shooting hostages, burning villages, deporting survivors to Germany for slave labor – bred more partisans. Behind German lines, the power of partisans and anti-Nazi forces grew in Poland, Belarus, Ukraine and the Balkans as Allied armies rolled back Axis conquests.
With German fortunes sagging, anti-Hitler groups appeared. In Munich, a small cell of pacifist German university students and faculty called the White Rose raised a rare dissenting voice, but it was quickly snuffed out by the Gestapo when the group’s members were captured and executed in February. On March 13, however, a potentially more lethal threat to Hitler arose when disaffected German army officers planted a bomb on his aircraft. The assassination attempt failed, but the plotters persevered, eventually trying again July 20, 1944.
In April, the Germans accelerated the roundup and deportation of forced laborers throughout German-occupied Western Europe. Hundreds of thousands worked as slave laborers in German war factories, enduring inhuman and dangerous conditions that killed tens of thousands.
Japanese brutality against the indigenous population in occupied territories was also horrific; in China alone, an estimated 12 million Chinese civilians were murdered during the war. Allied prisoners of war suffered horribly in Japanese camps without proper medical care and amid terrible punishments. In October, the Japanese completed the Burma-Thailand railroad that 46,000 Allied prisoners of war had been forced to build. Sixteen thousand POWs died of starvation, brutality and disease, and more than 50,000 Burmese impressed laborers died working on the “Railroad of Death.”
Although various schemes were proposed to the Allies to intervene in the genocidal Axis repression – such as bombing the concentration camps and the rail networks that supported them – Allied leaders determined that the quickest way to end the suffering and torment was to win the war. The air, land and sea campaigns in 1943 went a long way toward achieving that end.
12 CRUCIAL MONTHS
Sandwiched between the “Hinge of Fate” year of 1942 and the stirring campaigns of 1944 (notably D-Day) that set up the Allies’ final victory, 1943 too often unfairly gets short shrift in histories of World War II. Yet those crucial 12 months proved a vital crucible of war during which Allied armies, navies and air forces learned how to fight – and more importantly, how to win. American forces in particular benefitted by learning valuable lessons in tough, demanding combat taught to them by formidable German and Japanese forces that had been hardened during years of unremitting war.
Indeed, the nearly unbroken string of Allied victories in 1944 is hard to imagine without the devastating attrition inflicted on Axis land, sea and air forces during 1943. When 1942 ended, Axis air forces still maintained rough air parity with the Allies; as December 1943 drew to a close, Allied air forces dominated the skies over Europe and the Pacific. Replacing the catastrophic German troop losses on the Eastern Front throughout 1943 weakened Hitler’s Atlantic Wall defenses, greatly increasing the chance of success for the D-Day invasion in 1944. The serious threat German U-boats posed to North Atlantic convoys as 1943 began evaporated in the face of effective Allied countermeasures. Italian forces were knocked out of the war in 1943, while MacArthur’s and Nimitz’s campaigns inexorably penetrated the Pacific defensive ring that Japanese leaders had staked their country’s fortune on holding.
Perhaps 1943’s greatest achievement was gaining time – notably, time for American and Soviet factories to hit their stride in pouring out a flood of tanks, planes, ships, guns and ammunition that would eventually drown Axis forces in a sea of war materiel. A comment made by a German 88 mm anti-tank gun commander who fought against the Americans is telling: “I kept knocking out the American tanks, but more kept on coming. I ran out of ammunition. The Americans did not run out of tanks.”
During World War II’s “forgotten” year of victory, the Allies wrested the strategic initiative from the enemy and held it for the rest of the war. 1943 put Allied armies, navies and air forces on the march to final triumph.
Colonel (Ret.) Richard N. Armstrong, author of “Soviet Operational Deception: The Red Cloak,” is an adjunct history professor at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor.
Originally published in the January 2013 issue of Armchair General.