I’ve been posting on 70-year anniversaries, and, as you will recall, 70 years ago World War 2 was going on. Here’s another in the series.
As I previously posted, the United States quickly got into the war after being attacked at Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Immediately Congress approved a declaration of war against the Japanese Empire, the people who had attacked us. At the time the Japanese and the Germans had a pact whereby they agreed that if one of them were attacked then both would declare war on the attacker. In the event, Japan was not attacked (Japan did the attacking), so Germany was not required by the pact to declare war on the United States. Adolph Hitler, that crazy guy running things over there, must have decided that if this be foolishness, then let’s make the most of it. Nobody ever explained Hitler’s reasoning to me, but my take is he figured that wilt all of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s posturing and interference with Germany’s submarine attacks, he should make the inevitable sooner rather than later. Germany declared war on the United States on 11 December.
The United States lost big in the opening days as the Japanese quickly overran the Philippines, the East Indies and Southeast Asia. All American, Dutch, French and British troops in the area were either killed, captured or left to flee into the bush. Australia came under air attack but stood fast and prepared against a Japanese invasion. New Zealand became a staging point for Allied forces.
The United States Army struck the first retaliatory blow in April 1942 when a flight of B-25 bombers made a courtesy call on major Japanese cities. This rattled the Japanese to the extent they initiated a disastrous attack on Midway Island, an American base. All four Japanese carriers were lost, and from that point on the Japanese Empire fought a battle of retreat. American soldiers and Marines thwarted a Japanese invasion of the Solomon Islands, forcing the Japanese to withdraw all troops from Guadalcanal, those who had not already been killed. Very few were captured. American and Australian forces forced back a Japanese invasion on the island of New Guinea.
And that wrapped up the first year in the war with Japan. On the other front American forces struck out to engage Germans in North Africa. In November of 1942 American and British troops invaded Morocco and Algeria and went up against the French. Those crazy Frenchmen! In 1940 Germany conquered France, forcing the partition of that country and a general stand down of French forces. Apparently some French forces took this provision of the capitulation too seriously, and French commanders in North Africa felt obliged to defend Germany’s interests in the region. Here Army general George Patton achieved his ambition of getting back into combat for the first time since the previous war with Germany. His troops quickly subdued French resistance, and Patton prepared to face the Germans again. It was not to be, and our first encounter with the German army since 1918 turned into a disaster. It was February 1943—seventy years ago this month.
The critical American commander in the area was General Lloyd Fredendall. The problem with Fredendall was that he preferred to lead from the rear. During the Torch invasion he stayed aboard ship until the fighting was over, and ashore he commanded his forces from an office in Oran in Algeria. His failure to personally inspect the battle situation and his inclination to reject advice from those who did resulted in poor deployment of his forces and consequence losses in the field.
British commander Bernard Montgomery had put German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel on the run in the Battle of El Alamein in Egypt in October 1942, and by early 1943 Rommel was reduced to defending Tunisia. Rommel was very effective in this endeavor, considering his limited options. He considered the American forces to be inferior and proved his point in numerous encounters with our forces.
On 30 January Rommel’s forces sucked their American counterparts into a trap and mostly annihilated the tanks of the 21st Armored Division. That was at Faïd Pass.
The ultimate humiliation came with the Battle of the Kasserine Pass, beginning on 19 February. Rommel’s forces attempted to punch through the pass, and in doing so they routed American forces. Allied losses were 10000, including 6500 Americans. I do not have figures for the number captured, but a scene in the movie Patton shows hundreds of American soldiers in a prison stockade about to be shipped back to Europe, where they would spend the remainder of the war. Allied forces lost 183 tanks.
By 25 February Allied forces had pushed the Germans back through Kasserine Pass as Rommel wisely recognized his precarious position. In the following weeks German forces left Africa completely, retreating back to Sicily to await the coming Allied invasion of that island.
The American military conducted a harsh analysis of what had transpired in Tunisia, and Eisenhower acknowledged his mistake in putting Fredendall in charge. Fredendall was shipped back to the States and out of combat for good. Patton was in from that point forward and continued to demonstrate his superiority in battle command—at least during those intervals when he was able to keep out of trouble with superiors. That’s another interesting story, and the movie tells a good and fairly accurate story of his remarkable career.
After over a year into the declared war with Germany, the Americans reached a turning point with that enemy. The British had reached their turning point a few months earlier in Egypt, and the Soviet Army did so in February 1943 with the capitulation of German forces in the Battle of Stalingrad. From this time 70 years ago Germany was to endure a steady string of defeats that stretched more than two years—an ordeal that was to claim the lives of hundreds of thousands of troops on both sides. More on that later.