European Theater: Overview 2

U.S. Infantry crossing the Siegfried Line into Germany, March 1945
U.S. Infantry crossing the Siegfried Line into Germany, March 1945.

Today in WW II: 17 Nov 1941 Germans begin assault on Rostov, gateway to the Caucasus; city taken on 21 Nov.  More 
17 Nov 1944 Albanian partisans liberate Tirana, Albania as the Germans pull out.
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Sicily and the Italian Campaign

Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily, was agreed upon at Casablanca in January 1943. On the night of 9-10 July 1943, Montgomery's British forces landed on the southeast coast and Patton's newly activated U.S. Seventh Army on the southwest. Stiff German resistance, confusion and friendly fire losses slowed progress toward the Sicilian capital, Messina. Patton pushed toward Palermo, at the western tip of the island, then attacked Messina from the north, outflanking German positions with a series of small amphibious end runs. American and British troops arrived in Messina on 17 August, just as the last Axis troops evacuated Sicily to the Italian mainland.

The weak Italian army and government were shoved out of the way by the Germans who reinforced their Italian positions. Allied landings at Taranto and Salerno in September pushed the Germans back and Anglo-American troops reached Naples by 30 September.

The Allied advance up the mountainous spine of Italy confronted a series of heavily fortified German defensive positions, anchored on rivers or commanding terrain features. The brilliant delaying tactics of the German commander in Italy, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, exacted a high price for every Allied gain. The campaign in Italy was an endless siege, fought in rugged terrain, in often appalling weather conditions, and with limited resources.

October 1943 found the Allies at the Gustav Line, a main German defensive position centered at Monte Cassino. An amphibious landing at Anzio in January 1944, intended to outflank and break the Gustav Line, became another siege, as American and British troops held out against repeated German counterattacks. Two major battles at Monte Cassino, and the bombing of the monastery 15 February, failed to dislodge the Germans. Finally, in May 1944, a series of coordinated attacks by Fifth Army and Eighth Army fractured the Germans line, and they began to fall back. On 4 June 1944 Allied troops entered Rome, but it took until April 1945 to penetrate the final German defenses in the Northern Apennines and enter the Po Valley in northern Italy.

Eastern Front of the ETO in WW II

The Soviet-German 2000 mile front in the Spring of 1942 was followed, in the summer, by a renewed German offensive with a massive attack to the south and southeast toward the city of Stalingrad on the Volga River and toward the oil fields of the Caucasus. As the Germans fought their way to Stalingrad in September 1942, the German domination of Europe had reached its furthest geographical extension. Europe lay under German domination from France in the west to the Volga River in the east; from the Arctic Circle in Norway to the shores of North Africa.

Until the autumn of 1942, the German Wehrmacht was consistently victorious. But when the 250,000 soldiers of the German Sixth Army tried to conquer Stalingrad in bitter hand-to-hand fighting, they failed. In mid-November 1942, the Soviet army launched a massive counteroffensive that encircled and trapped the German forces. Six more weeks of fierce combat with heavy casualties on both sides followed. The German army was finally defeated and some 91,000 surviving German soldiers surrendered at the end, 2 February 1943.

The battle for Stalingrad proved a decisive psychological turning point, ending the string of German victories and beginning the long retreat westward that would bring the Red Army to Berlin in April 1945. The Soviet army liberated most of the Ukraine, and virtually all of Russia and eastern Belorussia during 1943. In the summer of 1943 at Kursk, Russia, the Germans attempted one more offensive, but were badly beaten by the Soviet army. A year later, in the summer of 1944, the Soviets launched another major offensive, which liberated the rest of Belorussia and the Ukraine, most of the Baltic states, and eastern Poland from Nazi rule, as well as keeping German reinforcements from France. By August 1944, Soviet troops had crossed the German border into East Prussia. In January 1945, a new offensive brought Soviet forces to the Oder River, in Germany proper, about 100 miles from Berlin. Vienna was captured on 13 April.

D-Day (6 June 1944) and the Normandy Campaign

General Eisenhower arrived in London in January 1944 to set up Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF). While the struggle in Italy continued through the spring of 1944, Allied military resources shifted north to support the buildup and execution of Operation OVERLORD, the invasion of the Normandy coast of German-occupied France. The Allies had almost complete air superiority over western Europe and used it to target the French rail system in anticipation of the invasion. Detailed planning for the cross-Channel assault was also accompanied by a tremendous buildup in England of 1.6 million men and their equipment.

The invasion of "Festung Europa" (Fortress Europe) began in the pre-dawn hours of D-Day (6 June 1944) when one British and two U.S. airborne divisions dropped behind the beaches. After sunrise, following a massive air and naval bombardment, British, Canadian, and U.S. troops moved ashore over the beaches, against German resistance that varied from light to murderous. German reinforcements were prevented from reaching the area in strength, and within days Allied troops besieged Cherbourg and slowly expanded southward through the entangling Norman hedgerows.

The Allied advance was stopped by concentrated German armor at the town of Caen, but managed to reach St. Lo by 18 July, well behind schedule. On 25 July Operation COBRA used massed bombers from England against German positions and armored infantry finally broke the German defensive line. Pouring through the gap, American troops advanced forty miles within a week. U.S., Canadian, British, and Polish troops encircled the Germans in a giant pocket around Falaise where Allied fighter-bombers and artillery destroyed twenty German divisions.

Seizing the initiative, Eisenhower ordered the Allied forces to drive all-out for the German frontier. With the Germans in full retreat, French and American troops rolled into Paris on 25 August 1944. U.S. and French divisions landed in Southern France, French forces liberated the ports, and the U.S. Seventh Army drove northward through the cities of Lyon and Besançon, then joined up with Allied forces advancing from Normandy on 11 September.

British and Canadian forces advanced into the Netherlands, and American troops crossed Belgium and Luxembourg and entered German territory, meeting strong resistance. Logistical problems piled up, slowing progress and curtailing British plans for a deep thrust into Germany. Operation MARKET-GARDEN attempted to use two U.S. and one British airborne division to open the way for a British armored thrust to seize a bridge across the lower Rhine at Arnhem, Netherlands. The airborne troops took most of their objectives, but German resistance was much stronger than expected, and the operation failed to gain the bridgehead across the Rhine.

The rapid Allied advances in summer and fall 1944 raised optimistic hopes of an early end of the war in Europe. But German resistance was strong and their logistical lines became shorter as the Allies stretched to supply their own advance. The pace bogged down in bad weather with battles of attrition all along the front throughout October and November, including Antwerp, Aachen, Metz, Hürtgen Forest, and the approaches to the Roer River. By December U.S. forces were spread thin along the approaches to Germany itself, especially in areas such as the Ardennes where there were few reserves after months of heavy fighting.

The Battle of the Bulge: Hitler's Last Offensive of WW II

On 16 December powerful German forces struck the lightly held sector of the U.S. First Army front in the Ardennes. German armored spearheads drove toward the Muese River, aiming at Antwerp, creating a westward bulge in the lines, and the Battle of the Bulge commenced. By 18 December the magnitude of the German effort was clear, and Eisenhower ordered Patton's Third Army to disengage from its offensive toward the Saar and to attack the enemy's southern flank. American defenders managed to hold some strong points, confounding German plans and delaying the German timetable, notably the defenders of St. Vith and the surrounded 101st Airborne who withstood heavy attack and held Bastogne for the duration of the battle.

The German spearheads were stopped short of the Muese. Patton attacked northward, relieving Bastogne on 26 December. On 3 January Allied divisions counterattacked against the northern shoulder of the bulge as a secondary German offensive failed in the south. By the end of January the Allies had retaken all the lost ground and the Germans had lost the Battle of the Bulge, along with most of Hitler's remaining armor and fighter aircraft.

Final World War II Offensive in the ETO

In January and February 1945 the Allied armies completed the destruction of German resistance west of the Rhine and prepared a coordinated assault on Germany itself across a broad front. The advance began in late February, the U.S. First Army captured Cologne on 5 March and on 7 March seized the bridge at Remagen intact. The Rhine was assaulted and crossed in late March by Third Army troops while in the same week British Second Army and the U.S. Ninth Army staged massive crossings in the Rees-Wesel-Dinslaken area, supported by the largest airborne landings of the war, and the Seventh Army crossed near Worms. Allied columns fanned out across Germany, overrunning isolated pockets of resistance and capturing the major population and industrial centers of western Germany along with large numbers of surrendering German troops.

Coming from the east, the Soviets massed 1.2 million men and 22,000 pieces of artillery for their assault upon Berlin, beginning 16 April 1945. As that battle raged, British, American, and Soviet forces neared previously negotiated stop lines along the Elbe and Mulde Rivers. The First Army made contact with Soviet troops on 25 April around Torgau. The Third Army entered Czechoslovakia and British troops reached the Baltic as the Russians took the streets of Berlin. On 30 April 1945, Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin bunker.

German forces in Italy surrendered effective 2 May and those in the Netherlands, northwestern Germany, and Denmark on 4 May. On 7 May the German High Command surrendered all its forces unconditionally, and 8 May 1945 was officially proclaimed V-E Day. Germany and much of Europe was in ruins.

Recommended Books about the European Theater of Operations (ETO)

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