10 Military blunders of World War II

Index page

History is sometimes defined as a continuous, systematic narrative of past events as relating to a particular people, country, period, person, etc., usually written as a chronological account.

It is through history that we know so much about past events and people. This is also true when it comes to military history.

Yet often the narrative of past events may not accurately relate what really happened. Even eyewitness accounts will sometimes differ. Oral history that was passed down from generation to generation often becomes distorted over time. And sometimes the narrative can be downright lies.

It was Winston Churchill that said, “History is written by the victors.” Now it stands to reason that if you’re the one writing the history of something, you’re going to make yourself look good and your opposition look bad.

Often what we take to be history was actually propaganda. Winston Churchill also said, “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.”

Joseph Goebbels. Nazi politician and Reich Minister of Propaganda of Nazi Germany from 1933 to 1945, also had some interesting things to say about it.

“If you tell a lie long enough, it becomes the truth.” “The bigger the lie, the more it will be believed.” “The truth is the greatest enemy of the State.” These were all quotes from Herr Goebbels.

Yet there are some things we know without doubt that are true. Take the following facts from World War II.

All very interesting, but with one slight flaw - none of the above is true. They are all misconceptions that many people believe to be true.

For example, during World War II nearly 70% of American troops were drafted into service. Yet during the Vietnam War, the so-called “bad war”, two-thirds of American troops were volunteers.

As for the thing about the German SS being the cream of Aryan manhood. More than 60% of them were not even German.

Let’s take a slightly more in depth look at some other misconceptions about World War II.

German Blitzkrieg

The world blitzkrieg (lightning war) is a word synonymous with World War II. Especially the early German victories at the start of the war.

The Battle of France was won in six weeks, something the Germans could not achieve during the entire First World War from 1914 to 1918. Yet there was never any blitzkrieg strategy.

According to Karl-Heinz Frieser in “The war in the West, 1939-1940: an unplanned Blitzkrieg”, he states: “the 1940 campaign in the West may be considered the Blitzkrieg par excellence. In reality, however, it was not at all planned as such. Hitler was counting, instead on a years-long struggle, as in the First World War.”

Frieser goes on to say that the so-called Blitzkrieg-Denken (Blitzkrieg concept) developed only after the campaign in the West.

The word Blitzkrieg was rarely used by the Germans before the war. There are very few times it is even mentioned in pre-war literature and even then it isn’t clearly defined.

Even after the war Heinz Guderian, considered the father of the Panzer Army, mentioned the word only once in his memoirs. “After the initial success of rapid blows at the beginning of the Second World War, our opponents spoke about Blitzkrieg.” Another famous panzer general, Erich von Manstein, never used the word once in his memoirs.

Yet not only does the notion of a German Blitzkrieg concept or doctrine survive in popular consciousness and popular literature, it persists with many professional historians too..

Many people believe that blitzkrieg was something completely new or at least revolutionary.  Many are also under the illusion that what happened between 1939 and 1941 was a complete new form of warfare. They are wrong on both accounts. One needs to look at the bigger picture.

In his article “Blitzkrieg: Revolution or Evolution”, Weichong Org states, “To the Germans however, blitzkrieg was never a revolution, but the incremental development of concepts and doctrines that originated from the campaigns of Frederick the Great, Blücher, Moltke the Elder, and those of the First World War.”

A closer look at Prussian and German military history shows a number of themes that run through it. First is the focus on short wars won by decisive battles.  Second is the concept of surprise, mobility and operational manoeuvre. There is a strong emphasis on outflanking the enemy. Third is an aggressive stance, even in defence.

If you take the above into account, then blitzkrieg was an evolution rather than a revolution. You also have to consider that when the Third Reich went to war, its army’s latest general field manual had been published in 1933. It had been written before rearmament had gained momentum and before the first panzer division was established.

So the whole concept of “blitzkrieg” was as traditional as it gets.  It was nothing more than good old fashioned Prussian bewegunskrieg (manoeuvre warfare). It was merely organised and merged with new technologies such as the panzer, aircraft and, probably most importantly, the radio.

Operation Sealion

If the Germans had won the Battle of Britain, they would have been able to launch Unternehmen Seelöwe (Operation Sealion), the amphibious invasion of Britain, and the British would have been faced with no choice but to surrender.  A misconception if ever there was one.

Let’s start off by looking at the Battle of Britain. Some people still think that it was a close call. On 15 September the Germans launched Adlertag, which was the first day of Unternehmen Adlerangriff (“Operation Eagle Attack”), which was the codename of a military operation by Nazi Germany’s Luftwaffe (German air force) to destroy the British Royal Air Force (RAF).

By 16 September the German believed they had driven RAF Fighter Command down to 177 effective fighters. The true number was actually 300% higher. The RAF could still put 216 Spitfires and 356 Hurricanes into the air.

In the “Cambridge History of the Second World War. Volume 1, John Ferris and Evan Mawdsley wrote in their article “The war in the West, 1939-1940. The Battle of Brtain?” – “These assumptions shaped the Luftwaffe’s turn from attacking airfields and C3I (Command, Communications and Intelligence) to London. While this was an error, it is less significant than is often claimed. Those early attacks inflicted little damage. Had the Germans continued them, they would still have lost, just less quickly or badly.”

Yet even if the Germans had won the Battle of Britain it would have made little difference to the success of Operation Sealion.

When the Allies landed in Normandy on D-Day in 1944, it took the Americans and British years to prepare. These forces included two of the leading naval powers at that time. They had experience in amphibious landings and had gained a naval and air superiority, close to supremacy, in the Normandy region. And D-Day was still no walk in the park.

So even if the Germans had gained air superiority  they would have had no chance of gaining naval superiority.  

In Summer 1940 the Germans had three cruisers and four destroyers operational. In stark contrast the British Home Fleet had five capital ships, one aircraft carrier, eleven cruisers and eight destroyers. There were also another seven capital ships,  two aircraft carriers, seven cruisers and 30 destroyers in the Mediterranean Fleet.

In short, the Germans lacked ships, had untested amphibious vehicles, no experience in amphibious landings, and no amphibious logistics.  

Considering that the US and the British, that had plenty of experience in all of those areas,  still battled on D-Day, it is highly likely that Operation Sealion would have succeeded  unless the Royal Navy had somehow disappeared.

The Holocaust’s death toll

As much as some people may try and deny that it ever happened, the Holocaust was a reality. It is unequivocally clear that approximately six million Jews perished at the hands of the Nazis.

Yet that figure is not, as many people believe, the total death toll of the Holocaust. It doesn’t take into account the further five millions civilians coming from many diverse groups including communists, Roma, Serbs, Polish intelligentsia, homosexuals, priests, the disabled, and more.

In fact anyone that the Nazis considered untermenschen (subhuman) were fair game to them.

After the invasion of Poland in September 1939, the secret Action T4 euthanasia programme – the systematic murder of German, Austrian, and Polish hospital patients with mental or physical disabilities – was initiated by the SS in order to eliminate Lebensunwertes Leben (life unworthy of life), a Nazi designation for people who had no right to life.

In 1941, the experience gained in the secretive killing of these hospital patients led to the creation of extermination camps for the implementation of the Final Solution.

The Nazis distinguished between extermination and concentration camps. Concentration or prison camps has been set up in Germany prior to World War II for people defined as ‘undesirable’.

These included camps such as Bergen-Belsen, Oranienburg, Ravensbrück, and Sachsenhausen. From March 1936, all Nazi concentration camps were managed by the SS-Totenkopfverbände (the Skull Units, SS-TV). From 1941 they operated the extermination camps as well.

The prime function of the vernichtungslager (extermination camps) or Todeslager (death camps) was genocide. While tens of thousands died at camps such as Bergen-Belsen, Oranienburg, Ravensbrück, Sachsenhausen, Mauthausen, Dachau, and Buchenwald, these were not considered by the Nazis to be extermination camps.

A total of eight camps were built with the specific purpose of genocide. They were Auschwitz–Birkenau, Treblinka, Bełżec, Chełmno, Sobibór, Majdanek, Maly Trostinets, and Sajmište.

BLITZKRIEG: It was not a revolution, but rather an evolution.

World War II started in 1939

Come on, we all know that World War II started on 1 September 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. Some Americans probably believe that it only started on 7 December 1941 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour.

Yet many historians are of the opinion that World War II started earlier than September 1939.

Some believe it started with the Soviet-Japanese fighting in Mongolia in May 1939. Others suggest even earlier starting points such as the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937, the Italian invasion of Abyssinia in 1935, or even the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931.

However, as Churchill said, a war’s victors are always the ones who later write its history. And so it stands to reason that the world powers on the winning side of World War II ultimately pegged the start of the war as the moment when they got involved.

German Army Mechanisation

The German Army was highly mechanised. Just look at any photographs or film footage of the German’s rolling into Russia and you will see panzers, assault guns and halftracks as far as the eye can see.  Yet this is another misconception.

Most of the photographs and footage was for propaganda purposes in which the Germans, quite understandably, showed off their best troops and equipment. To illustrate this, let’s look at the composition of the German Army in June 1941, just prior to the invasion of the Soviet Union.

The number of divisions was as follows.

Still not convinced? Let’s look at the number of vehicles for Operation Barbarossa.  

The German Army assembled 600,000 motor vehicles and 625,000 horses. So there was more horse power than horsepower.  

So the Germans were nowhere near as mechanised as people believe. Once again this was a misconception promoted by the Nazi propaganda machine.

The US won the war

The United States were the reason that the Allies won World War II. Well, that’s what a lot of Americans will tell you.

They beat the Germans, beat the Japanese, led the D-Day invasion, and dropped the big one - the atomic bomb.

There are many reasons why this notion is false, but let’s go straight to the most obvious one.

When World War II ended, the Cold War began. There was no way that the United States and its Western Allies were going to write a history of the war that attributed the lion’s share of their victory to their former ally who was now their enemy.

More than any other single country, the soviet Union was responsible for the defeat of the Nazis. The ratio of total military losses on the Eastern Front versus the Western Front was a staggering nine to one. More than 80% of German military deaths occurred in the east.

This came at a high cost to the Soviet Union. They lost around 10 million military personnel, and let’s not forget the 13 million or so civilians. The US, on the other hand, lost about 400,000 troops.

As for the Americans leading D-Day, this is another misconception.

True, the operation’s ultimate commander, Dwight D. Eisenhower, was American. But its architect, service chiefs, air commander, and naval commander were all British.

The commander of the naval forces was Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay. The commander of the air forces was Air Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory. The commander of the land forces was General Sir Bernard Law Montgomery. All were British.

A total of 52,889 American sailors took part in D-Day compared to 112,824 British sailors.

As for the men landed on the beaches, 57,500 American troops landed at Utah and Omaha, while 75,215 British and Commonwealth troops landed at Gold, Juno, and Sword.

As for D-Day’s vehicles, both Britain’s warships and landing craft outnumbered America’s more than four to one, and British planes accounted for two-thirds of the aircraft. In fact, one-third of the supplies used by American troops during D-Day came from Britain.

So, while the USA played an invaluable role in winning World War II, they didn’t win it all on their own.

ENGLAND IS THAT WAY: Barges are packed with supplies in preparation for Operation Sea Lion.

The US was neutral

Until Japan launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941, the United States was neutral and stayed out of World War II. Don’t believe that for one minute.

Let’s look at a law that was passed in America, as well as a quote from US President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In March 1941 Roosevelt announced an act to promote the defence of the United States. It is commonly referred to as the Land Lease Act. This act allowed the United States to support with equipment any country whose defence the President deems vital to the defence of the United States.

After various incidents between US warships and German U-Boats, Roosevelt announced during his Fireside Chat to the Nation on 11 September 1941, “That means, very simply, very clearly, that our patrolling vessels and planes will protect all merchant ships – not only American ships but ships of any flag – engaged in commerce in our defensive waters.” And it should be noted that its defensive waters were not just the US coastline.

The US ultimately sent the modern equivalent of $659 billion worth of supplies to overseas allies fighting the war.

Furthermore, it was America’s economic sanctions against Japan in 1941 that directly precipitated Pearl Harbour. In fact in late 1941 more than 52% of Americans believed there would be a war with Japan.

Churchill, revered war hero

There is no doubt that Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill was a great statesman who led Britain through World War II. But was he a universally revered wartime hero?

If Churchill was the beloved wartime leader some historians say, why would he and his Conservative Party suffer the single largest defeat in British history in the 1945 elections. And this was before the treaty with Japan, bringing World War II to an end, was even signed.

During World War I he was the First Lord of the Admiralty. He oversaw the Gallipoli Campaign and, after it proved a disaster, he resigned from government and served in the Royal Scots Fusiliers on the Western Front.

As British Prime Minister during World War II, his wartime response to the 1943 Bengal famine, which claimed an estimated three million lives, has caused controversy, and he sanctioned the 1945 bombing of Dresden, which caused tens of thousands of civilian deaths and continues to be debated.

Churchill was a fervent anti-communist. He never quite trusted Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and he publicly warned of an “iron curtain” of Soviet influence in Europe and promoted European unity.

He became irrationally hawkish as the war was finally about to end. One of his plans was the appropriately named Operation Unthinkable in mid-1945.

This mission, obviously never executed, would have immediately sent American, British, and, craziest of all, re-armed German forces into a full-scale invasion of the Soviet Union.

Widely considered one of the 20th century’s most significant figures, Churchill remains popular in the UK and Western world, where he is seen as a victorious wartime leader who played an important role in defending liberal democracy from the spread of fascism.

Yet others considered him to be an imperialist and racist. So not everyone revered him as a hero.

MECHANISED MIGHT: The Germans actually had more horses than they did vehicles.

Operation Barbarossa failed because it was delayed

Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union could have succeeded if it had not been delayed. The answer is no, nein and het.

Barbarossa failed due to many different factors. But the main cause was the assumption by the Germans that the Soviet Union would collapse after a few weeks.

While the early gains in territory were significant and the Soviets suffered huge losses in men and equipment, it was not a decisive blow. The Soviets had both territory and troops to spare. Another factor is that the Germans suffered substantial losses as well.

It is important to note that looking at the number of German losses can be misleading. Barbarossa was started with roughly three million men, but they were not all combat troops. A large number of them were construction troops and others in non-combat roles.

Yet a large number of the German losses were experienced combat units that had fought in Poland, France, Norway, Greece and other places. So the loss of these troops in 1941 decreased the combat effectiveness of the Germans far more than the actual loss figures may suggest.

Take a look at the figures given by the German High Command. On 20 June 1941, before the invasion of the Soviet Union, the Germans had 136 divisions available that were suited for all operations. On 30 March 1942 they had eight divisions.

The invasion was originally set for 15 May 1941, though it was delayed for over a month in allowing for further preparations and possibly better weather.

It was finally launched on 22 June 1941, more than a month later than had been planned. Many believe that if it had been launched on time the Germans would have not been caught out by the early onset of the Russian winter. In reality it would have made little difference. In short the German Army was stopped by the Red Army, and not the Russian winter.

German air aces were better

The records reflect that the Germans had more air aces than any other country. In fact the top 120 aces of the war were all German.

Erich ‘Bubi’ Hartmann was the top ace of the war with a remarkable 352 kills. But were the German aces really better than anyone else?

The reason why the Germans had more aerial victories than anyone else was explained by Gunther Rall, the third highest ace of the war with 275 kills.

German pilots flew until they died, whereas Allied pilots normally returned home after they had flown a certain amount of sorties.

Secondly, to shoot something down you need to have an enemy. While German may have been short of many things, they were not short of enemies.

Thirdly, when a German plane did show up they were normally heavily outnumbered. So there would be plenty of Allied planes going after a single fighter. The chances of a new Allied pilot getting a kill were pretty slim to say the least.

German pilots gained plenty of early war experience. Many of them had cut their teeth in the Spanish Civil War and the Battles of France and Britain. So those that did survive until the middle and end of the war had far more experience than the average Allied pilot.

So the notion that German aces were better is a misconception. Under the same circumstances Allied pilots would have probably achieved a similar number of kills.

In conclusion

There are many misconceptions about World War II. Probably hundreds of them.

These are just ten of them, but they do give food for thought.

HITTING THE BEACHES: Despite what some may believe, America did not win World War II on their own.

Top of page