Military history


For Hitler the First World War had been ‘the greatest of all experiences’.57 Like a minority of veterans in all armies, he had found the excitement and even the dangers of the trenches enlarging, indeed uplifting. His bravery had won him medals and the good opinion of his officers while his admission to a circle of comradeship, after years of life as a down-and-out in the backstreets of Vienna, had reinforced his burning belief in the superiority of the German nation above all others. And he was filled with consuming outrage at its humiliation at the peace of Versailles, the terms of which — including loss of territory, the reduction of its army to a strength of only 100,000, the deprivation of its navy of modern warships and the outright abolition of its air force — the German government had accepted only because the Allied naval blockade, at last achieving the effect it had failed to impose in the war years, gave it no option. Hitler’s anger was matched by that of enough other veterans to supply him; when he took up extreme right-wing politics in 1921, with the nucleus of a paramilitary party.

Paramilitary parties were on the march in the 1920s, in almost every country that had undergone defeat or been cheated of its expectation of victory. Turkey was the exception: there Atatürk, military saviour of the Turkish heartland, after the Allies had stripped it of its Middle Eastern empire, succeeded in turning his warlike people for the first time toward a strategy of moderation. In Russia, a triumphalist Bolshevik party, victorious in civil war, was instituting a regime which, for all its egalitarian rhetoric, would far outdo the French Revolution in subordinating every aspect of public life, and much of private life as well, to command from the top, reinforced by arbitrary disciplines and a pervasive system of internal espionage. In Italy in 1923 Mussolini — voice for all those who felt that the British and French had taken an unfair share of the victor’s spoils, though the Italians had made an equal blood sacrifice — actually usurped government with a party that wore military uniforms, aped military habits, exiled or imprisoned its political opponents and installed its own militia on an equal footing with the constitutional army.

Hitler deeply admired Mussolini, whom he constantly compared to Julius Caesar and whose use of legionary symbolism, including that of legionary banners and the ‘Roman’ salute, he adopted for his own revolutionary group. The German state, weakened though it was by defeat, proved a tougher nut, however, than the Italian. Hitler’s attempt at a coup d’état in 1923 was easily quashed by the Bavarian police, backed by an army which was not prepared to see its national role challenged by a rabble parading in a parody of field-grey. During sixteen months in prison, Hitler reflected on his mistakes and determined never to confront the army directly again. Instead, while courting the military leadership and proceeding with the creation of a mass uniformed militia of ‘storm-troopers’ (which achieved a strength of 100,000 — as large as the army — in 1931), he decided to use the electoral process to bring him to power.58 In January 1933 he scraped a plurality, was installed as Chancellor and embarked at once on measures designed to restore Germany to its former place as a great military power; on 8 February, he secretly informed his Cabinet that ‘the next five years have to be devoted to rendering the German people again capable of bearing arms’.59 The following year, on the death of President Hindenburg, the wartime commander-in-chief, he arranged for all servicemen to swear personal allegiance to himself as the new head of state (Führer, or ‘leader’). In 1935 he renounced the clauses of the Versailles treaty which limited the size of the army to 100,000, reintroduced universal conscription, and decreed the creation of an independent air force; in 1936, the same year as he negotiated with Britain a new Anglo-German naval treaty that allowed him to build U-boats, he unilaterally reoccupied the demilitarised Rhineland with German troops. He was already building tanks — in January 1934, he had been shown some illegal prototypes at Kummersdorf by Guderian, father of the panzer arm, and had trumpeted, ‘That’s what I need! That’s what I want to have’ — and by 1935 three panzer divisions were under formation.60 By 1937, the German army had thirty-six infantry and three panzer divisions (in 1933 there had been only seven infantry divisions) which, with reserves, yielded a war strength of 3,000,000 men, a thirtyfold increase in armed strength in four years’ time. By 1938 the new Luftwaffe had 3350 combat aircraft (none in 1933), and was training parachute troops to be the airborne arm of the army, while the navy was laying down the first of a series of super-battleships and planning to build an aircraft-carrier.

Rearmament proved enormously popular, not simply because it provided a means of absorbing the youthful unemployed and of integrating into the territory of a greater Germany both the Rhineland and, in 1938, the rump of Austria and the German-speaking regions of Czechoslovakia, but also because it restored German national pride. Among the victor nations the cost of winning the First World War had left the populations determined never to bear it again; in Germany the cost of losing the war seemed to be justified only if the result could be reversed. Hitler, whose whole being was suffused with that conviction, had had the perception to detect this popular rancour, buried though it was beneath a veneer of internationalism that was the official philosophy of the post-imperial state, and had worked to excite it throughout fifteen years of political agitation. His accusations of treason against those who had signed the Versailles treaty and his relentless demands for revenge fell on ready ears.

While the French strengthened the Maginot Line and the British steadfastly refused to rearm, young Germans enthusiastically donned the field-grey uniform of the trenches, basked in the admiration of civilians as their fathers and grandfathers had done in the decades before 1914 when the conscript army had been the principal symbol of German nationhood, and thrilled to the modernity that tanks, fighter aircraft and dive-bombers represented. Mussolini’s vision of what Italy might do had been inspired by the art of ‘futurism’; in Hitler’s Germany futurity was not merely an aspiration, as it remained in underfunded Fascist Italy, but a heady reality. By 1939 German society was not only remilitarised but suffused with the belief that it possessed the means to overcome its decadent neighbours, states which paid no more than lip service to the philosophy of ‘every man a soldier’, and win the victory of which it had been cheated twenty-one years earlier.

Announcing his decision to go to war against Poland, and therefore also France and Britain, on 1 September 1939, Hitler explicitly evoked the trench experience. ‘I am asking’, he said, ‘no German man more than I myself was ready to perform during the few years of the [First World] War … I am from now on no more than the first soldier of the Reich. I have once more put on the coat that was most sacred and dear to me. I will not take it off again until victory is assured, or I will not survive the outcome.’61 These were eerily prophetic words from a political leader who was to take his own life five and a half years later as enemy shells rained down on the bunker where he sheltered in the ruins of Berlin. At the outset, however, any prospect of defeat seemed chimerical. Hitler’s generals had warned, as military professionals commonly do when asked to translate plans into action, that victory over Poland might not be swift. In the event Poland’s forty divisions, none armoured, found themselves surrounded from the outset by sixty-two German divisions, including ten panzer, and were overwhelmed in five weeks of fighting; the Polish air force of 935 aircraft, almost all obsolete, was wiped out in the first day. Nearly 1,000,000 Poles were taken prisoner, 200,000 by the Russians who, in a secret agreement with Hitler which lifted the danger from Germany of having to fight a two-front war as in 1914, had arranged to invade and annex the east of the country once operations were under way.

The Polish campaign unveiled the new tactics for which Germany’s land and air forces were equipped and trained. Called Blitzkrieg, ‘lightning war’, a journalist’s term but a descriptive one, it concentrated the tanks of the panzer divisions into an offensive phalanx, supported by squadrons of dive-bombers as ‘flying artillery’, which, when driven against a defended line at a weak spot — any spot was, by definition, weak when struck by such a preponderant force — cracked it and then swept on to spread confusion in its wake. The technique was the same as that introduced by Epaminondas at Leuctra, used by Alexander against Xerxes at Gaugamela and employed by Napoleon at Marengo, Austerlitz and Wagram. Blitzkrieg, however, achieved results denied earlier commanders, whose ability to exploit success at the point of assault had been limited by the speed and endurance of the horse, whether as an instrument of force or a means to carry messages and reports. The tank not only easily outstripped infantry, but could keep up a pace of advance of thirty, even fifty miles in twenty-four hours as long as supplied with fuel or spare parts, while its radio set enabled headquarters both to receive intelligence and transmit orders at the same speed as operations invoked, a development which came to be known during the war as ‘real time’.

There had been experimentation with radio during the First World War, but the early sets, needing bulky power sources, had worked well only at sea. Miniaturisation had reduced the power demand, allowing reliable sets to be installed in tanks or command vehicles, while the Germans had also achieved remarkable success in mechanising encipherment of messages. Here was the basis for an offensive revolution. Its nature was encapsulated in remarks made by the German air-force general, Erhard Milch, at a pre-war conference on Blitzkrieg tactics: ‘The dive bombers will form a flying artillery, directed to work with ground forces through good radio communications … tanks and planes will be [at the commander’s disposition]. The real secret is speed — speed of attack through speed of communication.’62

These ingredients of an offensive revolution persuaded Hitler and the more forward-looking German generals not only that the Wehrmacht could defeat the still conventionally organised armies of its enemies in the west at little loss, but that they would also spare Germany the crippling economic costs of putting German industry on a full-scale war footing. The German military establishment attributed the Allied victory in 1918 to its better ability to fight the Materialschlacht, ‘battle of materials’; thus it preserved the illusion that the German soldier had not really been defeated at all. Blitzkrieg, the weapons of which were comparatively cheap, would thus allow the German people to enjoy the fruits of victory without making the financial sacrifices always previously entailed in waging all-out war.

The results of the campaign of May-June 1940 in France and the Low Countries appeared to bear this expectation out. Concentrated by stealth in the Ardennes forests north of the Maginot Line, the German panzer divisions cracked the French field defences in three days of fighting and drove forward to reach the Channel coast at Abbeville on 19 May. This advance cut the Allied armies into two, leaving the best of the French and the British Expeditionary Force isolated in the north, while to the south the French hinterland was defended only by immobile and second-rate formations. The northern pocket was eliminated by 4 June — most of the British army was evacuated by sea from Dunkirk — while the southern front was penetrated and overrun immediately after. On 17 June the French government sued for an armistice which came into effect (also with Italy, a latecomer to Germany’s side) on 25 June. ‘The great battle of France is over,’ wrote a young German officer. ‘It lasted twenty-six years.’ His sentiment neatly reflected that of Hitler. On 19 July he held a victory celebration in Berlin to elevate twelve of his generals to the rank of marshal; he had already made the decision to demobilise thirty-five of the army’s hundred divisions, so that industry would regain the manpower necessary to sustain output of consumer goods at peacetime levels.

It seemed in the summer of 1940, therefore, as if Germany was to enjoy the best of all worlds: victory, economic plenty and the return of the warriors to their firesides. As a precaution against the resumption of conflict, Hitler gave orders to persist in the output of the new weapons; the number of tank divisions was to be doubled, U-boat launchings increased and advanced aircraft prototypes taken to production stage. No threat of conflict, however, appeared to loom. The Soviet Union was inert, content to incorporate into its territory the eastern lands assigned to it by Hitler’s pre-war agreement with Stain, and to fulfil the deliveries of raw materials that were a condition of it. Britain, expelled from the continent where it had abandoned almost all its heavy military equipment, was bereft of means to wage offensive war; at best it would hope to defend its sea lanes or air space. By any rational calculation it ought to sue for peace. So Hitler calculated, and he waited throughout June to July to receive Churchill’s overtures.

None came. Instead the war took a different course. Hitler had already turned to consideration of how safe it was to leave Russia undisturbed on his open eastern frontier. Its lack of natural frontiers and the ‘tankable’ expanses of its western steppe laid it open toBlitzkrieg on an extended scale; a successful lightning war would provide Germany with the material and industrial resources to make it Europe’s unassailably dominant power in perpetuity. No such Blitzkrieg would be launched if Britain would agree to an armistice, since that would avert the danger that the United States might eventually intervene in Europe, as it had done in 1917, to reverse the balance of power. However, Britain proved recalcitrant, even under the weight of a full-scale air offensive launched against it in August. While Hitler watched to see how long British air defences could sustain resistance, therefore, he decided to halt the demobilisation of divisions that had taken part in the Battle of France and to begin a precautionary deployment of his panzer formations to the east.

Hitler must be seen in retrospect as the most dangerous war leader ever to have afflicted civilisation, since he combined in his outlook three savagely complementary beliefs, often found separately but never before combined in a single mind. He was obsessed with the technology of warmaking, preening himself on his mastery of its details and holding unfailingly to the view that superior weapons could supply the key to victory; in this he stood in outright opposition to the traditions of the German army, which reposed its trust in the fighting-power of the German soldier and the professional skills of the general staff to bring victory.63 He nevertheless also believed in the primacy of the warrior class, which in his political messages to the German people he invested with a ruthless racial content. Finally, he was a convinced Clausewitzian: he really did see war as a continuation of politics, did not distinguish, indeed, between war and politics as separate activities. Like Marx, though he contemptuously rejected his collectivism, since it was invented to liberate all races indifferently from economic slavery, he conceived of life as struggle, and warfare therefore as the natural means by which racial politics was to achieve its ends. ‘Not one of you’, he threw at a Munich audience in 1934, ‘has read Clausewitz, or if you have read him, you haven’t learnt how to relate him to the present’; in his last days of life in Berlin in April 1945, when he sat down in the bunker to compose his political testament to the German people, the only name he cited was that of ‘the great Clausewitz’ in justification of what he had tried to achieve.64

Revolutionary weapons, the warrior ethos and the Clausewitzian philosophy of integrating military with political ends were to ensure that, under Hitler’s hand, warmaking in Europe between 1939 and 1945 achieved a level of totality of which no previous leader — not Alexander, not Muhammad, not Genghis, not Napoleon — had ever dreamed. At the outset he acquiesced in the declaration issued by the British and French governments that they would not direct aerial attack against civilian targets. Once the prohibition was breached — by, as it happened, a German attack mistakenly delivered against the German city of Freiburg on 10 May 1940, which expediency required should be blamed upon the French — inhibitions were cast aside.65 An Italian military theorist, Douhet, had already advanced the proposition that wars might be won by airpower alone (the Italians, coincidentally or not, had been the first to use aircraft for military purposes, against the Turks in Libya in the war of 1911–12) and, though the bombing of each other’s cities by aircraft and airships in the First World War had caused few casualties and trifling damage, Hitler was persuaded that his new Luftwaffe, with its thousand bombers, could break both the Royal Air Force and British civilian morale with a concentrated blow.66 On what is still called in London ‘the first day of the bombing’, 7 September 1940, the Luftwaffe burnt out the London docks and wide swathes of the city on each side of the Thames; on 31 December, it destroyed much of the City of London; and on 10 May 1941, the first anniversary of the panzer attack in the west, it devastated Whitehall and Westminster, including the chamber of the House of Commons. Despite causing the deaths of 13,596 Londoners in 1940 alone, the Luftwaffe eventually found its own losses — of 600 bombers in August and September — the deciding factor, and abandoned the effort to give Douhet’s doctrine of ‘victory through air power’ force.67 During 1941–3 it confined itself to launching sporadic raids only at night against British targets.

Hitler, frustrated in his efforts to bring Britain to concede defeat by the effect of bombing attack, therefore reverted to using his other revolutionary weapons system, the panzer force, to achieve the total victory in Europe that he craved. By the spring of 1941 his precautionary deployment of divisions to the east was complete and his resolve to attack the Soviet Union, which had refused to acquiesce in his diplomatic reordering of southern Europe, was absolute. After a subsidiary campaign to conquer Yugoslavia and Greece, which resisted his demands to accept subordination, he launched his tank forces against Russia on 22 June.

Blitzkrieg worked as spectacularly in the first six months of the Russian war as it had done in the west in the spring of 1940. By December, German tanks had overrun the Ukraine, the Soviet Union’s agricultural heartland and source of much of its industrial and extractive wealth, and stood at the gates of both Leningrad and Moscow. Hitler’s Clausewitzian philosophy had, or so it appeared, been fulfilled in its objectives by applying to its operations the revolutionary military technology of which Hitler (though not Clausewitz, who discounted the superiority of weapons as a significant factor in warmaking) was such an ardent protagonist. Hitler’s fervent championship of the warrior ethos also played its part; indeed, too large a one. Though German soldiers had observed prevailing legal codes of combat in the west, in the east they too often behaved as if the alleged barbarism of their opponents — a barbarism woven into existence by the propagandists of the Reich from folk memories of the steppe menace and evocations of Red Revolution bloody in tooth and claw — justified barbaric behaviour against the soldiers of the Red Army, even after they had been made prisoner, which, following the encirclements at Minsk, Smolensk and Kiev, they were in hundreds of thousands. More than 3,000,000 of the 5,000,000 Soviet soldiers taken prisoner by the Wehrmacht died of mistreatment and privation in captivity, the majority in the first two years of the campaign.68

Blitzkrieg worked on land, at least up until the German embroilment in the Battle of Stalingrad, deep within the steppe, in the autumn of 1942. But elsewhere Hitler’s reliance on revolutionary weapons and strategic extremism encountered a series of unforeseen checks. At sea, his expectation of consummating the U-boat blockade of Britain, which had been denied the German navy in 1917–18 for want of numbers of submarines, was foiled in 1943 by the Allies’ success in extending long-range air cover across the whole zone in which transatlantic convoys operated, in supplying them with local air cover provided by escort carriers of their own, and in outdoing the German cryptographic organisation by decoding the cyphers by which U-boats were instructed to intercept convoys and then diverting the latter to elude them.69

In continental air space, meanwhile, his enemies were moving to achieve a decisive advantage. Germany’s economic policy of committing industrial capacity only to weapons of direct battlefield efficiency — tanks, dive-bombers, automatic infantry weapons — had meant that the Luftwaffe did not have the resources of a true strategic force. Even before the war began, Hitler’s infatuation with the idea of Blitzkrieg had forced it to abandon earlier plans to build large, long-range bombers.70 The policy of the British and the American air forces was precisely contrary. Indeed, it had been with some difficulty that the British government had compelled the Royal Air Force to divert resources from bomber to fighter production before the war, so convinced were its leaders of the rightness of Douhet’s doctrine of ‘victory through air power’. The early British bombers were strategic in conception rather than capacity, but the American air force, which began to arrive in Britain in 1942 to share with the Royal Air Force the prosecution of a strategic bombing campaign against Germany, did so with an aircraft, the B-17, that met all the necessary desiderata: it was fast, had a long range, dropped a heavy bomb load with great accuracy and was designed to defend itself against fighter attack.

Hitler’s abrogation of the tacit agreement to spare civilian targets prompted Britain to begin bombing German cities during 1940. The bombers achieved little effect that year or the next, but in February 1942 a new chief of Bomber Command, Air Marshal Arthur Harris, set aside the policy of directing attacks only at identifiable military targets and inaugurated that of ‘area bombing’. It is ironical in context to recall that the Wright brothers, inventors of the practicable aeroplane in 1903, had foreseen its use as a means of bringing the family of mankind into closer community; a British Air Staff directive of 14 February laid down that operations ‘should now be focused on the morale of the enemy civilian population and in particular of industrial workers’.71 Soon a thousand British bombs at a time were deluging chosen German cities with high-explosive — in the Hamburg night raids of 24–30 July 1943, eighty per cent of the city’s buildings were damaged or destroyed, 30,000 of the inhabitants killed and the streets left choked with 40,000,000 tons of rubble — while in coordinated daytime raids the United States Army Air Force sustained the assault. Once it had acquired a force of long-range fighters to escort its formations to their targets, its bombers flew over Germany almost with impunity.

The Allied strategic air attack on German cities was a revolutionary development in warmaking, and a few brave individuals rightly denounced it as a moral regression, and yet it was outmatched in strategic scope by the deployment of amphibious air power in the Pacific. Japan, another of the nominal victors of the First World War (it had declared against Germany in order to seize its enclave in China) that felt cheated of a fair share of the spoils, had spent a major proportion of its military budget since 1921 in building up the largest and best-equipped naval air force in the world. Its fleet of six large carriers had been of no use when, in 1937, an army-dominated Japanese government embarked on an all-out assault on China, but it proved the essential strategic prop when, during 1941, the decision was taken in Tokyo to outface the United States’ insistence that it terminate its offensive into the Chinese heartland and desist from deployments southward that threatened British and Dutch possessions in Malaya and the East Indies (conquered by sailing-ship in the gunpowder age). Yamamoto, Japan’s leading naval strategist and one of the few Japanese to know the United States at first hand, warned of the relative frailty of the fleet he commanded: ‘we can run wild for six months to a year,’ he forecast, but after that, ‘the oil wells of Texas and the factories of Detroit’72 would supply the means to mount an inevitable and decisive counter-offensive. His protests were overruled, and in the first six months of 1942 the Japanese navy, acting as both spearhead of and escort to the Japanese army, conquered almost the whole of the western Pacific and South-East Asia, and carried the perimeter of what was intended to be an impenetrable zone of strategic control to the northern approaches of Australia.

Whence the Japanese derived the warrior ethos which made them one of the most formidable military peoples the world has ever known remains as mysterious today as it was on 7 December 1941, when the departing pilots of the First Air Fleet left the United States Pacific Fleet’s battleships a row of burning hulks at Pearl Harbor. They were a warrior people already and during the thirteenth century, the only one, besides the Turkish Mamelukes of Egypt, to have confronted and seen off (assisted, admittedly by a timely typhoon) the conquering impulse of the Mongols. They were warriors none the less, of a recognisably ‘primitive’ sort, practising a highly ritualised style of combat and valuing skill-at-arms largely as a medium for defining social status and subordinating the unsworded to the rule of the samurai. It was to perpetuate that social order that they had banished gunpowder from their islands in the seventeenth century, and thereafter resisted the intrusions of foreign traders until, on the arrival of an American steam warship fleet in 1854, they recognised that the means to deny the outside world no longer availed.

Unlike the Chinese Manchu, who responded to Western technical challenge by counting on the resilience of traditional culture to negate its destabilising effects, the Japanese, from 1866 onward, took a conscious decision to learn the secrets of the West’s material superiority and bend them to the service of their own nationalism. In a bitter civil war, the samurai backwoodsmen who resisted the programme of reform were crushed by armies which for the first time admitted commoners to their ranks. The victorious regime, dominated by feudal families, but by those which had embraced the necessity for change, proceeded to introduce into Japan the institutions that their envoys in the West had identified as those that made Western states strong: in the economy, repetitive-process industries; in the public domain, an army and a navy recruited by universal enlistment and equipped with the most advanced weapons, including armoured warships which, by 1911, were being built in Japanese yards.

Other non-European states that attempted this emulation of the West’s military power, notably Muhammad Ali’s Egypt and nineteenth-century Ottoman Turkey, had failed. The purchase of Western weapons did not, it proved, entail with it the transfer of the West’s military culture. But Japan succeeded in acquiring the one with the other. In 1904–5 it defeated Russia in a war for control of Manchuria in which all Western observers testified to the exemplary fighting-power of the common Japanese conscript.73 This was demonstrated again in the campaigns of 1941–5 in South-East Asia and the Pacific, notably in the opening stages, when trained units of the ‘martial peoples’ of India — scions of successive waves of militant conquerors, and commanded by British officers — were consistently outmatched in combat by the descendants of Japanese cultivators who, a hundred years earlier, had been forbidden the right to bear arms altogether.

The personal qualities of the Japanese fighting man were eventually overcome by exactly the means of which Yamamoto had warned: the ‘surge’ capacity of American industry to exceed Japan’s output of warships and aircraft delivered to the front. But to say that is in no way to denigrate the courage or skills of the American servicemen who opposed the Japanese in the Pacific theatre. The performance of the United States Marine Corps in the battles to conquer the island of Iwo Jima or Okinawa (1945), in particular, gave the lie to Hitler’s deluded and racialist dismissal of the Americans as a people emasculated by material plenty. Nevertheless, the consistency with which the Japanese demonstrated their determination to fight literally to the death — after the assault in Tarawa (1943) only eight out of the Japanese garrison of 5000 were found alive — persuaded the American high command by 1945 that an assault on the Japanese home islands would be too costly — a million casualties or sometimes deaths was the figure invoked — to be risked unless no other means prevailed.74 By the middle of 1945 such a means was available.

The United States had already deployed a plethora of advanced technical means against Japan in the effort to beat down courage with firepower. Its carrier fleet, outnumbered but vigorously handled in the battles of Coral Sea and Midway, had restored a naval equilibrium in the Pacific in 1942. Thereafter its size had grown so fast — between 1941 and 1944 the United States launched twenty-one fleet carriers, Japan only five — that the US Pacific Fleet could move virtually at will, supported by a fleet train that allowed its ships to remain at sea for weeks at a time. By the end of 1944 the American submarine force had sunk half Japan’s merchant fleet and two-thirds of its tankers, while in the summer of 1945 the US strategic air force was engaged in an incendiary campaign against Japan’s wooden-built cities that left sixty per cent of the ground area of the sixty largest completely burnt out. It was still doubted, however, if not by American air force generals, whether bombing alone would bring the Japanese to concede defeat.

Strategic bombing had not defeated Germany. In the last months of the European war, the Anglo-American combined bomber offensive put out of action all of Germany’s synthetic oil plants, its only surviving source of such supply, and brought movement on its railways to a standstill. By then, however, the Anglo-American armies that had landed in France in June 1944, and the Red Army which had simultaneously broken through the Wehrmacht’s last line of defence in White Russia, were fighting deep within German territory. The battles they fought were those of attrition: the increase in the numbers of tanks in all armies had robbed that armoured weapon of the revolutionary properties it had apparently brought to warmaking in the brief era of Blitzkrieg in 1941–2. The bomber offensive also, moreover, had passed through a long period of attrition in 1943–4, when air crew losses of five, sometimes ten per cent per mission had threatened to break morale and concede advantage in the skies over Germany to its fighter and anti-aircraft defences. The manned bomber was a fragile weapon of offence, as Hitler had learned to his cost in the campaign of 1940 against Britain. That was the principal reason for his enthusiastic espousal of a programme of unmanned aircraft development, generously funded by the army since 1937. In October 1942 a test firing of a rocket with a range of 160 miles, designed to carry a ton of high-explosive, had taken place, and in July 1943 Hitler declared it ‘the decisive weapon of the war’ and decreed that ‘whatever labour or materials [the designers] need must be supplied instantly’.

The rocket, designated by the Allies the V-2, was not brought into service until September 1944, and only 2600 were ever fired, against first London (in which they killed 2500 people) and then Antwerp, the Anglo-American armies’ main logistic base during the assault against Germany’s western frontier.75 But the potentiality of the weapon was plain for all to see; word of its development had greatly alarmed the British when first received, by a mysterious disclosure by a German well-wisher to the Allied cause, in November 1939. This ‘Oslo Report’ supplied British technical intelligence research with much of its thrust during the first two years of the war. Simultaneously, however, British scientific intelligence had become even more alarmed by the possibility that Germany might be experimenting with the applicability of atomic energy to military purposes.

Thus far the threat was purely theoretical; no one had yet succeeded in causing a chain-reaction by fission, the process through which atoms yield their explosive power, and the machinery to produce it did not exist. In the United States, however, Albert Einstein sent an intermediary to President Roosevelt on 11 October 1939, to warn of the atomic danger, and the President at once set up a committee, from which would develop the Manhattan Project, to take stock of it.76 Meanwhile the British themselves began to gather the manpower and materials necessary to carry atomic research forward, while seeking to deny them by every means to the Germans. Immediately after Pearl Harbor, the personnel of the British organisation, which bore the cover name of Tube Alloys, was transhipped bodily to the United States to join that of the equally misleadingly named Manhattan Project, and together the teams proceeded, with an urgency fuelled by the fear that Germany might be outstripping them, to uncover the processes by which the theory of fission could be translated into the reality of an ultimate weapon. The outcome of their efforts was not demonstrated until after Germany’s defeat; frantic investigations by teams of Allied experts disclosed that even then the Germans were still far away from the discovery of how to initiate a chain-reaction.

When Winston Churchill was informed of the successful explosion of the first atomic bomb at Alamagordo in the New Mexico desert on 16 July 1945, he uttered prophetic words: ‘What was gunpowder? Trivial. What was electricity? Meaningless. This Atomic Bomb is the Second Coming in Wrath!’77 He was speaking to Henry Stimson, the American Secretary of War, who was already centrally involved in the American government’s debate over whether so terrible a weapon should be used, even to bring the surrender of the Japanese, whose treacherous attack on Pearl Harbor, ferocity in combat, and inhumanity to prisoners and subject peoples had robbed the American people of all sympathy for them. It did not take long to reach a decision: the anticipated million casualties or deaths among the American servicemen then gathering to assault the Japanese home islands turned the trick. As Stimson himself later explained, speaking for most who endorsed President Truman’s order, ‘I felt that to extract a genuine surrender from the Emperor and his military advisers they must be administered a tremendous shock which would carry convincing proof of our power to destroy the Empire.’78 The shock, administered first at Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 and then at Nagasaki three days later, killed 103,000 people. Called on to cease resistance or ‘expect a rain of ruin from the air’, the Japanese emperor broadcast to his people on 15 August the news that the war was at an end.

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