This week in 2019 marks the 74th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day during the Second World War, or VE Day. The rapturous occasion guns fell silent in Europe, and the world rejoiced in the defeat of Nazism. In the popular historical narrative of the war, the cooperation between the so-called “Grand Alliance” of the British Empire, United States and Soviet Union is taken for granted. The historical reality of the Grand Alliance is full of growing pains, family squabbles and the harsh practicalities of learning to fight as an effective military coalition is glossed over; favoring a story of monolithic Allied “good” verses Hitler/Axis “evil”. Despite its commendable aim, the process of how such varied and primordially contrasting global powers working together in creating a successful plan for liberating Europe is more laudable still.
Allied victory over Nazism came down to a simple hard boiled equation:
- British obstinance between 1940-1941 that forced continuation of the war following French capitulation; buying time for the other two major Allies to eventually enter the war against Germany.
- Secondly, American industrial might making Allied forces the most fully equipped and supplied fighting forces during the conflict.
- Lastly, the Soviet Union contributing oceans of their people’s own blood necessary for defeating the lion share of the Wehrmacht.
However, that road to VE Day was not preordained. Theirs was a perilous prospect and unprecedented path to say the least – differing greatly even from their enemies.
Axis alliance members were composed of kindred powers, it is true. However their strategic goals and collaboration ended there. Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Imperial Japan mostly fought their own separate wars simultaneously. Whereas the Grand Alliance fought the same war on separate fronts, in an unprecedented level of strategic collaboration. Moreover, understanding Britain, America or Russia today – or the modern world order itself – one must grasp each of those power’s unique Second World War experiences.
So, how did these three very different Allied powers envision the path to total victory? How did their diplomatic shotgun marriage translate into making the most successful military coalition in history work? The Grand Alliance operated on the framework of two commonly understood precepts: Germany first, and unconditional surrender.
The Grand Alliance Priority Number One: “Germany First”
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.”
The Grand Alliance by its full formation in December 1941 had one common strategic priority between the three powers: Defeating Nazi Germany and its European Axis collaborators, before turning their full attention toward Imperial Japan. Allied consensus was informed by the accurate perception that Nazi Germany presented their most dangerous common adversary. Allied war planners also had one further common quality that was necessary to achieve VE Day: Axis unconditional surrender.
Unconditional Surrender: The Other Defining Characteristic of VE Day
President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the Casablanca Conference in January 1943 proclaimed the policy of “Unconditional Surrender” against all Axis powers.
Unconditional surrender dictates that there were no surrender terms the Allies would accept to achieve defeating Nazi Germany, and their Axis cohorts. Unequivocally, the policy outlined the Allies were only interested in the complete destruction of their Axis foes.
In a historical context, unconditional surrender was largely unprecedented. Most wars fought prior ended with a negotiated peace, and seldom, if ever, aimed to obliterate an enemy in total. The First World War met its conclusion likewise, culminating in the infamous 1919 Treaty of Versailles.
Unconditional surrender sought to achieve two major inter allied aims: FDR and Churchill foremost sought to assuage Joseph Stalin’s fear that the Western Allies would accept a separate peace with Hitler, thus leaving the Soviet Union alone in their desperate fight against Nazi Germany.
The second purpose of unconditional surrender was to set a clear tone for their own nations people, establishing the extent to which Allied leaders were prepared to sacrifice in defeating Hitler. Germany first and unconditional surrender were the bedrock policies underpinning the path to VE Day.
However, while the three powers were in lock step concerning their paramount war aims, it hardly constituted the beginning of smooth sailing between the Allies moving forward.
The Soviet Union: The Strangest Road to VE Day & Membership in the Grand Alliance
Allied victory in Europe during the Second World War was primarily achieved on the Eastern Front. Moreover, the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 initiated the most destructive conflict of all time; establishing the decisive theater of the entire war. It was the unrelenting bloodied maw of the Soviet Red Army that gnashed out the guts of the vaunted German Wehrmacht, leading to total capitulation of the Nazi state in 1945. Soviet war losses are estimated between 25 to 27 million dead over four years of war. British historian Andrew Roberts concludes that 4 out of every 5 German combat dead was due to fighting the Red Army.
The Eastern Front at it’s apex stretched over 1,500 miles, composing a distance roughly that of New York City to Midland, Texas. Throughout the crucible of the Eastern Front, the Soviet State Defense Committee – run personally by then Generalissimo Joseph Stalin himself – had three major strategic objectives within the Grand Alliance:
- Foremost to acquire as much material support from the Western Allies as possible; specifically through the auspices of American “Lend-Lease,” overcoming glaring Soviet industrial production inadequacies hounding throughout the war.
- Secondly, to the surprise of British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden during their first Kremlin meeting in December 1941, Stalin’s unequivocal expectation that the Soviet Union retain the Baltic states and the portion of eastern Poland it acquired via the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August, 1939 at war’s end.
- Lastly, the Soviets prioritized the establishment of a “Second Front” in Western Europe by the US and British. This second point of engagement serving to draw off significant numbers of German divisions deployed in the East, thus allowing the Soviets to take the offensive after being on the back foot since the surprise German invasion.
More than any other issue between the Allied powers, the establishment of a “Second Front” in Western Europe caused the greatest friction. FDR and Churchill both understood that supporting the Soviet Union was the major strategic priority in defeating Nazi Germany, as they were fighting the overwhelming majority of the Wehrmacht.
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 Allied nation had varying definitions and ideas how to best accommodate creating another front for significantly alleviating pressure on the Soviet Union.
Stalin envisaged the Second Front as a massive assault on coastal Northern France. An Allied invasion so significant that it would require considerable German redeployment from the East to the new theater in the West.
Stalin would not receive this Second Front until June 6th 1944, D-Day. However, military planning was hardly the only source of strife among these erstwhile adversaries turned global alliance.
Long Seeded Animosity: Visceral Soviet Distrust of “The Capitalist West” & Subverting Expectations
Years of mutual antagonism between Soviet communist East, and British/US capitalist West cast a long shadow, enveloping the entirety of their Allied wartime dealings. In particular, Stalin’s proclivity for paranoia and distrust of Western capitalist nations was legendary. Stalin, in fairness, was no less forgiving of his own comrades.
The capitalist West was perceived by the Soviets as their greatest adversary prior to the rise, and following the destruction of, Nazi Germany.
Professor Stephen Kotkin of Princeton University, a foremost authority on Joseph Stalin and Stalinism, asserts Stalin was so weary of the British in particular, he expected Britain to come to a formal accord with Nazi Germany; thus ending the war in the West, and formally aiding the new war in the East shortly following Germany’s invasion of the USSR in June 1941.
In short Stalin anticipated a British diplomatic volte-face, exceeding in magnitude that of even the Nazi-Soviet Pact 22 months prior. Stalin within his myopic Marxist-Leninist worldview thought himself on the precipice of facing an ad hoc coalition composed of erstwhile enemies, seeking to extirpate Bolshevism.
(Kotkin lecturing at the Institute for Advanced Study – IAS – about Stalin’s experience directing the Soviet war effort against Nazi Germany)
Stalin was extremely surprised by British actions establishing the opposite was true. This episode serves to highlight the fundamental barriers the Grand Alliance sought to overcome from its start.
Stalin would still conclude on many occasions that British and US inability to create a more timely Second Front in Western Europe was for the purpose of bleeding his nation white. The Soviet “Vozhd” – boss – even outwardly mocked Churchill during their 1942 meeting for British cowardice; insulting their outwardly conservative approach to fighting the Wehrmacht on land.
The Soviet despot was entirely unaccepting of realistic limitations to British military power; invariably viewing it as a thin cynical cover by his Western allies to ensure a Soviet Pyrrhic victory. Doing so with the aim of destabilizing the Soviet nation post-war, overall to their own long term advantage. In the mind of the Vozhd, the Grand Alliance was only a temporary collaboration of convenience.
Future American President Harry S. Truman, who was the junior US Senator from Missouri in June 1941, unwittingly provoked Stalin’s belief. Truman went on record with the New York Times shortly after the German invasion of the USSR, stating:
“If we see that Germany is winning the war, we ought to help Russia; and if that Russia is winning, we ought to help Germany, and in that way let them kill as many as possible.”
Stalin is notorious for possessing a long memory for such things; informing the confirmation bias that underpinned his infamous worldview. However, while there is no clear evidence supporting Stalin’s suspicions, that perception was a significant obstacle impeding the creation of a cogent alliance between East and West.
Animosity in the West for the Soviet Union: “Strangling Bolshevism in its Cradle”
Stalin was hardly alone as an Allied warlord in his long-held suspicion and distrust of their wartime partners. Winston Churchill was in longtime public opposition to Communism, beginning with the 1917 October Bolshevik coup.
Churchill during the Russian Civil War expressed policies favoring “strangling Bolshevism in its cradle,” by providing direct military intervention and aid to opposition Russian White Armies. However, while Churchill was unequivocal in stating the defeat of Hitler was his only concern during the war itself, his anti-communist past colored all of his dealings with the Kremlin.
Churchill despite this paramount divide managed to build a productive, and at-times even cordial, relationship with Stalin. Moreover, Stalin could be quite a charmer when he believed it was in his best interest.
Churchill in truth was both hot and cold regarding Stalin throughout their wartime partnership, but overall did take a shine to him. The PM in expressing his personal fondness for the Soviet despot noted, “If only I could dine with Stalin once a week, there would be no trouble at all. We get on like a house on fire.” Churchill and FDR in time came to affectionately refer to Stalin as, “Uncle Joe.”
Moreover, Stalin largely proved a highly capable and shrewd representative for Soviet interests during the war. Anthony Eden, then British Foreign Secretary was known to say, “If I had to pick a team for going into a conference room, Stalin would be my first choice.” Eden’s words speak volumes endorsing both Stalin’s ability in high stakes diplomacy, as well as the immense personal regard his Allies held for him.
The British Empire: The Surviving Founding Member of the Grand Alliance & the Longest Road to VE Day
The British Empire was the longest serving member of the Grand Alliance; the only major ally to fight the war from its beginnings in September 1939, to its conclusion in September 1945. Great Britain’s greatest contribution to winning the conflict was ensuring its continuation after the fall of France in June 1940. Beginning with the appointment of Winston Churchill as Prime Minister in May 1940, he notably lead his nation as the sole great power still opposing Hitler.
Both historians and members of the British government in 1940 concur in hindsight that Churchill was the only figure present capable of rallying the nation to fight on alone. Furthermore, Churchill may have been the only PM candidate with the ability for resisting political pressure from Lord Halifax, pushing Britain to probe Germany for peace terms. British obstinance at high cost bought the necessary 12-18 months for the Soviet Union and US to eventually join the anti-Hitler crusade.
Britain and the Soviet Union were finally joined by the US in December 1941, following the attack on Pearl Harbor and the accompanying German declaration of war on the US. The three great military powers formed the nucleus of the Grand Alliance that could defeat Nazi Germany. Winston Churchill long envisaged this anti-Hitler triumvirate for many years prior to its formation. However, with the Grand Alliance’s full formation came immense British obligation.
Sinews of the “Second Front”
By fall 1941, the USSR began demanding their British allies create a “Second Front” in northwest Europe. According to British historian David Reynolds, Stalin in desperation cabled Churchill requesting 25-30 British Army divisions immediately invade northwest Europe, or the Balkans. Churchill could not possibly oblige, as the British Army had nowhere near the 25-30 divisions available for such an operation at that time.
The United States eight months later in spring 1942 began echoing the USSR. The US was calling to amphibiously invade northern France, seeking to alleviate the Soviet wartime burden. The British were in firm opposition to a cross-channel invasion in 1942, and later in 1943.
British protestation held that US and British forces were missing several critical components before a cross-channel invasion could possibly succeed. Lest one forget, the last successful invasion across the English Channel was the Norman conquest of England in 1066.
Grand Alliance D-Day Prerequisites: The Most Important Combat Contribution to VE Day by the US & British
Foremost, the British and Americans were still 12-18 away from winning the Battle of the Atlantic, the largely war-long German campaign of attrition by the Kriegsmarine – German Navy- and it’s U-Boats seeking to strangle the British into surrender by sinking vital supply convoys to the island nation.
The cross-channel invasion, later dubbed Operation Overlord, necessitated the amassing of troops, military equipment, naval forces and other materials in the British Isles. Furthermore, the requisite logistical support for Allied armies on the Continent could not be confidently executed while the German U-boat threat remained.
Heinz Guderian, German general and panzer specialist once quipped that logistics were the “ball and chain” of modern warfare. The Allied military brain trust were no less conscious of that reality, especially for the prospects of challenging the German army on French beachheads.
The US and British in 1942 did not yet have the number of divisions or materials available to take on the 30 or so German divisions believed present in France at that juncture. Additionally, there was a dearth of landing craft required to execute a successful amphibious assault on northern France.
Finally, the Allies did not yet have air superiority over the European skies. It would take most of the next two years to defeat the German Luftwaffe. – air force. These were the necessary components for a successful cross channel operation as wisely outlined by the British.
Still, underneath British pragmatism lay a deeply rooted psychological factor for avoiding a cross channel offensive: the ghost of the First World War and the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940.
“Wherever wood can swim, there I am sure to find the flag of England.” – Napoleon Bonaparte
The British First World War Experience & The Historic British Way of War: A Peripheral Strategy
The British were deeply influenced by their dire experience fighting the German army in France during the First World War, as well as in May and June 1940. The loss of 700,000 men in the Great War was always a specter looming heavily in the British war cabinet; nor were they sanguine to potentially rush reliving their experiences against the German Army.
The British, as a mater of history, preferred to engage in Peripheral Warfare – an otherwise methodical securing of their strategic assets; simultaneously closing the ring on their continental enemy, often with the help of their allies on the European continent itself.
Britain during the Napoleonic wars for example, used the peripheral strategy to defeat France. The British dictating the use of the Royal Navy to isolate said continental enemy, disrupting its economic capacity through naval interdiction. Napoleon once mused, “wherever wood can swim, there I am sure to find the flag of England.” British grand strategy changed little during the century long interim, looking to fight best to its maritime superpower status.
The UK furthermore always sought to fight in a coalition with continental powers whose armies were more numerous than their own. Most importantly, the British wished to avoid major engagements on the continent itself, until at least absolutely necessary.
Britains greatest strength in 1942 – like in the early 1800’s – was as a maritime juggernaut. The British Army is clearly distinguished, however it always fought with highly selective precision due to its very finite human resources.
With the British specter of the Great War slaughter, combined with its long-held approach to fighting a war on the European landmass, a more conservative strategy persisted between 1941 and 1943. Understandably, a premature Allied trip across the channel to overcome fortress Europe was Britains greatest nightmare. Britain’s conservative strategic tenants however would ultimately extend the Allied road to VE Day.
“The Soft Underbelly of Europe”: The Churchill Inspired Mediterranean Strategy
Winston Churchill knowing full well that Britain, nor the US were capable of an invasion of northern France in 1942, proposed an alternate Second Front in mid-1942. Churchill during his first face-to-face meeting with Stalin in August of that year employed the analogy of a crocodile to present his plan for liberating occupied Europe.
Churchill referred to northern France as Germany’s dangerous “hard snout.” Conversely, he designated fascist Italy as the Axis “soft underbelly.” Once the Allies finished securing North Africa from the Axis, the Western Allies would invade Sicily, afterward using the island to leap frog into attacking southern Italy.
British strategy was designed to knock out the militarily inept Italy – the Axis junior partner. Churchill proposed this course of action ostensibly to remove the easiest target within reach, while also drawing off German forces from the Eastern Front.
In truth, Churchill’s strategy could only prolong the road to VE Day in the West. Invading southern Italy with the aim of reaching Germany is comparable to invading Houston, seeking to reach Washington D.C. via the Appalachian mountains.
In short, Italy could only represent a long and tortuous road to the Reich. Fighting in Italy was by definition a diversionary theater of war. Specifically a point of engagement seeking to draw away the main strength of an enemy elsewhere, while being unable to create a definitive outcome in the war itself.
Furthermore, invading Italy from the south was extremely difficult due to the Apennines mountain rage – thus benefitting fortification by the defender. Napoleon for this reason said invading Italy is like putting on a boot, you must start at the top.
Churchill’s plan did however benefit the British Empire itself, removing their main Italian maritime rival in the Mediterranean – reopening shipping lanes that had been contested since June 1940.
The Mediterranean was the major international artery for the British Empire. Mediterranean waters connected Europe to India and British Far East imperial holdings.
Furthermore, Churchill also potentially envisioned that with adequate progress in Italy, it could create an opportunity for the Western Allies to enter the Balkans via Trieste. In doing so, it may also allow the British and US to thwart post-war Soviet ambitions in the Balkans, who were expecting that region to fall within their expected future sphere of influence.
“Around the Clock Bombing”: The Combined Bomber Offensive
British war planners were also strongly advocating increasing Allied strategic bombing of Germany from the UK. Strategic bombing by the Western Allies were aiming to destroy the German industrial capacity for war, and to possibly crack German civilian morale.
To this end, the British and US undertook the Combined Bomber Offensive (CBO). Effectively the 8th United States Army Air Force (USAAF) stationed in Britain attacking specific Germany industrial targets by day, while RAF Bomber Command undertaking area bombing of German cities by night.
The British and the US established what was thusly termed, “around the clock bombing.” The strategic bombing of Germany was the most significant direct attack upon the Third Reich in Europe itself by the US and British, prior to establishing the Second Front – D-Day – in France come June 1944.
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The United States: The Final Major Piece of the Grand Alliance that Made VE Day Possible
The United States from the beginning of their war in Europe primarily advocated mounting an invasion of northern France as the quickest route to VE Day. US war planners were aiming at alleviating German pressure on the USSR, as well using the most direct geographic route to take the fight to the heart of the Third Reich.
The US & Their Precieved Prospects for D-Day Prior to June 1944: The Direct Path to VE Day
Operation Sledgehammer – the more realistic plan in 1942 – sought to invade the French Channel ports of Brest and Cherbourg with 2-3 American divisions, and 6 British divisions in the fall of 1942. Marshall’s aim was to establish firm Allied beachheads to be defended through the following winter, acting as staging points for a continual build up prior to an Allied breakout in the Spring of 1943.
US war planners from the start of hostilities with Nazi Germany commenced with Operation Bolero – the amassing of troops and war materials in the British Isles for a future invasion of France en mass. Bolero transformed Great Britain into a fortress of Allied might, with 1.5 million US military personnel stationed there by spring 1944.
Prior to the Tehran Conference in winter 1943, the US had not yet produced the necessary divisions and war materials required to strengthen their hand in strategic negotiations with the British.
Any cross-channel attack before that time was largely dependent on the greater mobilized resources of the British, effectively providing British veto power over any invasion of the continent.
The US in 1942 ceded to the British proposal of first securing North Africa in November 1942 in Operation Torch due to their initial material deficiency. As well as the subsequent invasion of Sicily and southern Italy in the summer of 1943.
The US Chiefs of Staff, unlike their British allies, only ever viewed the fighting in colonial North Africa and Italy as diversionary theaters of war – clearly understanding the critical bloodletting would take place in France.
By the Tehran Conference, the US preponderance of war materials, troops, and Soviet support provided the necessary negotiating leverage over British reservations for launching D-Day in spring of 1944. Operation Overlord ultimately became the greatest set piece engagement fought by the Western Allies during the war; marking their biggest battlefield contributions towards VE Day in the West.
America, despite its now legendary combat triumps over Germany, made its greatest contribution to Allied victory in its factories on the home front. US industrial capacity fueled the Grand Alliance’s victory in a way no other major power was ever capable.
The United States Becoming the Arsenal of Democracy: America’s Greatest Contribution to VE Day Strategically
In the Second World War, the United States greatest strategic contribution to victory was its commanding industrial production of war materials. The US truly defined the concept of total war: mobilization of its entire economic capacity, human capital, and intellectual reserve to overcome their wartime enemies.
Prior to the US entering the war, President Roosevelt sought to making America what he termed, “The Arsenal of Democracy.” The US between 1940 and 1945 was mobilizing from a civilian economy crippled by the Great Depression, to a nation creating three quarters of all equipment used by Allied forces throughout the entire war.
America’s mechanism for providing military aid to Britain and the Soviet Union was the aforementioned Lend-Lease Act, passed in 1941. Lend-Lease was originally implemented to more readily support the British war effort in its time of greatest peril, after the fall of France in June 1940.
Lend-Lease was later expanded to include the Soviet Union – the Allied power to receive most Lend-Lease aid – when it abruptly entered the anti-Hitler alliance themselves.
Capitalism Saving Communism & Communism Saving Capitalism: The Great VE Day Irony
American Lend-Lease material was the vital life line enabling the Soviets continued resistance against the German invasion. Lend-Lease was invaluable for compensating the Soviet loss of industrial capacity in it’s westernmost German occupied regions.
Joseph Stalin during his first meeting with FDR’s closest advisor Harry Hopkins in late 1941 generated a $1,000,000,000 ($16,563,165,486.00 2016) shopping list of Lend-Lease aid. Items that included construction materials, construction equipment, infrastructure necessities, small arms, heavy weapon platforms, aircrafts, trucks, food stuffs, and countless additional items necessary to continue fighting.
United States Lend-Lease at its height successfully subsidized nearly 10% of the Soviet Union’s war economy.
FDR and Churchill understood it was vital to keep the Soviets in the war, lest they face the entirety of the German war machine themselves. FDR essentially presented the Kremlin with a blank check to receive all they requested throughout the war, knowing it was the only viable way to ensure VE Day. FDR in doing so epitomized the great irony of the Second World War: Capitalism saving Communism, and Communism saving Capitalism.
VE Day: 2019
As an American writing this article, one cannot help but observe the sacred historic ground the Second World War holds for modern Americans. For all the history of the American Revolution and the nations founding, it is the Second World War and its critical role in the Grand Alliance that constitutes modern America’s founding epoch. It is embraced as the period in history where the United States ascended to its modern role.
As time marches forward, the understanding of how and why the greatest conflict in history was fought is perpetually mythologized. It cannot ever be forgotten that even with the success of the Grand Alliance, it was never the seamless product of one great idea embraced unanimously and unconditionally – save defeating the Axis.
Its success required hard nose negotiation, necessary compromise, and vital concessions by all belligerent parties. In the end, it was the ability for each power to sublimate their inherent conflicts of ideology, culture, history and national self-interest for the sake of cooperation required to defeat one of the most terrifying monsters in human history.
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, helping guide us for whatever next may come.
Keep on rocking in the free world.
Write to Paul K. DiCostanzo at firstname.lastname@example.org