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Why 1943 Matters . . . .

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In the Second World War, the year 1943 represents a hinge or mid-point in the historical course of the war. We today know that the American entry into the war in late 1941 ultimately culminated in victory in 1945, and many students of history today therefore believe that the United States was gaining traction towards this inevitable, foreordained end. But those Americans living through 1943 had no way to know that the war would end in two years, or that the final result would be victory. In reality, 1943 was a time of tremendous and complex transition in the Allied war effort, one in which momentum was being fostered that would lead to the offensive cascade and escalating violence which would overwhelm the Axis powers.

When I first became interested in the Second World War as a high school student, the year 1943 seemed to be a lull or drag in time, a year which paled in importance compared to the crash of huge events that surrounded it. To my youthful, untamed mind, the great dramatic events of Pearl Harbor, Guadalcanal, North Africa or Stalingrad in 1942 swept seamlessly and effortlessly into the great dramatic events of Normandy, the Bulge and final victory in the drive to Berlin and the atomic explosions over Japan in the breathtaking time of 1944-45. By comparison, 1943 seemed to be a grind, a breathing spell, a time when leaders were simply “staying the course” until they could undertake the next big, dramatic historical steps.

Fortunately for me, students of history are asked to consider how big, dramatic events in reality come about, and the interested student who digs into the details of an historical time frequently discovers that what first seemed to be mundane or simple events are in fact the result of an enormously complex set of circumstances, initiatives, and personalities. Such has been my experience as I continued to learn about World War II in college, and it is my good fortune to continue to learn new perspectives right up to the present day.

Just in time for the 70th anniversaries of the events of 1943, the Yale historian of geopolitics Paul Kennedy has laid out the case for 1943 as the key time of complex and deep transitions within the war with his latest book, Engineers of Victory:  The Problem Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War. Professor Kennedy identifies the strategic issues upon which victory for the Allies hung in the balance:  learning how to bring convoys across the Atlantic Ocean safely, how to achieve air superiority, how to halt a blitzkrieg, how to successfully conduct amphibious landings and how to defeat vast geographic distances through logistics.  The origins to the big, dramatic events that brought the war to a tremendous climax were due to the Allied responses to these strategic problems, all roughly centered in the year 1943.

The fate of the outcome of the war alights on the movement of events centered on this hinge year of 1943. In this perspective, the battle of the Atlantic comes to a head during the critical month of Black May. The Allies learn after disastrous bombing raids at Ploesti and Schweinfurt that technology can supply the key to long range fighter escorts and reverse the currents in the air war. The techniques first used at El Alamein by the British are demonstrated on a massive scale against the Wehrmacht’s blitzkrieg tactics by the Red Army at Kursk. Through the Mediterranean and Pacific, the Allies honed the tremendous demands of coordination between air, sea and land forces necessary for effective amphibious landings against hostile shores. And the far-flung expanses of the Pacific which protected the Japanese homeland became bridgeable by American forces, with the taking of Saipan in the Marianas opening up a devastating American air campaign.

B-17Fs over Schweinfurt, Germany, August 17, 1943

What is most interesting for students of history to consider in the great strategic events of this time is the mosaic of seemingly simple, individual decisions and causes underlying the turn of events. A change of doctrine such as the counter-intuitive, aggressive movement of ships towards German U-boats after an attack at sea, a technological innovation such as the installation of a Rolls-Royce engine inside a P-51 aircraft or the entrepreneurial determination of a small businessman such as Andrew Higgins all played a role in determining the outcome of the events of 1943, and thus the eventual Allied victory in the war. These examples are not singular explanations, but fit into a larger historical picture with still more multiples of causes and ideas which contributed to why history turned out as it did.

So to further contemplate, discuss and determine why 1943 matters in the Second World War, The National WWII Museum will host as the subject of our annual International Conference on WWII “1943:  Victory in the Balance” from November 21-23, 2013, here in New Orleans. I invite all students of history, young and old, to attend as we seek friendly arguments and stimulating answers within this fascinating hinge year of the war.

Dr. Keith Huxen is the Samuel Zemurray Stone Senior Director of Research and History at The National WWII Museum.

Related Posts: More posts from Dr. Keith Huxen

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