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About the Second World War

The Second World War
by Richard Overy

The Second World War was a war of extremes. All the powers that fought it were pushed to the very depths of physical and moral endurance. Not since the European wars of religion three centuries before had ideological confrontation provoked such a depth of hatred and military barbarism. No other war in modern times made such demands on the manpower and economic product of the combatants. War was fought by soldiers and civilians; both were its casualties. The 55 million who died in the conflict exceeded the number killed in all the other wars of the modern age together.

It was also a war of extraordinary contrasts. On the Eastern Front both sides fought with large tank armies, but at times reverted to fighting on horseback. In August 1942 two squadrons of Italian cavalry performed their country's last mounted charge, with sabres drawn, against a Soviet infantry division. In the Far East Japanese soldiers fought with knives and the long samurai sword side by side with machine-guns. Biplanes saw service throughout a war that generated the first rockets, the first intercontinental bombers, and, at its very end, the first nuclear weapons. Women and children fought in uniform alongside men; 12-year-old boys were drafted into the final frantic defence of the German homeland; regiments of Soviet women fought in the Red Army's advance on Berlin. Hundreds of thousands of women and children died in the front line of the air war in the bombing of Germany and Japan. Throughout the conflict more civilians were killed than soldiers.

The Onset of Total War

This was the kind of war widely expected in the 1930s. After the experience of the Great War of 1914-18 it was generally assumed that in an age of mass politics and mass production war was waged between whole populations, soldier and civilian alike. The concept of conventional warfare, fought in brief campaigns between rival armed forces, was replaced by the concept of 'total war'. The term was coined by General Erich Ludendorff, the German First Quartermaster General (joint chief of staff), in 1918, but soon gained an international currency. Simply put, total war was a revolutionary departure from traditional theories of conflict. To be able to wage total war states would have to mobilize all the material, intellectual, and moral energies of their peoples; by implication the enemy community as a whole--its scientists, workers, and farmers--became legitimate objects of war. The widespread civilian deaths in the wars of the 1930s in Ethiopia, China, and Spain underscored the change and accustomed populations to the uncomfortable reality that warfare was now indiscriminate.

War preparation in the 1930s was governed everywhere by the imperatives of total war. Economic resources were stockpiled; substitute industries were set up to produce essential raw materials such as oil whose supply might be cut off in war; programmes of civil defence were initiated to prepare home populations for attack by bombs or gas. In the United States an Industrial War College was set up in the 1920s to absorb the lessons of the economic contest in the Great War and to prepare for economic mobilization in the next. In Hitler's Germany the authorities designed propaganda campaigns to prepare the population psychologically for wartime sacrifices.

When the armed forces began to work out the strategy appropriate for total war their views were also shaped by the assumption that high levels of economic mobilization and the maintenance of domestic morale and financial stability were as important as performance on the battlefield. Here the similarities ended. On strictly military issues the differing experiences of the Great War provided the inspiration for very different strategies. German forces wanted to avoid the trench stalemate which had slowly eroded German resources and war-willingness. They returned to the idea of the decisive battlefield engagement, using all the nation's resources, prepared in advance, for a crushing blow at the enemy. The blow was to be inflicted by a combination of armour and aircraft which would act as the spearhead of a rapidly deployed infantry mass. In Britain and France, on the other hand, the idea of a defensive war of attrition, which had eventually produced victory in 1918, was resurrected. When British and French military staffs drew up plans for wartime strategy in the spring of 1939 they decided to stay put in the early stages of war behind a defensive wall, while they wore down German resistance by economic blockade and bombing, before delivering the coup de grâce several years later on a weakened and demoralized enemy. It was assumed that the artillery barrage and the machine-gun still gave the military edge to the defender.

When these two differing views of modern warfare were pitted against each other in the summer of 1940 it was shown in six weeks that German choices had been the more sensible. Warning had already been given in the first two weeks of war, in September 1939, when the German army and air force tore Polish forces to shreds in a matter of days. The western Allies had expected a campaign of six months. On 10 May 1940 German forces tried again the gamble that had failed in the Spring Offensive of 1918. A fist of ten armoured and motorized divisions--only 7 per cent of the attacking force--drove rapidly across the Low Countries to deliver an annihilating blow against the overstretched French and British line. With good battlefield aviation supporting ground forces, and an effective system of radio communication, the German military made the most of their resources against an enemy whose cast of mind was defensive and whose communication and organization at the front proved woefully deficient. The British and French concept of a war of attrition and blockade, fought partly by bombing aircraft, never materialized. The two western states lost sight in the 1930s of the most basic element of warfare--the ability to fight effectively on the field of battle itself. Both sides possessed comparable resources (the Germans had in fact fewer and poorer-quality tanks) but German military leaders emphasized high standards of training and operational preparation and technical efficiency, the very virtues that brought victory in 1866 over Austria and in 1870 over France.

When France surrendered on 19 June and British forces retreated from Dunkirk back to the home country, it was widely assumed that the war was over. In July Hitler opened the door to an agreement with Britain on German terms. Britain refused to treat with Hitler, and returned for want of any alternative to the strategy of blockade and bombing adopted in 1939. By this point Germany was not the only enemy. In the wake of German success Mussolini's Italy declared war on Britain and France on 10 June. A few weeks later Japanese forces moved into French Indo-China, threatening Britain's imperial position in the Far East. Unable to get at Hitler's Germany for want of a large Continental army, Britain turned to a form of warfare with which it was much more familiar: small-scale overseas operations supported by naval power and native imperial forces. The defence of the Suez Canal and of India became the focus of British efforts; against Italian forces in North and East Africa the British found an enemy they could defeat.

The War at Sea

Until re-entry to Continental Europe became possible in force in 1944 Britain fought what was essentially a naval war, supported increasingly by aircraft. Naval power was a critical element in British war-making. The navy kept open the vital trade routes on which Britain's economy and home population depended for survival, and was the instrument which linked together the scattered territories of the Empire and ferried the resources to defend them. Command of the seas was essential to the conduct of any army operation staged outside the motherland. In 1940 the British navy was second only to the American in size, and quite dwarfed the naval forces of Germany and Italy. The threat of its use was sufficient to persuade Hitler that an army invasion of the British Isles in the autumn of 1940 was not yet feasible, even had German air forces been able to contain the RAF sufficiently to provide air cover for an invasion fleet.

From 1940 until the summer of 1943 Britain and Germany fought a contest for control of the Atlantic. German submarines were ordered to strangle British trade and British reinforcement of the Mediterranean and the Far East. With limited numbers of vessels, but with the ability to break British naval ciphers, submarine packs concentrated their efforts in areas where convoys could not be protected by shore-based aircraft. In 1941 submarines sank 1,299 ships; in 1942 1,662, with a total tonnage of almost 8 million. British trade was reduced to less than a third of pre-war volumes. Disaster was avoided only by a vigorous programme to expand domestic agricultural output and a strategy of stockpiling which had begun in the 1930s as a precaution against blockade. In March 1943 the level of attrition experienced by Allied shipping was so high that the British Admiralty Neared the collapse of the Atlantic trade routes and, in effect, of Britain's war effort.

The tide in the anti-submarine war was turned not by the old instruments of sea warfare but by the new generation of weapons, radio, radar, and aircraft. Every effort was made to reduce shipping losses as in the First World War by developing a convoy system, providing specially trained escort vessels, and using sonar detection and depth charges. Against modern ocean-going submarines, equipped with advanced radio technology and supplied with intelligence on convoy movements, these methods were ineffective. During 1942 Allied naval forces were supplied with a new generation of radar equipment, based on centimetric frequencies rather than the conventional 1.7 metres, which allowed much more successful tracking of submarines. Great effort was put into breaking German naval codes so that by 1943 submarine strategy could be followed by radio intelligence. Above all the submarine was subjected to more effective air attack.

Though most navies in 1939 were still resistant to the idea that air power might transform naval strategy, the first years of war demonstrated decisively that sea power, like land power, could only be deployed successfully with adequate air protection. The German battleship Bismarck was the most famous victim of air attack, in May 1941, crippled by an airborne torpedo in the Atlantic 700 miles west of Brest; in November 1940 a handful of British biplanes mauled the Italian fleet at Taranto; the German long-range Kondor aircraft sank 150,000 tons of shipping a month in 1941 far out into the Atlantic. Submarines proved particularly vulnerable to air attack. Once aircraft were fitted with the new centimetric radar and effective anti-submarine armament they exacted a high toll. A combination of long-range aircraft hunting over the whole area of the Atlantic in 1943 and of escort carriers sailing with the convoys brought the defeat of the German submarine. In 1943 out of 237 German vessels sank 149 were victims of aircraft.

The revolutionary effect of aircraft in sea warfare was demonstrated beyond doubt in the Far East. Japan was one of the few naval powers to recognize the impact of aircraft. When in 1941 Japanese authorities finally decided to use German victories as a shield for their own imperialism in the Pacific, the naval aviators, the élite of Japan's air forces, did to enemy navies what German panzer divisions did to enemy armies. Small in number but technically proficient, Japan's naval air forces formed the spearhead of Japan's war launched on 7 December 1941 against the United States and the colonial powers in the Pacific. At the main American naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii the Japanese air attack almost succeeded in knocking out the American Pacific Fleet at a stroke. Over the following three months British and Dutch naval power was similarly blunted. Without air cover battleships were an expensive liability; without naval aviation an enemy fleet could not be brought to defeat.

It was Japan's misfortune to be confronted in the Pacific by the United States navy, not simply because of its sheer size and the economic potential of American dockyards, but because American seamen had realized sooner than Europeans that aircraft could play a decisive role in naval combat. The US navy possessed large purpose-built aircraft-carriers and a core of marine aviators. American ships also carried radar, and American radio intelligence had access to Japanese codes. These last advantages were vital in the critical naval battles in the summer of 1942. Japan, like Germany, hoped to interrupt Allied supply routes across the ocean to prevent effective reinforcement of the Pacific theatre. In May and June Japanese naval task forces were sent to secure the island bases necessary for this strategy around the Coral Sea, north of Australia, and the American island of Midway, close to Pearl Harbor itself. The Japanese naval commander, Admiral Yamamoto, hoped to lure what was left of the American fleet to a naval battle where Japan's overwhelming preponderance of capital ships could be brought to bear.

The naval engagement never materialized. In both the battles, in the Coral Sea in May 1942, and at Midway on 4-5 June, the conflict was decided entirely by aircraft, which kept the rival surface forces at arm's length. In the Battle of Midway American aircraft-carriers, concealed from the enemy by successful deception, succeeded in sinking the entire Japanese carrier force and destroying half its specialist pilots. The loss was difficult to make good. In 1943 and 1944 Japanese shipyards supplied a further seven carriers; American shipyards produced ninety. American aircraft and submarines, against which Japanese forces had very little effective defence, slowly stripped Japan of its naval and merchant shipping. Over the course of the war air-sea co-operation on the Allied side in the Pacific continually improved with the introduction of high-quality naval dive-bombers, modern radar, and radio communication. The pride of the Japanese battle fleet, the giant battleship Yamato, symbol of the traditional age of naval mastery, fell victim in 1945, on its way to the defence of the island of Okinawa, to scores of American aircraft.

The War on Land I: The Conflict for Asia

While British and American navies fought for control of the oceans, the armies and air forces of Germany, the USSR, Japan, and China fought for control of the Asian land mass. The German attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941 and the earlier attack by Japan against China, which began in 1931 and turned into a full-scale war in 1937, had much in common. In both states there flourished the belief that their populations needed economic living-space in order to prosper on equal terms with the rich western states; popular ideas on imperialism and race turned both states towards the territories of mainland Asia, whose peoples were regarded as inferior and whose political systems--the Communist Soviet Union and the Chinese dictatorship of Chiang Kai-shek--were thought to be both weak and corrupt. The struggle to carve out the new economic and political order in Asia produced total war in its most extreme form. The Soviet Union mobilized its entire population to the limit of physical and moral endurance; Germany and Japan imposed heavier and heavier burdens on their own populations in the effort to secure victory, but, consistent with the ideology of racial exploitation, millions of Koreans, Chinese, and the Soviet nationalities were employed as slave labour. In both the conflict for Eurasia and the war in China an estimated 17 million civilians lost their lives, most from enemy action, some at the hand of their own harsh authorities.

The war between Germany and the Soviet Union which began on 22 June 1941 was waged on an extraordinary scale across a front of 1,000 miles. The war was Hitler's inspiration. Following the success of German forces in 1939 and 1940 he finally decided in December 1940 to launch a quick strike at the Soviet Union using the same war of movement and massive armoured/air fighting power that had succeeded until then. Divided into three army groups, North, Centre, and South, 3 million German and allied forces drove against the unprepared Soviet armies in a series of devastating pincer movements which brought them to the edge of Leningrad and Moscow in four months, and to the economically rich Donets Basin in the southern Ukraine. The winter weather prevented the quick victory Hitler wanted, but the following spring German forces moved forward again in the south to try to capture the whole of the southern industrial and oil region and to swing behind the remaining Soviet forces to the north to complete one final annihilating encirclement. By September German forces had reached Stalingrad on the Volga and the edge of the Caucasus mountains.

The German attack was a model of operational skill and tactical efficiency, but by the late summer of 1942 there were clear signs that the momentum was lost. In November the Soviet armies on either side of Stalingrad inflicted the first major defeat on the invading force. The encirclement and capture of 300,000 men of the German 6th Army in Stalingrad in January 1943 was regarded world-wide as the point at which the tide turned against the aggressor states. The German defeat has often been blamed on Hitler himself, who had taken over direct command of German armies in December 1941. While it is certainly the case that he led his forces into a campaign where they became vulnerably overstretched across the steppe of southern Russia, few German generals even in the autumn of 1942 thought that Soviet forces were capable of very serious resistance in the south. The roots of the German problem go deeper than this. During the first eighteen months of the conflict the German forces underwent a gradual process of 'de-modernization'. The numbers of aircraft and tanks were constantly reduced through high battle losses and the diversion of resources to other fronts. Production in the Reich failed to keep pace. At the end of very long lines of communication the maintenance and repair of vehicles and planes became a logistical nightmare.

The severe climate--bitterly cold in winter, hot and dusty in the summer--took a heavy toll of vehicles. Armoured divisions began the war with 328 tanks apiece; by the summer of 1943 they averaged 73; by the end of the war the figure was 54. The German army fell back on the use of horses. During 1942 German industry turned out only 59,000 trucks for an army of 8 million men, but the same year 400,000 horses were sent to the Eastern Front. The German forces concentrated their air and tank power on a few élite divisions; the rest of the army moved like those of the Great War, by rail, horse, or foot.

The Soviet forces experienced entirely the opposite process. From a feeble platform in 1941 Soviet armies and air forces underwent an extraordinary programme of reform and modernization. Soviet military leaders set out deliberately to copy the success of their enemy. Air forces were concentrated in large air armies, centrally coordinated for the most flexible response to problems at the front line, and with great improvements in radio communication which made it possible to give effective support to ground forces. Armies were reorganized to match German practice, with a core of heavily armoured and mobile divisions. Small improvements, such as the installation of two-way radios in tanks, supplied from the United States as aid, produced a radical change in fighting power. Stalin gave high priority to supply and logistics, and by 1943 the number of aircraft and tanks produced began to overhaul German production by a wide margin, while the technical quality improved remarkably in the course of two years. The most significant reform came in the attention paid to operational skills. Stalin devolved responsibility for organizing operations to the general staff and his exceptionally talented deputy Marshal Zhukov. Under his leadership the Soviet forces proved capable of planning and executing operations involving millions of men, a feat quite beyond Soviet generals in the early stages of the war.

The effects of these far-reaching reforms were demonstrated in the largest and most significant set-piece battle of the war, at Kursk in July 1943. In an effort to stabilize their front-line German generals planned to lure the Soviet forces into a huge pitched battle on the Kursk steppe where they hoped to encircle and capture the core of the revived Red Army. Zhukov prepared a defensive field of such depth and sophistication that the German armoured spearheads were only able to move a matter of miles before annihilating Soviet counter-offensives broke the German line and drove the invading force back beyond the Dnieper River. In the following eighteen months Soviet offensive tactics succeeded in driving back what had been regarded until then as the finest army and air force in the world. German forces swung on to the defensive, concentrating on using tanks as mobile defensive artillery, and switching to the mass production of anti-tank guns and heavy defensive armament. The growing imbalance of forces in favour of the Red Army disguised the extent to which the balance on the battlefield began to swing back to the defender. In the gruelling advance into Germany both sides suffered extraordinary losses. It was here that the Second World War was won and lost. The Red Army destroyed some 607 divisions of German and allied forces between 1941 and 1945. Two-thirds of German tank losses were inflicted on the Eastern Front.

China was much less successful than the Soviet Union in resisting invasion. By the end of 1941 Japan controlled much of northern China and the key coastal areas of the south. Chinese nationalist forces were in general poorly armed and led, though supplies from the United States flown on the difficult 'Hump' route from India kept a residual resistance alive. In 1944 Japanese forces launched a final major offensive--operation Ichi-Go--which brought them control of much of southern China and linked up their whole empire from Korea in the north to Malaya in the south. The contest resembled more traditional warfare, for neither side had the industrial and technical resources to sustain large-scale air and tank warfare. Japanese troops fought with old-fashioned rifles and small-calibre artillery. Tanks were lightly armed and few in number--400 produced in 1944, 141 in 1945. The more up-to-date weaponry was kept for the fight against American forces in the Pacific. Japanese forces relied on high levels of endurance and a reputation for brutality. Swords, knives, even bows and arrows, were employed alongside guns against a Chinese population whose powers of resistance were drastically impaired by corruption, factionalism, and official incompetence. The feeble nature of the Japanese threat was exposed in August 1945 when Soviet forces swept through Manchuria in ten days. For both the German and Japanese armies the Asian campaigns did not provide the easy victory they anticipated over Asian 'primitivism'. Both their intended victims, China and the Soviet Union, emerged from the war as Asia's major military powers.

The Revolution in Warfare: Air Power

The war on land and at sea was transformed by aircraft. The development of tactical aviation, in support of armies on the ground, prevented the Second World War from degenerating into the trench stalemate of the First. Fast monoplane fighters armed with guns and rockets, dive-bombers with 'tank-busting' weapons, medium bombers with high explosives, anti-personnel shells, or napalm, became the standard armoury of battlefield aviation. The moral and material effect of air attack was usually sufficient to blast a way forward for attacking armour except in difficult terrain or against an enemy well dug in in bunkers and trenches. Radio communication was generally adopted at the front line to co-ordinate air and ground attacks, while battlefield radar gave warning of enemy attack.

Aircraft also revolutionized sea warfare in action against surface vessels and against submarines, as well as in the defensive role of protecting convoys and fleet movements. Even in the more mundane areas of supply and reconnaissance aircraft provided a new dimension. Troops in the field were supplied by parachute (on occasion even soldiers were dropped by parachute--the storming of the Eben Emael fortress in Belgium in May 1940, the German capture of Crete in May 1941, and so on), and long air supply routes were established from America to Africa and Europe, for the supply of China and the provisioning of partisan resistance movements. Reconnaissance from the air became a routine source of intelligence on enemy movements or potential military targets. Camera technology was transformed during the war years, and photographic interpretation became one of the key areas of intelligence, less glamorous than the world of codes and spies, but no less essential.

In all these functions aircraft played a supporting or ancillary role. The one area where air forces operated independently--the conduct of so-called 'strategic bombing’--proved the most radical departure of all. Bombing was the supreme instrument of total war. It was directed at the enemy population through attacks on economic targets or domestic morale. It was indiscriminate in its effects because the technology of long-range bombing did not permit the accurate destruction of military targets. Bombing strategy was deliberately aimed not at forces in the field but at the war-willingness and material capacity of the society behind them.

This form of air warfare featured little on the Eastern Front, partly because of the very long distances involved, but largely because both German and Soviet forces clung to the Clausewitzian view that wars are only won by defeating the enemy's main forces in the field. Strategic bombing was adopted only in Britain and the United States as a central plank in their war-making. This was partly because they expected their enemies to use the air weapon ruthlessly in some kind of first strike (a fear that proved utterly groundless), partly because both states took a very economic view of war rooted in traditions of blockade, partly because bombing would avoid the terrible casualty rates of the Great War which democratic governments hesitated to impose on their own peoples. From the late 1930s the RAF was committed to attacks against German industrial centres and in May 1940 the campaign was officially launched. The United States Army Air Force followed suit in 1941 when plans were drawn up in detail for the precise destruction of a web of vital war industries.

The bombing strategy foundered at first on technical immaturity. The RAF was forced to bomb at night to avoid high losses, but this made accurate bombing almost impossible. The USAAF began in 1942 a campaign of daylight bombing which was more accurate, but was subject to high attrition rates from the waiting fighters and more than 50,000 anti-aircraft guns defending the Reich by 1944. In the winter of 1943/4 both air forces were close to abandoning the campaign because of German defences. The enterprise was rescued by the introduction of improved navigational aids and better bombing tactics, but above all by the introduction of the 'strategic fighter’, aircraft equipped with extra fuel tanks to carry them over German airspace. Once the enemy air force was fought on equal terms by Allied fighters German airpower was quickly blunted and bombers were much freer to attack industrial targets at will.

The defeat of the German air force coincided with improvements in accuracy and weight of attack which made the combined bomber force a formidable instrument against a highly integrated and tautly stretched war economy. The effects of bombing were twofold. First the bombing campaign diverted a great deal of Germany's war effort away from the war at sea or the main fighting fronts. The fighter force was sucked into the defence of the Reich; German bomber production was cut right back; one-third of the production of heavy guns and electrical and radar equipment went to anti-aircraft defences. Bombing constituted a genuine second front by 1943. The other effects were economic. Bombing placed a ceiling on the expansion of German war potential. In 1944 the production of major weapons and strategic resources such as synthetic oil was cut back sharply because of the bombing. Two million Germans manned the air defences or organized repairs. Bombing undermined the reliability of German workers and forced expensive programmes of evacuation and rehabilitation. It did not end the war on its own, as more outspoken airmen hoped, but bombing distorted the German war effort, demoralized the work-force, and drained the battlefronts of vital resources.

The western states devoted a large fraction of their research and production programme to the bombing campaign. Bomber technology was constantly refined until in the Boeing B29 'superfortress' the USAAF produced the first of the generation of intercontinental bombers which dominated the early Cold War years. Work on the armament of air warfare produced the largest research programme of the war, the 'Manhattan Project' for the production of nuclear weapons. A bomb was not finally developed until after the war with Germany was over. Both the B29 and the first nuclear bombs were turned against Japan. In 1945 a systematic bombing campaign was launched against Japan's major cities. The attacks crippled what was left of Japanese war production and terrified the civil population. By the time two nuclear bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 Japan was already on the point of surrender. The two attacks heralded a new strategic age but they were not the cause of Japan's defeat.

The War on Land II: The Conflict for Europe

The two western states fought a predominantly air and sea war from 1941 to 1944. Neither Britain nor the United States had large enough armies to force reentry into Europe and it took two years to recruit, train, and equip an army of sufficient size to risk a direct invasion. So dangerous did the direct assault on German-held Europe seem that the British preferred a more indirect route, starting with the defeat of Italy in North Africa and seizing strategic opportunities as they arose throughout southern and southeastern Europe. Since American forces were not ready in 1942 for a direct assault Roosevelt agreed to help Britain reconquer North Africa. So inexperienced were British and American forces that the defeat of Italian forces and the German expeditionary force under Field Marshal Rommel took longer than expected. In October 1942 the British inflicted their first land defeat on Axis forces at El Alamein on the Egyptian border. By May 1943 the whole of northern Africa was secured. The temptation to use existing forces against mainland Italy proved overwhelming, despite the efforts to prepare for an attack across the English Channel. Allied invasion of Italy brought Italian surrender on 3 September 1943, but German forces occupied the peninsula and fought a fierce defensive battle which at times threatened the Anglo-American invasion force with defeat. In Italy the Mediterranean strategy reached stalemate.

The American preference was for a direct attack on the main body of the German army in the west, across the English Channel. The risks of an assault like this from the sea against strongly fortified and defended shores were considerable. Its success depended on the victory over the submarine in the Atlantic, and the impact of bombing on the German air force and war production. The cross-Channel attack, codenamed 'Overlord', had to be delayed until the early summer of 1944, so complex were the preparations and so large the resources employed. Overlord was the first major combined arms operation of the war. It could only be carried out by naval powers. Over 4,000 ships supported the invasion; capital ships played a critical part in bombarding the shore defences and German reinforcements. Over twenty convoys of supplies crossed the Channel each day after the invasion. The lack of naval power on anything like this scale had prevented both Napoleon and Hitler from crossing the Channel.

Overlord also depended on massive air power. The long-range bomber force was used to destroy German communications in northern France and to attack German defences. British air defences prevented the German air force from mounting any serious reconnaissance of Allied preparations. Finally, the two western Allies, based on their experiences in North Africa and Italy, built up large tactical air forces to support the ground armies, imitating once again the successful German practice of the early war years. For the first day of Overlord the Allies put 12,000 aircraft into the sky against only 170 serviceable German planes. Throughout the subsequent campaign in France the Allies enjoyed an overwhelming preponderance in the air which helped them to overcome an enemy now practised in defence and armed with weapons--the anti-tank gun, the bazooka, heavy battlefield antiaircraft batteries--which threatened to restore the initiative to the defence and to recreate the trench stalemate of the Great War.

The plan for Overlord finally agreed between the two western Allies in January 1944 was for an initial assault in Normandy with five divisions and paratroop support, followed by a rapid buildup of forces which would hold the German armies on the east wing at Caen and allow a wide wheeling encirclement by Allied forces further west towards Paris and the Seine. Allied armies were built around high mobility. Thanks to American production both British Commonwealth and American forces were completely motorized and enjoyed a high level of mechanization. Rather than imitate the German practice of an élite armoured core the American army became one vast mechanized instrument, with tanks, trucks, and self-propelled guns assigned to every division. Radio communication was central to the smooth operation both of mechanized armies and of air-ground co-operation. The technical transformation of the American army between 1942 and 1944 made it the most modern army of all the warring powers. This, too, helped to compensate for the low level of military experience among western forces, who came from societies with no tradition of large standing armies. When the Supreme Commander of Overlord, General Dwight Eisenhower, arrived in North Africa to command Allied forces in 1942 he had never yet seen armed combat.

For all the advantages enjoyed by the combined arms of the two western states the invasion of Normandy begun on 6 June 1944 depended more than usually on good fortune. The exact time and location was kept from German intelligence by a complex and risky deception plan; the days chosen for invasion were plagued by bad weather, which continued to disrupt Allied plans throughout June and July; German plans to respond to invasion were hesitant and confused. Had German forces--a total of over fifty divisions--been more effectively deployed against the five invading divisions the whole enterprise might well have ended like Gallipoli. As it was the slim foothold gained on the Normandy coastline on 6 June remained insecure for another ten days, and the strategy of the wheeling encirclement took almost seven weeks to launch. During this period Allied firepower imposed an insupportable rate of attrition on German forces. When the break-out in Normandy came in the last week of July 1944 German resistance crumbled. Within a month Paris was liberated and by September German forces were pinned back on the frontiers of the Reich. The whole of the German western army was destroyed and almost all its equipment lost. This constituted the largest single defeat inflicted on German forces throughout the war. The Allied victory relied on the effective integration of air and land power, on a large and well-organized logistical system, and on exceptional levels of military modernity. Defeat in France did not win the war on its own, but it speeded up German defeat and ensured that any prospect of German revival in 1944 based around new inventions--the rocket, jet aircraft, electric-powered submarines--evaporated. From the autumn of 1944 German defeat became a matter of time. On 7 May German forces in Europe capitulated.

Mobilizing the Home Front

Warfare between 1939 and 1945 was thoroughly industrialized. The major combatants mobilized between a half and two-thirds of their industrial work-force, and devoted up to three-quarters of their national product to waging war. This was war waged on an unprecedented scale. The economic commitment was partly a result of the nature of modern weaponry, which could be reproduced in mass by utilizing existing production methods and the civilian work-force and management. The cluster of new industries which emerged before 1939--motor vehicles, aviation, radio, chemicals--could easily be converted at speed to produce tanks, fighters, or explosives. The sheer scale, however, was dictated by the shared belief that in total war states should exert their economic strength to the limit consistent with the survival of a minimum living standard on the home front. Only the United States had industrial resources sufficient to produce more war goods than any other power and maintain high levels of export and civilian consumption. In Britain, Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union trade declined to a fraction and the home population was forced to exist on a narrow band of rationed foodstuffs and household goods.

The mobilization of resources on this scale required extensive planning. Every belligerent power introduced a military command economy in which labour and materials were directly controlled by the state. In the Soviet Union, with recent experience of the Five Year Plans for economic modernization, planning worked to overcome the loss of the bulk of Soviet industrial resources to the German invader. In contrast, despite the existence of a single-party dictatorship, planning remained confused and decentralized in Germany, which failed throughout the war to produce weapons on a scale commensurate with the large economic resources under German control in Europe. With a smaller industrial base the Soviet Union greatly out-produced the German empire throughout the war.

This contrast was partly a reflection of German military preferences. German forces were hostile to mass production and preferred specialist high-quality production with a highly trained work-force. The result was that Germany held a technical lead in most major weapons for much of the war, but could only produce them in relatively small quantities, and had difficulty in maintaining them in the field because of their technical sophistication. A great deal of productive effort in Germany was squandered on the search for new wonder-weapons, or on constant upgrading of existing weapons. Only from 1942 was more effort made to adopt mass-production techniques and from then on bombing began to erode the high potential for expansion contained in the German system.

The Allied powers, Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States, sought a different balance between technical quality and production. They concentrated on a narrow range of advanced weapons which were then produced in large quantities by modern factory methods and a semi-skilled work-force. A policy of periodic modification ensured that by 1944 Allied aircraft and army weapons were at least a match for German, and existed in vastly greater numbers. The technical threshold was pushed towards jets, rockets, and nuclear weapons during the war, but none was yet capable of having a decisive effect on the contest, which was won with the weapons already well developed by 1939--fast monoplane fighters, radar, heavy bombers, large tanks, and large-calibre mobile artillery.

Every warring society supported with greater or less willingness the sacrifices required by such a level of material and technical mobilization. The level of sacrifice ranged very widely. In the United States the civil population was not directly attacked, and living standards rose by an average of 75 per cent per person. In Japan and Germany bombing destroyed wide areas of the major cities, brought the death of almost 1 million civilians, and contributed to sharp declines in living standards and rising malnutrition. In the Soviet Union many workers were placed under martial law, millions of others ended up in labour camps, and the remainder were subjected to a harsh regime of long hours and meagre rations. In Soviet cities close to the front line bombing became routine and civilian deaths from enemy action ran into millions.

How civilian populations sustained war-willingness in the face of total war remains one of the central questions of the war. Coercion played a part. In the Soviet Union slacking or absenteeism could be punished by the labour camp or death. In Germany over 7 million forced labourers were made to work at the point of a gun, while the army of slaves in the concentration and extermination camps were literally worked to death for the war effort. But there were limits to coercion even in dictatorships. Ways were found to reward workers with bonuses or extra rations. The apparatus of propaganda preached sacrifice and collective effort, and demonized the enemy. Western populations fought with the conviction that theirs was a very just cause, and their governments made deliberate efforts to present the war as one for freedom and liberal values, despite bombing civilians and despite the alliance with Stalin's Soviet Union. In Japan and Germany the enemy was portrayed as bestial and destructive , bent on annihilating the unique racial culture that sustained the popular sense of superiority. Populations fought from fear of what their enemy might do in an age of total war, when all the conventional constraints on the conduct of military action were apparently in abeyance.

Paradoxically the effort to wage total war between 1939 and 1945 created the conditions which would make it possible to return to the tradition of war fought with limited resources by armed forces. The new generation of weapons developed by the end of the war were too expensive and technically sophisticated to be produced quickly, in mass, by existing civilian industry. Nuclear weapons, though targeted at the civilian urban population, promised a conflict which would be over in seventy-two hours, far too soon to allow the mobilization of national resources. Under these conditions the mass participation of the Second World War would achieve very little. This was a conclusion welcomed by many in the military establishment who disliked the concept of the large civilian army, reliance on domestic civilian resources for effective war-making, and the assault of civilian populations in conventional war. Since 1945 the nature of military technology, together with efforts to tighten up the international rules on the conduct of war and the creation of a narrow 'military-industrial complex' to provide the economic foundation for war, have all contributed to undermining the concept of total war that dominated strategic thinking for a generation after 1918.

Excerpted from an extensively illustrated essay in The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern War. Ed. Charles Townshend. New York: Oxford UP, 1997. Copyright © 1997 by Oxford UP. The book includes 17 additional chapters on modern war.

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