Misconceptions of WWII, Part Two

(Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part series about popular misconceptions about World War II,written by a reenacting friend. The final post will be put up tomorrow. Enjoy!)

3) The Allies won primarily through material and industrial power

It’s likely I’ve dispelled this conception in the discussions above, but it is often a separate and distinct discussion.

To be clear, the incredible industrial capacity of the Allies, primarily the United States and Soviet Union, gave them the ability to win, it provided them a capability that made victory a possibility, but it did not itself bring victory.  That had to be done through the skill and bravery of their combatants.

To provide some illustrating examples, in the beginning of the war, when Allied industry had not gotten on a “war footing” so to speak, the Axis, particularly Germany, enjoyed a material advantage in terms of numbers.   This advantage was particularly heavy in terms of aircraft and artillery.  During the campaigns in France and Poland, Germans were outnumbered in terms of sheer numbers, except with aircraft and artillery.  How they won will be discussed later, but even this advantage in aircraft could not bring them victory against Britain in the summer of 1940.  Likewise, the Japanese could not turn their substantial numerical advantage in ships and planes into victory at Pearl Harbor or Midway, which was the basis of their entire strategy.

More pertinent however, are some examples of Allied austerity.  No one can argue that either side of the Guadalcanal campaign enjoyed any kind of material might.   It is a solid example of the US military overcoming and winning despite a severe lack of logistical support or significant numbers.   Guadalcanal was a campaign the US had to fight but would not have chosen to because it was not prepared.  Nonetheless, it won a victory.

The Battle of the Bulge, particularly the defense of Bastogne, is another example.   The U.S. won despite being unsupplied and outnumbered. Overall, during the Battle of the Bulge, the Germans enjoyed numerical superiority but could not translate this into victory.

I’d like to paraphrase Charles MacDonald who wrote A Time for Trumpets about the Battle of the Bulge, which he was in,  where he stated that all the artillery in the world doesn’t matter when you reach the point where you have to get out of your hole and move forward toward the enemy.

Material advantage made victory possible, but, it was the skill of the combatants that made Guadalcanal as much a victory as D-Day.

4) Germany lost the Soviet invasion to General Winter

This is one of the most widely held, pervasive, and best defended misconceptions I’ll address.   The perception is that the Germans were defeated in 1941 by the extremes of the Russian winter, which caught them unprepared.   It originated then, and was perpetuated afterwards by German generals themselves who found it an easy excuse.

In fact, the winter conditions were devastating to the Wehrmacht, but, it was due to other factors that they found themselves still fighting on the outskirts of Moscow rather than living in it by the time winter came.

R.H.S. Stolfi was one of the first historians who helped dispel this idea to me.   Essentially, he points out that of the 3 main army groups invading the Soviet Union, only one really mattered, Army Group Center.  Its objective was to seize Moscow, and the surrounding area, which, in addition to being the capital was also in many ways the logistics and communication hub of European Russia.  Army Groups South and North were only there in support Center’s main effort.  But, as the campaign progressed over late summer and fall, Hitler directed Center to support their efforts, to seize oil fields and besiege Leningrad respectively.   In this, weeks were lost in the drive to the Moscow area, so the German forces found themselves there in November instead of late September as planned.  And by then, it was too late.  The Germans were not prepared to fight in the winter because they were not supposed to be fighting by the time winter came.

Of course, the resistance of the Soviets, their industrial might, assistance from other Allies, and the vast distances involved were all key as well.   But winter in itself cannot be blamed.

This does not mean to say that the capture of Moscow would have been the defeat of the Soviet Union.  I doubt that it would have been, but that is too much of a theoretical argument to really have.

5) Chamberlain was a naïve fool

This one is so well entrenched it is considered fact.   His photo of getting off a plane holding the treaty signed by Hitler and proclaiming peace in our time has become an iconic symbol of failure.

But this is really a prime example of a trap for those who study history.  Actually, two traps.  One is to judge actions or decisions made in history by results we know now, but of course could not have been known, or perhaps even imagined, by the people making them.   It’s easy to see now that Hitler was a madman bent on making war with everyone no matter what, but at the time, in 1938, no one knew that.  Well, Churchill did, but he was a statesman of singular ability, and no one wanted to listen to his war talk.  More on that in a minute.   At the time of the Munich Agreement, it seemed like business between statesmen had averted conflict.   Chamberlain was righting some of the wrongs of the Versailles Treaty, which, arguably was for more punitive than necessary, and Czechoslovakia?  Well, Britain had created the country, and had no problem recarving it.  At the time, it was business as usual.  This had been done many times in the 1800s in order to maintain the balance of power.  No one, except Churchill, could foresee what Hitler was truly like, and what horrible plans he had in the madness of his mind.

And why didn’t people listen to Churchill? To answer that, we must be aware of the second trap of history, which is to analyze situations based on a snapshot of time.  It is too easy to see the fallacy of appeasement on what to us was the eve of the greatest conflict in human history.   But to Chamberlain, and the British, they had already suffered though the greatest conflict in human history, the Great War.  That name illustrates the point.  It was the Great War to them, because it was unrivaled in scope of death and destruction to almost everything in the past.  They could have called it “The War” and everyone would have known what was meant; it had no rivals. We relegate it now as The First World War, and it takes a distant backseat to a conflict that in many ways its result more than just sequel.   The Great War, as they knew it, weighed very, very heavily on the minds of the British and Chamberlain.  They had seen almost an entire generation of men perish in that war, and, any price, even appeasement of Hitler, was worth paying to avoid that again.  I venture to guess they would have gone to greater lengths to keep the peace, because, after 1918, they had seen that going to war could have catastrophic results.   Churchill, almost alone, saw that war was inevitable.  He understood it would have to be fought at some point no matter what sacrifices for peace were made.  But, while he was right and logical in that the sooner it was fought the better it would be for Britain and France, no one wanted to listen, because they had heard the same speeches in 1914.  In 1914, they were wrong, in 1938, Churchill was right, but no one knew it.

From what he knew, and from the perspective of the time, Chamberlain made the best decision he could.  It was the wrong one, but no one could see that in 1938.   And we must not judge it too harshly without understanding the context of the time it was made, and without the benefit of hindsight that we have and he did not.

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