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.
“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”
General Dwight D. Eisenhower, United States Army
Democracy During Total War
Many historians contemplate and debate if a true liberal representative democracy could emerge victorious and intact when faced with a total war. Had Operation Overlord failed, an even higher sacrifice would be required to achieve a desirable victory in Europe. The decision to undertake an even greater effort would have then faced the people of the Allied powers. The United States and Great Britain each lost over 350,000 members of their armed forces during the war. A failure of D-Day, and the need to renew their commitment to liberating Western Europe would have entailed an ever greater cost of life.
In historian Max Hastings estimation, the Soviet Union could likely have only survived their nightmare war with the Germans with the full mobilization of the Stalinist terror apparatus to scare the population into full resistance. As similar tactics would never be used in the other Allied nations, the leaders and people of those countries would have needed to reassess their willingness to pay the great price of peace. Their answer would have had near incomprehensible consequences to history, whatever it might have been.
Finger Pointing Among the Allies
With a loss the magnitude of Operation Overlord, the finger pointing and blame would have extended far and wide. While in reality Allied leadership would be at a collective fault, it is unfortunately not the nature of politics to assume and proceed from such a rationale conclusion. In all likelihood, two outlooks would have prevailed between the Anglo-American nations.
The British would have likely claimed that their previously stated arguments for placing a cross-channel invasion at the bottom of Allied strategic priorities should have been heeded.
The U.S. would have laid the blame with the decision to delay Operation Anvil, a simultaneous invasion of the Channel coast and the French Mediterranean coast. By design, the dual invasion was intended to force the Germans to divide their response in France so as to engage both Allied forces.
Operation Anvil was ultimately canceled for June 6th because the necessary landing craft for the invasion were unavailable. The craft had been in use at Anzio, a failed attempt to break the deadlock at Casino in Italy. The plan was entirely Churchill’s brain-child. Had D-Day failed, the U.S. would have pointed to the landing craft’s assignment to Anzio as a waste of resources in Italy, considered a diversionary theater, when they should have been used to support the invasion and ultimate liberation of France. Moreover, U.S. leadership would point to Churchill for conceiving the foolhardy plan at the expense of their paramount strategic priority.
As acrimonious as the diplomatic and military relations would be following a D-Day failure, the wide-spread political ramifications would have been catastrophic.
The 1944 U.S. Presidential Election After A D-Day Defeat
On June 6th, 1944 President Roosevelt was five months away from his fourth and final presidential election. The final result historically was not close against Republican challenger, Governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York. FDR rode his continued popularity with the American public, as well as significant Allied military progress by November of that year. By Election Day, not only had France been almost entirely liberated, but Belgium was largely in Allied hands. Meanwhile, Italy was also occupied just beyond Bologna.
Had a complete failure of D-Day occurred, none of this would have been possible at that time. It would have colored the entirety of that election, leading the American public to consider very different issues at the polls.
In a race where the primary issue was choosing the candidate most suited to creating the best American post-war peace, D-Day defeat would have immediately raised questions where none were before: “Is FDR up to the job?” “Could he end the war successfully without an even greater sacrifice of American lives?” “Can we actually defeat Hitler?” If the voting public faced an Allied failure on D-Day, the likely answer to the first two questions would have been “no.” The voting public’s response to the final question could have demonstrated a crisis of confidence whose resolution would have directed the future war effort.
D-Day Failure: The Survival of the Churchill Government
Given the nature of British parliamentary democracy’s ability to enact swift and sweeping change, the Churchill government would definitely have come under tremendous political scrutiny for a D-Day failure. Specifically, in light of the British losses experienced in northern France during WWI, as well as his personal history as architect for the disastrous landings at Gallipoli, confidence in Churchill’s continued wartime leadership would be seriously questioned. Both instances embodied a tortuous legacy in the minds of all Britons at the time. Nor would this have been Churchill’s first significant challenge to his leadership and wartime cabinet.
Prior to the victory at the Second Battle of El-Alamein in November 1942, Churchill’s premiership sat in a tenuous position having little to show in the way of a high value victory over the Germans on land. In addition to the collective disgrace following the surrender of forces stationed at Tobruk in June 1942, Churchill was under pressure to deliver.
Labour MP and Leader of the House of Commons in Churchill’s wartime coalition government,Sir Stafford Cripps, was believed to be a genuine rival for the premiership in 1942. He had served as the government’s Ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1940 to 1942. Cripps became a popular figure in the U.K. as an advocate for an “All Aid to Russia” approach to fighting the war.
Due to the minimal British military progress in 1942, and the Soviet Union’s enduring the wrath of the Wehrmacht nearly alone, Cripps advocated a greater role in providing any and all resources to the Soviet Union given British inability to achieve a favorable and definitive outcome themselves. This challenge ended with the British 8th Army’s decisive victory at the Second Battle of El-Alamein.
There were no serious contenders for the post of PM in summer 1944, following a period of sustained military success. Yet such figures like Cripps would have emerged quickly following a disaster with Overlord, a crisis that would have outstripped anything Churchill’s leadership endured prior.
When considering the design of the British parliamentary system, as well as the seriousness of the defeat, it would have led to at least a serious shakeup of serving Cabinet members.
D-Day Disaster: The End of Germany First?
Prior to U.S. entry into the war, U.S. 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 title for the talks which established that, if the U.S. entered the war, Nazi occupied Europe would be the “decisive theater” or the Germany First priority. This determination was made only 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.
In early 1942 alarming public opinion polls found that 20% of Americans favored signing a separate peace with Hitler to focus the war effort against the Japanese. Many Americans during this period held a visceral hatred of Japan for the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Despite Germany declaring war against the US on 12/11/1941, four days after Pearl Harbor, most Americans at that time did not harbor nearly as much animosity toward Germany compared to that of Japan. Though it must be understood that this was several years prior to the public revelations of Nazi racial policy and genocide.
Though it was the proper strategic priority to focus on the defeat of Germany, keeping American public opinion in favor of Germany First was often contingent on the success of the fight in Europe and the expediency of said success. Had Overlord failed, the public and policy makers may have given in to their desire to enact their collective vengeance against the Japanese in the Pacific. If so, the resources necessary to attempt a second invasion or even support progress elsewhere in Europe may have decreased significantly. Any reduction in the level of the overwhelming resources of the United States would have placed the freedom of Western Europe in peril.
What Were the Alternatives?
Next Best Theater of Opportunity in Europe
With a failure of the Invasion of France, Allied war planners would have had to determine a new possible theater of strategic opportunity. Italy was the only other area of mainland Europe where the Western Allies were engaging the Germans on the ground. With Churchill’s previous desire to enter Yugoslavia via Trieste, the cross channel invasion disaster may have given this idea new life and traction.
Italy was thought a serviceable diversionary theater, as it caused Germany to further disperse their forces throughout Europe. The Italian campaign was costly, as war in Italy proved highly attritional due to fighting in the Apennines mountain range. Nor did it serve its greatest purpose of drawing a significant number of divisions off the Eastern Front.
Due to the harsh nature of combat in Italy – specifically invading from the south – it was deemed unsuitable as a main axis of advance toward the heart of Germany. The idea of fighting a million Axis troops well fortified in the Alps would have been nothing short of purgatory.
While a cross channel operation disaster may have created renewed interest in Churchill’s desire to enter the Balkans, fighting in Yugoslavia and other Balkan nations would have been no more pleasant than in northern Italy and Austria for precisely the same reasons.
Additionally, the Soviet’s eyed the Balkans as within their future sphere of post-war influence, save Greece to the south by prior agreement. A large Western Allied military presence in the Balkans would have undoubtedly created significant friction between the Eastern and Western Allies.
In all probability, the prospect of capitalizing on the Balkans as a hypothetical theater of opportunity would not have been an automatic contingency plan. It would have taken time to both amass the materials to do so properly, and determine the best way to engage the enemy. It’s success would have certainly required the support of a US dedicated to victory in Europe, which in this scenario would have been no guarantee.
The Eastern Front Opposite D-Day
Had Operation Overlord not achieved a victorious outcome, the war in Europe would have been decided almost entirely by the rival tyranny’s on the Eastern Front. With Nazi Germany able to redeploy a significant number of divisions no longer needed in the West – including some of their most crack divisions. Their possible renewed resistance would unquestionably changed the look of the wars outcome, and the world itself.
Operation Bagration: Belorussia to Bordeaux?
In a less popular piece of history from the Second World War, Operation Bagration – also known as “Death of German Army Group Center” – was launched on 22 June, 1944. In scale, the Soviet offensive to clear German Army Group Center from Belorussia (modern day Belarus) was ten times the size of D-Day’s initial phase in manpower.
The offensive liberated Minsk, portions of Latvia, Lithuania, southwest Poland, and it ended with the Red Army halting on the eastern bank of the Vistula opposite Warsaw. The Soviets effectively crushed Army Group Center, advancing up to 4oo miles from their start line in easternmost Belorussia, doing so in just over a month. Their progress was incredible, and left the Red Army within reach of their ultimate target, Berlin.
Though without the major presence of the Western Allies in Western Europe, there never would have been a symbolic embrace between East and West on the river Elbe. It would have created an opportunity to extend Soviet influence from Lisbon to Vladivostok, if Stalin was willing to cut the huge check necessary to achieve it.
With the inability to create a significant Second Front in Western Europe, the situation would have constituted a fundamental strategic shift for Germany with their new found available options to resist the Red Army. Had D-Day failed, it would have likely been the conclusion of the Germans that a similar invasion by the Western Allies would have taken no less than 18 months to remount – IF indeed they ever attempted another invasion again.
Between March 1943 and June 1944, the Wehrmacht stationed between 44 and 60 divisions awaiting to defend the expected Allied invasion of France. As they sat deployed in various locations throughout France and the Benelux nations, they were of absolutely no use anywhere else. If even 50 percent of those divisions had been redeployed to the fight in the East, the cost of Soviet progress would have been staggering. An additional 30 divisions is the equivalent of an entire German Army Group, all of which the Soviets never had to face historically because they were occupied by the successful Allied liberation of France.
Though it is not possible to know that even the addition of fresh resources from the Western European theater that Germany would have been able to conduct a credible, large scale offensive to change their fortunes in the East. Given the manic decision making process of Adolf Hitler, any number of possibilities present themselves whether or not they appear prudent. It is fair, however, to imagine a scenario in which the Germans sought to achieve a stalemate. Without a threat in the West, Germany did not need to win the war outright. Germany simply did not have to lose to ensure their continued existence.
Based on Soviet grand strategy and method of war, it seems unthinkable that Stalin could ever have accepted an end to hostilities that didn’t include the total capitulation of Nazi Germany. Given his overwhelming desire to create a bloc of aligned Communist nations in Eastern Europe to buffer the USSR from another Western invasion, he could never have felt secure under conditions where the German threat remained. Moreover despite the high cost, with the combination of a hostile neighboring Nazi Germany, plus the reward of establishing communism across two continents, as a leader who cared not at all for the lives lost in war – Stalin would never have refused to make whatever sacrifice was necessary to achieve that outcome.
Western Allied Pressures and Options
In addition to US public pressure to increase focus and resources to the war in the Pacific, there would have also likely been a push for an even greater level of Lend-Lease aid provided to the USSR. It would likely be viewed that the valiant Soviet allies were doing almost all of the heavy-lifting to the wars completion, and the US/UK would certainly be compelled to provide all the material support they possibly could. Even surpassing the exceptional amount of Lend-Lease they provided during the actual war.
A New Cold War Hot Spot
At the war’s conclusion, the Allies only predictable holdings on the continent of Europe would have been their occupation of Italy. Given the extreme difficulties and predictable cost of forcing progress through the Alps – their position on the Italian peninsula may have proven fateful and long term. With a new border through portions of northern Italy that meet with newly Communist aligned nations, it may have created a point that constituted an altogether different epicenter of cold-war tension, partitioning Turin instead of Berlin.
(Article Continues Below…)
A Nuclear Option That Is Not So Taboo
Throughout the Second World War, the United States and Great Britain collaborated to create the first atomic bombs. In Project Manhattan, the Allied nations recruited scientists to work collaboratively in a secret site in New Mexico, all in hopes of being the first powers to possess the most destructive weapon in history.
There was particular haste for progress because the Germans had perused research to create nuclear weapons themselves through the use of heavy water. While Hitler never pushed the project as he was never convinced of the weapons feasibility, the Americans and British did not know that. Hence they spent over 2 billion US dollars to complete the project.
It is well known that the first two – and only – atomic bombs were dropped by the U.S. on Hiroshima and Nagasaki Japan in August, 1945. In a world in which the Allies were repelled from Normandy, the likelihood of the war in Europe ending in May 1945 were next to none. Therefore, Nazi Germany would have been the primary target for the newly developed U.S. atomic bombs when they became available in July 1945. Their creation was always intended for use on Germany, but did not occur historically because Nazi surrender occurred two months too soon.
Despite the devastation caused by humanities first strategic nuclear weapons, it is unlikely that even such a weapon would have caused Hitler to surrender. Unlike Emperor Hirohito who surrendered before the major pressures of the atomic bombings and the Soviet invasion of Manchuria, Hitler would have cared not at all. Due to his intransigence, the U.S. may have used many more atomic bombs on Germany as they became available.
In an age where no one fully understood the long term dangers of using nuclear weapons, such a situation may have irradiated Europe for generations to come. An even more disturbing possibility is that the bombs continued use may have never lead to the “nuclear taboo,” the guiding belief of all nations that possess nuclear weapons (possibly excluding North Korea) to never use them.
D-Day Success: A Better World
What you have just read is undoubtedly a nightmare scenario in which all of our greatest fears came to pass. It is of course impossible to know exactly what course history may have taken, as the failure of D-Day is a counter-factual. It does however serve to invoke a newfound appreciation for what Operation Overlord really achieved, and more accurately, what it prevented.
Today we all raise our full glasses, with full hearts, to the achievement of those who played a role in one of the most critical events in human history. A military success that was fundamental in creating the world order that has ushered in the longest period of sustained peace between great powers in human history. We may never be able to repay the debt of our dearest blood, but we can honor it every day. As well as indeed taking a deep breadth that only a free people can genuinely appreciate.
Want to learn more about if D-Day failed? Listen to Paul K. DiCostanzo’s D-Day interview on KFAB 1110 with Gary Sadlemyer!
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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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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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