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What If Hitler Had Gone for Moscow? Part 2

By Dale Cozort

This Scenario was originally posted on Dale's Website in 1998. More essays like this can be found in Dale's 'Space Bats and Butterflies' Collections. Part 1 was posted here.

Propaganda poster for the Vichy Regime's Révolution nationale program, 1942

Early 1943, Southern Front

Without the Torch landings in North Africa, and without the German defeat at Stalingrad, the Italians probably stay in the war longer. If Italy stays in the war, the Germans can commit to Russia the 25 divisions they had to commit to Italy in our timeline, plus the troops they had to commit to the Balkans to fill the gaps left by the Italian surrender.

Also on the Southern Front, in early 1943 the Germans and Italians are cornered in Western Libya with their backs to the border of French-held Tunisia. The Germans pressure Vichy France to allow Germany to use Tunisian ports to supply their army in North Africa. The Vichy French have been trying to preserve what is left of their neutrality after the failure of the Torch landings. They don’t want to get sucked into the war again, especially not on the German side.

Some Vichy officials have been quietly sounding out the Americans, trying to figure out how much help they would be able to count on if they defy Hitler. In early 1943, they can’t count on much. The US is still trying to win the war against the U-boats so that it can project power. The Vichy French reluctantly allow resupply of the German force in North Africa through their ports. Vichy France and the US still have diplomatic relations. The US puts enormous pressure on the French to stop the supplies. The French want guarantees that a US force will land in France if Vichy cuts off the supplies and Hitler retaliates against them. The US is not quite ready to give that assurance.

In late June 1943, a new crisis arises. The Germans and Italians are pushed back into Tunisia, but they refuse to be interned. The British pursue them and the Vichy French are cornered. They have to choose sides. It’s a finger-to-the-wind-type situation. The Vichy are divided. They want France to come out on the winning side, but at this point they aren’t sure which side that is. They know that German power is declining compared to the US and Britain. They know that the British have overwhelming superiority in North Africa. They know that US forces are building up in England for an invasion of France. They stall. They pressure Hitler to allow them to build up their North African army more. They pressure the United States to commit to specific actions on a specific timetable if Hitler invades the unoccupied third of France.

The British start taking over administration of Tunisia, and make it clear that France will lose its colonies permanently unless Vichy moves quickly to take sides. The Free French under de Gaulle are furious about that. They recruit in the British occupied areas and build up their forces. The Vichy French almost get in a shooting war with the Free French.

Early 1943, Western Front

The Americans don’t get combat experience against the Germans in 1942 or early 1943. They want to go directly to an attack across France in 1943. The British strongly disagree. They want to follow up their victory in North Africa with an attack on Italy. They don’t have the strength to do that on their own. The US is not interested in getting dragged into what its leaders consider a sideshow. The British do convince them to commit a division to North Africa to gain experience at fighting the Germans. The British intend that as an opening wedge to get the US committed to the Mediterranean. The US goes along with it to gain experience. That proves wise. The inexperienced US troops are given a very rough introduction to modern warfare by the Germans in North Africa.

Late 1943, Southern Front

The debate between advocates of a southern strategy and a thrust into northern France goes on as US forces gradually build up in England. By mid-1943, an invasion of France is theoretically possible. The situation in North Africa and the Soviet Union makes it urgent. The Vichy French know that Hitler will try to take the unoccupied southern part of France if they defy him in North Africa. Now the US is in a position to assure them that they will get help against Hitler if he goes after southern France. The US has pushed the British into agreeing to a cross-Channel invasion, supplemented by a British landing in southern France if Hitler goes after Vichy. That is a compromise. The British don’t want a cross-Channel invasion in 1943 under any circumstances. The Americans want one in 1943 whether or not the Germans invade Vichy France.

The Vichy French officially have 100,000 men under arms, with essentially no armor, very little artillery and very little transportation. They have some planes, but not many. Off the books, they are in much better shape. In our timeline, the French had a secret plan to mobilize enough reservists to bring their army up to 300,000, and to mobilize a fleet of trucks for transport. They also built hundreds of unarmored versions of a tracked personnel carrier and sold them as “forestry tractors”. They kept track to those “tractors” and retrieved all but one of them for the resistance in 1944. They also built and stashed armor for those “tractors”. They even hid planes and artillery. They also ran a large-scale outdoor survival training program for unemployed French young men — not military training, just a much tougher version of the boy scouts. That toughened the young men up and would have cut down the time needed to turn them into soldiers.

In this timeline, they also plan to mobilize tens of thousands of additional French troops who have returned from occupation duty in Ukraine. They also have a couple hundred tanks or self-propelled guns which are officially being repaired or awaiting shipment to North Africa or Russia. Even with those men, and with the tanks and artillery they have clandestinely built up, they are obviously no match for the Germans on their own.

Negotiations between Vichy officials and the US drag into early August. The Germans become aware of them, but Hitler waits for about a month before taking action. The Germans are in a crucial phase in the East. It looks possible for them to break through the Caucasus Mountains into the Middle East and attack the English from the rear.

As August and then September wears on, it becomes increasingly obvious that the Western Front is going to require attention. The Soviets are putting more and more pressure on the Western Allies to do a second front. The American build-up in England is becoming more ominous. It doesn’t look as though the German and Italian troops in North Africa will hold out much longer. The Germans begin moving troops into position to take over Vichy France, and possibly to go through Spain into Morocco to support their troops in North Africa. The US and British are aware of those moves because of Ultra. They already have contingency plans for a British landing in southern France and Corsica, along with a mainly-American cross-Channel invasion.

In mid-September 1943, Hitler rolls south into unoccupied France with about eight divisions — not very high-quality ones at that. The Italian army invades from the east with about six divisions. The Vichy army deploys to protect some reasonably defensible positions. The Germans for the most part bypass them and head on toward the ports of southern France, trying to take those ports before the British land. The Vichy French concentrate some of their best forces and most of their hidden equipment around the southern ports. The British land in Corsica at the same time the Italians land a force there. The Italians are quickly defeated in Corsica. The French hold onto some key ports in southern France long enough for the British to land.

The Germans timed their invasion so that it would take place at a very unfavorable time for an Allied cross-Channel attack. The weather that time of year would make any landing hazardous and make the following build-up of Allied forces difficult. The force invading southern France is a substantial percentage of their total combat power in France. It includes nearly all of their mobile forces. Hitler is gambling that he can beat the French and British in the south of France, then get the mobile forces back in time to defeat any American cross-Channel invasion — all without taking resources away from the Eastern Front.

That doesn’t work. The German Panzers get a nasty surprise around the southern ports as they run into French armor. The French have taken a prewar design called the SAU40, a turret less self-propelled artillery version of the SOMUA S-35, and mated it with a French 75mm anti-aircraft gun. The resulting vehicle has somewhat more firepower than a German Panzer IV, though a lot less than a Tiger I or one of the new Panthers that are just entering German service (later than in our timeline because there is none of the urgency generated by the Stalingrad defeat). Against second-rate German divisions and their second-rate tanks, the French do fairly well, holding out long enough for the British to lodge themselves securely in several southern ports.

Marshal Pétain, head of Vichy France, purges his government of the worst of the collaborators and urges Frenchmen to unite in a fight against the Germans. He is still popular because of his role in World War I, and most Frenchmen go along with him. Some pro-German Vichy politicians flee to the Germans and try to get the Germans to recognize them as the real French government.

In North Africa, the Vichy French join the fight against the Germans and the Italians. That fight doesn’t last much longer. The Allies have control of the air and use it to cut the already tenuous supply lines from Italy to North Africa. The last Axis troops in North Africa surrender less than a week after Germany invades Vichy France. That frees up British and French forces for the fight for southern France. By mid-October, the British have built up enough to break out of the ports and link up, controlling the bulk of the coast of southern France.

The Germans are now paying a price for bypassing the Vichy French on their way to the coast. American planes and French forces are making it very difficult for the Germans to get supplies to their forces in southern France. As the Germans concentrate on the British and French troops in southern France, the Vichy French launch several surprise attacks north from bypassed pockets into occupied France. Those attacks are devastatingly effective because the French are facing third-rate occupation forces — more a police force than an army — and those forces are deployed against an internal threat rather than a real army. The attacks overrun German-held airfields, capturing or destroying planes intended to support the German effort in southern France. They also overrun supply depots supplying the forces in southern France. Those attacks threaten to close the supply routes to Southern France.

The British now outnumber the Germans facing them by a substantial margin. They break through German lines and head north, threatening to cut off the entire German force facing them. The allies now have control of the air in southern France, while the Germans are fighting on a logistics shoestring. The Germans are also trying desperately to keep what supply lines they have left from being cut by the Vichy French. The British attack catches the Italians on the southern side of a Vichy French pocket from the rear. The British cut through and link up with the Vichy pocket, then send armor through it, cutting the Germans off in southern France. By the end of 1943, almost all of Vichy France, plus a substantial part of France north of the occupation line are in allied hands. By this time though, the Germans have moved substantial first-rate forces from the eastern front and are preparing an offensive to link up with their cut-off forces and retake southern France.

Late 1943, Western Front

Meanwhile, the Americans are getting ready for the cross-Channel invasion. The British have stalled until it’s really too late in the year for that, but the Americans think that a unique opportunity is slipping by. They have options for a full-scale invasion and also for a series of large-scale raids to tie down German troops. The Americans are also using the airlift expertise that they built up in the attempt to save Moscow. Substantial Vichy French forces have been bypassed by the Germans in their rush to the sea. Those forces have now regrouped. They still control the bulk of southern France, including several airports. The Americans are rushing supplies to them: artillery, jeeps, bazookas, machine guns and ammunition, even a few light tanks. An American airborne division lands in one of the pockets. American fighters fly into some of the French-held airports and begin air support operations.

The British are still dragging their feet on a cross-Channel invasion. They feel that the threat of an invasion ties down as many German troops as an actual invasion does, without the risks. That argument loses force as the Germans move more forces south to deal with the British and the Vichy French. The Germans are gambling. They have actually taken a few of the Caucasus oilfields, and are tantalizingly close to the major ones. Hitler wants those oilfields badly enough to risk making a cross-Channel invasion easy. He pushes the Italians to send more troops into the battle for southern France, pitting them against the Vichy French pockets while sending more German troops from northern France into the battle against the British around the southern ports. When the French attack north out of the bypassed pockets, the Germans pull more troops out of the coastal defenses to contend with those attacks.

The Americans and British launch a coordinated series of large scale raids across the Channel: larger versions of Dieppe Raid. German opposition is surprisingly light and the Americans quickly take advantage of the situation to expand their objectives to taking and holding a port. That proves harder than it looked. Hitler is now shifting substantial forces from the Eastern Front to France. By the end of 1943, the US has a fragile lodging on the coast of France. US forces there are getting their first taste of what a first-class German force is still capable of.

Late 1943 in the East

Soviets preparing to ward off a German assault in Stalingrad's suburbs

In the East, the Germans are doing the same thing they did in 1942 in our timeline: going for the Caucasus oil. They are in a much better position to do so than they were in our timeline. They don’t have the long, exposed northern flank to deal with, because they have already taken more territory to the north. At the same time, the Soviets have built up their forces again. They have an amazing resilience, because they are building tanks and planes and artillery at such a high rate. The Western Allies fill in any gaps, sending hundreds of thousands of trucks, millions of boots and uniforms, and large amounts of canned food.

The Germans get somewhat further than they did in 1942 in our timeline. They actually take and hold some of the oilfields. Hitler thinks that they are almost in a position to knock the Soviets out of the war. The last pockets of resistance in Moscow have long since been starved out. Leningrad hasn’t fallen, but it is getting weaker and weaker as the summer of 1943 wears on and the Soviets are unable to create a corridor through the surrounding Germans. (They blasted a narrow corridor through to the city in our timeline.) They are transporting some food and raw materials across Lake Ladoga to Leningrad, but nowhere near enough.

The Soviets are nowhere near out of the war, though. In late 1943, Hitler is forced by events in France to go over onto the defensive without quite reaching his objectives. That actually turns out to be a good thing for the Germans. The Soviets have prepared a winter offensive that might have trapped the entire Army Group South if the German offensive had gone on much longer. As it is, the Germans find themselves switching desperately needed forces that had just gone into action in France back to the Eastern Front to avoid a complete disaster there.

There is also a sideshow in the East. When Hitler goes after Vichy France, he attempts to disarm the Vichy French contingent in the Ukraine and return them to prisoner-of-war status. That does not entirely work. The French turn over anything they can’t move quickly to the Ukrainian nationalists and head toward the Romanian border. Some French troops stay and fight with the Ukrainians. Some are captured. Around two-thirds of them make it to Romania. Romania is officially allied with Germany. They are also traditional allies of France. The Romanian government “interns” the French but refuses to turn them over to the Germans. Hitler is furious, but he needs the Romanians, so he allows the decision to stand.

1943 in the Pacific

The emphasis on Burma that started in late 1942 is now paying off. The Japanese have been pushed out of enough of Burma that it looks like early 1944 may see a reopening of the Burma road. That in turn would allow a major reequipping of the Nationalist Chinese Army.

And there we have a scenario in which to set stories of even more desperate fighting than OTL.

How plausible is this so far?

Alternate histories inevitably get less and less plausible as they get further from the point of divergence. There are so many forks in the road of history. Without reality to guide you, how can you know that you are taking the right one? This alternate history has gone out about a year and a half. There are already a number of forks in it where things could easily go a different direction than the one I describe.

For example:

Could the Germans really have cut Moscow off in summer 1942 and kept it cut-off?

I don’t know. There were an awful lot of Soviets to go through. They weren’t as good as the Soviets of July 1943, or even as good as the Soviets of November 1942, but they were better than the Soviets of summer 1941. The Germans did very well against the 1942 Soviets essentially everywhere except at Stalingrad. On the other hand, the Soviets concentrated their best forces and commanders around Moscow. It would have been one incredible battle. I wouldn’t mind seeing it war-gamed sometime.

Would Hitler have resisted the temptation to get into a street-by-street fight for Moscow?

He did in Leningrad. He didn’t in Stalingrad. I’m guessing he would in Moscow, but anyone who says they can predict Hitler’s actions in an alternate-history situation is being rather optimistic.

Would the U-boat disaster to Operation Torch have happened?

Probably not. The Allies probably would have just done some raids on the French or Norwegian coast, then tried Operation Torch on schedule. On the other hand, people make mistakes in real history. This isn’t the most likely outcome, but it is not all that farfetched.

With Moscow about to fall, Operation Torch would have had problems in any case. The Vichy French were a mixture of genuine fascists, opportunists who just wanted to be on the winning side, and French patriots who wanted to make sure France made it through the war and re-emerged as a great power. All of those factions would be much less inclined to go along with an Allied invasion of North Africa if it looked like the Soviets were about ready to go down. The impending fall of Moscow would have made a lot of people think that.

Would the US really concentrate more effort on the Burma area in 1942?

Maybe. It depends on how the interallied politics and the US domestic politics plays out in the aftermath of the failure of the Torch invasion. It wouldn’t have been a bad strategy. Opening up a land link to Nationalist China and reequipping its army would have done a lot of very nice things for the Allies. It would have also had some interesting postwar implications.

Would the US really have held off on a cross-Channel invasion through 1942 and most of 1943?

That depends on how much impact the failure of the Torch invasion had on US decisionmakers.

The British really didn’t want to go that route, and they would have had a major impact on decision-making until US military power eclipsed theirs in late 1943.


Dale Cozort is a published Author and long term AH essay writer who can be found at his website and blog.


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