Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Great moments in alternate history: World War II

By David Daw

It's finally here — the biggest alternate timeline of all alternate timelines, the alternate history trope to top all alternate history tropes. Today we look at some alternate histories of the Second World War.
Let's start with one of the most respected works in science fiction, Philip K. Dick's Hugo Award-winning The Man in the High Castle. High Castle is a novel that's not just important in the annals of alternate history fiction but — as Josh Wimmer notes over at Blogging the Hugos — it's a watershed moment for the science fiction genre as a whole. I'd also argue that it marks the point where alternate history finally throws off its pulp adventure roots and becomes contemporary science fiction — the novel uses its alternate history trappings to explore important ideas rather than using them as window dressing.


How Hitler Could Have Won World War II

Most of us rally around the glory of the Allies' victory over the Nazis in World War II. The story is often told of how the good fight was won by an astonishing array of manpower and stunning tactics. However, what is often overlooked is how the intersection between Adolf Hitler's influential personality and his military strategy was critical in causing Germany to lose the war.

With an acute eye for detail and his use of clear prose, acclaimed military historian Bevin Alexander goes beyond counterfactual "What if?" history and explores for the first time just how close the Allies were to losing the war. Using beautifully detailed, newly designed maps, How Hitler Could Have Won World War II   exquisitely illustrates the  important battles and how certain key movements and mistakes by Germany were crucial in determining the war's outcome. Alexander's harrowing study shows how only minor tactical changes in Hitler's military approach could have changed the world we live in today.

How Hitler Could Have Won World War II untangles some of the war's most confounding strategic questions, such as:

Why didn't the Nazis concentrate their enormous military power on the only three beaches upon which the Allies could launch their attack into Europe?

Why did the terrifying German panzers, on the brink of driving the British army into the sea in May 1940, halt their advance and allow the British to regroup and evacuate at Dunkirk?

With the chance to cut off the Soviet lifeline of oil, and therefore any hope of Allied victory from the east, why did Hitler insist on dividing and weakening his army, which ultimately led to the horrible battle of Stalingrad?

Ultimately, Alexander probes deeply into the crucial intersection between Hitler's psyche and military strategy and how his paranoia fatally overwhelmed his acute political shrewdness to answer the most terrifying question: Just how close were the Nazis to victory?

Why did Hitler insist on terror bombing London in the late summer of 1940, when the German air force was on the verge of destroying all of the RAF sector stations, England's last defense?

With the opportunity to drive the British out of Egypt and the Suez Canal and occupy all of the Middle East, therefore opening a Nazi door to the vast oil resources of the region, why did Hitler fail to move in just a few panzer divisions to handle such an easy but crucial maneuver?

On the verge of a last monumental effort and concentration of German power to seize Moscow and end Stalin's grip over the Eastern front, why did the Nazis divert their strength to bring about the far less important surrender of Kiev, thereby destroying any chance of ever conquering the Soviets?

OPERATION HERKULES (Malta Fulcrum Alternate History)

OPERATION HERKULES is a Novel of Alternate History work of fiction. It began with a question. Might WWII have gone differently had Hitler not made so many strategic blunders? Eventually I wondered what last, single blunder he might have avoided and still had a chance to win the war? From Dunkirk to Stalingrad I read all I could find on these mistakes and realized that of them all, the story of the siege of Malta and the blunder of omission, that of NOT seizing the island, was perhaps the least well known of Hitler’s gaffes, at least in the United States, and that as late as the spring or summer of 1942 he still had the chance to correct his error.

From this sprang the idea of this novel of alternate history. In it we’ll meet many well-known and some lesser known historical figures, but also purely fictional characters whose experiences reflect those whose ordinary lives were interrupted by extraordinary times. Kenneth Wiltshire, an American farm boy and volunteer pilot with the RAF, flies Spitfire fighters and fights for his life from Malta’s Ta Qali airfield. His English lover, the beautiful and mysterious Maggie Reed, toils in anonymity from Malta on Britain’s most vital wartime secret. Kuno

Schact, German Army officer, is drafted as a last minute replacement for the invasion. His dreams are haunted by fear that his two young sons will someday fight and die for the Third Reich. Roland Webster, Royal Navy gunnery officer; only combat gives him relief from remorse of his lost love Althea, killed in the London Blitz. Through their eyes and many others we’ll live the Axis invasion of Malta in June 1942 and follow their adventures in subsequent novels as WWII is refought from a new point of reality.

I have attempted to hew to a reasonable and plausible alteration of history. Neither side will come to possess alian technology, nor suddenly stumble on the secrets of high energy lasers. But from June 21, 1942, the day Tobruk in North Africa fell to Rommel and his Afrika Korp a single, simple change could have reshaped our history. Herewith, what might have come, had Hitler decided to take Malta, rather than not.

1) "The Gates of Victory"
With Malta in Axis hands Rommel and his combined German/Italian Afrika Korp receive the weapons, supplied and reinforcements needed to WIN the first Battle of El Alamein.
2) "Death on Frozen Seas" ( Tentative title )
With the fall of Malta and the Battle of El Alamein as backdrops, convoy PQ17 leaves Iceland bound for the North Russian ports or Murmansk and Archangelsk. DKM Tirpitz sails to confront them, but needing to prove German superiority over their Italian allies Tirpitz is brought to action by HMS King George V and USS Washington!
3) "HMS Ashanti" ( Tentative title )
One of the small 'back-stories' of the Malta Fulcrum WW2 Alternate History series, this book goes back to the sinking of the British Tribal Class destroyer in "OPERATION HERKULES" and follows her crews ordeal in the water and in Vichy French POW captivity in Algeria.
4) "Panzers Across the Volga" ( Tentative title )
Following the Battle of El Alamein Rommel is frustrated by Hitler's order to remain in a defensive posture. Rommel demands "A fighting command". Hitler obliges, ordering Rommel to exchange commands with Paulus at Stalingrad!
5) "Beautiful Maquis" ( Tentative title )
Follows the drama of Monique Covet, lovely French spy after she is released from Gestapo custody, turned as a double agent. Will she serve her new German masters or remain true to France?

Teachers and Readers Guide for Why Germany Nearly Won: A New History of the Second World War in Europe

Why Germany Nearly Won challenges today's conventional wisdom explaining Germany's Second World War defeat as inevitable primarily for brute force economic or military reasons created when Germany attacked the Soviet Union. Taking an entirely new perspective on explaining the Second World War in Europe, and its outcome, at its core Why Germany Nearly Won offers the reader three interrelated, unique, and potentially ground-breaking arguments. First, qualitative differences between the combatants proved more important in determining the War's outcome than have the quantitative brute force measures so commonly discussed in the past. Second, attacking the Soviet Union represented Germany's best opportunity to win a War which, by commonly cited measures of military potential, Germany never should have had even a remote chance of winning. Third, for reasons frequently overlooked and misunderstood Germany came far closer to winning the War than has previously been recognized.


  • Twenty-four detailed maps show the position and movement of opposing forces during the key campaigns and battles discussed in the book.
  • Thirty-four charts and figures are provided, including detailed orders of battle, tables of organization and equipment, economic figures, and equipment comparisons.

Why Germany Nearly Won offers the reader a fresh perspective on World War II, including via:
  • Creating a new framework for understanding the Second World War, one challenging today's conventional wisdom
  • Advancing a new interpretation of Operation Barbarossa, usually seen as the great German blunder of the war by those subscribing to the brute force myth, as, in fact, Germany's last and best hope actually to win the war
  • Demonstrating how closely fought the war actually was
  • Explaining how the Mediterranean Theater of the War represented a crucial distraction and net drain on the primary German war effort in Eastern Europe
  • Revealing why the combined arms panzer division proved key in bolstering the German army's renaissance; not the tank itself
  • Profiling wartime changes to the German panzer arm as a metaphor for the larger story behind the Wehrmacht's rise and fall
  • Exploring the Red Army's constantly evolving approach to war, including why the late war Red Army was so much more effective than its equally massive early war version
  • And more....

On Desperate Ground

ON DESPERATE GROUND is the story of men and women caught up in the death throes of Nazi Germany, struggling to maintain those things precious to them-life, an end to killing, and even sanity itself. Colonel Johann Faust has lost everyone he ever loved and feels he is going inexorably insane. He hears the haunting voice of his dead fiancée and the demons that roar through his mind as he perfects a plan to save Nazi Germany from defeat and insure a greater and deadlier new world war. Captain Dieter Neukirk, once a protégé of Faust's, is more concerned with saving the lives of his remaining men than in sacrificing them in a fanatical last stand. Meanwhile, Elsa Klein, Dieter's lover and the chief social worker at a Berlin hospital, is engaged in her own dangerous work, providing medical care and identity papers to hidden Jews in the city. American Captain Mack Mackenzie, pulled from a military hospital before his wounds are healed, is assigned to investigate reports of a secret Nazi operation. Wanting only to make it home alive, Mack finds himself in a life and death struggle with unlikely allies and a ferociously determined opponent. Americans and Germans alike are drawn to a hilltop in the remote German countryside, where they find themselves between powerful armies and forced into a terrible decision that could end one war or begin a new one.

A tight-paced adventure, a multi-layered set of events, where...private rivalries are contained within the larger context of a 1945 large-scale German operation...the beat, the quick tempo never lets the reader down...this is a very good novel, and great reading entertainment. - Ben Pastor, author of THE WATER THIEF, LUMEN, and other novels

If you take as much delight in James Benn's Billy Boyle series as I do, you're going to adore this, his first standalone...if you're unfamiliar with Billy and his adventures, I suggest you get cracking...Benn is an author who's unbeatable when it comes to bringing WWII alive. 
-Leighton Cage, author of the Chief Inspector Mario Silva Series. 

 Author James Benn has become highly regarded for his Billy Boyle WW2 novels. Billy, a reluctant combatant who has the patronage of his aunt's husband (his aunt's maiden name is Doud, so you may be able to guess who the uncle is!) is the subject of five or six novels, with a new one issued yearly. All are very good and I'm looking forward to his newest novel, to be published in September. But James Benn has surprised his fans with a couple of new books - issued in paperback. The first one I've read is "On Desperate Ground", and is, in every way, an equal to his Billy Boyle series.

The main American character of "Desperate" is Captain "Mack" Mackenzie, another Irish-American smart-aleck, who also enjoys Ike's patronage. He's sent off to do "odd jobs" for the general and when the book opens, Mack is recovering in a British nursing home from minor physical injuries and more serious mental ones. It's early January, 1945, and the Allies have finally turned back the Germans in the Ardennes at the Battle of the Bulge. (Interesting fact that I learned from both this book and another one I recently read was that the allies were truly caught off-guard by the German advance in the Ardennes because the German commanders had not used radio messaging that had previously been picked up and decoded by the British/Americans, using the Enigma machines at Bletchley Park. Instead, the Germans relied on radio silence and talking by phone when planning the attack.) Allied armies are racing toward Germany from both the west - the Americans and Brits - and from the east - the Soviets. Ike and his aides think something's happening in Germany, but don't quite know what it is. He sends Mack to shadow one American army group to see if he can pick up any stray intel.

But Benn's story doesn't neglect the German side; in fact, the Germans in the last days of the Reich are the pivotal characters. One long-time army officer, Johann Faust, has gone mad from losing his family and fiance, murdered by the invading Russians in their east-Prussian homes. He concocts a plan - not a totally bad one - which involves pitting the invading Soviets against the invading western allies and turning their guns towards each other. The plot involves clothing some German and Russian-defector troops in American uniforms and others in Soviet uniforms and watching the ensuing "hi-jinks" as both sides think they've been betrayed. Faust has gathered some aides, with whom he's fought since the war began in 1939. There's a back story of how Johann Faust knew Mack Mackenzie from early in the war, so the enmity is already established between the two.

James Benn writes with a sure footing about the last six months of WW2, from both the German and Allied perspectives. There are no caricatures in the characters he brings to the reader in a very good - if slightly far-fetched - plot. I do think the book will interest WW2 affianados more than the average Benn-written Billy Boyle readers. There's more "history" in this book, more military tactics and political maneuvering than in most works of fiction. It's a great read for the right reader - who actually might be most of James Benn's "Billy Boyle" fans.

Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis

It's 1939. The Nazis have supermen, the British have demons, and one perfectly normal man gets caught in between.

Raybould Marsh is a British secret agent in the early days of the Second World War, haunted by something strange he saw on a mission during the Spanish Civil War: a German woman with wires going into her head who looked at him as if she knew him.

When the Nazis start running missions with people who have unnatural abilities--a woman who can turn invisible, a man who can walk through walls, and the woman Marsh saw in Spain who can use her knowledge of the future to twist the present--Marsh is the man who has to face them. He rallies the secret warlocks of Britain to hold the impending invasion at bay. But magic always exacts a price. Eventually, the sacrifice necessary to defeat the enemy will be as terrible as outright loss would be.

Alan Furst meets Alan Moore in the opening of an epic of supernatural alternate history, Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis is a tale of a twentieth century like ours and also profoundly different.


Monday, April 13, 2015

Book: If the Allies Had Fallen: Sixty Alternate Scenarios of World War II

If the Allies Had Fallen. Sixty Alternate Scenarios of World War II by Dennis Showalter and Harold C. Deutsch. Frontline Books, 2010, hardback, 304 pp, £19.99, ISBN 9781848325661

The joint editors of this stimulating collection of explorations of alternative military strategies of the Second World War, Dennis Showalter and Harold Deutsch, have assembled a distinguished team of nineteen historians predominantly from the United States of America, but also including Peter Hoffmann from Canada and Richard Overy from the UK. Justifying the book's counterfactual approach, Harold Deutsch acknowledges that 'it is easy to argue persuasively the truism that the lessons of history are best derived from what actually happened, rather than from what nearly happened' but concludes that ‘what happened becomes more fully comprehensible in the light of the contending forces that existed at moments of decision'.  And so the authors contend that from Munich to Hiroshima the War might have turned out differently.

Their detailed text is enhanced by a series of illuminating maps illustrating graphically, for example, Soviet military dispositions at the end of July 1941 and reinforcements by the end of December 1941 and the Allied plan during the final stage of the war in Europe in 1945. The authors examine such questions as: What if the outbreak of war had occurred in 1938 one year earlier? What if Stalin had joined the Allies? What if the Allies had fallen and Hitler won the war? These are just some of the hypothetical questions which the book addresses stimulating in-depth analysis and debate into some key outcomes during this tumultuous seven-year period and thereby providing support for Harold C. Deutsch's contention that ‘understanding of the total historical setting is bound to contribute to a clearer view of the actual course of affairs', though perhaps not all readers will be entirely convinced of the value of the exercise.

Hitler Survives the Battle of Berlin

The obverse of history in Hitler’s particular case, therefore, is not at all hard to imagine credibly. Reacting to precisely the same circumstances, acting upon the very same stew of perception and delusion, Hitler could have just as easily decided not to kill himself after all. Change nothing else but this and one changes everything. One might impose a measure of control over any alternative scenario by asking no more of inventiveness than one might ask of a prediction. How far ahead might one justifiably attempt to see in April 1945? Whatever one answers, one should go no farther than that.

In April 1945, some very real and very important questions about the future awaited answers. Statesmen, policy makers, and soldiers the world over had to guess about what would happen in a most uncertain world. But they did guess. We know, for instance, that there was no agreement between the Allies over how to treat the leaders of the defeated Reich, save that they would not be shot out of hand. What that meant was that for the contingent moment the leading Nazis who were within reach were to be scooped up and interned. Once the Allies agreed on questions of international law and jurisprudence, there remained the business of setting the actual machinery in place, and all of this required some time. Göring spent this interregnum with his wife and daughter in the safety and relatively comfortable custody of the Western Allies. Those taken by the Russians were neither so safe nor comfortable.

So if we may imagine a living Hitler, one who survived the battle of Berlin, we can see now that a good deal of this canvas has already been painted for us. We know that at 12:50 in the afternoon of May 2, General Karl Weidling’s chief of staff and several other official representatives flew a white flag at the Potsdam Bridge, that they were escorted promptly to General Chuikov’s headquarters, and that an armistice was arranged forthwith. We also know that at about the same time Russian troops took the Reichskanzlerei and, after some confusion, finally discovered the Führerbunker itself. We can easily envision a resigned, even an indifferent Hitler, still alive, having ordered General Weidling to seek a ceasefire. Perhaps Hitler might still have harbored a fantasy of a negotiated peace, but of course he had nothing left with which to strike any sort of bargain. We can also see without fear of contradiction that the Russians would not have been in a mood especially conducive to negotiation, having lost nearly 100,000 casualties in the Berlin campaign alone. No, Hitler would have been hustled off to see one of the Russian commanders, Zhukov or Chuikov. Immediately, a signal confirming his capture would have gone out to Stalin, and then, to the rest of the world. In all likelihood, the prisoner Hitler would have been on his way to Moscow before the day was out.

But, we have now reached the outer limits of a reasonably safe scenario. Before going further, we are forced to consider a less plausible, certainly a less attractive, alternative. How likely was it that Hitler chose escape over suicide—precisely what many suspected at the time? Here, our answers need not be so speculative; we have testimony of just what was required to make good such an escape at this point in time. Escape was possible, but only just. In the chaotic final hours of the war, several small groups took their chances outside, in a wrecked city engulfed by artillery and small arms fire. The chances of success were minuscule. In the aftermath of Hitler’s and Goebbels’s suicides, an ill-assorted bunch of soldiers, secretaries, and party officials, including Hitler’s own secretary Martin Bormann, tried to get out through the New Chancellery exits and into the city with the aim of working their way northwest of the city. All were killed or captured. Bormann’s body was not found till 1972.

But the fortunes of battle favored others. Major Willi Johannmeier, Hitler’s army adjutant, was chosen to carry a copy of Hitler’s final testament to Field Marshal Schoerner, the newly appointed commander in chief of the Wehrmacht. Two other petty functionaries, Wilhelm Zander and Heinz Lorenz, drew similar missions. This party was rounded out by the addition of a fortunate corporal named Hummerich, presumably assigned to assist Major Johannmeier. Johannmeier, an experienced and resourceful soldier, was detailed to lead the group to the safety of German lines. His skills were about to be tested. The Russians had established three battle lines in a ring around the city center, at the Victory column, at the Zoo station, and at Pichelsdorf. The Pichelsdorf sector was where Johannmeier and his party had to go. At noon on April 29, the four men left the chancellery through the garage exits on Hermann Göring Strasse and struck westward, through the Tiergarten toward Pichelsdorf, at the northernmost reach of the large city lake, the Havel. By four or five in the afternoon, having spent the last several hours evading Russians, the party arrived in this sector. The sector was in German hands for the moment, defended by a battalion of Hitler Youth awaiting reinforcements.

Johannmeier and company rested until dark and then took small boats out onto the lake, making southward for another pocket of defense on the western shore, at Wannsee. There, Johannmeier managed to get a radio signal off to Admiral Dönitz, asking for evacuation by seaplane. After resting in a bunker for most of the day, the small group set off for a small island, the Pfaueninsel, where they would await their rescue by Dönitz’s seaplane.

In the meantime, another group of bunker refugees arrived. On the morning of April 29, just as Johannmeier and his party were preparing to leave, Major Baron Freytag von Loringhoven, Rittmeister Gerhardt Boldt, and a lieutenant colonel named Weiss asked and received permission to attempt an escape and join General Wenck’s imaginary army of relief. The next day, April 30, they would follow the same but even more dangerous route west as Johannmeier’s group. The Russians were as close as a few blocks now, already at the Air Ministry. And they had nearly closed the ring on the Pichelsdorf sector at the Havel. Freytag and his group had set out already when they were joined by Colonel Nicolaus von Below, Hitler’s Luftwaffe adjutant. Below seems to have been the last one to leave the bunker before Hitler killed himself.

All of these fugitives collected for a time on the lake, awaiting the salvation of the seaplane. A seaplane did materialize eventually, but owing to the heavy enemy fire, its pilot chose between discretion and valor and flew away before taking on his passengers. Now all were left to their own devices. By ones and twos most of the escapees managed to get away, if only to be taken prisoner later. Johannmeier and his group worked their way down past Potsdam and Brandenburg and crossed the Elbe near Magdeburg. Posing as foreign workers, they passed through enemy lines a few days later. Johannmeier simply continued his journey all the way back to his family home in Westphalia. There in the garden he buried Hitler’s last testament in a glass jar. Zander made his escape good all the way to Bavaria, as did Axmann, the chief of the Hitler Youth. Nicolaus von Below enrolled in law school at Bonn University. His studies were to be interrupted by the Allied authorities.

All of these men were considerably younger, healthier, and more physically resourceful than Hitler. The vision of Hitler negotiating all these difficulties is an alternative that is defeated by Hitler’s psychological and physical states, neither of which, singly or in combination, conduced to the demands of such a choice. By this time, Hitler simply did not have the physical or mental vigor necessary even to attempt an escape, much less actually succeed in one.

But, as the eminent British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper has reason to know, “Myths are not like truths; they are the triumph of credulity over evidence.” Immediately upon the conclusion of the war, Trevor-Roper was given access to Allied intelligence and prisoner interrogation reports for the purpose of disentangling the confusions of Hitler’s last days, and, by implication, his ultimate fate. Behind Trevor-Roper’s assignment were the rumors that swept Europe in the summer of 1945: Hitler had escaped after all, the rumors said. He had gone to ground in Bavaria. Or he was in the Middle East. Or perhaps he had made for the Baltic coast, there to be rescued by submarine and deposited among sympathizers somewhere in South America. These rumors did not merely enthuse the gullible. Stalin startled the American secretary of state at the Potsdam Conference in July by arguing that Hitler was, in fact, alive and in hiding. Allied prosecutors drawing up charges against the leading Nazis took due care to see that Adolf Hitler was indicted, if only in absentia.

No Atomic Bomb Version II

In the first three months of 1945, Japan’s military leaders forged a strategy they called Ketsu Go (Operation Decisive) to obtain the political bargaining chips to terminate the war in a manner they could abide. They were confident that no amount of blockade and bombardment, even if it cost the lives of millions of their countrymen, could compel them to yield. Moreover, they believed an impatient American populace would propel their antagonist to avoid a protracted siege and attempt to end the war swiftly. That dictated an invasion of the Japanese homeland.

Japanese strategists next examined the map in light of American operational habits. The United States could be expected to bring its huge preponderance of air strength to bear in support of an invasion. Land-based aircraft constituted the majority of U.S. air assets and thus dictated that the invasion must fall on an area within range of land-based fighter aircraft. From the positions the Japanese expected their opponent to hold by the summer of 1945, the nearest bases would be Okinawa and Iwo Jima. Okinawa, but not Iwo Jima, could support thousands of tactical aircraft, smaller than the B-29s that were already bombing the home islands. From Okinawa, American flyers could reach Kyushu and parts of Shikoku. Of these two, Kyushu offered the better set of potential air and sea bases from which to mount an attack on the obvious supreme objective—Tokyo, the political and industrial hub of Japan. A simple scan of the topographical map of Kyushu easily revealed to Japanese commanders three of the four chosen American invasion sites. Thus, the Japanese anticipated not only an invasion, but the two most probable invasion areas, the sequence of the two probable invasions, and the exact landing sites on Kyushu.

With a firm grasp of the strategic essentials, Japan embarked on a massive mobilization program. By midsummer there would be sixty divisions and thirty-four brigades mustering 2.9 million men in the homeland. A strict conservation program, plus the conversion of the aviation training establishment into kamikaze units, yielded the Japanese over 10,000 aircraft, half suicide planes, to confront the invasion. These forces were arrayed with primary emphasis on defending southern Kyushu and Tokyo.

By comparison to the tortured, military-dominated Japanese political structure, its well-designed American counterpart placed ultimate authority in civilian hands. But those hands changed on April 12, 1945, with the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, which thrust Harry S Truman into the presidency. Roosevelt signally failed to ready Truman for his responsibilities, so the new president turned to his senior advisers for guidance on political and military strategy. Truman’s military advisers, however, were not in accord on the strategy to end the war.

The United States Navy, led by Fleet Admiral Ernest King, had reached a number of fundamental conclusions about the conduct of a war with Japan based on decades of intense study. None of these precepts was more deeply held than the principle that it would be absolute folly to invade Japan. Naval officers calculated that the United States could never mount expeditionary forces across the Pacific that would even equal the manpower Japan would mobilize to defend the homeland and the terrain would wholly negate American advantages in heavy equipment and vehicles. Therefore, entrenched Navy doctrine held that the sound way to bring a war with Japan to a close was by a campaign of blockade and bombardment, including intense aerial bombing.

When the United States Army, led by General George C. Marshall, came to focus attention belatedly on how to bring a war with Japan to a close, it swiftly adopted the view that only an invasion could bring the conflict to an acceptable conclusion. After extended debate over these competing views, the Joint Chiefs of Staff reached an unstable compromise in April 1945. The army secured ostensible approval for a two-phase invasion campaign, code-named Operation Downfall. The first phase, Operation Olympic, set for November 1, 1945, involved a landing designed to secure approximately the southern third of Kyushu. This would provide air and naval bases to support a second amphibious assault, Operation Coronet, set for March 1, 1946, aimed to secure the Tokyo region.

The Joint Chiefs justified this strategy on the basis that the overall American war aim was an unconditional surrender that would assure that Japan never again posed a threat to peace. But history raised formidable doubts about the practicality of that goal. No Japanese government had capitulated in 2,600 years; no Japanese detachment had surrendered in the entire course of the Pacific War. Accordingly, there was no guarantee either that a Japanese government would ever capitulate, or that Japan’s armed forces would bow to such a command. Thus, the American nightmare was not the initial invasion of the homeland, but the prospect that there would be no organized capitulation of Japan’s armed forces, over four million strong. Indeed, the official rationale for the invasion plan declared that it would be more likely than blockade and bombardment to produce the capitulation of Japan’s government, and it would best position the United States to deal with the situation if Japan’s armed forces did not surrender.

The navy obtained agreement that the campaign of blockade and bombardment would continue at an accelerating rate for six months prior to Olympic. Admiral King, however, explicitly warned his colleagues on the Joint Chiefs in April that he only concurred that orders for an invasion must be issued promptly so that all the preparations for such a gigantic enterprise could be mounted. He warned that the Joint Chiefs would revisit the necessity for an invasion in August or September.

Radio intelligence proved King prescient. During July and August, ULTRA unmasked for American leaders the ambush awaiting Olympic. The 680,000 Americans, including fourteen divisions, slated for the invasion of Kyushu had been expected to confront no more than 350,000 Japanese, including eight to ten divisions. But decrypted communications identified fourteen Imperial Army divisions as well as a number of tank and infantry brigades—also at least 680,000 strong—most positioned on southern Kyushu. Moreover, rather than only 2,500 to 3,000 aircraft to support their ground troops against 10,000 American planes, the ULTRA sources and photographic evidence revealed the Japanese had at least 5,900 to more than 10,000 aircraft, half of them kamikazes, waiting to pummel the invasion convoys.

Soviet intervention would have reshaped the burgeoning American debate over strategy to end the war in August 1945. The most likely result would have been to discard Olympic for a draft plan to invade northern Honshu in an attempt to prevent the Soviets from overrunning more of Japan. Once this operation was complete, however, American leaders would have balked at the prospect of conquering the remainder of the home islands, hole by hole, rock by rock. The devastating results of the blockade and bombardment strategy, as revealed from radio intelligence and other sources, would have argued for the navy strategy of starving Japan into submission. Only the possibility of liberating some POWs and internees would have roused interest in further land campaigns in Japan, so long as they remained limited with acceptable losses. Rising American frustration and fury would likely have sparked the decision to unleash chemical warfare against the 1946 rice crops, as well as succeeding ones—a project under consideration in 1945. The use of poison gas against Japan in support of the invasion had also been under consideration in 1945. The prospect of an endless continuation of the war to annihilate Japanese detachments in the home islands may have lifted that taboo as well. American air power and logistics, but not ground forces, would have aided the Allies in defeating Japanese units on the Asian continent.

The Pacific War would have dragged on for probably two to five more years—perhaps longer. The overall cost would have easily exceeded five million deaths in Japan alone by conservative estimates, and equal or double that number among all the nations and peoples caught in this protracted agony. While there would have been no division of Korea and hence no Korean War, there would have been a sharply divisive Soviet- American rivalry in the home islands to match the one along the uneasy borders of Europe. The surviving Japanese people would have languished in poverty and bitterness for decades. Thus the atomic bomb, for all its horror, was the “least abhorrent choice.”