Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 2: Turning the Tide in Europe, 1942–1944

A We The People Resource


The Lesson


American tank crew in North Africa, 1942.

American tank crew in North Africa, 1942.

Credit: Image courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.

Although it was the Japanese who attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, U.S. military planners decided that Germany, not Japan, was to be the primary target of operations. American forces were to maintain a largely defensive posture in the Pacific while forces were massed in the British Isles for an invasion of Europe. Yet there was serious debate over what shape that invasion would take. Most American military leaders preferred the direct approach, in the form of an invasion of northern France. However, their British counterparts convinced them that it would be unwise to attempt such an invasion before 1944 at the earliest. President Franklin Roosevelt, though, was adamant that some sort of engagement with the Germans must take place before the end of 1942—the Soviet Union, he argued, was bearing almost the entire brunt of the German war machine, and something had to be done to demonstrate to Stalin that the United States and Great Britain were committed to the defeat of the Axis.

The decision was made, therefore, to land U.S. and British troops in North Africa, where Axis forces threatened to overrun British-held Egypt. The landings took place in November 1942, and by the spring of 1943 the German and Italian forces in North Africa had surrendered. The Allies moved on from there to Sicily, and then Italy, knocking the Italians out of the war and making a slow advance up the peninsula. Nevertheless, Allied military planners concluded that this campaign was insufficient to bring about victory; in the end there was simply no substitute to an invasion of France.

This lesson plan will focus on the overall strategies pursued by the Americans and their British allies in the initial months of World War II in Europe. By examining military documents and consulting an interactive map of the Pacific theater, students will learn why they chose to focus on Germany rather than Japan, and why they opted to invade North Africa rather than France. Also, students will study documents related to the U-Boat war in the Atlantic, learning why the defeat of the German submarines was so critical to an Allied victory.

Guiding Questions

  • How did the United States contribute to the turning of the tide against the Axis Powers in Europe in World War II?

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, students should be able to:

  • Articulate the overall Anglo-American strategy for 1942–1943, and to assess how successful it was
  • Identify the reasons why the U.S. government decided to focus on the defeat of Germany rather than Japan, and to assess the wisdom of this decision
  • Analyze the magnitude of the U-Boat threat in the Atlantic in 1942 and early 1943
  • Identify on a map locations that were important to the war in southern Europe and the Mediterranean
  • List and explain the significance of the most important military engagements


Although it was the Japanese who had attacked Pearl Harbor, and had therefore incurred the fury of many Americans, President Roosevelt and his military advisers were determined that Germany was to be the primary target for the war effort. This reflected his own belief—an erroneous one—that the Germans were ultimately controlling Japan's strategy, and that once Germany was defeated the Japanese would soon collapse. Thus it was decided to maintain a defensive posture in the Pacific, while concentrating forces in Great Britain for an anticipated attack somewhere against Nazi-occupied Europe.

Doing so, however, meant moving huge numbers of men, and massive amounts of arms, supplies, and equipment, across the Atlantic Ocean. Unfortunately, within a few weeks of Pearl Harbor German U-boats (submarines) began prowling off the east coast of the United States, picking off American vessels before they could reach open water. By the summer of 1942 the losses were nothing short of staggering, but soon thereafter, thanks to the establishment of a convoy system, the extensive use of both aircraft and radar technology, and most importantly the breaking of the German naval code, the U-boat threat was overcome, making large-scale naval operations feasible at last.

One of the most important things to keep in mind when studying the role of the United States in the European theater is that the U.S. and British armies never engaged more than a small part (as little as between 10 and 15 percent) of the German Wehrmacht. It was ultimately the forces of the Soviet Union—though undoubtedly with substantial military aid from the West—that shattered the German war machine. The need to keep the Soviet Union in the war dictated much of U.S. and British strategy in the European war. It was feared that the Soviet dictator, Josef Stalin, might make a separate peace with Hitler if he were not convinced that his allies were really committed to the fight. This meant that it was imperative that some military operation be made against the Germans and their Italian allies as soon as possible. In addition, public opinion in the United States was a concern as well. After all, the first six months of American involvement in the war saw almost nothing but defeat at the hands of the Axis Powers. A successful invasion of enemy-held territory was needed to sustain the morale of the American people.

The only question was where to strike, and this issue caused the first of many disagreements over strategy between U.S. and British military planners. The Americans, from President Roosevelt on down, favored an invasion across the English Channel into northern France as the most direct means of inflicting harm against the Germans, and thus taking some of the heat off the Soviets. However, the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, argued that such an undertaking would be too risky to undertake before 1944 at the earliest. Instead, he suggested that an Anglo-American force land in French North Africa. From there the Allies could drive the Axis from all of North Africa (where, under the command of General Erwin Rommel, they had been waging an effective campaign against the British since the middle of 1941), followed by invasions of Sicily and Italy. This, Churchill argued, amounted to striking at the "soft underbelly" of the Axis—opening a second front against the Germans and Italians, but in a far less dangerous manner.

In this debate it was the British position that prevailed, and plans were quickly developed for Operation Torch. The landings took place in early November 1942, and although there was some initial resistance on the part of the French, a deal was soon struck with local authorities that allowed the British and Americans to occupy French territory. After several months of hard fighting the Axis forces found themselves surrounded in Tunisia, and no fewer than 240,000 German and Italian soldiers surrendered to the Allies in May 1943.

Anglo-American control of North Africa provided a convenient staging area for the invasion of first Sicily (in July) and then southern Italy (in September). The Italian government opened negotiations with the Allies in August, but before a surrender could be negotiated German troops swarmed into the country, disarming the demoralized Italian army and taking control of the country. Thus began a long, grueling campaign in the mountains of Italy, in which the Allies advanced slowly and suffered heavy casualties. It soon became clear that the campaign in the Mediterranean, while it may have forced the Germans to withdraw some of their forces from the war against the Soviet Union, was not likely to bring about a final victory. By the end of 1943 U.S. and British military planners had decided to give priority to plans for a cross-channel invasion, and for the rest of the war the campaign in the Mediterranean would take a back seat.

Preparation Instructions

Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and links from EDSITEment-reviewed websites. Download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing. Alternatively, excerpted versions of these documents are available as part of the downloadable PDF.

Download the PDF. This file contains excerpted versions of the documents used in the first and second activities, as well as questions for students to answer. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of the handouts you plan to use in class. In lieu of an individual assignment, this can be adapted to a group activity by placing the students into groups of 3–4, assigning each student a different document. Then have the students report back to their group with their findings based on their individual document.

Perhaps most importantly, you should become familiar with the interactive map which accompanies this lesson, and which shows the locations of important events in North Africa and Southern Europe. Clicking on these locations will bring up pop-ups that include a paragraph or two of basic information about what happened there, as well as links to pages with more in-depth coverage, plus relevant campaign maps, photographs, and/or personal accounts by those who were there. In order to help your students to familiarize themselves with the features of the map, you might want them to add an optional "Scavenger Hunt" activity, a set of twenty-one questions based on the first seventeen locations noted on the map. It is included as pages 14–15 of the PDF.

Working with Primary Sources:

If your students lack experience in dealing with primary sources, you might use one or more preliminary exercises to help them develop these skills. The Learning Page at the American Memory Project of the Library of Congress includes a set of such activities. Another useful resource is the Digital Classroom of the National Archives, which features a set of Document Analysis Worksheets. Finally, History Matters offers pages on "Making Sense of Maps" and "Making Sense of Oral History" which give helpful advice to teachers in getting their students to use such sources effectively.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Germany-First or Japan-First?

Direct students to the following documents, either online or as handouts printed from pages 1-9 of the PDF. All of these documents are located at the web site of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum which is accessible through the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Digital Classroom:

Then ask the class to imagine that they are U.S. military planners, and divide the students into two groups for a debate based on the above documents. The first will be responsible for arguing that the United States should direct most of its efforts toward the defeat of Germany. The second will be expected to make the case that Japan should be the primary target.

Activity 2. Anglo-American Strategy in Europe, 1942–1944

Using the documents and the map provided below, students will make a list of the objectives that the British and Americans hoped to achieve during their offensive. After they have done this, they should click on the fourteen locations on the interactive map. Based on their examination of these resources, students should be able to discuss broadly the overall Allied strategy for Europe and why it was adopted.

First, direct students to the following documents, either online or (in excerpted form) as handouts printed from pages 10–13 of the PDF. These documents are all available at the web site of the FDR Presidential Library, accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed resource Digital Classroom:

Have the students answer the following questions based on their reading:

  • What was the situation on the Eastern Front in 1942?
  • What are the implications of this situation for Anglo-American strategy in Europe?
  • How did the situation on the Eastern Front change between 1942 and 1943?
  • What did the Allies hope to achieve by the end of 1944?
  • Which was to take priority—a cross-channel invasion or operations in the Mediterranean?

Next ask the students to consult the interactive map, which will demonstrate how the Allied offensive developed.

Depending on the level of the students you might consider having them complete the "Scavenger Hunt" that accompanies the map, and is available on pages 14–15 of the PDF.

Based on their examination of these resources, students should be able to answer the following questions:

  • What was the overall Anglo-American strategy for Europe?
  • Why was this strategy adopted?
  • Which of the strategic goals were met, and which were not?
Activity 3. The War against the U-Boats, 1942–1944

Distribute to the students the set of documents on pages 16–19 in the PDF pertaining to Germany's submarine campaign and the Allied struggle to thwart it. These are excerpts from much longer documents that are found online either at Hyperwar, which is available through the EDSITEment-reviewed resource of the Naval Historical Center, or directly from the Naval Historical Center site. Based on their reading of these documents, students should then write an essay in response to the following: "Analyze the effectiveness of the German U-Boat Campaign during World War II."


After completing this lesson, students should be able to write brief (1–2 paragraph) essays answering the following questions:

  • Why, after Pearl Harbor, did Anglo-American strategy focus on defeating Germany rather than Japan?
  • What was the Anglo-American plan for Europe in 1942–1943?
  • How serious was the German U-Boat threat in 1942, and how was it overcome?
  • Why did the British and Americans decide to invade North Africa in 1942?

Students should also be able to identify the following locations on a blank map of the European theater, available at this site, which is accessible via the EDSITEment-reviewed resource History Matters

  • Morocco
  • Algeria
  • Tunisia
  • Egypt
  • Libya
  • Sicily
  • Italy
  • Spain

Finally, students should be able to identify and explain the significance of the following:

  • General Erwin Rommel
  • General Bernard Law Montgomery
  • General Dwight D. Eisenhower
  • El Alamein
  • Operation Torch
  • U-Boats
  • General George S. Patton
  • Anzio
  • Monte Cassino

Extending The Lesson

Any of the engagements listed as locations on the interactive map could be topics for research papers, PowerPoint presentations, etc., as each pop-up includes a wealth of source material on the subject.

A great many movies have been made about this phase of the war in Europe—The Big Red One (1980), Das Boot (1981), Catch-22 (1970), How I Won the War (1967), Patton (1970), and The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) are just a few examples. Students could be asked to watch one of these movies and write an essay comparing it to the real events on which the film was based. Here again, the sources linked from the locations on the interactive map will be useful for background.

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > The Great Depression and World War II (1929-1945)
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > War and Foreign Policy
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Map Skills
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Textual analysis
  • Using primary sources
  • Vocabulary
  • Writing skills
  • John Moser, Ashland University (Ashland, OH)
  • Lori Hahn, West Branch High School (Morrisdale, PA)


Activity Worksheets
Student Resources