In his prison cell at Nuremberg, Hitler's foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, wrote a brief memoir in the course of which he explored the reasons for Germany's defeat. He picked out three factors that he thought were critical: the unexpected 'power of resistance' of the Red Army; the vast supply of American armaments; and the success of Allied air power.
This last was Hitler's explanation too. When Ribbentrop spoke with him a week before the suicide in the bunker, Hitler told him that, 'the real military cause of defeat' was the failure of the German Air Force.
For all his many failings Ribbentrop was closer to the truth than he might have realised. For the Allies in World War Two, the defeat of Germany was their priority. Italy and Japan never posed the same kind of threat as the European superpower they fought alongside. Their defeat, costly though it was, became irresistible. The key to ending the world crisis was the defeat of Hitler's Germany.
This outcome was not pre-ordained, as is so often suggested, once the British Empire was joined by the USSR and the USA in 1941. The Allies had to mobilise and utilise their large resources effectively on the battlefield and in the air. This outcome could not be taken for granted.
British forces were close to defeat everywhere in 1942. The American economy was a peacetime economy, apparently unprepared for the colossal demands of total war. The Soviet system was all but shattered in 1941, two-thirds of its heavy industrial capacity captured and its vast air and tank armies destroyed. This was a war, Ribbentrop ruefully concluded, that 'Germany could have won'.
Soviet resistance was in some ways the most surprising outcome. The German attackers believed that Soviet Communism was a corrupt and primitive system that would collapse, in Goebbels' words 'like a pack of cards'.
The evidence of how poorly the Red Army fought in 1941 confirmed these expectations. More than five million Soviet soldiers were captured or killed in six months; they fought with astonishing bravery, but at every level of combat were out-classed by troops that were better armed, better trained and better led.
This situation seemed beyond remedy. Yet within a year Soviet factories were out-producing their richly-endowed German counterparts - the Red Army had embarked on a thorough transformation of the technical and organisational base of Soviet forces, and a stiffening of morale, from Stalin downwards, produced the first serious reverse for the German armed forces when Operation Uranus in November 1942 led to the encirclement of Stalingrad and the loss of the German Sixth Army.
Stalin © The transformation in Soviet fighting power and morale has a number of explanations. In the first place the Red Army learned a great deal from German practice and from their own mistakes.
The air and tank armies were reorganised to mimic the German Panzer divisions and air fleets; communication and intelligence were vastly improved (helped by a huge supply of American and British telephone equipment and cable); training for officers and men was designed to encourage greater initiative; and the technology available was hastily modernised to match German.
Two other changes proved vital to allow the army to profit from the reform of operational practice. First, Soviet industry and workforce proved remarkable adaptable for a command economy long regarded as inherently inefficient and inflexible.
The pre-war experience of economic planning and mobilisation helped the regime to run a war economy on an emergency basis, while the vast exodus of workers (an estimated 16 million) and factories (more than 2,500 major plants) from in front of the advancing Germans allowed the USSR to reconstruct its armaments economy in central and eastern Russia with great rapidity.
The second factor lay with politics. Until the summer of 1942 Stalin and the Party closely controlled the Red Army. Political commissars worked directly alongside senior officers and reported straight back to the Kremlin. Stalin came to realise that political control was a dead hand on the army and cut it back sharply in the autumn of 1942.
He created a deputy supreme commander under him, the talented Marshal Zhukov, and began to step back more from the day-to- day conduct of the war. Given the freedom to work out their own salvation, the Soviet General Staff demonstrated that they could match the Germans on the battlefield. Not until the later stages of the war did Stalin begin to reimpose control, when victory was at last in sight.
The Soviet Union did not turn the tide on the Eastern Front on its own. Though for decades Soviet historians played down the role of American and British Lend-Lease aid, its real significance has now been acknowledged. From 1942 a flow of food and raw materials and engineering equipment sustained the Soviet war effort.
There was enough food in the end to ensure a square meal for every Soviet soldier; most of the Soviet rail network was supplied with locomotives, wagons and rails made in the USA; one million miles of telephone wire, 14 million pairs of boots, 363, 000 trucks, all helped to keep the Red Army fighting with growing efficiency. Without Allied aid, Stalin later admitted, 'we would not have been able to cope'.
American troops on D-Day, about to land on a Normandy beach © The reliance on American aid indicates just how much the Allied war effort owed to the exceptional material and logistical strength of the United States.
The ability of the world's largest industrial economy to convert to the mass production of weapons and war equipment is usually taken for granted. Yet the transition from peace to war was so rapid and effective that the USA was able to make up for the lag in building up effectively trained armed forces by exerting a massive material superiority.
This success owed something to the experience of Roosevelt's New Deal, when for the first time the federal government began to operate its own economic planning agencies; it owed something to the decision by the American armed forces in the 1920s to focus on issues of production and logistics in the Industrial War College set up in Washington.
But above all it owed a great deal to the character of American industrial capitalism, with its 'can-do' ethos, high levels of engineering skill and tough-minded entrepreneurs. After a decade of recession the manufacturing community had a good deal of spare, unemployed capacity to absorb (unlike Germany, where full employment was reached well before the outbreak of war, and gains in output could only really come from improvements in productivity).
Even with these vast resources to hand, however, it took American forces considerable time before they could fight on equal terms with well-trained and determined enemies.
This gap in fighting effectiveness helps to explain the decision taken in Washington to focus a good deal of the American effort on the building up of a massive air power. Roosevelt saw air strategy as a key to future war and a way to reduce American casualties.
At his encouragement the Army Air Forces were able to build up an air force that came to dwarf those of Germany and Japan. At the centre of the strategy was a commitment to strategic bombing, the long- range and independent assault on the economic and military infrastructure of the enemy state.
Such a strategy was already underway in Britain, when the USA entered the war in December 1941. In January 1943 the two states finally decided to pool their very large bomber forces in a Combined Offensive against the German economy.
Destroyed German tank © It has always been fashionable to see the Combined Offensive as a failure. Yet its effect was to distort German strategy and economic capability decisively between 1943 and 1945. This was achieved in three distinct ways.
First, bombing forced the German Air Force to divert most of its fighter force to the defence of Germany, and to reduce sharply the proportion of bomber aircraft produced. The effect was to denude the German frontline of much needed bomber and fighter aircraft; by 1944 German air power was easily eroded around the periphery of German-controlled Europe, where pilot losses reached exceptionally high levels.
Second, bombing placed a ceiling on the ability of the German- dominated European economy to produce armaments in quantities that matched the vast resource base of the occupied economies. This was achieved through direct destruction, the interruption of raw material, transport and energy supplies on a large scale, and the forced dispersal of German industry away from the most threatened centres.
Third, bombing forced Hitler and the German leadership to think of radical ways to combat the threat it posed. Huge resources were diverted to the production of vengeance, or 'V', weapons, which had a very limited impact on Britain when rockets and flying bombs began to fall in the late summer of 1944.
A gigantic construction project for an underground economy was authorised by Hitler in 1943. Organised by Himmler, using camp labour under the most rigorous and deadly regime, millions of man-hours and billions of marks were spent trying to achieve the impossible.
Bombing provided the key difference between the western Allies and Germany. It played an important part in sustaining domestic morale in Britain and the USA, while its effects on German society produced social disruption on a vast scale (by late 1944 8 million Germans had fled from the cities to the safer villages and townships).
The use of bombers and fighter-bombers at the frontline helped to ease the path of inexperienced armies that threatened to get bogged down in Normandy and Italy.
Emperor Hirohito of Japan © The long-range fighter, introduced from late 1943, made bombing more secure, and provided the instrument to destroy the German fighter force over the Reich.
The debilitating effects on German air power then reduced the contribution German aircraft could make on the Eastern Front, where Soviet air forces vastly outnumbered German. The success of air power in Europe persuaded the American military leaders to try to end the war with Japan the same way.
City raids from May 1945 destroyed a vast area of urban Japan and paved the way for a surrender, completed with the dropping of the two atomic bombs in August 1945. Here, too, the American government and public was keen to avoid further heavy casualties.
Air power provided a short-cut to victory in both theatres; British and American wartime losses were a fraction of those sustained by Germany, Japan and the USSR, and this in turn made it easier to persuade democratic populations to continue fighting even through periods of crisis and stalemate.
There are many other factors that explain victory and defeat beside von Ribbentrop's trio. Yet without Soviet resistance and reform, American rearmament and economic mobilisation, and western air power, the ability of the three major allies to wear down German and Japanese resistance would have been highly questionable.
This still leaves open the question of German miscalculation. There were weaknesses and strengths in Hitler's strategy, but no misjudgements were more costly in the end than the German belief that the Red Army was a primitive force, incapable of prolonged resistance, or Hitler's insistence that the USA would take years to rearm and could never field an effective army, or the failure to recognise that bombing was a threat worth taking seriously before it was too late.
Military arrogance and political hubris put Germany on the path to a war she could have won only if these expectations had proved true.
Why was the Axis defeated in the Second World War and why did it take so long?
During the Second World War, the two main warring sides were the Allies and the Axis. The end of the war saw the Allied powers defeat the Axis powers. Each of these was made up of various countries at a global scale. For the Axis, the primary powers were Germany, Japan, and Italy. According to Goldsmith (1946) a number of factors lead to the defeat of the Axis powers. These ranged from tactical errors made by the individual Axis powers to economic disadvantage of the Axis powers. Some authors for example Overy (1995) argue that even though the resource factors in terms of population and economy were useful in determining the war, they didn’t characterize the Allies winning or the Axis losing. It is also clear that, the war took long given the various factors at play especially the superiority of the Axis in 1941 and 1942 which was as a result of the economic and resource advantage of the Axis power; they could have easily defeated the Allies. This essay therefore seeks to establish why the Axis were defeated in the second world war and why it took so long for the war to end, or rather, for one side to defeat the other. This will be done through literature review.
Why the Axis lost
According to Overy (1995), one of the primary reasons why the Axis lost was due to their ignorance of the importance of the sea. Germany which was one of the three major powers in the Axis alliance and under Hitler overlooked the importance of sea power as a result of this; the Germany navy didn’t get the support it really needed from Hitler. It is true that he (Hitler) supported the use of wolf-pack tactics and U-boats, but he was obsessed by land battles and therefore he didn’t get to explore the superiority at sea as should have been the case (Hanson, 1971). The Allied powers on the other hand had firm grip of the sea and even though they almost lost in 1942, they were able to recover and reverse the gains the Axis had made. With a firm grip of the sea, the Allied took control of Axis routes therefore cutting their supplies and shipping of war goods.
As a result of supporting U-boats and lack of sufficient investment in sea power in general, Germany submarines were effectively destroyed in the war, with two thirds of the entire Germany subs being destroyed by the Allies in particular by United States navy (O’Brien, 2015). The US superior technology combined with heightened production led to crushing of the Germany U-boats threat with the US units ceasing combat effectiveness of 10% dead. In addition to the sea-power, the US employed the use of combat aircrafts to hunt subs.
The second reason that has been raised by Overy (1995) is the tactical error for the Axis powers. There are a number of errors that have been recorded that the Axis powers engaged in therefore, diverging useful combat power and resources that would have been otherwise used in the Second World War. Each of the three major powers in the Axis alliance had a fair share of tactical errors which accumulatively weakened the Axis alliance. The first was Germany which undertook a number of tactical errors with the primary being the invasion to Russia (Hanson, 1971). One of the principal objectives of the Axis war campaign was to expand their territory through the colonial sphere. As a result, the major tactical errors were geared towards this objective and so was the invasion to Russian by Germany.
Known as the Operation Barbarossa, the invasion was an effort to fulfill German’s objectives in the East with Hitler determined to claim a vast session of the USSR territory. Hitler sought to acquire Russia for himself by purging it into two, the Bolshevism and the other part for the undesirables that is the Jews and the Slavs (Hanson, 1971). Because he was hell-bent towards acquiring Russia, he ignored intelligence and being motivated by the recent success in France and Finland and the embarrassing defeat of the Russians by Finland, Hitler made his fateful move. The attach of 1941 was the largest in human history with the front line extending 1000 miles and at the beginning of the war, it involved 3 million soldiers from the Axis alliance from 117 army divisions. In defense, the Russians mounted 132 army divisions with 34 of them armored. The fatal miscalculation of diverting forces from Army Group Centre to the south in the direction of Kiev by Hitler saw the ill-equipped German army battle in one of the worst recorded winters in Moscow with the Germanys never to recover (Overy, 1995). The result was withdrawal from all Russian sectors and a devastating loss of resources both weapons and personnel.
The other tactical error was by Italy in an effort to invade Greece. Under Mussolini, and with the challenge from Germany for conquering France, Italy invaded Greece as a strategy to prove that it was at the level of the world great powers, and more so, equal to Hitler in Germany (Goldsmith, 1946). In 1940, Mussolini made the first campaign but the Greeks counteracted to force over 500,000 Italian troops to retreat. In 1941, a similar attack also failed, but Hitler came in to support his ally and in 1941, Greece was completely defeated by the Germany and Italian forces. Even though this was ultimately successful, the error was in committing Axis troop to a side-mission in a time of war. At the time, Germany was in war with Russian and this diversion of troops caused the Russian invasion to be delayed.
The third tactical error was by the Japanese and the attack on Pearl Harbor. In 1941, the expansionist policies and continued encroachment into the South East Asia and South Pacific regions made Japan vulnerable to the then prevailing sanctions and military conflicts (Hanson, 1971). These included those from Netherlands, Britain, and the US, with the US in particular seizing oil exports to Japan, and providing military support to china. Japanese military leaders planned a major offensive in the Dutch East Indies and south Asia which was deemed necessary for securing the highly needed oil and rubber. To Pearl Harbor attack was meant to stave the Americans by destroying their crucial fleet and therefore severely dent the Americans morale. The attack realized limited success and the intended purposes never got realized but rather caused the Americans to amass their military power and target Japan therefore taking the Allies side.
The third reason why the Axis was defeated was because of diminished resources and primarily personnel. At the start of the Second World War in 1939, the Axis powers were overweighed by the axis in terms of population and economic power (Goldsmith, 1946). Even though this was largely due to the high number of colonies the Allied powers had, it was largely due to the inability of the Axis to get some of the members to contribute resources for the war, in particular Spain and Turkey (Hanson, 1971). Spain was a member of the Axis but it never contributed to the Axis troops. The country steadfastly refused entering into the war mainly because of the risk of having to loss its oil imports from US. In addition, Spain had just gotten out of the Spanish Civil War. Turkey on the other hand, which was a member of Axis declared itself neutral soon after the war began (Alexander, 2000) and got concerned with a conflict with the Soviet Union. In 1943, Italy was knocked out of the Axis alliance which meant decreased resources available for their military campaign (O’Brien, 2014). In addition, Turkey which had signed a non-aggression pact with Germany declared war on Axis in 1944.
The fourth reason for the defeat of the Axis powers was due to Germany’s fixation to what Hitler referred to as the “wonder weapons”. The final attack which marked the end of the Second World War was the attack on Japan by the US with atomic bomb. It can therefore be argued that, the Axis powers were defeated for not having atomic bomb at their disposal. According to Alexander (2000), Germany which was the major force among the Axis made all types of weapons, except that which mattered, the atomic bomb. While the US, Canada, and Britain concentrated on the Manhattan project, German failed to follow suit and its nuclear project was underfunded and without the support of the military leaders which was mainly because it was associated with Jewish science. German concentrated on V1 and V2 rockets, jet combat aircrafts, and massive tanks (Goldsmith, 1946).
Why the war took so long
Based on the mighty power of both the Axis and the Allied forces at the time the Second World War broke, it could have been expected for it to take less time, but it ended up running from 1939-1945. One of the reasons for this was the shift of balance economically from the pre-war period and when the war got underway (Smith, 1956). At the pre-war period, the Allied powers were at an advantaged position economically. The Allied forces had more population, wider territory, and higher GDP compared to the Axis powers. However, soon after the war began, the Allied resources began to diminish with their lowest being in 1942. However, due to the errors discussed above, the Axis powers couldn’t finish the war by defeating the Allied forces therefore they got an opportunity to mobilize their resources and gained the resource capability to remain in war.
The second reason for the long time the war took was because of the anti-war feeling that the Allied forces had adopted at the initial stages of the war (Goldsmith, 1946). The allied forces and in particular Britain, still held the idea that negotiations would work in solving the problem the Germany under Hitler had caused. As a result of this belief, the Allied forces did not undertake to active and full-blown war at the initial stages of the war, which would have provided the power to defeat the Axis therefore end the war. At the initial stages of the war, the Allied forces remained mainly on the defensive without offensive and still trying negotiations and using credits to undermine the operations of German especially market influence.
The third reason is based on the action of France and Italy. In 1941, France was knocked out of the Allied forces and ended up joining the Axis. Due to this shift, the operations of the Allied in defeating the Axis were dealt a major blow which meant the Allied forces had to re-strategize therefore the war dragging on (Hanson, 1971). In addition to France shifting, Italy was knocked out of the Axis powers which also meant a change in the Axis side therefore affecting the strategic plan for the Axis powers.
According to Overy (1995), the Allied powers failed to defeat the Axis powers and end the war especially due to their misallocation of resources for example, allocation of resources to essentially useless operations like strategic bombing. Strategic bombing was a US and British air offensive strategy that involved targeting German industry and aimed at wrecking the enemies production of war goods. This strategy however didn’t have the desired effects because in Germany for example, the country increased production (Smith, 1959). In the latter stages of the war, especially in 1944, strategic bombing worked for example targeting German air defenses, dams, rail centers, power plants, and refineries and other war related sites.
There are a number of factors that contributed to the defeat of the Axis forces in the Second World War. One of the primary reasons was due to their ignorance of the importance of the sea. Germany for example overlooked the importance of sea power as a result; Germany submarines were effectively destroyed in the war, with two thirds of the entire Germany subs being destroyed by the Allies in particular by United States navy. The second reason is the tactical error for the Axis powers which included the invasion to Russian by Germany, Italy invasion to Greece, and Japan attack on Pearl Harbor. The third reason for the defeat was because of diminished resources and primarily personnel, and the last was due to Germany’s fixation to what Hitler referred to as the “wonder weapons”. The war lasted for so long because of the shift of balance economically from the pre-war period and when the war got underway, because of the anti-war feeling that the Allied forces had adopted at the initial stages of the war and preference of negotiation and credits, the action of France and Italy to shift position and move out of the conflicting sides respectively and lastly, the Allied powers failed to defeat the Axis powers and end the war especially due to their misallocation of resources.
- Alexander, Bevin. How Hitler Could Have Won World War II: The Fatal Errors that Led to Nazi Defeat. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2000.
- Goldsmith, R. W., “The power of victory: munitions output in World War II”, Military Affairs, 10 (1946), pp. 69-80.
- Hanson, P., “East-West comparisons and comparative economic systems”, Soviet Stud., 22 (1971), pp. 327-43.
- O’Brien, Phillips Payson. How the War Was Won: Air-Sea Power and Allied Victory in World War II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
- Overy, Richard. Why the Allies Won. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1995.
- Smith, R. E., The army and economic mobilization. Washington, D. C., 1959.