Monday, 26 January 2009

Who won the Second World War?

In their latest article, historytimes.com has an interesting section on who really won the Second World War. This is well worth a read, and is a question that I have been giving much though to over the last few months. This debate is also covered in a Times article from 2006.

The historytimes.com conclusion is simple:
But in the final analysis, it is perhaps undeniable that the Western Allies could not have won the war without Stalin, and the price was to be paid for millions of people long after the end of World War II.
On a basic level, I have little problem with this. The Russians spent a massive amount of blood and treasure beating the Germans into submission, and the Western Allies' attacks in North Africa, Italy, Normandy and elsewhere were, in comparison, minor troubles for the Germans. As the Figures in the Times article states, 75-80% of all German losses were inflicted on the eastern front. It was the eastern front that broke the back of the German army, not the western.

As they say in a previous posting (historytimes.com) about the battle of Kursk in 1943:
Realising that Allied Forces would not move to liberate France, Hitler had moved a large reserve from Europe to help prosecute the campaign on the Eastern Front.
This points out that Hitler saw the Russians as much more of an immediate threat.

But such thoughts are just as simple (and in my opinion wrong) as the earlier Churchillian line that Britain and the US won the war in the name of democracy, or the viewpoint of many Americans (and I have actually heard this said on more than one occasion) that 'they won the war'. Such a conclusion neglects less visible roles that the various countries played.

Before this is discussed further, a question needs to be asked: What do we actually mean by 'who won the war'? Is it the country who defied Germany for longest, the one who lost the most troops against them, or the one who conquered Berlin first? Or perhaps the one who spent the most in order to gain victory?

For the purposes of this discussion, I am assuming that Germany was the major axis power that needed defeating. Although Italy and Japan were also major players, the place that the war needed to be won was Europe. Japan pretty much knew that if America chose to prosecute the war after Pearl Harbour then they would lose. Their hope was that Pearl Harbour would give the US a sucker punch that would stop them from wanting to fight. Given the isolationist views of many in the US at that time, it was certainly possible. Thankfully, it turned out to be a vain hope.

Additionally, I am not taking into account the aid given by other allies on both sides - the Romanians, Italians and others for the Axis; the Canadians, Australians, Chinese and others for the Allies. Whilst these countries made valuable contributions, it was not in their power to win the war.

Firstly, I would like to discuss what would have happened if Britain had fallen (or capitulated without a fight) in 1940. The simplistic view is the that Germany would simply have had to keep less troops in France. However, there would have been many other knock-on effects, all of which could have proved vital in Germany's fight against Russia:
  • Russia would not have received war materials from Britain; these played a small but significant part in the Russian effort. They may still have received some from the US, however, although this transfer may have become much more difficult with Britain out of the war.
  • Many divisions (56?) had to be kept in France to counter a western invasion. This kept them from the Russian front. Although 56 is not much in the grand scale of things, the battle on the eastern front was on such a knife-edge that the extra German troops may well have made a significant difference. In addition, the majority of the Luftwaffe fighters and bombers sent against Britain would have been available to be used against Russia.
  • The minds of the German military leaders would have been able to concentrate solely on the Russian threat.
  • The US would have found it very difficult to do anything about Germany; in 1944/5 Britain essentially acted as a massive aircraft carrier and ship, allowing US troops to organise before going over to France. It is much easier to fight over 20 miles of water than 2,000. If Britain was not in the war, how would they have been able to liberate France and invade Germany?
  • Japan would have rolled through the southern Pacific with even more ease; they would have had far less resistance in Burma, China and other places. This probably would not have stopped Japan's defeat, but it may have helped. Also, many German U-Boats have been freed up from the Atlantic to go and help the Japanese.
So, what would have happened if the US had not joined the war after Pearl Harbour?
  • Britain would have been massively weakened. The food and war materials sent over from the US was a major factor in keeping Britain's fighting power at strength. However, that does not mean that a German invasion later than 1940 would have been attempted, or indeed have worked if it had been tried.
  • There is a possibility that without US help Britain might have been starved into submission, as they tried (and nearly succeeded) to do in the First World War. However, the U-boats in the Atlantic would have had to be careful not to attack American ships for fear of bringing the US into the war, and that would have severely limited their operations.
  • The Japanese would have been able to claim far more resources on the Pacific rim, improving their power.
  • The weakened position of Britain and the greater power and influence of Japan would have made it much harder for them to do anything later.
What would have happened if Russia had been knocked out of the war in 1941/2?
  • The Germans would have had access to many more materials, particularly oil.
  • Many German troops would have been tied up trying to manage the Russian populations.
  • Many of the German troops on the Eastern front would have been available to be redeployed against an invasion through France.
  • Perhaps Japan would have tried to invade Russia.
  • Britain would probably have lost control of North Africa, Gibraltar and many other outposts.
  • However, Germany would still have found an invasion of Britain difficult if the US sided with Britain.
All of this leads me to ask and answer the following questions. Each one of these is arguable and could easily be the topic of many theses, but these are my opinions:
  • Could Britain and the US have defeated Germany without Russia - no, certainly not in the short term.
  • Could the US and Russia have defeated Germany if Britain capitulated in 1940 - doubtful.
  • Could Russia have defeated Germany alone - no.
  • Could Britain and Russia have defeated Germany without the US - perhaps, but Britain would have been left much weaker than it was, and all of mainland Europe would have been left under the Soviet sphere of influence.
So who won the Second World War? In my opinion, all of the Allies did. Although I do not claim to be an expert, it is my contention that it is difficult to remove any one of the three main players - Russia, the US and Britain, and still see an automatic defeat of Germany and Japan.

However, the only way you can guarantee victory is to have Britain in the game. For many awful months in 1940/1, from the fall of France to the launch of Operation Barbarossa, Britain stood alone, the only major power against Germany. It was during this period that the seeds of victory were sown. And that occurred because Britain refused to give in to immense pressure.

By that defiance, Britain did win the war.

1 comment:

James said...

David, you seem to have approached what has been one of the greatest debates of the century and looking at your comments and views you really have done your homework.

Thank you for your post, and I too believe that it was a combined effort but in the end without britain, none of this would have been possible... so in that, i also believe britain won the war.

James