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Can Anybody Spare a DIME: A Short Primer on Early Axis Success and How the Allies Won the Second World War

Hitler and Mussolini, the Axis Leaders Never Developed a Grand Strategy

All modern war is predicated on the full potential of a nation or alliance to fight a war.  This includes what is known in today’s parlance the DIME, or the Diplomatic, Intelligence, Military and Economic factors of national power. During the war the Axis powers almost exclusively fixated on the military dimension, especially at the operational and tactical level never coordinating a national or alliance grand strategy.  On the other hand the Allies were successful in doing so despite competing national interests of the British Empire, the Soviet Union and the United States.

Early German Success in France Changed the Face of Warfare

The Germans and Japanese were victorious in the early years of the World War Two due to their application of the most modern forms of warfare and ability to exploit weaknesses in their opponents.  For the Germans this entailed the use of the “Blitzkrieg” or lightening war which used the combined arms team of tanks, artillery, and mechanized infantry with close air support coordinated by commanders in mobile command posts who were able to adapt to tactical considerations on the ground and exploit enemy’s weaknesses.  This involved the classic forms of applied mass, speed and firepower to overwhelm enemy defenses at critical points and the encouragement of initiative by commanders, the Auftragstaktik. Led by men such as Heinz Guderian, Erich Von Manstein and Erwin Rommel to name but a few, the German commanders overcame allied opposition as well as the occasional hesitancy of their own senior leaders to defeat Allied forces throughout Europe.  The blitzkrieg involved risk, but the Germans for the most part, with key exceptions such as at Dunkirk during the French campaign took risks and exploited weaknesses in Allied political goals, military coordination and operational art. The Allies were hampered by weak political leadership, an aversion to risk, an outmoded strategy and poor coordination of a force which outnumbered the Germans and included more tanks than the Germans could field.  The German armaments were not necessarily superior to the Allies, but were better used for the most part.

German skill at the operational level was exemplified in Poland, France and the Low Countries, a daring Norwegian operation, which could be described as one of the first joint operations in military history, the Balkans and North Africa as well as the initial phases of Operation Barbarossa.  Each of these operations had flaws, the most glaring being at the strategic level and lack of a Grand Strategy.  The operations also exposed weaknesses in logistics and limits to what the mechanized and tactical air forces could do when stretched too far, North Africa and Russia as cases in point.  The Germans would always be outnumbered and fighting a multi-front war because of their limited naval capability, both in surface units and U-Boats, as well as the lack of a strategic air capability which kept them from eliminating Britain from the war.  Hitler’s desire for German domination in Europe excluded a true coalition effort to make allies with powers in Europe such as Vichy France which shared an aversion to the British especially after the attack of the British Navy on the French fleet in North Africa.  Likewise Germany’s alliance with Mussolini’s Italy was more of a strategic liability than a true partner. Hitler’s aversion to the Soviet State prevented any more than a brief cooperation with the USSR which was ended by the German invasion of the USSR. The Germans also failed in their war strategy by not going to a total war effort until 1943 after the ascension of Albert Speer as the Armaments Minister.  Thus German forces had to fight war “on the cheap” so to speak for the first part of the war, especially in North Africa and in Russia. In Russia the vast expanse of the front forced the Germans to thin out their forces to dangerous levels and whose pathetic road and rail network limited the already limited ability of the Wehrmacht to supply its forces as they advanced deep into Russia.

Admiral Yamamoto One of the Few Japanese Leaders to Understand what the Japanese Faced in Going to War with the United States

In the Pacific the Japanese used fast carrier task forces and naval air power coupled with superior surface warfare groups of fast battleships, cruisers and destroyers operating in conjunction with land based Army and Naval air units to isolate and destroy allied naval forces and outposts throughout the Pacific.   The Japanese exploited their superiority to conduct their own form of blitzkrieg.

Despite Inflicting Crushing Defeats on the Allies in late 1941 and early 1942 the Japanese period of Conquest would be Short Lived

At the same time the Japanese, even more so than the Germans lacked the ability to fight a long war; something that the best and most realistic of the Japanese strategists, Admiral Yamamoto understood and warned his government about before the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Likewise they like the Germans failed to develop a cohesive Grand Strategy in their war effort.  Competing priorities and inter-service rivalries between the Army and the Navy over resources, manufacturing priorities and war aims crippled Japanese efforts.  Despite this the Japanese used superior tactical application of forces, exploited Allied command and control weaknesses, numerical and qualitative superiority over dispersed and often obsolete Allied forces. The Allies in the opening phase of the war were often led by officers who had little respect for the Japanese and underestimated the Japanese skill at the tactical and operational level of warfare as well as the individual Japanese soldier and sailor, with tragic results.

USS Pope Being Blown out of the Water at the Battle of the Java Sea

The Japanese were constrained by limited resources and intense competition between the Army and Navy for those resources as well as a long term war in China which drew off the larger part of the Japanese Army and Army Air Forces.  The Japanese effort stalled after they lost much of their carrier fleet and experienced naval aviators at Coral Sea, Midway and the Guadalcanal Campaign.  The Americans, who assumed the mantle of the Pacific Theater after the initial Japanese success and weakness of British and Dutch forces in the Pacific and demands of the war in Europe began an aggressive defense and opened an offensive against the Japanese long before the Japanese believed that they would at Guadalcanal.

At the heart of the early German and Japanese success lay their superior application of the techniques and weapons of modern warfare on the land, sea and air against opponents who were initially ill-prepared to meet their onslaught.  They both had glaring weaknesses but their weaknesses in the early years of the war were masked by Allied ineptitude at all levels, tactical, operational and strategic.   Thus they were successful and at times wildly so, but in their success lay the seeds of their defeat.

Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill overcame Significant Conflicts of Interest to Build a Grand Strategy

The defeat of the Axis powers was in large part a combination of superior Allied strategy at the “grand strategy” level and lack of a corresponding Axis Grand Strategy; as well as the Axis powers inherent weaknesses in natural resources, manpower and industrial capabilities to fight multi-front wars, coupled with poor transportation and logistics capabilities for distant operations.

The US Navy Breaking of the Japanese Naval and Diplomatic Codes as well as the Cracking of the German Ultra Code and Capture of the Enigma Machine Greatly Enhanced Allied Intelligence

The cracking of Japanese Naval and diplomatic codes and the capture of the German Enigma code machine and code books aided Allied strategic planning, none or the Axis intelligence services rose to the challenges of the war. The Allied victory and Axis defeat was in fact a combination of what is called the DIME, the Diplomatic Intelligence Military and Economic factors which caused the Axis defeat.  While it is in part due to Allied strategy, Axis deficiencies in each of these areas played a part in their ultimate defeat.

Massive US Industrial Capacity Drove the Allied War Effort

On the Grand Strategic level there was no comparison. The Allies, even factoring in often conflicting national goals were able to coordinate a strategy to first defeat Germany and then Japan.  The Americans, British and Russians began such cooperation even prior to the American entry into the war through the Lend Lease, followed by the British and American Combined Chiefs of Staff, which helped coordinate often disparate British and American strategies in Europe and Asia. Murray and Millett assert and I agree with the thesis that the British and Americans “came closest to designing a global strategy that accommodated their war aims.” (War to Be Won p.584) While close coordination with the Russians was illusory at best, the Western Allies were able to help keep the Russians in war the by helping to supply them (War to Be Won p.388), and on occasion launching operations which assisted the Russians, such as the invasion of Italy. The Italian invasion, though the pipe dream of Churchill to crack the “soft underbelly” of Europe was a key factor in the German decision to quit the Kursk offensive and redeploy Panzer Divisions, including SS formations to Italy and the West. This weakened the Germans in the face of the Russian counter offensive following Kursk which aided Russian success. The Axis powers knew no such coordinated strategic thinking.

Poor Italian Technology, Training and Organization Made them More of  a Burden to Germany than a Help

The Japanese, Germans and Italians ran separate wars based on their perceived national considerations at times which often ran contrary to the common needs of their coalition.  Italian actions in the Mediterranean caused a diversion in German efforts at key times, such as in Greece where the Germans had to save the Italians and delay the opening of Operation Barbarossa.  Italian incompetence forced the Germans to commit forces to North Africa, Greece, the Balkans and Italy upon its collapse which could have been used to great effect in Europe or Russia. The Japanese and Germans never coordinated their efforts to defeat either the western Allies or the Soviets.  The lack of a coherent Grand Strategy on the part of the Axis powers, especially in the early part of the war when Allied fortunes were at lowest ebb, was every bit as much a part of their ultimate defeat as was a coordinated or “superior” Allied strategy.

The lack of a coordinated Axis Grand Strategy was reflected in the way each fought its war, the Japanese were hindered by lack of natural resources, especially those most important in maintaining a war economy, fuels, metals, rubber and even foodstuffs for which they were dependant on foreign suppliers such as the United States.  They were also hindered by a war in China which consumed troops and supplies without a corresponding benefit.  (See Barnhart’s “Japan Prepares for Total War and Toland’s “Rising Sun.) Their inability to produce the machines of war in sufficient numbers to replace losses due to combat operations and their failure to keep up with advances in technology negated their initial success and superiority at sea and in the air.

US Naval Forces Would Dominate the Pacific

The Germans failed to mobilize their economy to a total war footing until after Stalingrad and the accession of Albert Speer to head Reich war production.   They also attempted to fight a multi-front war and were dependant on weak and unenthusiastic satellite states such as Romania and Hungary to hold what they deemed to be less important areas in order free up German units.  Likewise the Germans had not adequately prepared for the war at sea with sufficient surface, naval air or U-boat strength to win the battle of the Atlantic, nor had the Luftwaffe developed a strategic bombing capability with long range fighter escorts to win the Battle of Britain. German industrial efforts, even the great strides made after Speer took over war production were unable to keep pace with the massive production of the Americans and the Soviet Union.  The Red Army ground the Wehrmacht to dust on the Steppes of Russia, a key factor in that helped the American and British successfully invade Western Europe.

B-17s Over Europe

The preponderance of western Air, Naval, war production and natural resources enabled them to field Fleets, Armies and Air Forces which were unmatched in size or technical sophistication for their time in history.  The Japanese and the Germans had no way to win by 1944, short of developing and deploying Atomic weapons and delivery systems before the Americans and British did could defeat.  Murray and Millett note this in regard to Germany which had the Wehrmacht held out longer would have been the first target of the Atomic bombs. (War to Be Won p.483)

Atomic Bomb at Hiroshima, It could Have Been Berlin Instead

In summary the Axis powers were defeated by their own weaknesses in the diplomatic, intelligence, military and economic arenas as much as they were by superior Allied strategy.  This in no way negates the superior way in which the Allies marshaled their resources and coordinated a coherent Grand Strategy.  But even so the Allies by were running out of troops by the end of the European war.  Russian formations while still formidable were operating at greatly diminished strength by the end of the war and their losses “carried political and social consequences that were to burden the Soviet Union to its demise.” (War to Be Won p.483)  The British were bled dry and unable to keep up with losses suffered after Normandy. The Americans too suffered from a shortage of manpower, particularly in Army infantry forces, and had limited their Army to a mere 90 divisions of all types to fight a world war. They had diverted manpower to the Army Air Corps, Naval and Marine Corps leaving the Army chronically short infantry. The Americans were forced into emergency drafts of troops from the Air Corps and other ancillary formations and support units to fill out infantry formations during the winter of 1944-45.  (See Russell Weigley’s book Eisenhower’s Lieutenants.” and Max Hasting’s “Armageddon” for a good treatment of the manpower situation in 1944-45) This is one point were the Americans took a risk that almost backfired on them and could have cost them victory.

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Unequal Allies: Lessons from The German’s and Their Allies on the Eastern Front for Today

patton with french tankPatton with French Renault F1 Tank in WWI

One of the problems that any coalition of unequal partners as is the case in Afghanistan is the role of the lesser partners, their capabilities and limitations imposed on them by their own governments.  When NATO joined the US led effort in Afghanistan a number of NATO allies contributed troops to the effort.  The same was true of the “coalition of the willing” in Iraq.  While obviously the US appreciated and continues to appreciate the efforts of its allies in both theaters the unique problems associated with coalition warfare are often not appreciated until the strengths and weaknesses of each junior partner in the coalition are shown to include the effect of each nation’s choice of units sent, logistics capability and rules of engagement.  Thus when some Americans are critical of the contribution of some allies, or the limitations imposed by their governments they should remember that in the First World War the United States was dependant on France and Britain for the majority of the Artillery, all of the tanks and aircraft as well as instructors and training facilities for the rapidly recruited American Expeditionary Force.

RickenbackerUS Ace Eddie Rickenbacker with French Supplied Nieuport 28

Every nation works within its own national interests and domestic political situation as well as its military capabilities. Unfortunately many people do not look at history to see how a coalition of a major power allied with a number of minor powers each with their own limitations as well as motivations for entering the war execute that war after the initial plan is foiled.  This is something that has happened in Afghanistan after the initial success disappeared with the corrupt and ineffective Afghan government, the resurgent Taliban and the resiliency of Al Qaida in their bases in the remote border areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

nato_france_a_0403French Troops in Afghanistan: The French, British and Canadians have the most Robust Rules of Engagement of Non US NATO Forces (Time Magazine Photo)

One of the best places to find such an example is the German relationship with their allies on the Eastern Front.  The question of the German dominated European Axis alliance in the Second World War is one of the more neglected subjects of World War Two II. In most accounts of the war, the relationship of the Germans to their coalition is minimal.  This includes the works of B.H. Liddell-Hart, Williamson Murray, Chester Wilmot and David M Glantz.   Italy usually receives some attention in the context of the campaign in North Africa and Mediterranean.  Hungary, Romania and Finland receive scant attention from anyone except as to how their armies were overrun during the Stalingrad campaign. Popular German memoirs provide little substantive help. Field Marshal Albert Kesselring’s memoirs and Erwin Rommel’s papers give some views of the Italian efforts in North Africa and the Mediterranean and Erich Manstein gives a limited amount of attention to the Italians, Finns, Hungarians and Rumanians in Russia.

Finland-HitlerConflicting War Aims: Hitler with Finland’s Field Marshal Von Mannerheim

In his essay The Dysfunctional Coalition Robert Di Nardo examines the relationship of Germany to her allies on the Eastern Front where the Germans due to their own limitations were forced into a coalition war with weak allies of uncertain reliability. This is a subject that Di Nardo expanded on in his book Germany and the Axis Powers: from Coalition to Collapse (University of Kansas Press, 2005).  Di Nardo believes that there are important lessons to be learned from the failure of Germany and its coalition. Unfortunately we in the west are more often than not content to judge coalitions by the success of the Allies in the Second World War.  Di Nardo’s work on the subject is something that the United States must learn from as it works with coalitions whose members have significant military weaknesses often magnified by the domestic political climates in their own country. The situation, especially in Afghanistan places he United States in a similar position to Germany in relation to the current wars on terror and campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

m 13-40 tankItalian M 13-40 tanks were the mainstays of Italian Armored Units, Slow, Undergunned and Poorly Armored they were No Match for Soviet T-34s

Di Nardo asserts “the way in which Germany conducted coalition warfare was reflective of the manner in which Hitler and the German military looked at the world, as well as the war in general.”  Germany often displayed a haughtiness toward its allies and even knowing their weaknesses was both unable and often unwilling to do much to strengthen them for the fight against the Soviet Union.  Di Nardo believes that the German attitudes were “a significant factor that contributed to the ultimate defeat of Nazi Germany.” (p.712)  In the essay Di Nardo notes the few successes of the coalition. In particular he looks at the German work with Rumanian air defense around the Ploesti oil refineries and the German-Finnish Winter Warfare School.  Apart from these instances he characterizes Axis coalition warfare on the eastern front as “poor” with “failures at every level.” (p.713)

italian troops stalino

Di Nardo analyzes the problems with language barriers, the wide differences of modernity of the armies and levels of technology and training of the coalition partners many of which are common to the war in Afghanistan. Germany’s failure to become the “arsenal of Fascism” which the United States became “the Arsenal of Democracy” for its allies hindered the Germans in their relationship to their poorly equipped allies.  Likewise, the lack of understanding of all the partners regarding the “relationship between national objectives, strategy and the morale of soldiers of officers and soldiers alike”(p.713) was a major obstacle.

finnish at gun

Di Nardo provides a good description of the German liaison detachments allotted to the coalition armies.  These teams functioned as advisors to their allies as well as liaisons between the German army and the allies. These teams dealt with language, tactical communications weaknesses and often displayed the generally haughty attitude that the Germans displayed to their partners. There is an excellent illustration of this in dealing with the failure of XLVIII Panzer Corps at Stalingrad when the German Liaison to the Romanian 1st Panzer Division was wounded.  At the operational and strategic levels Di Nardo describes the German policies and attitudes toward their allies as “imperialist.” (p.718)

He examines the wide gap in transportation capabilities of the various armies and the failure of the Germans to better provide for the needs of their partners in contrast to the United States assistance to her allies.   Germany provided obsolete captured Czech and French weapons and vehicles to her allies.  They refused to supply the Romanians and Hungary with the plans to build German tank and aircraft in Romanian and Hungarian industrial concerns capable of their manufacture. (pp.718-719) Di Nardo notes how this lack of modern equipment impacted the allies operations against the Red Army and their defeat at the hands of the Soviets.  Although Di Nardo alludes to how even elite German formations had substandard equipment he does not explain principle reason for this.   This was due to the fact that the Germans did not go to a “total war” footing in regard to industrial production until Albert Speer took over as Armaments Minister in 1943.

spanish blue divsion

The number of troops contributed by the German Allies was substantial. Hungary began Barbarossa with two corps, including its Mobile Corps and in 1942 supplied their 2nd Army which was composed of 1 Armored and 9 Infantry Divisions. 2nd Army was crushed by the Soviet offensive against Stalingrad. The Italians began with an expeditionary corps of 2 Semi-Motorized and 1 Light Infantry Divisions. In early 1943 they added 4 Infantry and 3 Alpine Divisions and a number of other smaller formations. This force became the 8th Army. It fought well during the advance toward Stalingrad but spread out over a wide front with little armored or air support was decimated by the Soviet offense against the city.  The remnants were no longer battle worthy and were evacuated to Italy.  Most of the Finnish Army was engaged in the war but after September 1939 made no major offensive contribution to the war. In 1944 following a major Soviet offensive which forced them to withdraw from the territory that they had captured in 1941 the Finnish government sued for peace. The Russians occupied a number of border provinces and islands and Finland was obliged to expel German Forces.  This resulted in the “Lapland War” between the Finns and the Germans with the Germans adopting a scorched earth policy as they withdrew from the country. The quality of the Finnish forces was generally higher than that of Germany’s other Allies.

romanian r35Obsolete French Built Romanian R-35 Light Tank

The Romanians contributed 19 divisions organized into 3 Armies to Barbarossa. They were limited by their equipment and logistics. The 3rd and 4th Romanian Armies were shattered at Stalingrad forcing a major reorganization as they continued the war.  In August 1944 with the Soviets pressing their border King Michael led a coup to overthrow the Fascist dictatorship of Antonescu. The Germans elected to fight and the Romanians changed sides and joined the Russian advance to the end of the war with their 1st Army taking part in the Prague offensive. Another contributor of troops was Franco’s Spain although it was a neutral country. Spain provided a division of volunteers which became the famous “Spanish Blue Division” or the 250th Infantry Division. It was outfitted as a German unit and received additional training from the Germans before it went into action. The division fought near Leningrad and was engaged in many tough fights.  A Spanish “Blue” Fighter squadron allotted to and equipped by the Luftwaffe also distinguished itself. In October 1943 Spain under allied pressure withdrew the division from the front although many soldiers volunteered to remain and fight on as smaller units attached to German formations. One volunteer company became part of the 11th SS Panzergrenadier Division Nordland at Berlin.  One thing that probably was a factor in the Spanish effectiveness as well as commitment to to German cause was their genuine loathing of the Soviets following the Spanish Civil War.

The final part of Di Nardo’s essay deals with the strategic goals and conflicts among the Axis coalition which were never worked out.  Examples of this include how the Finns never signed a formal alliance with Germany and how their national strategy did not allow them to deeper into the Soviet Union instead settling on recovering territory lost to the Soviets in 1939 with a few minor gains.  There was also the problem that the Romanians and Hungarians distrusted each other so much that they could not work together over their own territorial disputes.  The Italians joined the campaign late and their 8th Army participated in the German advance toward Stalingrad protecting the German flank.  While the Italians provided their own equipment including armor and aircraft they and their weapons were woefully suited for the war that they faced on the Eastern Front.  Di Nardo finishes his essay noting morale problems in the Hungarian, Italian and Romanian armies, the lack of understanding and general lack of motivation for the campaign.

Romanian_Me109-px800Romanian ME-109 E4, The Romanian Air Force Was One of the Axis Success Stories

This article is well sourced. Di Nardo uses histories, archival sources, operational orders and analysis by the various armies as well as interviews with participants. Of particular note is that he goes to sources of the coalition partners and not just German sources.  This allows him to be far more nuanced and detailed in his discussion as opposed to others who simply ignore the contributions of the Axis partners.  His footnotes provide added detail and provide and lend support to his arguments.

The importance of this essay is twofold.  First it provides a look at the relationship of German to her coalition partners on the Eastern Front.  This is important from a historic standpoint simply because it is such a neglected topic in most histories of the period and gives added depth to the reasons for Germany’s defeat.  One has to ask the “what if questions” in regard to had the Germans better treated, equipped and recognized their allies’ contributions to the war effort.

The second and probably more important for Afghanistan is that it provides lessons to any nation which has to engage in coalition warfare.  In particular it has lessons for the United States which has found itself as the senior and vastly superior partner in a war which has multiple coalition partners in several theaters of operations.  Each coalition partner has certain military strengths and weaknesses in relationship to the United States, national interests, geo-political and economic relationships with competitors to the United States and internal political realities which impact their cooperation in the war.  As such the United States cannot allow itself to be cast in the role of a haughty imperialistic senior partner as did Germany.  The US instead must cultivate an attitude of assistance, respect and trust among its partners to assure their full cooperation and assistance in relation to U.S. goals in the war. This is particularly important now was it appears that the Afghan war is reaching a point where the deteriorating situation on the ground could invite the early withdraw of allies and necessitate either the addition of more US troops or a strategic withdraw which would be for all intents and purposes a defeat for the US and NATO. The consequences would not be good and while the Taliban may be able to be contained they undoubtedly would invite Al Qaida back and provide them with a sanctuary just as Pakistan has stepped up its efforts on the border.

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