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Tunis: 1943

The build-up to the Allied attack on Tunis, in May 1943, involves a succession of important new developments. The landing of Allied armies in Morocco and Algeria includes the first major participation by US troops. And since these regions are defended by some 120,000 French soldiers under the command of Vichy France, the invasion poses an unprecedented dilemma and tug of loyalty for the local French commanders.

Once the plan of invasion is finalized, in the summer of 1942, Allied diplomats begin the task of trying to discover which of the French generals may have the courage to defy orders and change sides - a difficult assessment, since the negotiators dare not divulge too much of the invasion strategy or timing.


To a large extent the Allies fail in this preparatory task. As a result the landing parties are at first vigorously opposed by the French army. The invasion, under the overall command of Dwight Eisenhower, takes place simultaneously on 8 November 1942 on three fronts - near Casablanca on the Atlantic coast of Morocco, and in the Mediterranean at the Algerian ports of Oran and Algiers.

There are three days of fighting before the French commanders tell their troops to offer no further resistance. By then the situation in Vichy France is itself undergoing sudden transformation. On November 11 Hitler, abandoning the armistice agreement, sends troops over the border from occupied France. At the same time Italian divisions invade from the southeast.


By the end of November 11 Vichy France is a German-occupied territory like any other. From the Allied point of view, there is one major disappointment. The French commanders in north Africa, having themselves changed sides, send instructions to the admiral of the remaining French fleet (mothballed in Toulon) to brings his warships across the Mediterranean.

He delays doing so, thus giving the Germans time to mine the exit from the harbour. But there is compensation. Just as the Germans are on the verge of commandeering these valuable ships, the French crews succeed is scuttling the fleet. France is now fully back in the Allied camp, and is about to contribute to one of Germany's major setbacks of the war in the final battle for north Africa.


Hitler is constitutionally unable to contemplate failure on the battlefield. So instead of withdrawing his army from north Africa, he decides to strengthen it - even though it is threatened by far superior forces on both flanks. Large-scale reinforcements are shipped to Tunis during the winter of 1942-3, and by February it looks as though Rommel may once again be able to work his magic. Making maximum use of surprise, he manages at first to push west into Algeria against American and French opposition.

But his advance falters, while Allied pressure continues to mount on both fronts. To the east the 8th Army is building up strength for a push against a line the Germans are holding from the coast at Mareth, close to Medenine.


From mid-March the trap begins to close. American and French forces move east across the border from Algeria. British and Commonwealth troops make their way north up the peninsula towards Tunis. Finally, on 7 May 1943, British armoured divisions reach and capture the city. On the same day American and French forces take the nearby port of Bizerte, thus cutting off the escape of more than 250,000 German and Italian troops.

The end of this long campaign is a very significant moment in the development of the war. There is now major American involvement. The ambiguous position of France has been abruptly ended. And the loss of north Africa is a blow to Germany's military reputation and self-confidence - just a few months after another major setback, at Stalingrad.


Stalingrad: 1942-1943

The battle for the city of Stalingrad, bitterly fought from building to building, lasts from August to November 1942. Neither side is able to gain absolute control of the city and evict the other, even though Germany's entire Sixth Army is involved. But the Germans, even if they achieve possession, are in the graver danger. They are fighting far from their sources of supply. And the city they are struggling so hard to occupy may prove a trap, as the Russians are even now planning.

A Russian pincer campaign is launched on November 19. It has a simple aim, to encircle the Germans. Just four days later the noose is complete, though not yet tight. It surrounds a large area between the Volga and the Don. Inside it are more than 200,000 of the enemy.


The commander of the Sixth Army, General Friedrich Paulus, is well aware that this is the last possible chance to extricate his men. He sends a request to Hitler to begin a withdrawal. The answer comes back: No. Meanwhile German and Italian efforts to break the noose from outside are repulsed with heavy losses. Attempts to break out, and the freezing winter conditions, cause massive losses in the Sixth Army.

Eventually, in mid-January 1943, Paulus protests to Hitler that it is beyond human strength to continue fighting in these circumstances. Hitler's reply, as to the commanders near Moscow a year earlier, is that not an inch of ground is to be given up; 'the Sixth Army will do its historic duty at Stalingrad to the last man'.


At the same time Hitler promotes von Paulus to the rank of field marshal. No German field marshal, the Führer remarks at the time, has ever been taken prisoner. But at the end of the month (on 31 January 1943) von Paulus, with just 91,000 survivors, surrenders to the Russians. Hitler is apoplectic, declaring himself personally betrayed. He protests that the new field marshal should have taken his own life, like an ancient Roman, rather than face captivity.

Hitler's personal obstinacy succeeds in maintaining a German front in Russia for another year and more. But the more significant fact is that his obsessive refusal to yield has now lost him an entire German army - and will soon lose him another, in north Africa.


Malta and Sicily: 1942-1943

The capture of the German army in north Africa in May 1943 dramatically alters the balance of advantage within the Mediterranean, and brings one immediate benefit for the Allies. It ends the three-year siege and bombardment which has been endured with great heroism by the citizens of the tiny island of Malta.

From the entry of Italy into the war, in June 1940, Italian and German planes take off from Sicily on frequent bombing sorties to subdue this small British outpost, of huge strategic importance as the only staging post available to the Allies between Gibraltar and Alexandria and the only base for attacks on the enemy's supply route between Italy and north Africa. At the worst times of the siege, food and fuel can only be delivered to Malta by submarine.


The people hold firm and in token of their endurance, in 1942, George VI awards Britain's highest civilian medal for courage, the George Cross, to the entire 'Island Fortress of Malta'. In the summer of 1943, with the whole north African coast now in Allied hands, the strategic importance of Malta is finally reduced and the agony ends.

During the north Africa campaign there has been much debate among the Allies as to what should be their next target. Is an attack on Italy better launched from Sardinia or Sicily? The decision is taken for Sicily. On July 9 the southern coast of the island is invaded by landing craft, paratroops and gliders carrying the vanguard of the US 7th Army and the British 8th Army - respectively under the command of George Patton and Montgomery.


Italy changes sides: 1943

Soon nearly half a million Allied troops are in Sicily. Between them they clear it by August 16 of its German and Italian defenders, though they fail to prevent them escaping the short distance to safety in mainland Italy.

This campaign in Sicily (the first penetration by the Allies of any Axis territory) has immediate repercussions in Italian politics. During the night of July 24 the Fascist Grand Council in Rome passes a vote of no confidence in Mussolini. The next day the dictator is arrested on the order of the king, Victor Emmanuel III, who appoints in his place a field marshal, Pietro Badoglio. Badoglio's main task is to extricate Italy from the war. But this is complicated by two factors.


One difficulty is that the Germans, whose cause Italy is now eager to abandon, are all around. The other is that the Allies have resolved (at a conference in Casablanca in January 1943) that they will accept only unconditional surrender from any of the Axis powers.

Surrender on this basis is an alarming leap into the unknown, but secret negotiations with the Allies (held in Spain and Portugal) bear fruit. On September 8 Italy surrenders. Three weeks later Badoglio signs an agreement committing Italy to change sides. And on October 13 Italy declares war on her recent ally, Germany. But meanwhile the Germans, in possession of most of Italy, have had time to bring in reinforcements and improve their defences.


The shape of Italy, long and thin with a spinal range of mountains, is perfectly designed for defence against an army attempting to move up the peninsula. As a result the Italian campaign is a long and arduous one for the Allies.

The initial thrust goes reasonably well. A small force is landed without difficulty on September 3 just across the Straits of Messina, in the toe of Italy. A much larger invasion follows on September 8, up the coast at Salerno. Here there is strong German resistance. Even so, within three weeks the Allies are in Naples. It is only at a point further north, near Monte Cassino, that the slow-down begins.


The Italian campaign: 1943-1945

About 30 miles up the coast from Naples the Germans create the Gustav Line, a defensive position stretching across the peninsula from the Garigliano river in the west to the Sangro in the east. High on a hill above the Garigliano is the rich and ancient monastery of Monte Cassino, the cradle of the Benedictine movement.

The Germans succeed in holding the Allies along this line for six months, from November 1943, in spite of the landing of an Allied force at Anzio, behind the German lines, in January 1944. Anzio remains an ineffective bridgehead until May, when at last an Allied thrust from both directions breaks the German resistance. In the battle the monastery and the nearby town of Cassino are demolished.


The multinational Allied force (including US, British, Canadian, French and Polish troops) at last moves fast, capturing Rome on June 5. But the German resistance further north does not collapse as hoped. It is another ten weeks before Florence is taken, on August 13, and by now the Germans have established a strong defensive line just a little further ahead. The so-called Gothic Line stretches through hilly country from Pisa in the west to Rimini in the east. Again the Allies grind to a halt, this time until the spring of 1945.

But meanwhile there has been an interesting political development in northern Italy.


Since his arrest, Mussolini has been held in various places. At the time of the announcement of Italy's armistice with the Allies, on 8 September 1943, he is being guarded in a small hotel high in the Abruzzi mountains, northeast of Rome.

When Hitler hears the news of Italy's defection, his sense of outrage reinforces the loyalty which he always shows to his incompetent Fascist ally. On September 10 he speaks on the radio to the German nation, describing Mussolini as 'the greatest son of Italian soil since the collapse of the Roman empire'. At the same time he takes more practical steps, ordering a parachute raid by the ss to rescue the fallen dictator.


Mussolini might well have preferred a quiet life in a small hotel. After being rescued by the SS, and taken to see Hitler, he is appointed puppet dictator of a new Fascist republic of Italy - meaning now just the northern part still under German control. Mussolini remains a prisoner, for his palace on Lake Garda has the SS guarding it. And he must do whatever Hitler tells him.

In the end the SS fail even to give him protection. As the Allies make their final advance up Italy, in April 1945, Mussolini and his mistress, Clara Petacci, are captured and shot by Italian partisans. Their bodies are hung upside down from a gibbet in Milan, where nine years earlier he first described his alliance with Hitler as a new axis in world politics.


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