The Failure of Strategic Bombing

A recent discussion in the WWII newsgroups piqued my interest in this topic, for which I argued that the Allied strategic bombing campaign was in effect, a failure. When we deal with interpretations and conclusions rather than simply reporting fact the issue is typically broken down into schools of thought, usually initiated by a seminal text on the subject. Often accusations of historical revisionism are thrown about, and it descends into an argument between tweed jackets calling each other fascists. I summarize the strategic bombing campaign in my summary of WWII in Europe post for those that are unfamiliar.

Another Potential Role
The men and resources lost in the strategic bombing, had they been transferred to an interdiction role especially with medium or fighter bombers would have had a much greater effect. My overriding point is that the resources (men, material) involved in the campaign would have been more effective in other roles. This can be debated endlessly and speculatively; but if the stated goal of the strategic campaign was to impair to end the German capability of making war (as per a Clausewitz viewpoint) then this interdiction strategy would have been far more effective and less costly. A wonderful example of the success of such a strategy is the first few weeks of the Barbarossa campaign, where the Luftwaffe (enjoying total air supremacy at this point) could literally reduce the combat effectiveness of a division by fifty percent before it even reached the front.

We see in a few short years after the war the newly minted USAF practicing an interdiction campaign on North Korea rather than one of strictly strategic bombing (again with mixed
results, but they were moving in the right direction). As time passes and successive wars are fought, technological and doctrinal improvements lead to the ubiquity of tactical (close air support) bombing on the battlefield.

I more thoroughly explore the thought process on strategic bombing and the initial development of tactics in my previous post on the Luftwaffe. Before WWII the public at large were largely unfamiliar with the concept of massive aerial bombardment (the classic first example being the bombing of Guernica, inspiring Picasso's famous painting). The populace thought of strategic aerial bombing of cities much the way we think of nuclear warfare today; something that is nigh inconceiveable and very frightening.

Losses and Limited Results
The US Army Air Corps suffered the highest losses per capita of all branches except the Merchant Marines. It was not until late 1944 when the Luftwaffe had been essentially marginalized that the limited successes of the campaign were seen, allowing bombers to strike virtually at will. The development of the new planes that could escort the bombers all the way to target and back using droptanks also contributed significantly to the success. But from conception the tactic was flawed; many targets were chosen on incomplete or simply erroneous data and assumptions, as well as the supporting doctrine not being perfected until late in the war.

Conditions for Successful Strategic Bombing
In order to conduct a successful strategic bombing campaign on a large scale two conditions must be present: technological maturity and air supremacy. The latter was present in late 1944 and 1945, but the former was not. Even though great advances were made in navigational techniques and bombsights, the simple fact is that unguided weaponry was simply not up to the task, requiring important areas to be carpeted rather than efficiently struck. We see a predilection towards the terror tactics of "destroying the enemies' will to fight" by the massive area bombardment of major cities by men like Bomber Harris rather than an emphasis on military-industrial targets. Several days of firebombing in Tokyo in 1945 by conventional weapons cost more lives than both the atomic weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The campaign did impair Germany's war making capability to an extent, but the major effect was forcing the Wehrmacht to redeploy resources such as artillery and fighters to protect their homeland, rather than at the front. In the analysis of the effect, we must ask exactly how high were the costs of the campaign, and were they justified in bringing about the original stated goal. My answer is conclusively, no.


North Korean Missile Program

We as military historians do the world at large a disservice by confining ourselves to the past. When dealing with an individual or a country, we judge their trustworthiness and predict their future actions through examination of their recent and past actions, whether it is a decision to dispense a mortgage or on the grandest scale of international politics. We as historians can provide the richest, most detailed package of knowledge to the present decision-makers that we have gathered through a lifetime of study. Is anyone more qualified to make such a judgment?

North Korea announced its intentions to launch an experimental satellite in the near future. Intelligence services believe that this package will be carried by a missile of reaching the Western U.S. This standoff with North Korea has existed for the better part of a century, and is badly in need of a detente. Every president or head of state has a different approach to this situation, mostly based on whatever their area of personal expertise or the prepackaged stance of their political party.

An historian would approach this problem from the past, looking back over the years of detente with the Soviet Union, or even to the more recent situations with Iraq's WMDs and Iran's nuclear programme. This is public knowledge that is out there and is rarely drawn upon by the primary audience- those that make decisions and need it most.

We as historians are obligated to make a foray into the present from time to time, to give the world the benefit our of esoteric, perhaps archaic craft.

Further Reading

Wall Street Journal Article


The Most Powerful Luftwaffe

In February 1935 Hitler openly acknowledged the existence of the new German Luftwaffe (air force), in direct violation of the Treaty of Versailles that limited German military development. Under the direction of two former fighter ace comrades of the Red Baron, Ernst Udet and Hermann Goering, the Luftwaffe flourished into what could be considered the most technologically and tactically advanced air force in Europe.

In 1936 two well respected members of the Royal Air Force, Squadron Leader Herbert Rowley and Flight Lieutenant Dick Atcherley, made an unofficial visit to the German capital. Their report to the British Government was left unread and information discarded by the whole. Through intermediaries they were able to communicate with Winston Churchill, then a "back-seat" member of the parliament, and their information along with other RAF sources won him a seat on the prestigious Air Defense Research subcommittee.

During the thirties there were numerous intelligence committees and organizations dedicated to supplying valuable information regarding a possible war with Germany, although they were largely ignored by the political machinery of the nation. With Anglo-German relations in good shape during the mid thirties there was little reason to tarnish this tenuous fantasy, and not to be alarmed by the rapid buildup of the German Luftwaffe. Even the German involvement in the Spanish civil war was seen as forces of Western Christianity defending against the spread of nihilistic Bolshevism.

Rowley believed the anti-Bolshevism was a lip service policy of the Nazi propaganda machine, but returned from the trip realizing for the German populace at large it was "real and very intense". They also were told by many Germans that 1914 was a great mistake and would never be repeated again. They were treated very cordially and were impressed by the German state. It is no surprise that Hitler in 1940 wished to make a peace with Britain believing they were "not natural enemies".

The British in the inter-war period thought of aerial warfare much as we think of nuclear warfare today. During the 1930s it was already assumed that through a campaign of strategic bombing the Germans would seek to break the morale of the British people and bring about surrender. But by 1935 there were already doubts of the practical success of a strategic bombing campaign (this information being largely ignored during the war with the joint U.S./U.K. bombing of Germany).

Hugh Trenchard, a very influential guru of air power during the interwar period, taught that the key to future wars was the value of the bomber, in particular the strategic power of bombing. This was believed through most of the war and took significant trial to overcome. Many of the OKL (Luftwaffe High Command), on the other hand, believed that it was paramount to closely support and coordinate with the ground forces (close air support). In this they were correct and Britain would not see the errors in its ways until late in the war.

The lessons learned from the first world war varied country to country, especially regarding the effective use of airpower. During the war the British were on the receiving end of mainly German strategic bombing, practices of interdiction and prevention of supply. The Germans on the other hand felt the sting of British tactical CAS attacks, and it is not difficult to see why the two nations took such differing views into the next war.

The American forces in particular did not revise their manuals on close air support until after the North African campaign in 1943, where by trial and error they eventually adopted the strategy of the British Air forces in the desert. The German experiences in close air support during the battle for Europe was years ahead of tactical development in the other Western air forces, garnering the support of avant-garde airmen in future enemies. Colonel Donald Wilson, an instructor at the Army Air Corps Tactical School, wrote "Hitler is our greatest booster - without so much as a request from us he has voluntarily undertaken the job of demonstrating our theories".

The vast scope of the German air industry was not lost on Rowley, as an American military attache remarked to him: "The whole American aviation industry could be lost inside the Junkers organization." The Luftwaffe did have a singular damning weakness, that of the paralysis of its leadership by personal egos and power games. Despite the genius of the designs and the efficiency of the aviation industry, most of the decisions were lost in the high level dealings of Goering, Udet and OKL leading to great inefficiencies and lost potential in terms of superior aircraft. For example the BF-110 being chosen over the HE-100, due to a personal grievance of Ernst Udet.

It would have behooved the British Air Ministry and the people as a whole to heed Rowley's report, which remains in the British National Archives to this day. To quote the historian Vincent Orange, "It seemed to Rowley in 1936 that Britain was not only vulnerable to Europe's most powerful air force, but also unable to hit back. The RAF did not have 'a single aeroplane in service today which has the slightest chance of reaching Germany, dropping bombs and getting home again.'"

It is clear to us now that the very concept of strategic bombing during that time was both impractical and misunderstood, and there was very little hope of bringing England to its knees. The Luftwaffe, a fundamentally tactical fighting force was not particular well suited to a campaign of strategic bombing, nor was German industry geared to a sufficient level to absorb the necessary losses to such a level that was suffered during the Allied strategic bombing campaign of the mid-war period. It is from the German Luftwaffe that we realized the lessons of the absolute necessity for tactical air support, of a single unified command dedicated to the support of the combined arms offensives - lessons that continue through the modern day.

References and Further Reading:
The German Air Force Is Already "The Most Powerful in Europe": Two Royal Air Force
Officers Report on a Visit to Germany, 6-15 October 1936
Author: Vincent Orange
Source: The Journal of Military History, Vol. 70, No. 4 (Oct., 2006), pp. 1011-1028

A Question of Success: Tactical Air Doctrine and Practice in North Africa, 1942-43
Author: B. Michael Bechthold
Source: The Journal of Military History, Vol. 68, No. 3 (Jul., 2004), pp. 821-851


AC-130 Spectre Gunship

I would like to have been in the room when this concept was devised - hey how about putting air to ground artillery on these old transport planes we have lying around? The AC-130's first incarnation was the AC-47 in Vietnam, weaponry mounted on the fuselage of the old C-47 transport aircraft used in WWII. Capable of flying faster than helicopters and at high altitudes with excellent loiter time, the use of the pylon turn allowed the AC-47 to deliver continuous accurate fire to a single point on the ground. The first few designs were armed with 20mm cannons and 40mm Bofors and were used primarily as interdiction of supply along the Ho-Chi Min trail. With extended loiter time and constantly upgraded targeting and avionic systems the AC-47 became an absolutely devastating weapon, so much that a large bounty was levied on the head of any crewmember captured or killed.

In 1968 the C-130 Hercules airframe was selected as the upgrade for the AC-47, with the new designation of AC-130. At this point the 7.62mm MG was dropped in favour of 20mm Gatling guns and 40mm Bofors, allowing the AC-130 to fly at greater altitudes above NVA anti-aircraft fire. Over its history it has had many callsigns, including Spooky, Suprise Package and Thor. The current AC-130 versions mount a 105mm howitzer makes it absolutely unique among aircraft, and it is the largest gun mounted on any production aircraft in history. It is probably the most devastating and cost effective aircraft in the U.S. arsenal, and will be flying over many battlefields of the future.


Panzer III L42 vs L60

Hitler often bypassed the normal channels of logistics and strategy, most times creating problems ranging from minor inconveiniences to major catastrophes. One of the larger ones regards the "upgrade" of the Panzer III series between the Spring campaigns of 1941 and 1942. Hitler had ordered that the Pz3 tank was to be upgraded from the standard 37mm armament of 1940 as seen on the PzIII F and 38T models to the 50mm L60 gun. (L in this case is the length of the barrel in diameters of the gunbore).

Because the normal channels for procurement were bypassed some unforseen errors occured, resulting in the first batch of Pz3s to be equipped with the 50mm L42. This significantly hampered the range and velocity (and as a corollary the penetration) of the gun, and it is interesting to think how much of an effect that had on the renewed German offensives of spring in 1942.

This was designed to be an intermediate step to prop up the Panzer divisions until enough of the Panzer IV G and later models could be produced in enough numbers and delivered to the front (IVg being armed with the excellent 75mm L43 and later models the L48 which were also mounted on the Stug IIIg).

World War II Europe - Basic Summary

The average person probably cannot even tell you what decade the war was fought, or even who was on what side. I have decided to lay out a basic accounting of the war in chronological order to help such poor fools. This is a very long post, but still only covers the basic and most important events during the war.

Late 1920s:30s - Germany suffers through a prolonged period of economic privation, hyperinflation and other troubles partially stemming from the harsh terms and reparations levied on Germany by the Versailles Treaty, which was the end of the first world war. Hitler leaves his position as a German soldier and begins again as a political activist.

1933 - Adolf Hitler is named chancellor of Germany, and shortly after claims emergency powers following the burning of the Reichstag. These powers along with future laws essentially make him the dictator of the nation. Germany begins throwing off the military limitations of the Treaty of Versailles.

1936 -  Germany begins developing new tanks and aircraft, like the Ju-87 Stuka. They begin occupying buffer zones along the Rhine that international peacekeepers had vacated. The Spanish Civil War breaks out and lasts until 1939. In many ways it was a proxy war between Germany on the side of the Fascist government of Franco against Soviet support for the Republican government. It was the first example of mass air attacks on cities, and battle tested both the Stuka and the ME-109 both of which would be incredibly successful during WWII. Valuable lessons were learned by the Germans, especially in the use of bomber and fighter aircraft in area bombardment and close air support roles.

1938 - Germany coerces Austria to join in the Anschluss, the union of the two countries. Germany annexes a piece of Czechloslovakia, and a conference is held at Munich between Germany and the other world powers, with the purpose of preventing a future war with Germany. The British Prime Minister, Chamberlain, returns from the conference declaring that there shall be "peace in our time". Shortly after, Germany annexes the rest of Czechloslovakia and begins preparing for war.

1939 - On September 1st with the intentions of reoccupying territory lost in WWI, the German Blitzkrieg broke like a clap of thunder across the borders of Poland, occupying the country within weeks. The obsolete and outmatched Polish army simply cannot compete with the mechanized and tactically modern Wehrmacht. The power of the Stuka and JU-88 for CAS (close air support) is demonstrated with spectacular success, and the term Blitzkrieg is coined by western journalists. Britain and France, honouring their alliance with Poland declare war on Germany.

Early 1940 - The period of the "phoney war" continues for several months, with both sides deployed for battle but seeing no major engagements. In May the Germans launch a massive offensive into France, bypassing the static defenses of the Maginot line by advancing through the Ardennes forest in Belgium. The British and French immediately move north to support the Belgians, which the Germans exploit by flanking behind and driving to the Channel coast, cutting the majority of Allied forces off from the rest of France. The French and British tanks were superior in both numbers and quality to the German Panzers, but were no match for the brilliant new tactics and organization of the Heer (German Army). Within six weeks the French were defeated, and the British Expeditionary Force(BEF) was forced to evacuate to England through the port of Dunquerke. France surrenders shortly after, and Winston Churchill declares 'The battle for France is over, but the battle for Britain is just beginning'.

Late 1940 - Hitler seeks to make peace with England, but the English continue to resist. The Germans develop Operation Sealion, the invasion and occupation of Britain. The first stage is to secure air superiority, and the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) begins to attack British shipping, airfields and radar sites in August seeking to deliver a fatal blow to the outnumbered and fledling Royal Air Force. Initial Luftwaffe operations meet with great success, and it seems that Fighter Command is on the verge of collapse. Through a series of blunders and miscalculations at the highest levels (particularly Hermann Goering, commander of the Luftwaffe and Hitler himself) priorities begin to shift, with the majority of the bombing campaign now focused on London itself in what was known to the Brits as 'The Blitz'. Despite the bombing the RAF recovered and was able to fight the Luftwaffe to a stand-still in the following months. With no hope of air superiority, and facing the superior Royal Navy the OKW (German high command) scrapped the invasion plans, ending the Battle of Britain.

Mid 1941 - With the Battle of Britain coming to an end, Hitler looks to the east and the vast land and resources of the Soviet Union. The fact that foreign minister Von Ribbentrop had signed the Non-Agression Pact with Stalin posed no obstacle, and the invasion went forward on June 22nd. The idea was to attain lebensraum, living space (land) and resources as part of the German world view of the time, believing as the stronger race they were entitled to them more than the less human Slavs (in fact they were referred to as untermensch, or sub human). Soviet strength was spread out and disorganized, being taken completely by surprise and were no match for the modern tactics of the Panzer divisions (no army in the world had quite figured out how to stop them at this point). The prime directive of Operation Barbarossa (the Invasion) was to encircle the Soviet forces with highly mobile Panzers (tanks) and then destroy as many as possible in "battles of annhilation", rather than to simply gain ground. The Germans were true to the precepts of Von Clausewitz, attempting to destroy the enemy's ability to fight back.

The invasion progressed well through 1941, over thousands of miles eventually coming within twelve miles of Moscow and bringing the Soviet forces to near collapse. In the first two days of the invasion alone the Soviets had lost over 20,000 aircraft, and over the first year of campaigning they had lost their entire tank pool (nearly 20,000 as well). Again we find the Germans outclassed by the enemy in terms of tanks, facing the extremely modern T-34 Soviet tank with obsolete Panzer II, short barreled Panzer IIIs and Czech built Panzer 38Ts. It was proven once again that no army could stand against the might of the Wehrmacht (German armed forces) even with such advantages. The Luftwaffe gained total air supremacy during the early months, and reduced Soviet divisions at will from the air. The city of Leningrad was besieged, starving to death, and the key cities of Kharkov and Kiev had been occupied.

Winter 1941 - The last German offensive creaked to a halt during the winter, the worst in fifty years. The German equipment was simply too well engineered, designed to fight in a Western European climate with very low tolerances. In the Russian winter breechs of rifles froze solid, tank engines needed to be run at all hours of the night to prevent freezing. The German soldiers were provided with no winter clothing, and many literally froze their asses off (congelation of the anus). While the previous leadership of Soviet forces was scattered and incompetent, into this situation stepped one of the most brilliant generals of the war, Georgi Zhukov to lead the Soviet counteroffensive. Fresh, well trained divisions from Siberia were thrown into the fight, causing panic all along the German lines in forty degrees below weather. Hitler intervened personally, ordering no retreat, that all units stand and fight. In retrospect this is Hitler's high water mark as a commander, as a retreat as the generals counseled would have had the German Heer butchered piecemeal. The German line held, and both sides prepared for a spring campaign. On December 7th Japan attacks Pearl Harbour, declaring war on the United States. Several days later Germany honours the Axis pact by declaring war on the U.S., bringing them into the war in Europe.

1941 Africa - The Afrika Korps, under the commander of General Rommel arrives in Tunisia to engage the British and support their Italian allies. Rommel conducts one of the most brilliant campaigns in history, outnumbered and under adverse supply conditions earning him the nickname 'The Desert Fox'. Large amounts of ground are traded back and forth between Tunisia and Egypt, with Rommel's notable victories coming at Tobruk, Kasserine Pass and Gazala. The Afrika Campaign would continue through 1943.

1942 Spring - Both sides in the Soviet Union are now preparing for renewed campaigning. Stalin orders three separate counterblows against the Germans, which for the most part have limited or negative results, including the destruction of over 900 Soviet tanks in one encirclement near Kharkov. The major German offensive kicks off under the commander of Bock, smashing through Soviet lines. A new and foolish objective had been added by Hitler, that of diverting forces south towards Stalingrad and the oil-rich Caucases, intended to bring the Soviet economy to its knees and gain valuable oil for the Wehrmacht.

To achieve the objective of the Caucases the left flank had to be secured by taking Stalingrad. The battle took on paramount significance as this city was named for the dictator himself, and Hitler placed extreme emphasis on its capture. Similarly Stalin was equally determined to prevent it from being captured. For nearly a year the two sides battled in the city, with the Germans conquering all of the west bank of the Volga River. During the winter of 1942-1943 Marshall Zhukov once again launched a counteroffensive taking a page out of the Axis playbook, breaking through the poorly equipped German allies (Romanian, Italian and Hungarian troops) on the flanks of Paulus 6th army which was in Stalingrad proper. Zhukov completed the encirclement (dubbed Operation Uranus) and succeeded in cutting off and forcing the surrender of an entire German army. Stalingrad was the largest battle in world history, costing over two million lives and destroying an entire German army. From this point on the Germans were hard pressed to recover.

Strategic Bombing (Beginning 1942-1943) - The strategic bombing campaign focused on the British bomber command dropping by night and American army air forces dropping by day. The British quickly abandoned the concept of precision bombing due to the poor accuracy inherent to the technological limitations of the time, concentrating on area bombing instead. The Americans stuck to the concept, although very poor success led them to change their minds later in the war. As an example, in 1943 only a third of all bombs dropped by the RAF landed within five miles of their targets. Accuracy improved significantly with new technology and tactics by 1944 with seven percent of all bombs dropped landing within 1,000 feet of the aimpoint. By and large due to weather and technological restrictions the majority of operations were conducted as area bombing, making little distinction between targets of military value and civilian centers. A famous example is the firebombing of Dresden where over 40,000 Germans were killed in a few days. The strategic bombing campaign was however a failure, costing the lives of 160,000 airmen and only showing mediocre results. The main success of the bombing campaign was to force the Germans to redeploy resources such as anti-aircraft material and fighters to counter the bombing, rather than the actual destruction of the bombs themselves.

Spring 1943 - Rommel's Afrika Corps, outnumbered and out of supply ran into Field Marshall Montgomery at the Battle of El Alamein and were defeated, effectively marking the end of German successes in Africa (July 1943). The campaign would continue for some months, with the Americans landing behind Rommel in November 1942 in Operation Torch, with the American forces under the eventual command of the legendary General Patton. The Afrika Corps was forced to surrender, ending the African theatre. Following this the British and American forces invaded Sicily, and then Italy. Sicily fell fairly quickly, though the Italian campaign would prove a long slugging match especially during the landings at Ansio. It was at this time the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was ousted from power and imprisoned, and the new Italian government signed a separate peace with the Allies promising to enter the war on their side against Germany. Due to government incompetence and delay, the Germans were able to quickly subdue the Italian army before it had received orders, and continued to fight the Allies in Italy. Rome was captured in 1944, though the Italian campaign served mostly as a sidenote to the continuing fight in the Soviet Union and in France in mid 1944.

Mid 1943 - On the Eastern front the two powers clashed in the decisive battle of Kursk during July in what was and still is the largest tank battle of all time. Due to delays in the German attack to bring up new weapons (such as the new and incredibly powerful Panzer V Panther tank) and the precise Soviet intelligence for the coming attack, the Germans met heavy resistance and entrenched Soviets with defense in depth, meaning several lines of defense had to be breached before a breakthrough. Minefields, artillery and anti-tank guns caused heavy losses and constantly narrowed German operations into a bottleneck. Some of the largest aerial battles in history occured over the skies of Kursk, with huge numbers of Luftwaffe and Soviet air force playing decisive roles. Once the German offensive had been stopped Soviet counter attacks threatened to encircle the German bulge, but was prevented by the aid of thousands of Luftwaffe sorties. In the end the battle was a Soviet victory, and the first time the Soviets had stopped a major German offensive in its tracks. From Kursk onwards the Wehrmacht had lost the strategic initiative and would never regain it for the rest of the war.

Late 1943 - The Autumn and Winter of 1943 saw great Soviet advances. Following the failure of Operation Zitadelle the Wehrmacht had lost all initiative and could now only react defensively to Soviet movements. A general Soviet counteroffensive was launched to retake the Dneiper river and also the area around Smolensk to the north. German divisions were surrounded but managed to escape with heavy losses in two separate instances, in the Hube and Korsun-Cherkassy pockets. The Smolensk offensive had pulled fifty-five German divisions northward, allowing the Soviets to establish bridgeheads over the Dneiper and capture the vital Donbass industrial area. During the 1943-1944 campaigning season the Soviets capped off a 500 mile advance. At this time Hitler began replacing what remained of his competent generals, and the loss of Smolensk in january cost the Wehrmacht their key defensive hub in the area. By February 1944 the Soviets had come near the borders of Estonia, and had regained almost all the territory lost in 1941.

Summer 1944 - By now the Soviets had overwhelming numerical advantage in men, tanks and aircraft and continued to exploit their gains. On June 22 (3 years to the day of the German invasion) they launched Operation Bagration, using 120 divisions to smash through the thinly defended German lines. This was by far one of the largest and the most successful Soviet offensive to date, causing over 670,000 German casualties and destroying more than 50,000 vehicles. The Soviets now occupied the pre-war border with Poland. On 17 July another operation was launched to the south into Romania, which coincided with a coup against the Axis allied government, with the new rulers now signing an agreement with the Soviet Union. The loss of Romania now caused a major vacuum on the German right flank, forcing a retreat from the entirety of the Balkans. The Soviets continued into Poland, and on 1 August the Polish resistance in Warsaw rose up against the Germans. Stalin halted his armies on the Vistula river, and despite multiple entreaties from Churchill and Roosevelt refused to come to the aid of the Poles, likely due to the fact Stalin felt it would be easier to govern in the future without the rebels presence. The uprising was brutally crushed by the Germans.

Summer 1944 Western Front - On June 6th a joint force of Americans, British, Canadians and Free French launched Operation Overlord, the invasion of five beaches at Normandy on the coast of France. The Germans were caught by surprise, as the weather forecasts had been dismal, and Hitler had taken a sleeping pill and would not be disturbed. This incident demonstrates the complete paralysis Hitler's meglomania had inflicted on OKW, even when the walls came crashing down around them they would not wake the Fueher from his beauty sleep. The Americans encountered heavy resistance at Omaha beach, and the paradrops behind the lines were scattered and disorganized. Multiple blunders by Montgomery in particular not being able to secure Caen led to several months of slow going through the French hedgerow country. Here the Western Allies first encountered the devastating weapons in the Panther and Tiger tanks. The Allies then launched Operation Cobra, breaking out of the hedgerows and trapping 100,000 Germans in the Falaise pocket. The Allies pushed on in a rapid advance all the way to the Seine river within weeks. By August they had liberated Paris and British/Canadian forces had pushed into Belgium, liberating Antwerp in September.

Fall 1944 Western Front - The British and Canadian forces moved rapidly through Belgium and the Netherlands in the north, while Patton and the American forces advanced through France towards the Ruhr industrial region of Germany. Operation Market Garden kicked off in September, involving airborne units capturing three bridges at Eindhoven, Nijmegen and Arnhem designed to facilitate a fast advance for the Allies to reach Berlin by Christmas. This was famously depicted in the movie A Bridge Too Far. The operation was flawed and over-reaching from the start, and although Eindhoven and Nijmegen bridges were secured, the British 1st airborne at Arnhem was massacred by two SS Panzer divisions.

The Allied advance stalled somewhat at the German Siegfried line of defenses, including the bloody battle for the Hurtgen Forest, after which when an American soldier wanted to describe a situation as terrible, he would say "it was worse than the Hurtgen". After months of hard fighting the Allies managed to close the distance to the Rhine river, Germany's last natural line of defense. However, on 16 December the Germans launched Operation Wacht am Rhein, which came to be known as The Battle of the Bulge. It has been called the single greatest failure of Allied intelligence during the war, as Allied forces were taken completely by suprise, Hitler having thrown in the last of his reserves and armoured strength. After initial gains, the offensive petered out due to the 1st Airborne holding the key town of Bastogne, a lack of German fuel supplies and the clearing of the weather for allied air superiority to wreak havoc. Pressure from the north by British forces and the south by Patton eventually eliminated the bulge and within a month the Allies had regained all lost ground.

1945 Winter Eastern Front - During January the Soviets advanced nearly 40 kilometers per day, taking Poland, Hungary and settling on a line 60 kilometers east of Berlin along the Oder River by Februrary. They continued the pressure in Germany while entering Austria in March and capturing Vienna on 13 April. Stalin now feared the West's intentions for post-war Germany and ordered a broad offensive, beginning on 16 April with the objective of capturing Berlin and meeting the other Allies as far west as possible.

April 1945 Endgame - The Western Allies had now forced crossings over the Rhine at multiple points, including the undestroyed Ludendorf bridge at Remagen (Hitler later ordered the execution of the demolition team that failed to destroy it). British and Canadian forces fanned out north towards Denmark, with American forces slicing through the Ruhr area in the south. They finally halted on the Elbe river, as anything east of it was destined to become Soviet controlled after the war as per previous agreement. Hitler now remained underground in his bunker near the Reichstag in Berlin, moving armies that only existed on paper, in the last throes of his delusions. After a failed counterattack attempt by General Steiner he was finally convinced that the war was lost. By 24 April Soviet forces had surrounded Berlin, and by 30 April they were fighting their way to the center of the city. On this same day Hitler married his long time mistress Eva Braun, and they both commited suicide by poison and pistol. On 2 May, the city was surrendered to the Soviets.

May 1945 Surrender - After Hitler's death the leadership passed to Admiral Karl Donitz, commander of the Kriegsmarine (navy). He approached Montgomery, who refused to accept his surrender, and finally sent his envoys to Eishenhower's headquarters, who were confronted by the blunt remarks that only unconditional surrender would be accepted. The official unconditional surrender document was signed on 7 May and 8 May was declared Victory in Europe (VE Day).

Aftermath - The Potsdam Conference set the borders for post-war Germany, partioning Germany into East and West. Berlin, even though it was in the Soviet zone of control was partioned with West Berlin under the control of Allied forces. The Occupation went off without much resistance, the German people so sick of war they were happy to see the end. A program of de-nazification was initiated to reconstitute the political infrastructure of Germany, and war criminals were brought to the Nuremburg trials. Many, including Hermann Goering, were sentenced to death by hanging. Goering escaped the noose by taking poison shortly before his execution. The war cost the lives of over 60 million people both soldiers and civillians and began the Cold War between the two remaining superpowers.


Why we Remember

Often I am faced with the argument of the practicality of military history, and history as a whole. Why do we devote so much time to its study, when it teaches us so little about modern times they say?

Military history especially has a great deal of roots in the past, every tactic and strategy is built upon those that have come before, and mistakes made by generals of the past can be easily repeated by those of the future without careful study.

We point to the battle of Cannae even now, two thousand years later after Hannibal. It demonstrates the basic principles of using mobility to flank and surround your enemy. It forms the basis of the Blitzkrieg pincer attacks for the German armour doctrine of the Second World War, and is frequently referred to by scholars. The Kesselschlact (cauldron battle), or double envelopment tradition of German Panzer attacks during the war is frequently referred to as a Cannae-Style attack.

Those who do not remember the lessons are doomed to repeat mistakes of the past. During the German 1941 campaign in the Soviet Union, General Von Kluge could be seen standing in front of the map, his face twisted into a frown while he held Caulaincourt's account of Napoleon's 1812 campaign for Moscow under his arm, wondering if the Wehrmacht was doomed as were the French 150 years before. The Germans failed to provide even the basic winter clothing to their men, despite numerous requests from Guderian and other generals who knew Napoleon's folly well. It is almost incomprehensible to have such a glaring failure in the operational planning, especially when it is so well known to historians.

We also see what might have been. What if the Germans had succeeded in mastering Russia and all of Europe in 1941? What if the Normans had never invaded England, and the sun set on the british empire? As faux pas as the subject of military force is in modern times, we must remind the advocates of political correctness that for much of history (including today) military conflict has shaped our world. Great civilizations were built either on the use of force, or they suffered defeat at the hands of more bellicose enemies. Any study of history cannot ignore the impact of militaries, ancient or modern.

Mark Twain once said that history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes. We as humans learn from past mistakes, and to quote the great Roman Cicero, one who does not understand history is destined to be a child forever.

Recommended Reading

Barbarossa - The Russian German Conflict 1941-45 by Alan Clark. The absolute best rendition of the German offensive into the Soviet Union during WWII. The author gives a perfect mix of fact an anecdote, making it a pleasant non-dry read.

Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain by Len Deighton. An extremely detailed look at Fighter Command's struggle to overcome the Luftwaffe, presented in a very unbiased fashion. No frills like the typical historical revisionist accounts we see today, plain facts with good delivery.

I've added the majority of what I have read or have had reviewed by close colleagues to my amazon store.


Recommended Games

For those interested in tactical gaming, I would recommend the following games that I play or have friends that play.

Steel Beasts Pro Personal Edition - A personal version of a game that is used to train real world militaries, there is no better tank simulator on the civillian market.

Battleground Europe (WWIIOL) - A massively multiplayer online WWII combined arms game. Infantry, tanks, fighters, bombers, ATGs and ships are available to play. There is no game out there like it, but it does have its flaws. It has been out since 2001 and the graphics, bells and whistles are not all there, but the core is incredible.

ARMA (Armed Assault) - An excellent squad based FPS game, it comes as close to realistic modern combat as I have seen. Playable units include infantry, vehicles, tanks, APCs, helicopters, jets, artillery and more. It is available for only $20 online at gamersgate and it has a large amount of mods. I suggest the ACE (Advanced Combat Environment) mod.

Rome: Total War - A strategy game that allows you control ancient militaries down to the tactical level on the battlefield. To get a real feel for what it was like to command an army of archers, cavalry and melee infantry is something that will help you understand the complexities of ancient warfare.