Europe 1943: A year of arguments, decisions, and victories

It was the critical time, when the tide finally turned in the West. But even victories at Stalingrad, in North Africa, and in Sicily could not mask the tensions between the Allied ‘Big Three’. Eighty years on, Taylor Downing describes a pivotal period in World War II.


The year 1943 began with successes for the Western Allies. Lieutenant-General Bernard Montgomery had won a resounding victory for the Eighth Army at El Alamein towards the end of the previous year, and was in pursuit of Field Marshal Rommel’s Panzerarmee Afrika. Four days after victory at El Alamein, Anglo-American forces landed successfully in north-west Africa in the first major amphibious campaign of the war, Operation Torch. By early January, these troops were edging eastwards. And 3,000 miles away in southern Russia, the Germans faced complete annihilation in the titanic Battle of Stalingrad.

Eighth Army soldiers amid the ruins of Catania on 5 August 1943, during the invasion of Sicily. Codenamed Husky, the operation was the largest amphibious landing on enemy territory of the war before D-Day. Image: Alamy

By January 1943, the once mighty VIth Army was completely surrounded on the banks of the Volga, its troops frozen, starving, and almost totally out of ammunition and medicine. Goering’s promised airlift to relieve the beleaguered German forces never materialised. Hitler ordered that no withdrawal was permitted and his army must stand and fight. On 30 January, he promoted General Friedrich Paulus, commander of VIth Army, to Field Marshal, knowing that no Field Marshal in German history had ever surrendered. But this did not stop Paulus from accepting the inevitable, and within hours he was signing the surrender document. About 130,000 Germans went into captivity. Only 6,000 ever made it back to Germany, many years after the war. Not only was it a military turning point, but film of the troops surrendering, some wrapped in blankets and rags, provided a stunning propaganda triumph for the Soviets. The myth of German invincibility was utterly crushed.

Winston Churchill addresses British troops in the old Roman amphitheatre at Carthage, Tunisia, on 1 June 1943. 

It was time to take stock and plan ahead. In January, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Roosevelt met with their chiefs of staff just outside newly liberated Casablanca in a set of villas and hotels on the coast. US Marines provided a tight security ring around the conference. The warm weather, along with news of progress on the various fronts, helped generate a positive atmosphere. ‘Bright sunshine, oranges, eggs and razor blades,’ wrote Churchill’s private secretary, describing items in abundance in Casablanca, in contrast to wartime Britain. But the genial social atmosphere could not hide deep divisions between the two Allies.

The British military brass was led by Chief of the Imperial General Staff General Sir Alan Brooke, a tough Ulsterman from a family with a long tradition of army service. Brooke, along with Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal and Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, the RAF and Royal Navy chiefs, had prepared their position well for Casablanca, and were in total agreement with the Prime Minister. The British argued that 1943 should see a continued emphasis on fighting in the Mediterranean in the hope of knocking Italy out of the war and undermining the Axis alliance. This would force Germany either to abandon its southern flank or to bring in reinforcements to shore up the Mediterranean and weaken the fighting forces on the Eastern Front, thus helping Stalin’s Red Army in its epic struggle.

A Red Army soldier raises the Red Banner on 2 February 1943 to mark  the surrender of German forces in Stalingrad.

By contrast, the American position was to plan for a cross-Channel invasion in northern Europe as soon as possible. General George C Marshall, Chief of Staff of the US Army, argued that to defeat Hitler it was essential to launch a major landing in occupied Europe, almost certainly France, and then sweep into Germany. Marshall believed only this could strike at the heart of the German war machine and bring victory over Nazism. Everything else he regarded as a sideshow. Admiral Ernest J King, on the other hand, the Chief of Naval Operations for the US Navy, argued that priority should be given to the Pacific and shipping resources should be diverted to this theatre. But both men knew that, as Commander-in-Chief, the President always had the final say.

For several days the chiefs of staff argued intensely. Brooke felt that Marshall had no idea of the real strength of the German enemy they were up against. Marshall resented what he saw as Brooke’s patronising attitude. After five days of argument, Brooke wrote in his diary, ‘A desperate day! We are further from obtaining agreement than we ever were!’

Meanwhile, Churchill and Roosevelt were getting on wonderfully in their seaside villas surrounded by palm trees and bougainvillaea. They discussed a wide range of issues. Roosevelt suggested that the ultimate war aim of the Allies should be the ‘unconditional surrender’ of their enemies. Churchill agreed. Sensing that the Americans were fearful that Britain would pull out of the war after the defeat of Hitler, Churchill agreed to commit to the war in the Pacific after the war in Europe was over. Surrounded by his generals and in daily contact with the President, Churchill was in his element. And Roosevelt seemed less concerned about continuing the war in the Mediterranean than his Chief of Staff.

Montgomery and Patton shake hands at Palermo airport on 28 July 1943. In reality, the battle for Sicily saw the birth of a fierce rivalry between the British and American generals.

Eventually the British and American chiefs of staff reached agreement. The defeat of Germany was to remain the first priority for the Allies. It was decided to continue with the war in the Mediterranean as the alternative of a cross-Channel assault was just not viable for at least 12 months. After the defeat of the Axis forces in North Africa, there would be an invasion of Sicily. Additionally, a new plan for stepping up the bombing of Germany was endorsed. Bomber Command and the US Eighth Army Air Force would carry out a combined bombing offensive to destroy the German military, industrial, and economic system, and undermine German civilian morale.

The military agreements were enthusiastically endorsed by Churchill and Roosevelt. It marked the high-water mark of British influence over the planning of the war. From this point onwards, the vast scale of the US war programme would begin to dwarf Britain’s. Whatever Brooke and the others felt about the Americans and their misunderstanding of wartime strategy, Britain would soon become the junior partner in the relationship. But, at Casablanca, the American commanders still felt they had been outmanoeuvred, and so another decision was made: to begin preliminary planning for a cross-Channel invasion of northern Europe in the spring of 1944. Back in London, Major-General Sir Frederick Morgan was put in charge of a team of planners to consider how, where and when an invasion of northern Europe might be staged.

Painful lessons

After the sunny promises at Casablanca came a long dark winter, with only slow progress by the Anglo-American First Army advancing eastwards in North Africa. US troops met their baptism of fire in north-western Tunisia, in a battle at Hill 609, which they failed to capture and were forced to retreat. The newly formed German Vth Panzer Army became a formidable fighting force, boasting the latest piece of German kit, the massive 60-ton Tiger tank, whose armour was almost impenetrable to Allied weapons. Rommel determined to hold the Eighth Army advancing from the east at the Mareth Line, in southern Tunisia, and the green US troops at the Kasserine Pass, in the west of the country. The Americans discovered what the Brits had already learned so painfully: that Rommel deployed his powerful tanks and artillery with efficiency and cunning. In the parlance of the day, the US troops got a ‘bloody nose’ at Kasserine. Meanwhile the Eighth Army advanced to the Libyan city of Tripoli, the capital of Mussolini’s onetime Mediterranean empire. When Churchill attended a victory parade of the 51st Highland Division in the city, tears of relief and pride ran down his cheeks as the pipers marched past.

American soldiers are pinned down in the Gulf of Salerno, south of the city of Naples, where attempts by Allied forces to secure a beachhead were met with strong German resistance. Image: Alamy

In March, after a week of heavy fighting, Monty’s men were able to break through the Mareth Line and head north towards Tunis. Rommel was evacuated on Hitler’s orders and General Hans von Arnim put in command. But without food, fuel, and ammunition, and trapped outside Tunis, von Arnim could no longer follow Hitler’s instruction to stand and fight. On 12 May, the Axis forces surrendered. In all, nearly 250,000 men went into captivity, including nine generals, along with 1,000 guns and 250 tanks. It was a larger haul than even at Stalingrad. Nearly three years of desert fighting was over. British and American forces had successfully fought together to bring victory. The next step would be Sicily.

But the arguments between the British and the Americans about global strategy continued to rage throughout 1943. Churchill was concerned that the US Chiefs of Staff were not fully on side with the Mediterranean strategy and wanted to bring the date of the cross-Channel invasion forward or reallocate supplies from Europe to the Pacific. The Americans continued to see Churchill’s Mediterranean strategy as some sort of imperial adventure and as evidence of a desire to avoid the head-on clash with the Third Reich that was the only way to end the war.

At another conference, this time in Washington in May and codenamed Trident, the arguments between the Allies continued. It was agreed that they would invade Sicily, but there was no agreement as to where the Allied armies should go next. The British argued forcefully that the Italian mainland was the obvious next step. Knocking Italy out of the war would not only undermine the Axis alliance but also force the Germans to replace the 25 Italian divisions in the Balkans and Greece – or surrender southern Europe up to the Danube. But for General Marshall and the American chiefs, this once again seemed as though the British wanted to continue a sideshow when all available resources should be assembling for the cross-Channel invasion. Churchill countered by saying that as the invasion was not scheduled until spring 1944, they could not justify having an entire victorious Army group sitting around doing nothing for a year, and they had to take the fight to the enemy where they found him. But to the frustration of the British, no final decision was reached at Trident as to where the Allies should go after Sicily.

The inventor Barnes Wallis and others oversee a practice ‘bouncing bomb’ strike at the Reculver range in Kent, in preparation for the famous Dambusters Raid on targets in  the Ruhr valley. 

The invasion of Sicily presented the Allies with the challenge of mounting the biggest landing on enemy territory so far in the war, codenamed Operation Husky. The first plan was to invade over a wide range of landing sites around the island in order to seize ports and airfields. Montgomery, with his attention very much focused on the fighting in North Africa, threw out the plan in February, claiming it left the Allies too dispersed and not strong enough to repel determined counter-attacks.

Hard fighting

A new plan was made to land British troops on the east coast around Avola, and American troops on the south-west around Gela. Both landings would be supported by parachute drops. But there was little time for retraining troops, who had been fighting in the desert, in amphibious warfare. Plans also had to be made for the vast naval fleet of about 2,500 ships to assemble, including two aircraft carriers, six battleships, 15 cruisers, and dozens of escort and support vessels. Some ships were to come from the UK, some direct from the US, and some from bases in the Mediterranean. The timetable for this armada to load up, sail, and draw up in the right order was itself immensely complex. The landing beaches had been selected from a detailed examination of aerial photos – but the models made in Britain of the landing beaches did not arrive until after the landings had taken place. All the planning had an air of last-minute haste about it.

An aerial photograph taken after the attack on 16-17 May 1943 shows the damage to the Möhne dam.

The battle for Sicily was tough. In addition to the two German divisions on the island, there were nine Italian divisions, a mix of second-rate coastal militias and better-quality mobile units, some of whom had fought in North Africa. The landings went reasonably smoothly, but the airborne drop was a disaster as strong winds blew the transport aircraft way off course. Some paratroopers landed as much as 50 miles from their Drop Zones. Many gliders were dropped in the sea. Casualties were alarmingly high. The disasters could have spelled the end of the use of airborne troops dropping behind enemy lines. But highly motivated, elite British and American paras redeemed themselves by fighting with extreme vigour, even if in the wrong place.

Once the main two forces had established a secure beachhead, Montgomery’s Eighth Army was to drive north to the coastal cities of Catania and Messina. Patton’s US Seventh Army was supposed to guard its flank and rear. But Patton had no intention of playing second fiddle to Montgomery. He turned to the west of the island, where he captured the capital Palermo, making a grand entrance as the conquering hero and taking more than 50,000 Italian prisoners. He then raced along the north coast determined to reach Messina before Monty. ‘This is a horse race in which the prestige of the US Army is at stake,’ Patton informed one of his divisional commanders. ‘We must take Messina before the British.’ His troops entered the town just hours ahead of British forces on 16 August. It was the end of the battle for Sicily, but the beginning of an intense rivalry between Patton and Montgomery that would resonate for the next two years.

Ruined residential and commercial buildings in Hamburg following the firestorms created by four successive days and nights of Allied bombing at the end of July 1943. Some 22 square kilometres of the city were razed to the ground.

After 38 days of hard fighting, Allied troops had crushed all resistance and Sicily came under Allied occupation. In Rome, the government of Mussolini collapsed. King Victor Emmanuel III appointed Marshal Badoglio as the new Prime Minister, and the fascists were thrown out of government. Badoglio tried to negotiate, but the Allies would only accept unconditional surrender. When Badoglio pulled Italy out of Hitler’s war, the Germans responded by occupying Rome and then the rest of the country, increasing their garrison from six to 25 divisions. At least the Allied objective of pulling more German divisions into the Mediterranean had worked.

The Allies hesitated, not having agreement to cross the couple of miles into the toe of Italy. A rapid assault might have made quick headway while the Germans re-formed. As it was, in early September, Monty’s Eighth Army crossed the Straits at Messina and began to advance rapidly through Calabria and into south-east Italy. A week later, on 9 September, Anglo-American forces, including Lieutenant-General Mark Clark’s Fifth Army, landed in the Salerno area south of Naples. There were German Panzer and grenadier units in the area, and reinforcements were rushed in more quickly than the Allies could land extra troops. In the heavy fighting, it looked as though the Fifth Army might have to evacuate, but they fought on until the beachhead was secure. Then came aggressive German counter-attacks, but the Panzers failed to break the Allied line, and with aerial and artillery superiority the balance soon turned in favour of the Allies. Naples was occupied in October, but the Germans withdrew to a series of well-prepared defensive lines, and the rest of the year saw a slow, grinding struggle from the Volturno Line (north of Naples) to the Gustav Line (south of Rome). It would take several months to advance any further. Although it was a long, tortuous slog through Italy, southern Europe was now opened up to Allied troops.

Meanwhile, one of the most significant confrontations of the war, the Battle of the Atlantic, had finally turned. German U-boats, in packs of sometimes up to 30, hunted Allied convoys bringing essential supplies and American military troops and matériel to Britain. In March, the Allies lost 600,000 tons of shipping to the U-boats. But when Bletchley Park cracked the new German naval code, they could locate the position of the U-boats precisely. The hunters now became the hunted. Between March and May, 67 U-boats were sunk, more than half of the entire fleet. On 22 May, Admiral Doenitz called off the campaign. It was a victory as significant as those of El Alamein or Stalingrad. The Atlantic sea lanes were open once again.

Eastine Cowner, a former waitress, works on the construction of the SS George Washington Carver. By late 1943, the US was turning out new merchant ‘Liberty’ ships at a phenomenal rate.

In the skies over Germany, the Allied air forces notched up more hits. The most famous RAF raid of the war, the Dambusters Raid on the night of 16 May, saw the Lancasters of 617 Squadron attack the Ruhr dams using the bouncing bombs created by inventor Barnes Wallis. Ironically, it was the most untypical raid of the war. The four-engined Lancaster and the other ‘heavies’ were not designed to carry out precision raids, but were intended to flatten whole factories and cities. With the ‘Mighty Eighth’ US Army Air Force bombing by day and RAF Bomber Command by night, the destruction of German cities reached a new level. At the end of July, Hamburg was bombed over four successive days and nights, creating massive firestorms. A million people fled and 22 square kilometres of the city was razed to the ground. Albert Speer, Hitler’s Armaments Minister, later wrote that if this had been followed by a series of attacks of the same scale on six other cities, Germany’s war production might have collapsed.

Invasion plans

At another Anglo-American summit in August, this time in Quebec and codenamed Quadrant, the Combined Chiefs of Staff once again argued bitterly over priorities, with the Americans still suspicious of British ambitions in the Mediterranean. But this time the Americans were determined to get their way. Progress on planning the cross-Channel invasion, Operation Overlord, was approved. It was agreed that if there were a conflict between resources needed for Italy or for the cross-Channel invasion, the priority would be for Overlord.

Also at Quadrant, Roosevelt and Churchill, delighted by the tremendous progress being made by the Red Army on the Kharkov front, mooted plans for a meeting with Stalin in a three-way summit. The geopolitical situation in late 1943 was changing rapidly. The United States was at last becoming the real ‘arsenal of democracy’, with its shipyards turning out a new merchant ‘Liberty’ ship every few days; its factories producing warplanes and tanks by the hundred, and Jeeps, trucks, and other vehicles by the thousand. And the Soviet Union had turned from being a nation on the brink of defeat to a military superpower with the largest army in the world. In Britain, five million men and women were in uniform of one sort or another. Millions more were in the factories that were working at full capacity. Britain’s war effort was stretched to its limit.

As the Allies fought their way up the Italian peninsula, plans were made for the first Big Three summit, to be held in Tehran at the end of November. Roosevelt, Churchill, and their staffs met in Cairo in advance. This time, Roosevelt set the agenda, literally. On 23 November, tensions between the British and American chiefs once again erupted, when Admiral King and General Brooke had a vehement argument about priorities over supplies to Europe versus the Pacific. ‘Brooke got nasty and King got good and sore,’ wrote the American General Joseph Stilwell. ‘King almost climbed over the table at Brooke. God he was mad! I wish he had socked him.’ In his diary, Brooke was a little more restrained, writing that the meeting ‘became somewhat heated’.

At the first formal meeting in Tehran, between Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin on 28 November, the PM told the gathering that they represented ‘the greatest concentration of worldly power that had ever been seen in the history of mankind’. At the sessions with the Big Three, there was much discussion about Overlord. Stalin was frustrated that it was taking the Allies so long to open a Second Front to relieve the Red Army. When Churchill spoke about the need to ensure that the German forces in northern France were not powerful enough to throw the Allies back into the sea, Stalin was horrified. Knowing that there were literally hundreds of divisions battling it out on the Eastern Front, he feared the British would delay the whole operation. At the end of the session, Stalin turned to Churchill and asked, ‘Do the British Prime Minister and the British staff really believe in Overlord?’ Deeply offended, Churchill replied that, providing the conditions were met, ‘it will be our stern duty to hurl across the Channel against the Germans every sinew of our strength’.

On 30 November, after the formal meetings came to an end, the Soviets hosted a dinner to celebrate Churchill’s 69th birthday. The Prime Minister sat with Stalin on his left and Roosevelt on his right. Churchill later described the scene by saying, ‘There I sat with the Great Russian bear on one side of me with paws outstretched, and on the other side the great American buffalo, and between the two sat the poor little English donkey.’ In the Russian style, toasts were raised throughout the evening, and everyone drank what was in their glass. Churchill began by proposing a toast to the King, the President, and the Russian leader, whom he called ‘Stalin the Great’. As an evening of excellent food and drink passed, the many toasts got merrier. Churchill ended up proposing a toast ‘to the proletarian masses’ and Stalin responded with a toast ‘to the Conservative party’. Clearly it was a good evening!

The Big Three: Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill in late November 1943 at the Tehran Conference, described by the British prime minister as ‘the greatest concentration of worldly power that had ever been seen’.

The Tehran conference had proved a surprising success. Although Churchill had been distressed by what he saw as Roosevelt sidling up to Stalin, the Soviet leader had in reality supported both of the democratic leaders and much important work had been done. Strategies had been agreed and plans made.

A new threat

In the same month, Hitler and the OKW (German High Command) began to review their priorities. General Alfred Jodl argued that the German forces in the West had been badly run down and were now at a level at which they would no longer be capable of an effective defence against a major Allied assault. This case finally got through to Hitler, who for more than two years had been obsessed with the Eastern Front. As a consequence, a major reorientation of strategic thinking was laid down in November 1943 in Führer Directive No.51. This made it clear that the major struggle against Bolshevism would continue in the East, but that there was a new threat, an Anglo-American landing in the West. To counter this, there was first to be a massive building programme to construct a line of coastal defences from Norway to the Spanish border. Second, the German army in the West would be reinforced with new full-strength infantry divisions backed by fully equipped armoured Panzer divisions. It was intended that these would throw the Allies back at whatever point they chose to land.

The year ended with three military appointments. Roosevelt made General Dwight D Eisenhower, already in charge in the Mediterranean, Supreme Commander of Overlord. It was the critical appointment that meant planning for D-Day could go up a gear, and a new command was formed: SHAEF, the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force. Montgomery was appointed commander of 21st Army Group, effectively in charge of land forces for the invasion. And on the other side of the Channel, Hitler appointed Rommel as commander of a new army in the West, Army Group B, with responsibility for building up the Atlantic Wall and repelling an Allied invasion. Everything was now being lined up for the next year, 1944, which would prove to be the decisive year for the war in the West.

Taylor Downing’s ‘War on Film’ column appears on p.64. His most recent book, 1942: Britain at the Brink, is out now in paperback (Abacus, £12.99).

All images: Wikimedia Commons, unless otherwise stated