Nick Tingley writes his latest article for the site on a fascinating topic. He postulates on what could have happened had the 1944 Normandy Landings against Nazi Germany taken place in 1943. As we shall see, things may well have not turned out as well as they did…

 

In a mid-spring morning in 1943, France was awash with blood. Like the brutal battle of Gallipoli in the First World War, Allied troops found themselves once again pinned down and being forced back into the sea by a well-trained army. These troops, under the command of US General George Patton, had barely been on the shores of Normandy for more than a week before the German war machine had finally kicked in to gear. Starting at Benouville in the east, German Panzer units were screaming across the coast of Normandy, cutting off the divisions that had already made their way inland. Those that managed to cling on to the coastline began to be evacuated but the German counter-attack was so swift that many were left to their fate. For the second time in the Second World War, the Allies had been kicked out of France.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied effort in Europe, was given little choice but to order the withdrawal of the rest of the invasion force. Soon after he accepted full responsibility for the failure and was fired. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who only a year before had quite happily dismissed Churchill’s plan to attack the “soft underbelly of Europe”, was now forced to admit that the British Prime Minister may have been right. Under immense pressure from a population that was already astonished by America’s “Germany First Policy”, Roosevelt was forced to withdraw his forces from Europe to face off with the Empire of Japan in the Pacific.

After a year of revelling in the presence of their strong, American allies, Britain once again found itself facing the Nazi threat – alone in the West.

US troops before fighting began in June 1944.

US troops before fighting began in June 1944.

Operation Round Up

But none of this happened.

The Allies did not launch a large-scale invasion of France in 1943. Nor did they fail to hold on to the landings when D-Day finally came about in 1944. Eisenhower was not fired and the American population did not demand that the Armed Forces withdraw to take on the more immediate Japanese threat.

But, when the Americans finally joined the war in Europe in 1942, this scenario of an attempted invasion of France in 1943 was certainly a real possibility. President Roosevelt and his generals, under a huge amount of pressure from the American people and his new Russian ally, Josef Stalin, were eager to open up a second front in France and bring the Nazis to heel as soon as possible.

The proposed invasion of France, codenamed “Operation Round Up”, was intended to take place in the spring of 1943. Its goal was to relieve pressure on the Soviet Union and force a quick end to what had already been a war to rival the Great War of 1914-18. The plan could have ended the war by Christmas 1943. But it was not to be.

 

The British Question

The main character responsible for delaying the invasion of France was the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill. As a politician who had led Britain against the threat of invasion in 1940 and saw the turn about of the British fortunes of war in North Africa, Churchill held a lot of sway over both the British people and the American president. Whilst American generals were advocating an invasion of France as soon as the troops were ready to do so, Churchill and the British generals were suggesting a more roundabout way of dealing with the Nazi threat.

Churchill’s suggestion was simple. The Allies should focus on removing the Axis Powers from Africa first, to relieve pressure on the forces fighting from Egypt. Then, once Africa was secure, he later suggested that the Allies should attack Sicily and then mainland Italy in an attempt to knock the German’s closest ally, Italy, out of the war before taking the Nazis on in the final attack.

Unwilling to argue with the British, whose island offered the only close staging point for any invasion of France, Roosevelt eventually capitulated to Churchill’s plan, much to the dismay of his own generals. Seaborne landings took place in Africa in 1942 and in Sicily and Italy the following year.

Ever since, historians have been arguing over Churchill’s intentions for suggesting an attack on the “soft underbelly of Europe”. Many suggest that Churchill was only ever interested in securing Britain’s Empire by having troops in Africa and that the attack in Italy was designed so that Churchill could gain leverage against the Soviet Union in any potential post-war agreement. It appeared that many of the American generals at the time had considered this possibility as well. When Churchill further suggested the idea of an invasion of the Balkans prior to an invasion of France, the generals, and later historians, were quick to suggest that this was merely a ploy to ensure that the Soviet Union would have little bargaining power after the war was over. However, this invasion did not take place and Roosevelt finally stood his ground, insisting that the Allies’ next invasion should take place in France.

There are, however, some historians who have suggested that Churchill had learned from his experience at Gallipoli during the First World War and, as such, was proceeding with a greater caution when addressing the issue of defeating the Nazis. These historians are keen to point out that the sea and air landings in Africa, Sicily and Italy were by no means successful.

 

Learn By Experience

Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa, was a complete farce in comparison to the later D-Day landings. Both the British and Americans failed to achieve their objectives, the landings were delayed due to poor planning and an airborne operation with a single American parachute battalion turned into a complete nightmare. In the aftermath of Operation Torch, both the US General Patton and British General Clark acknowledged that the landings had been completely chaotic. They even went so far as to suggest that their troops would have been massacred had they been fighting German troops rather than the badly armed French colonial troops that they actually engaged.

Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily, was little better. Although pre-dawn airborne drops and sea landings saw 80,000 allies land on in Sicily, the attacks themselves were often chaotic. After landing on shore, the US Seventh Army had no clear objectives due to the vague planning of the operation and it was only by the exploitative nature of General Patton that the army did not stop dead in its tracks. Furthermore, troops often came ashore in the wrong place and airborne troops found themselves scattered all over the place. The British glider force, who were tasked with capturing a key bridge south of Syracuse, lost the majority of its gliders to the sea and were forced to capture the bridge with only thirty men. To make matters worse, ground commanders often complained about the lack of Allied air cover over Sicily, but their air force colleagues were unwilling to risk fighters as they would often get picked off by their own anti-aircraft batteries.

The Allied landings in Italy in September 1943 appeared to be a drastic improvement on the earlier attempts in North Africa and Sicily, but this was largely due to the Italian government surrendering shortly afterwards. A later landing at Anzio in January 1944 failed to advance quickly enough and allowed the occupying Germans to fall back to more defensible positions.

Whilst many are quick to criticise Churchill for “leading the Allies up the Mediterranean path”, the chaotic invasions of North Africa, Sicily and Italy show us that the Allies were by no means ready to take on the Germans in 1943. In fact, many of the lessons learned from these failures during the earlier invasions ensured the success of Operation Overlord in June 1944. Regardless of Churchill’s reasoning, he had at least prevented a potentially disastrous invasion of France in 1943.

 

The What Could Have Beens

So what would have happened during a 1943 invasion of France?

There are many interpretations for what might have happened. I believe that General Patton would have been the obvious choice to lead the invasion of France. Patton was not chosen to lead the attack in 1944 due to an incident during the Sicily campaign where he slapped a soldier who was suffering from combat fatigue. But if the invasion of Sicily had never happened, this event may not have happened leaving Patton open to command the attack on the Normandy beaches.

There may still have been an attempt to attack and capture Pegasus Bridge, which was one of the few bridges that would allow the Germans access to attack the eastern flank of the Normandy beachheads. And this attack would probably have been undertaken by glider assault. But we can imagine that the attack would have been as successful as the glider assault in Sicily. With gliders crashing well short of the target there would have been few troops in position to hold the bridge. The troops at Pegasus Bridge would have easily been overrun and the Germans would have had the opportunity to cut the invading armies off from the sea.

There would have been an airborne assault, but given how chaotic the airborne assaults in North Africa and Sicily had been, the confusion that the paratroopers encountered on D-Day in 1944 would have been far greater in 1943 had they not had that earlier experience in the Mediterranean. The same can be said of the beach landings that would have been chaotic and delayed. We can quite easily imagine that the struggle that occurred on Omaha beach in 1944 would have been present and even greater at every single landing site in 1943.

Whilst we can’t know for sure that a 1943 invasion of France would have been a disaster, history suggests that it would have been. It is entirely possible that the landings themselves may have been a success, but without the experience of encountering those small failures in the otherwise successful landings in the Mediterranean it seems highly unlikely that the invasion of France would have achieved anything close to the success of D-Day. At best, an Allied Army would have found itself penned into the Normandy region by a more experienced German force. At worse, the Germans would have poured along the coast, cutting off the invasion forces and driving the rest back in to the sea.

 

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References

The Second World War - Anthony Beevor (2012)

Invaders: British and American Experience of Seaborne Landings 1939 - 1945 - Colin John Bruce (1999)

Fighting them on the Beaches: The D-Day landings, June 6, 1944 - Nigel Cawthorne (2002)

D-Day Fails: Atomic Alternatives in Europe - Stephen Ambrose (1999)

Steve Strathmann considers what the three presidents most closely associated with World War II did during  that other great war of the twentieth century – World War I.

 

In 1917, Woodrow Wilson led the United States as it entered the First World War. In his speech to Congress asking for a declaration of war, Wilson presented Germany’s submarine warfare as the primary reason to go to war, but he also stated a greater goal:

The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted upon the tested foundations of political liberty. We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. We shall be satisfied when those rights have been made as secure as the faith and the freedom of nations can make them.

 

The two men who held the office before him supported the nation’s entry into the war. Theodore Roosevelt, a veteran of the Spanish-American War, asked to personally raise a division of troops to be sent to Europe. Wilson met with Roosevelt and politely declined the offer, explaining that the ranks would be instead filled through a draft. Another strike against Roosevelt going to Europe was his poor overall health; he would barely outlive the conflict, passing away on January 6, 1919.

William Howard Taft spoke publicly in support of the war. On June 13, 1917, he repeated Wilson’s “war for democracy” theme, declaring “...Now we have stepped to the forefront of nations, and they look to us.” Taft would be tapped by President Wilson to chair the National War Labor Board, a panel set up to handle labor/management disputes during the war.

While other future presidents would make contributions to the war effort (especially Herbert Hoover, whose work during and after the war would make him internationally famous), what did the three presidents most identified with the Second World War do in 1917? As we shall see, these three men all served their nation’s military in different ways.

 

The Assistant Secretary

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   FDR, with Secretary Daniels and the Prince of Wales, in Annapolis, 1919   
  
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FDR, with Secretary Daniels and the Prince of Wales, in Annapolis, 1919.

While the war raged overseas, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Theodore’s cousin) was a member of the Wilson administration serving as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy. At the start of war, Roosevelt publicly called for an increase in the size of the US Navy by 18,000 men. This got him into trouble with Wilson and Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels, who were trying to maintain a state of neutrality. Roosevelt had to recant his statement, and learned not to step on his superiors’ toes.

By July of 1915, the administration was coming into line with Roosevelt’s beliefs on naval expansion. Increased action in the Atlantic Ocean, including the sinking of the Lusitania, convinced Wilson that the military needed to be updated and enlarged to improve the nation’s defenses. Daniels and FDR presented a plan calling for the construction of 176 new ships, including ten battleships. This was approved by the president and Congress.

Even with these preparations, the US Navy was relatively small when war was declared. This had changed by the end of the war, when the force had expanded to almost a million sailors on over 2,000 vessels. Roosevelt had a hand in this, proving to be so good at gathering military supplies that he had to be asked to share the navy’s material gains with the army.

According to biographer Jean Edward Smith, FDR’s greatest wartime work was the creation of a North Sea antisubmarine chain of mines. While the initial plan was not Roosevelt’s, his promotion of the idea and the technology to accomplish it was what led to it being implemented. The chain wasn’t installed until the summer of 1918 and it was never fully tested, but estimates of German U-boats destroyed by the mines range from four to as many as twenty-three.

Above all, Franklin Roosevelt wanted to serve in the military during the war. He knew how his cousin’s military exploits helped with his political career and wanted to follow in his footsteps. Theodore Roosevelt even encouraged Franklin to enlist. Unfortunately for FDR, his talents working for the administration meant that Wilson and Daniels would never let him leave his post.

Roosevelt did eventually make it to the Western Front, but not as a soldier. In the summer of 1918, he was sent as part of a Senate committee to inspect the situation in Europe. He insisted on going to the French battlefields, including Verdun and Belleau Wood, and came within one mile of the German front lines. Little did he know, his future vice president was serving in an artillery unit not too far away.

 

Captain Harry

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   Harry S. Truman in France, 1918   
  
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Harry S. Truman in France, 1918.

Harry S. Truman volunteered when war was declared, and the former Missouri Guard member was elected an officer in the artillery formations being organized in the Kansas City/Independence region. After training in Oklahoma, the units sailed for France, arriving on April 13, 1918.

On July 11, Truman took over command of Battery D. The battery had had issues with their previous commanders, but Truman soon earned their respect. Indeed, according to author Robert Ferrell, these soldiers would in the future be Truman’s political base, willing to do anything to support the man they called “Captain Harry.”

Truman’s battery saw action in the Vosges Mountains, Meuse-Argonnes and Verdun. Before Meuse-Argonnes, the captain marched his battery for twenty-two nights to reach their destination. During the two weeks there, Truman’s men sometimes fired their guns so often that, according to the battery’s chief mechanic, “...they’d pour a bucket of water down the muzzle and it’d come out of the breach just a-steaming, you know.”

Verdun was a particularly grizzly posting. The area where the unit was stationed was part of the 1916 battlefield, so every shell that landed around the battery would churn up graves from the previous action. Truman would describe waking up in the morning and finding skulls lying nearby. The battery would serve at Verdun until the end of the war.

While Truman was learning to become a leader of men under fire, one of his future generals was fresh out of West Point, desperate to join in the action, but continually thwarted in his attempts.

 

Ike

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   Dwight D. Eisenhower, with tank, in Fort Meade   
  
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Dwight D. Eisenhower, with tank, in Fort Meade.

Dwight D. Eisenhower graduated from West Point in 1915, sixty-first in a class of 164. Despite his wishes to be posted in the Philippines, he ended up in Texas. When the United States entered the war, Eisenhower was appointed regimental supply officer of the new 57th Regiment.

Unfortunately for the ambitious Ike, he proved to be an excellent training officer and was turned down every time he requested a transfer to Europe. Like Roosevelt, he was too valuable to let go. He was soon transferred to Fort Meade to help organize the 301st Tank Battalion, one of the United States’ first tank units. He was supposed to leave for France with the 301st as its commander, but at the last minute was told that he would remain behind (once again) to set up a training base, Camp Colt, to be located on the old Gettysburg battlefield in Pennsylvania.

Eisenhower did a fantastic job setting up Camp Colt, which soon held more than 10,000 men training on the site of Pickett’s Charge. Due to a lack of tanks, they would use guns mounted on flatbed trucks to practice firing at targets while in motion. Finally all was going well and Eisenhower was scheduled to leave for Europe with the next group of recruits, but the war ended just as they were preparing to leave.

 

War to End All Wars?

As the war ended, these three men probably thought what most others did: this war was the last of its kind to be fought. Eisenhower would remain in the army. Truman would return to Missouri and try his hand in business. Roosevelt would continue in politics, running for vice president on the unsuccessful 1920 Democratic ticket. Little did these three men know that they were destined to meet in just over a couple of decades, fighting the next world war.

 

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References

Aboukhadijeh, Feross. "U.S. Entry into WWI" StudyNotes.org. StudyNotes, Inc., Published November 17, 2012. Accessed May 16, 2014.

Duffy, Michael, ed. “Primary Documents- U.S. Declaration of War with Germany, 2 April 1917.” FirstWorldWar.com. Published August 22, 2009. Accessed May 16, 2014.

Duffy, Michael, ed. “Primary Documents- William Howard Taft on America’s Decision to go to War, 13 June 1917.” FirstWorldWar.com. Published August 22, 2009. Accessed May 16, 2014.

Ferrell, Robert H. Harry S. Truman: a life. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1994.

Korda, Michael. Ike: An American Hero. New York: Harper, 2007.

Smith, Jean Edward. FDR. New York: Random House, 2007.

 

Photos

http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/npc2007000705/resource/ (FDR, with Secretary Daniels and the Prince of Wales, in Annapolis, 1919)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Harry_S._Truman_WW_I.jpg (Harry S. Truman in France, 1918)

http://www.ftmeade.army.mil/museum/Eisenhower_with_Tank.jpg (Dwight D. Eisenhower, with tank, in Fort Meade)