The Rise and Fall of an Infamous Marxist Icon
by Chris Oakley
In the previous seventeen episodes of this series we traced Adolf Hitler’s conversion to Marxism and his rise to the leadership of the German People’s Republic; his launching of the Second World War; and the outbreak of hostilities between the United States and the German People’s Republic in the summer of 1941. In this segment we’ll recall the first deployments of U.S. combat troops to Italy.
The Communist bloc had mistakenly assumed that when France fell to the Volksarmee, her overseas territories in North Africa would soon follow. Instead those territories had become staging areas for an anti- Communist resistance movement; the heart of that movement was based in Morocco, where a government-in-exile was rallying support for the anti- Communist cause. It was to this government-in-exile that Washington would turn when the United States wanted to expand its troop presence in the European theater in late 1941 and early 1942. Free French leader Charles de Gaulle and his chief military advisor at the time, Admiral Jean Darlan, shared Roosevelt’s determination to drive the Volksarmee out of Europe and were only too willing to offer their assistance to Washington in the task of establishing a base of operations for U.S. forces in the European/Mediterranean theater. The process of building such a base started in August of 1941 with the arrival of an Army Air Corps fighter detachment in the Moroccan capital Rabat to bolster Free French air defenses in Morocco.
Two weeks after the fighter group arrived, the first U.S. ground forces were dispatched to French North Africa in anticipation of what Allied strategic planners expected would be deployment to the Italian front by March of 1942 at the latest. Some American troops would see action in the Mediterranean even before that-- on October 16th, 1941 a detachment of the U.S. Army Rangers mounted a commando raid against a Volksmarine radar station on the island of Corsica. While the physical damage to the radar station was minimal, the psychological blow to the Communist alliance was devastating; Hitler had assured his followers time and again that the German People’s Republic’s strategic position in Corsica was unassailable, and the commando operation had put Hitler’s claims in grave doubt.
The commando raid was orchestrated partly with the assistance of Italy’s counterintelligence service, which wanted to put a scare into Berlin as well as gauge the strengths and weaknesses of German defenses in the Mediterranean. Corsican anti-Communist partisans also played a role in the operation, staking out a landing spot on the beach for the American commandos before the radar station attack and providing cover fire for them when they made their escape. Hitler, who had been certain the Corsican partisan movement was on the verge of defeat, was shocked by the mauling the guerrillas inflicted on his troops in their pursuit of the U.S. Rangers; at least two high-ranking Volksarmee officers with the Corsica garrison were subsequently court-martialed and relieved of their duties on charges of incompetence.
The route that American ground troops took to reach the Italian mainland was, to say the least, fraught with hazards. Even without the Volksmarine’s U-boats menacing Allied convoys en route to French North Africa, there were still plenty of problems to contend with-- not the least of which was braving the North Atlantic’s notoriously inclement fall weather simply to cross the ocean to get North Africa in the first place. And once those convoys did reach North Africa, Spanish warships were lying in wait like a pack of coyotes to attack Allied ships trying to cross the Mediterranean to get to Italy. There were even a handful of French warships which had defected to the Communist side and were aiding the German cause by trying to choke off Allied shipping; the crews of such ships were considered traitors by the Free French government-in- exile, which offered cash rewards to anyone who captured or killed a captain or other senior officer from one of these vessels in the line of duty.
And reaching Italy wasn’t necessarily a guarantee that the typical GI would live long enough to see action against the Volksarmee. Italian Communist agents working on behalf of the Stasi could sometimes be found in the countryside or in the streets of the seedier districts of Italy’s major cities lying in wait to ambush unsuspecting American servicemen in guerrilla-style attacks. Modern Pentagon data on casualty rates within the European theater during the Second World War suggests that at least one-fifth of all deaths among U.S. personnel during the first year and a half of the U.S. campaign Europe were in some fashion linked with these ambushes.
To counter the presence of the Communist agents Italian security forces deployed their own teams of undercover personnel in areas where the Communists were known or suspected to be operating against American military bases. The Communists denounced these teams as “rat’s nests” of supposed counter-revolutionary action and made a special point of trying to kill those teams’ leaders. Bounties were offered to those who could succeed in assassinating the counter-insurgency team leaders, with the largest such prizes going to people who were able to take out the teams’ seconds-in-command; American and Italian authorities responded to this by offering their own rewards to civilians who provided information that led to the arrest or elimination of the Communist assassins. The streets of southern Italy’s major cities became veritable shooting galleries as Communist and Allied intelligence personnel skirmished with each other in a stealth war for control of these vital territories.
Yet in spite of everything the U.S. armed forces managed to build up an impressively large troop contingent in Italy as they prepared for their first major confrontation with the Volksarmee. In early January of 1942 the White House gave the go-ahead for the first major American combat operation on European soil, code-named Operation Desperado. A two-pronged operation meant to relieve pressure on Allied defenses at the Franco-Italian border, Desperado would involve at least two armor and three infantry divisions. There were also provisions in the plan for the deployment of several American and British airborne contingents behind the German lines; indeed, since the spring of 1941 elements of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division had been rehearsing for a possible jump into Communist-held territory in western Europe. Last but not least, the nucleus of a newly former British commando corps called the Special Air Service(SAS) was being entrusted with the critical task of taking out Volksarmee gun emplacements in the invasion zone.
On January 12th, 1942 these commandos struck the first blow in the Allied campaign to eject the Volksarmee from France, parachuting into German-occupied southern France under cover of darkness with packets of explosives and light but deadly submachine guns designed expressly for use on airborne operations. Although casualties were higher than expected, the SAS men did their job quickly and efficiently, disabling most of their assigned targets within less than thirty minutes of being deployed into enemy territory. The remaining gun emplacements were put out of commission by RAF bombers using a new type of bomb nicknamed the “bunker-buster”; designed specifically to penetrate the kind of thick concrete in which the Volksarmee had housed its guns on the France-Italy border, these massive weapons proved devastatingly effective in their operational debut, crushing their targets like those targets were made of straw.
Twelve hours later the Volksarmee troops stationed on the French side of the Franco-Italian border found themselves under fire from British and American tanks lumbering past the remains of the gun emplacements the SAS commandos had disabled the previous night. Hitler was beside himself with outrage when he was informed of the Allied assault, and responded to this turn of events by ordering his field commanders in the area to launch an immediate counterattack to drive the Allied advance units back. The next phase of the struggle for control of Europe’s future had begun....
To Be Continued