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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.

In explaining “How to Seize an Enemy-Held Shore,” the book examines in particular the Normandy landings, in the light of previous amphibious disasters such as the attack on Gallipoli in World War I. The Allies learned the importance of landing away from well-defended areas, and of securing command of air and sea in advance. It was also vital to maintain strict secrecy about the invasion plans, as the Allies did not, disastrously, before the landings at Salerno in September 1943 or Anzio in January 1944. All these conditions were present for the Normandy landings in June 1944, along with the elaborate deception measures that sent most of the German defensive forces elsewhere and made the Germans expect the invasion at a different time—another triumph of intelligence. What counted most, says Kennedy, following most other historians of D-Day, was meticulous planning and a smoothly functioning system of command and control, to which one might add, again, an overwhelming superiority in men and matériel.

In his last substantive chapter, Kennedy addresses another familiar topic when he considers “How to Defeat the ‘Tyranny of Distance.’” If the Japanese overreached themselves in the vastness of the areas they conquered in 1941–1942, distance also posed real problems for the Allied forces when they began to try to roll the Japanese back. China was too far from the American mainland to be usable as a base for the counteroffensive, and the topography of Burma was unsuitable. The Allied response had to extend across the Pacific.

The development of fast aircraft carrier groups, the production of long-range B-29 bombers flying at 30,000 feet, out of range of enemy fighters and antiaircraft guns, the deployment of fast and maneuverable fighter planes such as the Hellcat, and the skill and experience in amphibious warfare of the US Marine Corps gave the US forces supremacy at sea and in the air and enabled them to push back the Japanese until in the final phase they began to devastate Japan’s towns and cities, bringing the war to an end with the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. American submarines decimated the Japanese fleet with new and improved torpedoes, while the huge, lumbering Japanese submarines were easily spotted and destroyed. No effective attempt was made to protect Japanese shipping, resulting in a devastating collapse in supplies for the population on the Japanese islands and the occupying forces across the Pacific.

Kennedy’s claim that the Allies won not least because they possessed “a culture of encouragement” or “culture of innovation” is central to his argument. He provides examples of the technological improvements and inventions that improved the Allied war effort, but the Third Reich was equally effective in devising and developing new weapons and technologies, from the V-2 rocket to the jet fighter, from fast, battery-equipped, air-conditioned submarines to the “Waterfall” ground-to-air missile.

German science and technology were second to none in their capacity to innovate. It is perfectly true to say, as Kennedy does, that these technologies could not be deployed effectively because Germany had lost command of the sea and air by the time they were to go into production, so factories and transport facilities were repeatedly put out of action. In the end, however, the decisive impact was made not by the Allies’ superior ability to solve military and logistical problems through technology, but by their enormous superiority in resources and, crucially, the way in which they were able to concentrate them where it mattered.

It is well known that the Germans’ decision-making structures were chaotic and ineffective in the economic sphere. As in so many other aspects of administration, Hitler’s preferred approach was to appoint different people to do the same thing, in the belief that the one who came out on top in the Darwinian struggle for institutional supremacy would be the most ruthless and the most efficient. This proved to be a grave disadvantage during the war, when not even Speer could centralize production of key weapons effectively. There were rival teams working on different kinds of rockets, and even on different kinds of atomic bombs, and resources were dissipated on a wide range of projects, many of them with no real future, instead of being concentrated on one or two.

Matters were made worse by Hitler’s continual wavering and changing of priorities. The Messerschmitt Me262, a jet-engined combat aircraft, was ready for production in July 1943, for instance, but Hitler first went against his advisers’ plea for it to be equipped as a fighter (it would have been very damaging to Allied bombers over Germany) and ordered it to be built as a bomber (where it would have had little real effect). He then banned all discussion of it because he took attempts to change his mind as challenges to his authority.

This leads on to a wider question about the role of leadership during the war. Kennedy recognizes, of course, that “the men at the top made a difference.” Hitler’s claim to be the “Greatest Field Commander of All Time” (Grösster Feldherr aller Zeiten, abbreviated ironically by some of his subordinates as Gröfaz) was accepted by many after his initial triumph over conventional military strategy in the defeat of France in 1940, but it was a claim increasingly questioned by his generals as time went on. Hitler, for example, divided the German forces on the Eastern Front in the late autumn of 1941, taking troops away from the assault on Moscow and diverting the impetus of the invasion to the Caucasus. But this was not, as Kennedy implies, an act of folly: Hitler considered it a priority to occupy the grain-growing regions of the Ukraine and take over the Crimea to stop the Soviets from using it as a base for air raids on the Romanian oilfields, on which Germany depended heavily. There was something to be said for this view.

Kennedy says that in going along with Hitler’s decision “the Wehrmacht leadership…had, ironically, forgotten Clausewitz’s stress upon the importance of focusing upon the enemy’s Schwerpunkte (centers of gravity, or key points)”; but in fact they had not. The general commanding Army Group Center, Fedor von Bock, was bitterly opposed to the decision, remarking to the Chief of the Army General Staff, Franz Halder, that “the turn away toward the south is a sideshow.” “I don’t want to capture Moscow,” he protested in response to constant war directives from Hitler warning that the capture of Moscow was not a top priority: “I want to destroy the enemy army, and the mass of this army is standing in front of me!” The weakening of his forces by diverting many of them away to the south meant that “a question-mark is placed over the execution of the main operation, namely the destruction of the Russian armed forces before the winter.”

Neither the calculations of Bock nor those of Hitler were particularly rational. Both seemed to expect that the Soviet Union would crumble easily into anarchy and chaos, Bock because Prussian military doctrine had taught him that an enemy could be defeated by a single knockout blow, Hitler because he considered the Soviet Union a ramshackle state held together only by the terror of a Jewish-Bolshevik clique. In fact, following a series of stunning victories in the south, Hitler transferred large quantities of men and matériel back to Bock, who launched a further assault in October, taking some 673,000 prisoners and advancing further toward Moscow.

But the Soviet military leadership had rethought its tactics, Stalin had managed to inspire the will to resist, and the Soviet spy Richard Sorge in Tokyo had convinced him that the Japanese were not going to attack Russia, enabling him to transfer 400,000 experienced troops to the Moscow front. The Soviet Union did not collapse; its resources were so deep that a single knockout blow was simply not possible; and Bock’s army was halted before the gates of Moscow and pushed back into a defensive position where many of the men froze to death because they had only been issued with summer uniforms, in the expectation that they would win before winter set in.

These events called into question the rationality of the entire Axis war effort. For in the end, success and failure in any war have to be measured by the aims with which the belligerents enter it, and these aims have to be realistic to stand any chance of success. Japan’s initial aims, though ambitious, were relatively limited—the establishment of a “Greater Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere,” in other words a Japanese economic empire that would harness the resources of a large area of East Asia and the Pacific at a time when oil and other supplies had been cut off by the US embargo imposed in July 1941.

It might have been possible to secure this goal against retaliation from the already overstretched British Empire, whose easy defeat presaged its subsequent dissolution after the war. But it was wholly unrealistic to think that the US would meekly stand aside after Pearl Harbor and negotiate a peace settlement that would leave most of the Co-Prosperity Sphere in Japanese hands. Moreover, the brutal and sadistic behavior of the Japanese conquerors in the areas they occupied doomed any idea of “Co-Prosperity” from the outset. The Japanese invited total war by their behavior, and they got it; it was a war they could never hope to win.

Hitler’s war aims were boundless, expressing an even greater degree of illusion about his country’s ability to achieve them than the Japanese harbored about theirs. The Nazis believed above all in the supremacy of will-power; the triumph of their own will over Germany would be followed by a similar triumph over the feeble and degenerate nations of the West and the primitive and backward Slavic societies of the East. Victory would be followed by a racial reordering of Europe, with 30 to 45 million Slavs exterminated to make way for German farmers. The resources of a Nazi-dominated Europe would then be mobilized for a new confrontation with the US. Here too, the ruthless and exploitative behavior of the Germans in the occupied countries ensured that the resources of Europe rapidly dwindled, as the economies of the defeated nations plunged rapidly toward exhaustion and collapse.

Kennedy speaks of “the folly of the cruel Nazi treatment of the Ukrainians and other ethnic groups within Stalin’s loathed empire.” But such treatment was more than “folly”; it was built into the Nazis’ war aims. Similarly, it would be missing the point to see a strategic error in the diversion of German resources into the extermination of the Jews. In the deranged vision of the Nazis, Germany’s war was being waged above all to destroy a worldwide conspiracy against the “Aryan” race orchestrated by international Jewry, of whom Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin were the willing tools. This was a racial war, in which the extermination of six million European Jews, not dealt with at all in Kennedy’s book because it did not seem to belong to the normal arsenal of military strategy, was a paramount war aim, to be extended ultimately from Europe to America itself, from which, Hitler supposed, the world conspiracy against Germany was being orchestrated.

Struggle, conflict, aggression, and violence were central to Nazi ideology, which envisaged endless war as the only way of keeping the “Aryan” race supreme. In the face of irrationality of this order, it is rather beside the point to suggest, as Kennedy does, that the Germans might have won the war, or to claim that without the contribution of this or that logistical, organizational, or technological innovation, “victory would remain out of grasp.” Defeat was preprogrammed for the Axis by the very nature of its war aims, not just by the means through which the Axis powers sought to achieve them. Like every book that treats World War II as a rational conflict along the lines of the Seven Years’ War or the Franco-Prussian War or the American Civil War, which were fought for clearly defined ends that either side might have achieved, Engineers of Victory in this sense is fundamentally misconceived from the outset.

Despite its opening claims, Kennedy’s book isn’t really about technologies but tackles its themes on a much wider basis. There have been many excellent books published recently about World War II, but they have focused overwhelmingly on the experience of the war, on what it was like to be a soldier at Stalingrad, a sailor at Midway, a civilian in the Blitz. This book stands out because, unlike them, it tries to think through the history of the war, to answer big questions, and to advance reasoned and carefully argued propositions about its course and its outcome. Unfortunately, very little of what it has to say is new, and the detailed case studies it presents have been covered well in many other books on the war.