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How did Hitler Fool Stalin so Badly with the Invasion of the USSR? | WW2 Brain Bucket Reader Q&A
Today we’re talking about how Hitler conned Stalin in 1941, Hirohito staying on the imperial throne post-war, the most underrated figure of WW2, and German/Italian Axis troops kept as POWs by the British and Americans.
In the Second World War, there is nothing as perplexing as to how Hitler fooled Stalin so completely in launching Operation Barbarossa – the German invasion of the Soviet Union. Nor are there many debates that are still so relevant to the politics of a nation than Emperor Hirohito’s role directing the war for Japan. It is also a tragedy for posterity that most people don’t know the names of either General George C. Marshall or Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke. Even fewer know the incredible story of how German and Italian POWs were kept by the Allies, especially the camps in the United States. However there is a more pressing introduction before getting down to your questions.
Over the last several years during my myriad published pieces on the Second World War, as well as critiquing its role in Amazon Prime’s adaptation of The Man in the High Castle, I have received many emails from readers asking questions about the subject as a whole. Its amazing hearing from people who have a strong curiosity about the wars history, and want the best information possible. After I was encouraged by those reaching out to me to start a reader submitted question and answer column, providing informed answers to any questions relating to WW2, I have chosen to take up the gauntlet.
First things first, what the hell is a brain bucket? A brain bucket is a military colloquialism for a combat helmet. When searching for answers and historical understanding, the process is often volatile and incendiary. So, it’s always good to wear that brain bucket.
Here are the Brain Bucket Q&A ground rules:
- I will choose several questions a month. If your e-mail isn’t picked, don’t be discouraged. I can only answer so many at a time. Feel free to resubmit the question for the following month.
- Any question about or related to the Second World War is fair game. Even if you think its a little strange and off the beaten path, send it in. More often than not, history is both of those things and more. That also includes its place or role in popular culture, current or ongoing controversies related to the subject, and pretty much anything else you can fathom.
- My replies to your questions will be thorough. If you have taken the time to e-mail a question I have chosen, you deserve the best possible answer.
- Most importantly as an unequivocal rule, I am only interested in evaluating history within the context of the era concerned. Imposing contemporary values and societal norms on history accomplishes less than nothing. One can learn from history and take those lessons to help better guide to a better future, but viewing entirely within the scope of a modern worldview is an exercise in futility. It has been said that the past is like another country, and much like learning about another culture it can only be evaluated in the context of its people and their ways. In the end, the only real goal is understanding, whether or not it comports to the beliefs of the present.
- My answer to your question is only the tip of the iceberg. I will include recommended reading and viewing so you can research the specific issue further.
Do you have a question about WW2? E-mail the Brain Bucket!
Now, down to business and your questions!
Q: I am just getting into the history of the Eastern Front. The more I learn, the more I can’t understand how Stalin was actually so caught off guard by the Nazi invasion of Russia. It seemed pretty obvious even at the time. How did Germany dupe Stalin so completely?
– Kyle, Macon, GA
This really goes under the category of Stalin being too close to the forest to see the trees. While contemporary Soviet propaganda would have you picture the dictator ruling omnisciently from his Kremlin perch, Stalin was just as limited as his fellow dictators at the time. In short, he was still human and fully capable of misinterpreting even the best of intelligence about Nazi duplicity, as we shall see.
A Pact of Mutual Assistance
So it is important to recall that prior to 22 June 1941, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were bound together in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact (named after each country’s respective foreign ministers). Publicly each side was very careful to refer to the political relationship as only a pact of non-aggression. However their two year affiliation went much further despite neither side forgetting the near decade worth of mud each had slung at the other. They both were, after all, ideologically opposing powers.
To begin, the two antithetical nations fired the war’s opening salvo practically hand-in-hand. The Soviets discreetly provided operational support for Germany during the Poland invasion, as well as for the German U-Boat campaign prior to the occupation of Norway in April/May 1940. Secondly, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union actively exchanged supplies for the duration of the pact, with the Soviet Union exchanging raw materials for the industrialized goods and civil/military technologies of Germany.
The pact also carved out distinct “spheres of influence” between the two countries in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Specifically, the overrun Poland would be partitioned between the two powers while the Baltic states would be ceded to Moscow. Likewise, the region of Bessarabia (modern day Moldova) would be annexed from eastern Romania and transferred to the Soviet Union. In exchange for these zones, Germany secured their eastern flank from attack, allowing them to concentrate on their wars in the West. Without a doubt, both Germany and the Soviet Union gained firm, tangible yields from their association.
For Stalin, the biggest benefit was possibly bogging down Germany in their war with the West. Stalin believed that with a German invasion of the West, a major war of attrition between the waring powers would ensue. Stalin hoped that such a quagmire would be similar to the Western Front of the First World War, keeping his German partner wholly engaged with Britain and France. If that become so Stalin figured, the Soviet Union would be given a free hand to do as it pleased. Perhaps even with the Soviet Union playing agent provocateur to keep both sides in a vicious fight indefinitely.
Stalin was also buying time to ready the then chaotic state of the Red Army, before the growing conflict engulfed the Soviet Union. After decapitating his officer corps with politically motivated purges, reorganizing the Red Army to adopt new doctrinal priorities, and implementing an array of new weapons technology – the Red Army was pretty much a mess between 1939 – 1941. This strongly bore out in their humiliating, yet ultimately successful, Winter War with Finland to seize the Karelian Isthmus and the Arctic port of Petsamo.
As events unfolded in continental Europe, Stalin became quickly disabused. Hitler would complete his conquest of Norway, Denmark, the Low Countries and France by the end of June 1940.
Ideology vs. Strategy
Regardless of the realistic benefits the pact provided, ideology eventually won out in Hitler’s mind. One of National Socialism’s main philosophical tenets was a violent rejection of Soviet communism. The Nazi movement has, in fact, it’s genesis as a reaction to the various far left movements in Germany following its defeat in the First World War.
Even worse to Hitler, Soviet communism was directly connected to the groups Nazism infamously targeted most – above all others, the Jews and Slavs. It did not help that many major Bolshevik figures involved in the 1917 October coup were both. To this day, Nazism’s views roughly informed what was known as “The Judeo-Bolshevik Conspiracy.”
To explain this ridiculous ideological patchwork, it can be best understood as follows:
The conspiracy boils down to the idea that Judaism, by virtue of a massive international conspiracy, seeks to dominate and enslave humanity through Communism. Moreover Soviet communism, specifically Moscow itself, was viewed as the epicenter of this conspiracy. This is due to prominent cohorts of the Bolshevik party leader Vladimir Lenin being of Jewish descent. Though Hitler’s designs of the Soviet Union expand beyond the mere ideological.
Accompanied with the fact the USSR and Nazi Germany were natural economic powers, Hitler much preferred to conquer those Soviet assets than trading for them. In Mein Kamp Hitler spoke of German “Leibensraum” – living space – for colonization in what was the western Soviet Union. Ultimately seeking to forcibly seize the very raw materials they were trading for, and enslaving the Slavic population. This idea was not unique to Nazism in Germany. Leibensraum roughly comports to the 19th century German nationalistic concept of “Drang nach Osten” or “Drive to the East,” that promoted a unified Germany conquer the traditional Slavic lands.
What is quite interesting is that if you look at the entirety of the European war, almost everything Nazi Germany did was clearly outlined in Hitler’s so-called autobiography he dictated serving prison time, Mein Kampf.
Did Stalin even read Mein Kampf?
Apparently so. Stalin was an avid reader, accumulating a vast personal library. It included many books one might not expect to see on the shelf of Maxist-Leninist number one – like say, the Bible. Stalin had a translated copy of Mein Kampf and marked it up quite well. He knew exactly the ideology that Nazism embodied, as well as the target sitting on his back.
Yet in the first half of 1941 the Vhoz had reason to believe himself outside the Nazis’ crosshairs.
The Soviet Pre-Barbarossa Intelligence Debacle
Historian Stephen Kotkin explains in his newest release, Stalin Volume II: Waiting for Hitler 1929-1941 that Soviet intelligence sources were unknowingly blinded to Hitler’s true intentions through misinformation and disinformation campaigns skillfully run by German counterintelligence in early 1941.
Before their invasion of the Soviet Union, the Nazi regime conveyed many different but equally plausible reasons for the Wehrmacht’s growing presence in Eastern Europe. In one such explanation, the German’s asserted that their presence, at what was essentially Stalin’s doorstep, was only a temporary stop en route to operations against the British Empire in the Middle East. Even Hitler actively participated in the deception. He communicated directly to Stalin that his troops in Poland and East Prussia were nothing to worry about; that they were only there to be out of range of RAF bombers hitting Germany.
These mis/disinformation operations could only succeed so long as they fit Stalin’s preconceptions of Hitler’s military goals. Unfortunately for the Soviet Union, they fit a little too well. The paranoid dictator may not have accepted the stated reasons for Germany’s presence but he did believe that Hitler was trying to put pressure on the Soviet Union by his military buildup on their frontier, hoping to coerce various concessions from the Kremlin to Germany’s benefit. Speculation to this end varied from hoping to extract greater material benefit via trade, to the Soviet Union leasing Ukraine to Germany for a 99 year lease.
Throughout this ordeal, the Soviet Union’s main intelligence arm the NKVD, was not asleep at the wheel. The NKVD created a bulging intelligence dossier codenamed “Zateya” or “Venture” to examine Hitler’s intentions. Though as far reaching as NKVD assets were, they did not impress Stalin. For example, in early 1941 there were countless reports from Soviet agents that portended the German date of invasion – that would invariably pass without incident. This only reinforced Stalin’s own diposistion and views. Moreover, any Soviet apparatchik was careful to report intelligence that the Soviet despot didn’t want to hear. Many had been purged and executed for less. Naturally this created a perilous situation for the Soviet nation.
Still, some Soviet intelligence assets did try to raise the alarm with accurate reports about the impending Nazi betrayal. The most prominent was Richard Sorge, a German journalist posted to the German embassy in Tokyo that worked for the NKVD. From his position at the embassy, Sorge was able to provide the exact date for the invasion to his superiors. Yet Sorge was one voice among many, however, and no leader has ever lost an empire by taking all their spies reports at face value.
Furthermore, Stalin slavishly believed that Hitler would never attack the Soviet Union while still being at war with the British. In Mein Kampf Hitler was unequivocal about his belief that Germany lost the First World War because they were engaged in war on two fronts. Stalin hitched a great deal to this oft stated opinion by Hitler. This conviction neglected one obvious fact: Germany may still have been at war with the British Empire, however, the British Army did not have a single fighting soldier in continental Europe. Yes, there was the fighting happening in colonial North Africa and British strategic bombing, but this hardly constituted a second front great enough in Hitlers eyes to deter his ambitions.
Who was really calling the shots in the Third Reich at war?
Last, but hardly least, Stalin had a major misperception of how power was exercised within the structure of the Third Reich. Stalin, by using the First World War as precedent, assumed that the military leadership once again had the real decision making powers for use of force during war, thus paralleling Kaiser Wilhelm II effectively ceding control of Germany to the duumvirate of Paul von Hiddenburg and Erich Ludendorff. As such, Stalin supposed that the Wehrmacht generals – not Hitler himself – wanted war with the Soviet Union. In truth, more the opposite was true. Based on this erroneous assumption, Stalin issued strict orders to avoid doing anything that could be perceived as a provocation,especially at the common western border.
With the benefit of hindsight and access to archival records from both sides, Hitler’s intentions appear incredibly obvious now, and for some the Führer’s schemes may have seemed just as clear at the time. Yet when using prospective history, as opposed to retrospective history, one can see how this calamity came to pass. When you consider the highly effective disinformation employed by Germany, a Soviet intelligence apparatus unwilling to tell their mercurial boss something he didn’t want to hear, combined with Stalin’s devotion to his own interpretation of events, disaster ensued. Ultimately, the only opinion that mattered was Stalin’s, and the Vhoz drastically misread the Nazi dictator. Now you know the rest of the story, as it were.
- “The Devil’s Alliance: Hitler’s Pact with Stalin, 1939 – 1941” by Roger Moorhouse
- “Stalin, Volume II: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941” by Stephen Kotkin
- “What Stalin Knew: The Enigma of Barbarossa” by David E. Murphy
- “Grand Delusion: Stalin and the German Invasion of Russia” by Gabriel Gorodetsky
- “World War II Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, The Nazi’s and the West” directed by Laurence Rees
- “World War Two: 1941 and the Man of Steel” hosted by David Reynolds
- “Warlords” (2007) directed by Simon Berthon
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The Forgotten Declaration of Independence Signers Who Lost Everything for Signing
It never ceases to amaze how these U.S. Founding Fathers, among the foremost collaborators in the American Revolution, paid for their treason against the British Crown. It is also astonishing in equal measure how, despite their immense personal sacrifice, they have been all but lost to American history.
From Cromwell to Trotsky, history repeatedly demonstrates that revolutions devour their own children. Despite the constant patriotic thrum that recounts the Olympian deeds of the American founding fathers who signed the Declaration of Independence, they were no exception to this rule. Some who signed that most radical of declarations did survive the struggle to achieve great prominence in their newly found country. Many more, however, sacrificed no less than their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor for the liberty they sought by the war’s end. The following names are only 13 signatories of the Declaration of Independence who gave all and more when their “John Hancock” inked that seditious parchment, freeing themselves of the British yoke and simultaneously marking themselves as traitors against the Crown.
Benjamin Harrison V
A planter by profession, Benjamin Harrison V was a member of both Virginia’s House of Burgesses and the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1777. History must think one traitor deserves another because during January 1781 Harrison’s Virginia home and all of his possessions were destroyed by none other than the forces commanded by Benedict Arnold.
A skilled practitioner of law, Wythe served as a judge in Virginia, and was a noted scholar. He was party to both signing the Declaration of Independence as well as the Continental Congress.
Unfortunately, a farmer leasing land on his Virginia plantation Chesterville was a British spy. The spy, Hamilton Usher St. George, encouraged four British raiding parties to destroy neighboring farmers, settlements along the James river, and the burning of Williamsburg using his inside information. Evan after the eviction of St. George, Wythe’s tribulations continued when the Yorktown battlefront resulted in the destruction his library and scientific instruments at the College of William and Mary fire.
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D-Day in Perspective: What if the Allied Invasion of Normandy Failed?
For most people today, there are few historic counter-factual questions more disturbing than, “What if D-Day failed?” This is a detailed look at the nightmarish, dystopian world that might have resulted if Operation Overlord ended in catastrophe.
On June 6, 1944 the Western Allies launched Operation Overlord – better known as D-Day – an amphibious invasion of northern France that was a dramatic and unprecedented gamble for the future of Western Europe. It’s success ensured the defeat of Nazism by creating a western Second Front in Europe opposite the Soviet Union’s Red Army in the east. Their presence also guaranteed that Soviet influence would not extend beyond their furthest reach in the occupied eastern portion of Central Europe.
Today, D-Day is rightly remembered as a day of heroes with forces from every Allied nation assaulting the heavily defended beaches of Normandy. Through its mythologized retelling, countless consider the landing’s success a historical inevitability. However, that belief could not be further from the truth. Overlord’s architects who planned and executed the offensive understood that their efforts may have instead been mourned as one of the greatest disasters in military history. Yet with profound conviction Allied leaders accepted the risk because success might ensure the freedom of humanity from one of the greatest evils it had ever faced. On the other hand had it failed, world history would have become unrecognizable compared to our own.
To appreciate the sacrifice of those who boldly attacked the Atlantic Wall 73 years ago today, one must consider the world they risked their life to avoid. As we take a moment today to honor their sacrifice, let’s consider what that other course of history may have entailed. This piece postulates what turns the war may have taken if Germany had succeeded in repelling the Normandy attack, squashing the Allied invasion, and leaving the Second Front stillborn.
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V-E Day in Perspective: How Different Originally Were Each of the Allies Own Plans to Defeat Hitler?
The Allies of the Second World War that defeated the Axis powers were both the most successful military coalition in history, and a diplomatic shotgun marriage. What is less understood is just how different each of the Allied powers initially envisaged the best road to victory.
Today May 8th, 2017 is the 72nd anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, or V-E Day. The very day the guns fell silent in Europe, and the world rejoiced in the defeat of Nazism. Yet in the popular narrative of the Second World War, the cooperation between the Allies is taken for granted. The reality of the Alliance full of growing pains and family squabbles as they learned to fight as an effective coalition is often glossed over in favor of representing a monolithic force of Allied “good” verses Hitler/Axis “evil”. Though a commendable aim, the process of how such varied and diametrically different global powers as the United Kingdom, United States, and Union of Soviet Socialist Republics could compromise to create a plan to liberate Europe is more laudable still.
So, how did these three very different Allies envision total victory, and how did they make the most successful military alliance in history work?
Prior to US entry into the war, US and British military representatives held a secret conference from January to March 1941 in Washington D.C. This clandestine meeting was dubbed “ABC” – American British Conversations – a perfectly innocuous classification that established if the US entered the war, Nazi occupied Europe would be the “decisive theater.” Ultimately establishing the Germany First priority nine months before the war came to America.
With the full formation of the Grand Alliance in December 1941, the one strategic priority each of the three powers agreed upon was defeating Nazi Germany and its European Axis collaborators before turning their full attention toward Japan. Their decision was informed by the perception that Nazi Germany presented as the most dangerous adversary.
Soviet Union: The Strangest Road to V-E Day
The Allies achieved victory in Europe during the Second World War on the Eastern Front. More specifically, it was the unrelenting bloodied maw of the USSR’s Red Army that gnashed out the guts of the vaunted Wehrmacht and ultimately led to the crumbling of the Nazi state. Throughout the crucible of the Eastern Front, the Soviet State Defense Committee – run personally by Generalissimo Joseph Stalin himself – had two major strategic objectives: The first was to acquire as much material support from the Western Allies, specifically through American “Lend-Lease”, in order to overcome glaring Soviet industrial production inadequacies which had hounded through the war.
Secondly, the Soviets prioritized the establishment of a “Second Front” in Western Europe. This second point of engagement would serve to draw off some of the massed Axis divisions in the East, which would allow the Soviets to take the offensive after being on the back foot since the unprovoked German invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June, 1941.
More than any other issue between the allied powers, the establishment of a Second Front caused the greatest friction. As the Eastern Front was the apex conflict of the Second World War, the Allies understood that supporting the Soviet Union was the major strategic priority. At no point between June 1941 and May 1945 did the Red Army face any less than 125 German divisions, and as many as 195 at its peak in February 1943. In view of this grim reality, each nation had varying definitions and ideas as to how to accommodate this necessary undertaking of creating another front to alleviate pressure on the Soviets.
For the Soviet Union, a Second Front was a massive assault on the coast of Northern France. An Allied invasion so significant that it would require considerable German redeployment from the East to the new theater in the West. The Russians would not have this Second Front until 6 June 1944, D-Day. Though military planning was hardly the only source of strife among these erstwhile adversaries turned global alliance.
The years of mutual antagonism between Communist Russia against capitalist Britain and America played a significant role in their overall wartime dealings. Joseph Stalin was well noted for his legendary paranoia and distrust of capitalist nations – his greatest enemy prior to and following Germany. Many times did he believe that British and American inability to create a substantial Second Front in Europe was for the purpose of bleeding his nation white. While there is no clear evidence to support this suspicion, it made for genuine difficulty in creating the necessary trust for a cogent alliance between East and West.
Stalin was hardly alone as an Allied Head of Government in his long-held suspicion and distrust of his wartime partners. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill had been in longtime public opposition to Communism, and the 1917 October Bolshevik coup. During the Russian Civil War, Churchill had been in favor of “strangling Bolshevism in its cradle,” by providing greater military aid to the opposition Russian White Armies. Though Churchill had been known to say that the defeat of Hitler was his only concern, his anti-communist past colored all of his dealings with the Kremlin. Yet despite this significant divide, Churchill managed to build a productive and cordial relationship with Stalin.
Churchill notably went both hot and cold regarding Stalin throughout their dealings during the war. Though when expressing fondness for the Soviet dictator personally, both he and FDR famously came to refer to Stalin as, “Uncle Joe.”
United Kingdom: The Longest Road to V-E Day
In December 1941 Britain was joined by then both the US and USSR – following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, and the accompanying German declaration of war on the US four days later. It was the military alliance that could defeat Nazi Germany, and the military coalition Winston Churchill had envisioned for many years to oppose Hitler.
By the following spring in 1942, the USSR began their demand for the other Allies to create a “Second Front” in Western Europe. The United States began to echo the USSR, calling to invade northern France across the English Channel to help alleviate the Soviet burden. The British were firmly opposed to a cross channel invasion in 1942 and 1943. They believed that UK and US forces were missing several critical components before a successful cross-channel invasion could occur.
Foremost the Allies had not yet won the Battle of the Atlantic, the largely four-year battle of attrition against Kriegsmarine U-Boats who were attacking American, British, and Canadian shipping. With the need to amass men and materials in the British Isles, as well as provide any logistical support, no cross-channel operation could be confidently executed while the German U-boat threat remained.
In 1942, the US and British did not yet have the number of divisions available to take on the no less than 30 Axis divisions stationed in France at that juncture. There was also a dearth of landing craft required to execute a successful amphibious invasion.
Finally, the Allies did not yet have air superiority over Western Europe. It would take most of the next two years to defeat the Luftwaffe over the skies of Europe.
These were the necessary components for a cross channel operation as perceived by the British. Still, underneath the pragmatism lay a psychological reason for avoiding a cross channel offensive: the ghost of World War One.
The British were deeply influenced by their dire experience fighting in France during the First World War. With the loss of 700,000 men in the Great War, the British war cabinet was in no rush to potentially relive their experience against the German Army.
As a matter of history, the UK preferred to engage in what is called Peripheral Warfare – an otherwise methodical securing of their strategic assets. While also steadily closing the ring on their continental enemy, with the help of their allies on the European continent.
Using the Napoleonic wars as an example, British strategy to defeat France dictated the use of the Royal Navy to isolate their continental enemy, and disrupt its economic activity. Ultimately making the most use of their historic naval supremacy prior to the mid-20th century.
Furthermore the UK always preferred to fight in a coalition with other continental nations with greater armies than their own. Most importantly, they wished to avoid major combat engagements on the continent itself until at least absolutely necessary.
In 1942 – like the early 1800’s – British strength was as a maritime superpower. The British Army, while clearly distinguished, was used with selective precision because their human resources were limited. The slaughter of the Great War only reinforced this long-held approach to fighting a war on the European landmass. Understandably a premature trip across the channel against the Atlantic Wall was their greatest nightmare.
“The Soft Underbelly of Europe” – The Mediterranean Strategy
Knowing full well that Britain nor the US were yet capable of an invasion of northern France – Winston Churchill proposed an alternate Second Front in mid-1942. Using the analogy of a crocodile representing occupied Europe, Churchill referred to northern France as Germany’s dangerous hard snout. Conversely, he designated fascist Italy as the Axis “soft underbelly.” Once North Africa was secured, the Western Allies would invade Sicily and leap frog to invade the Italian peninsula.
The strategy was designed to knock out the junior partner of the Axis, the otherwise inept Italy while drawing forces off the Eastern Front. Churchill also potentially envisioned that with adequate progress, it could create an opportunity for the western allies to enter the Balkans via Trieste.
The British also strongly supported the strategic bombing of Germany which was aimed at destroying German industrial capacity for war, and breaking civilian morale. To this end, the UK and the US undertook the Combined Bomber Offensive (CBO). Effectively the US 8th Air Force stationed in England attacked specific Germany industrial targets by day, while RAF Bomber Command utilized area bombing of German cities by night.
Thus they created what was termed, “around the clock bombing.” The bombing of Germany would be the most significant direct attack upon the Third Reich prior to establishing the Second Front in France come 1944.
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United States: The Final Piece for V-E Day
The United States in defeating Germany was primarily focused on undertaking an invasion of northern France. Both to alleviate pressure on the USSR, as well using the most direct route to take the fight to the heart of the Third Reich.
As early as 1942, the US was advocating a cross-channel invasion of France. Two such plans were generated under the direction of US Army Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall. The expansive Operation Roundup and the smaller Operation Sledgehammer.
Operation Sledgehammer – the most realistic plan at that time – sought to invade the French ports of Brest and Cherbourg with 2-3 American divisions, and 6 British divisions in fall of 1942. Its aim was to establish a firm Allied beachhead to be defended through the following winter, that would also act as staging points for a continual build up prior to a breakout in Spring 1943.
Beginning at the start of hostilities with Germany, the US commenced with Operation Bolero – the amassing of troops and war materials in the British Isles with the primary aim of invading Western Europe. Though the US had not yet produced the divisions and materials required to strengthen their hand in their strategic negotiations with the British. As the operation would have largely depended on the greater resources of the U.K., Britain effectively vetoed an early invasion of the Continent.
Ultimately the US ended up following the British proposal of securing North Africa in November 1942 in Operation Torch. In addition to the subsequent invasion of Sicily and southern Italy in the summer of 1943.
Unlike their British allies, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff only ever viewed the fighting in Italy as a diversionary theater in nature. By the time of the Allied Tehran Conference in November 1943, the US preponderance of war materials, personnel, and Soviet support provided the necessary negotiating leverage to establish D-Day in spring of 1944, regardless of British reservations about its potential success. It would ultimately serve as the greatest set piece engagement toward V-E Day in the West.
The Arsenal of Democracy
In the Second World War, the United States greatest contribution to victory was its commanding industrial production of war materials.
Prior to the US entering the war, President Roosevelt sought to make America what he termed, “The Arsenal of Democracy.” Between 1940 and 1945, the US transformed from a civilian economy producing consumer goods amid the Great Depression, to a nation that created three quarters of all equipment used by Allied forces throughout the entire war.
The mechanism that provided military aid to Britain and the Soviet Union was the Lend-Lease Act, passed in 1941. While Lend-Lease was originally created to support the UK in its time of peril after the fall of France, it was expanded to include the Soviet Union when it entered the anti-Hitler alliance.
For the war effort of the USSR, American Lend-Lease was the vital life line that allowed them to continue fighting Germany despite their own loss of industrial capacity. During a meeting between Joseph Stalin and FDR’s closest advisor Harry Hopkins in late 1941, Stalin generated a $1,000,000,000 ($16,563,165,486.00 2016) shopping list of industrial construction materials, infrastructure necessities, small arms, heavy weapon platforms, aircraft, trucks, food stuffs, and countless other critical items necessary to continue their fight.
At the height of American Lend-Lease aid to the Soviet Union, it is believed to have subsidized nearly 10% of Russia’s wartime economy. As it was vital to keep Russia in the war, the US essentially presented the Kremlin a blank check to receive all they requested.
V-E Day, 2017
As an American writing this article, I cannot help but observe the sacred place the Second World War holds for my fellow Americans. For all of the history of the American Revolution and the nations founding, it is the Second World War that constitutes the role of modern America’s grand epoch. It is embraced as the period in history where the United States ascended to its modern role.
As time stolidly marches forward, the understanding of how and why the greatest conflict in human history was fought becomes perpetually mythologized. It cannot ever be forgotten that even with the success of the Grand Alliance, it was never the unique product of one great idea embraced unanimously and unconditionally.
Its success required hard nose negotiation, necessary compromise, and vital concessions by all parties. In the end it was the ability for each power to overlook their inherent conflicts of political ideology, and cooperate to defeat one of the most terrifying monsters of the 20th century. Every person owes their deepest gratitude for the freedom we cherish today because of what our near ancestors accomplished. May it endure as an inspiring and instructive historical example that may help guide us for whatever next may come.
Keep on rocking in the free world.
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The Complete Guide to WWII in 10 Books
In the plenitude of literature published about the Second World War, one might wonder if it is possible to create a list of WWII books that wholly encompasses the greatest cataclysm in human history. What’s more, could such a comprehensive list be refined to just ten titles? The final judgement must be left up to the reader. However, the following literary lineup is a worthy attempt to accomplish just that: a ten book “complete guide” to World War II.
First, the ground rules guiding the title selection:
This collection does not contain any first person memoirs or accounts from major political figures (e.g. Winston Churchill’s The Second World War). Neither does it contain any biographies, nor what might be considered “traditional” choices on the subject (e.g. William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich). Finally, encyclopedic A-Z volumes of the Second World War were excluded because, while informative, this group tends to lack a desired specific sense of context.
Each title listed below is meant to examine a highly specific and very important aspect of the war. When taken as a whole, these 10 books will provide a vast and varied perspective that includes all the belligerents, both Axis and Allied, as well as the many non-combatant groups whose lives were forever changed by the war.
The Devil’s Alliance: Hitler’s Pact with Stalin, 1939-1941 – Roger Moorhouse
By far one of the most important and overlooked events of the Second World War is the infamous non-aggression pact between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in August 1939. Published in 2014, The Devils Alliance by Roger Moorhouse is one of the few texts that comprehensively analyzes all aspects of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
Although nearly absent in the popular memory of the war, the Nazi-Soviet pact had ramifications that rippled outward through both the eastern and western fronts in the European Theater; also serving as the genesis for many modern Eastern European national borders. Moreover, Moorhouse explores the myriad reasons Soviet dictator Josef Stalin entered into the agreement, going well beyond the official party explanation to buy time in preperation for the war believed inevitable against Germany.
The surprise agreement between the mutually antithetical powers of fascist Nazi Germany and the communist Soviet Union shook the foundation of the international structure. In providing Soviet coverage to Germany’s eastern flank, the pact allowed the German war machine to first invade and occupy half of Poland, then to successfully invade Denmark and Norway, and finally onward to settling their 20 years score with the West. In negotiated compensation, the USSR received territory in eastern Poland up to the river Bug, annexation of the Baltic states, as well as Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina in Romania. It also afforded the Soviets the opportunity to engage Finland in the often forgotten Winter War, acquiring Karelia and the Finnish second city of Vyborg.
The term “non-aggression pact” is a devil of a detail; these two erstwhile blood enemies became allies in all but name for almost two years. The pact proved immensely rewarding for both parties tangibly. Important exchanges included, but were not limited to, highly prized Soviet raw materials in growing amounts for quality German manufactured products. Other appreciable reciprocity took the form of trading military technology and equipment. As well as intelligence cooperation between the Soviet NKVD and Nazi Gestapo.
On the surface, both totalitarian states attempted to overhaul their near decade of mutually antagonistic propaganda, boasting their newfound shared amiability – albeit through proverbial gritted teeth. The desired result was to gain political capital by projecting their detente to the rest of the world on the one hand, while subtly engaging each other in greater geopolitical brinkmanship in Eastern Europe and the Balkans with the other. However, the forced friendship could not last. The pact ended abruptly when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa on June 22nd, 1941.
Roger Moorhouse’s addition to the narrative of the war brings to light the least known, and otherwise shortest lived, alliance of the Second World War. One whose repercussions would be felt on both sides of the East-West divide for decades to follow, but is often left in the shadows.
D-Day: The Battle for Normandy – Antony Beevor
When looking back upon the western Allies’ invasion of France on June 6th, 1944, many now consider it a historical fait accompli. The invasion of France was by no means a certain success and caused everyone involved incredible apprehension. Had it failed, the course of world history would have drastically changed, very likely leading to the two totalitarian juggernauts of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union to battle it out in the East.
Operation OVERLORD was the greatest undertaking by the Western Allies during the Second World War. To date its intricate planning, grand strategy, logistics, manpower, war materials, and strategic deception remain unparalleled. When analyzing this amphibious landing on the coast of Northern France, few if any other military operations approach its degree of complexity and scope.
In his book, Beevor scrutinizes every detail of the mission with his notorious hawk-like observation. From the men landing on the invasion beaches to the crucial decisions taken by Gen. Eisenhower and onward down the chain of command, D-Day: The Battle for Normandy serves as one of the definitive texts on this critical engagement in military history.
Masters and Commanders: How Four Titans Won the War in the West, 1941-1945 – Andrew Roberts
No single nation was responsible for winning the war alone. Specifically in the west, the British Empire and the United States integrated their war effort to a previously unprecedented degree. Following December 7th, 1941, with the initiation of Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt, these two powers worked to come together in lock step. In essence, it was the genesis of what has become known as the celebrated “Special Relationship” between these two powers in the intervening years.
Masters and Commanders evaluates their colossal undertaking from the top down. In doing so, Roberts sheds light on two of the most important – however constantly overlooked – men in uniform that were most responsible for the war effort. Namely Field Marshall Lord Alanbrooke, and General George C. Marshall. Roberts details how these two top commanders forged a relationship, negotiated strategy, worked together with unflinching professionalism, and managed their respective political masters at the top of each government. Roberts goes on to present brilliant and original insight into how these two nations learned to fight as allies, despite the difficulties of culture, economics, differing national self-interest, and political philosophy. Together these four men, all leaders in their own right, were indeed the architects of victory in the West and essential to any complete understanding of the war.
Bomber Command – Max Hastings
Sir Max Hastings undoubtedly provokes many a reaction from his voluminous works on the Second World War. In his first published title, Bomber Command, Hastings shines the bright light of day upon one of the most hotly debated aspects of the Western Allies war effort in Europe, the Strategic Bombing campaign, or Combined Bomber Offensive(CBO).
Published in 1979, Hastings had the opportunity to extensively interview many surviving veterans from the Royal Airforce (RAF) Bomber Command. Most notably Hastings received the cooperation of Air Marshall Sir Arthur Harris for many an interview. Harris, for all intents and purposes, is the most analyzed and note worthy figure in the debate of Allied strategic bombing. Specifically due to his steadfast belief that a nation could win a war through bombing alone, and his ongoing support for the policy of nighttime area bombing of German cities. Consequently, Harris is a figure of long term interest after taking charge of RAF Bomber Command in 1942.
Bomber Command was not the book that those Hastings interviewed thought he would write. It is indeed a controversial look upon the doctrinal evolution, combat effectiveness and necessity of Britain’s area night bombing campaign in Europe. However, Bomber Command is also one of the most thorough and definitive texts on the subject. Undoubtedly, Bomber Command leaves the reader with much to consider, as it is a debate the continues to this day.
The Secret War: Spies, Codes and Guerrillas 1939-1945 – Max Hastings
Once again, Sir Max makes an appearance on this list. Credit where credit is due, The Secret War (2015) is written as a single volume account on the entirety of covert operations and espionage undertaken by all the major combatants during the war. It is a unique and singular contribution to the historical understanding of the war, and earns a place on this list.
Above all else, Hastings provides a deeper look at Soviet espionage and their partisan warfare directed from Moscow on the Eastern front. As well as composing a detailed retelling of the famous Lucy Ring, and Red Orchestra. Despite a greater emphasis on the NKVD of the Soviet Union, Hastings also provides enormous detail on the espionage of the Western Allies and Imperial Japan. Among the greatest note is Hastings illustration of British decryption efforts against the vaunted German Enigma and Lorenz ciphering machines – ULTRA – at Bletchley Park.
While The Secret War is not without error (namely confusing Joan Pujol Garcia – GARBO – for Dusko Popov -TRICYCLE- for spending time in the US under FBI control), it is by far the magnum opus regarding spies, cypher’s, and gorilla action during the Second World War.
Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies – Ben Macintyre
Ben MaCIntyre – historian, journalist, and columnist for The Times of London has become one of the most engaging storytellers of espionage during the Second World War, and the Cold War. In Double Cross, Macintyre writes an engrossing narrative that manages to pull together all of the threads of Britain’s famous Double Cross (XX) system, used for the great D-Day strategic deception. In doing so, Macintyre brings this classic story to life by focusing on the many human stories that drove this singular chapter in military history.
In what is perhaps the greatest strategic deception of all time, MI5 – the UK’s domestic security counter-intelligence agency – captured every German agent sent on an espionage mission to wartime Britain. Once apprehended, these individuals were evaluated for their suitability to act as double-agents for the Allies. Namely spying for the UK, while still pretending to work for the Germans. These individuals were given a choice: work for the Allies, or face the noose. For many, it was not a difficult decision.
Over the period of two years, MI5’s XX Committee (Double-Cross) used these turned agents, as well as other suitable recruits, to work as Allied double-agents. In doing so, MI5 embarked on Operation BODYGUARD – using their double agent assets to relay calculated disinformation that purposefully mislead the Germans to conclude the invasion of France – D-Day – would occur at the Pas-de-Calais, the shortest distance across the English Channel from Dover.
In doing so, MI5 wished to convey the false notion that the D-Day Normandy landings were diversionary. The result was ultimately limiting the inevitable German counter-attack in Normandy, as the Germans prepared elsewhere for the “main” attack that would never come, by armies that did not exist.
Double Cross is nothing less than a thoroughly pleasurable read, recounting one of the legendary Allied deceptions that saved countless lives, and played a critical role to ensure victory in the West over Nazi Germany.
Life and Fate – Vasily Grossman
Life and Fate is the epic first hand front line account of Soviet war correspondent for Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star), Vasily Grossman. Life and Fate follows the Frontovik – front line soldier – from day one of Operation BARBAROSSA, to the fall of Berlin. Vasily Grossman recounts in amazing detail the fighting on the Eastern Front at so many of its pivotal encounters. It is unlikely there has been a journalist before or since that has had a comparable embedded reporting experience. Life and Fate provides the bare and unvarnished truth of the carnage that was the Eastern Front.
Grossman’s title is modeled off of Tolstoy’s classic War and Peace, and Life and Fate is no less a master stroke. Due to Soviet censorship and systematic anti-semitism of the Soviet post-war period, Grossman never lived to see his novel published as it was officially banned. Grossman also met this fate because Life and Fate drew the unequivocal conclusion that Nazism and Stalinism were two sides of the same ideological coin, a Soviet mortal sin that guaranteed banishment.
The novels suppression was a genuine tragedy for a man who lived for years within the worst theater of war in history, and survived to write about it. While Grossman did not live to see its eventual publishing, Life and Fate has critically shaped historical understanding of fighting during the German’s so-called pitiless ideology of “Vernichtungskrieg” – or war of annihilation.
With The Old Breed: At Peleiu and Okinawa – Eugene Sledge
What may be one of the most detailed and deeply human retelling’s of a US Marine fighting in the Pacific, Eugene Sledge in, With The Old Breed becomes indelible on the readers soul. Sledge’s memoir is the compilation of his notes and diary that Sledge kept – contrary to its prohibition in combat – and shares his life changing experience fighting in the Pacific.
With The Old Breed is a highly graphic, gritty, and at times overwhelming account of the slaughter on Peleliu, and Okinawa. The reader cannot help but relive some of these horrors themselves as they turn the page. As one cannot help but share his fear and tragedy as well. With the Old Breed was Eugene Sledge’s release from the terrors he relived for years following his return from service. Upon the encouragement of his wife, Sledge began to release his pain as the book took shape, and helped confront his personal demons. Excerpts of this memoir were featured in Ken Burns 2007 PBS documentary, The War.
The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War – Andrew Roberts
One could argue this choice violates the encyclopedic A-Z stipulation, however that is simply not so. The Storm of War may effectively begin in mid-August 1939 and follow to August 1945, but it is truly “new history of the Second World War” by any fair measure.
In classic Andrew Roberts form demonstrating his nose for significant yet overlooked details, in tandem with striking prose, The Storm of War portrays the Second World War as it could have been, as well as the reasons it was not.
According to Roberts, Germany lost the war because each time a major decision came before Adolf Hitler regarding the well being of Germany – if it conflicted with the interests of the Nazi party – Hitler always chose the political well being of National Socialism. Naturally this methodology had a devastating effect on the German war effort, and the German people.
Furthermore, Roberts weaves an expert thread when evaluating alternative Axis and Allied strategy throughout the war. By covering every major belligerent in detail, he proceeds to encapsulate the human personalities and relationships that directed the war for both sides. The Storm of War may be Andrew Roberts greatest published achievement to date, with its masterful scholarship only matched by its literary finesse.
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Hell to Pay: Operation Downfall and the Invasion of Japan, 1945-1947 – D.M. Giangreco
The conclusion of the Second World War in the Pacific is wrought with questions that have plagued historians, history buffs, and intellects of all shapes and sizes for decades. Specifically, what if the US never used atomic bombs on Japan? What were the alternatives? Were the atomic bombs what pushed Emperor Hirohito to finally accept surrender? If the Allies had invaded mainland Japan, how would they have done it? What would have been the cost of a conventional invasion? These questions persist to this day with very little, if any, information to further substantiate the subject.
In a manner never before achieved in literary form, Hell to Pay tackles all of these questions in a truly engaging manner, outlining in supreme detail Operation DOWNFALL – the planned Allied amphibious invasion of Kyushu and Honshu.
By Giangreco’s own admission, Hell to Pay‘s research was quite difficult. All of the relevant information and primary source material was in various and disparate low profile archives. Hell to Pay finally documents considerable evidence used in planning DOWNFALL, material that has not seen the light of day in 70 years. With Giangreco’s titanic research effort, Hell to Pay outlines the realistic cost of a conventional Allied invasion.
These questions regarding the end of the war are still some of the greatest that still overwhelm even casual history watchers. Hell to Pay is by far the most complete and thorough evaluation of what the invasion and occupation of Japan would have likely cost. Giangreco leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions after a highly provocative presentation.
Operation DOWNFALL is a historical counter-factual, and no one can be sure what the outcome would have been if history had taken a different course. Though with a more informed understanding of its planning and circumstances, it aptly provides a focused look as to why history evolved as it did.
The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939-1945 – Nicholas Stargardt
As an honorable mention as the 11th selection on this compilation of 10 titles – due to its impressive sociological showing – Nicholas Stargardt provides a superior account of life in Nazi Germany during the Second World War. It is not unusual that in history the vanquished and their experience are often forgotten. This is precisely where The German War begins to fill in those gaps.
In using archived material, interviews, personal correspondence of citizens, and a strong historical approach: The German War opens up the details and perspective of civil society in wartime Germany as few have prior – save William Shirer or Roger Moorhouse in Berlin at War (2010).
From years of enduring strategic bombing, the working life of industrial laborers, the strain of extreme wartime rationing, and nearly living hand to mouth, the reader see’s how the Germans viewed and lived their war. Without reservation or delicacy, Stargardt’s picture of civilian society comes to light.
If one is to best understand the Second World War, they must understand the experience of the enemy. In doing so, The German War does not disappoint.
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