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

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.