The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home

Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
February 20, 2007

In Memoriam: World War Two, 1939 - 1945 - Jeremy Black on World War Two - Part Two

Posted by Jeremy Black

Jeremy Black - Professor of History, University of Exeter - continues his history of World War Two. Part One of Professor Black's account can be read here.

There were serious problems with the German alliance system in Europe, problems that add a major caveat to any discussion in terms of total war. Italy did not join the war until June 1940, when Mussolini scented opportunities from German victory in the Battle of France; and the degree to which its resources subsequently were mobilised was not sufficient to maintain the Italian empire, let alone support Mussolini's expansionist ambitions. Conscription was readily evaded, rationing was limited, and the economy was not militarised. Italy rapidly became a drain on the German military.

Furthermore, the Allied invasion of Italy in 1943 led not to the fight to the finish that might be expected in total war, but to the overthrow of Mussolini and the establishment of a government that sought peace with the Allies. Although Mussolini was rescued and Italian Fascists continued the struggle to the end, fighting the Resistance in a left-level counter-insurgency conflict that was more typical of the warfare of the period than is generally appreciated; the defence of central and northern Italy against the Allies rested on the Germans.

Similarly, military, political and economic support from Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia proved to be of limited value to Germany, and largely evaporated when the war went badly. A recent Hungarian study of the defence of Budapest against Soviet attack in 1944-5 contrasts the high morale of the Germans, even in this closing stage of the war, with the situation of the Hungarian soldiers,

For them the war was not an existential issue. In 500 years of history Hungary had lost every war, so that the Hungarians were more familiar with defeat.
Elsewhere, Germany was able to draw on widespread anti-Communist and anti-Russian sympathies, and indeed on opposition to the Allies in the Arab world, but, in large part due to the brutality and racism of German military and governmental attitudes, combined with unpopular policies such as deportations to provide forced labour in Germany, they failed to exploit their opportunities. This was particularly apparent in Ukraine. The Japanese were equally culpable. Western colonialism was unpopular, but harsh Japanese direction of conquered colonies, particularly the control of labour and the allocation of resources, was cruel and unpopular. Maybe two and a half million Javanese alone died in 1942-5 as a result.

There was no equivalent within the Western empires, although famine in India did lead to a high death rate. Although challenged, control over formal and informal empires was also enhanced in wartime. The French, for example, suspended the Syrian and Lebanese constitutions in 1939, arresting politicians associated with Germany and the Soviet Union. Vichy authorities, subsequently, used tanks against bread riots in Syria. The British intervened in Egypt, and, more forcefully, Iraq and Iran to displace pro-Axis leaders. Yet, although the Congress Party's Quit India campaign was successfully resisted by force, the British empire faced no equivalent to the Irish nationalist rising of 1916.

The Finns were more effective fighters than Germany's other allies, but Finnish involvement in the war as a German ally from 1941 was primarily to regain territory lost to the Soviet Union in 1940, and was indeed referred to as the Continuation War by the Finns. The Finns refused a full-scale commitment against partly-besieged Leningrad, despite repeated requests from the Germans. This represents one of the many 'what ifs' of the war, as such an advance might well have cut the supply route across Lake Ladoga and brought the siege to an end, enabling the Germans to concentrate their forces further south. The Finns abandoned the Germans altogether in 1944, and, like the Romanians, joined the Soviets against them.

At the level of the major powers, there were also important gaps in hostility. Despite Hitler's hopes, Japan did not attack the Soviet Union after he declared war on the USA, and the two powers did not go to war until August 1945. This lessened the problem for both states of being over-extended on too many fronts. Although, in contrast, Germany could not have done anything, Hitler did not declare war on China.

The diplomatic web is an instance of the far from total commitment of many of the participants. The argument has been advanced from a recent direction in Armageddon, a study of the war in transalpine Europe from September 1944 to the end of the conflict, in which Max Hastings argues that there was a major contrast between the

world of the Western allies, populated by men still striving to act temperately, and the Eastern universe in which, on both sides, elemental passions dominated.
Indeed, he claimed that Allied soldiers lacked
the energy, commitment and will for sacrifice of either the German or Russian armies.
This is overly stark, and ignores the range of qualities and characteristics in all armies. Indeed, the notion of aggregate characters is particularly questionable for forces of this size, while it is not helpful to read simply from casualty figures to relative determination (or indeed fighting quality). Nevertheless, Hastings focuses attention on an important issue, differences in these factors, and this contributes to a major qualification of the 'totality' of at least the fighting experience. He sees the British and American armies as preserving the 'civilized inhibitions of their societies', in part thanks to the Soviet willingness to take very heavy casualties.

The intensity of conflict on the Eastern Front led to average casualty figures on both sides that were higher than those in the Mediterranean and the Western European theatre. This intensity was matched by Western Allied units, for example American Marines in the Pacific, but the preference for firepower, rather than frontal assaults and close-quarter engagement, that characterised much Anglo-American fighting in Europe, was different in type to Soviet practice. This preference was a response to manpower shortages and also to concerns about morale.

As far as D-Day was concerned, Montgomery was very conscious that he had under his command Britain's last army, and that shortages of manpower meant that heavy casualties could not be replaced. Furthermore, Major-General Richardson, the chief military psychiatrist, had pointed out problems with morale. At the same time, Eisenhower was receiving reports that, with the exception of the airborne divisions and the rangers, most American units were inadequately trained for the task that lay ahead. There was a particular problem with finding adequate space in Britain for training for action. The nature of American war-making also posed a serious problem, as its highly mechanised fashion helped ensure that there was an expectation of four support troops for every combatant.

The Americans also encountered the difficulty seen in World War One that a rapid expansion of the military posed major problems for training and combat effectiveness, particularly if compared in the field with more experienced forces. Blamey threw light on the consequences in terms of operational execution, when he wrote from New Guinea in 1942,

I had hoped that our strategical plans would have been crowned with complete and rapid success in the tactical field. It was completely successful strategically in as much as we brought an American division on to Buna and an Australian division on to Gona simultaneously. But in the tactical field … it was a very sorry story … the American troops cannot be classified as attack troops … from the moment they met opposition sat down and have hardly gone forward a yard. The action, too, has revealed a very alarming state of weakness in their staff system and in their war psychology … the American forces, which have been expanded even more rapidly than our own were in the first years of the war, will not attain any high standard of training or war spirit for very many months to come.
As far as fighting to the death was concerned, there were major variations in ratios of prisoners to fatalities. The Japanese were least willing to surrender, and many of those who were captured were wounded. The Army Field Service Order of 1941 that forbade being captured was in accordance with strong currents in Japanese public culture. Although there were signs of lower morale as defeats accumulated, for example in Burma, the willingness of the Japanese to fight on meant that the destruction of their forces was the key objective. This fed into both the character of Allied warmaking, in order to further the securing of what was seen as a uniquely difficult unconditional surrender, as well as into Japan's leadership attempt to leave no space for such a solution.

In contrast, there was a far greater willingness in other militaries to accept surrender as a consequence of defeat. At the tactical and operational level, this is readily apparent, although at the strategic level the definition of defeat was problematic. The Germans went on fighting after the Battle of Normandy after they had arguably lost all hope of winning; although, in September 1944, the German position was still better than that of Britain in June 1940 or the Soviet Union in November 1941, and both of them had continued to fight. Hitler's lack of realism was a major factor; it focused on a flawed confidence in wonder weapons and a misplaced hope that, far from pursuing unconditional surrender, the alliance against Germany would split before the end of the war.

At the tactical level, the failure to use gas, other than by the Japanese in China, marked a more limited situation than the previous world war and, indeed, than had been envisaged interwar. The gas masks distributed to British civilians at the outbreak of the war were not made necessary by German bombing, as had been feared, and American tests on the effectiveness of phosgene, hydrogen cyanide, cyanogens chloride and mustard gas were similarly not taken forward.

As a reminder of the extent to which even the criteria of 'total war' only fitfully applied to Germany, appointment to the officer corps was only comprehensively Nazified after the traditional military leadership had been compromised by the role of some generals in the July 1944 bomb plot against Hitler.

Furthermore, Hitler's need to bring back generals, such as Rundstedt, whom he had removed from command positions because he questioned their zeal when they recommended withdrawals, was an indication of a pressure for pragmatism on a leader rarely noted for such. More generally, Hitler felt it necessary to bribe his generals with large amounts of tax-exempt money or seized Polish property. Such bribery was in line with the frequently chaotic nature of German government under Nazi rule, but it also revealed the extent to which there was a military autonomy that scarcely accorded with notions of totalitarianism, nor indeed with the practice of control, not least through political commissars, in the Soviet Union. The rivalries of the German intelligence systems also suggested a regime that found it difficult to focus key strands on its external enemies.

The intensity of conflict on the Eastern Front was matched by a greater brutalisation of non-combatants by both Germans and Soviets in Eastern Europe compared to the situation further west. This brutalisation ranged from the harsh treatment of prisoners to the vicious slaughter of civilians judged unacceptable. About 3.3 million Soviet prisoners died in German captivity; and 1.1 million Germans in that of the Soviet Union.

The slaughter of civilians focused on the Holocaust that the Germans inflicted on the Jews, but that was only a part of German brutality. The very process of occupation was made both cause of, and opportunity for, killing, enslaving imprisonment, disruption and expropriation, as it also was when the Soviets gained control. Like the Germans, they believed in the enforced movement of people, and in December 1939 Stalin considered the removal of Finns from Finland as a consequence of the Winter War. Aside from enforced movements of peoples, the Soviet NKVD waged a rear-area campaign against those deemed questionable, categories that included Soviet POWs, the Polish resistance, and Polish Jews.

A recent study of the German divisions that, at different times between 1941 and 1943, operated in the Army Group Centre Rear Area, which covered much of present-day Belarus, indicates that a variety of factors played a role. The influences that conditioned German military thinking on anti-guerrilla warfare were brutalizing before the Nazis came to power, but Nazi ideas intensified these influences. In 1941, when there was little real partisan threat, the German use of indiscriminate brutality helped accentuate the problem. Subsequently, Soviet success on the front line that winter encouraged partisan resistance, and the Germans responded with increased mass killing.

At the same time, efforts were made to cultivate support, contributing to the contradictions in policy that were so characteristic of the Nazi regime. The hearts-and-minds effort included public talks on Germany by Eastern workers home on leave from the Reich, in which positive accounts were offered of their treatment, and of the bountiful existence enjoyed by German workers. There were also films on German life and open letters enthusiastically recounting the happiness of Eastern workers in the Reich.

Among the German officers there were fanatics, who could draw no distinction between partisans and population, moderates and self-styled pragmatists, and the last had the most decisive effect on troop conduct. Diversity did not, however, lead to any marked lessening of the institutional ruthlessness that was accentuated by Nazi ideology. The latter was self-defeating, as both the ruthlessness of the occupation policy and the lack of adequate resources for security made it difficult to conduct an effective occupation policy, whether peaceful or warlike, and, in particular, jeopardised the chances of economic benefit, while also throwing away the initial willingness of many to collaborate. A lack of sufficient manpower for the extensive long-term occupation of areas susceptible to the partisans helped lead to a reliance on high tempo brutality, a correlate of German operations at the front.

As the suppression of the Warsaw ghetto rising of 1943 and the Warsaw rising of 1944 indicated, however, the lack of troops was not the rationale for violence: German brutality and reprisals were also well in evidence when they had a clear advantage. The risings themselves indicated the role of politics, in terms of the equations of support and the role of goals. In 1944, Soviet forces were not willing to continue the offensive to relieve German pressure on Warsaw, in large part because Stalin did not wish to see Polish nationalists in control of their capital. This took precedence over the serious logistical problems arising from the advance. Equally, the 1944 rising was designed in order to further the goal for an independent Poland, and this political goal was pushed despite prudent military reasons for caution. Alongside German brutality, came that of German allies, such as the Iron Cross fascist movement in Hungary and the Croat Utashi.

A different type of war on civilians led to the bombing of cities in an attempt to break the opponent's will or, at least, as a side-effect of the bombing of industrial and communication targets when high-level planes dropping free-fall bombs could provide little by way of accuracy.

The effectiveness of bombing has for long been a matter of debate, but the morality of it has become even more so. Bombing campaigns have become more controversial, in part as Germans seek to lessen or shift blame, adding to the already strong contention over the use of the atom bomb. In part, bombing arose from the presence of bombing forces, which owed their existence to the pre-war belief in the efficacy of this form of indirect warfare, which constituted a more directed and insistent instance of the habitual practice of maritime blockade. Wartime factors accentuated its use, not simply the determination to employ available forces, but also the need to show domestic and international audiences that efforts were being made. A desire to propiate Soviet pressure for a ‘Second Front’, combined with the need to convince public opinion that something was being done to lend political force to the British bombing of Germany.

Victory is rarely a simple process, but there is a strong desire about both victors and vanquished to construct a clear narrative and analysis. This leads to an underrating of the extent to which victory was an incremental process, and one to which a number of factors contributed, not least preparedness, planning and the gaining of experience. Thus, for example, the experience of conducting amphibious operations, particularly, but not only, in the Mediterranean was a useful preparation for the invasion of Normandy in 1944.

In overall explanations, training and experience are less attractive than weaponry, but they must not be forgotten when considering Allied success in World War Two. In addition, an emphasis on training and experience suggests a qualification of any emphasis on novelty or uniqueness. Both have been highlighted in an instructive comparison of the motivation of American soldiers in the 1860s and 1940s, an approach that could profitably be repeated for other militaries. Drawing attention to major changes in American society, not least a decline in 'dense organic relationships', Thomas Rodgers has argued that its presence in the 1860s ensured that soldiers were able to perform courageously, despite little training, because of their identities as autonomous free men and proprietors of society, while, in the 1940s, the absence of such male identities ensured a need for basic training and the emotional bonding of unit cohesion if troops were to perform.

There are problems with all comparisons, not least, in this case, the extent to which the infantry got the worse of the pick of conscripts in World War Two, because of a policy of directing better-grade recruits to the air force and the navy. Furthermore, unit cohesion was important in the American Civil War. The relationship between volunteering and conscription was different in the two conflicts, with consequences with those who were on the Home Front that require probing.

Nevertheless, the suggestion that social change, at least in the USA, made it more difficult to inculcate morale and battle-motivation, raises instructive questions about the extent to which the emphasis on 'industrial war' reflected need as well as opportunity, specifically the need to address issues of morale. This, in turn, directs attention to the role of ideology in maintaining morale. The relative absence of expressions of patriotism on the part of the troops of the Western Allies has been differently interpreted, with the argument about unexpressed patriotism vying with that of a lack of patriotic fervour and a reliance on comradeship. In the case of German, Soviet and Japanese forces, there are problems with the evidence stemming from the impact of totalitarianism and defeat.

If the emphasis, however, is on coercion as a means to ensure military service, with reference made to the execution of large numbers of Soviet and German soldiers, then again a major limitation on the notion of total war is perceived. Enthusiasm was clearly more limited and conditional than sometimes argued.

The determination of wartime populations to return to peacetime 'normality' was another qualification of total war. Despite the claims of some commentators, there was scant sense among the public that peace and war were simply aspects of conflict, different operational forms of a common strategy. This view was only possible in totalitarian societies, but it helped to so distort their investment priorities as to make them inefficient and unpopular in the long term, the fate of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. The determination to return to normality was to be particularly important to postwar politics and thus the tasking of the military.

Just as, after World War One, a lack of support for another major conflict compromised Allied policy in the Russian Civil War and affected the response to a number of post-war crises including the Chanak and Ruhr ones, so, in the late 1940s, this attitude made it less likely that the Western Allies would respond forcibly to Communist advances, whether in Eastern Europe or in China. It was not until North Korea invaded the South in 1950 that this attitude changed.

Considering, in May 1945, the possibility of war between the Soviet Union and an Anglo-American alliance, the British Joint Planning Staff anticipated that Soviet resilience would prevent a speedy end, and that the conflict could only be waged as a total war entailing a fully mobilised American war economy as well as German support. This was to be the route fitfully pursued during the Cold War, but, even so, there was no full mobilisation, no commitment to 'roll back', and, on the part of Britain and France until the early 1960s, a major continued military commitment to the maintenance of empire.

World War Two had led to a considerable weakening of the opposition to Communism, both directly in Eastern Europe and China, where, respectively Soviet power advanced and the Kuomintang was gravely weakened by the war with Japan, and also in the formal and informal worlds of European empire, particularly the French and Dutch empires, which had been badly compromised by defeat. Concern about these political aspects was very clear in Churchill's attitude towards strategy, for example his strong support for reconquering of British colonies in Asia.

To read the start of Prof. Black's account of World War Two, see Part One.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. He is the author, amongst much else, of The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, 2006), The Dotted Red Line: Britain's Defence Policy in the Modern World (Social Affairs Unit, 2006) and The Slave Trade (Social Affairs Unit, 2007).

Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.
Post a comment

Anti-spambot Turing code

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement