Of the countless history books, TV documentaries and feature films made about World War II, many accept a similar narrative of the war in the West: Though Nazi Germany possessed a superior army, better equipment and by far the best weapons at the outset, the British somehow managed to hold on until the U.S. entered the war early in 1942. After that, with Germany seriously weakened by its brutal clash with the Soviet Union in the East, U.S. economic strength propelled the Allies to victory.
A formation of Tiger II tanks – January 1945. (Credit: ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
But according to James Holland, author of the three-volume history “The War in the West,” when it came to the operational level of World War II—the nuts and bolts of producing weapons, supplying troops and other logistics–the famous Nazi war “machine” was anything but efficient. It wasn’t even really a machine.
“Everyone always talks about the ‘Nazi war machine’ as though it’s entirely mechanized,” Holland told HISTORY. “Well it isn’t. Of the 135 divisions used in May 1940 for Blitzkrieg in the West, only 16 of those are mechanized. The other 119 are all using their own two feet, or they’re using horse and cart.”
In Holland’s view, the long-accepted wisdom of Germany’s military prowess relies too heavily on the experiences of individual Allied soldiers on the front lines, without taking into account the reality of the Wehrmacht’s logistical capabilities.
While understanding strategy (including leadership and overall war aims) and tactics (the actual fighting on the front lines) of any conflict is essential, he believes the operational level is what holds the strategic and tactical levels together.
Germany Panzer Tiger II tanks in 1944. (Credit: ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)
“If you’re an American soldier and you’re in Normandy in a foxhole, and you come up against a Tiger tank, all you care about is that it’s a huge tank with a massive great gun and if it fires a shell at you, you’re going to be obliterated.
” Similarly, a Sherman tank facing off alone against one of the famously powerful German Tiger tanks would have no chance. “Looking at it operationally,” Holland explains, “a very different picture emerges.
The Germans only built 1,347 Tiger tanks, whereas the Americans built 49,000 [Sherman tanks].”
And what about that Tiger tank? An icon of the Wehrmacht, the heavily armored monster featured a complex six-speed gearbox designed by Ferdinand Porsche. It was also prone to mechanical malfunction, difficult to sustain in combat and needed a lot of fuel, one of the many resources Germany sorely lacked.
Because Germany was so short on oil, steel and (most critically) food, Holland argues, the Nazis would have had to crush their enemies completely in the first phase of the war in order to have any chance of winning.
Unable to defeat Britain in the West, Hitler had “absolutely no choice” but to invade the Soviet Union in the hopes of getting access to more resources.
That invasion, of course, led to another enormously costly war for Germany on the Eastern Front, even as the United States joined Britain in the West.
Volume 1 of Holland’s planned trilogy was published in 2015. Volume 2, which focuses on the years 1941-1943, including the American entry into the conflict, debuts in the United Kingdom this week, and will be published in the United States in the fall.
Battle of the Bulge
In late 1944, during the wake of the Allied forces' successful D-Day invasion of Normandy, France, it seemed as if the Second World War was all but over. On Dec.
16, with the onset of winter, the German army launched a counteroffensive that was intended to cut through the Allied forces in a manner that would turn the tide of the war in Hitler's favor. The battle that ensued is known historically as the Battle of the Bulge.
The courage and fortitude of the American Soldier was tested against great adversity. Nevertheless, the quality of his response ultimately meant the victory of freedom over tyranny.
Early on the misty winter morning of Dec. 16, 1944, more than 200,000 German troops and nearly 1,000 tanks launched Adolf Hitler's last bid to reverse the ebb in his fortunes that had begun when Allied troops landed in France on D-Day.
Seeking to drive to the coast of the English Channel and split the Allied armies as they had done in May 1940, the Germans struck in the Ardennes Forest, a 75-mile stretch of the front characterized by dense woods and few roads, held by four inexperienced and battle-worn American divisions stationed there for rest and seasoning.
After a day of hard fighting, the Germans broke through the American front, surrounding most of an infantry division, seizing key crossroads, and advancing their spearheads toward the Meuse River, creating the projection that gave the battle its name.
Stories spread of the massacre of Soldiers and civilians at Malmedy and Stavelot, of paratroopers dropping behind the lines, and of English-speaking German soldiers, disguised as Americans, capturing critical bridges, cutting communications lines, and spreading rumors. For those who had lived through 1940, the picture was all too familiar.
Belgian townspeople put away their Allied flags and brought out their swastikas. Police in Paris enforced an all-night curfew. British veterans waited nervously to see how the Americans would react to a full-scale German offensive, and British generals quietly acted to safeguard the Meuse River's crossings.
Even American civilians, who had thought final victory was near were sobered by the Nazi onslaught.
But this was not 1940. The supreme Allied commander, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower rushed reinforcements to hold the shoulders of the German penetration. Within days, Lt. Gen. George S. Patton Jr. had turned his Third U.S. Army to the north and was counterattacking against the German flank.
But the story of the Battle of the Bulge is above all the story of American Soldiers.
Often isolated and unaware of the overall picture, they did their part to slow the Nazi advance, whether by delaying armored spearheads with obstinate defenses of vital crossroads, moving or burning critical gasoline stocks to keep them from the fuel-hungry German tanks, or coming up with questions on arcane Americana to stump possible Nazi infiltrators.
Which Country Was Instrumental in Winning World War II?
- Russia on Saturday marked the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in Europe, a day after its erstwhile Western allies in the fight against Nazi Germany.
- It was the continuation of a tradition dating to the era of Communist dictator Joseph Stalin, who dismissed the Nazi surrender to the Western allies signed in Reims, France, on May 8, 1945, insisting on another signing of the capitulation the next day in the German capital, Berlin, which had fallen to Soviet forces.
- That isn’t the only difference between how the wartime allies remember a conflict that remains, for some, a dominating, albeit shifting, cultural reference point in contemporary national identities.
Subsequent politics and propaganda, reassessments and the emergence of new wartime facts, as well as changing cultural tastes and the immediate needs of political leaders and peoples of the day, have altered memory. They also have changed over time how the end of the devastating struggle is marked, as well as how it is remembered, say historians.
The top photo shows people with portraits of relatives who fought in World War II, on the 74th anniversary of the victory in the war, in Red Square in Moscow, Russia, May 9, 2019; at bottom, a nearly empty Red Square on the 75th anniversary.
Russia has celebrated victory in what it calls “the Great Patriotic War” every year since 1945, but commemoration has undergone a makeover. Parades were often staged without tanks and missiles rumbling across Red Square under the baleful eyes of septuagenarian and octogenarian Communist Party secretaries.
Under the leadership of Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, Victory Day has become a bigger and more militaristic affair, one in which advanced military hardware has been showcased, and Stalin has been lauded in a recasting of patriotism.
But this year, thanks to the coronavirus, the big Moscow celebration scheduled for the 75th anniversary of VE Day was canceled. It was much the same in the rest of Europe, which saw governments shelve plans for brass bands and packed crowds, military parades, concerts and street parties.
- Some things never change, though.
- In his book Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945, British military historian Max Hastings notes that each of the victorious nations “emerged from the Second World War confident in the belief that its own role had been decisive in procuring victory.”
- Who the key player was in the defeat of the Nazis in Europe remains an issue — canceled celebrations and the pandemic notwithstanding.
- While most see the United States as having played the crucial role in vanquishing Adolf Hitler, the British, according to polling data released this week, see themselves as having played the biggest part in the war effort — although they acknowledge that the Nazis would not have been overcome without the Soviet Union bleeding Germany’s Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front.
- US credited
In contrast, Americans, Germans and the French believe the U.S. war effort ultimately was the most significant contribution in achieving victory in Europe, according to a survey conducted by British pollster YouGov.
Recent polls conducted in Russia, however, show Russians are convinced they’re the ones deserving the main credit for Hitler’s defeat — a reflection, possibly, of the huge death toll the country suffered in the war.
An estimated 25 million to 31 million Russians were killed in the conflict — 16 million of them civilians, and more than 8 million from the Red Army. Russians also point to the fact that Soviet forces killed more German soldiers than their Western counterparts, accounting for 76 percent of Germany’s military dead.
Some military historians say death tolls and the number of casualties shouldn’t be seen as reflecting necessarily what was crucial in the defeat of the Nazis. The Allied victory was more complicated than the heroic sacrifice of Soviet soldiers. Historian Anthony Beevor told Britain’s The Times newspaper that Stalin was more callous than Western leaders, who tried to minimize casualties.
Police help Vakhtang Adamashvili, 94, a WWII veteran with a portrait of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, attend a ceremony in Victory Park marking the 75th anniversary of the Nazi defeat in World War II, in Tbilisi, Georgia, May 9, 2020.
“The Red Army dispatched militiamen into attacks without any weapons and basically expected them to stop Panzer divisions with their own bodies,” he said. “They were suffering a 42 percent fatal casualty rate.
They just threw away a quarter of a million lives.
” Others say Western attitudes toward the Soviet Union are colored by the fact that Stalin concluded a nonaggression pact with Hitler in 1939 that was instrumental in allowing the Nazi leader to unleash a world war, before turning his attention to Russia.
The U.S. mobilized about the same number of troops as Russia but fought on more major front lines — not only in Europe but also in the Pacific and North Africa.
American war production — its ability to churn out astounding numbers of bombers, tanks and warships — was possibly the key war-winning factor, say some historians, who point out American factories produced more airplanes than all of the other major war powers combined.
And without U.S. supplies, the Soviet war effort would have been massively diminished. America supplied Stalin with 400,000 trucks, 2,000 locomotives, more than 10,000 rail rolling stock and billions of dollars' worth of warplanes, tanks, food and clothing. At the same time, the U.S. also supplied nearly a quarter of Britain’s munitions.
“We were lucky to have America as an ally,” Russian historian Anatoly Razumov told VOA recently. He said American technology and supplies formed the base of Russia’s war effort. “And we want to close our eyes to that.
It’s shameful! Sometimes I talk to ordinary people who don’t want to understand. We were together during the war. How would it be if we hadn’t had this help? It was not a victory of just one country over Hitler.
It was a victory of the whole world over him.”
That view was echoed 75 years ago by Winston Churchill, Britain’s iconic wartime leader, when at 3 p.m. (London time) on May 8, 1945, he broadcast to the British people to announce victory in Europe.
FILE – Winston Churchill approaches microphones to make a speech in January 1939.
He recapped his nation’s lonely stand against Hitler in 1940, but he highlighted the gradual appearance of “great allies” in the fight, suggesting victory had been achieved because of a combined effort. “Finally,” he said, “the whole world was combined against the evildoers, who are now prostrate before us.”
Churchill concluded his broadcast: “We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing. … Advance Britannia! Long live the cause of freedom! God save the king!”
Britons allowed themselves a respite Friday from coronavirus woes to mark VE Day. The celebration was a more muted and stationary affair than had been planned, as it was in neighboring France and elsewhere in Europe.
Parisians waved the French tricolor from balconies.
Britons had tea parties in their gardens and along their streets — making sure they remained a safe distance from each other as they raised a glass to the countless individual sacrifices that led to victory in Europe in 1945.