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.
Using a mule to haul supplies to the front in Sicily. NARA.
By May 1943, the United States Army had acquired hard-won experience and tasted success in North Africa as Axis forces composed of more than 250,000 German and Italian troops surrendered at Tunisia. Through intense debates in the previous months, it had become apparent to the Allied leadership that the next step taken by the Allies would not be a cross-channel attack into northern France, as preparations for such an expedition would be inadequate and premature. Instead, the next major initiative against the enemy would come in a Mediterranean crossing which would seek the first defeat of one of the three Axis powers – Fascist Italy.
Sicily was a natural route to mainland Italy and the European continent going back in history to the Punic Wars between Carthage and Rome. The Allies could count on air cover from Malta for a Sicilian invasion. In an elaborate espionage operation known as Mincemeat, designed to divert German defenses, British intelligence dressed a suicide victim as a Royal Marine, planted false papers on the corpse and deposited the package off the coast of Spain for the Germans to find and interpret. The ruse proved successful, and German resources were shifted to the islands of Sardinia and Corsica.
In a preview of issues that the Allies would later famously encounter in launching the D-Day invasion into France, weather played a key role in the timing of the amphibious assault into Sicily. A storm interfered with the ability of the Allies to land paratroopers behind enemy lines and nearly delayed the launch, but the weather conditions also convinced the Axis powers that an offensive operation against them would not occur, providing the Allies with an element of surprise. On July 10, 1943, the Allies launched Operation Husky before sunrise, a massive amphibious assault on the southern shores of the island. For the next three days it involved more than 3,000 ships landing over 150,000 ground troops, covered by more than 4,000 aircraft. They were opposed on the island by only two German divisions, as Nazi leadership continued to believe the main assault would come at Sardinia and Corsica.
Problems of military coordination and logistics, although diminishing, continued to plague the Allied forces. Competitive egos also emerged in the Allied leadership. Lt. General George S. Patton landed with the US Seventh Army at Gela, while the British, under General Bernard Montgomery, led the Eighth Army to the east. Montgomery’s forces were charged with advancing up the eastern shore directly toward Messina. Meanwhile, Patton’s forces were charged with protecting Montgomery’s flank and moving to the northwest toward Palermo. They would then be positioned to advance east across Sicily’s northern shore to Messina.
GIs of 16th Inf Regt walking through Troina, Sicily. NARA.
In the immediate aftermath of the Allied landings, the German General Albert Kesselring judged that the Italian fighting forces were so weak that the Germans were virtually on their own in the fight. Indeed, the Allies had believed that the Italian government was politically unstable, and they were not disappointed in that assessment. On July 24, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was deposed and arrested under a new Italian government headed by Pietro Badoglio, who immediately began to seek peace terms with the Allied governments and withdrew Italian troops the next day.
Adolf Hitler was not as easily swayed, and ordered the German troops to continue strong resistance. Nonetheless, the die was cast for a German withdrawal from Sicily. When the Allies closed in on the port of Messina on August 17, 1943, they discovered the Germans had withdrawn more than 100,000 troops across the straits, reinforcing the Wehrmacht to continue the fight in mainland Italy. The northern campaign up the peninsula to free Italy and ultimately Western Europe would prove an arduous task.
In 38 days the Allies had taken the first major step along that continental road with the liberation of Sicily. The effort cost approximately 24,850 American, British and Canadian casualties. Although there would be further twists and turns in the liberation of the Italian nation, through Sicily the Allies had successfully delivered a devastating blow against the first Fascist government in world history when they toppled Mussolini’s regime.
This article was written by Samuel Zemurray Stone Senior Director of Research and History Keith Huxen.
The decision to intern American citizens of Japanese descent in early 1942 is today regretted as one of the most disreputable civil rights abuses in American history. It is an event which seems almost unthinkable for contemporary American society, and as such is a poignant and necessary reminder of the degree of peace we enjoy in our world today, and how different was the atmosphere of the Second World War.
Before Pearl Harbor, Japanese-Americans living in the United States were generally divided into two groups: the Issei, who were native born Japanese who had emigrated to America and constituted over a third of the total, and the Nisei, who were born of Japanese parents within the United States. However, many amongst the Nisei held dual citizenship in both the United States and Japan due to the differing citizenship laws of the two nations. In Japan, citizenship was conferred until 1916 through familial relations (paternal jus sanguinis); any child born to a Japanese father was considered to be a Japanese citizen. In the United States, any child born upon American soil (jus soli) was considered to be an American citizen. It should be noted that the Japanese government amended their citizenship laws twice in the 25 years before Pearl Harbor. In 1916, the Japanese government allowed Nisei or their guardians to retroactively renounce Japanese citizenship; and then in 1924 the Japanese government eliminated automatic citizenship of foreign-born children, although the children were eligible for Japanese citizenship if their parents applied for it within two weeks of their birth. Nevertheless, a large number of Nisei, particularly those born before 1924, held dual citizenship with Japan, even if they did not know it. This contributed to the perception of divided loyalties once the war began.
The “Final Solution” to the Jewish question was decided in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee, in a stately and picturesque building alongside a garden and lake, on January 20, 1942. It is against this incongruous backdrop that history’s most infamous crime, the mass murder of an entire people, was decided upon in bland and bureaucratic proceedings and language. Indeed, the architect of this extermination, Adolf Hitler, was not even present at the meeting, and did not affix his signature of approval to the Wannsee Protocol, the document which is the closest written master plan we possess for the Holocaust.
The central mystery to all queries concerning Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust is, where did the hatred come from? And how could this man gain power in the most advanced nation in Europe, and proceed to implement this monstrous slaughter? Many profiles and much ink has been spilled in the effort to explain and understand how the Final Solution came to pass. Many explanations focus upon Hitler’s inner world and some hidden aberration, such as misplaced anger and blame at his Jewish doctor for failing to cure his mother’s cancer, vague speculations that Hitler’s grandmother had conceived out of wedlock by a married wealthy Jewish employer, claims that Hitler’s rage stemmed from repressed homosexuality, or even that his youthful anger with the Catholic church mutated into an intense hatred of the Jews as persecutors.
Those who seek rational explanation of the Holocaust and Adolf Hitler as historical phenomena cannot find satisfactory answers by the usual means of rational inquiry. But the proper place to seek a rational understanding of this most irrational and horrific event is inside of Adolf Hitler: not in his emotions, but in his mind and the ideas he believed in. Hitler believed in and acted upon a worldview which, however unsound in factual reality, had a horrible logic. It is a testament to the essential inhumanity of himself and his followers that they believed they were acting from motives of beautifying the world.
December 7, 1941, is a date which retains its unique power in the national consciousness of the American people because it marks our entryway into the Second World War and ultimately the pathway to the dominant position of the United States in world affairs, the Pax Americana of the twentieth century. The Japanese attack decisively ended American neutrality and our efforts to isolate the nation from the previous decade of troublesome world affairs. To many, it is the day the United States shed its innocence and naiveté, and shouldered the burdens of world leadership.
For most Americans, however, the Japanese attack was a surprising gateway to this destiny. Events in remote Asia were not seen as an immediate threat to the United States at the end of 1941. Instead, it seemed more likely that the United States would be drawn into war with Nazi Germany, as the American convoys carrying Lend-Lease to Great Britain came under fire from the German navy. Instead, war came to Americans in an unanticipated, blinding flash from across the Pacific, an attack that succeeded beyond the imagination of its planners in many respects, an attack that caught the American military unawares and in an embarrassed state and exposed condition. The story of the missed signs, misinterpretations, misunderstandings and many ironic passages which all combined to lead to Pearl Harbor is a vast tapestry.
This is the first Veteran’s Day in which a living American veteran of the Great War in Europe is no longer alive for us to honor.
As Americans celebrate Veteran’s Day, it is necessary and appropriate that we should pause to reflect upon the historical occasion and circumstances of this day of honor and remembrance for those who serve in our Armed Forces.
At eleven o’clock in the morning on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, 1918, the guns on the Western front finally fell silent after over four long years of war. The Great War was a global conflict that consumed the lives of over ten million soldiers killed and another twenty million left wounded. Final judgements and evaluations of the ultimate causes of the conflict remain murky even to this day. What was certain was that the war had unleashed violent bloodshed on a scale the world had never seen until that time, and the violence lasted right up until the last minute of the war. Before 11am that morning, over 10,000 men on the Allied side were either killed, wounded, or missing in action from operations ongoing through the morning hours of November 11, 1918. The last man killed in the war was American Private Henry Gunter, shot at 10:59am.
“Before three months have passed, we shall witness a collapse in Russia, the like of which has never been seen in history.”—Adolf Hitler, 2:30am, June 22, 1941
October 1941 was an especially grim time for the Soviet Union as it appeared that Adolf Hitler might win his historical gamble to crash in the Soviet Union and end the eastern war with a military victory before the United States was drawn into the conflict. A solitary Great Britain would then be forced to come to terms with Germany’s impregnable continental triumph. Hitler would then be free to pursue his dream of a greater Aryan empire in eastern Europe, an empire economically supported through enslaving the Slavic peoples while cleansing the lands of all racial undesirables. Hitler was betting that a Blitzkreig strike against the Soviet Union could attain a military defeat within six months, paving the way to his Aryan utopia.
The German army which launched Operation Barbarossa at 3:30am on June 22, 1941, along a long front stretching from the Baltic to the Ukraine totaled over 3.1 million men. In its mechanical force it had nineteen panzer divisions and twelve motorized divisions, 3,350 tanks, 5,000 aircraft, and 7,000 pieces of artillery. General von Bock’s Army Group Center, located in the center of the line, had two objectives: first to capture Minsk, and then make the decisive strike to the heart by driving to Moscow. Army Group North would capture the Baltic and Leningrad; Army Group South would drive to Kiev and the southern oil fields. Hitler’s Blitzkreig strategy again relied upon speed, and the initial thrust did not disappoint. His Panzer divisions knifed ahead fifty miles a day once the attack was launched; German forces were overrunning and encircling Soviet troops. Because the Soviet troops had been warned, their superior numbers did not translate into resistance, but rather greater numbers of captured prisoners. The Luftwaffe was initially very effective in cutting rail and road support for the Soviet armies, and over 5,000 Soviet planes were destroyed on the ground by August, almost fifty percent of the Soviet front-line defensive air strength.
On October 9, 1941, one of the most important, lonely and secret decisions in the course of the Second World War was made by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In a small meeting with only Vice President Henry Wallace and the head of the National Defense Research Committee Vannevar Bush present, Roosevelt committed the United States government to embark upon a program of intensified research into the feasibility of a fission bomb. The major questions of how much money, construction projects, personnel, and administrative structures needed to build an atomic bomb were not decided at this meeting. In Vannevar Bush, Roosevelt was giving the green light to a man he trusted to develop those frameworks as needed, and Roosevelt was aware that Bush would use Presidential authority to aggressively push the project forward. The United States was still technically a neutral nation in October 1941, yet Roosevelt became the first national leader to commit his nation to the effort to achieve a nuclear device. In so doing, he also decisively changed the nature of the relationship between American government and American science, a cultural change that has persisted to the present day.
Once begun down this pathway, the Americans would be the first to successfully detonate a nuclear bomb with the Trinity test in the desert of New Mexico on July 16, 1945. But there was nothing inevitable in the story of what would be officially christened as the Manhattan Project in August, 1942. Before the culmination of the technical project, however, Roosevelt’s decision established important political parameters for the future of the nation and the world long after the end of the war. He did not wish to consult on nuclear issues with the American Congress which voiced the democratic concerns of the public, the military forces which would use the weaponry, or the scientists who developed and implemented the technology. He did not wish to develop the technology in an international effort with the Allies (although it will be seen that Great Britain made a deep contribution to Roosevelt’s decision to pursue the project in October 1941). Almost instinctively, Franklin Roosevelt reserved all major policy aspects of the atomic bomb to himself and the American presidency.
The Bohr-Heisenberg Meeting at Copenhagen: 70th Anniversary September 15-21, 1941
In the fall of 1941, the course of history in the Second World War took a different pathway based upon a mere conversation between two men. At first glance, it would appear unlikely such an event could have such an effect, particularly since both men were intentionally vague with each other, each later maintained misunderstandings of the other’s intention, and to this day the conversation remains shrouded in mystery. The two men were civilians, not soldiers; they were scientists, not politicians; they met in Nazi-occupied territory, not in free lands where they could speak frankly. Lastly and most importantly, they were thinkers dedicated to the discovery of knowledge of the natural world, not the mass destruction of human life.
But when the participants in this uncertain conversation were Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, then the import of the event becomes clearer. On the surface, the Dane of Jewish descent and the German Lutheran, separated in age by sixteen years, did not have much in common. But their lives were deeply intertwined with each other on personal, intellectual, and professional levels. They began as an internationally recognized physics professor and gifted student when they first met in 1922, the year Bohr became a Nobel laureate. But they became much more than that. Personally, Heisenberg virtually became another of Bohr’s sons and shared the intimacy of his family life. Intellectually, Bohr’s manner of thinking about physical problems in which he attempted to comprehend phenomena as a whole found balance, advancement and authenticity through collaboration with Heisenberg, whose fascination with and ability to find the music of mathematics located within physical events led to great scientific breakthroughs.
The philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote that Churchill was “the largest man of our times,” and a brief acquaintance with Churchill’s long life and career bears out this claim. In his lifetime Churchill was a heroic war leader and Prime Minister, a foot soldier and a First Lord of the Admiralty, a Member of Parliament and a Chancellor of the Exchequer. He played polo, hunted big game in Africa, and gambled in Monte Carlo; he was a loving husband and an indulgent father. Before he was forty he saw war as a journalist in Cuba, as a cavalry officer in Sudan, and was a POW in South Africa. He modernized the prewar Navy and served as an officer in the Great War trenches in France. He was a noted historian and won the Nobel Prize for literature.
But politics and writing were ultimately serious work and business for Churchill. Writing served to promote and support his political life; it was an extension of his career and influence. While he proliferated in both pathways, success did not always come easily. In particular, writing extracted effort on his part, and was a necessary employment for the financial support of his family. He enjoyed the delights of conversation and the dinner table, but these were also tied to his career interests. Being passionately devoted to his career, he did not engage in hobbies which appeared to have little utility in promoting his career efforts.
After the failure of the Gallipoli campaign appeared to have ended his political career in 1915, the “Muse of Painting” appeared to rescue Churchill from his deepest bout of “Black Dog” (the nickname he gave his deep depressions). His cousin introduced him to watercolors while in the garden at Hoe Farm. Churchill at first timidly attempted to apply paint to the canvas; when he realized that the canvas would not strike back, he entered whole-heartedly into the effort. Being Winston Churchill, a man who did things for history, naturally he early began to paint in oils. Painting was the one activity which he did for the sheer pleasure, enjoyment, and challenge of the art, and without a political motive. It claimed his attention for the rest of his life, and was perhaps the surest method he had of relaxation.
Churchill's Study of Boats
Painting was not a frivolous delight to Churchill. Painting appealed to a very deep element in his personality, a serious and meaningful key to his being. Painting connected Churchill to the pursuit and creation of beauty in the world. Churchill the painter was a different man than the world had become accustomed to know. In this field, he eagerly sought advice and consultation, and was willing to take direction from others. In his political and literary talents, he was the supreme judge. But in his attitude towards painting, Churchill not only subordinated his will, but submitted to an inner light and higher power.
In the opinion of this writer, Churchill the painter communed and connected closely with an inner religious or philosophical spirit. He was not a practitioner of any orthodox religious faith. However, as a young man he had become aware of gaps in his knowledge and education which he had assiduously set out to correct. As a young subaltern in India, he had spent long hours reading in ancient history and philosophy. His readings in Gibbon and the Greek philosophers exposed him to the classical ideals of truth, beauty, and the good. These he sought in his painting through his explorations of colors and nature.
Churchill's goldfish pond at Chartwell
Churchill the painter became quite committed and accomplished in his hobby. He eventually built a painting studio on the grounds of his home. In the mid-1920s, Churchill anonymously submitted some of his work to a public exhibit, where he gained recognition from some of Britain’s leading art critics (who were surprised when they learned the identity of the artist). One of the critics observed that Churchill painted from a deep, calm part of his soul.
This was an accurate insight. Painting was the one activity that he performed completely in silence, and it melted away his anxieties, allowing him to lose himself in the study of colors and nature. Churchill did not paint pictures which connected to his political or military life, such as portraits of his contemporaries. With the exception of a few early canvases from his wartime service at “Plug Street” in France, as his troops referred to their headquarters, he did not paint scenes of violence, death or war. He preferred landscapes and seascapes, full of color and natural life. He painted nature: mountains, seas, sunsets, forests, rivers. When man did intervene in Churchill’s paintings, it was usually in the form of an artwork: a china Buddha, a stone sculpture in a windswept garden, ancient Roman aqueducts and Greek ruins, bridges spans crossing waters, boats awaiting to set sail. And he painted the personal things which adorned the central pleasure of his life: his home. He painted few portraits, but painted those he loved, such as his wife Clementine. He painted the flowers, bottles, and vases which adorned his beloved house, Chartwell, especially the landscapes surrounding the house and overlooking the weald of Kent.
Chartwell in the 1930s
A man in a hurry most of his life, the muse of painting stilled and becalmed Churchill’s sense of the passage of time and life, of the movements of history. It centered and brought out his spiritual conviction of the immutability of nature, and the joy of living in the natural world. And it reinforced the moral structure in his nature that compelled him to stand firm in his ultimate contest against the failed painter who wished to create a new world through destruction and death, Adolf Hitler. Winston Churchill’s hobby gives us a remarkable and clear insight into the man himself, and into the nature of how truth, beauty and the good lie within all.
Dr. Keith Huxen is the Senior Director of Research and History at The National WWII Museum.
The National WWII Museum tells the story of the American Experience in the war that changed the world - why it was fought, how it was won, and what it means today - so that all generations will understand the price of freedom and be inspired by what they learn.