The Course of the Second World War in Europe, Africa and Russia
The psychology of war within the War 1939-45.
The secret to understanding this War is that it was Total War and a fight to the death with no armistice agreed as in 1918. The Civilian populations were engaged in the factories on the farms and as targeted by the bombers. The War effort was super human and the results were prodigious e.g. Germany’s output in 1944 under carpet bombing from an aviation attack based on the British airfields. German aggression was the causation of the War and Germany’s unconditional surrender the be all and end all. I will not discourse on the War in the Far East in detail. The Western theatres and the Eastern Front are very different to the Far East.
2. 1939 – 1941
The time of Germany’s highly polished and well oiled military effort and machine leading to enormous gains one after the other:
- Fall of Poland 1939 (Ribentrop – Molotov pact)
- Fall of France 1940 (May) following the splintering of the Anglo-French armies by the crack Panzer armoured columns and divisions.
- Fall of the Balkans Greece and Crete (German paratroops over Crete)
- Operation Barbarossa released in June 1941 on Stalin’s Soviet Union again with vast German territorial gains up to December 1941 when winter caught the Wermacht by surprise.
- Fall of Norway (Narvik) in 1940.
- Rommel’s arrival in Africa with the Afrika Corps and his turning of Germany’s and Axis fortunes in that theatre.
3. Churchill (1940)
Germany’s might was unstoppable and defeatism reigned in Britain make no error and at high levels even the War Cabinet. Churchill the Conserative and Coalition Premier would have none of it and rallied his countrymen. His RAF delivered the goods in August/September 1940 and of course his Navy ruled the seas with a rod of iron. It was a very close run thing with German bombers over Britain day and night. Our Navy would have been very vulnerable to aerial attack if the Germans controlled the air battle. British warships had no defence against Stuka divebombers and Meschersmit fighter aircraft and conventional German Bombers in 1940 – 1941 period or later in the War (see Narvik, Dunquerque and the Mediterranean theatres). Thus our naval Supremacy at close quarters in the English Channel, North Sea and Channel Approaches would have been neutralised probably by German Air power (the Luftwaffe) if they had won the Battle of Britain in 1940 and won control of the air. The Royal Navy (Home Fleet) which was stationed in the Home ports to defeat the German invasion still deterred Hitler from pulling the trigger. It was the combination of the defeat of the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) in the air in 1940 – 1941 over the Home Counties and London (the Blitz) and our Naval presence in the Channel that convinced Hitler he should find richer pastures and easier gains in operation Barbarossa – the invasion of Russia. That proved the undoing of his plans to dominate the World from Paris to Moscow. Churchill singlehandedly with Labour Party support had turned the course of the War but not the tide.
4. The Middle Years 1942 – 1943
These were the years of Stalingrad, our victory at El Alamein and the Wolf Packs and Pearl Harbour. Pearl Harbour brought the USA into the War on our side coupled with the provocative U Boat attacks on Hitler’s orders against USA ships. The attritional battle of Stalingrad and capture of two hundred thousand German soldiers in that battle was not the end of this Eastern Front for Germany. Stalin and Hitler would never agree an armistice. Stalin wished to pulverise Hitler’s armies and Hitler desired the same for Stalin’s Red Army. Hitler’s Generals regrouped and had successes post Stalingrad but the strain on long lines of communication stretched German reserves of manpower and weakening airpower and Russia’s ever increasing armoured divisions, infantry units and growing air power and powerful Home Front meant there could only be one result – the Red Army at the gates of Berlin – the Reichstag on April/May 1945.
5. What was Britain’s Role? (1942 – 1943)
Firstly the Atlantic convoys to resupply the Red Army and secondly North Africa (Montgomery) and thirdly Bomber Harris of Bomber Command with his bombing campaign over Germany itself and strategic targets in occupied Europe. The bombing campaign even began in 1940. All three offensives and operations supported the Total War Effort against Nazi Germany. I cannot praise Harris too highly. His bombers inflicted serious damage on U Boat pens at Brest and other ports and the industrial might of Germany at Essen for example. Thus the convoys would find it easier to reach Murmansk and Archangel in the Russian Arctic undamaged by U boats. His attacks on the Ruhr limited Germany’s military industrial output thereby weakening her capacity to fight in the vital East against the Red Army. None of this was lost on Stalin. But the greatest achievement was the psychological blow to Germany of Bomber Command killing many of her civilians (Hamburg carpet bombed in 1942/43 by British bombers) and the morale uplift to Stalin and the Russians of the news we were hitting Nazi Germany where it hurt. Harris courageously gave these orders to select and strike civilian targets as well as military and they were carried out.
He recognised the psychology I have outlined and was the architect of its application. A man of great strength and foresight yet lonely. If Harris and his staff had weakened on this resolve Stalin would not have been impressed and the seedbed would have been laid for Stalin’s later aggression potentially against us in Central Europe in 1945. Harris would have let Germany off the hook as Stalin would have seen. His aggression was known and it was not off the cards for Stalin to take the Red Army into France in 1945 and short of a nuclear attack (unthinkable on European soil) he would not have been halted such was the strength of his Red Army and Air Force we had helped to build and his vast manpower under arms. Stalin could see we had taken the bomber attack to Germany and her cities and this helped reduce and alleviate his aggression against the Western allies. We were democratic capitalists and the Cold War was about to begin in 1945 – Stalin’s regime was tyrannical and totally repressive. No free expression was allowed. Harris was not placating Stalin in his bombing strategy – he was fighting Total War as never before.
6. The Last Years in Europe 1944-45
Why did Germany fight so hard? Because of the personal oath of loyalty to Hitler and to defend the fatherland – agreed. But there was more to it than that. The German Generals dimly perceived the political shape of post war Europe i.e. 1) East and West Germany 2) Eastern Soviet run Europe and free the West. They recognised they had to fight hard in France and the Netherlands (Arnhem) and Italy to slow up the allies and thereby support the German armies’ morale on the Eastern Front. The Eastern Front was easily capable of total collapse in 1944/45 and it did not because the German Generals and soldiers on that Front knew of the good fight being put up in the West and Italy by Germany which heartened them. They were all Germans after all defending their country. Each front reinforced the resolve in other fronts. Moreover the thoughts must have filtered down subconsciously or consciously to the Germans and their Generals that the ultimate goal was a free Western Europe which would be lost if any of these fronts did not fight to the end. A divided Germany was inevitable. German soldiers were fighting to keep the Red Army out of Western Europe.
If the Western front had fallen apart in 1944-45 Stalin who was very suspicious and had considerable paranoia would have suspected a secret pact or deal between certain German Generals and the Western allies and his fury would have driven him to order the Red Army into Paris. Thus the German armies and their Generals subconsciously realised the fight in France and the West to the final day in 1945 shaped the post-war political map of Continental Europe: maybe they actually perceived this sequence of events.
A war to end all wars begun by Germany and finished by Germany. A war which demonstrated the great unknown: what Churchill described as the actors directed from above. He was right and thank God for Churchill above all others and his good relations with the USA who won the war in the Far East and crucially opened up the France front in Normandy in June 1944 with Britain. Which laid the way for a free Western Europe post 1945. An extraordinary drama but never again please. Too close for comfort and such a very high price in lives of the non-combatants and the toll for the persecuted Jews.
Note: Stalin’s antagonism to the West was based upon his abhorrence of liberty in all its forms. This motivated his potential violence against Britain and the USA as the Cold War showed. It would not have taken much to tip him over the edge into overt aggression.