The Second World Wars Theme: Allied Capacities of Improvement, Production, Criticism Were Key
Quotes from Victor Davis Hanson’s book The Second World Wars on the role of improvement, criticism, and production to the allied victory
The pulse of the war also reflected another classical dictum: the winning side is the one that most rapidly learns from its mistakes, makes the necessary corrections, and most swiftly responds to new challenges—in the manner that land-power Sparta finally built a far better navy while the maritime Athenians never fielded an army clearly superior to its enemies, or the land-power Rome’s galleys finally became more effective than were the armies of the sea-power Carthage. The Anglo-Americans, for example, more quickly rectified flaws in their strategic bombing campaign—by employing longer-range fighter escorts, recalibrating targeting, integrating radar into air-defense networks, developing novel tactics, and producing more and better planes and crews—than did Germany in its bombing against Britain. America would add bombers and crews at a rate unimaginable for Germany. The result was that during six months of the Blitz (September 1940 to February 1941), the Luftwaffe, perhaps the best strategic bombing force in the world in late 1939 through mid-1940, dropped only thirty thousand tons of bombs on Britain. In contrast, in the half year between June and November 1944, Allied bombers dropped twenty times that tonnage on Germany.4
The same asymmetry was true at sea, especially in the Battle of the Atlantic. The Allied leadership made operational changes and technological improvements of surface ships and planes far more rapidly than could the U-boats of the Kriegsmarine. America adapted to repair and produce aircraft carriers and train new crews at a pace inconceivable in Japan. The Allies—including the Soviet Union on most occasions—usually avoided starting theater wars that ended in multiyear infantry quagmires. In contrast, Japan, Germany, and Italy respectively bogged down in China, the Soviet Union, and North Africa and the Balkans.
When Hitler unwisely chose to send the German army into the Soviet Union in June 1941, the flawed decision was considered by most German field marshals to be unassailable. In contrast, when Franklin Roosevelt equally unwisely had wished to land American armies on the western coast of France in 1943, many of his own civilian and military experts quickly tabled the idea through rational argument and overwhelming data concerning shortages in landing craft, insufficient air superiority, worries over U-boats, and lack of experience in amphibious operations. Roosevelt calmly gave in to advice; Hitler in tantrums threatened his advisors.12
Since antiquity, democracies have at least had the advantage of incorporating a broader participation in decision-making that can aid even a dynamic leader. A Churchill or a Roosevelt knowingly accepted that they had to be more sensitive to the public perceptions of success or failure, and that they had to deal with a number of brilliant advisors and rivals who were not shy in pointing out their shortcomings. In other words, they had to earn political legitimacy and always faced the audit of a fairly free government and press—and a host of rivals who wanted their jobs. That reality meant that once controversial policies were announced—the primacy of the European front over the Pacific or the demand for the unconditional surrender of the Axis powers—it was hard for the people to complain later that their elected representatives acted without consent of the governed.
It did little good to unleash a veteran German grenadier, with over three years past experience on the Eastern Front, against an American soldier if he were first strafed or bombed, or went into battle hungry and without medical care, or found his supporting Panzers either burning or sitting on the side of the road out of gas. Postwar interviews with German soldiers may have revealed a far greater respect for individual Russian soldiers than for Americans, and Russians for Germans rather than American, on the understandable principle that the existential nature of war on the Eastern Front was far harsher than in the West. Yet what makes an army effective is not just the heroism or combat zeal of individual soldiers, but also the degree of assets—artillery barrages, air support, food, medicine, and supplies—at its disposal.8
The American emphasis was not so much on creating a fierce individual warrior, bound with strong ties of loyalty and honor to fellow men of arms (although the GI was often just that), as on making sure that he was supported with enough materiel, and acquired sufficient expertise, to defeat any adversary he faced, and to reassure him that he had a good chance to survive the conflict. The system rather than the man was what would win the war. It was in some ways a throwback to the first centuries BC and AD, when standardized and far better-equipped Roman legionaries near the Rhine and Danube occasionally tangled with Germanic tribes that put a much higher premium on individual warriors’ weapons prowess, courage, and skills, but usually lost.9
THE GREATER PREWAR arming and mobilization of Germany and Japan, and to a lesser extent Italy, had given the Axis a head start over the Allies in air operations. They strafed and bombed mostly underprepared and nearby neighbors, creating overconfidence that soon led inevitably to laxity. Japan, for example, in 1939–1940 spent 72 percent of its entire annual budget on military expenditures. Germany produced more planes in the mid-1930s than either the United States or Great Britain. Even Japan built twice as many aircraft in 1939 as did America. Yet a far more massive Allied effort to match and surpass early Axis leads in both the quality and quantity of fighters and fighter-bombers had already achieved parity by the end of 1942 and clear superiority in transports, fighters, and bombers by late 1943. Again, the entire pulse of World War II mirror-imaged the relative production of and improvements in aircraft between 1939 and 1944.1
Italian and German aircraft deployed in the Spanish Civil War, and Japanese airplanes over Manchuria, were reportedly both superior and more numerous than those available to the Western democracies. German prewar air transportation was among the world’s best. Yet, quite ominously for the Axis, even by the end of 1940 Japan and Germany together still produced only 60 percent as many aircraft as did a neutral United States and a beleaguered Britain combined, a gap that would widen in 1941. Early border campaigns by Germany had misled the world into believing that the Luftwaffe’s initial edge in the number and quality of planes might be permanent, a reflection of intrinsic Nazi technological, industrial, or even ideological superiority. The ensuing air war over Britain and in Russia and the Mediterranean questioned all such notions by early 1941, and utterly refuted them by late 1942.2
GERMANY AND JAPAN embraced revolutionary war planning by devoting record percentages of their military budgets to air power. Yet by war’s end Hitler was desperately searching for miracle air weapons like the V-1 and V-2 rockets and jet fighter-bombers, while the Japanese were resorting to kamikazes. This was the efflorescence of despair. Both the Germans and the Japanese conceded that it had become impossible to match American, British, and Russian conventional air fleets that had evolved to more sophisticated, and far more numerous, fighters and bombers.
The Axis regression was due to various reasons, some of which applied equally well to their eventual loss of early advantages in ships, armor, artillery, and infantry forces. Production counted. The air war was supposed to follow the pattern of many of the successful regional German and Japanese border conflicts of 1939 and 1940. Given these remarkable early successes and the inferior forces of their proximate enemies, there was less urgency to bring new fighters and bombers into mass production or to train new pilots or to study the quality and quantity of aircraft that America, Britain, or Russia was producing. Axis overconfidence was fed by ignorance of not only the aeronautical and manufacturing genius of British and American industry, but of Russian industrial savvy as well.
Take the superb Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter (33,000 built), which was partially superseded only by the Fw 190 (20,000 built). These were the two premier fighters that Germany relied on for most of the war. In contrast, in just four rather than six years of war, initial workmanlike American fighters such as the P-40 Warhawk were constantly updated or replaced by entirely new and superior models produced in always greater numbers. The premier American fighter of 1943, the reliable two-engine Lockheed P-38 Lightning (10,000 built) was improved upon by the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt (15,500 built). The excellent ground-support Thunderbolt fighter, in turn, was augmented by the even better-performing North American P-51 Mustang (15,000 built) that had been refitted with the superb British Rolls-Royce Merlin engine to become the best all-around fighter plane of the war. No fighter plane made a greater difference in the air war of World War II than did the Mustang, whose appearance in substantial numbers over Germany changed the entire complexion of strategic bombing. The idea that Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan might have collaborated to produce a hybrid super fighter, in the way that the British and the Americans coproduced the P-51, was unlikely.
At the same time, in the Pacific theater, initial Marine and carrier fighters like the Grumman F4F Wildcat (7,800 built) were replaced on carriers mostly by the Grumman F6F Hellcat (12,000 built) and on land by the Vought F4U Corsair (12,500 built). The Corsair had proved disappointing as an American carrier fighter, but the British, in the manner they had up-gunned the Sherman tank into a lethal “Firefly” and reworked the Mustang into the war’s top escort fighter, modified the Corsair to become a top-notch carrier fighter. Neither Germany nor Japan had any serious plans to bring out entirely new models of superior fighters built in larger numbers than their predecessors. After the war, Field Marshal Keitel admitted that the Third Reich had not just fallen behind in fighter production but in quality as well: “I am of the opinion that we were not able to compete with the Anglo-Americans as far as the fighter and bomber aircraft were concerned. We had dropped back in technological achievements. We had not preserved our technical superiority. We did not have a fighter with a sufficient radius.… I refuse to say that the Luftwaffe had deteriorated. I only feel that our means of fighting have not technically remained on the top.”27
Even the size and quality of a fleet at the beginning of a war were not always predictive of naval success or failure. Far more critical was a sea power’s ability to expand, improve, and maintain fleets during the course of the war. The sixteenth-century Ottoman Empire usually had more ships in the Mediterranean than its archrival Venice, but it lacked the productive and innovative capacities of the Venetian Arsenal’s shipyards to turn out superior replacement galleys at a far greater rate. Sparta’s eventual maritime alliance of Corinthian, Spartan, and Syracusan triremes at times nearly matched the size of the Athenian fleet. But for decades—until the entrance of the wealthy Persian Empire on the side of Sparta—the Athenian navy could still construct far more triremes, more rapidly, and equipped with better crews than its aggregate enemies.11
Between 1939 and 1941, the German, Japanese, and Italian fleets in their entirety were already inferior to the combined British and American theater fleets. The margin would widen. The Axis powers had a fraction of the shipbuilding capability of the Allies. They also suffered from far less naval experience and were without sure supplies of oil. A Bismarck or Yamato might appear more impressive in 1941 than the Arizona or Pennsylvania. Yet the former capital ships were to be followed by just one more battleship of their class, whereas the latter were forerunners of an entire generation of ten fast modern battleships of the North Carolina, South Dakota, and Iowa classes to appear in 1941 through 1944 (North Carolina and Washington; South Dakota, Indiana, Massachusetts, and Alabama; Iowa, New Jersey, Missouri, and Wisconsin). All had plentiful oil and abundant air support and, most important, performed key roles as floating artillery in support of amphibious landings. Again, the survival of all battleships depended on which side had achieved naval air supremacy; after 1942 it was always the Allies.12
The Allies accepted that it would be difficult immediately to train soldiers to Axis levels of operational competency, even if their far more experienced enemies might not continue to improve and upgrade their already fine weapons throughout the war. The obvious answer to the immediate dilemma, however, was to outproduce the Axis, both in terms of mobilizing manpower and materiel. For example, the Allies needed not necessarily to produce a tank superior to the superb German Mark V Panther (6,000 produced) or nearly unstoppable Mark VI Tiger (over 1,300). They had only to ensure that the number of effective T-34s (over 80,000 of all types produced) and less formidable M4 Sherman tanks (over 50,000 produced) were fielded in numbers that would engulf German armor.
By war’s end the Axis powers often matched or exceeded their Allied counterparts in terms of individual-weapon quality or technological breakthroughs: smaller arms such as the Sturmgewehr 44 (assault rifle) or Maschinengewehr 42 (light machine gun); jet fighters; high-performance piston-driven fighters such as the German Fw 190 or Japanese Nakajima Ki-84 Hayate; ballistic and cruise missiles; the so-called Fritz X radio-guided anti-ship smart bomb; snorkel-equipped submarines; Yamato-class battleships; and the Japanese Type 93 torpedo. Yet such Axis weapons were either produced in too few numbers or used by too few soldiers ultimately to affect the course of the war, or simply were not mechanically reliable or economically feasible to employ. The snorkel, the designs of the Type XXI U-boat, and the hydrogen-peroxide gas turbine engine were all known to be practicable by the late 1930s, yet either did not translate into new weapons until 1943–1944 or were never implemented at all, given German inability to marry technological genius with rapid practical production. Sometimes Allied bombers derailed Axis breakthroughs—such as the serial massive British and American bombing raids on the Peenemünde testing and production site of V-2 ballistic missiles—in a way not matched by the German or Japanese air forces.2
Initially well-trained and well-armed Axis soldiers by 1944 were outnumbered by the Allies, not just by ratios of two- or three-to-one, but more likely four- or five-to-one, and even more in terms of planes, vehicles, guns, and ships. Military analysts, often citing quite specific quantitative data, have suggested that to overcome such numerical and material disadvantages, an armed force must perform at correspondingly far greater rates of qualitative effectiveness. Perhaps that canon explains why the Wehrmacht on Eastern Front battlefields may have killed three Red Army soldiers for each German it lost in battle, but nevertheless was crushed in less than four years.3
THERE WERE QUITE astonishing imbalances in military production by 1944, even as the Third Reich went from devoting about 25 percent of its resources to the war effort in 1939 to committing 75 percent of a larger GDP by 1944. Yet even an improved German military economy still could not match the growing Allied advantages. The Soviet Union alone produced more tanks and artillery platforms than all three Axis powers combined. If Britain had once been considered outmanned and outclassed by Hitler’s Third Reich, which had taken control over much of what we now know as the European Union, the British and their empire still produced more airplanes of all categories (177,000) and artillery pieces (226,000) than did Germany (133,000 and 73,000). In terms of shipbuilding, Great Britain and its Dominions far outpaced the combined German production of surface ships and submarines. Even the British prewar economy of 1939, at least in terms of per capita GDP, had been more productive than Germany’s, and it had begun to rival the Third Reich in actual GDP. In fact, many scholars believe that while prewar German and British manufacturing might have been roughly equal in terms of productivity, the hugely inefficient German farming sector meant that overall the British economy was far more efficient.
Even more astonishing, the British fleet—the largest in the world in 1939—saw more surface and merchant ships added during the war, including battleships and carriers, than the entire naval production of the three major Axis powers. Hitler never appreciated the fact that the British Navy ensured that the huge natural resources of the empire—especially from Australia and Canada, and the oil of the Middle East—were integrated with British production, albeit with the important qualifier that such sources of British supplies were largely immune from German bombs and rockets.
Japan—which was not much damaged by American bombing until March 1945—built an incredible sixteen aircraft carriers (of all sizes and categories, from fleet to escort and light) during the war. That was an amazing achievement until compared with more than the 150 light, escort, and fleet carriers that the United States deployed during the same period. More impressive was the constant improvement in Allied maritime production. With new methods of prefabrication of parts and assembly-line production, industrialist Henry Kaiser’s shipyards were able to cut the construction time of ten-thousand-ton Liberty merchant ships from about 230 days to 24. Over 2,700 Liberty and over five hundred larger, better-designed, and faster Victory ships were built, ensuring that the US merchant fleet grew at a far greater rate than German U-boats could diminish it.
In 1942, it took about 54,800 man-hours to build a B-17, a bomber that had been in production since 1937. But just two years later, only 18,600 man-hours were required. A similarly astonishing decrease in labor was true for the gargantuan and complex B-29 bomber. The thousandth bomber to roll off the production line required half the man-hours to build as the four hundredth. No Axis power came close to such stepped-up productivity—all the more wondrous given that between 1941 and 1944 US labor earnings had increased 50 percent even as labor costs dived by two-thirds.15
Because the Third Reich mobilized almost as many combatants (at least 10 million in active service by 1944) as did the United States (and a far larger percentage of its population than was true of either America or the Soviet Union), and because it was some fifty-five million persons smaller, Germany quickly found itself short of laborers. Almost immediately after entering Russia, the Third Reich was forced to conscript workers from occupied Western Europe and slave laborers from the Eastern Front to make up for vast new drafts into the military of able-bodied German factory workers. Companies like Daimler-Benz and BMW vastly expanded their workforces, replacing skilled German laborers who were drafted into the army with conscripted foreign workers, until eventually foreigners made up about half their workforce, which was ironic, given that the war had turned topsy-turvy the Third Reich’s loud agenda of cleansing so-called non-Aryan Untermenschen from German soil. None of these efforts matched Allied levels of productivity, however.16