There is little doubt that World War II was the greatest conflict in modern history and one that continues to impact our world to this day. It is a conflict filled with “what ifs…”.
What if Germany or Japan had won the war? What if Germany had developed an atomic bomb? What if the Invasion of Normandy had failed? What if B had happened instead of A? The world today could have looked very different.
The fact that things turned out the way they did was the result of a number of factors – both positive and negative. What’s perhaps most important in understanding why one side won and the other lost is in recognising that victory was not determined so much by who won the most battles -
Tactical blunders, missed opportunities, bad judgement and just plain bad luck by both sides was instrumental in the final result. Here are ten blunders that were instrumental in either lengthening the war or where they managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
While this ended in a victory for the Americans, many consider it an unnecessary operation that may have extended the war by months. After being kicked out of the Philippines two years earlier, General Douglas McArthur was keen to get back. He convinced American President Franklin D. Roosevelt that he may lose re-
The fact is that by 1944 the Japanese air and naval presence on the island had been largely nullified, and it was too far from Japan to use as a base from which to launch raids on the Japanese mainland. There was little reason to invade the place, other than that’s what Douglas McArthur wanted. And what McArthur wanted, he usually got.
The time spent securing the island and the resources used in doing so delayed the invasion of Okinawa and probably extended the war by a few months. But at least it gave McArthur a perfect photo opportunity to wade ashore at Leyte Gulf and proclaim that he had returned.
The liberation of the Philippines commenced with amphibious landings on the eastern Philippine island of Leyte on October 20, 1944. United States and Philippine Commonwealth military forces were progressing in liberating territory and islands when the Japanese forces in the Philippines were ordered to surrender by Tokyo on August 15, 1945, after the dropping of the atomic bombs on mainland Japan and the Soviet invasion of Manchuria.
The campaign cost the Americans more than 79,000 dead and wounded. They also lost 485 aircraft, had 33 ships sunk, and another 95 ships damaged. Japanese loses were even higher.
TOLD YOU I’D BE BACK: General McArthur wades ashore on his return to the Philippines.
One thing you’ve got to say about Adolf Hitler was that he sure didn’t learn from his mistakes. Only six months after the débâcle at Stalingrad, Hitler decides that once again it’s time to go on the offensive. He launches Unternehmen Zitadelle (Operation Citadel) on 5 July 1943. The operation has the objective of pinching off the Kursk salient with attacks on the base of the salient from north and south simultaneously.
The Germans were suffering at a huge disadvantage in terms of numbers. They had 80,900 men, 2,928 tanks, and 9,966 guns and mortars. The Germans also delayed the offensive while they tried to build up their forces and wait for new weapons. They were relying on the new Panther tank and larger number of the Tiger I heavy tank.
The problem was that the Russian had been aware months in advance that the German attack would fall on the neck of the Kursk salient. This gave the Red Army time to construct a series of deep defensive positions. These included minefields, fortifications, artillery fire zones and anti-
Many German generals argued strongly against the operation, saying that the attack was pointless.
On 10 May 1943, General Heinz Guderian asked Hitler, “Is it really necessary to attack Kursk, and indeed in the east this year at all? Do you think anyone even knows where Kursk is? The entire world doesn’t care if we capture Kursk or not. What is the reason that is forcing us to attack this year on Kursk, or even more, on the Eastern Front?”
Although Hitler did have reservations, he was committed to the offensive.
The German offensive stalled on the northern side of the salient. While the Russian lines bent, they did not break. On 12 July the Soviets launched Operation Kutuzov against the rear of the German forces on the northern side of the salient.
On the southern side the Soviets launched a counter-
As if this was not enough, on the night of 9/10 July 1943 the Allies launched Operation Husky – the invasion of Sicily. Hitler was forced to divert troops training in France to meet the Allied threats in the Mediterranean, rather than use them as a strategic reserve for the Eastern Front. Hitler then cancelled the offensive at Kursk after only a week, in part to divert forces to Italy, resulting in a reduction of German strength on the Eastern Front.
During Operation Citadel the Germans suffered 54,182 casualties. Between 250 and 300 tanks and assault guns were destroyed, and between 600 and 1,600 were damaged. They also lost 159 aircraft and 500 guns. During the Battle of Kursk another 50,000 men were killed or missing, and 134,000 were wounded. They also lost about 760 tanks and assault guns and 681 aircraft.
Russian casualties were even higher. Operation Citadel cost them 177,847 casualties. Between 1,614 and 1,956 tanks and assault guns were destroyed, and between 459 and 1,000 aircraft. At the Battle of Kursk 254,470 men were killed, missing or captured. 608,833 were wounded or became seriously ill. 6,064 tanks and assault guns were destroyed, and between 1,626 and 1,961 aircraft. The Russians also lost 5,244 guns.
While the Russians could absorb the losses, the Germans could not.
Kursk was the final strategic offensive that the Germans were able to launch on the Eastern Front. From there the retreat that would finally end in Berlin began.
BASTION: While the Maginot Line was formidable, it wasn’t much good when attacked from the rear.
When the Allies launched the Invasion of Italy at the end of 1943, they became bogged down at the Gustav Line. This German defensive line stretched across Italy south of the strategic objective of Rome. The terrain was ideally suited to defence, something that German commander Field Marshal Albert Kesselring took full advantage of.
It was none other than British Prime Minister Winston Churchill who conceived Operation Shingle. The plan was to land two divisions at Anzio, north of the Gustav Line and only 62,4 km from Rome. Not only would the Allies be able to take Rome, they would also cut off the German defenders to the south.
The landing at Anzio on 22 January 1944 took the Germans totally by surprise. Not only was there no opposition, an American Jeep patrol drove as far as the outskirts of Rome without any hindrance. It was a golden opportunity for the Allies, except for one small problem -
General Lucas, of the American Army, was in command of the operation. From the start he had little confidence in the operation as planned. He failed to take advantage of the element of surprise and he ordered his men to dig in and wait until he judged his position was sufficiently consolidated and he had sufficient strength.
While Lucas waited on the beach, Kesselring moved every unit he could spare into a defensive ring around the beachhead. His artillery units had a clear view of every Allied position. After a month of heavy but inconclusive fighting, Lucas was relieved and sent home. His replacement was Major General Lucian K. Truscott.
It was only in May 1944 that the Allies were finally able to break out of the Anzio beachhead. Rome was eventually captured on June 4, 1944.
What if someone like General George S. Paton had been in command of Operation Shingle? It is unlikely that he would have sat kicking his heels on the beach at Anzio. Especially if he knew the road to Rome was open. The Germans would probably have been forced back to the Austrian border far early than they eventually were. It could have saved thousands of Allied and Axis lives.
There must have been times when Italy’s Benito Mussolini imagined that he was a modern day Caesar. There is no doubt that he wanted to expand his empire. In the later part of 1940 he decided to invade Greece through Albania, as well as invading Egypt from his colony in Libya.
His army was large, but rather inept. Not surprisingly he had his head handed to him by the Greek and British forces in the Balkans and by the British Allied forces in Egypt. Hitler was forced to send in the German army to save his hapless ally.
Not only did Hitler have to pull valuable resources away from other fronts, it also delayed the start of Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of Russia. Chances are that if Italy had followed the lead of Spain’s General Franco and remained neutral, German may have won the war.
BOMBS AWAY: German bombers over London during the Blitz in 1940.
After World War I, the French were very wary of the Germans -
Named the Maginot Line, after French Minister of War André Maginot, it was constructed on the French side of its borders with Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and Luxembourg. The Maginot Line was everything that the French claimed. It was impervious to most forms of attack, including aerial bombings and tank fire, and had underground railways as a backup; it also had state-
There was, however, one small flaw with the Maginot Line. It did not extend all the way to the English Channel. This was, believe it or not, part of the French plan. They envisioned a move into Belgium to counter a German assault. It was something that did not go unnoticed by the Germans.
When the Germans did launch their attack on France, it was not against the Maginot Line. Instead of going straight at it, they went around it, bypassing the line to the north through the Low Countries. This was something that French and British officers had anticipated when Germany invaded the Netherlands and Belgium. They carried out plans to form and aggressive front line that cut across Belgium and connected to the Maginot Line.
The French line was weak near the Ardennes forest. The French believed that this region, with its rough terrain and thick forests, would be an unlikely invasion route for the Germans. After all, there was no ways that armour would be able to negotiate the forests. It seems as if the Germans didn’t get the memo.
Once the Germans became aware of this weak point in the French defensive front, it was quickly exploited. A rapid advance through the forest and across the River Meuse encircled much of the Allied forces, resulting in a sizeable force being evacuated at Dunkirk leaving the forces to the south unable to mount an effective resistance to the German invasion of France.
Once the Germans were behind the Maginot Line, it was game over for the French. All of the defences faced forward. What they had failed to accomplish in four years during World War I, the Germans managed to do in six weeks from 10 May 1940 – they had conquered France.
PANZER MARCH: German tanks roll into Russia at the start of Operation Barbarossa.
“What General Weygand called the battle of France is over. I expect that the battle of Britain is about to begin.” These were the opening lines of a speech made by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to the House of Commons on 18 June 1940.
France had surrendered and only Britain stood between Hitler and total victory in Europe. There was one slight problem, however. He would first have to cross the English Channel to get at Britain. To this end the Germans planned Unternehmen Seelöw (Operation Sea Lion), an amphibious invasion of England. Hitler hoped the British government would seek a peace agreement and he reluctantly considered invasion only as a last resort if all other options failed. As a precondition, he specified the achievement of both air and naval superiority over the English Channel and the proposed landing sites.
In July 1940 the air and sea blockade began, with the Luftwaffe mainly targeting coastal-
Britain had a secret weapon – radar. A chain of radar stations meant that the British could detect German aircraft while they were still forming up over France. They could track the height and direction of German fighter and bomber formations. They could then scramble the nearest British fighters to intercept them.
After 12 days the Luftwaffe shifted their attacks to RAF airfields and infrastructure. The Germans were bombing the airfields quicker than the British could repair them. And it was working. RAF leader Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding was unsure of how much longer the RAF could last.
Then, on 24 August1940, Luftwaffe planes had bombed London. This was probably by mistake or simply because they were unloading their bombs randomly in order to escape fighters. Churchill ordered the first deliberate bombing of the German capital in retaliation.
At 00h20 on 26 August 1940, Berlin was bombed by the RAF. Head of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Göring, was furious. Only days before he declared, “If one enemy bomb falls on Berlin, you can call me Meyer.” And if Göring was furious, Hitler was even more so.
He ordered retaliation against London and Göring was more than happy to oblige. The Luftwaffe turned their attention from RAF infrastructure to London. It would become known as ‘The Blitz’.
It was a huge mistake on Hitler’s part. It gave the RAF a breather during which they could repair their airfields and service and repair their aircraft. By 31 October 1940 the Battle of Britain was over. The Germans had failed to gain air superiority and Hitler first postponed and the later cancelled Operation Sea Lion.
TORA, TORA, TORA: The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour brought America into World War II.
It was the philosopher, essayist, poet and novelist George Santayana that said, “Those who do not remember their past are condemned to repeat their mistakes. Those who do not read history are doomed to repeat it. Those who fail to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors are destined to repeat them. Those who do not know history’s mistakes are doomed to repeat them.”
When Adolf Hitler decided to invade the Soviet Union in 1941, it appears that Santayana wasn’t on Herr Hitler’s reading list. It was only slightly more than a century earlier, in 1812 to be exact, when Napoleon launched his Campagne de Russie and sent his Grande Armée across the Neman River to invade Russia. As history tells us, Napoleon was not successful.
Military doctrine also tells us that it is not a good idea to fight a war on two fronts. By failing to defeat the British before he invaded Russia, Hitler had done exactly that – started a war on two fronts. Yet Hitler was convinced that Unternehmen Barbarossa (Operation Barbarossa), his invasion of Russia, would succeed. “We only have to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down,” he was quoted as saying.
The Russian military was in a mess. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin had begun his ‘Great Purge’ in the late 1930s when much of the officer corps of the Red Army was decimated and their replacements, appointed by Stalin for political reasons and most of them lacked military competence.
Of the five Marshals of the Soviet Union appointed in 1935, only Kliment Voroshilov and Semyon Budyonny survived Stalin’s purge. Tukhachevsky was killed in 1937. Fifteen of 16 army commanders, 50 of the 57 corps commanders, 154 of the 186 divisional commanders, and 401 of 456 colonels were killed, and many other officers were dismissed. In total, about 30,000 Red Army personnel were executed.
Stalin further underscored his control by reasserting the role of political commissars at the divisional level and below to oversee the political loyalty of the army to the regime. The commissars held a position equal to that of the commander of the unit they were overseeing.
Initially Operation Barbarossa was a success. German forces achieved major victories and occupied some of the most important economic areas of the Soviet Union, mainly in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and inflicted, as well as sustained, heavy casualties. Despite these Axis successes, the German offensive stalled in the Battle of Moscow and the subsequent Soviet winter counteroffensive pushed German troops back. The Germans were not prepared for the early Soviet winter.
The Red Army absorbed the Wehrmacht’s strongest blows and forced the unprepared Germans into a war of attrition. The Wehrmacht would never again mount a simultaneous offensive along the entire strategic Soviet–Axis front. The failure of the operation drove Hitler to demand further operations of increasingly limited scope inside the Soviet Union, such as Case Blue in 1942 and Operation Citadel in 1943 – all of which eventually failed.
OPERATION DYNAMO: The Royal Navy was able to evacuate more than 300,000 British and French troops off the beaches at Dunkirk.
The coded message contained just three words, “Niitaka yama nobore” (Climb Mount Niitaka). The events that would follow would change the course of World War II.
It was a message sent from Admiral Yamamoto to Vice Admiral Nagumo on 2 December 1941. It ordered him to open a top secret envelope that told him that the Japanese Empire had decided to go to war with the United States, Britain and Holland.
On 26 November 1941, a Japanese task force that included six aircraft carriers -
At 07h48 on 7 December 1941 the US Naval Base at Pearl Harbour came under attack by 353 Imperial Japanese aircraft in two waves. The aircraft included fighters, level bombers, dive bombers, and torpedo bombers, launched from six aircraft carriers.
They sent a signal back, “Tora, tora, tora” (Tiger, tiger, tiger), the code to indicate that the attack had achieved total surprise. Japanese losses were light: 29 aircraft and five midget submarines lost, and 64 servicemen killed. One Japanese sailor, Kazuo Sakamaki, was captured.
All eight US Navy battleships were damaged, with four sunk. All but the USS Arizona were later raised, and six were returned to service and went on to fight in the war. The Japanese also sank or damaged three cruisers, three destroyers, an anti-
While the Japanese attack had achieved surprise and caused considerable damage, they had missed their main target – the American aircraft carriers. The USS Lexington was on its way to Midway Island. The USS Enterprise was scheduled to be in Pearl Harbour on 6 December on her way back from Wake Island, but was delayed by bad weather. The USS Saratoga was in San Diego.
The biggest mistake the Japanese made at Pearl Harbour was that they didn’t attack the important base installations. The power station, dry docks, shipyard maintenance, fuel and torpedo storage facilities, submarine pens and headquarters building, which also housed the intelligence section, were not attacked. Had they been attacked and damaged or destroyed, the Americans would have been denied Pearl Harbour as a base.
The following day US President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared war on Japan and proclaimed 7 December 1941 “a day which will live in infamy.” On 11 December 1941 Germany and Italy declared war on America.
GAME OVER: A German survivor of the 6th Army is taken prisoner by the Russian.
By 26 May 1940, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and the French 1st Army were bottled up in a corridor to the sea, about 97 km deep and 24–40 km wide. Most of the British forces were still around Lille, over 64 km from Dunkirk, with the French further south. Two massive German armies flanked them. General Fedor von Bock’s Army Group B was to the east, and General Gerd von Rundstedt’s Army Group A to the west.
The Germans confidently believed that the Allied troops were doomed. BEF commander General Lord Gort tended to agree with the Germans. Writing to Secretary of State for War, Anthony Eden, he said, “I must not conceal from you that a great part of the BEF and its equipment will inevitably be lost in the best of circumstances”.
On 26 May Eden told Gort that he might need to “fight back to the west”, and ordered him to prepare plans for the evacuation, but without telling the French or the Belgians. Gort was already one step ahead. He had foreseen the order and preliminary plans were already in hand. The first such plan, for a defence along the Lys Canal, could not be carried out because of German advances on 26 May, with the 2nd and 50th Divisions pinned down, and the 1st, 5th and 48th Divisions under heavy attack.
The 2nd Division took heavy casualties trying to keep a corridor open, being reduced to brigade strength, but they succeeded; the 1st, 3rd, 4th and 42nd Divisions escaped along the corridor that day, as did about one-
Then, in one of the most debated decisions of the war, the Germans halted their advance on Dunkirk. Contrary to popular belief, what became known as the “Halt Order” did not originate with Adolf Hitler. Generalobersten (Colonel-
Hitler did not rescind the Halt Order until the evening of 26 May. The three days thus gained gave a vital breathing space to the Royal Navy to arrange the evacuation of the British and Allied troops. About 338,000 men were rescued in about 11 days. Of these some 215,000 were British and 123,000 were French, of whom 102,250 escaped in British ships.
The War Office made the decision to evacuate British forces on 25 May. In the nine days from 27 May–4 June, 338,226 men escaped, including 139,997 French, Polish, and Belgian troops, together with a small number of Dutch soldiers, aboard 861 vessels (of which 243 were sunk during the operation that was code named Operation Dynamo).
The docks at Dunkirk were too badly damaged to be used, but the East and West Moles (sea walls protecting the harbour entrance) were intact. Captain William Tennant—in charge of the evacuation—decided to use the beaches and the East Mole to land the ships. This highly successful idea hugely increased the number of troops that could be embarked each day and on 31 May, over 68,000 men were embarked.
The last of the British Army left on 3 June, and at 10:50, Tennant signalled Commander-
Luftwaffe commander Hermann Göring asked for the chance to destroy the forces in Dunkirk. The Allied forces’ destruction was thus initially assigned to the air force while the German infantry organised in Army Group B. Von Rundstedt later called this “one of the great turning points of the war.”
By not finishing off the BEF at Dunkirk and allowing more than 300,00 men to escape, the Germans had made a costly mistake. If those men had not been available it is doubtful that the British would have been able to defend Egypt the following year. If the Germans had taken Egypt and the valuable oil field of the Middle East, the final outcome of the war could have been very different.
ROOM BY ROOM: The Battle of Stalingrad featured fierce house-
This was the battle that ultimately cost Germany the war. The battle took place from 23 August 1942 to 2 February 1943 at a city on the banks of the Volga River in Southern Russia. The city was named Stalingrad, after Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Marked by fierce close quarters combat and direct assaults on civilians in air raids, it is often regarded as the single largest (nearly 2.2 million personnel) and bloodiest (1.7–2 million killed, wounded or captured) battle in the history of warfare. It was a battle in which Germany lost an entire army of more than half a million men.
The German 6th Army and elements of the 4th Panzer Army were used for the offensive. The attack was supported by intensive Luftwaffe bombing that reduced most of the city to rubble. The fighting degenerated into house-
On 19 November 1942, the Red Army launched Operation Uranus, a two-
The 6th Army could have attempted a break out of Stalingrad when it was clear that defeat was inevitable, and before the noose surrounding Stalingrad tightened. Adolf Hitler would have nothing to do with the idea. He ordered General Freidrich Paulus to remain in Stalingrad and make no attempt to break out. His order were “to fight to the last man and last bullet.” Instead attempts were made to supply the army by air and to break the encirclement from the outside.
By the beginning of February 1943 the Axis forces in Stalingrad had exhausted their ammunition and food. Field Marshal Paulus, recently promoted by Hitler, surrendered the remaining units of the 6th Army. The battle has lasted five months, one week and three days.
The Axis suffered 627,899 total casualties (wounded, killed, captured) among all branches of the German armed forces and its allies; 282,606 in the 6th Army from 21 August to the end of the battle, 17,293 in the 4th Panzer Army from 21 August to 31 January, 109,000 Romanians of which at least 70,000 were captured or missing, 114,000 Italians and 105,000 Hungarians were killed, wounded or captured.
The Germans lost 900 aircraft (including 274 transports and 165 bombers used as transports), 500 tanks and 6,000 artillery pieces. According to a contemporary Soviet report, 5,762 guns, 1,312 mortars, 12,701 heavy machine guns, 156,987 rifles, 80,438 sub-
The USSR, according to archival figures, suffered 1,129,619 total casualties; 478,741 personnel killed or missing, and 650,878 wounded or sick. The USSR lost 4,341 tanks destroyed or damaged, 15,728 artillery pieces and 2,769 combat aircraft. 955 Soviet civilians died in Stalingrad and its suburbs from aerial bombing by Luftflotte 4 as the German 4th Panzer and 6th Armies approached the city.
Stalingrad was a turning point for the Germans, and in fact a turning point in World War II.