Why Did the Axis Lose the Second World War?

‘But all the same,’ Lockhart went on, ‘we are in it, and we are fighting; and even if we don’t consciously give it a melodramatic label like “fighting for democracy” or “putting an end to fascist tyranny”, that’s precisely what we’re doing and that’s the whole meaning of it.’

Nicholas Monsarrat, The Cruel Sea, 19511

With all military histories it is necessary to remember that war is not a matter of maps with red and blue arrows and oblongs, but of weary, thirsty men with sore feet and aching shoulders wondering where they are.

George MacDonald Fraser, Quartered Safe Out Here, 19922

And some there be which have no memorial, who are perished as though they had never been.

Ecclesiasticus 44:9

‘This war’, Hitler told the Reichstag in 1942, ‘is one of those elemental conflicts which usher in a new millennium and which shake the world.’3 He was right, of course. Far from a Thousand-Year Reich, Germany today is a pacific, law-abiding, liberal democracy, as is Italy. Poland and Russia are proud and independent Slavic states. France is restored and plays a leading role in Europe. The Jewish people have not only survived and multiplied, but today have their own democratic nation-state, partly because of the Holocaust. The United States, which Hitler loathed because he thought it ruled by blacks and Jews, is the greatest world power and at the time of writing has a black man at its head. China is a powerful independent state and Japan a neutral, anti-militarist democracy. The British Empire has gone, but its Commonwealth is thriving across the continents. The realization of Hitler’s hopes for a ‘Pan-European Economic Area’ does not conform to his scheme for a giant life-support system for the Aryan race, which never won itsLebensraum after all. Hitler’s war was indeed therefore ‘one of those elemental conflicts which usher in a new millennium’, but it was precisely the opposite kind of millennium to the one he had in mind.

The Second World War lasted for 2,174 days, cost $1.5 trillion and claimed the lives of over 50 million people.4 That represents 23,000 lives lost every day, or more than six people killed every minute, for six long years.5 At the Commonwealth Beach Head Cemetery just north of Anzio in Italy lie some of the men who fell in that campaign, in row after row of perfectly tended graves. The bereaved families were permitted to add personal messages to tombstones, below the bald register of name, rank, number, age, unit, and date of death. Thus the grave of Corporal J. J. Griffin of the Sherwood Foresters, who died aged twenty-seven on 21 March 1944, reads: ‘May the sunshine you missed on life’s highway be found in God’s haven of rest’. Gunner A. W. J. Johnson of the Royal Artillery, who died the following day, has: ‘In loving memory of our dear son. Forever in our thoughts, Mother, Joyce and Dennis’. That of twenty-two-year-old Lance-Corporal R. Gore of the Loyal Regiment, who died on 24 February 1944, reads: ‘Gone but not forgotten by Dad and Mam, brother Herbert and sister Annie’. The gravestone of Private J. R. G. Gains of the Buffs, killed on 31 May 1944 aged thirty, says: ‘Beautiful memories, a darling husband and daddy worthy of Everlasting Love, His wife and Baby Rita’. Even two-thirds of a century later, it is still impossible not to feel fury against Hitler and the Nazis for forcing baby Rita Gains to grow up without her father, Annie and Herbert Gore without their brother, and for taking her nineteen-year-old boy away from Mrs Johnson. If one then multiplies each of those tragedies by 50,000,000, one can begin to try to grasp the sheer extent of the personal side of the composite world-historical global cataclysm that was the Second World War.


On the morning of Saturday, 31 August 1946, the 216th day of the trials at Nuremberg, General Alfred Jodl addressed his judges and posterity. Knowing that his fate was going to be death by hanging, the former OKW Chief of Staff directed his remarks to ‘later historians’ as much as to the President and bench of the International Military Tribunal. Speaking for the German High Command – or ‘the higher military leaders and their assistants’, as he put it – Jodl effectively set out their case, arguing that they had been:

confronted with an insoluble task, namely, to conduct a war which they had not wanted under a Commander-in-Chief whose confidence they did not possess and whom they themselves only trusted within limits; with methods which frequently were in contradiction to their principles of leadership and their traditional, proved opinions; with troops and police forces which did not come under their full command; and with an Intelligence service that was in part working for the enemy. And all this in the complete and clear realization that this war would decide the life and death of our beloved Fatherland. They did not serve the powers of Hell and they did not serve a criminal, but rather their people and their Fatherland.6

To what extent was Jodl right? It was certainly true that few in the High Command wanted war with Britain and France in 1939, although they were happy enough to fight Poland, which led inexorably to it, given the British guarantee to that country of April 1939. It was also true that the generals did not possess Hitler’s confidence, but understandably so considering that some of them tried to kill him on 20 July 1944. The ‘methods’ the German officer corps permitted to be used against civilian populations, especially on the Eastern Front, were far worse than Jodl’s weasel words implied, and those officers were almost universally deeply implicated in monstrous abuses of every canon of the rules of war, written and unwritten. Jodl’s explanation that the partisans ‘used every – yes, every – single means of violence’, and that the Allies ensured that ‘hundreds of thousands of women and children were annihilated by layers of bombs’ cannot excuse the Axis methods of warfare. Every German general knew that the war in the east was to be one of extermination rather than a conventional military engagement; the oral and in some cases written orders, and indeed the very notion of Lebensraum, brooked no alternative explanation.

Jodl was also right that the fragmented nature of authority in the Nazi state – with the SS and other state institutions in particular being kept deliberately separate from the Wehrmacht – could be operationally frustrating for the generals. It was also true that Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of the Abwehr, thought Hitler a ‘madman’ and had been in communication with the Allies towards the end of the war, although his organization did not systematically aid the enemy, as Jodl alleged.7 If Jodl had known the true story of why Allied intelligence so regularly outwitted the OKW – owing to the Ultra information gained from decrypting the Enigma codes – he would undoubtedly have added another line of defence for the High Command. Ultimately, however, Jodl’s excuses do not convince: the German generals did indeed serve ‘the powers of Hell’ and ‘a criminal’, as well as the Volk and Fatherland.

The reasons why so many outwardly dignified professional officers served the Nazis so efficiently and seemingly enthusiastically were many and complicated. Their fathers and grandfathers had shot French francs-tireurs without mercy in the Franco-Prussian War and had ill-treated Belgian and French civilians in the Great War, so the supposedly noble Prussian military tradition was always something of a myth. The oath they swore to Hitler personally could not excuse them. Their motives included natural ambition, criminal complicity, genuine patriotism, lack of an alternative, professional pride, an understandable desire to protect their loved ones from Bolshevik vengeance, a desperate hope for unexpected victory, Nazi faith in many cases, but probably above all simple loyalty to their men and brother officers.

Yet the German generals who argued with, stood up to or even disobeyed Hitler were not particularly ill-treated, unless of course they had been involved in the Bomb Plot. They were dismissed, reassigned or retired for a few months, but they did not face the ultimate sanction, as anyone who displeased Stalin certainly did. On 21 February 1945 Albert Speer wrote to Otto Thierack, the Nazi Minister for Justice, saying that he wanted to testify as a character witness for General Friedrich Fromm, who had ‘maintained a passive stance’ towards the Bomb Plot and not warned the authorities about it.8 It is inconceivable that anyone other than a would-be suicide would do such a thing in Soviet Russia. (It did no good: Fromm was executed by firing squad in March 1945.) Just as no one was shot for refusing to execute a Jew, so German generals put only their jobs, rather than their lives, on the line when they crossed Hitler on a point of military principle. Very often they were brought back from enforced retirement to serve again, as happened to Rundstedt three times. They might therefore have been ‘only obeying orders’, but they were not doing so out of a well-founded fear for their lives.

Of course there was a good deal of bluster at the Nuremberg Trials, with defendants distancing themselves from Hitler and Nazism. A man is not required to be truthful when pleading for his life. Walther Funk claimed actively to have opposed scorched-earth policies; Ribbentrop cited his work for Anglo-German amity and said that he had told Hitler that POWs ‘should be treated according to the Geneva Convention’; Göring said, ‘I was never anti-Semitic. Anti-Semitism played no part in my life,’ ‘I helped a great many Jews who appealed to me for help,’ and claimed that he ‘had no knowledge of the atrocities committed against Jews and the brutalities in concentration camps’; camp commandant Rudolf Höss said, ‘I thought I was doing the right thing, I was obeying orders, and now, I see that it was unnecessary and wrong. But… I didn’t personally murder anybody. I was just the director of the extermination programme in Auschwitz. It was Hitler who ordered it through Himmler and it was Eichmann who gave me the order regarding transports’; Sepp Dietrich even claimed that, with regard to POWs captured on the Eastern Front, ‘We didn’t shoot Russians’; Alfred Rosenberg, the Reich Minister of the Eastern Occupied Territories, somewhat bizarrely wanted the Agrarian Reform Act of February 1942 to be taken into consideration at his trial, for the way it had eased the lot of farm workers; Albert Speer tried to argue that ‘the activities of the defendant as an architect were of a nonpolitical nature’ (despite his being from 1942 also minister for armaments and war); Erhard Milch complained about the lack of a free press in Nazi Germany, stating that he had ‘never approved’ of National Socialism; Ernst Kaltenbrunner proudly announced, ‘I never killed anyone,’ which in his case was strictly speaking true, but entirely beside the point; Wilhelm Keitel declared, ‘I was never really close to the Führer,’ with whom he lived cheek-by-jowl and saw almost every day for six years; Karl Dönitz apparently ‘knew nothing about the plans for an offensive war’ even in the U-boat arm he commanded; Goebbels’ radio director Hans Fritzsche stated, ‘I got to know, in 1923–25, men like Mussolini and Hitler and kept at a distance from them’; Paul von Kleist even came out with the classic line, ‘I can only say that some of my best friends were Jews’; Julius Streicher could hardly claim that, but he did believe that his proposal that the Jews be sent to Madagascar should operate in his favour; Hjalmar Schacht spoke of ‘my activities against Hitler after I had recognized his bad intentions’, despite having remained a Nazi minister until 1943; Artur Seyss-Inquart, who had been responsible for mass deportations, summary executions and the shooting of hostages in Poland, claimed he had ‘tried everything to prevent violations against the provisions of international law’, and ingeniously tried to argue that ‘The starting of a war without a declaration of war also still does not make this into a war of aggression.’9

Nuremberg testimony therefore needs to be treated with extreme caution, especially such claims as that of Dönitz’s that National Socialism probably ‘would have collapsed soon after a German victory’.10 It was perhaps inevitable that the survivors should have blamed everything upon Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler, Bormann, Heydrich and Ley, who were conveniently all dead by the start of the trials. Admittedly some of the Nazis, such as Julius Streicher, who pronounced that Jesus Christ was ‘born of a mother who was a Jewish whore’, conformed precisely to type.11 Mainly, however, they argued vehemently that they had known nothing about the Holocaust, would have resigned if they had known that Hitler planned war, but could not do so after it had broken out, for moral and patriotic reasons. Yet for all their lies and claims to have stood up constantly to Hitler – as we have seen, Kleist even claimed to have outshouted him regularly at meetings – the fact remains that virtually no one resigned a position of power unforced, even when the war was clearly going to be lost.

Just as the Nuremberg defendants attempted to place total blame on the dead Führer for all the crimes of the Nazi state, so a slew of books written by the German generals in the 1950s and 1960s attempted to attribute the military defeat solely to him and his closest acolytes Keitel and Jodl. The phrase Lost Victories was even used by Manstein for his autobiography, a book that has – along with Guderian’s memoirs Panzer Leader – rightly been condemned as ‘arrogant’ and ‘self-serving’.12 The general thrust of this historical and autobiographical genre was succinctly summed up in the letter written in 1965 by General Günther Blumentritt, who had been purged from the General Staff in September 1944, despite not having been involved in the Bomb Plot:

Hitler was militarily speaking no genius. He was a dilettante, interested in small details, and he wanted to hold everything, stubborn, dour, ‘hold everything to the last’. He had no doubt also good military ideas. Sometimes even he was right! However he was after all a layman and acted following his feeling or intuition, not his reason. He did not know what was realistically possible and what was impossible.13

Stalin once described Hitler to Harry Hopkins as ‘a very able man’, but this was something that the German generals denied in a large body of literature that was published after the war.14 It has been suggested that the criticisms of Hitler’s strategy made by Franz Halder and Walter Warlimont stemmed from ‘the professional jealousy of a successful amateur’, and that the generals’ memoirs, taken together, constitute ‘the alibi of the incompetent corporal meddling in military matters he did not understand and preventing them from winning the war’.15

Although the German generals spoke much of their duty and honour after the war, in the event only a small number of them made one attempt to destroy Hitler with a 2-pound bomb, otherwise the vast majority served him with remarkable loyalty. Even Count von Stauffenberg’s plot seems to have been more concerned with getting rid of a useless strategist than a bold attempt to introduce democracy, equality and peace to Germany. Individually, the generals had good reason to carry on fighting to the end: Manstein ordered the massacres of civilians, Jews and POWs; Rundstedt sat on the Court of Honour; Guderian accepted cash payments and an attractive Polish estate from Hitler, and so on. The German people nicknamed Nazi Party functionaries ‘golden pheasants’, but none were more heavily gilded than the Wehrmacht generals. ‘Nor could they plead ignorance about what was involved,’ points out David Ceserani in relation to their refusal to apply the Geneva Convention on the Eastern Front and elsewhere, because Hitler ‘regularly briefed his party followers, ministers and military men about his racial goals. Occasionally some demurred… but most cooperated. By 1939, thanks to Hitler’s successes, his popularity and his style of rule, there were no alternative centres of power capable of stopping him or willing to try.’16

The German generals were for the most part corrupt, morally debased, opportunistic and far removed from the unideological knights of chivalry that they liked to portray themselves as. To eavesdrop on their private conversations when they thought no one was listening, read their exchanges at Trent Park at the beginning of Chapter 16. However, that did not mean that they were necessarily wrong when they complained about the incessant interference from a military amateur, aided and abetted by Keitel and Jodl. Although they were arrogant, self-serving and often untruthful about the extent of their adulation of Hitler while things were going well, their overall analysis is not wholly incorrect. For it is impossible to divorce Axis strategy from the centrality of Adolf Hitler: of the 650 major legislative orders issued during the war, all but seventy-two were decrees or orders issued in his name or over his signature.17

While the knowledge that one is going to be hanged in a fortnight is said to concentrate a man’s mind wonderfully, the dawning certainty that it was going to happen at some unspecific point in the future certainly helped to derange that of Adolf Hitler. It would have had that effect on almost anybody, and can hardly be held against him. Yet it should not be for the unhinged dispositions of his troops in the last ten months of his life that the Führer should be principally arraigned, so much as for the disastrous decisions he took when he was (relatively speaking) rational. These were so heinous that he should have committed suicide out of sheer embarrassment over his myriad errors, rather than out of fear of being humiliated by the Russians before his execution.

The war ought not to have started in 1939 at all, but at least three or four years later, which is what he had originally promised the leaders of the Wehrmacht, Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine. If he had started the war with the same number of U-boats with which he ended it – 463 – rather than the twenty-six operational ones he had in 1939, Germany might have stood a chance of asphyxiating Britain, especially if every effort had been bent towards developing the Walther U-boats (propelled by hydrogen peroxide and armed with homing torpedoes) and the Schnorchel as early as possible.

If Luftwaffe factories had been diversified away from major industrial areas, and protected underground, or if there had been large-scale early manufacture of the jet-engine Messerschmitt Me-262, which was capable of knocking American Mustangs out of the skies over Germany, then the air war might have gone differently. By October 1944 the Me-262 jet was finally deployed as a fighter. It was not to change the course of the war, as it was too unwieldy on take-off and landing and too high in fuel consumption, but these teething troubles might have been dealt with had not the Führer insisted on developing it as a bomber for far too long, against the advice of General Galland. The defeat of the Allied bombing campaign by Me-262s would have released a major part of the Luftwaffe’s fighter force back into combat in the east, whereas 70 per cent of it was on protection patrol in the west.

In November 1939 Hitler halted the V-rocket development programme at Peenemünde, believing that the victory in Poland had shown it to be unnecessary. It was not reactivated until September 1941, and received priority status only in July 1943, after Speer had warned him that six more raids like those on Hamburg would mean defeat for the Reich. (He refused to visit Hamburg or even to receive a delegation from the city.) The rocket programme should either have been continued or not have been reactivated at all, as it took up a huge amount of resources for a weapon that came on stream too late to make any great difference.

In May 1940 Hitler should have supported those generals who wanted to overrule Rundstedt’s Halt Order outside Dunkirk, thereby capturing the BEF en masse and preventing it escaping from the Continent. The military maxim ascribed to Frederick the Great,L’audace, l’audace, toujours l’audace, certainly applied to Hitler’s career from the Beerhall Putsch of 1923 until the defeat at Stalingrad twenty years later. He was a gambler, taking ever greater gambles throughout his career; yet at the meeting with Rundstedt in the Maison Blairon caution overtook him, with ultimately disastrous results. After Göring had failed to destroy the BEF at Dunkirk in 1940, as he had promised he would, he should have been moved to a less vital post. Instead, he was allowed to continue in command of as important an arm as the Luftwaffe. He then failed to stop the bombing of Berlin in 1940 as he publicly promised he would, and then again failed to resupply Stalingrad from the air in anything like the quantities necessary. Since the Reichsmarschall was unquestioningly loyal to Hitler until almost the very end, his fidelity as a Nazi mattered more to the Führer than his competence as an air commander. Furthermore, after Rudolf Hess’s flight to Scotland, to lose one deputy Führer might be considered unfortunate, but to lose two might look like carelessness. Hitler regularly kept proven incompetents in place – such as the chief of Luftwaffe intelligence, Colonel ‘Beppo’ Schmid, whose ludicrously over-optimistic reports of RAF strength helped lose the battle of Britain – if they told him what he wanted to hear.

Hitler learnt the wrong lessons from the Russians’ Winter War against Finland, assuming that the Red Army was weak, rather than that defenders in atrocious weather in a country of lakes, forests and bad roads can be strong. In his invasion of Russia, despite the glaring example of Finland, he failed to make proper winter provision for his troops. Nor does the explanation most often made for this – that he thought the campaign would be over in four months – convince: four months from 22 June is 22 October, when the season of mud has already passed into the season of snow. In April 1941 he delayed the invasion of Russia by six weeks by invading the comparatively unimportant Yugoslavia, where the pro-Allied Government threatened his prestige but posed no appreciable threat to his southern front. Even in that hugely successful campaign – Yugoslavia fell faster than France had, and Greece and Crete soon followed – Hitler learnt the wrong lesson about airborne assault. Because Karl Student’s paratroop attack on Crete had been relatively costly at over 4,000 casualties among the 22,000 dropped on the island, Hitler told their commander: ‘The day of parachute troops is over.’18 Because the raids on Saint-Nazaire and Dieppe had not included airborne forces he persuaded himself that the Allies were not developing them, and he failed to use them himself against Malta, Gibraltar, Cyprus or Suez as Student repeatedly urged. Instead paratroopers were used as elite infantry units, and Hitler was surprised when on D-Day an arm first used to great effect by the Axis proved to have been perfected by the Allies.

In June 1941 Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, his cardinal error of the war. Considering that Rommel took Tobruk and got to within 60 miles of Alexandria by October 1942 with the twelve-division Afrika Korps, a fraction of the force that was thrown against Russia could have swept the British from Egypt, Palestine, Iran and Iraq long beforehand. Taking Cairo would have opened up four glittering prospects, namely the capture with relative ease of the almost undefended oilfields of Iran and Iraq, the expulsion of the Royal Navy from its major base in the Mediterranean at Alexandria, the closing of the Suez Canal to Allied shipping, and the prospect of attacking India from the north-west just as Japan threatened her from the north-east. Stationed in the Middle East, the Germans would have cut Britain off from her oil supplies, and posed a threat against British India from the west, but also against the Soviet Union and the Caucasus from the south. Even if Britain had fought on, from metropolitan United Kingdom, Canada and India, importing her oil from the United States, any British threat to Germany’s southern flank would have been over.

Hitler could then have undertaken his invasion of Russia in his own time with Army Group South moving only a few hundred miles from Iraq to Astrakhan, rather than more than 1,000 miles as it had to in 1941 and 1942. Considering how much Stalin decried the idea that Hitler would ever attack him in 1941 – despite the eighty intelligence reports from dozens of unrelated sources from all over the world that Barbarossa was impending, some of which furnished the precise date – there is no real reason to suppose that the USSR would have been on any better war footing in the summer of 1942, or 1943, than she was in 1941. Army Group South should have taken the Caucasus from the south rather than the west. Marching between the Black and the Caspian Seas, a German invasion of the Caucasus and southern Russia would have cut the USSR off from the main part of her non-Siberian oil supply, and, as Frederick von Mellenthin noted in the context of El Alamein, a motorized division without fuel is mere scrap iron.

It was incredibly fortunate for the Allies that the Axis never co-ordinated their war efforts, and even failed to exchange information on basic equipment such as anti-tank weapons. The Japanese Foreign Minister Yosuke Matsuoka resigned in July 1941 because he wanted to attack Russia from the east at the same time that Hitler unleashed Operation Barbarossa on her from the west. By the time that Stalingrad fell and Hitler desperately needed such an attack, the Japanese were on the retreat from the point which they had reached the previous spring, when they had controlled 20 million square miles of the earth’s surface. Close military co-ordination between Berlin, Rome and Tokyo should have ensured that the Japanese attacked not the Americans but rather the Russians as soon as Germany was ready. The oil Japan desperately needed for her war machine could have been taken from Siberia rather than the Dutch East Indies. Yet Hitler showed absolutely no interest in allowing Japan to take part in Barbarossa, and her leaders did not even inform him of the impending attack on Pearl Harbor, any more than Mussolini warned Hitler of his attack on Greece, or Hitler told Mussolini of his invasion of Yugoslavia.

Similarly, Hitler should have studiously ignored all provocations from Franklin Roosevelt, especially in the Atlantic, in the knowledge that the President did not have the political power to declare war against a Germany that was professing friendship and sympathy towards the United States. In the absence of a declaration of war against America after Pearl Harbor, something Hitler was under no treaty obligation to furnish – as though he cared about treaty obligations anyhow – it would have been well-nigh impossible for Roosevelt to have committed the United States to invading North Africa in 1942. Instead the Führer unnecessarily declared war on the uninvadable United States, giving Roosevelt the excuse for the Germany First policy. It was the second greatest error of his life, and came within six months of the first. Yet it hardly excited any opposition from the German generals, let alone the admirals who positively looked forward to this suicidal move. Instead, Hitler ought to have dissolved the Tripartite Pact, which had hitherto done so little for him, after Pearl Harbor, and dismissed Ribbentrop whose ludicrous misreading of America’s capabilities and intentions are detailed in Chapter 6. With Britain effectively neutralized, if not knocked out of the war altogether, and America fully committed in the Pacific fighting Japan, only then should Operation Barbarossa have been put into effect, with Germany fighting on one front rather than the traditionally suicidal two.

The Nazis’ contempt for all Slavs meant that they were incapable of following the obvious beneficial course of action during Barbarossa. Putting Lebensraum and ethnic cleansing to the bottom of the agenda – to be pursued only after victory – the Germans ought to have striven to make allies of the Greater Russian subject peoples against their Bolshevik oppressors, allowing Ukraine, Belorussia, the Baltic States, the Crimea, the Caucasian republics and elsewhere the widest possible degrees of autonomy consistent with German hegemony in Europe, not unlike that enjoyed by Vichy France. The deliberate mass-starvation policies adopted by Moscow towards Ukraine in the 1920s and 1930s left a legacy of hatred towards the Soviet central Government, and it was clear from their initial welcoming of the Wehrmacht in 1941 that many nationalists would have enthusiastically seized the opportunity of limited independence within the Reich.

A single supreme commander on the Eastern Front from the very start – with Erich von Manstein easily the best choice, but several others possible – would have done far better than Hitler did when he replaced Walther von Brauchitsch with himself in December 1941. The Führer thereafter listened to senior generals less and less. (He even acknowledged this to his secretary, Christa Schroeder: she recalled asking him whether she could rephrase a sentence he had dictated, and ‘he looked at me, neither angry nor offended, and said: “You are the only person I allow to correct me!” ’) 19 Instead he used their perceived failures to add to the preferential resourcing of the Waffen-SS which led to deprivations for Wehrmacht units. Instead of constant changes in policy and personnel, a single strategic brain that was advised and encouraged by Hitler, but was not Hitler, might have settled on a single campaign push that would surely have ignored the Kiev operation which diverted too much of the armour of Army Group Centre southwards in August 1941, thereby taking the marginal Ukrainian capital instead of the all-important Russian one.

Once it was clear that the Russians not only were not going to collapse but were actively counter-attacking, from Zhukov’s 6 December 1941 offensive onwards, Hitler began to issue the ‘Stand or die’ orders that substituted his own willpower – or at least his soldiers’ willingness to die for him – for genuine strategy. ‘It is the common soldier’s blood’, went the eighteenth-century saying, ‘that makes the general a great man.’ Some, such as Wilhelm Keitel and Alan Clark, have argued that these orders made good military sense in bad weather conditions when retreats could be conducted only at 3 or 4mph and heavy equipment could not be saved. On occasion that might have been correct, but soon Hitler proved himself psychologically incapable of ever giving up any ground once won. This betrayed a First World War trenches mentality from a corporal who had never attended Staff college, combined with the fear of an ideologue who believed that it showed lack of willpower, as well as the fury of the professional gambler who is faced with indisputable proof that after a twenty-year winning streak his luck had finally turned.

Instead of seeing retreat as a geographical and strategic concept that, as Frederick von Mellenthin pointed out in Chapter 10, often opened up useful opportunities for counter-attack, Hitler saw it entirely in propaganda and morale – that is, political – terms, as symptomatic of defeat, and thus of being proved wrong dialectically. Ever the revolutionary, Hitler equated withdrawal from a military position as equivalent to backing off from a political one, something his pride and need for both prestige and momentum could not allow. He could not bear even tactically justifiable retreats, seeing them as an affront to the spirit of eternal advance on which he had built his political movement. With his ‘Stand or die’ orders, as Norman Stone puts it, ‘Hitler hit the same note on the piano with increasing shrillness and persistence from the start to the gruesome finish.’20 This attitude was all the more reprehensible in view of the fact that if anything the Wehrmacht was sometimes even better at counter-attacking than at attacking – as shown by Rommel at the Kasserine Pass, Manstein taking Kharkov after Stalingrad, Vietinghoff at Anzio, Senger at Cassino, Model in Belorussia and Manteuffel almost reaching the Meuse during the Ardennes offensive.

In naval matters, Hitler managed to drive the best German strategist since Tirpitz, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, out of the Kriegsmarine. In February 1942, he was so convinced that the Allies were about to attack Norway that he threatened Raeder that if Prinz Eugen, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau did not escape from Brest he would remove their guns for coastal artillery. There was no credible Allied threat to Norway, and although the capital ships did make a successful dash down the Channel they were no longer of any great use, and certainly not as the Atlantic raiders that they always could have been when operating out of Brest. Hitler admitted to being ‘a coward at sea’, but never allowed Raeder to be a lion, and by the time Dönitz took over the Navy it had been chased out of the all-important Atlantic ports.

In his Memorial Day Address of 15 March 1942, Hitler promised listeners that the Red Army would be destroyed by the summer of 1942, another brazen, soon-to-be-broken promise. For from 13 July, when he redirected Army Group B to Stalingrad, there began a series of absurd changes in disposition – especially regarding the Fourth Panzer Army as documented in Chapter 10 – which were the stuff of any planner’s nightmares. The cumulative effect of these changes of mind and of direction was fatally to slow the momentum towards Stalingrad, which was never worth the amount of men flung into it anyway, and probably would not have had its talismanic power for either dictator had it not been for its unfortunate change of name from Tsaritsyn in 1925.

Of course Hitler’s true crises with the generals only began once events had very definitely taken a negative turn, in September 1942, just after the battle of Stalingrad had begun. The German generals were as guilty as their Führer of fetishizing that struggle, thereby destroying the opportunity for a controlled withdrawal which was the Sixth Army’s only hope. On 24 September 1942, as we saw in Chapter 10, Hitler dismissed General Franz Halder for criticizing his personal involvement in the Eastern Front, and replaced him with the more subservient General Kurt Zeitzler. He then sacked Field Marshal Wilhelm List and took personal command of Army Group B, without the precaution of leaving the Wolfschanze and actually visiting the army group’s headquarters himself. For a dictator whose word was law, it would always be difficult to get objective advice, but to sack those who did give it was yet another blunder. With Keitel and Jodl in their key posts at OKW, the last thing the Führer needed in late 1942 was any more sycophancy.

Having received Rommel’s news, during El Alamein, that his tanks could not prevent a breakthrough by Montgomery, Hitler issued another ‘Stand or die’ order, which was largely disregarded by Rommel – who doubted the Führer’s sanity when he received it – but which nonetheless reveals the mentality of Hitler, whose regard for human life was reflected in the Nazi ideology that whereas the nation was all, the individual – barring the Führer himself – was worthless. The entire battle of Stalingrad was fought on that basis.

Hitler’s disagreements with the generals – particularly Manstein – over the withdrawal of the Seventeenth Army from the Kerch Straits bridgehead in late 1942 and early 1943 reflected a deeper dichotomy over future strategy. Hitler wanted to leave the force in place so that the Caucasus could be recaptured when the tide of fortune turned; the generals had written off the oil-rich region, wanting to use the saved Seventeenth Army to plug the growing gaps in the Ukrainian front. If the Caucasus had not fallen in 1941 or 1942, it was hardly likely to in 1943, yet to recapture the Kerch peninsula would be very costly. Similarly Hitler wanted to leave large German and Romanian forces in the Crimea rather than evacuate them while there was still time, in the hope that the land connection with them could be re-established even after it was cut off by the Red Army.

Hitler’s strategic arguments were not unsound – the Crimea would be used to bomb the Romanian oilfields, Turkey might join the Allies if she fell – but this was not a case of Hitler’s optimism versus the generals’ realism.21 Instead it sprang from a completely different Weltanschauung. Hitler felt that every risk must be taken to win the war, because losing it meant certain death for him, whereas a structured withdrawal leading to ultimate defeat signalled only lengthy prison terms for his generals, even those directly connected with war crimes, like Manstein. They were thus playing for drastically different stakes. (In the event, despite the long official sentences they received, Kesselring served only five years, Manstein and List four, Guderian, Blumentritt and Milch three and Zeitzler eighteen months.)

Very often, of course, the policy choices were not clear cut between Hitler on one side and his generals on the other, but were debated between the generals on both sides of the argument with Hitler deciding. Even though Hitler very often came down on the wrong side, he was rarely ever reminded of this. In September 1942, after Jodl had recalled the Führer’s error with regard to the width of front given to List in the Caucasus, he was temporarily snubbed. Hitler avoided Jodl’s company at mealtimes, ‘refused ostentatiously to shake hands’ and gave orders that he be replaced, though this did not happen. ‘A dictator, as a matter of psychological necessity, must never be reminded of his own errors,’ Jodl concluded to Warlimont, ‘in order to keep up his self-confidence, the ultimate source of his dictatorial force.’22 Since Hitler was also the ultimate – indeed sole – source of their prestige and power, it was not in Keitel’s or Jodl’s interests to undermine that self-confidence, and it does not seem to have happened again. As a result the Führer never learnt from his mistakes, and so continued to make much the same ones for two and a half years after Stalingrad. This would have been inconceivable in the Western Alliance, where Generals Brooke and Marshall felt under no obligation to refrain from pointing out earlier errors made by Churchill and Roosevelt, and vice versa.

Between March and July 1943, Hitler delayed the Operation Zitadelle attack on Kursk for a hundred days, partly because of Speer’s promises that the new Panther tanks would be coming on line in large numbers by then. The complete loss of surprise, formerly the Germans’ best weapon in the days of Blitzkrieg, was disastrous. The Russians knew where and roughly when they would attack, and prepared accordingly.

Although Hitler can hardly be blamed for sleeping through the D-Day landings, Rundstedt’s defence of Normandy in June 1944 was badly hampered by him. Indeed he could hardly have helped the Allies better had he been working for them. The compromise he effected between Rundstedt’s desire to deploy inland and Rommel’s to fight on the beaches created the worst of both worlds, by muddying the response and separating the commands disastrously. Even in mid-July Hitler was still convinced that the main Allied attack was to be expected at the Pas de Calais, and refused to allow his powerful forces there to be transferred southwards. He therefore completely fell for both the Norwegian and the Calais parts of the Allied deception plans, Operations Fortitude North and South.

On 17 June 1944, at a meeting with Rommel and Rundstedt, Hitler blamed his troops in France for weakness and cowardice, refused to allow withdrawals and announced that secret weapons would win the war instead. Yet he had also spent the war undermining the secret-weapon programmes, by ordering the jet-aircraft programme to concentrate on producing bombers rather than fighters, and by stop-starting the V-1 and V-2 weapons programmes.

Hitler’s continual merry-go-round of sackings and reinstatements of senior generals was bewildering for the High Command and demoralizing for the troops, who could only conclude that they were being badly led by their generals, which was not generally the case. The sacking of Manstein, instead of giving him complete control of the Eastern Front, was a significant blunder. Yet even subservience could not protect some commanders: on 28 June 1944 Hitler sacked Field Marshal Ernst Busch as commander of Army Group Centre, replacing him with Model. A week later he replaced Rundstedt with Field Marshal von Kluge, who was convalescing after a car crash. Then on 10 July he refused Model assistance from Army Group North to strengthen his attempts to keep the Russians out of the Baltic, and on 5 September he reappointed Rundstedt as commander-in-chief west, only a few weeks after his replacement by Kluge. Some field marshals commanded all three army groups in Russia in the course of a few months; for a man who prided himself on his ‘unalterable will’, Hitler changed his mind all the time.

The 20 July Plot made Hitler understandably wary about the loyalty of his generals, but also made him unwarrantably certain of his own destiny and indestructibility, a disastrous combination. By Christmas Day 1944, despite the Ardennes offensive having recaptured 400 square miles, it was clear that Antwerp would not fall and that the attack could not move much further. In yet another ‘Stand or die’ order, Hitler insisted that there would be an Alsace offensive in the New Year, which never materialized. By refusing Model the possibility of retreating from the area around Houffalize, the German Army was once again left powerless to reconstitute itself further to the east. By the end of the offensive, the US First Army had crossed into the Fatherland itself, east of St Vith.

March 1945 saw Hitler sack Rundstedt as commander-in-chief west yet again, after the US III Corps had succeeded in crossing the Ludendorff Bridge over the Rhine at Remagen. He then visited the Eastern Front on 12 March, at Castle Freienwalde on the River Oder, where he told his commanders that ‘Each day and each hour is precious,’ because he was about to unleash a new secret weapon, without disclosing its nature.23 This was because he had run out of them – the last V-2 landed a fortnight later – unless he meant the new U-boats that were still far from seaworthy. (It was probably just another morale-boosting lie.) By that time he had indeed decided to unleash a new secret weapon, on the German people themselves for betraying him by losing the war, because on 19 March he ordered the destruction of all factories and food stores on all fronts, a policy that was thankfully ignored by Albert Speer and all but the most fanatical Nazis. Nine days later Hitler again dismissed perhaps the best of his battlefield commanders, Heinz Guderian, and replaced him with the utterly undistinguished General Hans Krebs. Charlie Chaplin’s Great Dictator could hardly have done better than that. Towards the end of the war fanatical Nazi generals such as Krebs, Schörner and Rendulic were promoted, not so much for their military competence as for their ideological loyalty.

If Hitler had not been a National Socialist he would probably not have unleashed the Second World War, but equally he might possibly have won it. There was nothing inevitable about the Allies’ victory in the conflict of 1939–45, for as John Stuart Mill observed in On Liberty: ‘It is a piece of idle sentimentality that truth, merely as truth, has any inherent power denied to error of prevailing against the dungeon and the stake.’ Many of his worst strategic blunders were the result of his ideological convictions rather than military necessity. As Kleist told Liddell Hart after the war, ‘Under the Nazis we tended to reverse Clausewitz’s dictum, and to regard peace as a continuation of war.’ It is not difficult to construct a narrative of the Second World War in which a Chiefs of Staff committee of German generals did not make the blunders Hitler did, and it makes somewhat chilling reading.

Of course it is easy today to fight the Second World War with 20/20 hindsight, ridiculing Hitler for errors that at the time might have seemed – especially in the absence of critical advice – like the best options available. He did not have all the intelligence and information we do; he was not privy to the enemy’s thinking as we are. But even Stalin allowed himself to be persuaded in the Stavka, so long as it did not look as if he was being overruled. A Chiefs of Staff committee over which Hitler and Göring had little influence, but which drew on the collective talents of generals such as Manstein, Halder, Brauchitsch, Rundstedt, Rommel, Guderian, Student, Senger, Vietinghoff, Bock and Kesselring, should have directed Germany’s strategy after 1939, and Raeder and Dönitz her naval strategy, with Hitler concentrating on visiting the fronts, the wounded and bomb-sites, threatening neutrals, making morale-boosting speeches and doing everything in his diplomatic power to prevent the United States from declaring war.

It is impossible to say whether the German generals would have made the same or perhaps some quite different but no less disastrous errors. Perhaps the subjugation of 193 million Russians by 79 million Germans was simply a mathematical impossibility, and so Germany could never have won the war under any circumstances. If Hitler had taken a junior role after Barbarossa, it is likely that all that would have happened would have been that the war would have gone on even longer and claimed yet more lives. Hitler’s defeat was intimately tied up in the political nature of Hitlerism, in particular his refusal to retreat, his belief in the power of his unfettered will and his constant upping of the stakes, which had worked well for him in Weimar domestic politics in the 1920s and in his international brinksmanship in the 1930s. Boldness, unpredictability and Blitzkrieg had served him superbly until late 1941, but were not enough, especially once his blunders ensured that his willpower came up against Allied air power and Russian armoured power. ‘Allied air power was the greatest single reason for the German defeat,’ claimed Albert Kesselring, with Blumentritt and others agreeing.24 They were wrong, of course, as Russian ground-based power in fact tolled the death knell of Nazism. But together these two factors found the limits of how far fanaticism and Blitzkrieg could get a nation. And the answer, as we saw in Chapter 10, was the windy cornfields outside the village of Prokhorovka. But no further.

Of course, having declared war against the United States in December 1941 Hitler had no hope of winning the war anyway, because a nuclear bomb was being successfully developed in New Mexico, and Germany was far from achieving one. With the United States effectively uninvadable, however long the war took the side which possessed atomic weaponry first would perforce win, and that was always going to be the Allies. Had D-Day failed, as it easily might have, the horrific prospect beckoned of the Allies being forced to win the war in Europe the same way as they ultimately had to in Japan, with German cities being obliterated as fast as new bombs could be produced, until the Nazis – or their successors – eventually surrendered.

In the two areas where pure intellect had an appreciable influence on the outcome of the war, the cracking of codes at Bletchley Park and in the Far East and the creation of a nuclear bomb at Los Alamos, the Allies won the battle of the brains. ‘It is comforting to be reassured’, as John Keegan has put it, ‘that our lot were cleverer than the other lot.’25

In December 1941, Germany, with her population of 79 million, Japan (73 million), Italy (45 million), Romania (13.6 million) and Hungary (9.1 million), faced the combined onslaught of the USSR (193 million), USA (132 million), Great Britain (48 million), Canada (11.5 million), South Africa (10.5 million), Australia (7.1 million) and New Zealand (1.6 million). These figures do not count India and China, which both made very significant contributions to the Allied victory, or the French, who did not.26 After Italy had changed sides in 1943, that left roughly 175 million Axis facing 449 million Allies, or two and a half times their numbers. With the Allies also controlling two-thirds of the global deposits and production of iron, steel, oil and coal from 1941 onwards, victory should have been assured. Yet it was not until May 1945 that Germany bowed to her conquerors, and it took two nuclear bombs to force the Japanese into the same posture three months later. The sheer, bloody-minded determination of both Axis nations was one reason for the length of time they were able to hold out against the Allies, but the high quality of their troops, especially the Germans, was the other. The statistics are unequivocal: up until the end of 1944, on a man-for-man basis, the Germans inflicted between 20 and 50 per cent higher casualties on the British and Americans than they suffered, and far higher than that on the Russians, under almost all military conditions.27 Although they lost because of their Führer’s domination of grand strategy as well as the sheer size of the populations and economies ranged against them, it is indisputable that the Germans were the best fighting men of the Second World War for all but the last few months of the struggle, when they suffered a massive dearth of equipment, petrol, reinforcements and air cover.

The problem with invading Russia was always going to be as much logistical as military. In the early stages of Barbarossa, the Germans defeated the Russians virtually wherever they engaged them, almost regardless of the numbers involved. Yet the problem of bringing up infantry fast enough behind the Panzer spearheads, especially with the 1941 muddy season coming in the autumn, was daunting. A two-season war, on the other hand, in which Leningrad and Moscow were captured in 1942, risked facing full Russian mobilization, of ultimately 500 divisions. The bold thrust against Moscow – the political, logistical and communications hub of European Russia – was thus still the best option for Hitler. If an entire Panzer group had gone around behind (that is, to the east of) Moscow in September 1941, the city just might have fallen, although of course it would have been defended street by street as Stalingrad was and Leningrad very nearly had to be. The key difference was that the Russians were able constantly to resupply Stalingrad across the Volga, which would not have been the case had Guderian and Hoth encircled Moscow.

As well as its dire implications for Russian morale, the fall of Moscow would have hampered the Soviets’ ability to concentrate their reserves and to supply other cities in the region. Distance, transportation (plagued by partisans), logistics, mud and snow, and the marshalling – if with monstrous wastage – of overwhelming Russian manpower were the reasons why the Germans failed, yet had Fedor von Bock been allowed to continue Army Group Centre’s advance on Moscow with his full force in early August 1941 even these might have been overcome. There was always the chance of a political collapse, especially had Stalin been forced to flee Moscow on the special train he had made ready for himself on 16 October 1941, to seek safety beyond the Urals. Beria privately suggested the move at the time, but did not propose it at the Stavka. In the absence of a Japanese invasion from the east, Hitler would probably have offered a post-Stalin regime peace terms that allowed it to rule everywhere east of the Urals, a far harsher version of the peace of Brest-Litovsk which the Bolsheviks signed with the Kaiser in 1918. In reality, of course, the Russians’ ability – despite losing around half their heavy industry – to churn out vast numbers of T-34 tanks and mobilize almost 25 million troops, which were better led and equipped by the month, was decisive, especially considering that 70 per cent of the Luftwaffe had to be detailed to deal with the RAF and USAAF Combined Bomber Offensive from the west.

If different counsels had prevailed at Führer-conferences, such as Brauchitsch’s at Dunkirk, Galland’s during the battle of Britain, Manstein’s at Stalingrad, Rommel’s before El Alamein, Guderian’s before Kursk and any number of other generals’ on any number of other occasions, the Reich would have been in a better position to prosecute the war. But Hitler could not have left soldiering to the soldiers. A Führer had to be a superman, equal to any calling, and for such a spectacular know-all as Hitler – with views on everything, a love of military history and an impressive recall of military facts – the prospect of taking a back seat in a world war, like Kings George VI and Victor Emmanuel III, was an emotional and psychological impossibility. Fortunately, Nazi philosophy contained within it, once translated on to the military plane, the seeds of its own destruction. An expansionist nationalist German without a Nazi worldview – another Bismarck, say, or a Moltke – would probably not have defeated the USSR either, but he would have made the war go on even longer and claim even more lives.

Of course, in considering many of the errors made by Hitler, it is important to remember that there were usually generals, and not just Keitel and Jodl, who fully supported him, and provided telling arguments for him. There was no simple nexus of Hitler versus the High Command that post-war soldier–authors such as Manstein, Guderian and Blumentritt all too often posed. There was no German general who was always right, any more than the Führer was always wrong, and the campaigns that defeated Poland, Norway, France, Yugoslavia, Greece and Crete were all pored over and approved by Hitler, after all. (Apart from their timing in the greater scheme of conquest, all those campaigns were very successful.) It is also worth recalling that no general opposed the concept of Operation Barbarossa, about which Halder and Brauchitsch accepted the over-optimistic intelligence assessments as much as everyone else, and that Führer Directive No. 21 – ‘The armed forces of Germany must be prepared, even before the conclusion of the war with England, to defeat Soviet Russia in one rapid campaign’ – set out a two-front war as early as 18 December 1940, a full six months before the blow fell. Similarly, Manstein was initially in favour of Paulus trying to hold out in Stalingrad, Kluge opposed the central thrust on Moscow, and Bock generally supported Hitler’s strategy in Russia. The fact that they rarely spoke up simply shows that when dealing with Hitler the generals, for all their Iron Crosses and Knight’s Crosses, were generally as cowardly as so many others in Nazi Germany. They were also aspirational professionals who knew that gainsaying the Führer was not a good way to secure promotion.

Of course the fact that the German generals often despised each other does not mean they could not have fought a more rational war than they did under Hitler, given a chief of staff more respected – or less lickspittle – than Wilhelm Keitel. As with any army, ambition played a part, as did sheer personality clashes. The personal antipathies described before the battle of Kursk between Zeitzler, Manstein, Kluge and Guderian – the last two having to be dissuaded from fighting a duel – were just one example of a phenomenon that was to dog the German High Command. The generals cannot be seen as a unified voice, and just as Zhukov, Konev and Rokossovsky were rivals, as more obviously were Patton, Montgomery and Bradley, so the dismissal of one German general was usually seen by the rest as an opportunity.

As Alan Clark pointed out, ‘There is no evidence that Hitler ever changed his mind on questions of strategy either at the persuasion of his intimates in the Party or the senior officers of the Army.’28 If Hitler and certain generals agreed on something it was almost always because they agreed with him rather than vice versa. With the war effectively lost after Kursk, it was indeed fortunate that Hitler listened to so few of his good generals, and tended to dismiss the very best of them, otherwise the war could have dragged on into 1946 or later. Churchill’s dismissive remarks about the military genius and ‘master hand’ of Corporal Hitler were therefore entirely justified. By contrast, the Western Allies fought the war substantially by committee, with the American Joint Chiefs of Staff and the British Chiefs of Staff Committee creating grand strategy in conjunction with input from the politicians. This system produced fierce rows between politicians and Staff officers, and between Britons and Americans, but the traditions of gentlemanly interaction, open debate (within the obvious security parameters), freedom from fear, and an assumption that the synthesis of views was more likely to produce better results meant that the tensions that undoubtedly arose were generally creative ones.29 Even in the Stavka, where none of those assumptions applied, Stalin permitted a reasonable degree of free discussion on military affairs, so long as it did not stray into the political sphere, which was exclusively his. The catastrophe of 1941 undoubtedly sobered him, and showed him that men like Zhukov, Konev and Rokossovsky should be heeded if Russia was to survive. Hitler, meanwhile, put his own omniscience before the need to pay attention to his advisers, however high the stakes.

The strengths of the three main Allied nations were very different, but they each contributed something vitally necessary for overall victory. Without all three in the mix, that victory might not have arrived until much later in the 1940s, if at all. Britain, by refusing Hitler’s peace overtures in 1940, winning the battle of Britain, cracking the Enigma code, keeping open the sea-lanes during the battle of the Atlantic, bombing German industry enough to blunt Speer’s economic miracle and providing an unsinkable aircraft carrier (a giant version of Midway or Malta) from which the liberation of western Europe could be effected after D-Day, forced Germany into a two-front war, even if the western one was to be found along the shores of the Mediterranean for much of the war, rather than in the Low Countries. The British Army had a less happy war than the Royal Navy and the RAF, especially in the early stages, with bad tactics during the fall of France and Malaya, bad strategy during the Greek and Cretan débâcles, bad equipment in the early North African campaigns, bad intelligence at Dieppe and Arnhem, and bad weather in Italy. It only really hit its stride – ably supported by excellent Commonwealth contingents – at the battle of El Alamein, which, as well as being the British Empire’s first major land victory over Germans of the war, was also its last. From D-Day onwards in Europe, and certainly in Slim’s campaigns in Burma in 1944–5, the British Army did well, but by then its troops had been fighting for five years. It is hard not to escape Sir Alan Brooke’s conclusion that the brightest and the best British soldiers had been killed in the First World War (although that fails to explain why the Germans were so good in the Second). In all, the United Kingdom lost 379,762 military killed and 571,822 military wounded in the war, with around 65,000 civilians killed.30 ‘For every American who died, the Japanese lost 6 people, the Germans 11, and the Russians 92.’ The figures for every Briton killed are four Japanese, seven Germans and sixty Russians.31 Far from being a cause of embarrassment, of course, it should be a cause of congratulation to Roosevelt, Churchill, Marshall and Brooke that they ended the war with such little (relatively speaking) carnage among their countrymen.

It was the Russians who provided the oceans of blood necessary to defeat Germany, and it cannot be reiterated enough that out of every five Germans killed in combat – that is, on the battlefield rather than in aerial bombing or through other means – four died on the Eastern Front. It is the central statistic of the Second World War. The full cost to the Russians amounted to the truly obscene figure of around twenty-seven million dead soldiers and civilians, though it needs to be borne in mind that much of the responsibility for the catastrophe lay with Stalin himself. If he had not signed the Nazi–Soviet Pact; if he had not trusted Hitler so totally; if he had not wiped out much of the Red Army officer corps in the purges of 1937–8; if he had not gone to war with Finland; if he had not sent his troops so far forward after his hyena-like pounce on eastern Poland; if he had not refused to allow strategic withdrawals after Barbarossa: the list of his blunders is long and galling and led to the deaths of millions. Moreover, although the Russians bled the most by far, if one is to take a broader-based criterion of war effort, which includes the war at sea and the air war over Germany, the western Allies’ contribution meant that the Reich was unable to concentrate as much as 60 per cent of its total armaments against the Russians, even in the make-or-break months of late 1941.32

It is true the American contribution was made not primarily in blood – 292,100 military dead, 571,822 wounded, and negligible numbers of civilian casualties – but in the production and distribution of armaments, the overall financing of the conflict, the size of forces mobilized and the successful campaigns fought, often in places that American strategists did not want to be. The US spent $350 billion on the war, even more than Germany and as much as the USSR and Britain combined. She also mobilized 14.9 million Americans, more than Germany’s 12.9 million and twice Japan’s 7.4 million. She bore the lion’s share of the war in the Pacific and provided two-thirds of the forces at Overlord and the subsequent fighting in the west. The Eighth Army Air Force bombed Germany relentlessly, while the US provided many of the boots, trucks and armaments with which the Russians held back and eventually prevailed over the Germans. Much as nationalist historians like to present their own countries as central to victory, thereby belittling the contribution made by the others, the Second World War was a genuine team effort which required the full exertions of all three major partners for victory, each in their different but complementary ways.

In April 1943 Churchill ordered the War Cabinet to ‘popularise’ the phrase ‘British Commonwealth and Empire’, an inversion of the hitherto commonly used ‘British Empire and Commonwealth’ but a move which at least retained the word ‘empire’.33 Yet whereas Churchill was fighting for an empire in which by 1945 very many senior British decision-makers besides himself no longer believed, and Stalin for an equally doomed system, before deliberately initiating a Cold War that his country was eventually to lose, Roosevelt fought for a future which actually came to pass, that of United States ‘soft’ hegemony, with military bases around the world, generally unfettered access to global markets, and a Pax Americana that has lasted to the present day. When Churchill told the V-E Day crowds in London ‘This is your victory!’ and they roared back ‘No, it’s yours!’ they would both be proved wrong: in fact it turned out to be the recently deceased President Roosevelt’s.

The world was fortunate that it had men of the calibre of Roosevelt and Churchill, and even Stalin, for all his blunders, when it was threatened by Adolf Hitler. If Germany had managed to maintain all it had occupied by the summer of 1941, and had not invaded Russia, she would have had as large a population as the United States – even if, for the first generation at least, only around 60 per cent of them spoke German as their first language. Harnessing this vast population of hard-working, well-educated Europeans to the ambitions of the Reich, Hitler could have built the world’s most formidable superpower. It was fortunate for mankind that he was too impatient and too convinced a Nazi – Operation Barbarossa stemmed primarily from ideological rather than military imperatives – to put in the years of hard work necessary to consolidate his 1940 windfall. In personal terms, although Hitler was easily able to bully and swindle fearful and naive men such as Schuschnigg, Hácha, Chamberlain and Daladier, when he came up against men of the calibre of Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin he found he had more than met his match.

Allied grand strategy was forced on the three major players by circumstance as much as by choice. The Russians simply had to survive as best they could at the start of the war, and only after the German reverses at Stalingrad in January 1943 and Kursk that July could they start to impose their will upon the battlefield, which they eventually did with great vigour, especially in their annus mirabilis of 1944. The destruction of Army Group Centre during the Bagration offensive in the summer of that year was as decisive as anything seen in the history of warfare, and utterly dwarfed the contemporaneous Operation Overlord. Advances on the Eastern Front were still costly, however, for even by 1945 there – unlike in the west – the Germans always inflicted more losses on their opponents than they suffered themselves.

Similarly, there was no real choice for the Americans even after Japan unleashed war on them on 7 December 1941 and then Hitler declared it four days later. They theoretically could have pursued a Pacific First policy, but General George C. Marshall rightly considered that while it would be relatively easy to defeat Japan after a German surrender, the opposite was not necessarily the case. Similarly the strategy whereby American forces first engaged German forces in North Africa, then Sicily, then Italy before finally squaring up to them in north-western France was effectively forced on the Joint Chiefs of Staff by the British, who vetoed any recrossing of the Channel before 1 May 1944, which for operational reasons had to be further postponed to 6 June. The clashes between the British and the American policy-makers over the timing of Operation Overlord were titanic, but both sides knew that without British consent the Normandy landings could not have been undertaken any earlier.

Nor should they have been. After the Germans introduced an extra rotor to the Enigma machine in February 1942, the Allied navies were plunged into the dark over Kriegsmarine movements in the battle of the Atlantic for almost a year. No landings in north-west Europe could be attempted with supply lanes at the mercy of the U-boat fleet. That battle was not won until May 1943, by which time a quarter of a million Germans had surrendered in Tunisia and plans were well under way for the invasion of Sicily. Marshall might have complained about being led ‘down the garden path’ by Brooke and Churchill, but at the Casablanca Conference of January 1943 there was no possibility of crossing the Channel in any significant numbers that year, as he had to acknowledge, and the war could not be simply suspended until enough men had been assembled in southern England for Overlord. Sicily followed Africa logically, just as Italy followed Sicily. What were not necessary were the long and costly campaigns north of Rome once Overlord had taken place, let alone the superfluous attack on the South of France in mid-August 1944.

Without complete air superiority and massive aerial bombardment, next to impossible to achieve before the Mustang fighter came on stream in sufficient numbers in early 1944, Normandy might have been a disaster. It also needed a great deal of work done on the Mulberry Harbours and Pipeline Under The Ocean (PLUTO), which was not finished until 1944 either. The intelligence deception operations Fortitudes North and South needed to mature, which they did triumphantly that year. Above all, the Wehrmacht needed to be bled white in Russia, which was also not the case before 1944. (And no invasion was possible once the Channel weather became unpredictable in mid-September.) A defeat in the west, with the Allies being flung back into the sea – which could even have happened on 6 June 1944 with prompter Panzer action by a unified German command – might have set back the liberation of Europe, at least from the west, by years. Had the Allies not liberated western Europe in the mid-1940s, the same form of Soviet totalitarian tyranny would have been installed there as oppressed the people of eastern Europe until 1989.

The Allied armies furthermore needed to be bloodied in a series of victories before they could possibly meet the main body of the Wehrmacht in open battle, as opposed to the under-resourced Afrika Korps which had nonetheless managed to do so well at Tobruk, the Kasserine Pass and elsewhere. A supreme effort such as the Ardennes offensive, conducted against green Allied troops in 1942 or 1943, might well have succeeded, especially with the fuel and air cover available to the Germans in those years. Until quite late on in the war, therefore, the Allies had their essentially reactive grand strategies imposed on them by Hitler’s force majeure, always responding to the Führer’s iron whim. It is therefore not by chance that this book has tended to concentrate on his thoughts, his actions and his regular, colossal blunders.

Hitler’s anti-Semitism, culminating in the Holocaust, was central to his Nazism but it did nothing to aid Germany’s chances of winning the war, and possibly a great deal to retard them. The Reich devoted a great amount of effort, especially in terms of transportation, in its effort to render Europe Judenfrei. Quite apart from the sheer moral issue involved, which obviously had no bearing on Hitler, the Holocaust was a military mistake, tying up railway stock and (admittedly relatively few) SS troops, but above all denuding Germany of millions of potentially productive workers and potential soldiers. German Jews who had fought bravely for the Kaiser – Hitler’s own Iron Cross First Class had come because his Jewish regimental adjutant petitioned GHQ hard for it – were not only not called up for the Volkssturm, they were gassed. Between 1939 and 1944 the German labour force shrank from thirty-nine million to twenty-nine million people, a disastrous 26 per cent fall at a time when a massive increase in production was vital for victory.34 When production was being badly hampered by a lack of intelligent, educated, hard-working people, Hitler massacred some six million Europeans Jews, an action that would be self-evidently self-defeating, except in the diseased mind of a Nazi fanatic. Similarly, for ideological reasons the Wehrmacht did not recruit women, while the Red Army called up between 1 million and 1.5 million of them, with the only difference in women’s benefits being that they received 100 grams more soap than the men.

For all the military defeats on the European Continent to both the east and west by 1945, there was one thing that could still have won Hitler a stalemate, or even the war. In June 1942, the German physicist Werner Heisenberg reported to Hitler that an amount of uranium ‘no larger than a pineapple’ would be enough to destroy a city.35 Yet the Jewish and German émigré scientists who had the knowledge and genius necessary to split the atom were by then working in New Mexico, rather than for Heisenberg in the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Dahlem. Hitler’s Nazism had also lost him that last, albeit always slim, chance of victory. It was said of Emperor Napoleon III that his name was both his making and his undoing. Similarly, Hitler won his revolution because of his drive, willpower, impulsiveness, philosophy and policies, which seemed – however wrongly – to offer Germany hope in the 1930s. Yet it was precisely these same phenomena that led to his destruction the following decade.

On the evening of 4 February 1942 Adolf Hitler was entertaining Heinrich Himmler at the Berghof when the conversation got round to Shakespeare. It was probably Hamlet and King Lear to which the Führer was referring when he said that it was a:

misfortune that none of our great writers took his subject from German Imperial history. Our Schiller found nothing better to do than to glorify a Swiss crossbowman! The English, for their part, had a Shakespeare, but the history of his country has supplied Shakespeare, as far as heroes are concerned, only with imbeciles and madmen.36

Analyses of Hitler’s defeat have tended to portray him as a strategic imbecile – ‘Corporal Hitler’ – or otherwise as a madman, but these explanations are clearly not enough. The real reason why Hitler lost the Second World War was exactly the same one that caused him to unleash it in the first place: he was a Nazi.

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