A few days ago was the 75th anniversary of the D-Day Landings. Troops from over a dozen nations stormed beaches in Normandy to liberate Mainland Europe from Nazi domination. Less than a year later, VE Day was declared.
Last year, on November 11, the hundredth anniversary of the Armistice, I wrote an article on the lessons of World War 1. As a follow up, this article will be about the lessons of World War 2.
Discrimination is counterproductive
The evils of the Holocaust still appall us today. Yet it was one of the key factors that led to the Nazis’ defeat. The diversion of resources to managing the Final Solution and the murdering of people who would have contributed greatly to the Wehrmacht was significant.
Prior to World War 2, a disproportionate number of Nobel Prizes had been won by German Jewish scientists. In January 1939, German scientists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann of Germany, along with Lise Meitner of Austria and her nephew Otto Frisch split uranium atoms for the frst time. But because many German physicists were Jewish and because Einstein, who devised the Theory of Relativity, was also Jewish, research into this field was curtailed. This was instrumental in Germany’s failure to develop a nuclear weapon.
Listen to the experts, especially when they are trying to dissuade you from a course of action
Before Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Socialist Republics (SSR), Count von Schulenberg, a former German Ambassador to the SSR, approached Adolf Hitler with a report, notifying him that many ordinary people in the SSR would view the Germans as Liberators and advising him to use that goodwill and not treat them as untermenschen. Hitler’s response was to put the report in a drawer and tell von Schulenberg “Thank you, that was very interesting.”
In the early stages of Barbarossa, the Germans were greeted as Liberators, just as von Schulenberg predicted. Hitler ignored his advice and treated the Soviets as subhuman. This swung them back to Stalin and perhaps more than anything else, cost Germany the War.
In 1941, the Japanese High Command, angered by US Sanctions, planned an attack on the US Navy Base at Pearl Harbour. Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto, tasked with planning the attack, realised the consequences would be disastrous. He had been the Naval Attache at the Japanese Embassy in Washington in the 30s, and knew that the US would not run off whimpering but fight back hard. Unable to convince his superiors, he proceeded with the attack.
Matters unfolded exactly as Yamamoto warned. After months of success, the Japanese were halted at the Battle of the Coral Sea, then forced on the defensive after the Battle of Midway. It ended with the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Japan’s unconditional surrender on September 1, 1945.
Appoint competent subordinates at every level…
In 1939, a man named Alan Turing joined the UK Government Codes and Cipher School. He was neither a military man nor a civil servant, yet his contributions to breaking the Enigma and Lorenz ciphers used by Germany significantly shortened the War.
In the 1930s, Soviet Ruler Josef Stalin purged the Soviet Military of anyone who posed a threat to him, even potentially. Thousands of brilliant officers, including Marshall Tuchakevsky, inventor of the “Deep Battle”, were fired, jailed, or murdered. Political Commissars were appointed to oversee military units. After the start of Operation Barbarossa, Stalin replaced the Commissars and reinstated competent commanders. This played a large part in the Red Army’s return to success.
Hermann Göring, head of the Luftwaffe and the Gestapo, is widely considered the second worst military commander of World War 2 after Adolf Hitler himself. Morbidly obese and addicted to morphine, he was more concerned with living in luxury than in running the Luftwaffe. His negligent attitude abetted the diminuition of the Luftwaffe’s effectiveness. He boasted that the Luftwaffe would defeat Fighter Command with ease, but took no heed of intelligence reports about it. He repeatedly made promises that were impossible to fulfill, like that the Luftwaffe could prevent the Dunkirk evacuation, and that it could keep the German armies that were surrounded in Stalingrad supplied. In the former, most soldiers were evacuated during bad weather and night time when the Luftwaffe couldn’t fly. In the latter, antiaircraft guns and Red Air Force fighters interdicted the transporters and the bombers which were impressed to help fly supplies in. Both the Bomber Wings and Transport Wings were crippled as a result.
Erhard Milch was the Luftwaffe’s Head of Procurement during World War 2. He was known as an abrasive individual who annoyed a lot of people in the German aircraft industry. He viewed Ernst Heinkel as a bomber manufacturer. As a result, the Heinkel-219 night fighter, the only non-jet aeroplane able to catch the de Havilland Mosquito, was never mass produced and fewer than 300 were made. The Heinkel-280, the first jet fighter to fly, was cancelled in favour of the Messerschmidt-262 which ran into development problems and was delayed. Had development of the He-280 continued, Germany would likely have had jet fighters by 1942, just when US air raids were starting.
Milch also had a fixation on Multi Role Combat Aircraft. This led to absurdities like demanding the Heinkel-177 heavy strategic bomber be capable of dive bombing, a ludicrous and unworkable requirement that caused endless problems for it.
In 1936, Ernst Udet, the highest scoring surviving German Ace of World War 1, was made Director of Research and Development in the newly reformed Luftwaffe. He was completely unfit for the role, having no taste for the bureaucracy involved nor the skills to monitor research. Things at T-Amt rapidly went bad. The stresses led to him becoming an alcoholic. This, coupled with being unfairly blamed for supply shortages and failures, led him to commit suicide.
…and then get out of their way
Hitler constantly involved himself with even minor decisions. Before Dunkirk, worried about the loss rate of German tanks, and not understanding that most were due to breakdowns and minor damage that could easily be repaired, he ordered that the advance be halted. When the advance restarted, rainfall had turned the terrain to mud, slowing the advance. The resulting evacuation saw over 330,000 men get to England.
At the start of the 1942 German Offensive, things were going very well for the Wehrmacht. The Red Army was pushed back and large amounts of Soviet territory were occupied. Then Hitler ordered that the focus be changed to Stalingrad. This nullified the Germans’ advantage and turned the focus away from the correct target – the Red Army.
When the Panther and Tiger tanks were being assessed, Hitler insisted that their armour be thickened and their main guns changed. This resulted in weight increases and problems with reliability for both, as well as production delays. The Panther’s reliability problems were eventually fixed, but not the Tiger’s.
After the Stalingrad disaster, the Russian Frost had been stabilised by a brilliant offensive by Erich von Manstein, perhaps the greatest strategist of World War 2. A bulge had formed in the Frontline around the town of Kursk. Operation Citadel, an envelopment of this bulge, was planned.
Hitler insisted that the attack be delayed so that Tiger and Panther tanks could be used in the attack. This proved disastrous. The Soviets noticed the German buildup and arranged seven defensive belts. The Panthers and Tigers played very little part in Citadel. They were not yet ready and most broke down before they could reach the front. When Citadel opened, it was halted before the third defensive belt and then pushed back by a massive counterattack. Had Citadel opened on the planned date, it may have succeeded. Hitler’s meddling guaranteed its failure.
Use all available resources effectively
I have pointed out above the damage done by antisemitism and other forms of discrimination. In addition to being very racist, the Nazis were also sexist. While the Soviets had numerous women in their military, many of whom proved deadly and effective soldiers, and the UK had the Land Girls serving on farms, freeing up men to fight, German women were not given any part to play.
Both the Axis and Allied Powers made extensive use of captured enemy tanks. The Germans were the main practitioners of this, but British units had several Panthers serving. The 8th Army in North Africa also made good use of captured Italian Carro Armato M.13/40 tanks.
During the Battle of the Atlantic, one of the problems the convoys faced was Focke-Wulf 200 aeroplanes, which would radio their positions to U-Boat wolfpacks and sometimes even bomb the convoys. To counteract them, Catapult Armed Merchantmen were introduced. These were merchant vessels each fitted with a catapult on which was mounted an obsolete fighter, either an early model Hurricane or Spitfire. When a FW-200 was sighted, the fighter was launched to either chase it off or shoot it down. Job done, the fighter would then ditch in the ocean and its pilot would (hopefully) be picked up by the convoy.
Unity of effort is essential for success
Hitler was notorious for using Divide and Conquer. He would give two people jobs with similar terms of reference. The inevitable result was squabbling, duplication of effort, and turf wars. All inefficient. The biggest victim of this was the Kriegsmarine surface units.
Göring jealously guarded his control of the Luftwaffe and refused to supply more than a handful of aircraft to the Kreigsmarine. In contrast, the Royal Navy had both a Fleet Air Arm comprising aircraft launched from carriers and other ships, and a large Coastal Command of land based Patrol and Maritime Strike Wings.
Instead of cooperating, the Kriegsmarine Surface Fleet and U-Boats competed against each other. In Operation Berlin, the single most successful surface operation of WWII for the Kreigsmarine, the German Battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau entered the North Atlantic and attacked British convoys. On two occasions they approached convoys covered by Battleships, which led them to disengage. On another, they were pursued by the Royal Navy Battleships Rodney and King George V. They only escaped by sailing through a squall, which rendered the pursuing ships’ radar ineffective. In the case of the convoys, had a U-Boat been sent to attack the Battleships, the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau could then have caused even more damage. Further, the two Battlecruisers could have lured the Rodney and King George V into a trap. This never happened, thanks to the aforementioned infighting.
The original plan for Operation Barbarossa was to focus on Moscow as the target. Hitler had set up an alternative planning team that recommended targeting Leningrad and the Caucasus. He dismissed the plans for Moscow. 16 days later, he changed his mind. By then it was too late. The Germans could not reach Moscow before the winter arrived.
I recently read an article about the German program to develop a nuclear weapon. The article said there were two teams, each with a small amount of uranium. This doomed both teams to failure. Neither team had sufficient uranium to make a critical mass. Had the teams been combined and worked together, things may have been different.
Never take decisions in anger
By September 7th 1940, things were dire for the Royal Air Force’s Fighter Command. German attacks on airfields and equipment had caused such heavy losses that it was close to total collapse. And then the Blitz began.
In response to a night bombing raid on Berlin, triggered by a German bomber accidentally bombing London, Hitler furiously ordered the Luftwaffe to target British cities. Although this caused terrible casualties to the civilian population, it took the pressure off Fighter Command and allowed it to recover. Nine weeks later, it was in a position to defend Bomber Command raids on any attempted German invasion. Operation Sealion was rendered impossible.
Secure your lines of supply
Winston Churchill once said that the only thing he feared during World War 2 were U-Boats. It was a justifiable fear. Losses to U-Boats were so heavy that at one point, the UK was down to just one month’s supplies. Only extensive counter measures prevented the U-Boats from winning.
In the Pacific, US submarine forces interdicted millions of tons of Japanese shipping. The Japanese never introduced the counter measures used by the Allies, and were unable to stop the destruction of their merchant fleet. By the end of the War, they had been reduced to using squalene from shark livers as a lubricant for aircraft engines.
During the German invasion of the Netherlands, patrolling Fokker D.XXI Fighter aircraft came across a flight of 55 Junkers 52s and attacked. The D.XXI was an obsolescent design made of fabric over metal tubing, with a fixed undercarriage and four rifle calibre machine guns. They still shot down 39 of the Junkers 52s. Unescorted transport aeroplanes were even then too vulnerable.
The Axis Powers had a huge advantage over the Allies in North Africa – they could ship troops, equipment and supplies directly across the Mediterranean from Italy to Libya. Between the ports, though, was Malta, under British control. Ships, submarines and bombers based in Malta interdicted so much of the Afrika Korps supplies that it changed the course of the campaign. A plan was made to invade Malta (Operation Hercules) but never carried out after air raids on Malta reduced its effectiveness to a point where it was wrongly viewed as no longer a threat. A huge mistake.
Failures, mistakes and setbacks are inevitable, so learn from them
On August 19th 1942, Allied forces launched a raid on the French port of Dieppe as a trial run for a full scale invasion. That the operation is now better known as the “Dieppe Disaster” says everything. Over 100 aeroplanes and 30 ships, and almost 4000 troops were lost. Vital lessons were learnt and new equipment like “Hobart’s Funnies” was introduced, which made the difference between success and failure at D-Day.
Good ideas are good, regardless of origin
John Fuller was a British Major General and proponent of mechanised warfare. His ideas were studied by German military theorists like Heinz Guderian, and adopted into Blitzkrieg.
On the 19th December 1941, Italian Navy Divers attacked Alexandria Harbour, placing mines beneath the Battleships HMS Valiant and HMS Queen Elizabeth. Neither Battleship was sunk, but both were disabled for a number of months. In May and June 1942, several Japanese midget submarines attacked shipping in Sydney and Newcastle Harbours. Noticing how successful the attacks had been, the UK introduced the X-Class midget submarines. In September 1943, two X-Craft laid mines on the seabed under the German Battleship Tirpitz. The resulting detonations shook the Tirpitz‘s steam turbines out of their beds, crippling her for months, although they failed to sink her.
Seemingly foolish ideas can be highly effective
I mentioned “Hobart’s Funnies” above. To enable the D-Day landings to succeed, Major General Sir Percy Hobart was tasked with leading a team to create specialist vehicles to handle difficulties and obstacles on the Normandy beaches. Using the Sherman and Churchill tanks as a basis, they created among other designs: a flail tank (the “Crab”) to explode mines harmlessly; a flamethrower tank (the “Crocodile”) to take out emplacements; a bomb launcher (the “Petard” or “Flying Dustbin”) to destroy hardpoints and walls; an emplaced charge carrier (the “Double Onion” or “Goat”) to demolish walls; a Bobbin tank (the “Carpetlayer”) to lay down a canvas road for wheeled vehicles to drive up and off the beach; an assault bridge carrier; and the Duplex Drive – a tank with propellors and a canvas housing that could be launched from a ship several miles off shore and sail to the beach.
Where Hobart’s Funnies were used, casualties were lighter than beaches where they weren’t.
During the campaign in North Africa, Jock Lewis and David Stirling, two British officers, approached their superiors with a seemingly absurd idea – a long range raiding and strike force to attack targets far behind enemy lines. Their superiors consented. To hide the role of the unit, it was named the Special Air Service (SAS). By the end of the War, it was one of the most effective units in history, with an effect out of all proportion to its size.
Hope for the best but plan for the worst
Hitler consistently gave in to overconfidence. After Dunkirk, the General Staff urged that planning for the invasion of Great Britain should start. Hitler, convinced that the UK would voluntarily submit, refused. By the time he realised that his terms had been rejected, the best opportunity for an invasion had gone.
Karl Student, the General of Paratroopers, had recommended an airborne assault to capture a port. This would have meant that instead of the barges, the Germans could use Destroyers, Liners and Cargo ships to transport troops and equipment across. The Germans had only a very small window of five to six weeks after Dunkirk. They needed to land before the Royal Air Force, Army and Navy, recovered from the French and Norweigan campaigns.
Hitler, not without justification, believed that Barbarossa would be an easy victory. He had said of the SSR “Kick in the door and the whole house will collapse.” This overconfidence would eventually sink him.
Operation Barbarossa had been delayed by several weeks due to the Germans having to help out the Italians, thanks to their Grecian misadventure. This delay concerned several Generals, who feared that winter might arrive before Barbarossa succeeded. Hitler ignored this and refused to let factories switch to manufacturing winter gear. As a result, a huge number of German troops suffered frostbite and other injuries from the cold.
Hitler also shut down the research units and suspended the building of the aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin. The latter might have had an impact on the Battle of the Atlantic. The former had a delayed effect, but it was massive. Game changing technologies and designs were delayed or never delivered. When the Germans captured a cavity magnetron valve, they did not realise its significance until 1944, which was then too late. Had they realised that the Allies possessed centimetric radar, they would have been able to introduce counter measures, or maybe even create it too.
Go as soon as you are ready, no later
This demands both an accurate assessment of your readiness and that of your opponents. Go too soon, and you are likely to fail die to unpreparedness. Go any later, and your opponents may be readier for you.
As mentioned above, Hitler delayed Operation Citadel to enable Panther and Tiger tanks to be used. This resulted in the Soviets preparing their defences well enough to thwart the attack. The Battle of Kursk forced the Germans onto the defensive for good.
Properly test all equipment
In 1942, US submariners returning from patrol complained that their torpedoes were running too deep and sailing underneath Japanese ships. The US Navy’s Bureau of Ordnance sneeringly accused them of blaming their bad aim on the torpedoes. In response, the submariners set up tests where disarmed torpedoes were launched at fishing nets. The torpedoes were indeed running too deep. The Bureau of Ordnance dismissed these tests. Eventually, the Navy ordered the Bureau to properly test the torpedoes under realistic conditions.
Several weeks later a very embarrassed Bureau of Ordnance admitted the submariners were right and issued a series of fixes.
At the start of the War, German torpedoes frequently failed to detonate on impact. This problem was soon fixed.
Research and technology are crucial to success
As I mentioned before, an overconfident Hitler ordered the closing down of research offices in 1940. This had several effects.
The Focke-Wulf 190 was the best German single engined single seat fighter of the War, but it had a weakness. Above 6000m, its performance dropped rapidly. To fix this, two new models (the “B” with nitrous oxide boost and the “C” with a DB603 and turbocharger) were introduced. Both failed due to problems with, among other things, their pressure cabins. Had the research offices been kept running, these issues may have been fixed.
The most produced fighter in history was the Messerschmidt Bf109. By 1943 it was obsolescent and outclassed on all fronts. Two successors (the ME Bf209 and ME Bf309) had been designed, but neither left the prototype stage. The Bf109 would be developed into the excellent Model K, but even that was no match for Allied fighters by the end of the War.
The World’s first jet fighter to see combat was the Messerschmidt-262. This faced numerous delays and only reached operational service in 1944. Some of these were due to Hitler’s insistence that a bomber version be made, but there were also problems with the engines. Had the research facilities been available, they may have been able to fix the problems sooner.
How technologies are used is also vital
Radar was vital to Fighter Command’s eventual success in the Battle of Britain. Yet by then it was well known. What was innovative about Fighter Command’s radar was the way it was used.Every single radar station in the UK was linked to Fighter Command Headquarters at Bentley Priory. As soon as a radar contact occurred, the information was transmitted to the Control Room. In this way, Fighter Command had an accurate picture of the incoming enemy aircraft and the forces at its disposal.
The Messerschmidt-163 rocket powered fighter was a technological marvel capable of speeds close to 1000 km/h. It was also a complete failure in its intended role as a point defence fighter. Take off and climb to altitude rapidly, attack enemy bombers, then return to base to refuel and rearm.
The ME-163 was fuelled by a mix of two substances, one of which was concentrated hydrogen peroxide. This was so reactive that numerous 163’s were lost to explosions on the ground. There was only enough fuel for eight minutes of flight, after which the aircraft had to glide back to base. This return stage made it very vulnerable to attacks by Allied escort fighters. Finally, its great speed was too great – it could not keep Allied bombers in its sights for long enough to rip off a burst capable of bringing them down. Eventually, the ME-163s were fitted with recoilless mortars activated by a photoelectric cell that would trigger when the shadow of an aircraft overhead fell on it. Despite this, ME-163s only scored nine confirmed kills.
New technology can overturn well established concepts
From 1931 to 1935, Fort Eben-Emael was built alongside the Albert Canal to defend against a German attack through the neutral Netherlands. It was believed to be impregnable. Shortly before 05:30 on the morning of 10 May 1940, German Paratroopers in DFS 230 gliders landed on the fort and several nearby bridges. Group Granite, the unit tasked with capturing Eben-Emael, disabled the fort’s gun cupolas and casemates with shaped charges and flamethrowers, then used explosives to seal any entries and exits they found to trap the fort’s garrison inside.
It had been intended for the 51st Engineering Battalion to relieve Group Granite within a few hours, but unexpected resistance delayed its arrival until May 11. After a final assault by the Battalion supported by an infantry regiment, the fort surrendered at 12:30.
A fortress intended to significantly delay a German advance had been disabled within hours and captured in less than two days. Permanent fortified positions were no longer cost effective or even effective.
In 1906, HMS Dreadnought, the World’s first modern battleship, was launched. By the start of World War II, many nations had battleships and battlecruisers as part of their fleet, especially the U.K. But after World War II, most of the surviving big gun warships were scrapped. HMS Vanguard was the last battleship ever constructed and was commissioned shortly after World War II ended, but was decommissioned in 1960 and scrapped.
Even in World War I, submarines and mines had constrained battlecruisers and battleships. In World War II, aeroplanes were a further danger, made even greater by the guided anti-ship missiles and glide bombs introduced by Germany. Most battlecruisers and battleships damaged or sunk during World War II were as the result of air attack.
In 1937, Japan started work on the Yamato Class battleships. At 72,000 tons fully loaded, they were the biggest and most expensive battleships ever made. Two (the Yamato and Musashi) were launched, with the third (Shinano) converted to an aircraft carrier. Despite bristling with anti aircraft artillery, Musashi and Yamato were both sunk by U.S. carrier aircraft.
The purpose of the battleship was to inflict heavy damage on enemy shipping at long range. By the end of World War II they were too expensive and vulnerable, and missile launching submarines and aeroplanes could do the job more cheaply and effectively, and at much lower risk to themselves.
Allow adequate time for development
Panther and Tiger tanks, and jet aeroplanes, could have been very successful, had they been allowed adequate time to develop.
Accurate metrics matter
During World War 2, much was made of the effectiveness of Strategic Bombing. Post war, a very different picture emerged. German industrial output had increased throughout the War. Key industries were disguised, hidden, or distributed to reduce the effectiveness of bombing.
After the Battle of Britain, it was decided that Fighter Command would go on the offensive. For several years, RAF Fighters engaged in cross channel sweeps, entering occupied France and attacking German aircraft flying from airbases there. They were viewed as a success, with 739 German aircraft destroyed for a loss of over 600 fighters.
At the war’s end, the Luftwaffe’s archives revealed that the sweeps had not merely been ineffective, but counterproductive. Only 135 German aeroplanes, not the 739 claimed, had been lost. The exchange rate had favoured the Germans by over 4 to 1.
Regulations must be guided by experience
At the start of World War 2, Fighter Command had introduced the Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire, single engined single seater monoplanes with eight machine guns in their wings. Regulations decreed that the bullets had to converge at a distance of 650 yards ahead of the aircraft. This was ineffective as German aircraft were armoured and fitted with self sealing fuel tanks. Many pilots disobeyed regulations and had their guns aligned to converge at 300 yards, or even 200 yards. The extra force of the closer range often made the difference between damaging a German aeroplane, and bringing it down.
Both the Allies and Axis powers sent escort fighters to protect their bombers. The German fighter pilots were forced to fly close escort. Initially, the Allied fighter pilots did the same. Eventually, the Allied fighters learnt to engage the German fighters before they reached the bombers. Göring never changed the regulations, over the objections of the fighter pilots.
Strategic bombing only had an effect when it targeted German refineries. The Germans were always short of oil, and had to rely on Oil from Coal processes. When the refineries were targeted, things collapsed fast.
Consider anyone not a friend a potential enemy
The operative word here is “potential”. Many military officers in Sweden were hostile to the Nazis and actively helped the Allies, despite that nation’s ostensible neutrality. When the Bismarck sailed through the Öresund, Swedish Officers reported this to the UK Embassy. Proper security protocol, like sailing through at night blacked out, may have meant she would have escaped detection.
Never reinforce failure
The Nazis followed a system of belief based on the occult. One of its aspects was that will was all important.
At El Alamein, Stalingrad and Normandy, Hitler ordered the German forces to stand firm instead of retreating to survive or reach more defensible positions. The first led to the almost complete destruction of the Afrika Korps. The second led to an entire army falling to the Red Army. The third led to the hastening of VE Day.
Consider both the best and worst case scenarios for any decision
The decision by Hitler to invade the SSR is regarded correctly as one of the worst decisions ever made. What most people don’t realise is that it was even worse than just the consequences.
In 1939, Germany and the SSR had signed a Nonaggression Treaty. One of the clauses was that they would partition Poland between them. Prior to Operation Barbarossa, the two nations had been strong allies.
Suppose that the best case scenario for Barbarossa occurred. Suppose Moscow fell and Germany gained control. It would still have been worse than if Germany had never invaded.
As mentioned, the SSR and Germany were allies. A successful invasion would have diverted men to policing a huge country with a large number of hostile supporters of communism, even though most Soviets would have supported the invading Germans. It would have meant that supplies along the Trans-Siberian railway would have been vulnerable to sabotage. Even a friendly population would soon have become restive. This would have diverted resources away from fighting the Western Allies and may have led to defeat anyway.
Note: this has been updated.