World War II Kevin J. Benoy
Origins of the War • World War II was the most destructive conflict in the history of the planet. • Total losses are impossible to calculate. • The issue of guilt is, therefore, always important and lessons are always drawn from the conflict and from its supposed causes.
Origins of the War • Most people point the finger of guilt at Adolf Hitler – not Germany and not the western leaders – though their policy of appeasement greatly facilitated Hitler’s aggression.
Origins of the War • Politicians generally see appeasement as the root cause of the war. • Winston Churchill, an outsider at the time, is generally regarded as having been correct in his assessment of the situation – Chamberlain and Daladier lacked backbone. • The lesson learned by Anthony Eden (later a British PM at the time of the 1956 Suez Crisis) and by John Foster Dulles (American Secretary of State in the early Cold War years) was that dictators should not be appeased. Appeasement is now a “dirty word.”
Origins of the War • Historian AJP Taylor in his important book The Origins of the Second World Warn adopted a different approach. • He linked the two world wars together; both were products of a German drive for domination of Central Europe. • Hitler was not, therefore, the crucial factor. He was merely a supreme opportunist
Origins of the war • Despite her defeat, Germany was still far more economically powerful than most of her neighbours. • Her population growth and economic and military potential made German domination of Europe likely.
Origins of the War • The ``German problem`` had survived the first war and had intensified. • The harsh Treaty of Versailles made war inevitable.
Origins of the War • Today, most historians regard the truth as lying somewhere in between. • Taylor`s assertion that the treaty was a significant factor fails to note that much of the Treaty was dismantled in the 1930s – even before Hitler appeared on the scene. • There can also be no doubt that Hitler`s aggressiveness contributed much toward conflict. • Yet it is also true that German expansion – particularly in Eastern Europe, whether the leader was Stressemann or Hitler, remained a goal.
Origins of the War • Taylor downgrades the assertion that Hitler wanted a major war. • He may be correct, but there is strong evidence that Hitler desired something more limited. • In the Hossbach Memorandum, it is clear that Hitler saw a war as inevitable and that he wanted it to be fought on German terms.
Origins of the War • Germany certainly was not armed for a long, drawn out conflict in 1939. • Her armed forces were equipped for short, sharp conflicts against limited opposition. • Hitler knew that world wars drain countries and require social cohesion to fight them. Despite his totalitarian control, and partly because of it, there were plenty of potential opponents within Germany in 1939 – Jews, Catholics, Social Democrats – even elements of the military.
Origins of the War • Short successful wars would keep social tensions under control and not drain the economy so much as to deprive German citizens of comforts. • Blitzkrieg tactics were predicated on the need to avoid, at all costs, a war of attrition. • Small wars keep options open; total war eliminates options.
Origins of the War • German industrial capacity was sufficient to fight a single major opponent, but not several at once – especially if the USA were to become involved. • Historians note that until 1942, Germany was able to fight their kind of war. Consumer goods were still being produced in quantity. • After 1942, things changed dramatically.
The Polish Campaign • Germany deployed 40 normal infantry divisions against Poland and 14 mechanized or partially mechanized divisions. • Their tactics were based on British plans from the 1920s for small mobile forces. These had been much improved by General Heinz Guderian. • Opposing Polish forces were similar in number, but of the 12 Polish cavalry brigades, only 1 was armoured. Polish air forces and naval units were much inferior.
The Polish Campaign • On September 1, 1939 the attack was launched against Poland and Danzig. • On September 8, some German units were in the outskirts of Warsaw. • By September 10 the scale of the Polish disaster was clear. Its forces were being encircled and pounded from the air. • On September 17, the Soviets pounced in the East – in accordance with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Any hopes of Polish resistance continuing in the eastern Pripet marshes were abandoned.
The Polish Campaign • On September 18, the Polish government fled into exile. • Warsaw gallantly held out for another 10 days, while isolated units fought on until October 5. • No meaningful help was offered by Poland`s Western Allies, since they had ruled out an assault on Germany`s western defences.
The Baltic States and the Russo-Finnish War • The Soviet attack also involved occupation of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. • Finland refused to give in to Soviet demands for Finnish territory. • On November 30, 1939, the Soviet Union attacked.
The Russo-Finnish War • Successful in the Far North, the Soviets were repulsed elsewhere. • Soviet preparation had been poor and Finnish troops were superior to their enemy – winter trained and equipped, they resisted skilfully. • Western governments even considered sending military help to the Finns via Scandinavia – fortunately not carrying out the plan as they would have found themselves fighting both Germany and the USSR at the same time.
Russo-Finnish War • On February 1, 1940 the Red Army attacked again, this time using more than just the Leningrad regional forces. • Finland was forced to seek peace in early March, on terms favourable to the Soviet Union. • Later, Finland would ally themselves with Germany to win back lost territory. Finnish aircraft later in the war
Phoney War -- Sitzkrieg • From September 1939 to April 1940 the war in the West was strangely inactive. • German and French forces hunkered down in defensive positions behind the West Wall and the Maginot Line. • Both expected their opponent to launch a major push that did not occur. Disappearing artillery copula, Fort Hackenberg, Maginot Line
Phoney War -- Sitzkrieg • At sea, things were a little more active. • German U-boats sank 110 ships in the first 4 months of the war. • Most of the German surface fleet, after some initial raiding, was sunk or forced to return to home ports and was not a major factor in the war. • A British destroyer chased the German Altmark into a Norwegian fiord and rescued 300 British prisoners on board. This violation of Norwegian neutrality convinced Hitler that the Allies could not be trusted to stay out of Scandinavia.
Scandinavia 1940 • In March 1940 the British seriously considered landing on the Norwegian coast and mining its coastline. • The British and French came to an agreement on it on March 21. • The move was delayed with catastrophic consequences. On April 1,Hitler ordered the invasion of Denmark and Norway, to be carried out on April 9.
Scandinavia 1940 • On April 9 the Germans occupied all of Denmark and landed at Oslo, Kristiansand, Stavanger, Bergen and Trondheim in Norway. • Resistance was quickly overcome since neither Denmark or Norway had mobilized. • In Norway, local Nazis, led by Vidkun Quisling, helped the invaders.
Scandinavia 1940 • Allied landings followed, but it was too little, too late. • Resistance continued until late May, but events elsewhere caused the Allies to abandon Norway. 11 inch Norwegian Gun at Orcarsborg Fortress – destroyed a German Cruiser
Attack in the West • On May 10, 1940, the long awaited German assault in the West began. • Hunkered down behind the supposedly impregnable Maginot Line, the French felt confident that the Germans would be repulsed. • However, the French were to be mistaken if they expected a World War I style conflict.
Holland • Holland was attacked immediately, with parachute landings at key locations to secure bridges and airfields. • By May 12, German tanks were on the outskirts of Rotterdam. • On May 13 the Dutch government fled to Britain. • Rotterdam was bombed and within 4 days of the outbreak of hostilities, Holland had fallen.
Belgium & France • In Belgium, parachute landings brought rapid success. • Troops were dropped on top of the Belgian fort of EbanEmael and near key bridges. • Dummy parachutists were also dropped over a wide area to cause confusion behind Belgian lines.
Belgium and France • Successful British & French reinforcement of the Belgians temporarily halted the German advance on a line from Antwerp to Namur, but German advances further south made this position untenable.
Belgium and France • Von Runstedt’s Army Group A had the most success, advancing through the Ardennes region – thought impassable to armour. • By May 12, the Germans crashed through to the Meuse River. • Soon the Germans were across it and driving on toward the English Channel.
Belgium and France • The rapid German advance created confusion behind French lines. • When Guderian crossed the Aisne, the French commander informed Reynaud that there were no reserves available to counter and that Paris might fall in two days.
Belgium and France • On May 20, Guderian was at Abbeville, and on the 22nd he turned northward to threaten Calais and Dunkirk. • Reinhardt cut across the British rear. • Now the Allied forces were cut in half, with the forces in the north encircled with their backs to the sea. • The German success even exceeded the most optimistic expectations.
Belgium and France • The confusion also owed much to a failure in the French command system, which was overly centralized and unable to cope with rapidly changing situations. • French units were allowed little flexibility. • As early as May 16, Churchill went to Paris and asked about the position of France’s strategic reserve. General Gamelin replied “there is none.” • When Weygand replaced Gamelin and his plane was forced down as he attempted to regain contact with the front – he lost all contact with anyone for some time. • For 4 days, British General Gort received no orders.
Belgium and France • The Allied problem was compounded by retreating civilians clogging roads. Allied troops were sympathetic; advancing Germans simply pushed them off the roads.
Belgium and France • A British counter-attack at Arras revealed weaknesses in the German forces. • Two weak tank and two infantry battalions slammed into Rommel’s 7th Panzer Division’s flank. • The British Matilda tanks were slow but heavily armoured and German tank rounds bounced off them.
Belgium and France • The light German armour was no match for the heavier British tanks (or French armour for that matter). • However, German leadership was superior and Rommel ordered that his men lower their 88mm anti-aircraft guns to use against the Matildas.
Belgium and France • Had the attack involved two armoured divisions, rather than brigades, the war might have turned out differently. • However, the French decision to use armour as infantry support weapons instead of mobile units proved fatal. DeGaulle argued strongly for the alternative tactic to no avail. • Furthermore, French tanks ran on aviation fuel, while German tanks could use ordinary petrol – so could keep moving on captured supplies, even when supply lines were cut. French Char-B main battle tank
Belgium and France • British evacuations began soon after. • On May 23, 4,000 troops were shipped back from Boulogne and another 1,000 removed from Calais on trawlers, drifters and yachts on the 25th and 26th of May.
Operation Dynamo - Dunkirk • The biggest evacuation took place from Dunkirk, beginning on May 26th. • Pounded from the air, the British pulled 126,000 troops out by May 30. • By June 2nd, the remainder of the BEF was withdrawn. • On the morning of the 4th, the operation ceased. Some 338,000 Allied troops landed safely in England – though all of their equipment lay abandoned on the beaches
Operation Dynamo - Dunkirk • The success of the operation was due to the efforts of the RAF and the Royal Navy – and to the brave work of thousands of fishermen and yachtsmen who took part. • It was also due to Hitler’s order to stop the German advance on May 24. • Perhaps this was based on discomfort over the Arras counter-attack. • Perhaps Hitler felt Britain might come to peace terms if not humiliated by a surrender at Dunkirk. • Whatever the case, hundreds of thousands of troops escaped to fight again.
France Collapses • Though spun as a tremendous success, the French campaign was a mess. Another 220,000 French and British troops evacuated from northern ports but... • In 3 weeks, over 1 million Allied troops were captured
France Collapses • On June 7 German tanks under Major General Erwin Rommel broke through toward Rouen and on the 9th they crossed the Seine. • On June 10 the French government relocated to Tours and Italy declared war on France and Britain. • On June 12 the high command informed Reynaud that France was beaten • On June 14, Paris fell.
France Collapses • After further removing the government to Bordeaux on the 16th, Reynaud resigned and his successor, Marshal Petain asked the Germans for an armistice. • On June 22nd, at Hitler’s insistence, the French surrender took place in the same railway coach at Compiegne that the 1918 armistice had been signed in.
France Collapses • Germany occupied the northern and western coasts, gaining fine submarine bases. • The French army was demobilized. • Marshal Petain governed unoccupied France from Vichy, but this was little more than a puppet government that collaborated with the Germans.
France Collapses • German successes in the West exceeded even the wildest expectations of the German High Command. • Credit for the victory lies in German leadership in the field. • Guderian’s and Rommel’s brilliant field generalship and German air superiority were key factors.
France Collapses • In the words of British military analyst, BH Liddell-Hart: • “Far from having the overwhelming superiority with which they were credited, Hitler’s armies were actually inferior in numbers to those opposing them...he had fewer and less powerful tanks than his opponents possessed. Only in airpower, the most vital factor, had he a superiority...their success could easily have been prevented but for the opportunities presented to them by Allied blunders that were largely due to the prevalence of out of date ideas.”
France Collapses • The French surrender was not accepted by all French forces. • Charles DeGaulle and the troops evacuated to Britain, decided to fight on, calling themselves the “Free French.”
France Collapses • The French High command was obsessed with the idea of defense, to the point where they refused to accept that offensive tactics should be developed. • Generals ignored the advice of experts like Charles DeGaulle, that tanks and armoured vehicles should be massed together to allow rapid movement, rather than parcelling them out to infantry division which slowed them to the pace of marching men. • The use of close air support was ignored completely.
France Collapses • Beyond this failure of leadership lurked other reasons for the rapid collapse: • France was economically and psychologically unprepared for war. About the only thing that the political Right and Left agreed on was that war must be avoided – so no national fervour developed. • Military defeats gave the fascist elements in the country a chance to come out into the open and defeatists overcame the efforts of Reynaud to convince his colleagues to continue the war from North Africa.
France Collapses • In a move that soured British/French relations for decades after the war, the British decided that they could not allow the French Mediterranean Fleet to eventually fall into German hands, despite Vichy French insistence that this would not happen. • The British launched a surprise attack on the French Algerian naval base of Mers-el-Kebir – destroying the French fleet at anchor in the port.
Battle of Britain • With the fall of France, Britain (and its empire) stood alone. • Fortunately, Britain did have a substantial anti-tank defense – the English Channel. • It would now be up to Goering’s Luftwaffe to destroy the RAF and force the Royal Navy out of the Channel to open the way for invasion.