Why Germany lost World War II and why the Allies won?
Strategic analysis of World War II
author Paul Boșcu, October 2017
The Axis lost the war because of a series of tactical mistakes that, at the time, might have seemed the best choices of limited options. At the same time, the Allies won the war through a genuine team effort, and at great cost both financially and in the terms of human lives

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Just as the Nuremberg defendants attempted to place total blame on the dead Führer for all the crimes of the Nazi state, so a slew of books written by the German generals in the 1950s and 1960s attempted to attribute the military defeat solely to him and his closest acolytes, Keitel and Jodl. But almost all of them had served Hitler faithfully during the war.

The phrase ‘Lost Victories’ was even used by Manstein for his autobiography, a book that has – along with Guderian’s memoirs ‘Panzer Leader’ – been condemned by some historians as ‘arrogant’ and ‘self-serving’.

The general thrust of this historical and autobiographical genre was succinctly summed up in the letter written in 1965 by General Günther Blumentritt, who had been purged from the General Staff in September 1944, despite not having been involved in the Bomb Plot: ‘Hitler was militarily speaking no genius. He was a dilettante, interested in small details, and he wanted to hold everything, stubborn, dour, “hold everything to the last”. He had, no doubt, also good military ideas. Sometimes even he was right! However he was after all a layman and acted following his feeling or intuition, not his reason. He did not know what was realistically possible and what was impossible.’

Although the German generals spoke much about their duty and honor after the event, during the war only a small number of them made one attempt to destroy Hitler with a bomb. Other than that, the vast majority served him with remarkable loyalty. Even Count von Stauffenberg’s plot seemed to have been more concerned with getting rid of a useless strategist than making a bold attempt to introduce democracy, equality and peace to Germany.

The German generals were for the most part far removed from the un-ideological knights of chivalry that they liked to portray themselves as. However, this does not mean that they were insincere when they complained about the incessant interference from a military amateur, aided and abetted by Keitel and Jodl. It is impossible to divorce Axis strategy from the centrality of Adolf Hitler: of the 650 major legislative orders issued during the war, all but seventy-two were decrees or orders issued in his name or over his signature.

Stalin once described Hitler to American politician Harry Hopkins as ‘a very able man’, but this was something that the German generals denied in a large body of literature that was published after the war.

It should not be for the unhinged decisions made regarding his troops in the last ten months of his life that the Führer should be principally arraigned, so much as for the disastrous decisions he took when he was rational. The war ought not to have started in 1939 at all, but at least three or four years later, which is what he had originally promised the leaders of the Wehrmacht, Luftwaffe and Kriegsmarine. In those years, Germany would have had time to rearm even more. It would have had a better chance of winning the war.

If he had started the war with the same number of U-boats with which he ended it – 463 – rather than the twenty-six operational ones he had in 1939, Germany might have stood a chance of asphyxiating Britain, especially if every effort had been bent towards developing the Walther U-boats.

If Luftwaffe factories had been diversified away from major industrial areas, and protected underground, or if there had been large-scale early manufacture of the jet-engine Messerschmitt Me-262, which was capable of knocking American Mustangs out of the skies over Germany, then the air war might have gone differently. By October 1944 the Me-262 jet was finally deployed as a fighter. It was not to change the course of the war, as it was too unwieldy on take-off and landing and too high in fuel consumption. But these teething troubles might have been dealt with had not the Führer insisted on developing it as a bomber for far too long, against the advice of General Galland. The defeat of the Allied bombing campaign by Me-262s would have released a major part of the Luftwaffe’s fighter force back into combat in the east, whereas 70 per cent of it was on protection patrol in the west.

In November 1939, Hitler halted the V-rocket development programme at Peenemünde, believing that the victory in Poland had shown it to be unnecessary. It was not reactivated until September 1941, and received priority status only in July 1943, after Speer had warned him that six more raids like those on Hamburg would mean defeat for the Reich. The rocket programme should either have been continued in 1939 or not reactivated at all. It took up a huge amount of resources for a weapon that came on stream too late to make any great difference.

In May 1940, Hitler should have supported those generals who wanted to overrule Rundstedt’s Halt Order outside Dunkirk, thereby capturing the British Expeditionary Force en masse and preventing it from escaping the Continent.

The military maxim ascribed to Frederick the Great: ‘Audacity, audacity, always audacity’ certainly applied to Hitler’s career from the Beer Hall Putsch until the defeat at Stalingrad twenty years later. He was a gambler, taking ever greater gambles throughout his career. Yet at the meeting with Rundstedt in the Maison Blairon, caution overtook him, with ultimately disastrous results.

After Göring had failed to destroy the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk in 1940, as he had promised he would, he should have been moved to a less vital post. Instead, he was allowed to continue in command of the highly important Luftwaffe. He then failed to stop the bombing of Berlin in 1940 as he publicly promised he would, thus escalating the battle of Britain. Hitler regularly kept proven incompetents in place as long as they told him what he wanted to hear. One example is the chief of Luftwaffe intelligence, Colonel ‘Beppo’ Schmid, whose over-optimistic reports of RAF strength helped lose the battle of Britain.

Since Reichsmarschall Göring was unquestioningly loyal to Hitler until almost the very end, his fidelity as a Nazi mattered more to the Führer than his competence as an air commander. Furthermore, after Rudolf Hess’s flight to Scotland, the loss of one deputy Führer might be considered unfortunate, but two would look like carelessness.

Hitler delayed the invasion of Russia by six weeks in order to invade the comparatively unimportant Yugoslavia, where the pro-Allied Government threatened his prestige but posed no appreciable threat to his southern front. Even in that hugely successful campaign – Yugoslavia fell faster than France had, and Greece and Crete soon followed – Hitler learned the wrong lesson about airborne assault. Because Karl Student’s paratroop attack on Crete had been relatively costly at over 4,000 casualties out of the 22,000 dropped on the island, Hitler told their commander: ‘The day of parachute troops is over.’

Because the raids on Saint-Nazaire and Dieppe had not included airborne forces, he persuaded himself that the Allies were not developing them. He failed to use them himself against Malta, Gibraltar, Cyprus or Suez as Student repeatedly urged. Instead, paratroopers were used as elite infantry units. Hitler was surprised on D-Day when an arm first used to great effect by the Axis proved to have been perfected by the Allies.

Hitler learned the wrong lessons from the Russians’ Winter War against Finland, assuming that the Red Army was weak, rather than accepting the fact that, in atrocious weather conditions, defenders in a country of lakes, forests and bad roads can be strong. In his invasion of Russia, despite the glaring example of Finland, he failed to make proper winter provision for his troops. The problem with invading Russia was always going to be as much logistical as military. Hitler should have concentrated on taking Moscow as quickly as possible, thus striking a hard blow against Stalin.

The explanation most often made for the Germans’ lack of preparation – that Hitler thought the campaign would be over in four months – is not convincing: four months from 22 June is 22 October, when the season of mud has already passed into the season of snow.

In the early stages of Barbarossa, the Germans defeated the Russians virtually wherever they engaged them, almost regardless of the numbers involved. Yet the problem of bringing infantry in fast enough behind the Panzer spearheads, especially with the muddy season coming in the autumn, was daunting. A two-season war, on the other hand, in which Leningrad and Moscow were captured in 1942, risked facing full Russian mobilization, of ultimately 500 divisions.

A bold thrust against Moscow – the political, logistical and communications hub of European Russia – was still the best option for Hitler. If an entire Panzer group had gone around behind (to the east of) Moscow in September 1941, the city just might have fallen. Of course it would have been defended street by street as Stalingrad was and Leningrad very nearly had to be. The key difference was that the Russians were able to constantly resupply Stalingrad across the Volga, which would not have been the case had Guderian and Hoth encircled Moscow.

As well as its dire implications for Russian morale, the fall of Moscow would have hampered the Soviets’ ability to concentrate their reserves and to supply other cities in the region. Distance, transportation plagued by partisans, logistics, mud and snow, and the marshalling – even though with monstrous wastage – of overwhelming Russian manpower were the reasons why the Germans failed. Had Fedor von Bock been allowed to continue Army Group Center’s advance on Moscow with his full force in early August 1941 however, even these might have been overcome.

There was always the chance of a political collapse, especially in the case of Stalin’s being forced to flee Moscow on the special train he had prepared for himself on 16 October 1941, to seek safety beyond the Urals. Beria privately suggested the move at the time, but did not propose it at the Stavka. In the absence of a Japanese invasion from the east, Hitler would probably have offered a post-Stalin regime peace terms that allowed it to rule everywhere east of the Urals, a far harsher version of the peace of Brest-Litovsk which the Bolsheviks signed with the Kaiser in 1918.

Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, his cardinal error of the war. Given that Rommel took Tobruk and got to within 60 miles of Alexandria by October 1942 with the twelve-division Afrika Korps, even a fraction of the force thrown against Russia could have swept the British from Egypt, Palestine, Iran and Iraq long beforehand. If Germany had captured the Middle-East, they would have had access to that region's oil, at the same time cutting the British off from their supply. Hitler could have invaded Russia from a much stronger position, through the Middle East, and into the Caucasus.

Taking Cairo would have opened up four glittering prospects, namely the capture with relative ease of the almost undefended oilfields of Iran and Iraq, the expulsion of the Royal Navy from its major base in the Mediterranean at Alexandria, the closing of the Suez Canal to Allied shipping, and the prospect of attacking India from the north-west just as Japan threatened her from the north-east. Stationed in the Middle East, the Germans would have cut Britain off from her oil supplies, and posed a threat against British India from the west, but also against the Soviet Union and the Caucasus from the south.

Even if Britain had fought on from metropolitan United Kingdom, Canada and India, importing her oil from the United States, any British threat to Germany’s southern flank would have been over.

Hitler could then have undertaken his invasion of Russia in his own time with Army Group South moving only a few hundred miles from Iraq to Astrakhan, rather travelling over 1,000 miles as it had to in 1941 and 1942. Considering how much Stalin decried the idea that Hitler would ever attack him in 1941, there is no real reason to suppose that the USSR would have been on any better footing for war in the summer of 1942, or 1943, than she was in 1941.

Army Group South should have taken the Caucasus from the south rather than the west. Marching between the Black and the Caspian Seas, a German invasion of the Caucasus and southern Russia would have cut the USSR off from the main part of her non-Siberian oil supply, and, as Friedrich von Mellenthin noted in the context of El Alamein, a motorized division without fuel is mere scrap iron.

It was incredibly fortunate for the Allies that the Axis never coordinated their war efforts. They even failed to exchange information on basic equipment such as anti-tank weapons. The Japanese Foreign Minister Yosuke Matsuoka resigned in July 1941 because he wanted to attack Russia from the east at the same time that Hitler unleashed Operation Barbarossa on her from the west. By the time Stalingrad fell, and when Hitler desperately needed such an attack, the Japanese were on the retreat from the point they had reached the previous spring.

Close military co-ordination between Berlin, Rome and Tokyo should have ensured that the Japanese attacked not the Americans but rather the Russians as soon as Germany was ready. The oil Japan desperately needed for her war machine could have been taken from Siberia rather than the Dutch East Indies.

Hitler showed absolutely no interest in allowing Japan to take part in Barbarossa, and her leaders did not even inform him of the impending attack on Pearl Harbor, any more than Mussolini warned Hitler of his attack on Greece, or Hitler told Mussolini of his invasion of Yugoslavia.

Hitler should have studiously ignored all provocations from Franklin Roosevelt, especially in the Atlantic, in the knowledge that the President did not have the political power to declare war against a Germany that was professing friendship and sympathy towards the United States. In the absence of a declaration of war against America after Pearl Harbor, something Hitler was under no treaty obligation to furnish, it would have been well-nigh impossible for Roosevelt to have committed the United States to invading North Africa in 1942 and aiding the Soviets.

The Führer unnecessarily declared war on the uninvadable United States, giving Roosevelt the excuse for the Germany First policy. It was the second greatest error of his life, and came within six months of the first. Yet it hardly excited any opposition from the German generals, let alone the admirals who positively looked forward to this suicidal move.

With America fully committed in the Pacific fighting Japan, only then should Operation Barbarossa have been put into effect, with Germany fighting on one front rather than the traditionally suicidal two.

The Nazis’ contempt for all Slavs meant that they were incapable of following the obvious beneficial course of action during Barbarossa. Putting Lebensraum and ethnic cleansing on the bottom of the agenda, the Germans ought to have striven to make allies of the Greater Russian subject peoples against their Bolshevik oppressors, allowing Ukraine, Belorussia, the Baltic States, the Crimea, and the Caucasus republics the widest possible degrees of autonomy consistent with German hegemony in Europe, not unlike that enjoyed by Vichy France.

The deliberate mass-starvation policies adopted by Moscow towards Ukraine in the 1920s and 1930s left a legacy of hatred towards the Soviet central Government. It was clear from their initial welcoming of the Wehrmacht in 1941 that many nationalists would have enthusiastically seized the opportunity of limited independence within the Reich.

A single supreme commander on the Eastern Front from the very start – with Erich von Manstein easily the best choice, but several others possible – would have done far better than Hitler did when he replaced Walther von Brauchitsch with himself in December 1941. The Führer thereafter listened to senior generals less and less. Instead he used their perceived failures to add to the preferential resourcing of the Waffen-SS which led to deprivations for Wehrmacht units.

Hitler even acknowledged his inflexibility to his secretary, Christa Schroeder: she recalled asking him whether she could rephrase a sentence he had dictated, and ‘he looked at me, neither angry nor offended, and said: “You are the only person I allow to correct me!”’

Instead of constant changes in policy and personnel, a single strategic brain that was advised and encouraged by Hitler, but was not Hitler, might have settled on a single campaign push. This would surely have ignored the Kiev operation which diverted too much of the armor of Army Group Center southwards in August 1941, thereby taking the marginal Ukrainian capital instead of the all-important Russian one.

Once it was clear that the Russians not only were not going to collapse but were actively counter-attacking, from Zhukov’s 6 December 1941 offensive onwards, Hitler began to issue the ‘Stand or die’ orders that substituted his own willpower for genuine strategy. Some, such as Wilhelm Keitel and Alan Clark, have argued that these orders made good military sense in bad weather conditions when retreats could be conducted only at 3 or 4 mph and heavy equipment could not be saved. On occasion that might have been correct, but soon Hitler proved himself psychologically incapable of ever giving up any ground that had been won.

The ‘stand or die’ orders came from a World War I trenches mentality, from a corporal who never attended Staff college, combined with the fear of an ideologue who believed that he showed lack of willpower, as well as the fury of the professional gambler who is faced with indisputable proof that after a twenty-year winning streak his luck had finally turned.

Instead of seeing retreat as a geographical and strategic concept that, as Friedrich von Mellenthin pointed out, often opened up useful opportunities for counterattack, Hitler saw it entirely in terms of propaganda and morale, as symptomatic of defeat, and thus of being proven wrong dialectically.

Ever the revolutionary, Hitler considered withdrawal from a military position to be equivalent to backing off from a political one: something his pride and need for both prestige and momentum could not allow. He could not bear even tactically justifiable retreats, seeing them as an affront to the spirit of eternal advance on which he had built his political movement.

With his ‘Stand or die’ orders, as historian Norman Stone puts it, ‘Hitler hit the same note on the piano with increasing shrillness and persistence from the start to the gruesome finish.’

This attitude was all the more reprehensible in view of the fact that, if anything, the Wehrmacht was sometimes even better at counter-attacking than attacking. This was shown by Rommel at the Kasserine Pass, Manstein taking Kharkov after Stalingrad, Vietinghoff at Anzio, Senger at Cassino, Model in Belorussia and Manteuffel almost reaching the Meuse during the Ardennes offensive.

In naval matters, Hitler managed to drive the best German strategist, Grand Admiral Erich Raeder, out of the Kriegsmarine. In February 1942, he was so convinced that the Allies were about to attack Norway that he threatened Raeder that if the Prinz Eugen, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau did not escape from Brest, he would remove their guns for coastal artillery. There was no credible Allied threat to Norway. Although the capital ships did make a successful dash down the Channel, they were no longer of any great use, and certainly not as the Atlantic raiders that they could have been when operating out of Brest.

Hitler admitted to being ‘a coward at sea’, but never allowed Raeder to be a lion. By the time Dönitz took over the Navy, it had been chased out of the all-important Atlantic ports.

In his Memorial Day Address of 15 March 1942, Hitler promised listeners that the Red Army would be destroyed by the summer of 1942, another brazen, soon-to-be-broken promise. When he redirected Army Group B to Stalingrad, there began a series of absurd changes in disposition which were the stuff of any planner’s nightmares. The cumulative effect of these changes of mind and direction was fatally to slow the momentum towards Stalingrad. He attacked that city for ideological reasons rather than military ones - never a good tactic. When the attack failed, he blamed his generals, rather than admitting his mistakes.

Stalingrad was never worth the amount of men flung into it anyway, and probably wouldn’t have had its talismanic power for either dictator had it not been for its unfortunate change of name from Tsaritsyn in 1925.

Hitler’s true crises with the generals only began once events had very definitely taken a negative turn just after the battle of Stalingrad began. Hitler dismissed General Franz Halder for criticizing his personal involvement in the Eastern Front and replaced him with the more subservient General Kurt Zeitzler. He then sacked Field Marshal Wilhelm List and took personal command of Army Group B, without the precaution of leaving the Wolfschanze and actually visiting the army group’s headquarters himself.

For a dictator whose word was law, it would always be difficult to get objective advice, but to sack those who did give it was yet another blunder. With Keitel and Jodl in their key posts at OKW, the last thing the Führer needed in late 1942 was any more sycophancy.

Having received Rommel’s news, during El Alamein, that his tanks could not prevent a breakthrough by Montgomery, Hitler issued another ‘Stand or die’ order. This revealed Hitler’s lack of regard for human life, reflected in the Nazi ideology that whereas the nation was all, the individual – barring the Führer himself – was worthless.

The order issued by Hitler was largely disregarded by Rommel, who doubted the Führer’s sanity when he received it.

Hitler’s disagreements with the generals over the withdrawal of the Seventeenth Army from the Kerch Straits bridgehead in late 1942 and early 1943 reflected a deeper dichotomy over future strategy. Hitler wanted to leave the force in place so that the Caucasus could be recaptured when the tide of fortune turned. The generals had written off the oil-rich region, wanting to use the saved Seventeenth Army to plug the growing gaps in the Ukrainian front. Similarly, Hitler wanted to leave large German and Romanian forces in the Crimea rather than evacuate them, in the hope that the land connection with them could be reestablished even after it had been cut off.

Hitler’s strategic arguments were not unsound: the Crimea could have been used to bomb the Romanian oilfields, Turkey might join the Allies if she fell. But this was not a case of Hitler’s optimism versus the generals’ realism. Hitler felt that every risk must be taken to win the war, since losing it meant certain death for him. A structured withdrawal leading to ultimate defeat signalled only lengthy prison terms for his generals, even those directly connected with war crimes. They were thus playing for drastically different stakes.

Very often, of course, the policy choices were not clear cut between Hitler on one side and his generals on the other, but were debated between the generals on both sides of the argument, with Hitler deciding the issues. Even though Hitler very often came down on the wrong side, he was rarely ever reminded of this. Hitler’s continual sacking and reinstatement of senior generals were bewildering for the High Command and demoralizing for the troops. In considering many of the errors made by Hitler, it is important to remember that it was not just Keitel and Jodl who fully supported him, but also many of his generals, who provided convincing arguments for him.

In September 1942, after Jodl recalled the Führer’s error with regard to the width of front given to List in the Caucasus, he was temporarily snubbed. Hitler avoided Jodl’s company at mealtimes, ‘refused ostentatiously to shake hands’ and gave orders that he be replaced, though this did not happen. ‘A dictator, as a matter of psychological necessity, must never be reminded of his own errors,’ Jodl concluded to Warlimont, ‘in order to keep up his self-confidence, the ultimate source of his dictatorial force.’

When Hitler sacked Manstein, instead of giving him complete control of the Eastern Front, he made a significant blunder. Yet even subservience could not protect some commanders: Hitler sacked Field Marshal Ernst Busch as commander of Army Group Centre, replacing him with Model. A week later he replaced Rundstedt with Field Marshal von Kluge, who was convalescing after a car crash. Then he refused Model’s assistance from Army Group North to strengthen his attempts to keep the Russians out of the Baltic. He reappointed Rundstedt as commander-in-chief west, only a few weeks after his replacement by Kluge.

The Führer never learned from his mistakes, and so continued to make much the same ones for two and a half years after Stalingrad. This would have been inconceivable in the Western Alliance, where Generals Brooke and Marshall felt under no obligation to refrain from pointing out earlier errors made by Churchill and Roosevelt, and vice versa.

Hitler again dismissed Heinz Guderian, who was perhaps the best of his battlefield commanders, replacing him with the utterly undistinguished General Hans Krebs. Towards the end of the war, fanatical Nazi generals such as Krebs, Schörner and Rendulic were promoted, not so much for their military competence as for their ideological loyalty.

If different counsels had prevailed at Führer-conferences, such as Brauchitsch’s at Dunkirk, Galland’s during the battle of Britain, Manstein’s at Stalingrad, Rommel’s before El Alamein, Guderian’s before Kursk and any number of other generals’ on any number of other occasions, the Reich would have been in a better position to carry out the war.

There was no simple nexus of Hitler versus the High Command that post-war soldier-authors such as Manstein, Guderian and Blumentritt all too often posed. There was no German general who was always right, any more than the Führer was always wrong. The campaigns that defeated Poland, Norway, France, Yugoslavia, Greece and Crete were all pored over and approved by Hitler, after all.

No general opposed the concept of Operation Barbarossa, about which Halder and Brauchitsch accepted the over-optimistic intelligence assessments as much as everyone else. Similarly, Manstein was initially in favour of Paulus trying to hold out in Stalingrad, Kluge opposed the central thrust on Moscow, and Bock generally supported Hitler’s strategy in Russia.

Hitler delayed the Operation Zitadelle attack on Kursk for a hundred days, partly because of Speer’s promises that the new Panther tanks would arrive in large numbers by then. The complete loss of surprise, which had been Germany’s best weapon in the days of Blitzkrieg, was disastrous.

The Russians knew where and roughly when the Germans would attack, and prepared accordingly. They constructed a series of heavy defensive fortifications. The Germans could not penetrate all of them.

Although Hitler can hardly be blamed for sleeping through the D-Day landings, Rundstedt’s defence of Normandy was badly hampered by him. Indeed, he could hardly have helped the Allies better had he been working for them. The compromise he effected between Rundstedt’s desire to deploy inland and Rommel’s plan of fighting on the beaches created the worst of both worlds, by muddying the response and separating the commands disastrously. Hitler also fell for the Allied deception, believing that the main landing would take place at Calais. Additionally, he refused to allow his Generals to withdraw troops when the military situations dictated it.

Even in mid-July, Hitler was still convinced that the main Allied attack was to be expected at the Pas de Calais, and refused to allow his powerful forces there to be transferred southwards. He therefore completely fell for both the Norwegian and the Calais parts of the Allied deception plans, Operations Fortitude North and South.

At a meeting with Rommel and Rundstedt, Hitler blamed his troops in France for weakness and cowardice, refused to allow withdrawals and announced that secret weapons would win the war instead. Yet he had also spent the war undermining the secret weapon programmes, by ordering the jet-aircraft programme to concentrate on producing bombers rather than fighters, and by stop-starting the V-1 and V-2 weapons programmes.

By Christmas Day 1944, despite the Ardennes offensive having recaptured 400 square miles, it was clear that Antwerp would not fall and that the attack could not move much further. In yet another ‘Stand or die’ order, Hitler insisted that there would be an Alsace offensive in the New Year, which never materialized.

By refusing Model the possibility of retreating from the area around Houffalize, the German Army was once again left powerless to reconstitute itself further to the east. By the end of the offensive, the US First Army had crossed into the Fatherland itself, east of St Vith.

Even though the war was effectively lost after Kursk, it still could have dragged on into 1946 or later, had not Hitler listened to so few of his good generals and dismissed the very best of them. In contrast, the Western Allies fought the war substantially by committee, with the American Joint Chiefs of Staff and the British Chiefs of Staff Committee creating grand strategy in conjunction with input from the politicians. Even in the Stavka, Stalin permitted a reasonable degree of free discussion on military affairs, so long as it did not stray into the political sphere, which was exclusively his.

This system produced fierce rows between politicians and Staff officers, and between Britons and Americans. But the traditions of gentlemanly interaction, open debate (within the obvious security parameters), freedom from fear, and an assumption that the synthesis of views was more likely to produce better results, all meant that the tensions which inevitably arose were generally creative ones.

The catastrophe of 1941 undoubtedly sobered Stalin, and showed him that men like Zhukov, Konev and Rokossovsky should be heeded if Russia was to survive. Hitler, meanwhile, put his own omniscience before the need to pay attention to his advisers, however high the stakes.

Britain stood alone against Germany when no one else could. British scientists also cracked the German Enigma machine. This was vital to the Allied war effort. Britain became a fortress from which Operation Overlord could be launched. At first the British did badly in France, Malaya, Greece, North Africa and Crete. Afterwards, in Europe and Burma, the British fared better. But the best soldiers were already either killed or captured.

By refusing Hitler’s peace overtures in 1940, winning the battle of Britain, cracking the Enigma code, keeping the sea-lanes open during the battle of the Atlantic, bombing German industry enough to blunt Speer’s economic miracle and providing an unsinkable aircraft carrier (a giant version of Midway or Malta) from which the liberation of western Europe could be effected after D-Day, Britain forced Germany into a two-front war, even though the western one was to be found along the shores of the Mediterranean for much of the war, rather than in the Low Countries.

The British Army had a more difficult war than the Royal Navy and the RAF, especially in the early stages, with bad tactics during the fall of France and Malaya, bad strategy during the Greek and Cretan débâcles, bad equipment in the early North African campaigns, bad intelligence at Dieppe and Arnhem, and bad weather in Italy. It only really hit its stride – ably supported by excellent Commonwealth contingents – at the battle of El Alamein, which, as well as being the British Empire’s first major land victory over Germans of the war, was also its last.

From D-Day onwards in Europe, and certainly in Slim’s campaigns in Burma in 1944–5, the British Army did well, but by then its troops had been fighting for five years. In all, the United Kingdom lost 379,762 military killed and 571,822 military wounded in the war, with around 65,000 civilians killed.

It was the Russians who provided the manpower to defeat Germany. It cannot be reiterated enough that out of every five Germans killed in combat, four died on the Eastern Front. It is the central statistic of the Second World War. The full cost to the Russians amounted to around twenty-seven million dead soldiers and civilians. It needs to be borne in mind that much of the responsibility for the catastrophe lay with Stalin himself.

If Stalin had not signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact; if he had not trusted Hitler so totally; if he had not wiped out much of the Red Army officer corps in the purges of 1937–8; if he had not gone to war with Finland; if he had not sent his troops so far forward after his pounce on eastern Poland; if he had not refused to allow strategic withdrawals after Barbarossa... The list of his blunders is long and galling and led to the deaths of millions.

Although the Russians bled the most by far, if one is to take a broader-based criterion of war effort, which includes the war at sea and the air war over Germany, the western Allies’ contribution meant that the Reich was unable to concentrate as much as 60 per cent of its total armaments against the Russians, even in the make-or-break months of late 1941.

American contribution was made primarily in the production and distribution of armaments, the overall financing of the conflict, the size of forces mobilized and the successful campaigns fought, often in places that American strategists did not want to be. Much as nationalist historians like to present their own countries as central to victory, the Second World War was a genuine team effort which required the full exertions of all three major partners for victory, each in their different but complementary ways.

The US spent $350 billion on the war, even more than Germany and as much as the USSR and Britain combined. She also mobilized 14.9 million Americans, more than Germany’s 12.9 million and twice Japan’s 7.4 million. She bore the lion’s share of the war in the Pacific and provided two-thirds of the forces at Overlord and the subsequent fighting in the west.

The Eighth Army Air Force bombed Germany relentlessly, while the US provided many of the boots, trucks and armaments with which the Russians held back and eventually prevailed over the Germans.

Churchill was fighting for an empire in which by 1945 very many senior British decision makers besides himself no longer believed, whereas Stalin was fighting for an equally doomed system, before deliberately initiating a Cold War that his country would eventually lose. Roosevelt fought for a future which actually came to pass, that of United States hegemony, with military bases around the world, generally unfettered access to global markets, and a Pax Americana that has lasted to the present day. Hitler was unable to take on leaders such as Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin.

When Churchill told the V-E Day crowds in London ‘This is your victory!’ and they roared back ‘No, it’s yours!’ they would both be proved wrong: in fact it turned out to be the recently deceased President Roosevelt’s.

Hitler was easily able to bully and swindle fearful and naive men such as Austrian Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg, Czech President Emil Hácha, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier. When he came up against men of the calibre of Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin, he found he had more than met his match.