Before examining the actual final conflict between the Western democracies, chiefly Canada, Great Britain, and the United States and Nazi Germany, it is worth reviewing the circumstances that brought the world to that critical juncture.
In 1939 Nazi Germany, then also called the “Third Reich” or simply the Reich, had initiated the European Phase of the Second World War with the invasion of Poland, At the time of the invasion Germany was in a state of near alliance with the Soviet Union with Soviet oil and agriculture providing much of Reich’s fuel and food. Poland was supported by both France and Great Britain and the two Western states had made clear that an attack on Poland would lead to war. It has long been debated why the Democracies waited until the Polish crisis to confront the still developing German war machine, but the decisions made in both London and Paris in late summer of 1939 were resolute and both nations believed that their combined power would be sufficient to deter Adolph Hitler’s Germany from aggression against Poland. On September 1, 1939 Hitler demonstrated his contempt for, and disbelief in, the Democracies statements and warnings when the German military (or, as it was known at the time, the Wehrmacht) crossed the international frontier separating Germany and Poland, and unleashed an early version of mechanized warfare against the Polish Army. Shortly after the Reich’s invasion of Poland, its quasi-ally the Soviet Union entered Poland and annexed a significant portion of the country’s eastern provinces. Strangely, this action caused no reaction by either the British or French governments while those of the Reich were responded to with declarations of war.
Despite these Declarations, and the fact that Hitler had focused well over 80% of his total military strength against the Poles, neither France nor Britain made any serious attempt to attack Germany at this point of greatest vulnerability. Much like the decisions made as early as 1936, this failure to act has been the subject of enormous debate among military professions for almost three generations with no consensus having been reached beyond a general agreement that the period from September through mid-November 1939 represents one of the great missed opportunities in military history. Considering the results this failure must also be considered to be one of the starkest tragedies in human memory.
Following a period of time dubbed the Phony War by the era’s media, German forces invaded Norway in March and then attacked France and the Low Countries in May of 1940, achieving strategic surprise despite the existing state of war between the Germans and the Democracies of the West. Much as had been the case in Poland in 1939, German mobile tactics, built around armored formations supported by air power, proved to be insoluble by Allied commanders. While the failure of the Poles to contain and defeat German spearheads can be at least partially explained by lack of proper equipment, the same can not be said for the inexplicable collapse of both the British and French armies which had equal, if not superior equipment, especially in the area of tanks and motorization. Whatever the cause, the Reich’s invasion of Western Europe was a stunning and rapid success. By the end of June 1940 Germany and her Italian ally controlled all of Western Europe save the British Isles, Iberian Peninsula, and Switzerland
While Germany was demonstrating a stunning efficiency, their Fascist Italy partner was showing nearly the exact opposite. Whether the result of poor civilian leadership, or a case of Military General Staff incompetence on a grand scale the independent Italian war effort proved to be a disaster for the Italian people. An ill-advised adventure into Greece was retrieved from defeat solely by the intervention of Wehrmacht forces sent by Hitler to save his Italian ally. Unfortunately for Rome Hitler proved to be unwilling to send German forces to Africa when Italian forces found themselves overmatched by British Commonwealth forces in the North African Desert. When the British, with the support of “Free French” political leaders, used Italy’s attacks into the Middle East as a pretext to seize French Colonies in the region and depose the pro-Axis Shah of Iran, Hitler presented Mussolini with an ultimatum demanding that Italy take no further actions outside of Europe until the Bolsheviks had been defeated or face the loss of all German support. Faced with the prospect of losing his gains in Greece and the portion of France that had been ceded to Rome by Hitler as spoils, Mussolini relented. The resulting low level naval war in the Mediterranean persisted until the end of active hostilities in Europe without causing any significant impact on the war’s outcome. The end of German activity in the Mediterranean Theater also marked the effective end of active combat with Commonwealth Forces in all areas except the North Atlantic, where Germany waged a serious, and quite nearly successful submarine warfare campaign against shipping headed to Great Britain.
In June of 1941, after nearly a full year of preparation, Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of its erstwhile ally, the Soviet Union. Thanks, in large part, to the remarkable failure of Josef Stalin to react in any reasonable manner to pre-attack intelligence reports regarding German build-ups on the frontier pre-invasion and Stalin’s post invasion ham handed intervention in the actual conduct of Red Army operations German forces made huge gains in the war’s opening months before the first year’s campaign was brought to a close by the Russian winter. The winter of 1941-42 was where the Reich’s year long preparation for Barbarossa first bore fruit. Having anticipated defeating the Soviets in the war’s first few months, the Germans had amassed a large amount of winter uniforms and equipment for the expected occupation forces (and, unknown to most of the Wehrmacht’s planning staff, Einsatzguppen detachments) that allowed German ground force to endure the very poor conditions better than the shattered elements of the Red Army.
In December of 1941, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (covered in detail in Volume II) Germany declared War on the United States. While this put Germany into a state of war with the UK, USSR and U.S., the situation was not nearly as severe as first glance would indicate. The Reich had begun construction of massive defensive fortifications along the entire French Coast. Foreshadowing the horrors to come more than 80% of the labor engaged in construction of the so called “Atlantic Wall” and other German military facilities in the Occupied Territories was provided by what can only be described as slaves brought in to do this manual labor from Poland and culled from among Russian PoW’s (in direct violation of the Hague Agreements). By early 1942 these fortifications already made any thought of attacking into France via the capture of a port virtual suicide. Combined with the general lack of preparedness of American ground forces in the winter of 1941/42 Germany did not face a true two front war danger for at least a year and a half from the time of America’s entry into the war. It was time the Reich spent very well.
In the spring of 1942 the German’s resumed their offensive in the USSR. This offensive met with nearly the same successes as in the previous year. . In the early summer a drive toward the Caucuses was undertaken, including a serious drive to the Volga. The key position in this southern section of the Soviet Union was centered on the City of Stalingrad. For reasons both practical and symbolic the engagement here was determined to be one that neither side could lose. Losses on both sides were dramatic, beyond anything seen to that point in the European Phase. It was not until October 12 that German forces completed their isolation of the city’s defenders when the took what both sides had come to call “The Crossing”, the only location on the western side of the Volga where Soviet reinforcements could land in support of the City. Loss of the crossing meant inevitable loss of Stalingrad. While small units of Red Army force fought until early January, the inability of the Soviets to resupply the forces in the city made the heroic stand of these small units all the more tragic. Moreover, the capture of the Crossing released better than 240,000 troops of the 6th Army for duty along the rest of the Volga line before winter fell.
Stalin, never the most forgiving of leaders, reacted violently to the loss of his namesake city, Most of Stavka (the Soviet High command), including Marshall Georgy Zhukov, perhaps the most forward thinking Soviet commander at the time along with Marshall Timoshenko, the head of the General Staff, as well as virtually every surviving general officer and Commissar on the Southwest Front received a six minute trial, followed by a bullet between the eyes. These actions, even more than the actual loss of the City and use of the Volga, were to prove a disaster to the Red Army, one from which it was never to fully recover.
Shorn of most of its planners and leadership by Stalin’s fit of pique Operations Jupiter and Mars, the Soviet attempts to counterattack in March of 1943 were an unmitigated disasters, with Red Army losses totaling over 850,000 men killed, wounded, and captured. When Stalin died on March 23rd 1943, reputedly of a heart attack, although persistent rumors exist to this day that the death was anything but natural, the power vacuum atop the USSR led to a general collapse of Soviet resistance as NKVD and Red Army units fought for position and personal survival. When Beria’s NKVD faction was defeated by a group that had Foreign Minister Molotov as figurehead, the situation had deteriorated to the point where the USSR was forced to seek terms from the Reich.
Unsurprisingly, these terms were well beyond harsh and both eviscerated the USSR and greatly enhanced the German state. The bounty received by the Reich was staggering, ranging from Soviet gold reserves to fully operational munitions factories to thousands of tons of raw material and supplies that had been produced in American factories and sent to the Soviets as part of Lend-Lease. The remarkable amount and quality of the Lend-Lease materials is reputed to have caused Grand Admiral Raeder of the Kreigsmarine (as the German Navy was known at the time) to state “maybe we shouldn’t have sank so many of those Murmansk convoys!”. While the accuracy of this legend will never be known, it would have been an accurate statement.
The State of the War in the West 1942-43