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What the War Was Really About

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United States Air Force Archives
Allied B-17 bombers flying toward Germany with an escort of long-range fighters

Different kinds of historians have tended to emphasize different reasons for the Allies’ defeat of the Axis powers in World War II. The more traditional military historians put the stress on the varying qualities of leadership on the two sides. They contrast the inspiration provided by Churchill and Roosevelt and, in a very different way, Stalin, with the remoteness of Hirohito or the unbalanced decision-making and growing withdrawal of Hitler from public life during the war. Generalship counted for a great deal in this view too. Brilliant German military figures like Erwin Rommel, Heinz Guderian, or Erich von Manstein were hamstrung by Hitler’s constant meddling and rigid insistence on outright victory or total defeat. They were outmaneuvered by such leaders as Georgy Zhukov, Bernard Montgomery, and George S. Patton, all given much freedom by their political bosses to pursue their own tactics in the light of the military situation of the moment.

Economic historians, naturally, have pointed to the huge disparity in resources between the two sides, with the Allies outproducing the Axis powers many times over in arms and ammunition, while Japan ran out of food and Germany ran out of fuel. More recently, as the records of the secret services during the war have become available, “intelligence historians” have made the case for the turning of the tide through vital breakthroughs in gathering information, decrypting enemy ciphers, and mounting elaborate exercises in deceit and deception.

Many historians have sought to identify vital “turning points” in the conflict, from Ian Kershaw’s “fateful decisions” taken by the leaders of the belligerent powers to Philip Bell’s list of battles and conferences that set the Allies on course for victory.1 On a broader basis, Richard Overy, whose writings have encompassed both military and economic history, canvassed a variety of reasons Why the Allies Won, to quote the title of his 1995 book, and came to the conclusion that “the Allies won the Second World War because they turned their economic strength into effective fighting power, and turned the moral energies of their people into an effective will to win.”2

Like Overy, Paul Kennedy is a historian who has always tried to see war and international relations in the round. He is properly skeptical of some of the more exaggerated claims made by partisans of one approach or the other. The repeated assertions by “intelligence historians” that one “intelligence breakthrough” or another changed the course of the struggle are, he suggests, unprovable unless they are assessed in a broader setting. The list of intelligence failures in the war, he points out, is a long one, from the French ignorance of the German advance through the Ardennes in 1940 to the American blindness in the face of the planned Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Top commanders sometimes refused to believe intelligence reports. When an ex-Communist German soldier made his way across the lines the night before the launching of Operation Barbarossa to warn Stalin that an invasion was coming, the Soviet dictator famously had him shot for spreading false rumors.

Kennedy might have added, too, that the Ultra decrypts, through which British intelligence officers at Bletchley Park were able to monitor German radio traffic and warn the troops on the ground where the next attack was coming from, were hamstrung by the fear that too obvious a redeployment might alert the Germans to the fact that their plans had become known in advance. Thus in May 1941, although the commander of the British troops on the island of Crete had been told by Bletchley Park where the forthcoming German airborne invasion forces were going to land, he was forbidden to deploy his men there in case the Germans smelled a rat, thus nullifying any advantage intelligence might have provided him.

By contrast, Kennedy argues, the intelligence “breakthroughs that had provable battlefield victories that shortened the course of the war…are on a short-order menu.” Most obvious was the Battle of Midway, where intelligence located the enemy carriers while being able to hide the location of the US forces; perhaps the Royal Navy’s destruction of the Italian fleet in the Mediterranean in November 1940 falls into the same category; so may the sinking of the German battle cruiser Scharnhorst in December 1943. Otherwise, intelligence, he argues, was generally only one factor among many, and usually not the most important, though in the course of his book, he mentions many other major intelligence contributions, undermining his own argument at many points.

What did make the difference, then, according to Kennedy? He points to a number of broad factors influencing the course taken by the war. The most obvious of these was the disparity in resources and productive capacity between the Axis powers and the Allies. If anything, this was even greater than Kennedy claims. Thus, far from achieving “productive superiority by 1943–44,” the Allies already had it in 1940, even before the US entered the war, with the Soviets producing, for example, 21,000 combat aircraft and the British 15,000 to Germany’s 10,000. In 1941 Britain and the US between them made more than twice as many combat aircraft as Germany and Japan combined. And it was not only the Allies who learned from their mistakes and improved their weapons systems and production methods. The Germans managed to do this most impressively when Albert Speer, building on his predecessors’ foundations, boosted military manufacturing to its highest rate in 1944, with effective new products like the Tiger and Panther tanks.

Yet in the end this made little difference. The disparity in resources was recognized early on by intelligent German generals like Fritz Todt, who told Hitler the war was lost for this very reason at the beginning of 1942. “The war in North Africa,” lamented General Rommel after his defeat, “was decided by the weight of Anglo-American material.” And it wasn’t just productive capacity that the Axis lacked; time and again its forces were defeated because they ran out of fuel. General Friedrich Paulus could not have broken clear of his encirclement by the Red Army at Stalingrad, even had he defied Hitler’s orders to fight to the death and tried to do so, because his tanks and trucks didn’t have enough fuel to make the distance; there were many other instances of this kind. Throughout the war, Germany never had more than a million tons of oil reserves, while Britain had ten million in 1942 and more than twenty million two years later. German attempts to conquer the oilfields of the Caucasus and the Middle East came to nothing, as did IG Farben’s enormous investments in the production of synthetic fuel.

Yet Kennedy is right to criticize “the crude economic determinist explanation of the war’s outcome.” Germany, Italy, and Japan all dissipated their resources by fighting on too many fronts at the same time (prime examples of Kennedy’s concept of imperial “overreach,” a concept he developed a quarter of a century ago in his classic book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers). However, while the Soviet Union was able to concentrate almost exclusively on defeating the Nazi invader, the British and Americans also faced the problems posed by waging a war on many different fronts. Kennedy suggests that the British experience of running a global empire stood them in good stead here, but more importantly, he says, “the British leaders knew they were overstretched,” especially after the defeat of their forces in Greece and Crete, Tobruk and Singapore, and their reverses in the Battle of the Atlantic, all at the low point of the war, in 1941–1942, even with the participation of forces from many different parts of the empire. They made every effort to compensate for this by developing new technologies to reduce losses.

It is these technologies and their deployment that form the central focus of Kennedy’s engrossing book. He divides his material into five chapters. In the first, “How to Get Convoys Safely Across the Atlantic,” he begins in 1942, when Allied merchant fleets bringing supplies to Britain lost 7.8 million tons, most of them sunk by German submarines. Allied technologists overcame this difficult situation by developing long-range bombers that could accompany the convoys across the Atlantic; centrimetric radar to locate the U-boats, which usually had to travel on the surface because they lacked the air-conditioning needed to stay underwater for long periods of time; the Hedgehog mortar, with which convoy escorts could destroy the enemy submarines; and effective and better-organized convoy support groups, including small aircraft carriers, that could stalk and eliminate the German “wolf-packs.”

Here as before he plays down the role of intelligence, but the Germans’ ability to decode Allied radio transmissions while blocking attempts by Allied cryptographers to decipher German messages had a significant part in the losses of 1942. The Allied success in reversing this situation in December 1942 was surely a significant turning point in the conflict, enabling convoys to reroute away from the pursuing submarines and locate them by their radio traffic as well as by spotting them on the surface.

Kennedy turns from this oft-told story to deal with the question “How to Win Command of the Air.” By the time the Allied bombers had increased their range and gotten better at finding their targets than they were to begin with, it was 1943, when mass raids on Hamburg and the Ruhr caused huge damage not only to German industry but also to German morale. It was a mistake for them to switch to far-off Berlin as a target. There Allied navigational aids were ineffective, short-range fighter planes could not accompany the bombers, and the Germans had time to organize their air defenses. The bomber crews suffered heavy losses, and the campaign was scaled down.

The solution was found in the P-51 Mustang, a long-range fighter with an American body and a British Rolls-Royce engine. The new fighter escorts were effective in protecting the bombers, whose range also increased; the Allies achieved command of the skies, and the last eighteen months of the war saw increasingly devastating raids that crippled German industry and further depressed German morale. Many historians have told this story before, and Kennedy adds little that is new, but his analysis is clear and convincing all the same.

From this familiar story, Kennedy moves on to recount how the Allies learned “How to Stop a Blitzkrieg,” or in other words, how to defeat the German tactic of combining air, armor, and infantry in an all-out assault. The answer lay in preparing in-depth defenses well in advance, as happened at El Alamein and Kursk. Here Kennedy is on rather shaky ground, having failed to consult Karl-Heinz Frieser’s groundbreaking series of studies of the Blitzkrieg, culminating in his dramatic reinterpretation of the battle at Kursk, in which, he calculates, 760 German tanks were lost, not 1,600 as Kennedy claims, 170,000 German troops were counted missing, dead, or wounded, not 50,000, and—vital but not mentioned in Kennedy’s book—524 German combat aircraft were lost. Once again, while it was important that the Soviets learned how to counter the German tactics and use intelligence, aerial supremacy, technology, and logistics to turn the tide, the disparity in resources was vital. While the Red Army’s losses were far greater than the Wehrmacht’s, they could also be made good far more easily.

  1. 1

    Ian Kershaw, Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions that Changed the World, 1940–1941 (Penguin, 2005); P.M.H. Bell, Twelve Turning Points of the Second World War (Yale University Press, 2011). 

  2. 2

    Richard Overy, Why the Allies Won (Norton, 1995), p. 325. 

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