The fluid movement of World War II makes generalship in the war seem far superior to that of the First World War. Appearances can be deceiving. Although the Allies were remarkably successful in gathering intelligence and were able to read German and Japanese encrypted messages, in actual operations there were a number of failings. Britain and France were nearly bankrupted by the First World War and were not eager for new hostilities. As a result, weapons development and tactical investigation suffered. In America, isolationism ruled. The army shrank to a size comparable to that of Portugal, and Congress even passed a law prohibiting development of tanks. Many lives were lost due to this short sightedness.
The points below are negative and debatable, and crying over spilt milk doesn't do much good. But if we study of the failings of allied leadership in World War II, it may help prevent similar mistakes in the future.
Occupation of the Rhineland - Although the World War I allies pledged to prevent German occupation of the Rhineland, they did nothing to prevent Hitler from seizing the region even though the German military had not yet rearmed. This was only the first in a series of appeasements which only encouraged German aggression.
Invasion of Poland - Britain and France could give little direct assistance to Poland. The French did briefly enter German territory as a diversion, but did not press the advance despite vastly outnumbering the German defenders.
Not Assassinating Hitler - British intelligence had the opportunity to work with opponents of Hitler within Germany and the German army to assassinate or depose Hitler. The British distrusted its German contacts and loathed the idea of assassination and missed a golden opportunity to shorten the war.
Norway - Hitler's vital supply of iron ore from Sweden came through the port of Narvik in northern Norway. The allies hastily moved to occupy Norway to take advantage of this, but the Germans quickly planned their own invasion. German leadership and daring won the day. Germany's supply of ore was safe. Furthermore, Norway would prove useful as an air base to harass arms shipments to Russia and as a supply of heavy water for Germany's atomic bomb project.
Battle of France - A lack of interest in armor, the socialization of the French aircraft industry, and poor use of air power contributed to the fall of France. Since tanks were seen as an offensive weapon, development of tanks and armored tactics was discouraged. The German attack through the Ardennes was not detected despite miles of vehicles which could have been seen from the air. The attack was not stopped because there was no large armored reserve. Also, since it required a year to train a conscript, France's two year required service meant that only half the army was competent at any time. French leadership was extremely unimpressive.
The Near Bombing of Russia - With the German/Russian non-aggression pact, British and French leaders contemplated bombing Russian oil facilities to hinder Hitler's oil supply. Thankfully, the plan was not carried out.
Russia - Stalin's purges of his officer corps left him an army full of incompetent generals afraid to be too successful lest they be seen as a threat. Stalin killed about 20 million of his own people, enough to make Hitler look like an amateur. An additional 18 million Russians lost their lives in the war. Throughout the war, one German was equal to about six Russians.
North Africa - An excessively conservative British Army never really understood armored warfare and was regularly beaten by a smaller Axis force, much of which was Italian.
Operation Torch - The most mobile Allied forces were landed further west, preventing a quick move into Tunisia to cut off the Axis army.
Sicily - Axis retreat across the Strait of Messina was not cut off, allowing many of the enemy to fight another day.
Salerno - The invasion succeeded only because of the bravery of the men in the ranks. The allies always invaded in areas well within air cover, greatly simplifying the Axis defense problems. Allied seizure of Sardinia and Corsica and their use as air bases and bases for further invasions could have threatened the entire coasts of Italy and southern France.
Aegean Islands - When Italy surrendered, a number of Italian troops were stationed on the Aegean Islands alongside the Germans. Because the US was suspicious of Britain's imperial ambitions in the Mediterranean, Eisenhower disallowed attempts to rescue these Italian troops. As a result, the troops were captured and many of them were killed. Many of the survivors did not survive captivity.
The Invasion That Wasn't - The failure to win a quick victory in Tunisia and the subsequent invasion of Sicily prevented a 1943 invasion of France. In 1943, German coastal defenses were far from complete, with land approaches poorly defended. Well defended ports helped slow the allied advance in 1944.
Anzio - An excellent concept poorly executed.
Rome - After breaking the German line, Mark Clark ordered the US Army to take Rome instead of trapping and destroying German forces. Clark placed excessive importance on his public image to the detriment of his men's lives.
Normandy - Despite British production of specialized amphibious vehicles or "funnies", the US Army did not develop their own. The landings at Omaha Beach nearly failed because of this, the failure of amphibious tanks, and inadequate air and naval bombardment. The whole invasion was a poor compromise of American and British amphibious doctrine.
Carpet Bombing - Use of strategic bombers to blast holes in the German lines had its faults but at times was quite successful. Carpet bombing at St. Lo in Normandy helped end the deadlock, destroyed an entire German division during the bombing, and led to the destruction of the German army. Sadly, the Army Air Force was too focused on strategic bombing to have much interest.
Falaise Gap - With the breakthrough at St. Lo, Patton's 3rd Army exploited the gap, moving into Brittany and nearly encircling the German army. Allied bumbling kept Patton and the Commonwealth forces on the other side from closing the gap. Although many Germans were killed, many officers escaped and served in reconstituted units. Their experience and know how made these units much more formidable than they otherwise would have been.
The Pursuit - While pursuing German forces, the British failed to cut off and destroy German divisions near the Seine River despite their lack of mobility. In planning the Normandy invasion, Eisenhower ignored estimates of needed transportation units and as a result Allied forces in Northwest Europe were constantly undersupplied. Frequently, pressure in one area was sacrificed to supply operations elsewhere, allowing the Germans to reform and prepare defenses. Ultimately, the advance stalled.
The Sherman Tank - The Sherman tank was an excellent vehicle when it first entered combat, but by 1944 it was entirely inadequate. Although the impressive Tiger tank was first encountered in late 1942, development of the M-26 Pershing was leisurely. US Army Ground Forces doctrine was that tanks were for exploitation, not fighting other tanks. Doctrine and not actual battlefield experience shaped weapons development and as a result American tanks were not what they should have been.
Antwerp - British slowness allowed the Germans to organize defenses around the Scheldt River. Antwerp was vital to easing Allied supply problems, but the struggle for the estuary was an unnecessary delay in opening up the port. In addition, British delays prevented the encirclement and destruction of German forces in this area.
A Bridge Too Far - Montgomery was an excessively conservative commander. The exception was his plans for airborne landings near Arnhem to capture and exploit a bridge across the Rhine. But despite the risks, a vigorous advance could have been successful.
Hurtegen Forest - The US Army advanced against the strongest section of the German defenses in the difficult terrain of a forest. Predictably, high casualties and slow progress resulted.
The Bulge - Despite intelligence warnings, the German offensive came as a complete surprise. Although the Germans had shown that the Ardennes were passable for armor in 1940, this was apparently forgotten just four and a half years later. Montgomery was put in charge of the northern side and could think of little more than stopping the advance at its western most point. Although Patton's counterattack rescued Bastogne, a better use of force may have been to attack the base and encircle the whole German force.
Operational Analysis - Have you ever noticed how modern US Army helmets and uniforms resemble old German equipment? That's not all that's been copied. The German style of command, giving an order to accomplish a mission without stating how to do it, is now official US doctrine. This allows officers to think for themselves and develop reasoning skills. Why did it take so long to copy this system?
Bomber Offensive - The British Bomber Command dedicated itself to destroying German cities. Trouble was that lots of civilians were killed but factories were rarely hit. Every two weeks, the American Eighth Air Force would come up with a new plan to defeat Germany in two weeks with precision bombing. It was decided too late to attack Germany's vital transportation and electrical networks, and German production increased almost to the end of the war.
The Pacific War
Guam - Construction of fortifications and naval and air bases on this island in the 1920s could have been an excellent deterrent to Japanese expansion. Japan declared that the development of a large base here would be an act of war. In the ill-conceived naval limitations treaty of the 1920s, the US promised to not develop the island if Japan would agree to the treaty. The Japanese did not uphold its end of the bargain and never intended to.
Pearl Harbor - Bungling related to the Pearl Harbor attack is too numerous to mention. On his own initiative, Dean Acheson at the State Department began a total oil embargo of Japan. This forced the Japanese to either knuckle under or attack, and no one could reasonably expect the Japanese to knuckle under. The embargo was part of a deterrent effort which included an unconstitutional treaty Roosevelt made with Churchill and the Dutch to protect the Dutch East Indies. If war could have been delayed several years, the US would have had numerous aircraft carriers with superior aircraft and possibly wonder weapons such as the guided bombs used late in the war. Not understanding Japan's economic vulnerability, the US failed to aggressively target Japanese tankers until late in the war. The island hopping campaign targeted the Philippines and the Japanese homeland and not the oil and natural resources they started the war to safeguard.
Philippines - Despite the fact that MacArthur had been notified of the attack on Pearl Harbor, he did not order his air force to attack Japanese ports in Formosa as were his orders. Instead, Japanese air attacks destroyed most of our planes on the ground, giving them the air superiority needed to land troops. The President of the Philippines was eager to keep his country out of the war and his influence may have affected MacArthur's behavior. US planners were shifting their front line base from Pearl Harbor to the Philippines when the Japanese struck. The preoccupation with the Philippines made a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor easier. As part of the shift of focus to the Philippines, MacArthur now planned to fight the Japanese upon their landing. They were completely incapable of this and destroyed many valuable supplies in the retreat to Bataan. When he reached Australia, MacArthur declared "I shall return.", thusly committing the country to his own plans. Perhaps not coincidentally, MacArthur was given $500,000 and his staff $100,000 upon leaving the Philippines. In today's money, $500,000 is equivalent to over $5 million. The $35,000 given to him to cover expenses was invested in the stock market and made him a millionaire by war's end. MacArthur had been Field Marshal of the Philippine Army after he was forced to resign as US Chief of Staff because of keeping an Asian mistress. He was only accepted back into the US Army in 1941.
Guadalcanal - The Japanese began building an air strip on Guadalcanal which would threaten US communications with Australia. Although local commanders were against it, the Joint Chiefs of Staff ordered the island seized. Marines did take the island, but Japanese efforts to retake Guadalcanal nearly succeeded. The US Navy learned the hard way that it was completely unprepared for night combat, and nearly lost the island and a Marine division.
Rabaul - Despite MacArthur's boasting about bypassing Japanese strongholds, he planned to invade New Britain and capture the heavily defended base at Rabaul. Only orders from the Joint Chiefs of Staff prevented this potential bloodbath. Undoubtedly many other islands would have been better off bypassed.
No Unified Command - Throughout the Pacific offensive, both the Army and Navy had their own theaters of operation. Close cooperation between Army and Navy under one command with one axis of advance would have resulted in a quicker, cheaper victory. Switches of efforts between commands allowed the Japanese time to prepare their defenses.
China - The US had high hopes that they could supply the Chinese, who would push the Japanese out of China. Airbases could then be used to bomb and destroy Japan. The trouble was that the Nationalists and the Communists saw no reason to expend their power against the Japanese when they knew America would win the war, leaving them to fight amongst themselves.
Peleliu - This was possibly the most useless waste of lives in the whole Pacific war. It was thought necessary to take the island to protect the invasion of the Philippines. Instead, many Marines died capturing a nearly worthless island.
Retaking the Philippines - Although occupation of Leyte and other smaller islands of the Philippines could have dominated the entire island group with naval and air power, both the main islands of Luzon and Mindanao were also taken. In the battle of Manila alone, 600,000 civilians were killed. Only 400,000 Americans were killed in the whole war. As mentioned above, MacArthur was hardly unbiased in his decisions regarding the Philippines and seemed to be preoccupied with using any troops he could get his hands on.
Planned Invasion of Japan - Some people estimated the planned invasion of Japan would cost one million allied lives. That planners felt the need to invade shows that they failed to understand the economic aspect of the war. By the end of the war, the people of Japan were literally starving and the Japanese air force lacked the fuel to intercept bombers. Post-war reconstruction of Japan, its government and culture, apparently failed. To this day, a large number of Japanese believe their country was not at fault in the war and did not commit war crimes on a massive scale. Annually, large numbers of left wingers worldwide try to put America on a guilt trip for the atomic blasts that helped end the war.
VISIONS OF INFAMY: THE UNTOLD STORY OF HOW JOURNALIST HECTOR C. BYWATER DEVISED THE PLANS THAT LED TO PEARL HARBOR William Honan discusses Hector Bywater, a British journalist and former spy, who prophesied the Pacific War and how it would be fought. Bywater died under mysterious circumstances, possibly killed under orders of Admiral Yamamoto.
HITLER'S PANZERS EAST: WORLD WAR II REINTERPRETED The author argues that the decisive moment of World War II was Hitler's 1941 diverting of his armored troops to the Ukraine and away from Moscow.
BLOOD TEARS AND FOLLY: AN OBJECTIVE LOOK AT WORLD WAR II Len Deighton details axis and allied accomplishments and failures early in the war. This is a very well written book.
PANZER BATTLES F.W. von Mellinthin masterfully explains German armored warfare and tactics throughout the war. The author fought in Poland, France, Yugoslavia, North Africa, Russia, and Northwestern Europe. He analyzes the tactics of the British in North Africa, the Red Army, and the US Army in Northwest Europe. Very readable.
Brute Force by John Ellis. Sadly this book is out of print. An excellent and readable account of the Allied counteroffensive which uses statistics to show that the Allied victory was attributable to brute force and not good management.
Days of Infamy by John Costello. Sadly this book is out of print. Although not very readable, a clear picture of the events leading up to the disasters at Pearl Harbor and the Philippines is given. Political workings within the State Department that sparked the attack and the change of base from Pearl to the Philippines which exacerbated the disaster are covered.
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