Students of military history try to glean lessons from past wars and the major campaigns and battles within those wars. With all the hoopla over the new movie, Dunkirk, we thought we would share our thoughts from a military history perspective on Germany’s efforts in the Second World War.
These are some of the relevant books we have read that are on our bookshelves (placed on the carpet for purposes of these images). German generals featured here: Franz Halder, Erich von Manstien, and Heinz Guderian (the “father” of Blitzkrieg).
In this next image, we see other relevant works that we have read over the years. (The middle work is of special importance as regards the role of Franklin Roosevelt in turning two regional wars into a world war.)
Here are a listing of the major blunders and missed opportunities (in bold) that we believe cost Germany victory in Europe in the 1940s.
Failure to mobilize the German economy fully for arms production until after the major (and avoidable) defeat at Stalingrad. Having multiple enemies and potential enemies among the nation states of Europe, Germany could not rely solely on Blitzkrieg without greater armaments production to win the war. Realistic and objective thinking would tell Hitler this. A greater commitment to arms production in late 1939 would have paid big dividends in the course of the first years of the war and may have led to a different outcome. (The German leaders frowned upon the idea of women working in the munitions and tank factories as that might lead them (the women) to be less feminine. That was a very costly mistake in their thinking. Their armaments factories ought to have been running 24/7. After winning the war, they could rest.)
The infamous halt order (Der Halte Befehl) in late May, 1940 that allowed for the evacuation of 300,000 troops at Dunkirk. This was a Fuehrer order and could not be questioned, but the German generals in the field in France could not believe it, and several were very angry over it. There had been one relatively small but somewhat effective counter attack with tanks by the British Expeditionary Force in northern France (at Arras) in late May. This helped cause Hitler to lose his nerve. The right move would have been to allow the panzer divisions to complete their encirclement of the British by continuing along the coast and seizing all Channel ports including Dunkirk which they could easily have done in those critical days in late May, 1940. By stopping his armor divisions for a few critical days, the ‘miracle of Dunkirk” was achieved for the British troops and some French troops. If there were to be an invasion of Britain that summer, the Germans storming the beaches in England would now be facing the elite troops of the British who had been evacuated at Dunkirk. As it turned out, these same British troops, that would have been in POW camps in northern France, were thrown at the German Afrika Corps in the long struggle for North Africa.
Failure to even allow for the possibility that their codes could be cracked (the Enigma machine code). This was a major mistake that the Japanese also made in the Pacific war as the US did indeed decipher their codes. The British knew what the Germans were going to do next in all theatres (North Africa, the Mediterranean, and in Europe) not because of spies but from cracking the German code. Needless to say, Rommel was defeated in North Africa in no small part because of this. Sheer arrogance may be the culprit here as anything made by man can be broken down by man.
In the Battle of Britain, allowing the provocation by Churchill (when German cities were bombed once or twice in raids) to cause a switch from bombing airfields, radar installations and aircraft manufacturing plants to bombing cities in England. If Hitler had wanted to “soften” Britain up for invasion, the only targets would be airfields, aircraft plants, radar installations, and naval bases and ships. Hitler’s switching to cities gave the British RAF a sorely needed respite at a crucial juncture. But, Hitler’s heart was never into the possibility of an invasion of England. There was a brief window of opportunity in July and August, 1940, for such a scheme to be launched, but Hitler called off Operation Sea Lion. He thought the British would come to peace terms at some future point. He did not learn the lesson from World War One when Germany’s offer of an amicable status quo peace (based on 1914 borders) made in 1916 was rebuffed by England. Churchill did not want peace but war (as he had the assurances of FDR that the US would be in the game before the end).
It is rarely advisable for political leaders to take over and micro manage the activities of the nation’s armed forces in wartime. Yet, this was exactly what Hitler did with catastrophic results in the East in the war against Stalin’s Soviet Union. (There is much debate about the possibility that Hitler beat Stalin to the punch by mere weeks by launching Operation Barbarossa in June, 1941. Some post-communist era Russian writers (Viktor Suvorov for one) have asserted that Stalin was preparing for a strike west with the largest army on Earth at the time, the Red Army, to win Europe for communism.) Here are 3 major blunders that squandered precious opportunities for Germany and gave evidence of an utter contempt by Hitler for the lives of the men who were fighting and dying for him and for Germany. As well, in conjunction with the halt order (above), we see that at crucial and decisive moments in the war Hitler lost his nerve so to speak. When bold strikes were called for, he acted not decisively for victory but timidly (and very risk averse) as though he did not really want to win. (Some have opined that the drugs he was being given were seriously effecting him and his mental functions even early in the war.)
- Ordering Guderian and much of the available armor of Army Group Center to turn from their objective of Moscow in August of 1941 (while the Red Army was reeling and suffering very heavy losses in men in the great encirclement battles of that first summer of war in the East) and move south to Kiev in the Ukraine and bolster his Army Group South. The Soviet armies pinned down in the Ukraine were not in a good position to counterattack. Yet, Hitler feared this, so he won a battle sooner in the Ukraine but may have lost the war right then by not seizing Moscow (on the central front) and even forging on to Kazan that first year. (As well, sheer arrogance and idiocy prevented the German armies marching east in the summer from carrying winter clothes with them. Even if they had been victorious by the start of winter, they would have needed winter clothing to remain in Russia protecting their gains, securing their conquests.) The main enemy armies at that time were in front of Army Group Center. Victory over them in that summer of 1941 would have allowed the Germans to turn back the Siberian forces that Stalin finally brought west in the late autumn (having been informed by his spies that Japan’s military interests lay elsewhere) and would have left the south open to being seized in the following Spring.
- The conduct of operations in the summer of 1942 (after another great encirclement victory in May for the Germans near Kharkov) when the German armies were split into weaker pincers heading for Stalingrad (of little strategic importance) and for the oilfields of the Caucasus. Choose one objective or another. The whole plan was ill-advised and unrealistic as the Germans lengthened and extended their frontlines in the East to thousands of kilometres long that no armies could hold. Hitler’s obstinance and refusal to allow for a tactical retreat from Stalingrad in November, sealed the powerful 6th Army’s fate. If the objective was to cut the Volga river traffic and deprive the Soviets of their oil coming from Baku, why get bogged down in the rubble of Stalingrad? Bypass the city and seize the other bank of the Volga before the autumn. Mobile warfare was the forte of the Wehrmacht, not urban warfare by attrition. (Hitler continued to repeat this stand fast and do not retreat approach in the East which condemned tens if not hundreds of thousand of German soldiers to needless deaths in unwinnable situations in 1943 and 1944.)
- The plunging ahead with Operation Citadel, the battle for Kursk, in July, 1943. You do not throw strength against strength in war. You throw strength against weakness for decisive breakthroughs. All that needs to be said is that if the blunders of the previous two years had been avoided – and these could have been avoided – there would have been no battle at Kursk as the war in the East would have already ended with a German victory and their control of much of the European portion of Russia along with some of the Asian portion in the Caspian Sea area.
But let’s back up to December, 1941, at the time that the Germans were being pushed back from Moscow by the Siberian divisions of the Red Army in very bitter weather (minus 35 degrees Celsius at night) and bitter fighting. (More German soldiers were succumbing because of the severe cold than from the terrible fighting.)
Declaration of war on the US in December, 1941 shortly after Pearl Harbor. Albeit we posted a link in an essay (a few years back) to Chancellor Hitler’s speech to the Reichstag when he declared war on the US, and we think he cited many valid reasons for why President Franklin Roosevelt was a major villain (by goading Britain and France into war, trying to provoke Japan, and attempting to maintain the fiction of US neutrality), Hitler made arguably his largest blunder here. His agreement with Imperial Japan only obligated Germany to come to Japan’s aid in the event that Japan was attacked, not when Japan was the aggressor.
We ought not overlook the failure to enlist and make use of the aid that the many anti-Stalin Russian POWs and much of the civilian population (who had suffered terribly under Stalin) could have given the Germans if only to root out the communist partisans who were wrecking so much havoc on German supply lines in the occupied territories of the Soviet Union. Some of Hitler’s advisors were adamantly opposed to Slavs being armed even if they were anti-communist and natural allies of the Germans. (Fields of Armor was a television series back in the 1990s. The son of General Guderian, who had been a junior officer on the Eastern front in the war, much older when interviewed for the TV series, said that conducting the war in the East the way they did, and thereby alienating and angering the Russian civilian population, was the undoing of the Germans. If they had made use of the anti-Stalin sentiment of the people early on and not abused them, he thought Germany would have won in the East.)
One result of the world war was that large areas of the globe were now safe for Communism. In Europe, Germany had served as a check on communist expansion prior to the war. In Asia, especially in China, it had been Japan that had checked the communist drive for expansion. Defeating fascism may have made the Western Allies feel good at the time, but in some ways it was a Pyrrhic victory to be sure. The American general, George Patton, who believed in life long learning and was reading works on military strategy and tactics during the war while in command of an army, recognized in 1945 the threat that the USSR posed to Europe and the world. (We note in passing that many anti-Soviet Russians were forcibly handed over to the Red Army from points in Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1945, and many of these people were summarily killed by the communists while others served long sentences in the gulags. The British and Americans were both involved with turning these people over to meet their deaths. (Part of Operation Keelhaul, appeasing Stalin.) There was no sating the bloodlust of Stalin and his inner circle.)
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