Note: Kerry promises three more installments to follow in a piece I thought would be a great jumping-off point for commenters.
By Kerry Anderson
As historian buffets go, There is probably no other table quite like the Second World War. Involving over 50 countries and uncountable tribes, ethnic groups, and organized gangs.
It was certainly a World War by most definitions. Casualties, which seem to take up a large chunk of the research space, are a bit hard to pin down. Depending on when one wishes to place the starting line, It could be counted as 5 years, or even longer if one chooses the invasion of Manchuria. Many factors combine to make any calculation of casualties more speculative than hard fact. The lack of accurate population totals both before and after is a big one. Determining the ultimate fate of many people is also a problem, many displaced, missing in action, or simply dropping out to continue their lives, could account for many.
There is also the issue of propaganda, a tactic used by everyone. In general, civilian casualties made everyone look bad. What we can say though with relative certainty, is that the majority, whether soldier or civilian, were what we call non-combat casualties. Starvation, exposure, and disease being the main ones.
But this is not intended to be a dry, statistical, examination of basic numbers or events. As of late , there has been a resurgence of interest in these events. Particularly the key participants and the relationships between them. No doubt these have been debated for a very long time.
And the question still remains…….Was the war managed? While we cannot say with certainty, we can sure take a closer look at some of the evidence. No particular reason to wait around for someone else to do it. While any discussion of the reasons why the axis lost the war usually center around tactical mistakes, Stalingrad, The Blitz, Or El Alamein being some of the most popular. or more mundane reasons like the poor equipment in Russia, Lack of tracked transport, or the infinite complexity of the German equipment, along with the consequent, many spare part variations. It is my belief however, that the real reasons are more strategic mistakes than tactical ones. There are certainly plenty of both.
This piece is going to be done a bit differently, primarily because of the vast sum of research material out there. Some historians have put forth the proposition that Poland and France were actually failures more than victories for Germany. That the war wouldn’t have occurred if Poland was not attacked, that it only moved the Russian front closer to Germany, and that the phony war would have remained phony if Germany had not attacked and just let it deflate.
There is something to be said for all of these. But I would like to skip over that and just assume that this is behind us. That the damage has been done and there is no turning back now. The battle for France is almost over, and Britain has just plucked most of their expeditionary force off the beaches of Dunkirk. Minus their equipment. So let us now take a seat at Hitler’s desk. Hopefully he won’t mind. And consider the many options while we feed Blondi a few crusts of bread.
The first of what I believe fall into the category of strategic mistakes, the alliance between the three parties , deserve some closer inspection. They certainly seem to be rather unlikely candidates for world domination. Lacking the resources which one would think necessary for such a goal, They had a rather mixed bag of other attributes.
Japan, for its part, had a modern air force and navy. And its army was reasonably up to date by the standards of the time. However, the bulk of it was tied up in a ground war in China. Rendering it unavailable for other operations. Their morale was quite good though, a sometimes overlooked quality.
- Italy, it is fair to say, had the least qualifications. Its navy was modern, though lacking in supply and training.
- The air force ditto, but also troubled by the lack of modern production facilities.
- But the army was the most deficient of the three. Being the first branch of the services to modernize, most of its equipment was of WW1 vintage. The tanks, short on every known yardstick of measure, speed, armor, gun power, and reliability. The artillery, anti-tank, and anti-air weapons ditto.
- Even the basic infantry rifle, the Carcano, was of 1890’s vintage. It featured a bullet too heavy for the load, and poorly shaped which caused it to tumble, along with 5 shot clips with bullets from different batches, as many as four different powder types in a single clip, and different size primer holes.
- Its officer corps, was primarily filled by family affiliation as opposed to merit. This lack of training would be an issue in many divergent areas.
- Worst of all in the equipment bin, was the lack of transportation for its many infantry units. This was a big issue throughout the North African campaign.
- But worst of all, Mussolini was disliked by much of the country, particularly the navy and air force general staffs. This petty, unpredictable ruler had alienated large swaths of the population. Suffice it to say, many Italians wanted him to lose the war.
Germany was , of course, the most capable of the bunch. A small but modern navy. A good air force, though more of a tactical type than strategic. ( This means it was not designed for hauling big loads for long distances.) And an army that while it had many seething problems, was one of the best in the world, though not the largest by any stretch. Its officers were well-trained, ( Germany’s WW 1 treaty limit of 100,000 troops were all officers ), But its new tactics were the most notable feature. These were by no means fully developed in the spring of 1940 however. They were still very much a work in progress.
As an alliance, it left much to be desired. They didn’t generally do joint operations or planning. In fact they didn’t even inform each other of their plans or attacks. Mussolini for his part, would do Germany and Japan one better, by failing to inform even his own military of their attacks when he declared war on England. The first consequence of which was the loss of a third of his merchant fleet when the vessels were seized. The troops on the frontier with Egypt found out about it when the British approached the wire and began shooting at them. But we will beat up on Italy a bit later as we have a lot of ground to cover. and Italy will play a big role in what is possibly Germany’s worst strategic mistake. Suffice it to say for now, it wasn’t much of an alliance.
More to come