World History 2 222 - 13.2.1 Europe and Africa

Beginning in 1938 and through the spring of 1941, U.S. military leaders produced several plans of action in the event of war with the Axis powers. Immediately after winning an unprecedented third term in 1940, Roosevelt was briefed by his chief of naval operations, Admiral Harold R. Stark, who advised him that the best military strategy was “Plan D”—a Europe First plan. This focused the United States and Britain on defeating Germany and Italy first and adopting a defensive posture against Japan if it entered the war.

Mussolini decided to expand his African holdings and in August 1940 occupied British Somaliland, threatening the British in Egypt. The British counterattacked. Losing ground in Africa from June through December 1940, Mussolini turned his eyes on the Balkans. In October 1940, expecting an easy victory, Italian units invaded Greece but were badly defeated. To forestall further disaster, Hitler dispatched General Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps to duel with the British in northeast North Africa. Not only did Germany wish to support its Italian ally, but it also sought to gain control of the Suez Canal and guarantee its access to Middle Eastern oil, which would be crucial in winning the war. To further aid his faltering ally and deal with an anti-German uprising in Yugoslavia, Hitler postponed his invasion of the Soviet Union by several weeks and invaded Greece on April 6, 1941.

Fearing that any substantial British effort against the Germans in Norway or northern France would become a slaughter, Winston Churchill conceived Operation Gymnast, a plan to engage the Germans in northwest Africa instead. On a military mission to London in July 1942, General Eisenhower was deeply disappointed in Churchill’s approach, considering how badly the Soviets were suffering from German offensives. General George C. Marshall favored opening a front in northern Europe in order to draw German resources away from its attack on the Soviet Union before the Soviets collapsed. But Churchill prevailed, and the Allies, now including the United States, invaded French North Africa (Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia) in November 1942. Key British possessions Egypt and the Suez Canal were saved, and in a January 1943 summit meeting at Casablanca in French Morocco, Churchill and Roosevelt planned the next phase of the war, Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily. This choice disappointed Stalin, who had been hoping for an invasion of western Europe instead, to draw German troops away from the fighting in the east and the Soviet Union.

All the while, desperate battles were being waged on the eastern front in the Soviet Union. In August 1941, given the initial success of the German invasion and poised to capture Moscow, Hitler delayed the advance to decide strategy. The German general staff wanted to drive directly for Moscow and take it before winter. Hitler, however, diverted a significant part of his forces to the south. Both Allied and Axis thinkers had long recognized the strategic military importance of oil. For some time prior to the war, the British government had interjected itself into the politics of Iraq, Persia, Afghanistan, and Egypt for this reason. The Germans too had taken a keen interest in the Middle East and central Asia in the 1930s. In 1925, in Iran, Reza Shah had consolidated his rule and commenced a program of modernization, increasing ties with Germany and employing hundreds of Germans.

To block potential German access to Iranian oil, the British first demanded the possibly pro-German Shah expel Germans and sever ties with Berlin. Taking no chances, British and Soviet forces then invaded Iran in August 1941. Iranian resistence collapsed in a couple of days, and Reza Shah was forced to abdicate in favor of his son Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The Germans were expelled, and the Allied occupation lasted until 1946. During those years, Iran became a funnel through which much Allied aid, especially from the United States, was delivered to Stalin as he struggled to hold out against the Wehrmacht.

By 1939, the global supply of oil was in the hands of seven oil conglomerates—none of which were German. Consequently, Germany was heavily reliant on Romanian and Soviet oil between 1939 and 1941. The oil fields in the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan, one thousand kilometers from Stalingrad, looked like a possible solution, so the German army moved to capture the city of Baku, the center of the Soviet oil-drilling industry. Thus, both winter and the German drive for oil saved Moscow.

In the summer of 1942, the Germans resumed the offensive on all fronts but were unable to get far, except for approaching Stalingrad. Hitler was determined to take the city and Stalin to hold it. In July, Stalin issued Order No. 227 forbidding Soviet troops from retreating: “Not one step backwards!” By the fall of 1942, German troops had actually broken into Stalingrad, but their progress thereafter was gruesomely slow and difficult. For more than two months, the Battle of Stalingrad raged with ferocity, sometimes building by building (Figure 13.11).

This is a black and white picture of a war scene. There is a scarred wall in the background and a wall with two windows on the left. The middle and bottom left of the picture show rubble all over the ground. There are four soldiers, one positioned at the top left, squatting and looking out a window, with smoke around him, one kneeling at the top middle by a window, one at the top right on one knee along a wall, and one at the bottom right of the picture sitting on the floor. They all have military uniforms on with helmets and are facing left, aiming their rifles toward the left.
Figure 13.11 In 1942, these Russian fighters battled German troops for control of Stalingrad from within the ruins of a bombed building. (credit: “Stalingrad war 1942” by Unknown/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Having assembled sufficient forces, in November 1942 the Soviet Red Army counterattacked at Stalingrad and managed to trap the Germans in a noose. The only way for the Germans to resupply was by air, which was far too limited to sustain them for very long. Despite being specifically forbidden to do so, on January 31, 1943, German field marshal Friedrich Paulus surrendered what was left of his Sixth Army. The Soviets captured close to 100,000 German troops. Total casualties in the battle had reached nearly two million, including substantial numbers of civilians. The Battle of Stalingrad stopped the German advance into the Soviet Union. It was the first clear defeat for Hitler’s Germany and the turning point of the war in Europe, setting the Nazis on a defensive course for the remainder of the war.

From the time of his first meeting with Churchill in August 1942, a frustrated Stalin had been calling for a second front against the Nazis in Europe. In the summer of 1943, the Soviets, fresh from saving Stalingrad, went on the offensive against the Germans. The ensuing Battle of Kursk was the biggest land battle of the war and the largest tank battle in history. The Soviet victory damaged Germany’s war-making capacity by compromising its armaments.

Mussolini had insisted on contributing 200,000 troops to the invasion of the Soviet Union, and by early 1943, half of them had become casualties. Allied victories in North Africa and Sicily, along with the Allied bombing of Rome in July 1943, further humiliated Mussolini. In Italy, a coalition of former fascist supporters, military officers, the few surviving liberal politicians, and the king himself reached the conclusion that Mussolini must go. The Grand Fascist Council met for the first time in three years on July 24, 1943, and voted overwhelmingly to remove him from power and place him under arrest.

A government was formed under Marshal Pietro Badoglio, who initiated secret negotiations with the Allies. The Allied invasion of the mainland of Italy at the beginning of September provided the impetus for Italy’s surrender on September 8, 1943. Four days later, Hitler had German special forces rescue Mussolini. German troops already in Italy then moved to disarm the remnants of the Italian army and established a government called the Republic of Salo in northern Italy, with Mussolini as its figurehead. However, Italian communist partisans captured and executed Mussolini in April 1945.

Earlier, with Iran secured through the Allied invasion, Tehran had been the site of the first of the World War II conferences between the “Big Three”: Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin. From November 28 to December 1, 1943, the Tehran conference addressed relations between the Allies, relations between Turkey and Iran, operations in Yugoslavia, the fight against Japan, and plans for the postwar settlement. A protocol signed at the conference pledged the Big Three’s recognition of Iran’s independence. The Big Three also agreed on a cross-channel invasion of Europe scheduled for May 1944, in conjunction with a Soviet attack on Germany’s eastern border. Stalin dominated the conference, using Soviet victories to get preliminary agreements on the borders of Poland after the war. Churchill and Roosevelt also consented to the USSR setting up governments sympathetic to itself in the Baltic states. Roosevelt and Stalin continued their discussions of a general international organization that had been proposed a few months earlier.

This lesson has no exercises.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax