The U.S. Liberty ship Robert Rowan explodes after being hit by a German bomber off Gela, Sicily, 11 July 1943.
Jul 10, 1943:
Allies land on Sicily
On July 10, 1943, the Allies begin their invasion of Axis-controlled Europe with landings on the island of Sicily, off mainland Italy. Encountering little resistance from the demoralized Sicilian troops, the British 8th Army under Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery came ashore on the southeast of the island, while the U.S. 7th Army under General George S. Patton landed on Sicily’s south coast. Within three days, 150,000 Allied troops were ashore.
Italian leader Benito Mussolini envisioned building Fascist Italy into a new Roman Empire, but a string of military defeats in World War II effectively made his regime a puppet of its stronger Axis partner, Germany. By the spring of 1943, opposition groups in Italy were uniting to overthrow Mussolini and make peace with the Allies, but a strong German military presence in Italy threatened to resist any such action.
Meanwhile, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler knew that an Allied invasion of Nazi-controlled Europe was imminent, but because Germany’s vast conquests stretched from Greece to France, Hitler was unable to concentrate his forces in any one place. In an elaborate plot to divert German forces away from Italy, a British submarine off Spain released the corpse of an Englishman wearing the uniform of a British major and carrying what appeared to be official Allied letters describing plans for an invasion of Greece. The body washed ashore, and the letters were sent by the Spanish to the German high command, who reinforced their units in Greece. The Axis had only 10 Italian divisions and two German panzer units on Sicily when Allied forces attacked in the early-morning hours of July 10.
First to land were American and British paratroopers and glider-borne troops, and at dawn thousands of amphibious troops came ashore. Coastal defenses manned by disaffected Sicilian troops collapsed after limited resistance, and the Anglo-Americans moved quickly to capture Sicily’s southern cities. Within three days, the Allies had cleared the southeastern part of the island. In a pincer movement aimed at Messina in the northwest, the British 8th Army began moving up the southeast coast of the island, with the U.S. 7th Army moving east across the north coast. The Allies hoped to trap the Axis forces in the northwestern corner of Sicily before they could retreat to the Italian mainland. In the so-called “Race to Messina,” Montgomery’s advance up the southeast coast was slowed by German reinforcements, but Patton and the U.S. 7th Army moved quickly along the north coast, capturing Palermo, the Sicilian capital, on July 22.
In Rome, the Allied invasion of Sicily, a region of the kingdom of Italy since 1860, led to the collapse of Mussolini’s government. Early in the morning of July 25, he was forced to resign by the Fascist Grand Council and was arrested later that day. On July 26, Marshal Pietro Badoglio assumed control of the Italian government. The new government promptly entered into secret negotiations with the Allies, despite the presence of numerous German troops in Italy.
Back in Sicily, Montgomery and Patton advanced steadily toward Messina, prompting the Germans to begin a withdrawal of Axis forces to the mainland. Some 100,000 German and Italian troops were evacuated before Patton won the race to Messina on August 17. Montgomery arrived a few hours later. The Allies suffered 23,000 casualties in their conquest of Sicily. German forces sustained 30,000 casualties, and the Italians 135,000. In addition, some 100,000 Axis troops were captured.
On September 3, Montgomery’s 8th Army began an invasion of the Italian mainland at Calabria, and the Italian government agreed to surrender to the Allies. By the terms of the agreement, the Italians would be treated with leniency if they aided the Allies in expelling the Germans from Italy. Later that month, Mussolini was rescued from a prison in the Abruzzo Mountains by German commandos and was installed as leader of a Nazi puppet state in northern Italy.
In October, the Badoglio government declared war on Germany, but the Allied advance up Italy proved a slow and costly affair. Rome fell in June 1944, at which point a stalemate ensued as British and American forces threw most of their resources into the Normandy invasion. In April 1945, a new major offensive began, and on April 28 Mussolini was captured by Italian partisans and summarily executed. German forces in Italy surrendered on May 1, and six days later all of Germany surrendered.
On this day in 1940, the Germans begin the first in a long series of bombing raids against Great Britain, as the Battle of Britain, which will last three and a half months, begins.
After the occupation of France by Germany, Britain knew it was only a matter of time before the Axis power turned its sights across the Channel. And on July 10, 120 German bombers and fighters struck a British shipping convoy in that very Channel, while 70 more bombers attacked dockyard installations in South Wales. Although Britain had far fewer fighters than the Germans–600 to 1,300–it had a few advantages, such as an effective radar system, which made the prospects of a German sneak attack unlikely. Britain also produced superior quality aircraft. Its Spitfires could turn tighter than Germany’s ME109s, enabling it to better elude pursuers; and its Hurricanes could carry 40mm cannon, and would shoot down, with its American Browning machine guns, over 1,500 Luftwaffe aircraft. The German single-engine fighters had a limited flight radius, and its bombers lacked the bomb-load capacity necessary to unleash permanent devastation on their targets. Britain also had the advantage of unified focus, while German infighting caused missteps in timing; they also suffered from poor intelligence.
But in the opening days of battle, Britain was in immediate need of two things: a collective stiff upper lip–and aluminum. A plea was made by the government to turn in all available aluminum to the Ministry of Aircraft Production. “We will turn your pots and pans into Spitfires and Hurricanes,” the ministry declared. And they did.
German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg Resigns
On July 10, 1917, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, chancellor of Germany, resigns his position after failing to control the divided German Reichstag (government) as World War I threatened to stretch into its fourth agonizing year.
A former Prussian minister of the interior and state secretary in the Imperial German Office, Bethmann Hollweg was appointed German chancellor by Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1909. Though of a relatively liberal bent, Bethmann Hollweg from the beginning strove to satisfy both the right and left extremes within the Reichstag, with varying results. His efforts to pursue diplomacy within Europe were often undermined by the strength of the German military establishment, supported by the kaiser. One outstanding example of this dynamic was Bethmann Hollweg’s unsuccessful efforts to scale back Germany’s aggressive naval build-up in the first decade of the 20th century, in accordance with negotiations he entered into with Britain. In the end, the kaiser weighed in on the side of Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, and the naval arms race continued.
Though Bethmann Hollweg personally expressed hopes of avoiding Germany’s going to war in the summer of 1914, he nonetheless played a central role in the machinations between Austria-Hungary and Germany that occurred in the wake of the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo in late June. Once the war was underway, Bethmann Hollweg struggled to make his influence felt with the kaiser and the military leaders of Germany, who effectively dictated policy from the first year of war and whose power was formally consolidated with the creation of the Third Supreme Command—effectively a military dictatorship—in August 1916. The chancellor, echoing more liberal elements within the Reichstag, including the socialists, spoke out for peace more than once and argued for limitation of Germany’s policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, actions that earned him the contempt of the military and naval command, including Von Tirpitz and Generals Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff.
The chancellor owed his final downfall, however, to his failure to manage the civil unrest within Germany, reflected in the feuding Reichstag. During the summer of 1917, as parliamentary debate raged over a proposed peace resolution, Bethmann Hollweg found himself unable to continue to balance the feuding elements of the German government, especially the majority Socialist Party—which was itself alienating its most radical leftist elements by aligning with a center-left coalition—and the conservative right, which predictably enjoyed the support of Hindenburg and Ludendorff. Having previously committed—reluctantly—to an unrestricted naval policy that had led the United States to declare war on Germany the previous April, Bethmann Hollweg was seen by the center-left, the authors of the Reichstag peace resolution, as a warmonger and by the right as a weakling for supporting the efforts to broker a peace.
Exhausted, Bethmann Hollweg rose in the Reichstag on July 9 to respond to his critics: “My position does not matter…I myself am convinced of my own limitations…I am considered weak because I seek to end the war. A leading statesman can receive support neither from the Left nor the Right in Germany.” The following day, he resigned as chancellor. He was replaced by Georg Michaelis, a relatively obscure undersecretary of state in the Finance Ministry who served for less than four months, only to be replaced by the equally unobtrusive Count Georg von Hertling, who served until the last month of the war and was, like Michaelis, basically a puppet premier subject to the authority of the kaiser and the military.
On this day in 1941, crackerjack British cryptologists break the secret code used by the German army to direct ground-to-air operations on the Eastern front.
British experts had already broken many of the Enigma codes for the Western front. Enigma was the Germans’ most sophisticated coding machine, necessary to secretly transmitting information. The Enigma machine, invented in 1919 by Hugo Koch, a Dutchman, looked like a typewriter and was originally employed for business purposes. The Germany army adapted the machine for wartime use and considered its encoding system unbreakable. They were wrong. The Brits had broken their first Enigma code as early as the German invasion of Poland and had intercepted virtually every message sent through the occupation of Holland and France. Britain nicknamed the intercepted messages Ultra.
Now, with the German invasion of Russia, the Allies needed to be able to intercept coded messages transmitted on this second, Eastern, front. The first breakthrough occurred on July 9, regarding German ground-air operations, but various keys would continue to be broken by the Brits over the next year, each conveying information of higher secrecy and priority than the next. (For example, a series of decoded messages nicknamed “Weasel” proved extremely important in anticipating German anti-aircraft and antitank strategies against the Allies.) These decoded messages were regularly passed to the Soviet High Command regarding German troop movements and planned offensives, and back to London regarding the mass murder of Russian prisoners and Jewish concentration camp victims.
German general’s diary reveals Hitler’s plans for Russia
On this day in 1943, upon the German army’s invasion of Pskov, 180 miles from Leningrad, Russia, the chief of the German army general staff, General Franz Halder, records in his diary Hitler’s plans for Moscow and Leningrad: “To dispose fully of their population, which otherwise we shall have to feed during the winter.”
On June 22, the Germans had launched a massive invasion of the Soviet Union, with over 3 million men. Enormous successes were enjoyed, thanks in large part to a disorganized and unsuspecting Russian army. By July 8, more than 280,000 Soviet prisoners had been taken and almost 2,600 tanks destroyed. The Axis power was already a couple of hundred miles inside Soviet territory. Stalin was in a panic, even executing generals who had failed to stave off the invaders.
Franz Halder, as chief of staff, had been keeping a diary of the day-to-day decision-making process. As Hitler became emboldened by his successes in Russia, Halder recorded that the “Fuhrer is firmly determined to level Moscow and Leningrad to the ground.” Halder also records Hitler’s underestimation of the Russian army’s numbers and the bitter infighting between factions within the military about strategy. Halder, among others, wanted to make straight for the capital, Moscow; Hitler wanted to meet up with Field Marshal Wilhelm Leeb’s army group, which was making its way toward Leningrad. The advantage Hitler had against the Soviets would not last. Winter was approaching and so was the advantage such conditions would give the Russians
On July 5, 1914, in Berlin, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany pledges his country’s unconditional support for whatever action Austria-Hungary chooses to take in its conflict with Serbia, a long-running rivalry thrown into crisis by the assassination, the previous June 28, of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife by a Serbian nationalist during an official visit to Sarajevo, Bosnia.
Barely a week after Franz Ferdinand’s murder, the Austrian Foreign Ministry sent an envoy, Alexander, Graf von Hoyos, to Berlin. Hoyos carried a memorandum from the office of the Austrian foreign secretary, Leopold Berchtold, expressing the need for action in the tumultuous Balkans region, as well as a personal letter to the same effect from Emperor Franz Josef to Kaiser Wilhelm. Both documents focused on the need for Austria-Hungary to establish an alliance with Bulgaria, in place of Romania—which Germany had previously favored as a possible Balkan ally—due to the latter nation’s increasing closeness with Serbia and its powerful supporter, Russia. Neither the memorandum nor the emperor’s letter specified that Austria-Hungary wanted war, but the memorandum—a new version of an earlier, less emphatic text written before Franz Ferdinand’s assassination—stressed the need for immediate action, pointed to increased Serbian and Russian aggression and stated as an objective the elimination of Serbia as “a factor of political power in the Balkans.”
Austria’s ambassador to Germany, Ladislaus Szogyeni-Marich, passed Hoyos’ two documents to the kaiser over lunch on July 5, in Potsdam. Wilhelm was outraged by Franz Ferdinand’s murder, and felt a sense of personal loss: the two had met at the archduke’s country estate just two weeks before the assassination to discuss the situation in the Balkans. Though he initially demurred and said he needed to consult the German chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, he eventually—when pressed by the ambassador—responded with uncharacteristic decisiveness, promising Germany’s “faithful support” for Austria-Hungary in whatever action it chose to take towards Serbia, even if Russia intervened. Later that afternoon, Wilhelm assembled a crown council, attended by Bethmann Hollweg, Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann, and War Minister Erich von Falkenhayn, among others. From this meeting, a consensus emerged backing the kaiser’s decision, which Bethmann Hollweg subsequently relayed to the Austrian representatives and Hoyos triumphantly carried back to Vienna.
The kaiser’s pledge, which historians have referred to as the carte blanche or “blank check” assurance, marked a decisive moment in the chain of events leading up to the outbreak of the First World War in Europe during the summer of 1914. Without Germany’s backing, the conflict in the Balkans might have remained localized. With Germany promising to support Austria-Hungary’s punitive actions towards Serbia, even at the cost of war with Russia, whose own powerful allies included France and Great Britain, the possible Balkan War threatened to explode into a general European one.
German Military History with a focus on World War II History including other areas of German History