During the last six months, Hitler has suffered three major defeats: Stalingrad, Egypt and North Africa. These have so changed the course of the war that we and our allies are now in a position to crush our most powerful and dangerous enemy, Nazi Germany, within the year.
Let us rejoice. We have never enjoyed so great an opportunity before. However, we must not relax. Opportunity can become reality only if we intensify our effort still further. An opportunity lost may never return.
As a result of Gen Eisenhower's landing in North Africa, the European members of the Axis are at last hemmed in by their foes. The ring is nearly complete. From the Barents Sea on the Russian Arctic coast to Stalingrad, the Caucasus and the Black Sea, the Nazis are faced by the Red Army and Air Fleet. The eastern shores of the Mediterranean are guarded by British forces, aided by air and ground units from nearly every United Nation except China and the Soviet Union. We and the British hold North Africa, and to the northwest of Nazi Europe lies Great Britain itself. The only gaps of consequence are between the USSR and Syria, and eastern Libya and Algeria. Hitler, however, is no longer strong enough to drive through the Turkish gap between Syria and Russia to our second-line defenses in Iran and Iraq, or to keep his toehold on the African coast immediately south of Italy.
Ordinarily, a 12,000-mile ring is an invitation to disaster for those holding the rim. They are in the impossible position of seeking to be strong everywhere at once. The encircled enemy, possessing shorter lines of communication, can concentrate more easily upon any given point than the encirclers. But this time it's different. This time the ring is a hangman's noose tightening steadily upon the war machine inside.
Our gigantic encirclement of Hitler spells victory for us because of its very size and because it is actually not a ring, but a group of arcs. Although our transportation problem is unprecedented, Hitler's is by no means simple. His ability to shift and concentrate troops and planes is also limited. Moreover, each arc of the Allied ring has its own series of bases and pool of reinforcements and supplies. Each can hold out against protracted attack, allowing us time to dispatch reinforcements from the ultimate sources of supply in the United States, the British Empire and deep inside the USSR. The only segment of the Allied ring not yet adequately based is the North African front. As elsewhere, however, Hitler's difficulties are giving us the necessary time for building it up.
The Nazis have spent the last year and a half striving desperately to gain superiority at one or another point on the ring and there administer a crushing defeat to United Nations forces. In the summer of 1941 it was the Ukraine, where they nearly succeeded; later that year it was west of Moscow, where they were roundly thrashed. This year it was Egypt and Stalingrad. What happened at Sta1ingrad tells the story.
The Nazis drove across the fiat country between Russia's Don and Volga Rivers and laid siege to Stalingrad on the west bank of the Volga with the intention of drawing Russian plane and troop reserves from the Moscow front. Thus it was hoped the Moscow front would be weakened enough to permit a successful drive to the Soviet capital. The plan, however, went awry, for the comparatively small Soviet forces in and around Stalingrad, aided by civilians who joined the troops in the trenches, held through the siege. The Nazis were the ones who wasted their reserves. Having begun the assault on the Volga city, the Germans couldn't let go. Each day they threw in more men and planes, ending by depleting the forces they themselves had concentrated on the central front.
Hitler's costly defeats are our opportunity. We are now in a position, first, to subject nearly all of Axis Europe to heavy air raids. Only Hungary and parts of Poland are more than 800 miles from the nearest Allied air base. These raids cannot win the war alone, and they certainly are not being relied on by anyone in a position of responsibility to bring a cheap victory. But they are rapidly multiplying Hitler's air and supply problems.
At the start of the Nazi-Soviet war, the German air force had an operational strength of nearly 8000 planes in six air fleets. Since then, under the pounding of the Red Air Fleet and the Royal Air Force (with a growing contribution to the pounding by the USAAF), the Luftwaffe's daily available planes have dropped to 5000 altogether. Yet, the Reich's requirements are greater than ever. The air superiority enjoyed by the Axis at the start in Tunisia was due solely to its possession of the prepared airfields in Tunisia, all of which lie along the coast, for they were intended by the French, who built them before 1940, as bases for air patrol of the Mediterranean. Moreover, the scale of air activity in Russia is limited by the winter weather, thus giving the Nazis temporary use elsewhere of some of the Luftwaffe squadrons which have served on the Soviet front. This relief will end by Spring.
Secondly, we can now open two or three or even half a dozen second fronts, or choose from among half a dozen possibilities if our effort is to be concentrated in a single area. As long as England was our only western base, the second front posed a difficult aviation problem. An invasion of Europe without an impenetrable umbrella of fighter planes to shield our transports, air and surface, would result in one of the costliest fiascoes in military history. For this purpose, land-based fighters are an ironclad necessity. But the average fighter's maximum effective radius is still no more than 150 miles. Hence, an invasion from England must be directed against the comparatively short Belgian and Northern French coast, an area limited enough for the Nazis to prepare powerful defenses. Carrier planes cannot do the invasion escort job. Not only do the British and American navies lack sufficient carriers for so formidable an undertaking but carrier planes are not generally the equals of landbased aircraft.
Now, however, the entire west coast of Italy and south coast of France are open to attack, splitting the German defenders and simplifying our problem of assault. Neither Italy nor southern France are, of course, within reach of fighters based on Africa. (Italy is 300 land miles from the nearest point in Africa, Cape Bon in Tunisia.) However, France and Italy both can be reached via Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica, all of which are within easy reach of the African mainland or of each other, and none of which is so well defended that it cannot be conquered.
Sicily is only 65 miles from Malta and 95 from the nearest point in Tunisia. Sardinia is 130 miles from the Tunisian naval base of Bizerte. Sardinia and Sicily are just 200 miles apart. Corsica lies across the narrow strait of Bonifacio from Sardinia, and is only a trifle over 100 miles from Genoa, 65 from La Spexia (home base of the Italian fleet) and 115 from the French Riviera. Sicily, of course, is just across the Strait of Messina from the toe of the Italian boot. Naples is 200 miles from Sicily.
There is actually only one move which Hitler can make which might close off the western Mediterranean and thus guard his southern flank for air, sea and land attack while he concentrates his forces in the north and in the Soviet Union. This is the seizure of Spain. Occupation of Spain and the Balearic Islands would give his planes and submarines a tight grip on the western Mediterranean.
If Hitler were going to make such a move, however, the chances are he would already have moved. The fact that he hasn't is a pretty plain indica- tion that he hasn't the planes, the tanks, the men, the food or the trans- portation for the job. For the job includes not only possible Spanish re- sistance but a meeting with an Anglo- American force halfway across Spain. The British, after all, already hold Gibraltar, and we are in French Morocco, only a few miles from Spanish Morocco and the Strait of Gibraltar.
None of the lines of action implied in the above will be easily accomplished. Enormous problems of supply, tactical organization and strategy must be met. Winning the first truly global war, however, cannot be a simple matter. As much effort will be required to exploit our opportunity as we have required to overcome past defeats.
This column was originally published in the January, 1943, issue of Air News magazine, vol 4, no 1, p 74.