In August 1940, the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, took the fateful step of attacking British interests in North Africa with the aim of acquiring a Mediterranean Empire. Six months later, despite considerably outnumbering their opponents, the Italian armies were in complete disarray and Mussolini's grip on his African colonies faced imminent collapse. The German Afrika Korps intervened and the fighting continued until May 1943, when the British, now joined by the Americans, finally expelled the Axis from North Africa.
Following this success, the Allies pondered where to strike next. The Americans felt that the quickest way to destroy Hitler was to invade Northern France and advance towards the German border. The British, haunted by memories of the Great War, Dunkirk and the disastrous Dieppe Raid of 1942, were reluctant to become embroiled in so direct a confrontation and instead favoured an expansion of the Mediterranean campaign. The Americans agreed to do this in 1943 as an invasion of France would not be possible for another year, and something had to be done to ease the pressure on the Russians, who were bearing almost the full weight of the German war machine.
In July 1943, the British and Americans invaded Sicily, and by September had secured a foothold on the Italian mainland. The broad plan was to advance rapidly northwards and spill out into Central Europe, bringing havoc to Hitler's vulnerable southern flank and threatening to cut him off from the Balkans and his only oil supply. Besides the obvious damage this would inflict on the German war effort, Prime Minister Winston Churchill also hoped that the acquisition of these regions would protect Europe from interference by Communist Russia after the war.
Churchill infamously referred to Italy as "the soft underbelly of the crocodile", yet it proved to be anything but, and the Allies would remain bogged down by a series of German defensive lines until the final days of the war. It is possible that matters may have been very different if the Americans had been prepared to commit every effort in Italy, but they were sceptical that Germany could be brought down by striking at a peripheral region which seemed to contain only a series of geographical and logistical difficulties which would continually frustrate any offensive. They were convinced that Hitler's armies had to be drawn into a major head-on confrontation where they could be destroyed, and in terms of both ease of supply and manoeuvre, France was the only place where this process could begin. The Americans were prepared to maintain a limited effort in Italy, but not at the expense of those forces being concentrated in Britain for the Normandy landings.
The invasion of Normandy was proposed in 1942, and later that year General Marshall, the US Chief of Staff, proposed to complement what was then named Operation Sledgehammer with a smaller invasion of Southern France called Operation Anvil. As these names imply, the plan was to use Anvil as a means of drawing in and holding down the enemy reserves, thus enabling Sledgehammer to land with relative ease in the rear and crush the Germans between the two.
It was a bold idea, but one which divided British and American opinion still further. Churchill opposed it from the outset, and when Field Marshal Montgomery took command of the Normandy invasion forces in January 1944, he added his voice to the detractors. Monty seriously doubted the validity of Anvil as a diversion, not least because it was 500 miles from Normandy, and he estimated that three months would pass before it could hope to influence events there. He also reiterated the misgivings of other senior British figures, that the operation would lead to a dilution of strength and hamper their efforts on all fronts. He believed that it was possible for the British and Americans to undertake vigorous simultaneous campaigns in both Normandy and Italy, but to introduce a third front into the equation would threaten the effectiveness of Normandy and bring the other two to a standstill.
The British argued that if the only purpose of Anvil was to lure as many Germans as possible away from the Normandy area, then it would be just as well to use its resources in Italy instead and compel the Germans to fight there. If Adolf Hitler had been privy to these discussions, he would have agreed with the British assessment as there was little in Southern France of strategic value to him. The loss of Italy, however, had alarming implications; not only could it separate Germany from the Romanian oil fields, but Allied bombers operating from the North of the country would be well placed to devastate his south-eastern factories.
The Normandy landings, renamed Operation Overlord, had been envisaged as a three-division assault, but Montgomery and General Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander, felt that this was too weak a punch across too narrow a front, and so it was expanded to include five assault divisions. To consolidate and expand this significantly enlarged beachhead required more men, equipment and landing craft, all of which were in short supply. Operation Anvil had been proposed as a two-division assault, and so Montgomery argued that all the forces required for Overlord could be found simply by forgetting about Southern France altogether.
The question of whether Operation Anvil should go ahead was not a purely military one. At the Tehran Conference in November 1943, the Americans gave a commitment to the Russians that it would take place, and they did not feel that they could renege on it. Stalin had been enormously enthusiastic about the idea, as indeed he would have been about any operation which tied-up the Western Allies and prevented them from interfering in the Balkans, which he regarded as his sphere of influence.
Another diplomatically-challenging figure who had a stake in Operation Anvil was General Charles de Gaulle, who had emerged as leader of the Free French in 1940. Yet his was very much a minority faction as it was the Vichy regime which ruled France and its overseas possessions. The troops in some of these colonies had defied their government to fight alongside the British in North Africa, but others had taken up arms against both them and the Americans when they had strayed into their areas. France was enormously divided, yet out of the fires of North Africa emerged what was later to be known as the 1st French Army, and de Gaulle, eager to rebuild his country in body and soul, insisted that it must participate in the invasion of Southern France, and would not hear of any British suggestion that the region was a strategic irrelevance.
Matters came to a head over the question of landing craft. Due to the sheer size of Operations Overlord and Anvil, there were simply not enough vessels to carry out both simultaneously; indeed it required a monumental effort and a one month postponement to assemble enough for Normandy alone. Rather than abandon Anvil it was proposed to delay it until the 10th July 1944, one month after Overlord had taken place but with the same goal of diverting German strength. The British continued to object, however the Americans got their way when General Marshall offered to ease the landing craft problem by transferring the balance from the Pacific theatre, but only if it was guaranteed that Anvil would happen. With considerable reluctance and not a little bitterness, the British backed down, but only on the understanding that the matter could be debated afresh if the situation in Italy turned dramatically in favour of the Allies.
The situation in Italy changed in May 1944, when the Allies finally broke through the Gustav Line around Monte Cassino and raced North, liberating Rome on the 5th June, the eve of the Normandy landings. Sensing an opportunity to throw Hitler's southern flank into disarray, the British again asked that Anvil be cancelled so that those units committed to it could press the advantage in Italy. They were not alone in this; General Clark of the 5th US Army, who stood to lose seven divisions to the operation, wanted to advance into the Balkans and was incensed when he heard that Anvil was to proceed as planned, later condemning it as one of the great strategic errors of the War. If there was any hope of the Italian campaign delivering a spectacular success then it ended with the decision to launch Operation Anvil, and the respite it allowed the Germans to organise their defences and reduce the Allied advance to a crawl once again.
Ultimately it was the port of Marseilles which finally swung the argument. By this stage the Allies were contemplating a break-out of the Normandy beachhead, and it was no longer a priority to draw German divisions away, but to capture a port which could maintain the momentum of the advance. Supplies were only being landed at the Mulberry Harbour at Arromanches and what little was starting to trickle through the devastated port of Cherbourg. There were any number of good ports along the Northern coast of France, but these were heavily garrisoned by German troops who would not be quickly swept aside, and were likely to destroy the port facilities before yielding them. The Southern coast, however, was not defended so vigorously, and the excellent ports of Toulon and particularly Marseilles, both within immediate reach of the Anvil invasion area, would go a long way towards easing the supply problem.
The British generals accepted that they had lost the argument, but Churchill pressed on regardless, and repeatedly pestered Roosevelt and Eisenhower to plead the merits of a Balkans campaign. He continued to protest until almost the last minute, and on one occasion, much to Eisenhower's alarm, even threatened to resign and collapse the British government. His objections and his threat were futile. The invasion was going to take place.