Two key factors undermined Germany’s campaign: US involvement boosted the allies’ arms-producing capabilities, while sheer Soviet manpower led to catastrophic defeat in Russia
Two years into the war, in September 1941, German arms seemed to be carrying all before them. Western Europe had been decisively conquered, and there were few signs of any serious resistance to German rule. The failure of the Italians to establish Mussolini’s much-vaunted new Roman empire in the Mediterranean had been made good by German intervention. German forces had overrun Greece, and subjugated Yugoslavia. In north Africa, Rommel’s brilliant generalship was pushing the British and allied forces eastwards towards Egypt and threatening the Suez canal. Above all, the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 had reaped stunning rewards, with Leningrad (the present-day St Petersburg) besieged by German and Finnish troops, Smolensk and Kiev taken, and millions of Red Army troops killed or captured in a series of vast encircling operations that brought the German armed forces within reach of Moscow. Surrounded by a girdle of allies, from Vichy France and Finland to Romania and Hungary, and with the more or less benevolent neutrality of countries such as Sweden and Switzerland posing no serious threat, the Greater German Reich seemed to be unstoppable in its drive for supremacy in Europe.
Yet in retrospect this proved to be the high point of German success. The fundamental problem facing Hitler was that Germany simply did not have the resources to fight on so many different fronts at the archaeology best same time. Leading economic managers such as Fritz Todt had already begun to realise this. When Todt was killed in a plane clash on 8 February 1942, his place as armaments minister was taken by Hitler’s personal architect, the young Albert Speer. Imbued with an unquestioning faith in Hitler and his will to win, Speer restructured and rationalised the arms production system, building on reforms already begun by Todt. His methods helped increase dramatically the number of planes and tanks manufactured in German plants, and boosted the supply of ammunition to the troops.
US military might
But by the end of 1941 the Reich had to contend not only with the arms production of the British empire and the Soviet Union but also with the rapidly growing military might of the world’s economic superpower, the United States. Throughout 1941, rightly fearing the consequences of total German domination of Europe for America’s position in the world, US President Franklin D Roosevelt had begun supplying Britain with growing quantities of arms and equipment, guaranteed through a system of “lend-lease” and formalised in August by the Atlantic Charter. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in early December, Hitler saw the opportunity to attack American convoys without inhibition, and declared war on the US in the belief that Roosevelt would be too preoccupied with countering the Japanese advance in the Pacific to trouble overmuch with events in Europe.
Yet such was the economic might of the Americans that they could pour increasing resources into the conflict in both theatres of war. Germany produced 15,000 new combat aircraft in 1942, 26,000 in 1943, and 40,000 in 1944. In the US, the figures were 48,000, 86,000 and 114,000 respectively. Added to these were the aircraft produced in the Soviet Union – 37,000 in 1943, for example – and the UK: 35,000 in 1943 and 47,000 in 1944. It was the same story with tanks, where 6,000 made in Germany each year had to face the same number produced annually in Britain and the Dominions, and three times as many in the Soviet Union. In 1943 the combined allied production of machine-guns exceeded 1 million, compared with Germany’s 165,000. Nor did Germany’s commandeering of the economies of other European countries do much to redress the balance. The Germans’ ruthless requisitioning of fuel, industrial facilities and labour from France and other countries reduced the economies of the subjugated parts of Europe to such a state that they were unable – and, with their workers becoming ever more refractory, unwilling – to contribute significantly to German war production.
Above all, the Reich was short of fuel. Romania and Hungary supplied a large proportion of Germany’s needs. But this was not enough to satisfy the appetite of the Wehrmacht’s gas-guzzling tanks and fighter planes. Rommel’s eastward push across northern Africa was designed not just to cut off Britain’s supply route through the Suez canal but above all to break through to the Middle East and gain control over the region’s vast reserves of oil. In mid-1942 he captured the key seaport of Tobruk. But when he resumed his advance, he was met with massive defensive positions prepared by the meticulous British general Bernard Montgomery at El Alamein. Over 12 days he failed to break through the British lines and was forced into a headlong retreat across the desert. To complete the rout, the allies landed an expeditionary force further west, in Morocco and Algeria. A quarter of a million German and Italian troops surrendered in May 1943. Rommel had already returned to Germany on sick leave. “The war in north Africa,” he concluded bitterly, “was decided by the weight of Anglo-American material.” If he had been provided with “more motorised formations”, and a more secure supply line, he believed, he could still have driven through to the oilfields of the Middle East. But it was not to be.
By the time of Montgomery’s victory, it had become clear that the Germans’ attempt to compensate for their lower levels of arms production by stopping American supplies and munitions from reaching Britain across the Atlantic had also failed. In the course of 1942, a determined construction campaign increased the number of U-boats active in the Atlantic and the Arctic from just over 20 to more than 100; in November 1942 alone they sank 860,000 tonnes of allied shipping, aided by the Germans’ ability to decipher British radio traffic while keeping their own secret.
Battle of the Atlantic
But from December 1942, the British could decode German ciphers once more and steer their convoys away from the waiting wolf-packs of U-boats. Small aircraft carriers began to accompany allied convoys, using spotter planes to locate the German submarines, which had to spend most of their time on the surface in order to move with any reasonable speed and locate the enemy’s ships. By May 1943 the allies were building more ship tonnage than the Germans were sinking, while one U-boat was being sunk by allied warships and planes on average every day. On 24 May 1943 the commander of the U-boat fleet, Admiral Karl Dönitz, conceded defeat and moved his submarines out of the north Atlantic. The battle of the Atlantic was over.
The most dramatic and most significant reversal of German fortunes came, however, on the eastern front. The sheer scale of the conflict between the Wehrmacht and the Red Army dwarfed anything seen anywhere else during the second world war. From 22 June 1941, the day of the German invasion, there was never a point at which less than two-thirds of the German armed forces were engaged on the eastern front. Deaths on the eastern front numbered more than in all the other theatres of war put together, including the Pacific. Hitler had expected the Soviet Union, which he regarded as an unstable state, ruled by a clique of “Jewish Bolsheviks” (a bizarre idea, given the fact that Stalin himself was an antisemite), exploiting a vast mass of racially inferior and disorganised peasants, to crumble as soon as it was attacked.
But it did not. On the contrary, Stalin’s patriotic appeals to his people helped rally them to fight in the “great patriotic war”, spurred on by horror at the murderous brutality of the German occupation. More than three million Soviet prisoners of war were deliberately left to die of starvation and disease in makeshift camps. Civilians were drafted into forced labour, villages were burned to the ground, towns reduced to rubble. More than one million people died in the siege of Leningrad; but it did not fall. Soviet reserves of manpower and resources were seemingly inexhaustible. In a vast effort, major arms and munitions factories had been dismantled and transported to safety east of the Urals. Here they began to pour out increasing quantities of military hardware, including the terrifying “Stalin organ”, the Katyusha rocket-launcher. In the longer run, the Germans were unable to match any of this; even if some of their hardware, notably the Tiger and Panther tanks, was better than anything the Russians could produce, they simply could not get them off the production lines in sufficient quantities to make a decisive difference.
War in the snow
Already in December 1941, Japan’s entry into the war, and its consequent preoccupation with campaigns in the Pacific, allowed Stalin to move large quantities of men and equipment to the west, where they brought the German advance to a halt before Moscow. Unprepared for a winter war, poorly clad, and exhausted from months of rapid advance and bitter fighting, the German forces had to abandon the idea of taking the Russian capital. A whole string of generals succumbed to heart attacks or nervous exhaustion, and were replaced; Hitler himself took over as commander-in-chief of the army.
Hitler had already weakened the thrust towards Moscow by diverting forces to take the grainfields of the Ukraine and push on to the Crimea. For much of 1942, this tactic seemed to be succeeding. German forces took the Crimea and advanced towards the oilfields of the Caucasus. Here again, acquiring new supplies of fuel to replenish Germany’s dwindling stocks was the imperative. But Soviet generals had begun to learn how to co-ordinate tanks, infantry and air power and to avoid encirclement by tactical withdrawals. German losses mounted. The German forces were already dangerously short of reserves and supplies when they reached the city of Stalingrad on the river Volga, in August 1942.
Three months later, they had still not taken the city. Stalingrad became the object of a titanic struggle between the Germans and the Soviets, less because of its strategic importance than because of its name. When the Germans moved their best troops into the city, leaving the rear to be guarded by weaker Romanian and Italian forces, the Soviet generals saw their chance, broke through the rearguard and surrounded the besieging forces. Short of fuel and ammunition, the Germans under General Paulus were unable to break out. As one airfield after another was captured by the Red Army, supplies ran out and the German troops began to starve to death. On 31 January 1943, refusing the invitation to commit suicide that came with Hitler’s gift of a field marshal’s baton, Paulus surrendered. Some 235,000 German and allied troops were captured; more than 200,000 had been killed. It was the turning point of the war.
Last great counter-attack
From this moment on, the German armies were more or less continuously in retreat on the eastern front. The Red Army around Stalingrad was threatening to cut off the German forces in the Caucasus, so they were forced to withdraw, abandoning their attempt to secure the region’s oil reserves. In early July 1943 came the last great German counter-attack, at Kursk. This was the greatest land battle in history, involving more than four million troops, 13,000 tanks and self-propelled guns, and 12,000 combat aircraft. Warned of the attack in advance, the Red Army had prepared defences in depth, which the Germans only managed partially to penetrate. A tragi-comic incident happened when an advancing Soviet tank force fell into its own side’s defensive ditches; nearly 200 tanks were wrecked, or destroyed by the incredulous Waffen-SS forces waiting for them on the other side. The local party commissar, Nikita Khrushchev, covered up this disaster by persuading Stalin that they had been destroyed in a huge battle that had eliminated more than 400 German tanks and won a heroic victory. The legend of “the greatest tank battle in history” was born.
In fact it was nothing of the kind. So enormous were the Russian reserves that the loss of the tanks made little difference in the end, as fresh troops and armour were moved in to rescue the situation. More than one million soldiers, 3,200 tanks and self-propelled guns, and nearly 4,000 combat aircraft entered the fray on the Soviet side and began a series of successful counter-offensives. The Germans were forced to retreat. The missing German tanks had not been destroyed; they had been pulled out by Hitler to deal with a rapidly deteriorating situation in Italy. After the war, German generals claimed bitterly they could have won at Kursk had Hitler not stopped the action. In reality, however, the Soviet superiority in men and resources was overwhelming.
And the tanks really were needed in Italy. Following their victory in north Africa, the allies had landed in Sicily on 10 July 1943 to be greeted in Palermo by Italian citizens waving white flags. A fortnight later, reflecting the evaporation of Italy’s will to fight on, the Fascist Grand Coalition deposed Mussolini and began to sue for peace. On 3 September an armistice was signed, and allied forces landed on the Italian mainland. German troops had already invaded from the north, taking over the entire peninsula. Following the armistice, they seized 650,000 Italian soldiers and shipped them off to Germany as forced labourers to join millions of others drafted in from Poland and the Soviet Union to replace German workers sent to the front to replenish the Wehrmacht’s rapidly diminishing manpower. In a daring commando raid on the Alpine hotel where Mussolini was being held prisoner, SS paratroopers liberated the former dictator, who was put in charge of a puppet regime based on the town of Salò. But as the allied armies made their way slowly northwards towards Rome, nothing could disguise the fact that Germany’s principal ally had now been defeated.
These events had a devastating effect on German morale at home. In particular the catastrophe of Stalingrad began to convince many Germans that the war could not be won. Worse was to come. Meeting at Casablanca in January 1943, Churchill and Roosevelt decided on a sustained campaign of bombing German cities. A series of massive raids on the industrial area of the Ruhr followed, backed up by the destruction of key dams by the famous “bouncing bombs” on 16 May 1943. Arms production was severely affected. And in late July and early August 1943, the centre of Hamburg was almost completely destroyed in a firestorm created by intensive incendiary bombing that killed up to 40,000 people, injured a further 125,000, many of them seriously, and made 900,000 homeless. Refugees from the devastated city spread a sense of shock and foreboding all across Germany. In Hamburg itself, anger at the Nazis’ failure to defend the city led to crowds tearing party badges off officials’ coats amid cries of “murderer!” The chief of staff of the German airforce committed suicide. German air defences were still able to inflict serious losses on allied bombing expeditions, but they were not strong enough to prevent the devastation continuing.
By the end of 1943, German forces were retreating all along the line in the east and in Italy. The spectacle of German defeat and the brutal requisitioning of millions of forced labourers from occupied countries fuelled the rise of resistance movements right across Europe. The Reich had lost command of the skies and the seas. Ever more devastating bombing raids on a growing range of towns and cities were making people’s lives unbearable. Ordinary Germans knew by the end of 1943 that the war was lost. Terror began to replace commitment as a means of keeping people fighting on. More than 20,000 German troops were executed by courts-martial during the war for varieties of defeatism. At home, people faced a similar escalation of terror from the Nazi party and the SS. Retreating into their private and family worlds, they began to focus increasingly on simply staying alive and waiting for the end.