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.