World War II and Total War

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World War II was even more deadly that World War I. More soldiers and civilians were killed than in any war before it. The impact on civilians in particular in terms of death, destruction and displacement also made it more of a total war than that of 1914–18. It was also very different to previous wars in that it was a conflict of rapid movement, with major campaigns taking place not only in Central and Western Europe, but also in the Fear East, North Africa, and the USSR.

The war in Europe[edit]

Blitzkreig – the invasion of Poland (September 1939)[edit]

Summary of Blitzkreig – the invasion of Poland (September 1939)

In the early hours of the 1st of September 1939, Hitler's Panzers (tanks), supported by the Luftwaffe' (air force), smashed over the border into Poland. They rapidly cut through Poland's defences, thus making a path for the advancing infantry. This rapid and devastating method of fighting was known as Blitzkreig or 'lightning war.' Polish resistance was heroic, but ultimately futile. The USSR invaded from the east, as agreed by the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and on the 29th of September, Poland was divided by between the two countries.

The Phoney War[edit]

Summary of The Phoney War

After the defeat of Poland, very little happened in the next five months. Although Britain had declared war on Germany two days after the Polish invasion, it could not get troops to Poland in time to have any effect, and thus only watched as a great power of Eastern Europe fell into the hands of Hitler and Stalin. The Soviet union took over Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and then invaded Finland in what became known as the 'Winter War.'

Meanwhile, the French manned the Maginot Line and waited for the next German move. Chamberlain believed that this period of inactivity would bring Hitler to his knees and that Hitler had in fact 'missed the bus.'

The invasion of Denmark and Norway (April 1940)[edit]

Summary of The invasion of Denmark and Norway (April 1940)

Four days after Chamberlain's misguided comment, Hitler invaded Denmark and Norway. Control of Norway was important for the Germans, due to the need for German access to Swedish iron ore, which was vital to the German armaments industry. The invasions brought about the downfall of Chamberlain in Britain, and on the 10th of May a coalition government was established under Winston Churchill.

The invasion of Holland, Belgium, and France (May−June 1940)[edit]

Summary of The invasion of Holland, Belgium, and France (May−June 1940)

Also on the 10th of May, Hitler launched attacks on Holland and Belgium, and then, skirting around the tip of the Maginot Line, invaded France on the 12th of May. The reason that the Maginot Line defences did not continue along the fronter between France and Belgium was because Marshal Pétain believed that the Ardennes forest further north would be a strong enough barrier to stop Germany attacking from that direction. However, this is exactly where the Germans broke through.

Using Blitzkreig tactics, Hitler's victories were swift, and within six days the Panzers had reached the English Channel. Only Dunkirk remained in British hands, and a third of a million troops were then rescued by the British navy and other private boats owned by fishermen. Although a great opportunity to boost British morale with talk of the 'Dunkirk spirit,' the evacuation was in fact a serious blow for the Allies; they lost a large amount of arms and equipment and had been driven from the European mainland.

The Germans now swept southwards. Paris was captured on the 14th of June and the French government, now led by Pétain, requested Germany's terms for an armistice. The ceasefire agreement was signed at Compiègne on the 21st of June in the same railway coach that had been used for the 1918 Armistice. All of the country except south-eastern France was occupied and demilitarised, thus giving the Germans access to important submarine bases on the Atlantic coast. Unoccupied France was to allow its government under Marshal Pétain, but in reality it had no real independence and actively collaborated with the Germans.

Hitler's Germany had achieved more in two months than the Kaiser's Germany had achieved in the whole of World War I. By the end of June 1940, Germany dominated Western, Central, and Northern Europe. IN addition, Italy had now entered the war as Hitler's ally and the USSR remained 'friends' with Germany in the east, under the terms of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Franco in Spain did not actually join in the war, but remained closely associated with Germany and Italy.

The Battle of Britain (1940)[edit]

Summary of The Battle of Britain (1940)

Britain now stood alone against Germany. On the 18th of June 1940, Churchill correctly forecast the next stage of the war − 'The battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin.' Hitler had in fact hoped for a peace agreement with Britain rather than an invasion. Yet Churchill was totally opposed to any negotiation with Hitler, and went on to inspire the British with his determination and memorable speeches:

"The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free, and the life of the world may move forward into broad sunlit lands; but if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister and perhaps more protracted by the lights of a perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will stay say 'This was their finest hour.'"
—From a speech by Winston Churchill to the House of Commons, 18 June 1940

Hitler remained astonished that Britain should continue to resist. Although an amphibious invasion codenamed Operation Sealion was planned, it was given a low priority, as it was believed that the Luftwaffe would be able to destroy the Royal Air Force. With no air force to oppose it, the Luftwaffe would be able to dominate the Royal Navy in the British Channel, leaving Britain totally exposed to German invasion and so willing to come to the negotiating table.

Thus the Battle of Britain began in July 1940, the Luftwaffe opening their offensive with a concentrated air attack on Britain's airfields in order to gain air supremacy. The Luftwaffe then started bombing London and other major cities in what became known as the 'Blitz,' in an attempt to break British morale and destroy her major industries. When it became clear that Germany was unable to break the RAF or Britain's morale, Hitler postponed the invasion indefinitely; then in 1941 he turned his attention to his main priority, the conquest of the Soviet Union.

There are several reason why Britain was able to survive:

  • The numerical superiority of the Luftwaffe (about 1,200 bombers and 1,000 fighters to the RAF's 900 fighters) was offset by the fact that the German bombers were vulnerable once their shorter-range fighter escorts had turned for home, and they had limited range and a limited bomb load. The German Messerschmitt Bf-109 was an excellent fighter, but also had only enough fuel to stay in the air for about 10−20 minutes over Britain. Against this, the British Spitfires and Hurricanes were excellent fighters and could spend much longer in the air, being over their home airfields.
  • Britain had a revolutionary new warning system − radar. This minimised the impact of the RAF's numerical inferiority as it allowed the RAF to locate the incoming enemy (the radar showed up enemy aircraft when they were about 120km away) and not have to waste aircraft in patrols looking for the German planes.
  • Hitler's switch to bombing the cities instead of concentrating on the RAF airfields was a fatal error. By this changing of targets, the RAF was given time to recovery and to rebuild airbases.

The Battle of Britain was the first time that Hitler had been stopped from achieving his aims. Britain's survival was going to be vital for keeping up the pressure on Germany, and ultimately to providing the launch pad for the allied invasion of Europe in 1944.

The Mediterranean and the Balkans (1940−41)[edit]

Summary of The Mediterranean and the Balkans (1940−41)

The entry of Italy into the conflict in June 1940 spread the war to the Balkans, the Mediterranean and North Africa. In September 1940, Mussolini sent an army from the Italian colony of Libya to Egypt. Another Italian army invaded Greece from Albania in October. Both Italian offensives failed, however. The British pushed the Italians out of Egypt, defeating them at Beda Fomm in Libya. The British then sank half the Italian fleet in harbour at Taranto and occupied Crete. The Greeks forced the Italians back and invaded Albania.

Mussolini's failures brought Hitler into both North Africa and the Balkans. General Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps soldiers were sent to Tripoli, from where the British were drive out of Libya; by June 1942 the Germans had advanced close to El Alamein in Egypt. Meanwhile, in April 1941 Hitler's troops overran Yugoslavia and Greece. Within three weeks, the Greeks had surrendered and in May, Crete was taken after a successful airborne attack. The British evacuated in May 1941.

These campaigns were significant because:

  • They were severe setbacks for the Allies,
  • British troops in North Africa were moved to the fighting in Greece, which weakened the British in North Africa at a time when Britain needed its strength to deal with the threat from Rommel, and
  • In going to assist Mussolini in Greece, Hitler's plan to attack the USSR was delayed by a crucial six weeks, which had an impact on the chances of the German Army reaching Moscow before the harsh Russian winter set in.

Operation Barbarossa (22nd of June 1941)[edit]

Why did the Allies defeat Hitler?[edit]

The weakness of the Axis powers[edit]

Summary of The weakness of the Axis powers
  • Germany did not commit its full military capacity in the invasion of Britain in 1941, Hitler allowed Britain to survive.
  • The invasion of the Soviet Union was to prove a huge mistake; it undid all the gains made by the Nazi-Soviet Pact and once again pushed many into a war on two fronts.
  • Stephan Lee observes the effects of Operation Barbarossa as a commitment made by Germany to a power three times the size of its population. He goes on to indicate that this took the pressure of Britain and greatly assisted the industrial capacity of the war effort.
  • Declaring war on the USA (11th of September 1941), was another error and showed the serious lack of judgement on Hitler's part.
  • Hitler's personal conduct of military operations was disastrous.
  • He focused developing V-rockets when large-scale production of jet aircraft could have restored German air superiority and weakened Allied bombing campaigns between 1944 and 1945.
  • Women were not employed in German and Japanese munition factories.

By not committing Germany's full military capacity to the invasion of Britain in 1941, Hitler allowed Britain to survive. Britain therefore kept the war going in the West, and also the Atlantic and Africa. The British resistance was to cause increasing problem for Germany, especially after 1942, as it had to divert resources away from the war in the East. Britain also acted as the launching pad for the bombing of Germany and Operation Overlord.

The invasion of the Soviet Union was to prove a huge mistake. It undid all the gains made by the Nazi–Soviet Pact and once again pushed Germany into a war on two fronts:

"The effect of Operation Barborossa was to commit Germany to war with a power which was three times her size in population, eighty times as large in area, and of much greater industrial capacity. It is hardly surprising that the major military setbacks experienced by the Wehrmacht occurred in Russia. These in turn, took the pressure off Britain and greatly assisted the latter's peripheral war effort in the Mediterranean and North Africa."
—Stephen Lee, Aspects of European History, 1789–1980, 1991

Declaring war on the USA, which Germany did on the 11th of September 1941, was also a major error, and showed a serious lack of judgment on Hitler's part. He was too dismissive of America's capabilities and believed that the USA would remain in the Pacific fighting the Japanese. However, President Roosevelt made the defeat of Hitler his top priority, and the US and British forces worked together to achieve this task. The USA's entry into the war allowed the Allies to invade Italy, carry out devastating bombing raids on Germany and open up the Second Front in 1944. Meanwhile, Hitler was unable to attack the USA directly and also did not face the same unity with his allies; Mussolini in fact was a constant drain on Hitler's resources.

Hitler's personal conduct of military operations were also disastrous. this can be seen most clearly in the USSR, where he did not prepare for a winter campaign and did not allow the forces at Stalingrad to conduct an orderly retreat or breakout from the Russian trap, with the result that it had to surrender in January 1943. Another serious mistake was to concentrate on producing V-rockets when Germany could have been developing jet aircraft, which might have restored German air superiority and weakened the Allied bombing campaign of 1944 and 1945.

Hitler's mistakes in the conduct of the war ensured that it went on much longer than he had expected. Germany increasingly suffered from material shortages as the war continued, and particularly in rubber, cotton, nickle, and after mid 1944, oil. Although military production continued, and even increased right up until 1945, the emphasis on diversification of weapons (such as working on the V1 and V2 rockets) reduced the effectiveness of its efforts in this area. Women, for example, were not employed in munition factories until late in the war. In addition, the Germany and Japanese military also resented and rejected interference and direction from civilians, which prevented any useful collaboration between civilian and military experts.