A Wide Sweep Of The Conflagration That Was World War II.

by Daniel Russ on August 24, 2015

Post image for A Wide Sweep Of The Conflagration That Was World War II.


Hitler feviewing Troops with Herman Goering

 Hitler reviewing Troops



On September 1st, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. And thus began a bloody conflict that killed 78,000,000 people worldwide and became the largest event in human history. The Wehrmacht’s inexorable advance and its unflinching barbarity made Hitler seem invincible. His exultant swagger was proving true to the biggest armies in the world. His skills as an orator allowed him to leverage the anger the German people, impoverished by the Treaty of Versailles, to homicidal madness.


German had 200 divisions and Poland had 60. Germany 60,000 casualties and Poland suffered 200,000 casualties. The war lasted until October 6th, and put Germany firmly in the footsteps of Russia. Throughout the war, Germany and Russia would sweep across Poland several times, each time killing more people and inflict more unimaginable cruelty on each other.


It only took one month and fifteen days for Germany to conquer France, from the 10th of May to the 25th of June 1940. France was perhaps living on the blandishments of politicians and news organizations that saw them as triumphant in the struggle against the Germans in World War I. They believed in this flummery and now with their new tanks, they believed they could stop Hitler. The French also made assumptions that were wrong. They assumed the Maginot Line was impervious. They assumed the Ardennes was impassable. And they assumed Germans would advance through the low country. All these assumptions proved wrong.

The Germans had about 2,000,000 men in 136 divisions. They brought 2,439 tanks and 3200 aircraft. The Allies had 4,000,000 men in 135 divisions, 2,689 tanks and 2400 aircraft. But the results in casualties told a different story. The Germans suffered 167,000 casualties and the Allies suffered 2.5 million. The French had never seen this kind of organized and ruthless savagery. Blitzkrieg, literally lightening war, overwhelmed the over confident French.


With the loss of France Hitler had unfettered access to the Atlantic Sea and shipping ports. Furhrer Directive No. 40 as issued on March 23rd, 1942. The second largest longest defensive wall ever built behind the Great Wall of China. Over 1,670 miles of gun emplacements, physical barriers, mines, traps and other obstructions made sure that any Allies who intended to invade the Reich into France would have their hands full. The defensive barriers were constructed from Norway to the northern coast of Spain. When Spanish Fascist President Franco was repressing a popular revolt in the Spanish Civil War, Hitler and Mussolini gave him aid. Still, he stayed non-belligerent during the war and so the wall stopped there. Therefore with fascist Spain neutral, and Portugal neutral, and fascist Italy fighting beside the Reich, all of Western Europe became a Nazi stronghold.






Across the world, 75% of the Wehrmacht was lined up in Russia. In the early hours of June 22, 1941, the largest combat operation in history began. Operation Barbarossa was the German invasion of Russia. Hitler’s visions saw the Bolsheviks, the Slavs and the Jews of Eastern Europe the cause of Germany’s problems, and the reason for its fall from grace and loss of primacy. The Germans had almost won World War I. On the battlefield, they had taken the Russians out of the fight the British were in retreat. The French were ready to negotiate. The surrender and the Treaty of Versailles split Germany in two for decades. The Wehrmacht felt utterly betrayed and the tired public was just happy that the war had ended. The draconian punishments inside the treaty created an entire generation of Germans living in abject poverty, seething in anger for the unnecessary suffering. Now Hitler had an Army unmatched on he planet. After watching he tiny Finnish Army humiliate Russia in the Winter War in 1939, Hitler was certain that Russia would take a few weeks more than the six weeks it took to conquer France.


The weakly led Russian Army of the West was no match for the machine like discipline of the Germans. Barbarossa ended on December 5th 1942. By the end of June the Germans had killed 486,000 Russians, and taken 310,000 POWs.


It was five and a half months before Pearl Harbor, Germany invaded Russia, and those battles cost the Germans probably 6 million men. The Russians lost 25 million people, which is hard to comprehend. By the time the US entered the war, 75% of the Wehrmacht was in the Eastern front. The war in the Atlantic and the first long-range guided missiles hammering England had the United Kingdom hanging on by a thread. The Imperial Japanese Empire was preparing to strike across the south Pacific and Southeast Asia.






The United Kingdom



The first real loss for the Nazis was the Battle of Britain.


Before the US entered World War II, Britain was under siege, not just from V-1 and V-2 rockets, but also by U-boats. In 1940 when Germany conquered France, they had a western European coastline close enough to the British Isles to begin softening them up for Operation Sea Lion, a planned manned invasion and occupation of Britain.


From 10 July 10th to 31 October 31, 1940 the Luftschlacht um England, or “Air War for England” began in earnest. The softening up of British target and destruction of its air force was the plan, and while the number tells a story of stalemate, it was in fact the first major loss for Axis powers in the Second World War. Almost 1000 British aircrews were casualties, and 1547 aircraft were destroyed. The Germans lost has 4303 casualties and lost 1887 aircraft.



ca. 1930s-1940s, Probably North Africa --- Field Marshal Erwin Rommel --- Image by © CORBIS ca. 1930s-1940s, Probably North Africa — Field Marshal Erwin Rommel — Image by © CORBIS


North Africa


The Treaty of Lussaune was the opening play in the Italian annexation of Libya into their empire. It was signed in 1912 and despite the inchoate rage from the Arab population, the Italian liberation of Lybia from the Ottoman Empire was complete. It was not until 1914 that the rest of the moribund teratoid empire collapsed completely. It should be stated that while the replevin of Lybia was probably illegal from the viewpoint of International law, the entire event was a testimony to the impotence of the League of Nations. The Italians also did make significant improvements to the lifestyles of North African Arabs. For one thing, the Italians built irrigation fields and reclaimed farming and livestock land that had succumbed to the ineluctable desert centuries earlier. The Italians also built roads and phones and oil lines in Lybia as well. By the mid 1930s, parts of Lybia were more European than Arab, or at least they looked as if. Mussolini had transferred as many as 100,000 Italians to Lybia to live there and act as cultural influencers. By 1935, one could find a spectacular plate of pasta almost anywhere in Tripoli.


A certain arrogance builds around an army that wins all the time. The Italians had built a modern army in the early 20th century. They had a huge Mediterranean fleet, modern tanks, infantry, all well equipped, and the Italians had a big air force replete with ground attack planes, fighters and heavy bombers even troop movers. So the Italian army that was stationed in Lybia before World War II easily outmatched whatever martial technology the indigenous Lybian resistance could muster. The Italian invasion of Abyssinia in the 1930s also sent the Italian commanders flush with wins against an army that could be described as barely wielding World War I technology and no real organization of training. To the Italian Fascists, this was a wonderful image, a modern militarized Rome, redolent of the empire of old, now resurgent. The new Roman Empire was leading the Arabs of North Africa out of the medieval era and into modernity. In fact the Romans employed quite a few Lybian auxiliaries in the fight against the Allies. Up to 10,000 Lybians fought side by side with the Italians in World War II.


When it came time to take up arms against the Nazis in North Africa, the first point of attack was Lybia. Hitler envisioned a fascist ally in Italy that would secure the Mediterranean Sea from the Allies. But the fact is, the Italian army of Mussolini’s time never defeated a modern army. They prevailed against ignorant, unorganized, swarms of badly armed Arab clansmen.


Mussolini had previously invaded Albania, the Balkan country east of Italy across the Adriatic Sea. When Italy declared that Greece was a client state, the Greek Army, a slightly better that World War I Army counter attacked, they drove the Italians back to Rome. Totally outnumbered, the Greeks won on the battlefield against the Italians.


Field Marshall Archibald Percival Wavell led the combined British and Australian and New Zealand forces in North Africa. Beginning in June 1940, Wavell staged a series of offensives against Italian positions that had been entrenched for decades, it didn’t take but a few months before Wavell had driven most of the Italians out of their forward redoubts. By February 1941, some 130,00 Italians had surrendered to the British. Wavell was poised to overrun all the Axis troops in North Africa. This, despite the fact that the British were quite outnumbered by Italians and Lybian auxiliaries.


Unfortunately two game changers arrived. One was an unfortunate decision to take Wavell’s troops and equipment offline for repairs, and to redeploy British troops to Sicily. The other was the appearance of Erwin Rommel, who led a series of counteroffensives that sent the British reeling back to Tobruk.


Hitler saw Mussolini as a chance to create internal lines of communications in the Mediterranean theater. That was one of the goals of holding North Africa. Another goal of holding North Africa was to drive the British out of Egypt and use the oil resources there to fuel the Third Reich. Eventually Hitler stopped pouring resources into the North African Theater and he allowed the Afrika Korps to wilt. At the end of the day this was not giving up on Rommel. Far from it, Rommel was Hitler’s ideal Nazi general, handsome, successful, and devoted (or so Hitler thought).


Hitler did give up on Mussolini.


In fact, the Italians had that formidable lethal navy and just did not know how to use it. The British sank three massive Italian battleships parked in Tunisian ports with 21 1930s era Fairy Swordfish biplane torpedo aircraft. Then the British heavy cruisers cornered the Italian fleet in port in Greece and essentially ended the Italian hopes of controlling sea-lanes.




Japan Strikes



On December 7th, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy began a series of strikes across the South Pacific. The first hammer blow delivered was to pummel the US Pacific fleet. In a raid that lasted under two hours, the IJN managed to sink four battleships, the USS Arizona, the USS Oklahoma, the USS West Virginia, and the USS California. They damaged three more battleships, damaged six heavy cruisers, destroyed 29 fighters and bombers, and inflicted 3582 casualties. The Japanese suffered 64 casualties. While many considered this an unmitigated disaster, there were hidden blessings.


The Japanese did not strike the oil reserves nearby that fueled the Pacific fleet. And three large aircraft carriers, the USS Enterprise, the USS Lexington and the USS Saratoga were not in port. Had they hit the oil pumps, had they sunk one or more US carriers, the war in the Pacific would have lasted years longer.



The United States Enters The War



Politically the mistake that Japan made was to underestimate the response from the United States. Certainly the aircraft the Japanese had at the time were superior. Certainly they had far more elite pilots, since they had in effect been at war for almost a decade and far outmatched green American pilots. Certainly they had large battleships and six heavy aircraft carriers. They simply did not have the industrial capacity of the United States. They did not have the will to get revenge. And they had no idea how their attack unified all of America.


The United States government estimated it would need to raise 300 billion dollars to pay for the war effort, and thusly began a drive to sell war bonds. Fund raisers, Hollywood propagandists and higher taxes filled coffers. Some of the best and most racist propaganda were disseminated throughout the country and it was considered quite patriotic.


The strikes against Pearl Harbor and the siege of the United Kingdom from the air by the Luftwaffe put the Allies in a bad spot. The Japanese were too far away from us to hit back immediately, and the British could barely hang on without supplies across the North Atlantic.




The North Atlantic


Roosevelt decided on a two-pronged strategy for winning the war against the Axis forces. He would supply England with munitions, raw goods and food while he was rebuilding the Pacific fleet to strike back at Japan. Churchill was extremely happy about seeing the US join the war effort, but it came at a cost. The United Kingdom needed about five million tons of food, munitions, and oil a month to stay in the fight. Yet the U-boat fleet under the command of Nazi Admiral Doenitz was sinking 200,000 tons of supplies into the North Atlantic every month.


The U-boats had torpedoes, deck guns, and mines and all of them were devastating to the Merchant Marines. They were seemingly unstoppable. When warships moved with them in large convoys, the U-Boats began attacking in packs, called wolfpacks. In the first year the US was shipping goods to the British, 900 ships were sunk versus 29 U-boats. The rate of losses in ships alone was unsustainable.


One of the oddest things about World War II is the history that we have all forgotten. Perhaps forgotten is the wrong way to think about it. The story of the war is incomplete and what’s fascinating to historians is the fact that the shibboleths of the story of the Second World War are still being destroyed. If you asked a historian what was the worst naval defeat we suffered in the war, surely Pearl Harbor would come up. The fact is that right after Pearl Harbor the United States Navy suffered tremendous losses not just in the Pacific, but also in the Atlantic. In fact, the Battle of the Atlantic, while a win for the Allies, came at a tremendous cost, one far worse than Pearl Harbor. US Navy Admiral Ernest King was too busy rebuilding the Pacific fleet to address the big secret being kept from most Americans: the fact that the German U-boats were sinking American transport vessels at an alarming rate.



The actual toll at Pearl Harbor was eight US battleships damaged, four of them sunk. The Imperial Japanese Navy also sank three cruisers, three destroyers, 188 aircraft, 2402 men killed and 1282 were wounded.



Compare the losses of Pearl Harbor with the 3500 merchant ships, and 175 warships sank off the Atlantic coast. Or consider that Nazi U-boats killed 36,000 sailors and 36,000 merchant marines. Off the coast of America, only about 2000 merchant marines were killed, but they are counted in with the US total from the beginning of the war until 1945. The merchant marine losses also include British and Canadian casualties.



It’s hard to believe that most Americans saw the German declaration of war on the US as a distant remote threat. Yet German Admiral Donitz had begun a blitzkrieg of his own against the Allied supply line stretched across the Atlantic. He also placed squadrons of U-boats in patrols off of Cape Hatteras, treacherous seas off the coast of North Carolina where many ships sank as a matter of course with no war at hand.



It was this secret war that was under reported and it was this Battle in the Atlantic that birthed the famous WWII propaganda missive that “Loose Lips Sink Ships”. The damage to American shipping was so grievous that the Germans called it the American Shooting Season. During this time, only seven months long, 3.1 million tons of supplies were sent beneath the waves with the loss of only 22 U boats. One U Boat commander, Johannes Moore, sank 25 US ships in just six days of patrols.



Moore and his shipmates would surface at night off the coast of North Carolina at Nag’s Head and watch cars rising up and down roads, watched couples walking in the surf, and they watched fishermen and swimmers as well. They listened to US radio stations as well. One group of saboteurs was sent in to plant mines in Chesapeake Bay and they succeeded. Other German commandoes and spies were sent ashore to plant supplies for later operations. One group was found and executed. The residents of the coastal regions didn’t even know it. They did know that there was a war on off the coast, until they saw the results of a torpedo strike. It is difficult to hide massive oil fires burning for days after oil tankers sank and leaked.



In the my mind, I don’t understand why when Germans were killing US Merchant Marines, why did the US not enter the war then? Was our isolationist sentiment so infectious that we wouldn’t consider their deaths reasons for war? Roosevelt did pay for the war in ways we have rarely taken notice of: the United Kingdom gave 8 overseas bases and divested themselves of certain preferential trading practices. In return, we shipped hundreds of thousands of tons of supplies to Great Britain and gave them 50 destroyers.

Although the United States entered the war, by mid 1942, some 2703 Allied ships had already slipped between the waves in the icy waters of the North Atlantic.



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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Louis October 19, 2017 at 7:24 am

“in the Winter War in 1929” This seems to be a typo. I am sure this should read “Winter War in 1939”.
“Across the world, 75% of the Wehrmacht was lined up in Russia”. As France and Russia are not that far apart, it might be better to say “across the continent”, as they were indeed more than twothirds of the way to Asia.
“the first long-range guided missiles hammering England”. I presume you talk about the V-1. These only started to be used in 1943, when the Battle of the Atlantic was almost won, and the US was already at war with Germany for a year.
“It was not until 1914 that the rest of the moribund teratoid empire collapsed completely. ” As Lawrence of Arabia, and General Allenby, as well as the British and ANZACS at Gallipolli, were still fighting that “collapsed” Ottoman empire in 1915-1918, I do not think they were that completely collapsed.
As you yourself state that the “replevin of Lybia” was done in 1912, than it can hardly be a symbol of the impotence of the League of Nations, as that was founded only in 1919.

Daniel Russ October 19, 2017 at 8:31 am

Winter war 1929 refers to the war between Finland and the Soviet Union.

Louis October 19, 2017 at 9:30 am

Yes, the one in 1939.

Daniel Russ October 19, 2017 at 9:35 am

you have a point there

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