Monday, October 29, 2018

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.

“WHY THE ALLIES WON” by Richard Overy (first published in 1995)

            There is an idle game which I have sometimes played on the internet.

I have gone onto Youtube and have watched many short snippets of newsreels from the Second World War. Then I have been stupid enough to read some of the viewers’ comments that have been added to them. It is always a depressing experience. Most such comments are made by [presumably young] men with ultra-patriotic views and with little real knowledge of the war. Depending on which side of the Atlantic they inhabit, they say that either the British or the Americans won the war, and that we should therefore be grateful to them on all matters for all eternity. British contributors are the most one-eyed, arguing in effect “We fought the war all the way through from 1939, whereas the Yanks and Russkies only joined us in 1941, so we’re the people who really won the war.” There will also be a few comments – most of them, I surmise, inserted by those electronic provocateurs known as “trolls” – saying how wonderful Nazi Germany was and how brave its soldiers were. Comments about other countries (France, for example) will be disparaging and rely on racial stereotypes. And knowledge of the Eastern Front is almost nil.

            What is soon clear from most of this is how much such young men’s opinions are dependent on all the fictionalised movies they have seen. The Hollywood (or Elstree) myth of the Second World War is more potent than the historical reality. John Wayne or Audie Murphy or Dana Andrews (or John Mills or Richard Attenborough or Kenneth More) win the war. All the rest is peripheral.

It was before my engagement with the internet began; but when I lectured on the history of warfare, about a decade ago, I was glad to find a book which clearly and intelligently explained why and how the Second World War was fought, and why it had the outcome that it did have. I recommended it earnestly to my students, I am happy to recommend it earnestly to you, and I would recommend it earnestly to the young men who make chauvinistic remarks on the internet – that is, if they are capable of reading a book.

Richard Overy has had a distinguished academic career in Britain, and at the time he wrote Why the Allies Won he was Professor of Modern History at  King’s College, London. He begins by reminding us that the ultimate defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan was not a foregone conclusion. It is not sufficient to add up the manpower and resources eventually available to the three victorious Allies (the United States, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom) and assume that weight of numbers won the day. Rather, victory had more to do with how resources and manpower were used, especially as, by 1941-42, Nazi Germany controlled far greater resources than the USSR did, and Japan had rolled up colonial power (British, French, Dutch) in Asia.

Even by the late 1930s, Britain and France were still better equipped than Germany, but they were trumped by the Nazi-Soviet “Non-Aggression Pact” which allowed Hitler to do what the Kaiser had not been able to do – fight a war on one front. By Blitzkrieg tactics – even though Germany was not equipped “in depth” – Belgium, the Netherlands and France were overrun and the British Expeditionary Force was chased out of Europe. (Its “miraculous” evacuation from Dunkirk was largely thanks to the French Army holding a perimeter around the town of Dunkirk in a brave and bloody rearguard action – a matter always ignored in British movies about the campaign.)

Overy says that Britain was saved from similar invasion only by the poor level of German planning for a cross-Channel assault. Yes, the RAF performed magnificently and won the Battle of Britain, but this was a defensive action and Britain had neither the industrial strength nor the ability to carry the war to the enemy. For the first two years of the war, Britain was mired in successive defeats, being driven from Greece and Crete (and Norway) and facing disaster in the ill-conceived Dieppe Raid in 1942. Only when it was backed by American armaments, in 1942, did it win its first (limited) victory in North Africa in the second battle of El Alamein.

After the huge Axis victories in the first two-and-a-half years of the war, including the first year of Operation Barbarossa, why did the tide turn?

Regarding grand strategy, Overy’s book traces those campaigns and conditions that led to victory. First, seapower, which allowed the Allies to roll up the U-Boat threat in the Atlantic and sustain a line of supply to what became the Anglo-American base of Britain. Britain’s main role in the war was to be the platform for the American-led assault on Western Europe.  Seapower was also the key to victory in the Pacific, where most damage was done to Japan by planes launched from aircraft carriers. Then the massive land war in the Soviet Union, where both sides (Nazi and Soviet) were willing to expend millions of lives; and through which Nazi Germany was denied access to oil. Then the one that we prefer not to acknowledge – the huge Anglo-American bombing campaign in the last two-and-a-half years of the war, which really did cripple German industry (while incidentally killing hundreds of thousands of non-combatants). And finally the Allied invasion of Western Europe, via Italy from July 1943 and via France from June 1944.

This is a general overview of strategy, but it does not of itself explain why the Allies won.

While briefly acknowledging the superior quality of Allied military intelligence (the cracking of both the Ultra code and of Japanese naval signals), Overy focuses on the ability of Allied commanders to learn from their mistakes. Stalin’s first response to the German invasion was sheer panic, followed by an attempt to take over military command. But, paranoid tyrant though he was, he soon realised that professional military men (such as Marshal Zhukov) were better strategists than he was, and he basically let them get on with it. Winston Churchill was reluctant to ally with the Soviet Union, but was pragmatic enough to realise that such an alliance was necessary. He also, after the repeated failure of British offensives, understood that coordinated stategy with the Americans and the Russians was required. Both the RAF’s and the USAF’s bombing campaigns were modified when they were found not to achieve the desired results. As Overy notes, Britain’s bombing raids on Germany in 1940-42 mainly missed their targets and had minimal effect on German industry. Even when American airpower was added (with American Flying Fortresses capable of flying at much higher altitiudes than the RAF could), German fighters were still able to prevail until early 1944. It was only when Allied airforces developed long-range fighters that they gained air superiority and were able to cripple the German war effort by destroying infrastructure (especially railways). Incidentally, some revisionists have argued that German industrial output continued to be high until the very last months of the war – but as Overy notes, much of this output now had to be diverted to air defences, and the German armed forces were consequently being starved of materiel, despite all the industrial booty they had plundered from occupied Europe.

Hitler, meanwhile, did not learn from his mistakes, still not allowing more professional military commanders to work out a combined strategy (as Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill had done), still regarding himself as a military genius, and still insisting that generals were answerable only to him.

Perhaps just as telling as learning from mistakes was the better industrial organisation that the Allies had. There is no doubt that, despite vaunted German efficiency, the USA was the major industrial powerhouse of the world at this time. Even before the USA was fully engaged in the war, it was propping up the British war effort with generous lend-lease arrangements. Once it was fully engaged, it was able to supply military equipment, aircraft, materiel and ships (such as the Liberty Ships) in much greater quntities than any other combatant. It probably helped that mainland USA was out of range of any Axis bombing. As Overy points out, the great majority of trucks used by the Red Army in the Second World War were American-made; and Soviet soldiers were regularly provisioned with tinned American spam (which, apparently, they ironically nicknamed “Second Front”).

Though not as efficient as the capitalist assembly lines, Soviet war industries were also better organised than Nazi German ones.  With industral centres shifted beyond the Ural mountains, especially Magnitogorsk, where German bombers could not reach them, the Russians turned out huge numbers of very basic but very robust tanks and aircraft. By contrast, Germany concentrated too much on craftsmanship and experimental designs. In the later stages of the war, the best German tanks and fighter-planes were far superior to Soviet designs – but the problem was that there were too few of them, and so many different designs that it was not easy to maintain them in battle conditions when they were damaged and disabled. Where could parts and replacements be found when there were so many competing designs? The more functional Soviet designs might not have been as technologically advanced, but as they were used by the Soviets on all battle fronts, they were easier to maintain or replace. 

Finally, Overy notes that there was a moral (and morale) aspect to the Allied victory. Despite the fact that the Western Allies were tied to Stalin’s totalitarian regime, and despite the fact that nuclear weapons were eventually part of the story, the Allies still had the moral high-ground in defeating Nazism and expansionist Japanese militarism. Also, Allied governments were overwhelmingly supported by their populations. America’s isolationist movement evaporated after Pearl Harbour and there was minimal anti-war sentiment in Britain. Despite high rates of coercion and the use of terror by Stalin’s regime, there was still mass support in Russia for the fight against Germany. The Russian people were not fighting for an ideology. This was not “The Great War to Defend Marxist-Leninism”. It was, and has continued to be named by Russians, “The Great Patriotic War”, fought for nationalist and patriotic reasons in the same way that the war against Napoleon was fought. By contrast, the Italian population entered very unwillingly into war and tried to exit from it long before the fight was over. Hitler’s regime was briefly popular in Germany after the initial victories of 1940-41, but this early euphoria rapidly evaporated, to be briefly revived when the war was rebranded as defence against Russia post-1943. During the war, notes Overy, over 15,000 German soldiers were executed for mutiny and insubordination. To put it simply, there was an underlying realisation in Axis countries that they were being asked to support expansionist – and dare one say, evil – regimes.

Learning from mistakes, better industrial organisation and morale – these are the keys to the final Allied victory.

Taking Overy’s thesis another way, I could summarise it thus – it was American industrial power, Russian manpower and British resilience that won the war, with Britain eventually having to accept, even if reluctantly, that it was the junior partner in the coalition.

My summary here has been simplified, but I would still hope that this book could serve as a corrective to the small-mindedness on this issue that I have seen expressed on line.

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