The Great Unequalizer
The Pandemic Is Compounding Disparities in Income, Wealth, and Opportunity
THE history of the last six months of conflict has been, in general, a history of Allied success. The victories have been indecisive and preliminary, it is true, but they have been victories nevertheless. And Tunisia and Attu will stand with the Russian winter campaign in the Don bend and the Ukraine and with the continuing air attacks upon Germany as representative of the first important offensive victories yet achieved by the United Nations in this war. The strategic initiative has passed to Allied hands; we have reduced important enemy outpost positions; and we now are ready to prepare an assault upon the enemy's "main line of resistance." The hardest battles are yet to come, but the indispensable preliminary victories have been won.
The American part in the defense of Stalingrad and the subsequent transformation of the Russian retreat into a Russian advance is illustrative of the little publicized but important aid which the United States is giving to its Allies in all quarters of the world. That aid is moral and material. The enthusiastic moral support of the American people unquestionably was a factor in the dark days of the late summer and fall of 1942, when the deep German drive into Russia must have sorely tried not alone the confidence of the Red Army and the Russian people, but more particularly the resolution of the Russian leaders. The material aid furnished by the United States also was -- and continues to be -- a not inconsiderable factor in the Russian victories. American planes, some of them probably flown to Russia, American motor vehicles by the thousand, American food, American raw materials, and many, many items of American industrial and military equipment helped to keep Russia fighting and aided her in preparing during the spring of 1943 for the summer resumption of large-scale operations.
A more direct and obvious American contribution toward victory, however, was our intervention in North Africa in November 1942, and our participation in the six months of Tunisian fighting which led to the eventual expulsion of all Axis forces from Africa. The moment the American troops landed in Morocco and Algeria the small forces of the Axis armistice commission in Tunisia were hastily augmented by air and sea from Sicily, and there ensued a race for the great strategic prizes of Tunis and Bizerte. It was a race which we lost last December -- but only by about 48 hours.
None of our initial landings in North Africa was east of Algiers. We did not attack Tunis and Bizerte directly from the sea because Axis airpower based nearby in Sicily and Sardinia was a menace to our shipping and because we were forced to utilize some of our troops to guard against any danger to our flank coming from the Spanish frontier in Morocco. There was not enough shipping, moreover, to transport troops to Tunisia as well as to Algeria and Morocco. The plan, therefore, called for initial landings around Algiers and Oran and in Morocco. American troops were to spearhead these landings and almost all of those troops were then to be assembled in areas not far from the Spanish frontier. Their chief responsibility was to nullify the potential threat represented by some 140,000 Spanish troops in Spanish Morocco. British troops of the First Army, under Lieutenant-General Kenneth A. N. Anderson, were to follow our first waves ashore in Algeria, consolidate rapidly, and push eastward overland toward Tunisia. This they did. At the same time other British units, some in coasters and small craft, braved Axis air attacks and landed further to the east, in the harbors of Phillipeville and Bone.
French resistance, however, collapsed more quickly than we had expected, hastened materially by the much-criticized agreement which General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the American Commander-in-Chief of Allied Operations, reached with Admiral François Darlan, who happened to be in Algiers at the moment our operations began. This put us well ahead of our time schedule. As the Allied high command expected the French to fight longer, they had not scheduled the ships bearing the second and third waves of British troops to arrive from England until some days after, as things turned out, they were actually needed in Tunisia. Moreover, the Germans reacted rapidly and with typical efficiency to our landings. Profiting by their shorter lines of communication and "interior position" they commenced at once to build up a strong force in Tunisia.
The situation obviously called for heroic measures, and General Eisenhower took them. He accepted the German challenge to a race in moving reinforcements and supplies, with Tunis and Bizerte as the prizes. He rushed eastward to Tunisia all troops of whatever nationality or tactical complexion that could possibly be spared from mounting guard opposite the Spanish Moroccan mountains. Those immediately available were chiefly American. In most cases they were composed of small or incomplete tactical units, not complete divisions. This action of General Eisenhower's resulted in scattering many small American units along the slowly forming Tunisian front under the British field commander, General Anderson. General Eisenhower has been much criticized for not insisting upon the Pershing doctrine of maintaining the integrity of American tactical units and proceeding to the formation of an American Army. However, he did the only possible thing that could have been done under the circumstances; and he almost won his gamble.
In November and December, French North African troops, part of the British First Army, including artillery units and infantry of the Guards' Brigade, and American artillery and armored units of the First Infantry and First Armored Divisions, jabbed and pushed eastward toward Tunis and Bizerte. They attacked and were counter-attacked by an enemy who meanwhile was rapidly increasing in strength. In their struggle, despite initial air inferiority, terrible supply problems, and the heaviest rains in many years, they almost succeeded in beating the Germans to the prize. But not quite.
By the end of the third week in December it was evident that the Germans had won the supply and reënforcement race and that we were in for a long campaign in Tunisia. Contrary to our hopes, we were not to get Tunis and Bizerte by Christmas. Today it is also evident -- with the benefit of after knowledge -- that if the French troops of the Algerian and Tunisian divisions had not fought actively on our side in those early days the entire complexion of the campaign would have been altered and the battle line might have been stabilized in Algeria rather than in Tunisia. The contributions of the Fighting French, especially the desert force under Brigadier-General Le Clerc, were also important in the final victory.
The failure of the first dash for Tunis and Bizerte ended the first phase of the Tunisian campaign. The second phase consisted of a series of jabs and counter-jabs in which the enemy counted some localized successes. During January and February our troops struggled in execrable conditions to solve the supply and reënforcement problems imposed by 550 miles of winding roads, by airfields bogged in mud, by inadequate ports and railroads. We also made a few local attacks, chiefly against terrain objectives; and the enemy commenced the series of jabs intended to keep us off balance. Further east, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's
forces were continuing their retreat from the great defeat at El Alamein.
During this period, General Anderson continued in active field command of all troops -- American, British and French -- at the fighting front. American troops still fought not as divisions but in scattered tactical units, many of them attached to British or French units and some of them handicapped by lack of their supply services. The front was inchoate and tenuous. There can be no doubt that during this period many of the errors committed by American soldiers were enforced upon them by this dispersion of their forces and the breaking up of tactical units into smaller elements. Many of the defeats suffered by elements of the British First Army, the French Nineteenth Corps and the American Second Corps were defeats in detail. We were dispersed, both on the ground and in the air; the enemy was concentrated.
In January, February and early March the Nazis struck a series of blows. They struck in the north at the British First Army; in the Ousseltia Valley, where the French were holding the line; at Faïd Pass and Kasserine against our Second Corps; and in the south against the British Eighth Army, then moving into position against the Mareth Line. Some American units participated in the fighting in the north, and American armor and artillery did a creditable job in the Ousseltia Valley.
The German drive through Faïd Pass, held by the French, was the most destructive. It carried on through Sbeïtla to Kasserine, overran several American battalions, cost us about half the tank strength of the First Armored Division and heavy casualties, and threatened for a time the entire American position and the flank of the British First Army. At that time elements of only two American divisions -- the First Armored and the First Infantry -- were at the front, but the emergency created by the German break-through was so real that the artillery of the Ninth Division made a forced march of 770 miles in three days and the Ninth and Thirty-Fourth Infantry Divisions were ordered to the front from their bivouacs in the vicinity of Oran and the Spanish border. As American and British strength was massed to meet the German attack, the Nazis shifted their forces to the south toward the Eighth Army, leaving behind them along the trail of their conquest blown up American gasoline and ammunition dumps, destroyed tanks, dead bodies and blasted homes.
Faïd-Sbeïtla-Kasserine was a considerable American defeat -- the heaviest defeat on land that we had suffered since Bataan -- and reorganization was badly needed. It was effected while the Nazis were striking, just a few days too late, against the Eighth Army. Precious time had been won by our Kasserine defeat. Lieutenant-General Lloyd R. Fredendall was now replaced in command of the Second American Corps by Lieutenant-General George S. Patton; the Corps was expanded to four divisions; and instead of operating as a part of the British First Army, as it had done previously, it became a separate entity answerable directly to General Sir Harold R. L. G. Alexander, who after the Casablanca conference was placed in active field command of all Allied ground forces in Tunisia. The air forces also were reorganized, and concentration of effort replaced dispersion both in the skies and on the ground.
In early March, the reorganized American Second Corps, operating as an entity on lines which extended from Fondouk almost to the salt wastes of the Chot Djerid, commenced an eastward drive. The objective was twofold -- to take Gafsa and to accumulate supplies there for the Eighth British Army which was at that time driving north from Medenine; and to create a diversion on the German flank which would force Field Marshal Rommel to use some of his reserves against the Americans instead of enabling him to concentrate all his force against the Eighth Army. We were successful in both objectives. Partly because of this success, the Eighth Army succeeded after a fierce struggle at El Hamma in outflanking the Mareth Line, and the last phase of the Tunisian campaign opened.
As the Germans retreated from the Oued el Akarit position to take up siege lines in the north, the American Thirty-Fourth Division, with British units, attempted to smash through Fondouk toward Kairouan to cut off the Nazi retreat. American units failed, however, to take an important hill. We were just too late.
As the ring around the trapped Germans became tighter, the American Second Corps was shifted from its position in the south to the Beja area in the north, formerly held by the British First Army. This shift was undoubtedly the concept of General Eisenhower, who considerably influenced the strategy of the campaign even though not exercising the actual field command. The march northward of the Second Corps cut squarely across the lines of communication of the British First Army and the French Nineteenth Corps, and the march schedules and convoy routes had to be nicely calculated to prevent confusion. When the American Second Corps made its reappearance in the battle front near Beja it was commanded by Major-General Omar Bradley. General Patton had been appointed for the Gafsa operation, and after it had been completed he was relieved for other duties.
It was in this last phase of the campaign that the American Second Corps showed to greatest advantage; our men had become veterans and had learned from their previous mistakes. East of Beja they commenced the long hard drive over the hilly regions of Northern Tunisia that led to victory. It was a drive of many battles; but perhaps the name that will linger longest in American memory is Hill 609, a dominating feature of the terrain and the key to the important communication center of Mateur. When Hill 609 fell to the dash and courage of American arms Mateur was doomed, and soon after it Bizerte. At almost the same time that Americans entered Bizerte, the British entered Tunis after a smashing break-through in the Medjerda Valley, prepared by concentrated artillery fire and bombing.
In this final drive the main effort was British, as indeed was the case throughout the campaign. The principal force in these operations was the British First Army, heavily reënforced by units shifted from the Eighth Army. General Dietloff von Arnim, who had taken over the entire command of the Axis troops in North Africa from Field Marshal Rommel after the Mareth battle, was completely out-guessed and out-manœuvred in the final struggle. And the British break-through to Tunis, surprising in its speed, trapped thousands of Nazis in the pocket between Bizerte and Tunis and really put an end to effectual resistance. Isolated fighting continued for some days, but the Tunisian campaign ended on May 13, about six months from its start.
The Second Corps alone captured more than 25,000 Germans when the collapse came. And in the entire campaign, the Allied forces captured 267,000 Axis soldiers, killed about 30,000 and wounded 27,000. The strategic results were also major. The threat to Suez and the Middle East has been relieved permanently (barring a complete German victory in Russia, something that became less and less likely with the passage of time). The Axis had been completely eliminated from Africa, and the Mediterranean had been opened, though precariously, to merchant convoys. North Africa had become a springboard for attacks upon the fortress of Europe.
The costs were not small. American casualties for the campaign as a whole, including the initial landings in North Africa, numbered 2,184 killed, 9,437 wounded and 6,937 missing and prisoners, a total of 18,558. This was a fairly heavy figure in proportion to the number of troops involved. The campaign showed many weaknesses in our green Army, among which faulty leadership, a lack of mental toughness and inadequate training were the worst. Our four divisions became veterans in the heat of conflict, but the cost was high. Our air forces also learned through mistakes. Initially the air support in Tunisia was not effective, but after the reorganization of February 18 our air superiority was never in question. Our planes -- all of the bombers, and among the fighters the Lockheed Lightning particularly -- did yeoman's service under a combined Anglo-American command in which Lieutenant-General Carl A. Spaatz held the important post of commander of the Northwest African Air Forces and Major-General "Jimmy" Doolittle commanded the Strategic Air Force.
The command set-up for the operation as a whole was somewhat cumbersome. A witticism heard in Algiers was to the effect that "never in the history of human conflict have so few been commanded by so many." Political, economic and psychological problems all intervened to complicate the military ones. Nevertheless, General Eisenhower handled many diverse elements in a capable fashion and welded them into a combat team.
Such, briefly, is the story of how Africa was cleared of the Axis in the spring of 1943. As these lines were written, American air power based on African bases was hammering with increasing intensity at Italy proper, at Sicily and at the Axis-held Mediterranean islands of Sardinia, Pantelleria and Lampedusa. One raid on Palermo was made by 400 planes -- the greatest single American air effort, so far, of the war. Plainly we were preparing for the next step in the Churchillian concept of Mediterranean strategy, a move against one or more of the Mediterranean islands.
However, the American air effort of the past six months was by no means confined to the Mediterranean. The troops and planes that fought in North Africa were drawn in considerable measure from Britain, and in consequence the American land strength in Britain and the strength of the Eighth United States Army Air Force there was considerably reduced from what it had been early in the autumn. This transfer of strength to the Mediterranean weakened and postponed our air attacks upon Germany. But by spring the strength of the Eighth Air Force had again been built up, and at the time of writing it was larger than it had ever been and was still growing rapidly.
In May 1943, in fact, Britain was primarily a base for air power, though American land forces were also stationed there. And it was through the air that the most damaging American blows against Germany had been delivered. The airship chiefly concerned has been the Boeing "Flying Fortress," a bomber bristling with thirteen .50 caliber machine guns and so well defended that it has been described as the "best fighter" we have. These bombers, supplemented by B-24 Consolidated Liberators, and recently by American medium bombers, have been carrying the terrible meaning of daylight bombing to the Reich and to areas of German-occupied Europe. They have been supported by American Republic Thunderbolt fighters, a heavy but fast high-altitude ship, which, however, had not been in action sufficiently to date to warrant a judgment as to its relative ranking in the list of the world's war planes.
The American bombing program dovetailed into the British scheme of night bombardment; it was complementary to it, not competitive with it. The daylight raids made precision attacks against specific targets possible, and also resulted in heavy losses to German fighter squadrons which unwisely challenged the guns of the "Forts." Results were both tangible and intangible. Obvious effects were noted upon German transportation, particularly railroads, and upon German production, particularly of aircraft. Less obvious effects upon morale, and the available supply of man hours, were also reported. American participation in the strategic bombardment of Germany was still being reckoned in raids of three figures in May 1943, and was numerically speaking less than one-fifth of the British effort (and in weight of bombs dropped, much less than that).
But our air strength has been growing rapidly, and before the year's end it is likely that raids on a scale as yet scarcely dreamed of will rock the Reich to its foundations. Slow though the development of our air power in Britain has been, it must be remembered that there were several pertinent reasons for this, chief among them the fact that we contributed the major share of the air force in North Africa.
The German submarine campaign continues to be the instrument on which Hitler pins his hopes of paralyzing the development of American overseas military strength. As is usual in submarine warfare, ship sinkings in recent months have shown periodic and sometimes violent fluctuations. Thus in November the losses were high; the curve of losses showed a steady decline until March 1943; and then it rose again. At the time of writing, ship sinkings have been again reduced. The total ship losses for the calendar year of 1942 totalled, according to a Navy Department announcement, slightly more than our ship construction. Not all of these losses were caused by submarines, however; some were due to air attack, some to stranding, collision and other causes.
The Nazis apparently considerably increased the numbers of their submarines in commission during the early months of 1943. However, our successful B-17 air raid upon the submarine shipbuilding yards of Vegesack in March 1943 did real damage, and we sank more submarines in the early months of the year than in previous comparable periods of the war. In one month, for example, the total believed sunk almost reached the estimated German output of twenty submarines a month. Destroyer escort vessels by the score commenced to flow from our shipyards in May; more planes with radar equipment became available for patrol duty; and escort carriers were assigned to convoys. Ship sinkings on the direct convoy route to North Africa never were large. As more and more escort vessels became available, sinkings decreased on other routes, and the eventual opening of the Mediterranean seems certain to simplify our shipping problems still further.
Meanwhile, merchant shipping was coming from our shipyards in tremendous volume. The merchant tonnage produced in American yards in 1943 will be more than six times as much as that produced in all the shipyards of the world in 1938. Today the United States already has more ships on hand, due chiefly to phenomenal production rates, than it had at the time of Pearl Harbor.
The submarine will continue to be a menace to our overseas power until the war ends. The encouraging factors noted above, however, offer real grounds for hope that the back of the German submarine campaign has been broken.
Since last November a condition of virtual stalemate has prevailed in the Pacific theater.[i] The great naval-air battles of that month secured our hold upon Guadalcanal; and in New Guinea, at about the same time, the Japanese hold upon Buna and Gona was broken after desperate fighting. Since then, there has been much raiding, skirmishing and some mopping up operations, but no serious offensive by either side.
Following our sea victories of November, the United States replaced and reënforced the war-weary Marines in Guadalcanal with Army troops and in February 1943 mopped up all but a few bands of what remained of the Japanese garrisons on the island. This was followed in the same month by our occupation of the Russell Island group, some thirty miles north of Guadalcanal in the Solomons; and throughout the first half of 1943 we used these bases, plus our newly-won footholds in New Guinea, to bomb and harass Japanese ship and troop concentrations and Japanese bases. Rabaul was a particular target. In March our fliers under General Douglas MacArthur attacked and claimed to have destroyed an enemy convoy of 22 ships in the Bismarck Sea.[ii]
The winter lull in the North Pacific was broken on May 11 when an American amphibious force landed on the island of Attu in the Outer Aleutians and in a two-weeks' campaign broke the grip of the Japanese on the island. Mopping up is still in progress at the time of writing, but the bulk of the Japanese defenders have been encircled and isolated on the Chichagof peninsula. Thus the elimination of another Japanese outpost has been accomplished, and Kiska is plainly on the schedule for the future.
In China, meanwhile, the strengthened air force of Major-General Claire L. Chennault has continued to worry the Japanese overlords of conquered China and to shoot down many Japanese planes. American fliers have also supported abortive British land operations in India-Burma.
The picture of stalemate thus presented in the Far Eastern theater has now, however, become deceptive. Both sides are without doubt building up their strength and are preparing for future large-scale operations. The President revealed in May that the larger part of the American Navy and the larger part of our ground forces overseas were in the Pacific. A swelling tide of American public opinion favorable to action in that theater will undoubtedly expedite plans for our future offensives there.
The victories of the past six months have undoubtedly changed the complexion of the war. There is no room, however, for complacency or slackness. We defeated only 15 Axis divisions in Tunisia; there are some 180 German divisions in Russia alone. The enemy is still tough, hard and relentless, and he undoubtedly will be prepared to take advantage of our mistakes. We are still making mistakes. They still hamper us in the proper conduct of the war almost as much as the action of the enemy.
No adequate organization of the United Nations for the planning of war strategy and the execution of those plans has yet been evolved. As these lines are written, there still is no evidence that a broad overall strategic plan for achieving victory has yet been drawn up. The very fact that a prolonged conference between Mr. Churchill and President Roosevelt had to be held in Washington in May constituted tacit admission that at this late date in the war there still was either disagreement or uncertainty about future moves. This does not indicate perfected coördination of planning. Absolute agreement among the Allies is the necessary preliminary to the swift and certain action that alone can give victory.
That agreement, however, must not originate in American weakness. We must have not only a military strategy of victory but also a political strategy for the peace. The United States must develop, advance and firmly support its point of view in both the strategic and the political domain. Only thus can it attain the full stature in world affairs which is necessary if the peace is to be real and lasting.
[i]Editor's Note: See "America at War: The First Year," by Hanson W. Baldwin, in FOREIGN AFFAIRS, January 1943. For preceding articles in this series by Mr. Baldwin see "America at War: Three Bad Months," FOREIGN AFFAIRS, April 1942, and "America at War: The Second Quarter," FOREIGN AFFAIRS, July 1942.
[ii] There is some doubt as to the accuracy of these claims. Possibly all or nearly all of the convoy was destroyed, but perhaps it was not so large as was publicly reported.