When we look at the history of World War II, victory seems certain in hindsight. We were well equipped, knowledgeable, and recruited all the manpower needed to liberate the world from the Nazi Reich. However, we tend to forget how easily things could have gone during the war. Months of planning and split-second decisions at key moments in the war changed history forever. The North African theater was the first domino to fall in the long chain reaction of the Battle of the Bulge.
The golden age of mechanized armor was an arms race between the forces of good and evil. The idea of using mechanized armor in battle has been a dream since the rebirth. However, it took until the two World Wars for engineers to design battle-worthy tanks. Tank crews in the heat of battle would rely on the command and control elements of their frontline commanders. When it comes to mechanized engagements, poor logistics can be just as fatal as an enemy shell. Equally important, the military would rely on civilians back home to outfit assembly lines and civilian ships to brave the U-Boat infested Atlantic. World War II was a bridge business.
Lessons learned in North Africa
The North African theater was the proving ground for American troops which also gave the United States a foothold. The strategic decision to commit Hitler’s secondary units to Africa was a crucial decision as it was the first time the Americans had entered a major conflict in the war. The Battle of the Atlantic was raging and direct landings on British shores were not yet possible. At the time, it is estimated that the submarines were responsible for the sinking of 2,703 civilian ships heading for Britain. By the end of the war, this number will have doubled. Nor was radar incorporated on a large scale into aircraft early in the war. Nazi U-Boat Rudel tactics tore the supply routes to pieces, invisibly and with impunity. Another alternative must be found. President Roosevelt’s eyes turned to Africa.
Operation Torch was the initial invasion commanded by General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Its objective is to attack the Axis powers on the continent. The amphibious assault on Casablanca, Algiers and Oran engaged over 65,000 American soldiers. 33,000 American soldiers arrived directly from the American continent. While America had the Production Miracle at home, pumping out essential equipment for the war effort, Rommel faced increasingly tight resupply routes.
The lessons learned in Africa have been difficult and paid for at the cost of many. The experience acquired at the cost of the first defeats in Africa then bore fruit in Europe.
For example, during Operation Torch, sandbars disabled armor due to inefficient intelligence and jammed on landings. In addition, the seawater caused electrical equipment to short circuit. The dismantling of the landing craft was done from the sides and not from the front, as the vehicle was designed. While the documentaries mostly depict the beach landing as relatively easy compared to other landings, the Allied forces received stiff resistance in Algiers.
The Vichy Italians and French were undermanned and underarmed, but they had a secret weapon: Rommel and his Panzers.
The best example of Rommel’s ambush tactics was at Kasserine Pass where he ambushed American tanks in an 88 mm range. It is estimated that more than 6,500 souls paid the price during the campaign. The cost of the new tactics formed to fight the Nazi blitzkrieg was paid for in full with American and British lives. The United States made a change of command to place the fate of the campaign in the hands of General Patton.
General Patton was an aggressive but cautious commander. He focused on logistics, defensive positions and exploited Rommel’s most human weakness: hubris. Rommel’s reputation as the Desert Fox leads him to expand himself and his supply lines. Nazi supply lines stretched from Tripoli to the front line at Derma. He had to keep pushing, his Führer demanded it, and his ego would lead him headlong into defeat. He had to stop his progress twice because of his logistical problems. He had to physically resupply one’s forces himself at some point, then keep pushing his extended assault. With Rommel low on fuel and ammunition, General Patton overturned the Desert Fox.
American production lines
On the other side of the world, all facets of American industry have been adapted to the manufacture of American armaments. Specifically, in the case of armor, General Patton had thousands of tanks on the front lines and many more on the way. The people of the United States united in a common cause and quickly raised an army of 187,893 soldiers to 8.3 million at the end of the war.
By the time Patton was able to turn the tide of the war in Africa, the Atlantic Rift was closing with a new technology, Magnetron #12. This small radar device was able to detect submarines that were previously hidden. The Enigma code was hacked, and combined with this technology, every theater of Allied forces engaged in neutralized Nazi surprise attacks. Rommel’s hardened 7th Panzer Division would no longer benefit from the victories of years past. Patton discarded the old World War I cavalry charge tactics and used combined arms offenses still taught today.
Battle of the Bulge
The days of wide-eyed, bushy-tailed troops landing in Africa have been replaced by focused determination with a thousand-yard gaze, running to the aid of the 101st Airborne. Africa, Sicily, Italy and beyond forged Patton’s tank crews into a well-oiled machine. New standard operating procedures were implemented, the troops were no longer lost in the sauce but an elite mechanized force moving through Nazi controlled territory. Overall, Americans in the air, land, and sea became adept at locating, closing in, and destroying the enemy. In the climactic battle of World War II, the Patton’s mechanized war machine struck the enemy with interest at every last hard-learned lesson.