Friday, January 25, 2008

"Why the allies won" ...

I have just finished reading this book by University of Exeter academic Richard Overy (Pimlico 2006). It is quite frankly the most outstanding analysis I have read of the causes of the allied victory in 1945, and I decided to blog on the book to affirm my own understanding of the book, and to share this powerful analysis with others.

Overy begins by making  the point that an allied victory was never a certainty, and asks the question why the fundamental change in allied fortunes form the dark days of 1941, when allied defeat looked to be a serious possibility, to allied invasion in western Europe in 1944, and prolonged Russian offensive on the eastern front.

His basic thesis is that the allied victory was the result of eight factors.
  1. Victory in the battle of the Atlantic, finally won by the projection of allied air power into the 'Atlantic gap' with the use of long range aircraft (Liberators in particular) re-equipped for anti submarine warfare.
  2. "Deep war" (Overy's words): the ability of the Soviet economy and military forces to absorb the shock of the German attacks of 1941 and 1942, and most importantly to force Russian victories at the battles of Stalingrad and Kursk.
  3. The western allied bombing offensive that most importantly drew increasing German air assets to the defence of the Reich. ".. the facts show that German air power declined steadily on the eastern front during 1943 and 1944, when over two thirds of German fighters were sucked into the contest with the bombers. By the end of 1943 there were 55,000 anti aircraft guns to combat the air offensive - inclding 75% of the famous 88 millimetre gun, which had doubled with such success as an anti tank wweapon on the eastern front."
  4. The invasion of France, the success of which he attributes significantly But not solely of course) to the incredibly successful allied deception plans that results in Hitler's decision to retain XV Army in the Pas de Calais.
  5. The abilities of the allied economies to win the mass production war. In the midst of an insightful analysis of the wartime economies of the four major protagonists, the following statistics are telling: "By 1944 the balance of weapons did swing massively in the allies' favour. But this widening gap was not a result simply of the possession of greater quantities of manpower and raw materials. In the Soviet case 8 million tons of steel and 90 million tons of coal in 1943 translated into 48000 heavy artillery pieces and 24,000 tanks. Germany in the same year turned 30 million tons of steel and 140 million tons of coal into 27,000 heavy guns and 17000 tanks." So productivity was significantly lower in Germany.
  6. The development of robust functional and highly effective technologies, in particular focussing on a few variants of particular key technologies for example.
  7. Leadership styles of the leaders. While Stalin was a dictator much like Hitler, and just as ruthless, there the similarity in leadership styles ends. As the war progressed Stalin showed the ability to take a step back, and allow those with the expertise to determine key strategy. His appointment of Zhukov as Deputy CinC was  a telling step, and as the war progressed Stalin gradually ]stepped back from the running of the war. Churchill showed a similar pattern of behaviour, and as the war progressed the Chiefs of Staff ran the war. Hitler on the other hand, "believing his own press" (my phrase) based on early success achieved against weak opponents, took increasingly more control of the day to day operations of the war. He was simply not up to it.
  8. The moral superiority of the allies compared with the axis. The outstanding achievement of the Allies must be the management of the tension between the democratic west and the communist east, maintaining the integrity of the allied war effort until Germany as defeated. This was aided by the ability of the west to generate support for their war effort domestically on the basis that they were the aggrieved, the victims of attack. A similar rationale was not available to the axis nations.
Overy puts together a compelling argument, in a very readable style. His last paragraph is telling:

"The allies won the second world war because they turned their economic strength into effective fighting power, and turned the moral energies of their people into an effective will to win. The mobilisation of national resources into this broad sense never worked perfectly by any means, but worked well enough to prevail. Materially rich, but divided, demoralised, and poorly led, the allied coalition would have lost the war, however exaggerated Axis ambitions, however flawed their moral outlook.  The war made exceptional demands on the Allied peoples. Half a century later the level of cruelty, destruction and sacrifice that is engendered is hard to comprehend, let alone recapture. Sixty years of relative security and prosperity have opened up a gulf between the present age and the age of crisis and violence that propelled the world into war. Though from today's perspective allied victory might seem somehow inevitable, the conflict was poised on a knife edge in the middle ears of the war. This period must surely rank as the most significant turning point in the history of the modern world." 

This is a must-read for any person who really considers themselves a scholar of this period of human history.