(Editor’s note: This is another submission from Chris Ketcherside, the author of the previous post on “Why Learn History?” This time, Chris has focused on debunking misconceptions of World War II. I’m splitting his post into three posts spanning the next three days so check back for its continuation!)
Originally, I wanted to call this entry “Myths of WWII” but that sounded too much like something the History Channel would air, so then I thought I’d call it “Mythconceptions”, but that sounded pretty stupid, so hopefully the title got enough attention to get you this far.
This post doesn’t really have anything ground breaking or earth shattering, like proving that President Roosevelt knew about and allowed Pearl Harbor to happen, but it is relatively interesting (I hope) in that it seeks to dispel many things that a lot, if not most, history buffs of WWII take for granted. This is not revisionist history, whatever that is, but simply a new way to look at things that are being perceived wrong because of a lack or disregard of facts.
1) Germans were better combat soldiers and leaders than their opponents
Much can be said for a military force that fought so long and so well against such overwhelming numbers and industrial might, but it is inaccurate to say they were simply “better.”
The charge against the Soviet military is that they simply relied on overwhelming mass to win battles. To which one can say, so what? Russia has a long history of making quantity a quality all its own. If you have the numbers, and you’re desperate, then mass is a logical answer. Of course, you must have a noticeable disregard for human life, but then, that is also arguably a Russian tradition. However, this is just a defense of Soviet mass tactics, and doesn’t support the proposition that the above statement is a myth. In fact, while the Soviets always used and enjoyed mass, by 1943, they had learned from the Germans how to fight. They had learned to defend against German tactics by the time of Operation Citadel, and by Operation Bagration, they had learned to attack like them. So yes, the mass was key, but the Soviets learned how to fight a combined arms fight like the Germans.
The U.S. army victory in the European theater is often credited to industrial might, usually read as artillery and air power. Again, these were decisive factors, but not all inclusive. The US Army in the ETO did not lack for courage and skill any more than the Germans, but if you have air power and artillery, then why not use it? What is to be gained as a junior tactical commander in proving you have superb tactical skills if you can use firepower instead? US commanders on all levels were aware they had that capability, and they used it. In general, this criticism seems often to come from Germans who were the victims of this firepower. Indeed, US artillery and air power was fearsome. It must be pointed out however, that the Germans used overwhelming air and artillery firepower when they had it, early in the war. Whenever I read a German criticizing US reliance on firepower, I think that a French soldier defending the Meuse in 1940 or a Soviet soldier in the Ukraine in 1941 would say the same of the Germans. The real point is, US soldiers did not display a comparably level of tactical skill the Germans did on the Western front, but that is because they did not have to. Furthermore, during the Battle of the Bulge, US forces, outnumbered in every category and left without air power due to weather, performed just as well defending as any German force.
I would be remiss if I did not mention Kasserine Pass. This was a German tactical victory against US forces that were made to look almost inept in this battle. But to use that as a permanent benchmark is unfair, comparing apples to oranges. The German forces at Kasserine had been in combat for 2-3 years, whereas this was the first taste of combat for the US forces. Obviously the Germans performed better, but the US quickly learned from that. Equally experienced forces have a more equitable comparison.
It must be pointed out that all this discussion is on the tactical level of war. The Germans pioneered mission order tactics, it is true, and they had the best schools for teaching the operational level of war. It was these advantages that allowed them to survive as long as they did. But, on the strategic level, they failed constantly. Only part of this can be blamed on Hitler himself. Just as problematic was that the Germans had no concept of the strategic level of war. When the German general staff looked at potential conflicts, they focused on deployment of forces without a regard to economy or politics. This is ironic, as it was a German who wrote the definitive book on the nature of war. It was largely due to their completely ignoring war in this arena that led to their defeat.
In short, the Germany fought differently than its opponents, but they fought no better or worse.
2) Germany were the leaders in technological development in WWII
Jets and rockets! Principally based on these two technological achievements, which granted are extraordinary, the general assumption is that Germany had a technological lead on the other participants in WWII.
I was once an instructor at a Marine Corps school, and part of the curriculum was making the students prepare and give a brief. One time a student, as part of his introduction, more or less offered a challenge, by stating that Germany was the technology leader of WWII, and he’d buy anyone a beer if they could prove him wrong. I took him up on the challenge. Later on we discussed his declaration, and I opened by asking, “Ok, where was Germany’s atomic bomb?” And he chuckled, and said, “Ok, but besides that…” And I went on to say that you can’t say, “besides that” about one of the single greatest scientific achievements of mankind. I don’t want to address the decision to use the bomb here, but regardless of your position on that, it can surely be agreed that splitting the atom is an unrivaled technical achievement, so I would put forth that the United States, by ushering mankind into the nuclear age, was the technological leader of WWII.
But, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that countries developed technology during the war according to their means, about also their needs. Jets are a good example. By 1943, the Allies were really beginning to dominate the skies over Germany with fighter and bomber aircraft. Germany realized it could not match the sheer numbers of aircraft the US was able to produce, or the number of highly trained pilots to fly them. Furthermore, US aircraft, such as the P-51, were superior to most German aircraft, such as the Me-109, which by then was a design almost 20 years old. The P-51 even outclassed the Fw-190. Some might argue that, but in any case, there were far more Mustangs in the air than Focke Wulfs. So, German leadership realized that it could never produce enough aircraft to compete, so they needed a substantial technological edge, and thus developed jet aircraft. In the end, it did not matter, as Germany was never able to produce enough to make any difference, but the decision was based on need. The British also had jet aircraft, and the US knew this. Why didn’t the Allies build jet aircraft? They didn’t need to. While jets were superior aircraft, when faced with a decision such as, do we build 10,000 P-51s, or 1000 jets, the Allies decided to built more instead of fewer but better aircraft, because they didn’t need them. But that is not to say they could not build them, they chose not to.
In some ways, this was a cold-hearted decision. Bomber pilots over Germany suffering at the hands of German jets who outstripped Allied fighter protection would have argued vehemently for Allied jets. Arguably though, the war was won quicker overall with conventional aircraft, if at the expense of more bomber pilots. The tragedy of war is that causes people to make these sorts of decisions constantly.
But the point stands. The Allies, mainly US and UK did not need jets, so they didn’t build them.
On the other side, Germany started the war with an effective U-Boat fleet, which wreaked havoc on Allied shipping for several years. Before the war, the British had been developing SONAR to counter a threat they remembered from WWI. Oddly enough, the Germans never developed SONAR, their submarines relied on hydrophones, which are not nearly as effective. But Germany was the underwater predator, protection from subs was not their concern. For the British it was. The same can be said of why RADAR was developed, from a pre-war British fear of the huge German Luftwaffe. Later, when the Luftwaffe was destroyed and Germany was the victim of air offensives, it developed a very capable RADAR system. Both sides developed one because they needed one.
These comparisons range throughout the war, for the MG-42, there was a .50 caliber gun, for a Luger there was the .45, for the Type IX UBoat, there was the 5 centimeter wavelength airborne RADAR, and so on. Not to say these were developed specifically to counter one another, but they were developed by their particular countries based on need. The Germans were faced with superior tank numbers, so they developed superior tanks (the Tiger, for instance) and the best hand held anti-tank weapons like the panzerfaust. They developed the STG-44 to overcome a shortfall in range and rate of fire, the US already had the M1 Garand. The Germans even developed rudimentary forms of night vision devices before the end of the war, so they could fight at night to compensate for enemy numbers.
Of course, when you discuss the technological achievements of the war, it is pretty much restricted to the US, UK, and Germany. The USSR, as stated above, used quantity verse quality because that’s what they could do easily. Mainly because many of their weapons systems were relatively simple but highly capable. Japan is not really a technological developer, because they lacked the resources. They were forced more or less to fight the entire war with the military they had at the beginning of it. They had need, but no means. Those countries with means developed according to their needs.