One of the most remarkable ideas about World War II is that the Axis powers nearly won it. This idea seems to be far more common in the former Allied countries than in Germany or Japan. It is strange that the heirs of what was, on the face of things, an enormously superior and victorious coalition seem to feel compelled to “scare themselves” by reflecting on how close they came to disaster.
But the chances of a complete Axis triumph in the war that broke out in 1939 were probably nonexistent. It may be impossible to prove a negative—that Nazi Germany and Japan could never have won the war—but that conclusion is strongly indicated.
Portraying World War II as a series of narrow escapes from total disaster makes more interesting reading than showing it as a tedious effort to deal with foes who, however terrible, took on a task that was too big for them. Still, the notion is a curious one. Most of the revelations about Nazi and Japanese leadership and planning since 1945 have been unflattering. In many ways, Germany and Japan clearly ill judged their preparations for war, and not only Hitler’s judgment (which actually may have been overly criticized) but also that of the professional heads of the German and Japanese armed forces was extremely erratic. They almost continually underestimated the strength and resolution of the Axis powers’ three principal foes. An understandable reason for the popular assumption about the “narrow victory” may be the failure to separate the examination of the war itself, and especially the early German victories, from the disastrous political prelude to the war. To contemporaries, and observers looking back, the French defeat of 1940 and the other disasters of the early war years were the horrible culmination of seven years of uninterrupted defeats the West had suffered at the hands of the Nazis. They could easily be seen as another phase in the democracies’ seemingly endless suicidal bungling since 1918.
The validity of such ideas, however, should not prevent us from recognizing that World War II was a military conflict decided by the military strengths and weaknesses of the two sides. And, despite all the follies of the era between the world wars, Germany and Japan were never strong enough to win it. That Japan could never have defeated the United States, in the long run, is perhaps not very controversial, but many take the idea that Nazi Germany could have won the European phase of the war more seriously. The following discussion will concentrate, therefore, on European issues.
In retrospect, even some of the early German victories look less impressive. As we have seen, the Germans did not have overwhelmingly superior numbers of men or weapons. Even in weapons and technology, the German forces were superior only than their weakest foes: Poland, Norway, and the Balkan countries. Generally speaking, Germany’s victories were owed to good leadership, thorough training, and the revolutionary use of tanks and tactical airpower. Against the western European powers, the Germans enjoyed no overall qualitative edge in military equipment and had a small advantage only in the air. Doctrine, organization, and leadership allowed the Germans to defeat the French with a speed and ease they never expected. Only the idiocies of a French military leadership that had “learned nothing and forgotten everything” since 1918 made it possible for the Germans to cut off much of the French Army and the British Expeditionary Force at one blow. Even in Poland and Yugoslavia, their leaders’ blunders made an inevitable German victory much easier. Both armies tried to defend practically the whole frontiers of their respective countries instead of pulling back to defensible positions. But once the Germans encountered stronger foes, who had observed the Germans’ methods and learned from others’ fatal mistakes, things were likely to be different.
Several questions, military and political, must enter into any examination of Germany’s chances to win the war after the fall of western Europe. The British had to struggle almost alone for a time, but they never could have defeated a Nazi Germany that controlled almost all of Europe west of the Soviet frontier. Much stronger forces had to be assembled. What were the chances of Britain, fighting? Was its doing so a narrow feat, a remarkable personal achievement of Churchill’s? Was American intervention a chancy thing and only due to Roosevelt’s clever manipulation or even to Hitler’s blunder in openly declaring war in December 1941? If American intervention was inevitable, at least in the long run, could the Germans ever have defeated Britain before the United States came in or before it could bring its strength to bear? Could the Germans have defeated the Soviet Union quickly enough so they could focus solely on the war with the Western powers?
Two facts suggest the Western Allies enjoyed enormous superiority in air warfare. By 1943 the Western air forces in the Mediterranean theater alone outnumbered the whole Luftwaffe. And in 1944, even after Germany had fully mobilized for war, the United States alone outproduced it by more than two to one in planes, despite the fact that many of the American aircraft were large, expensive bombers while German production concentrated almost entirely on interceptors. The Germans were at most slightly ahead in jet fighters, but with short-lived and unreliable jet engines, their only advantage was in swept wings. Contrary to popular opinion, the German Me 262 and the British Meteor appeared in combat at about the same time. Many overlooked the latter because the British used it to counter the V-1 missile, and the Germans could not have acquired jets any sooner than they did. In any case, the development of atomic weapons gave the Western powers an advantage that ultimately would have won the war, whatever happened on the battlefields of Russia and the Mediterranean. Germany never had any prospect of building the bomb first. Even had the German atomic bomb project not remained stuck at the point it reached in 1942, Germany did not have the spare industrial capacity to devote to a Manhattan-type project. Victory over the Soviet Union would not have ensured Germany’s victory in the war, even though victory in the east would have made the Germans immune on land.
One aspect of the Western Allied war effort was fragile, namely, Ultra, the breaking of German ciphers. Some have depicted it as decisive in winning the war. If this effort was vital, then the Allies’ victory in the war was hardly inevitable. Ultra was a valuable achievement but a vulnerable one. The Germans could have nullified the Allied effort had they been less recklessly confident about their communications security and correctly evaluated evidence suggesting that the Allies read their messages. They could have prevented the Allies’ success completely had they used the Enigma machine correctly. Only weaknesses in their procedures and their failure to take precautions gave the Allies their chance, and some changes in the Enigma’s design would have defeated the Allies despite the Germans’ procedural mistakes.
However, whether Ultra was the determining element in any of the decisive defensive battles of the war is doubtful. Deciphering German messages was not important in the Battle of Britain. The role of reading enemy messages in the Battle of the Atlantic was greater but not decisive. The official British intelligence history cautioned that it was but one of many elements, warning that it should not be concluded that “reading the U-boat Enigma from the end of 1942 actually played a definitive part in defeating the second great U-boat campaign against the convoys, which was unleashed in December 1942 and called off in May 1943.” Ultra saved many lives and shortened the war but seems to have been more important in the North African and the Mediterranean campaign—a secondary theater— than in either the vital defensive battles or the final campaign in Western Europe.
After France fell, Germany had a military position and sufficient freedom of action to make Britain’s defeat inevitable, if not quick or easy. Given the enormously greater resources under German control, if Britain had remained isolated, its position would have been hopeless. It might have been tempted to capitulate. But it was not. The disclosure that the issue was ever discussed in the War Cabinet at all later shocked many people, but in fact there was not much discussion. Only Lord Halifax raised the issue seriously, and even he conceded that the likelihood of reaching acceptable terms with Hitler was highly unlikely. The cabinet did talk about the issue at length because the prime minister wished to conciliate the sulking foreign secretary and not because the latter had any support or even a settled belief in an alternative policy. The British military never favored giving in, and Churchill was the last man to do so. Moreover, it is a striking fact that the issue was settled before the success of the Dunkirk evacuation was clear. And while the BEF could have suffered far heavier losses, had the Germans conducted the destruction of the Allied northern pocket differently, it seems that its evacuation could never have been entirely prevented. The possibility of the British caving in never existed. They were determined to fight on. It was the French, in agreeing to an armistice rather than fighting on and establishing a government in exile, who were the odd men out in the Western alliance.
Given the forces that were ultimately to be arrayed against them, the Nazis’ chances of victory thus were reduced to the possibilities of quickly defeating Britain by invasion or strangling the transatlantic supply line before the United States brought its strength to bear. Britain was an indispensable base for American intervention in Europe. Only from Britain could a serious land invasion or a strategic bombing campaign with conventional weapons be launched. Britain’s survival in 1940 was probably essential to an Allied victory over Germany. Its survival was also indispensable for the Soviet Union. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, he left fifty-four divisions and fifteen hundred planes, or 40 percent of the Luftwaffe’s inventory, behind to handle the somewhat overestimated British threat to occupied Europe. Had these forces been released for the operation against the Soviets, Germany would have defeated them.
Superficially, three possible ways to defeat Britain seemed to exist after the fall of France: invasion, an air-sea blockade of its ocean supply routes (that is, success in the Battle of the Atlantic), and an indirect approach involving the conquest of what the Germans called “the periphery"—the Mediterranean and the Middle East.
Only a successful invasion could have quickly defeated Britain. However, this was never possible. Hitler’s understanding of his opponents was so limited that he was slow to perceive the need to finish them off, and his military seems to have been just as overconfident after France fell. Given the Luftwaffe’s exhaustion and losses and the German Navy’s lack of any landing craft, Germany could not follow up its victory in France with a quick improvised invasion. The Luftwaffe, while larger than the Royal Air Force, never had the margin of superiority generally supposed. It was never close to winning air superiority over southern England and would not have done so even had the Germans not mistakenly shifted their attacks from Fighter Command’s bases to London at the beginning of September 1940. The many causes of this failure seem to have been “built in” to the Luftwaffe long before the war. Although Hitler was not reluctant or indecisive about the invasion, it would have failed even had the Germans secured domination of the air. During the worst period of the Battle of Britain, from August 24 to September 6, the Germans still made little progress toward knocking out Fighter Command. Indeed, the German commanders even suspected that driving it out of its southern bases would backfire, which is precisely why some favored the switch to London. There, the great fighter battle they sought had the opposite results from what they expected.
The modified barges that served as the inadequate landing craft would have been death traps in an attempted Channel crossing. Lacking an adequate surface fleet and air torpedoes or armor-piercing bombs capable of dealing with the Royal Navy’s heavy ships, the Germans could not have prevented the British from sinking the invasion fleet despite air superiority. Even had a disorganized force somehow reached British beaches in September 1940, the British Army might well have driven it into the sea.
The defeat of the U-boats’ heavy attack on convoy HG 76 in December 1941 convinced Dönitz’s staff that “the writing was on the wall.” Only the unexpected and unnecessary vulnerability of the Americans and the delay in providing heavier surface escort and air cover in the mid-Atlantic prolonged the struggle until the spring of 1943. A small increase in the number of very long-range planes (from ten to forty), the earlier delivery of escort carriers, and earlier recognition and use of the Blackett-Appleyard law of convoy size would have ensured a quicker victory in the Atlantic. Allied shipbuilding increasingly kept pace with losses even in 1942, and the disastrous losses of early 1943 did not portend Allied defeat, which many on both sides recognized at time. The 1943 crisis did not endanger Britain’s survival but rather the Allies’ ability to sustain offensives. It was very much the product of the Allies’ taking a chance with their supply lines to launch an early offensive and of their misuse of already available aircraft that should have been deployed in the mid-Atlantic air gap.
Meanwhile, the fragile achievement of Ultra contributed to, but was not vital to, the turn in fortunes in the Atlantic. The two sides’ rival cryptographic efforts arguably largely neutralized each other. For the Allies, knowing the German deployments was not the critical factor; instead, it hinged on the arrival of more planes and microwave radar that provided tactical location of the U-boats and close-in defense against them. In general, the Allies went from one tactical and technological innovation to another, some of which the Germans never even recognized, while the U-boats remained largely unchanged. As in the case of the Luftwaffe, the defeat of the German Navy seems to have been largely predetermined by the limitations of German’s economy and prewar mistakes in planning that the military service itself made.
As we shall see later, the indirect approach of attacking the Allied position in the Mediterranean and Middle East, or inducing the Soviets to help, would not have led to the defeat of the Western powers. But an all-out commitment of German forces to such a policy ran athwart relations with Italy and Hitler’s basic commitment to destroying the USSR.
It is widely believed that invading Russia was Hitler’s fatal mistake. On the other hand, it is often asserted (although justification is rarely offered for this claim) that had the Germans beaten the Soviets, Germany would have won World War II as a whole—although neither the British nor the American leaders in 1941-1942, concerned as they were to ensure the Soviets’ survival, thought that it would. But the Russian campaign was not an avoidable mistake. Nor was it ever likely that the Germans could have won it.
Examination of Hitler’s decision to attack the Soviet Union suggested that it was not contingent on particular events but the result of his basic outlook and of Germany’s apparent freedom of action after its conquest of the western European mainland. Given Hitler’s obsession with “Jewish Bolshevism,” lebensraum, and the belief that the expected easy conquest of the Soviet Union would provide Germany with the raw materials it needed and improve Germany’s strategic situation, it was not likely that he would forgo an attack once it seemed possible. To him, even after Britain’s determination to fight on became clear, he was not embarking on the long-feared two-front war because there was no real land front against Britain at the time, and the Soviets would be conquered long before the Western powers could create one. (If anything, for Hitler, the threat that the United States would be in the war by 1942 was another argument for, not against, an early attack on the USSR.) Destroying the Soviets before a Western threat developed was actually Hitler’s way out of the two-front dilemma. Eliminating that front—and not embracing the dubious idea of incorporating the untrustworthy and hated Bolsheviks in a Eurasian bloc— was the true and proper solution to Germany’s problems for Hitler.
Nor did he encounter serious opposition to his decision. Indeed, it stemmed from ideas shared with most other Nazi leaders, and even the professional military, although generally more cautious than Hitler was, did not really regard the Soviets as serious opponents. They, too, shared the basic evaluation that if Germany could triumph so completely over its respected traditional rivals, the despised Soviets could be beaten with relative ease.
However, it seems that a Nazi defeat of the Soviet Union, while not inherently impossible, was never likely. And the quick victory that the Germans banked on was never possible. Few criticisms of German planning would command such universal agreement as the judgment that victory in a single year’s campaign was out of the question. The Germans’ assumption that it was possible to win without seriously fighting in the winter led straight to disaster in the winter of 1941-1942.
Hitler’s direction of the eastern campaign has drawn criticism, but much of it is unjustified. The primary accusations are that, at his instigation, the initial German encirclement drive in the center was too shallow and that by steering the German effort to the flanks of the front, he emphasized the conquest of Leningrad and Ukraine instead of driving on to Moscow, a strategically far more important objective that would have brought the main Soviet armies into a decisive battle. Further, having diverted forces to the north, Hitler then cut short the campaign there when, with a little more persistence, Leningrad would have been taken. Many also blamed him for the decision, too late in the year, to concentrate finally on taking Moscow after Leningrad was besieged and Ukraine overrun.
The last criticism simply blames Hitler for a mistake shared with the General Staff; indeed, most commanders, while not as recklessly as General Halder, overestimated what could be achieved in the final attack on Moscow. The criticisms of Hitler’s earlier decisions, however, are also questionable. In most of these cases, if not all, a good argument can be made for his orders, and even a successful alternative would probably have not achieved more than marginally better results. Had the Germans tried a deeper encirclement at the start of the campaign, they would have found it even harder to close off the bigger pocket or pockets created. The infantry, marching on foot, needed to stop the Soviet troops from breaking out and would have been left even farther behind. Hitler’s enforced caution about the first encirclement actually led to drawing more Soviet forces into the second big pocket at Smolensk and a bigger German success than would otherwise have eventuated. Further, the Fourth Panzer Group did not have enough infantry to capture Leningrad quickly in 1941.
While general strategic considerations would have justified Halder’s and others’ desire to concentrate on a drive straight to Moscow, it is not clear that this course was actually practical in the circumstances. Moreover, even had the Soviet capital fallen, Soviet resistance would not have collapsed. Much of the Soviet government was being evacuated to Kuibyshev (Samara); and while Moscow was an important rail hub, it was not the sole connection between the north and southwest of the Urals, as many have supposed. Nor could the Germans have occupied all of European Russia before winter. Had they taken Moscow in this way, they would have been left holding a vast salient with Soviet forces holding to the north and south. As it was, logistical considerations made it possible to attack Ukraine and win a great victory there well before attacking Moscow would have been possible. The delay in attacking Moscow (of only two to three weeks) and the Kiev victory not only eliminated an enormous force that would have threatened Army Group Center’s southern flank if left alone, but allowed the drive on Moscow to be carried out with an additional panzer group that would have been unavailable earlier. An early drive on Moscow, which the Soviets expected (as they did not expect the turn south) would probably have bagged fewer Soviet forces than those destroyed at Kiev and Vyazma.
Furthermore, given the Soviets’ strength, none of the German victories in 1941 should have been possible. Stalin’s refusal to recognize the danger until the last minute, despite ample warnings, and his dictation of a deployment that played into the Germans’ hands made the great German triumphs possible. Had Soviet forces been alert and deployed rationally, the German attack would have misfired from the start, and the danger of a German victory over the Soviet Union would never have existed.
It seems likely that despite what was widely feared in 1942, the danger was past by the time of the 1942 campaign. Hitler, again, has been widely criticized for the strategy. Later many often suggested that the Germans should have renewed an offensive on the central front, forced a decisive battle on the Red Army, and captured Moscow instead of trying to seize the Caucasus. The basic defects of the Caucasus strategy have already been recounted. An examination of the actual situation in 1942, however, suggests that no other strategy was possible; in fact, though many disliked it, no one suggested a real alternative. The Germans simply did not have the strength to take Moscow (and even if they had, doing so would no more have ended the war in 1942 than it would have in 1941). Their objective had to be the Caucasus or nothing.
Again, only Soviet blunders gave the Germans some initial success in 1942. Given Hitler’s erratic decision making in the summer of 1942, it is perhaps not possible to say with certainty whether the Caucasus could have been taken. But it seems highly probable that even had the Germans concentrated all their efforts on pushing south in the summer of 1942, gambling on leaving the formation of a defensive front to the east for later (and this is the opposite of what they are usually criticized for doing), they would still not have reached Baku. Given the physical obstacles and near impossibility of supplying even the inadequate forces allotted to Army Group A, it is not clear that the Germans could ever have supported an all-out drive over the mountains. Moreover, the Germans had had ample warning, even before the attack on the USSR, that they could not have used the captured oil fields themselves. Even if they had taken the fields intact—the only fields captured at Maikop were thoroughly wrecked—the transportation problem would have prevented a significant amount of oil from reaching Germany. To solve that problem, the Germans would have had to open a sea route through the Turkish Straits and the Mediterranean; however, British submarines and planes there were rapidly wiping out the Axis merchant fleet, which was already fully employed trying to supply forces in North Africa.
Even had the Germans defeated the Red Army and caused the collapse of the Soviet regime in 1941-1942, they could not have exploited Russia successfully in the near future. Their treatment of the conquered peoples, which was inseparable from the Nazis’ basic ideology, inspired dogged resistance. Controlling and utilizing the conquered territories would have taken years. The most vital resource of all, oil, was not in prospect. The notion of a Eurasian bloc using the resources of a conquered Soviet Union to fend off an Anglo-American assault was a mirage, even disregarding the effects of Western nuclear weapons. Had the Western powers left the Nazis free to conquer the Soviet Union, the Nazis could have eventually wielded a conquered Eurasia into a deadly threat to the Western democracies. But while the Nazis were at war on both the eastern and western fronts, they never would have had the time and freedom needed to do this.
Had the Germans reinforced their success in the spring of 1941, they undoubtedly could have overrun the Mediterranean and the Middle East; but given Hitler’s basic ideas, it was not possible that he would choose to pursue this strategy instead of attacking the Soviets. In fact, Hitler and other German leaders were not as oblivious to the prospects in the south as has often been said. Mussolini, not Hitler, sabotaged the chance for an early joint Axis effort there. Only then did Hitler run up against the deadline imposed by the plan to attack the USSR in 1941. Mussolini’s folly, Hitler’s too tolerant treatment of the “senior” fascist leader, and the difficult political problems presented by the competing claims of Vichy France, Italy, and Spain prevented Hitler from acting promptly and decisively in 1940, as he should have, no later than the cancellation of the invasion of England. The prompt seizure of Malta and sending modest armored forces to North Africa would have enabled the Axis to take Egypt, made the costly invasion and occupation of the Balkans unnecessary, and, if successful enough, might even have secured valuable oil supplies for Germany without interfering seriously with the German invasion of the USSR.
As it was, in 1942, even with the limited forces and support given to Rommel, the Axis almost achieved victory in the Mediterranean. They nearly starved Malta into submission, and the success of the Allied convoys in June and August was a near thing. Rommel perhaps came close to victory in the desert at the start of July 1942, though possibly not as close as is often thought, for his force was weakened by earlier fighting, had outrun its air support, and had a long and tenuous land supply line. Even the last-throw effort in August might have ended differently had Malta, in turn, not starved him of supplies.
With more support in 1942, Rommel almost certainly could have overrun Egypt and perhaps the Iraqi oil fields as well. Hitler could have provided additional forces for him without any diversion from Russia, for twenty-nine divisions were idle in western Europe, which was not in danger of attack. As Rommel later noted bitterly, after the battles at El Alamein and the invasion of North Africa, his masters found it possible to throw forces into the futile and disastrous defense of Tunisia. These troops would have been invaluable for his offensive if they had been available earlier. It should also be noted that the British forces attacking his supply lines across the Mediterranean depended on Ultra to an unusually high degree for their effectiveness, perhaps more so than any other major striking force in the war. British survival and success in the Mediterranean arguably depended on the fragile achievement of the decryption effort.
However, there is little reason to think that losing the Mediterranean and the Middle East would have meant the defeat of the Western powers. The Cape of Good Hope route, not the Mediterranean, was the true lifeline of the British Empire. The closing of the Mediterranean from 1940 to 1943 (it had also been closed during part of World War I) was only an inconvenience to the Allies. The Middle East was an underdeveloped region that did not contain a major ally or indispensable resources at that time. Nor did it lead obviously to any place else. As Field Marshal Erich von Manstein pointed out, for logistic reasons it would not have been a good base for an attack either on the Soviet Union or India. There was no prospect of a serious juncture between the European Axis and the Japanese in the area. Even the faction of Japanese planners favorable to a western drive envisaged at most taking Ceylon, not a major invasion of India or a move into the Middle East. In any case, given the threat that the Americans posed, Japan never had much of a chance of launching a major Indian Ocean campaign. Nor could the Italian fleet, which could not stand up to the British even in the middle sea, have operated successfully in the Indian Ocean. It lacked the aircraft carriers and supply ships needed for oceanic operations.
Oil was the only commodity in the Middle East of great value to the Allies. But Britain’s supplies during World War II came from the Americas. The oil of the Middle East was vital, not to the Allied war effort in general, but as the only nearby and convenient source of supply for British forces in the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean. Losing the oil would have paralyzed any Allied threat to Germany from the southeast or to Japan from the southwest, but the decisive blows against Germany and Japan were not launched from those directions. The Americans were so unruffled by the prospect of losing the Middle East that on several occasions in 1941 they urged the British to abandon the area lest they sink too much of their military power there. Roosevelt, although not going that far, suggested once to Churchill that losing the Middle East could be withstood as long as the Allies kept command of the Atlantic. Losing the Mediterranean and the Middle East would have been a most serious blow but a far from fatal one.
In short, the only victories the Axis might reasonably have hoped to win would not have affected the outcome of the war. In most respects, Germany and Japan were not strong enough to affect, or within range of, the vital spots of the major Allied powers. The Axis failed to prepare for war intelligently enough, and the Nazis capped this oversight by not mobilizing properly once the war began. Japan, furthermore, did not have the industrial strength to prevail against the United States. When the Nazis embarked on a war with enemies who were either geographically immune to the quick victories that the Nazi armored forces and tactical airpower produced in 1939-1940 or had the space and resources to survive the initial blows, the results were inevitably disastrous for the Germans and for the allies that depended on them to win.