Sunday, August 21, 2011

November 8, 1942 – Operation Sledgehammer Begins

In the beginning of the darkest hours of the Second World War, the ill-fated 1942 invasion of the European mainland began on a sunny, mild day. The week prior to the landing had been one of changeable weather, and Allied Command had been nervous about weather upsetting the Channel waters. On the 5th, an inch of rain fell in London, which made ground commanders nervous about the ability to move tanks and trucks while pilots hoped air fields and visibility would be clear. On the 7th, as if Mother Nature were welcoming the invasion, temperatures climbed into the 50s (12+ C) and dried the soaking land. In the early hours of the 8th, Supreme Commander Allied (Expeditionary) Force Dwight Eisenhower gave the go-ahead for the invasion.

The operation had very nearly not happened. As late as the Second Claridge Conference in July of 1942, Prime Minister Churchill was firmly against the idea of an assault on the heavily defended northern shore of France. He recommended instead that the Allies attack through North Africa, striking at the “weak underbelly of Europe” to take on Hitler’s weaker allies in Vichy France and Italy rather than the Third Reich itself. His main argument against a massive assault was that Britain simply did not have the resources necessary in supplies, transports, and aircraft.

Against him was US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor had thrust America into the war, but many felt that resources should be spent seeking revenge on Japan in the Pacific theater rather than Roosevelt’s call to destroy Hitler, the instigator of the war. With Americans fully invested in Europe, FDR would further hush naysayers who said we were fighting the wrong enemy. In March of 1942, FDR wrote Churchill that he was “becoming more and more interested in the establishment of a new front this summer on the European continent, certainly for air and raids... And even though losses will doubtless be great, such losses will be compensated by at least equal German losses and by compelling the Germans to divert large forces of all kinds from the Russian front.”

The Russians were thusly extremely interested in a second front in Europe. If Hitler were caught in a pincer movement, or even distracted by air raids such as FDR suggested, the bloody Eastern Front would take great relief. Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov visited the UK and insisted on aid as soon as possible. He was rebuffed in London, but his visit to Washington proved much more supportive. Eventually, however, diplomatic squabbling settled on the side of the US and Soviets, and Churchill begrudgingly readied his country for another great fight after surviving the Battle of Britain in 1940 and terrible Blitz in ‘41. He was at least able to postpone the invasion until the late autumn, using the disastrous Dieppe Raid on August 19 as an example of the vicious resistance the Allies would face.

Allied Command determined that the only possible method of success would be air superiority. For months, air resources were readied on fields in England and even as far away as Scotland while convoys such as SL 125 worked to divert German attention toward the false notion of an African attack. The attack began with bombers with diving torpedoes attempting to clear a path in the mines for landing craft while naval bombardment provided cover and pounded the soon-to-be-captured port of Cherbourg. The landing would be difficult and the resulting fight even worse with urban warfare racking up numerous Allied losses. Thanks to “brute American will”, however, the beachhead would be established.

Any plans for a push that winter, however, were cut short when Erwin Rommel was brought back from North Africa, where he had begun a drive to take Egypt, but was cut short by British General Montgomery’s counterattack. Rommel took up the Panzer divisions that had waited in Europe for just this moment and attacked the Allied port, narrowly kept at bay with massive casualties by American General George Patton. Through the bitterly cold winter of ’42-’43, the Allies and Axis would throw more and more resources into the fray, creating a warzone not seen in France since the bloodbaths of World War I.

The next spring, Operation Roundup pumped more divisions and the Allies finally made a few miles of progress into France. News of never-ending battles beleaguered the war-weary nations with Americans growing firmer on the idea that they had yet again stumbled into Europe’s mess. In Britain, which was continually under German air assault in hopes of breaking up Allied supply lines, Churchill was blamed as speeches recalled his responsibility for Gallipoli. A vote of no confidence was carried, and Churchill fell from office despite his historical innocence. Likewise, FDR would be narrowly defeated in 1944 despite the European theater coming to a close. Hitler himself became increasingly frantic, causing many of his ministers and commanders to distance themselves. Mussolini as well as Admiral Francois Darlan of Vichy attempted to work with the Allies, and both would find themselves murdered by the end of the war.

Modern commentators often mention that the real winners of the Anglo-American and German Second Battle of France were the Soviets. Much relieved from German pressure and even victorious at the Battle of Stalingrad with the capture of the German 6th Army, Stalin surged in a counterattack across Eastern Europe and brought the ultimate defeat to Germany by taking Berlin in late 1944. Capturing numerous German scientists and technologies, it would be only a matter of a few years before Moscow began producing its own supersonic V-2 rockets.


In reality, Operation Sledgehammer was shelved as infeasible. Initially planned for early fall of 1942, the plan would have brought only nine potential Allied divisions against some thirty German, realistically ending with the Allies being driven back into the sea. Instead, Churchill’s ideal of Operation Torch sent Allied troops through North Africa and then into France and Italy and finally Germany.


  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  2. It seems more likely the inexperienced American forces with untried and untested weaponry would have been slaughtered on the beaches. And the supplies and equipment committed to this ill-fated expedition would have been diverted from the Soviet lend lease (after all, this second front was to immediately benefit the Soviets) which would have damaged their long term viability against the Nazis. Overall, this course of action would have likely been disastrous for the allied cause.


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