What If the Allies Had Invaded France in 1943?

What If the Allies Had Invaded France in 1943?

By Mark Grimsley
10/5/2011 • Battle Films, Politics

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.

6 Responses to What If the Allies Had Invaded France in 1943?

  1. Brit says:

    interesting article; I often wondered the same thing – the Americans were keen to invade, the Brits not so keen. After reading Omar Bradley’s autobiography, however, I can understand the eventual strategy. Bradley was a keen proponent of the early invasion plan, but was persuaded to ‘trial’ the invasion as ‘Operation Torch’ in North Africa. After that experience Bradley changed his mind about the preparedness of the Allies to launch a cross-channel invasion

  2. TF Smith says:

    The question should be asked in terms of:

    A) what the best strategy for the Western Allies to pursue in terms of defeating Nazi Germany, which was the only one of the three Axis powers that had the scientific, technical, and industrial wherewithawl to threaten the Western Hemisphere. The obvious answer is “Germany First” which both the US and UK had agreed to prior to Pearl Harbor and the German and Italian declarations of war upin the US in December, 1941.

    B) Given A, what was the most straightforward way of defeating Nazi Germany; obvious answer, again, is to force the Germans into a multi-front war, ideally in theaters where Allied advantages could be brought to bear.

    C) Given B, which theaters are those? Obvious answer, Eastern Front where the Soviets could bring numbers to bear, and – the Americans would argue – the Western Front (ie,. France and the low countries) where Allied seapower could sustain an expeditionary force aimed at Germany’s industrial heart, the Ruhr Valley. The British did not disagree, but saw control of the Mediterranean as a necessary interim step to make the maximum use of the Allied shipping pool aand at least open a potential “third front” against Germany that would have to be defended, thus stretching German resources even more.

    D) Given A-C above, the question is, how could the Western Allies wage war most efficiently and expeditioulsy against Nazi Germany.

    The answer would seem to be to use TORCH in 1942 as a stepping stone to an invasion of NW Europe in 1943, not simply as a “second front” in the Mediterranean. The strategic purposes of TORCH (put the Allies on the offensive in the ETO in 1942, shorten Allied shipping lines around Africa, and bring the French nation actively into the war) could have been accomplished by an enlarged expedition to French North Africa in 1942, one that added Tunisia to the initial targets of Morrocco and Algeria. The forces necessary to have done this (basically, by adding one additional division to the five division equivalents embarked for TORCH historically; this could have been provided by the Allied forces already in the UK at the time of TORCH and by additional US shipping. This would have required cancelling the US offensive into the Solomon Islands (South Pacific Theater) in 1942, which was entireley possible.

    That gives the Allies control of French North Africa by the end of 1942, eliminates the Tunisian campaigbn, and leads to the Axis surrender in Africa occuring early in 1943, presumably in Tripolitania (Libya) rather than Tunisa in May.

    This basically puts the Allies in the strategic situation they faced in June, 1943, five months earlier – which allows all sorts of possibilities. One possible line is:

    BRIMSTONE-FIREBRAND – Allied invasion of Sardinia-Corsica in the spring of 1943;
    ROUNDUP (Allied invasion of NW France) in the summer of 1943;
    ANVIL (Allied invasion of Southern France) in the fall of 1943.

    The above would, essentially, replace the “Mediterranean” strategy as it was enacted, which was:

    HUSKY (Allied invasion of Sicily)
    BAYTOWN (Allied invasion of Calabria)
    AVALANCHE (Allied invasion of Southern Italy)

    The end result is the Allies could have been established in strength in France by the summer-fall of 1943, rather than the summer-fall of 1944.

    The other points worth remembering is that Axis forces in the West (including Italy) were actually weaker in overall numbers, equipment types and strengths, and training and preparation time in the summer of 1943 than they were in the summer of 1944; in addition, the distance between the Eastern Front and what would have been Germany’s Western Front was actually greater in 1943 than it was in 1944, lengthening the amount of time it would take to move a German formation from one front to the other.

    All in all, if one really looks at the correlation of forces, the element of risk in an Allied invasion of NW Europe in 1943 is comparable to what it was in 1944.

    In esence, from the grand strategy point of view, the Allies could have traded the results of the 1942-43 offensive in the South Pacific Theater (Southern and Central Solomons campaigns), the 1943-44 offensives in the SW Pacific (NE New Guinea, New Britain/New Ireland, and Netherlands New Guinea), the 1943 offensive in the North Pacific Theater (Attu and Kiska operations), the 1942-44 Burma offensives (the “Chindit” operations and the 1942-43 Arakan offensives), and the 1943-45 offensives in the Central Mediterreanean (Sicily in 1943 and Italy in 1943-45) for NW Europe in 1943, for an opportunity to liberate France and Belgium in 1943 and invade Germany in 1944.

    All in all (and with hindsight, of course) it seems pretty clear that an opportunity to defeat Germany in 1944 was lost through the decision to invade Italy, rather than France, in 1943.

  3. Bill W. says:

    Neither the the Allies transportation plan nor the appearance of the P-51 Mustang in sufficient numbers would have been available to the Allies in the Spring of 1943. Nor did the Allies have time to pull off a duplication of Operation Fortitude, the deception plan which absolutely convinced the Germans that the Normandy invasion was a hoax and the main invasion would take place later on the Pas de Calais.

    Also, an Allied invasion in April, May or June of 1943 would have drawn that new generation of German tanks west to the invasion instead of letting them proceed east to Kurst where they went into action against the Russians in July, 1943.The appearance in Normandy of the new Mark V Panther and the Mark VI Tiger tanks without the Allies having absolutel control of the air would have spelled disaster for an Allied invasion force.

  4. Barrie Rodliffe says:

    There were several reasons to delay till 1944, 1 the time taken for the build up of weapons and ships would mean starting to prepare in late 1942 or at the latest early 1943, If in 1943, it would have to in the Summer, once Autumn arrives the weather can be unsuitable and sufficient good weather is needed to establish and maintain a bridgehead. Air superiority was not a problem, Spitfire`s were doing a good job both for ground attack and as an escort fighter and were more than able of defeating Fw 190`s and Bf 109`s and some had very good range, with a rear fuselage tank and drop tanks of 30, 45, 90 and 170 galon capacity The Spitifire, also escorted bombers during Allied air raids over Germany, bringing close support against the German fighters.

  5. Andalusian says:

    The story says that
    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,

    according Rick Atkinson “The day of battle”, at the end of the Sicily campaign (August 1943), the angloamerican allies had only 25 divisions operational. So I guess that to reach that figure of “63 divisions” they should have to send to the battle badly trained and underequipped divisions.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,

    At the same time, in November 1943 the Allies were unable to save the british soldiers in Leros, showing their powerless condition, as Eisenhower admits in “Crusade in Europe” about that episode.

    Besides, previous to this invasion of France in summer 1943, the germans would be aware of the preparations so they would have time to send elite armored forces to France (as it happened in 1944). So, probably “Zitadelle” battle in Russian would be aborted and that would have been a very lucky situation for Hitler: angloamerican disaster in France, and not doing the counterproductive Zitadelle offensive in Russia.

  6. Doc Jeremic says:

    they delayed to weaken Stalin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

, , , ,