At 11 a.m. on November 11, 1918, the guns fell silent, thus ending a terrible conflict that had ranged over much of the world, cost as many as twenty million lives, destroyed ancient kingdoms and empires, and ripped apart the social fabric of Europe. It was called the Great War and the “War to end all wars”, and in its aftermath people fervently hoped that the latter title was literally so. Less than 21 years later, on September 1, 1939, German troops invaded Poland, and Europe was again in flames. By December 1941 the Nazi war machine had conquered almost all of Europe, and the Soviet Union appeared to be on the brink of defeat. Civilization itself seemed in peril as the law of tooth and fang replaced the ideals of liberty and justice. How could this have happened? How had civilized men permitted these things to come to pass?
The outbreak of war in 1914 was a total catastrophe. The great nations of Europe were governed by civilized men, most of whom espoused Christian values, and many of the ruling families were related to one another. Peace and progress were the watchwords of the day, and science and the arts flourished. There had not been a major European war since 1870-71 and no truly devastating conflict since 1815. Under this peaceful façade, however, serious tensions existed between the several states. Military coalitions had been formed, and all European nations had prepared for the possibility of conflict. Indeed, they were armed to the teeth. Germany, in particular, was in in a state of military readiness. German population was 67 million and growing, and its industrial production eclipsed that of other European nations. Germany had a standing army of 840,000 with 3 million trained reservists. Its forces were magnificently equipped with the most modern equipment, and, under the aegis of the German General Staff, military strategy and tactics had been developed into virtual sciences. France, their ancient foe, was also in a state of military preparedness. With a smaller and relatively static population of 40 million, France still managed to field a standing army nearly as large as that of Germany. Russia and Austro-Hungary, polyglot empires to the east, also possessed large armies, though they were not so well equipped and trained as those of Germany and France. The United Kingdom had a large navy but only a few superb divisions of professional soldiers. Underlying it all, there was a prevailing attitude about the inevitability of conflict. Europe was a tinder box, and one small spark could lead to a conflagration.
The spark was provided by the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. Though there was no real evidence of Serbian state complicity, the Austrians determined to use this event as an excuse to punish Serbia, home to many pan-Slavist agitators who threatened the stability of the Austro-Hungarian state. In 1914 Austro-Hungary was larger and slightly more populous than France and included millions of Slavs in its multi-ethnic population. Russia, with a total population of perhaps 165 million, was the greatest Slav state, and it conceived itself to be the protector of the Balkan Slavs. Despite the possibility of Russian intervention and the fact that Serbia acquiesced to almost all Austrian demands, Austria pushed ahead with its plans to make war on Serbia. At this critical moment, Austro-Hungary received assurance from Germany that it would stand with Austria in any action it decided to take. Thus emboldened, Austria attacked Serbia, and the Russians responded by ordering a partial mobilization in preparation for possible war with Austro-Hungary. In the event of a general European war, German military strategy called for the defeat of France before Russia could complete its mobilization, and Russia’s war preparations could disrupt years of German war planning. Germany therefore demanded that Russia cancel its mobilization order. When the Russians failed to comply, Germany declared war on Russia and France. Europe thus descended into the maelstrom of a general war, the horrors of which no one living on August 1, 1914, could have imagined.
The Germans had prepared for this war over several decades, and their Schlieffen Plan called for a massive assault through Belgium into northern France calculated to overwhelm the French army in a thoroughly organized six-week campaign. It was a near thing. The French had a strong army and competent leadership, but the Germans had an excellent plan, better preparation, and superior tactics. The Germans also had a materiel advantage, especially in heavy artillery; and, at the point of attack on the French left, the attackers seriously outnumbered the defenders. In the early fighting the French suffered appalling casualties, and their leftmost armies were nearly overwhelmed. Marshal Joseph Joffre, the French commander, desperately shifted troops from right to left, and at the critical moment he launched a counterattack. The Germans were driven back. Both Germans and French then dug in, and the long period of trench warfare began.
The British had entered the war following Germany’s violation of Belgian neutrality, and their small professional army had played an important role in Joffre’s counterattack. Over the following four years the British homeland and the dominions contributed more and more men and resources to the conflict. Britain also established a naval blockade of German and Austrian ports. The Germans struck back with a campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare in the waters around the British Isles. As American lives were lost, Germany and the United States engaged in increasingly bitter verbal and diplomatic conflict. Finally, the international furor following the sinking of the great passenger liner Lusitania in May 1915 forced the Germans to modify their maritime rules of engagement.
As the Germans fought through Belgium into northern France, Russia attempted to relieve pressure on the French by mounting an early offensive into eastern Germany. Indeed, as a response to this move, the Germans transferred two army corps from France to the east; but before their arrival the attacking Russian armies had already been defeated. Over the next three years the fighting on the eastern front flowed back and forth over the wide reaches of Carpathia, Poland, the Baltic states, Byelorussia, and the Ukraine. The Russians were tough fighters, but they suffered from serious logistical problems that often led to shortages of arms and ammunition. The Brusilov Offensive of June-August 1916 was Russia’s last military success, and it inflicted severe damage on the Austro-Hungarian army; but after that the combined Austro-German armies slowly drove the Russians back toward the east. Morale and discipline deteriorated among Russian troops as political chaos erupted in the homeland.
Several decisive events occurred during late 1916 and early 1917. Signs of Russian collapse had become increasingly obvious, and German leaders were determined to use this fortuitous turn of events to prepare a massive strike in the west and end the stalemate. As part of their effort, Germany decided to resume unrestricted submarine warfare. Germany understood that this act might bring the United States into the war, but they believed that they could achieve victory in Europe long before the Americans could recruit, train, and transport any significant military forces to France. As additional insurance, Germany made a secret overture to Mexico proposing a military alliance against the United States, with the return of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona among the rewards promised to Mexico for their cooperation.
On February 1, 1917, Germany announced the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare. Shortly afterwards, the German offer to Mexico was exposed (the Zimmerman telegram), and on April 6th the United States declared war on Germany. Mexico wisely decided to remain neutral. As these events were unfolding, the Russian revolution went into fully active mode, and the country descended into a state of absolute chaos. Russia gradually dropped out of the war. America was totally unprepared for conflict. Its army was small and ill equipped, and it would be more than a year before the United States could contribute significant numbers of troops to the fighting. Meanwhile, the Russian collapse allowed the Germans to shift forces from the east to the western front.
The crisis came early in 1918. Bolstered by reinforcements from the east, the German General Erich Ludendorf launched a series of heavy attacks on the Allied forces in northern France. The British and French armies were driven back toward the Marne, the 1914 battlefield. At this point the Allies took two steps that effectively turned the tide of battle. First, they began to coordinate military actions under the direction of one leader, the French Marshal Ferdinand Foch. Second, a steadily increasing number of American divisions were committed to the fighting. The spear of the German offensive was broken, and soon the Germans were being pushed back all along the line. All through August, September, and October 1918 the Allied advance continued.
By early November 1918 the German army was on the verge of total defeat, and its leaders admitted to their emperor that the situation was hopeless. Germany’s allied states of Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire had sued for peace, and Austro-Hungary was in a state of collapse. Riots and military mutiny erupted in the German homeland, and on November 10 the Emperor Wilhelm II abdicated and fled to the Netherlands. This was the situation when the Armistice was finally implemented on November 11.
In the years following the war the German right wing and the Nazi Party would insist that their army had not been defeated but had been “stabbed in the back” by its civilian leaders. This assertion was blatantly false, but it is true that, except for two very small areas in Alsace-Lorraine, no American, British, or French units had penetrated the German border when the guns fell silent in November, and German soldiers still occupied great swaths of Russia, most of Belgium, and a few areas in northeastern France. Some Allied military commanders wanted to march their forces into Germany, all the way to Berlin if necessary, to give the Germans a taste of the misery they had inflicted on Belgium and France and to drive home the fact that they had been defeated. Instead, the terms of the Armistice and the subsequent peace treaty restricted Allied troops to an occupation of the German Rhineland, from which the last French troops were withdrawn in 1930. Of course, there were other territorial adjustments. Alsace-Lorraine was returned to France, and Germany gave up some territory in the east to help create the new Poland. Most of Poland, however, was carved out of the old Russian Empire. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, Imperial Germany’s most steadfast ally, was totally dismembered.
The sudden collapse of the German army in late 1918, this rapid and unexpected swing from prospects of victory to the reality of defeat, was a shock to the German people. The Versailles Treaty was a humiliation. The French wanted to squeeze the Germans to the utmost, but Britain and the United States acted to moderate French demands, and many historians express an opinion that the treaty was not unduly severe. Indeed, it has been convincingly argued that, had they been victorious, the Germans would have imposed far more punitive terms on the Allies. The Franco-German treaty of 1871 was just as harsh; and as further evidence, the German-Austrian-Russian Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March 1918 had ripped territories from Russia that were greater in geographical extent than all of Germany. It is generally believed that it was the world-wide economic depression, not Versailles and reparations, that led to the collapse of the democratic German Weimar Republic. Psychologically, however, the Versailles Treaty became a rallying point for all Germans and contributed much to the rise of fascism and the march toward another war.
Germany was left strong and unified after the Great War. The industrial base had not been touched, and when the Nazis came to power in 1933 they had all the ingredients with which to begin building a modern war machine. War casualties had been heavy, but the population was young, vigorous, and growing.
Unfortunately, the seeds of another military conflagration had been planted in the Great War, and during the financial and political turmoil that swept the world in the 1920s and 1930s evil men clawed their way into positions of power. Benito Mussolini gradually assumed power in Italy, Josef Stalin rose to the top in the Soviet Union, and militarists seized leadership in Japan. Lastly, in Germany, there appeared the most evil person of them all – Adolf Hitler. Under his leadership, Germany immediately began to rearm for conflict.
Established representative democracies like the United Kingdom and the United States could resist the trend toward military dictatorship, but many other nations could not. France failed to succumb to the lure of a strongman, but the nation was racked by severe political divisions that served to gradually eviscerate its civil and military strength.
Along with the Versailles Treaty, the League of Nations had been established in the hope of maintaining world peace. Although the United States refused to join, it was believed that the other great powers, acting in concert, could settle future disputes between nations equitably and peaceably. Unfortunately, the plan did not work. The first real test came in 1931, when the Japanese invaded Manchuria. After much delay, the League demanded that the Japanese leave Manchuria. Instead, the Japanese left the League of Nations. No one was willing to go to war over the issue, so nothing was done. This pattern was repeated when the Italians invaded Ethiopia in 1935. There was much talk but no effective action, and Italy also left the League. The German Fuhrer observed these events with interest. In 1936 German military units entered the Rhineland in violation of the Versailles Treaty. Neither Britain nor France took any action. In March 1938 Germany annexed Austria, the ethnic German part of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, and shortly afterwards Hitler began putting pressure on Czechoslovakia to give up certain areas of that country populated by significant numbers of Germans.
The Czechoslovakian crisis of October 1938 was the critical event leading to the disaster of World War II. Evidence clearly indicates that Hitler could have been stopped at this point, and the coming horrors may have been avoided. The German army was not yet prepared for war. Its leaders knew this, and some of them were planning to turn on Hitler should he order them to march. France was believed to have the most powerful army in Europe at the time, and Czechoslovakia was prepared to fight. The Soviet Union was supportive of the Czechs, and it is probable that it would have either backed up Allied military action or remained benignly neutral. At this pivotal moment, the British and French turned their backs on Czechoslovakia and gave in to Hitler’s demands.
Why did this happen? How could Britain and France abandon their Czechoslovak friends? The person most to blame was Neville Chamberlain, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. He was absolutely appalled by thoughts of another general war, and his fervent desire for peace led him to accept Hitler’s assurances that there would be no further demand for territorial concessions. Eduard Daladier, the French premier, was also guilty. Daladier did not believe Hitler’s promises. He was convinced that Great Britain and France should stick together and resist German demands. Nevertheless, he was not willing to act without British support, and ultimately he let Chamberlain have his way. Czechoslovakia was forced to cede significant border areas to Germany, thus making itself an easy prey to future invasion. In a very real sense, Czechoslovakia was a casualty of the killing fields of World War I. Britain and France no longer had the will to fight. Chamberlain returned to England proclaiming, “Peace in our time.”
In March 1939, Germany occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia, and Chamberlain could no longer deny the reality of Hitler’s perfidy. Britain and France responded by guaranteeing the territorial integrity of Poland, Germany’s next target. In late August Hitler astonished the Allies by abandoning years of anti-Soviet rhetoric and negotiating a mutual non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union. The pact contained a secret clause providing for the territorial division of Poland. On September 1, 1939, German troops crossed the Polish border, and World War II began.
With its smaller population, terrible losses in World War I, and a declining birth rate, France now had fewer than half the men of military age as compared to Germany, and the French people and their leaders dreaded another war. The British had also experienced devastating war losses, especially among its officer elite, and they were very reluctant participants in another conflict. By contrast, though the German nation had also suffered grievous losses in the Great War, German youth had been mesmerized by Hitler’s grandiose visions of military glory and thirsted for revenge. The nation also had a surging population and was further strengthened by the absorption of Austria and Czechoslovakia.
As the new war began, the French army was large and had an excellent reputation. The British army soon deployed in France was relatively small but of high quality, and Britannia still ruled the waves. Outside observers thought that the Allies could hold their own in the coming conflict. There were certain factors, however, that were not known to the world at large. Though their army was strong, the French had neglected their air force and concentrated their military expenditures on the Maginot Line, a series of formidable fortifications along the French-German border. Unfortunately, the Maginot Line did not extend north to cover the Belgian border where the terrain was unsuitable for deep fortifications. By contrast, the Germans had focused on building a powerful air force and modernizing their army. Also, during the interwar period the German field commanders had developed aggressive new military tactics combining infantry, tanks, and close air support. The French were wedded to outmoded tactics and a strategy of defense, a strategy that gave the Germans the great advantage of choosing the time and place to launch their assault. An even greater problem for the French, however, was one of morale.
France had entered war in 1914 with a blaze of patriotic fervor, but 1939-40 was different. Twenty-six years before, during August and September of 1914, French soldiers in their blue coats and red trousers charged into murderous small-arms fire and artillery entrapments with do or die determination. As a result of their faulty tactics and reckless valor, the French suffered an almost inconceivable 400,000 casualties from August through September 1914, with as many as 150,000 dead. On one day alone, August 22, 1914, 27,000 French soldiers died in battle (with perhaps 80,000 total casualties). Compare this to the combined 3,775 Union and Confederate dead at Antietam (22,000 casualties altogether), the bloodiest one-day battle of the American Civil War. Over the entire course of the Great War, French forces suffered approximately 1,400,000 deaths and 4,300,000 wounded, thus bleeding the nation white. One historian estimated that six out of ten Frenchmen between 18 and 28 years of age was either killed or seriously maimed. Most French civilian and military leaders of 1939 had experienced the Great War first hand, and many of them approached the looming conflict with trepidation. This had a profound effect on the coming campaign in that it prompted the French high command to adopt a purely defensive strategy calculated to minimize casualties.
Though neither the British nor the French wanted another war, the German assault on Poland was the last in a continuing series of provocations, and the Allies were obligated by treaty to respond. As the German air force rained terror from the skies, the Wehrmacht smashed through the Polish army, and Poland was out of the war and occupied by German and Soviet troops by the end of September. This partition of Poland was in accordance with the secret agreement between the Soviet Union and Germany on August 23, 1939. The Poles put up a brave resistance, but they were seriously outmanned and poorly equipped. With no direct access to Poland, the French and the British did almost nothing to help them. Despite the German army’s almost total involvement in Poland during all of September, the French high command remained committed to its defensive strategy and ignored the excellent strategic opportunity to launch an offensive thrust from the west. With the Polish collapse, that opportunity was lost. The Allied and German armies then stared at each other across a no-man’s land for more than seven months. Correspondents referred to this period as the sitzkrieg or phony war. Rumors of a possible peace settlement spread among Allied troops even as Hitler and his generals prepared for their next thrust.
In April 1940, the Germans struck north at Denmark and Norway, and on May 10 Germany turned its full force against the Allied armies in the west. The results amazed the entire civilized world. Using its new blitzkrieg tactics, the German army quickly overwhelmed the Dutch and Belgians. At this critical moment the French commander, Marshal Maurice Gamelin, gambled everything on his mistaken belief that the Germans would essentially repeat their Schlieffen Plan of 1914 (a massive strike through Belgium into northern France). Because of his conviction, Gamelin had developed a plan that essentially doomed his army to defeat. The strongest and most mobile French and British units were rushed to meet the Germans in Belgium and the Netherlands. But the Wehrmacht’s Belgian/Dutch campaign was a secondary effort intended to draw the Allies into a trap. The Germans made their major thrust in the Ardennes area immediately north of the main Maginot line and south of the advancing Franco-British armies. This was a heavily wooded region thought to be totally unsuitable for German offensive action, especially tanks, and therefore lightly defended by second line French divisions. These French units were woefully deficient in anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons. With meticulous planning and execution, the Germans hacked through the Ardennes with amazing speed and came upon the shocked French defenders on the other side. Using their lethal combination of infantry, tanks, and close air support, the Germans quickly broke through these weak defenses, and panzers raced for the French coast, cutting off the French First and Seventh Armies and the British Expeditionary Force in Belgium. Having committed most of his mobile forces to the Belgian/Dutch campaign, Gamelin did not have the reserves required for an effective counterattack. By May 20th some German units had reached the English Channel, and the issue was no longer in doubt.
The British and French troops trapped in Belgium and northeastern France fought bravely and well, but they were gradually forced back towards the coast and faced the probability of total annihilation. Then came the miracle of Dunkirk. From May 27 through June 3 most of the British along with some of the French troops penned against the English Channel (slightly more than 335 thousand total) were evacuated by sea and transported to England.
By June 5, the Germans divisions had regrouped and turned south towards Paris, facing the badly outnumbered remnants of the once powerful French Army. On June 10, Italy entered the war as Germany’s ally. Less than two weeks later France was out of the war. The French had previously agreed with Britain that neither nation would sign a separate peace with Germany, but General Maxime Weygand, who had succeeded Marshal Gamelin as French army commander, said the situation was hopeless. Some French leaders wanted to continue the war from North Africa, but Premier Paul Reynaud, Daladier’s successor and the strongest proponent of continuing the fight, was forced out. The defeatists took charge and signed an armistice with Germany on June 22nd. In six short weeks France had been beaten into submission. People everywhere found it difficult to comprehend how the proud French nation had been conquered so quickly. Even German leaders were surprised by the speed and magnitude of their victory. The world seemed turned upside down. Under terms of the Franco-German armistice, much of France was occupied and controlled by the German military. The rest of France and its colonial territories remained semi-independent and was ruled from the town of Vichy.
I do not believe that the French soldiers of World War II were less valiant than their ancestors who had routed the Prussians at Auerstadt and Jena in 1806 or their fathers who had fought so bravely and stubbornly at Verdun in 1916. In May-June 1940, though some French units collapsed quickly under the speed and fury of the German attack, others fought fiercely in defense of the Dunkirk perimeter. In May-June 1942, two years after the 1940 collapse, outnumbered Free French troops battled units of the famed Afrika Korps to a standstill in the Battle of Bir Hakeim. These instances proved that the French still knew how to fight. In 1940, however, flawed strategy, outmoded tactics, and failed leadership subjected France to a total collapse; and, despite the nation’s long and illustrious history, the nation has not restored its reputation or its honor following the ignominy of that defeat. The nation’s disgrace was compounded when the fascist leaning leaders of Vichy France (Unoccupied France) collaborated with their Nazi conquerors in the months that followed.
On the other side of the Rhine, most older Germans had also dreaded another war, but young Germans were inspired by seven years of patriotic and militaristic propaganda. Moreover, German soldiers had excellent field leadership, a bold strategy, and superior tactics. And the German nation was led by a demonic eminence in the Berlin chancellery who was committed to conquest and willing to take extreme risks to achieve his goals. Under these circumstances, the Germans had a natural advantage in the early fighting. If the Allies had managed to endure the first blows there would have been a possibility of recovery and perhaps stalemate or victory, but the sudden breakthrough in the Ardennes doomed the French Army.
With the fall of France in June 1940, Britain and its dominions stood alone against Germany and Italy. The British army was in a state of total disarray. It was never very large and had lost almost all its equipment during the evacuation from Dunkirk. The imminent threat of invasion loomed over the British Isles as the Germans assembled their landing boats on the shores of the English Channel. On the other side of the Atlantic, America was in a state of shock. The sudden collapse of France was completely unexpected and frightening. What if the Germans managed to defeat the British and took over the British fleet? How could the United States survive in a world dominated by totalitarian states? Sentiment in the country was generally pro-Allied, but most Americans did not wish to become involved in a shooting war. Neutrality remained the watchword. Nevertheless, President Franklin Roosevelt was determined to do everything he possibly could to see that Britain withstood the coming assault. Substantial materiel support was provided to Britain, stretching our neutrality laws to the limit. Also, in preparation for possible future troubles, the United States instituted its first peacetime military draft. The American armed forces had a long way to go. In June 1940 the United States Army was smaller than those of several third-class European states.
Two things deterred the German invasion of Britain. First was the British air force. Second was the British navy. Hitler and his generals determined that their initial task was to destroy the British air force by a series of concentrated attacks on the enemy’s air bases. Once the Royal Air Force’s fighting effectiveness was destroyed, the Luftwaffe could provide the air cover needed to push an invasion force through the British fleet. Unfortunately for Hitler, the RAF did not cooperate. All through the summer and early autumn of 1940, British and German pilots fought it out over the skies of England and the channel, and, in the end, the Germans lost the contest. German plane losses were too heavy, and British air power, though grievously wounded, remained strong. In Churchill’s eloquent words of tribute to British airmen, “Never has so much been owed by so many to so few.” The Luftwaffe then switched its major effort from attacking RAF air bases to the terror bombing of British cities, and German invasion plans were put on indefinite hold. After the threat of invasion eased Churchill could afford to be jocular. Speaking to the Canadian Parliament in late 1941, he said: “After France fell, General Weygand (the French commander) said that the Germans would wring the neck of the British chicken.” Pause. “Some chicken!” Another pause. “Some neck!”
Elsewhere the war continued to spread. On November 30, 1939, Soviet troops invaded Finland. The Finns resisted skillfully and with great courage, and over the winter months the Soviet forces were thrown back again and again. Finally, the sheer weight of numbers and equipment took its toll, and Finland was forced to sue for peace in March 1940. To German observers of the Russo-Finnish war, it appeared that Soviet military leaders were totally incompetent and their soldiers ill-prepared for conflict.
In June 1940 the Soviets occupied the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania and parts of Romania. In Africa, the Italians took over British Somaliland in August and attacked Egypt in September. During that same month of September, the Japanese, who had been fighting in mainland China for several years, moved into French Indo-China. On October 28, 1940, the Italians invaded Greece from their occupied state of Albania.
Italian war efforts were fated for nothing but frustration. Their thrust into Greece was turned back, and soon hard fighting Greek troops advanced deep into Albania. In Africa, the British repulsed the Italian advance into Egypt and pursued their beaten foe into Libya. The Italians were also defeated in British and Italian Somaliland, and the British then attacked Italian forces in Ethiopia. Mussolini’s quest for military glory and a restoration of Roman power had been a total failure. At that point it was up to Germany to succor its ally. In March 1941, General Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps landed in Libya, and the combined German-Italian force soon began pushing the British back toward Egypt. In April, on the other side of the Mediterranean, German, Italian, and Romanian armies swept down from the north and overwhelmed Yugoslav and Greek resistance. Yugoslavia and Greece surrendered in late April, and the strategic island of Crete fell by the end of May. The British had dispatched troops to Greece in a forlorn effort to help, but this doomed expedition only served to cost men and equipment and weaken British forces in North Africa.
On June 22, 1941, the Germans turned their armed might against their erstwhile friend, the Soviet Union. The German-Soviet non-aggression pact of 1939 had been nothing but an expedient sham. As Hitler revealed in Mein Kampf, always his intention had been to strike east in the quest for lebensraum. Churchill’s reaction to this latest turn of events was interesting. He promised to give the Soviets all possible assistance. When reminded of his long-standing condemnation of communism and the Soviet Union, he said (paraphrasing) that if Hitler’s armies invaded hell he would have a few words of support for his satanic majesty. British materiel support was necessarily limited, but the United States slowly began sending what was one day to become a steady stream of war supplies to Russia.
Although the British had warned Stalin about the impending German assault, Stalin refused to believe the warnings, and the Soviet army and air force were caught by surprise. As a result, initial losses were devastating. Soviet planes were destroyed on the ground, and hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers were killed, captured, or sent reeling to the rear. Based on initial progress, Hitler and his generals believed that the war would be over long before Christmas. But Russian resistance stiffened, and the terrain became more difficult. Even so, by early December 1941, the Kremlin was in view of the forward German units. For the Germans, however, as it was for the French under Napoleon in 1812, a frigid enemy was waiting. General Winter entered the fray, and the German attack ground to a halt. Moscow did not fall, and the Soviets even mounted a successful counterattack. Further north, the Germans had surrounded but failed to take the great city of Leningrad. Perhaps as many as a million soldiers and civilians in that city starved to death or were killed by air attacks and bombardment, but the city would not surrender. Meanwhile, behind German lines, special Nazi paramilitary units were secretly beginning their systematic effort to exterminate Polish, Ukrainian, and Russian Jews.
On December 7, 1941, Japanese naval aviators, flying from aircraft carriers, attacked the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor. A few days later, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States, and America was now fully engaged in World War II. It is one of the great puzzles of the war that Hitler was so foolish as to declare war on the United States without insisting that the Japanese join him in the fight against the Soviet Union. The German army was at the gates of Moscow in early December 1941, and a Japanese attack from the east could have made a great difference. Germany was not obligated to join Japan in the war against America. Their treaty with Japan required them to become involved only if Japan was attacked. In this instance, it was Japan that did the attacking, and Germany could have stayed out of it. Nevertheless, Churchill was delighted with Hitler’s decision to stand with his Asian ally. His fervent prayers that America join Britain in the fight against Germany had finally been answered affirmatively.
The Japanese attack was not unexpected. It was only the place of the attack that surprised the American military. American-Japanese relations had been steadily deteriorating since Japan invaded mainland China in 1937. Citizens of the United States were horrified by reports of Japanese atrocities in China – the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, the mass rapes, the use of Chinese prisoners of war for bayonet practice, the frequent decapitations, etc. The government of the United States became alarmed as the Japanese evinced even greater territorial ambitions, and it began putting increasing pressure on Japan to pull back. The pressure was applied in a series of economic sanctions, and with the imposition of an American oil embargo the matter was brought to a head. Without oil, the Japanese army and navy would be severely handicapped, and territorial expansion would no longer be possible. Plenteous oil could be had in the Netherlands East Indies, but the American Pacific Fleet must be neutralized to make it possible to take this oil. The Japanese military leaders hoped that a severe bloody nose would dissuade the United States from further interference in the Far East, an area in which they believed Americans had few legitimate interests and should rightly regard as in Japan’s sphere of control. Out of this thinking came the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Pearl Harbor was a remarkable victory for Japanese naval aviation but a disaster for the Japanese nation. The sneak attack aroused the rage of the American people, and nothing would assuage their anger but the total defeat of the Empire of Japan. At the outbreak of war, the navy was the best prepared and the most professional of all the American military services, but the fleet was hit hard at Pearl Harbor and seriously outgunned in the Pacific for many months thereafter. Also, the Japanese had the advantage of battle experienced soldiers and airmen and, at least initially, better aircraft. They also had superb torpedoes that wreaked havoc on Allied ships during the early naval engagements. The first six months of war in the Pacific theater were a near calamity for the Allies. American outposts in Guam, Wake Island, and the Philippines all fell during that time, along with Hong Kong, British Malaysia (including the great naval base at Singapore), and the Dutch East Indies. The Philippine affair was particularly painful to Americans as their beleaguered forces made their brave but futile stands in Bataan and on Corregidor. The defenders suffered from disease and near starvation, and there was no way to reach them with relief. The fall of Singapore was perhaps an even more painful experience for the British. That bastion of empire and symbol of British power had been considered virtually impregnable, yet it had surrendered to a numerically inferior enemy after a very short siege. The British Empire was shaken to its core. It seemed that the Japanese could not be stopped.
With their impressive display of military might and acumen, the Japanese achieved revenge on those foolish and arrogant Caucasians who thought of Asians as an inferior human species. While exacting their vengeance, Japanese soldiers frequently engaged in acts of brutality seldom exceeded in the long and lamentable history of man’s cruelty to man. Furthermore, these quick conquests bred a feeling of overconfidence, or what the Japanese later referred to as “victory disease.” The antidote was on its way.
In early June 1942, heroic American naval aviators achieved their first great victory over the Japanese in what later became known as the “Miracle of Midway”. In April, Japanese pride had been pricked by an air raid on Tokyo and other Japanese cities. The raid did little damage but was psychologically devastating. The attack had been carried out by bombers launched from the deck of an American carrier; therefore, Japanese military leaders determined that they must eliminate the few remaining American carriers in the Pacific. To achieve this goal, the Japanese naval command devised an elaborate plan calculated to lure the American fleet out to certain destruction. The bait was to be placed by an attack on the Midway Islands, a small atoll located approximately 1300 miles northwest of Hawaii. The Japanese thought that the Americans would respond by sending their fleet from Pearl Harbor to succor the island defenders, thus falling into the Japanese trap. Unknown to the Japanese, however, American cryptanalysts had achieved a degree of success in cracking Japanese naval codes, and Pacific Fleet Headquarters in Hawaii was alerted to the planned Midway operation. When the Japanese fleet arrived off Midway, American forces were positioned to surprise them.
Though the Americans had the advantage of surprise, the odds were against them. Almost the entire Japanese fleet was involved in the Midway operation, and four of their large carriers were positioned for battle. The American fleet was much smaller, and only three fleet carriers were available, one of which, the Yorktown, had been severely damaged in an earlier encounter in the Coral Sea. This carrier had been desperately patched up and sent to sea to make the odds a bit more even. The Japanese naval aviators were experienced pilots with months or even years of combat experience, whereas most Americans had never flown in combat before. The Japanese also had superior fighter planes and torpedo planes, and their torpedoes were far better than American torpedoes, especially in terms of reliability. The Americans had some advantages in dive bomber design and tactics, and they had more highly developed damage control procedures.
The Japanese fleet approaching Midway on June 4, 1942, brushed off initial American attacks with ease. High altitude B-17 and other bombing attacks from the island failed to do any damage. The obsolescent torpedo planes from the three American carriers then arrived and were literally blasted from the sky. One squadron suffered a 100% loss of planes with only one pilot survivor. The two other torpedo squadrons also experienced appalling losses. Despite the skill and magnificent bravery of these men, the American torpedo planes did not hit a single Japanese warship. At this precise moment the tide of battle turned. Two squadrons of American dive bombers arrived on the scene, and within minutes three of the four Japanese carriers were turned into blazing hulks. The planes from these carriers and most of their pilots were also lost. Before the day ended the fourth Japanese carrier was destroyed. The Japanese fleet had suffered a blow from which it would never fully recover. The oft-damaged carrier Yorktown was subsequently sunk by a Japanese submarine. This was only American capital ship lost during this amazing and courageous triumph over adversity.
Meanwhile, in other areas of the world, the fighting raged on. As the Russian winter moderated in the spring of 1942, the Germans renewed their offensives. The major thrust was now to the southeast. The German Army pushed the Soviets to the utmost in the Caucasus campaign, driving hundreds of miles toward the Russian oil fields and inflicting severe losses on the Red army. It took a combination of Slav fortitude and another Russian winter to bring a halt to German forces at the Volga.
While the Soviets were in their life or death struggle, during all of 1942 and much of 1943 German submarines sank ships at an alarming rate in the Atlantic. The supply lines to Britain and Russia were threatened. Things gradually began to turn around in late 1943 as the British and Americans improved the convoy system, built more escorts (including small aircraft carriers), and exploited German naval communications. The breaking of the German Enigma ciphers was a brilliant accomplishment achieved primarily by British mathematicians and cryptanalysts. The Germans had such confidence in their Enigma encipherment machine that they refused to believe that their secret messages could ever be read, and they continued to use Enigma throughout the war. British success in exploiting Enigma helped win the Battle of the Atlantic and contributed in other ways to final victory for the Allies. On the other side of the world, American cryptanalysts had similar successes in reading Japanese diplomatic and military codes and ciphers.
In North Africa the German, Italians and British, with some Free French involvement, fought back and forth across the sands of Libya. Rommel was a brilliant strategist and tactician, and time after time he outwitted and outfought the British generals sent to oppose him. In June 1942, he captured Tobruk, Libya, and then drove deep into Egypt. With proper reinforcement and resupply, Alexandria and Cairo were within reach. But the German high command was fully occupied with the Caucasus campaign, and Rommel did not receive the needed support.
The turning of the tide came in late 1942 and early 1943. In August 1942, the Solomon’s campaign began with the American invasion of Guadalcanal. In early September, the Germans reached the outskirts of Stalingrad, but they would go no further. In October, the British initiated the Second Battle of El Alamein with an overwhelming attack on Rommel’s positions, and in early November a largely American force invaded French North Africa. Within months the Japanese had experienced total defeat in the Solomons, a major German army had been surrounded and destroyed at Stalingrad, and the Germans and Italians had lost the North African campaign along with another large army.
None of these victories came easily. Guadalcanal was a horror for the young American marines who were landed on the island right out of boot camp. The stinking, fetid jungle, the cruel and tenacious Japanese foe, and the frequent enemy air raids and naval shelling were enough to drive a normal man to the edge of insanity. But the marines endured and finally triumphed. Stalingrad was an exceedingly bitter battle that left its mark on the souls of all the soldiers involved. More than a million and a half men were killed or wounded there, and relatively few of the tens of thousands of captured German, Italian, Romanian, and Hungarian soldiers returned to their homes after the war. It is assumed that most of them left their bones in some miserable Soviet prison camp. The North African campaign was the first real baptism of fire for the new United States Army, and it was a sobering experience. Americans landed in French North Africa on November 8, 1942, and the following February saw their first contact with soldiers of the famed Afrika Korps. Those veteran German troops gave Americans a nasty reception at the Kasserine Pass, and untried American soldiers came off second best in the initial encounters. A few commanders also failed the test. But there is no school like the school of combat, and soldiers and officers learned fast. Capable leaders like Eisenhower, Bradley, and Patton proved themselves, and some American units became battle hardened. The veteran British Army, victorious at El Alamein, linked with the Americans, and in May 1943 the Allies defeated and captured a large German-Italian army in Tunisia. That was the effective end of the war in North Africa. As these momentous events were unfolding, Winston Churchill described the situation in his own inimitable words, “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
In July 1943, American and British forces invaded Sicily. Then in September came the landings in Italy and the slow, bloody advance up the Italian boot. Churchill had once referred to this as “the soft underbelly of Europe.” An American commander would later remark that “it was actually a tough old gut.” Progress though the Italian mountains was agonizingly slow, and Allied troops did not take Rome until the following July. German troops were still holding out in northern Italy when the war ended.
On June 6, 1944, the Allies finally made their cross-channel attack on the French Normandy coast. Again, progress was very slow. The Germans battled tenaciously, using every combat skill they had learned in five years of fighting. The hedgerows of Normandy contributed to the difficulties, but the Allies gradually built up their strength and worked to break out of the beachhead. In the east, the Soviet troops were battering their way through eastern Europe toward the German heartland.
At the same time, from their British and Italian bases, Allied aircraft struck Occupied Europe and Germany with ever increasing strength. Early in the war the British had learned that daylight bombing of Germany led to unacceptable losses of men and aircraft. Afterwards they confined themselves to nighttime bombing raids, usually area bombing of German cities. There was very little precision about it. Fire and destruction rained on German cities in an increasing crescendo of violence until the very end of the war, and German civilian casualties mounted into the hundreds of thousands. If Germans had sown the wind by bombing British cities in 1940, they were now reaping the whirlwind.
When American airmen entered the European air war in 1942, they were fixated on daylight precision bombing of strategic targets. Unfortunately, they soon discovered that bomber raids deep into Germany without fighter escort led to an alarming loss of planes. A long and difficult air war ensued, and it was only with the development of long range fighter escorts that the American bombing campaign reached its full potential. From that point on, the attacks were interminable, the Americans by day and the British by night, and every sizable German city suffered massive destruction and heavy casualties. German industrial and transport facilities were also hit hard; nevertheless, the Germans maintained a certain level of weapons production to the very end. Conquest by ground troops was the only way to end the madness.
The air war over Europe was very costly to aircraft and men. More than 50,000 British airmen died, and an equal number of Americans went down in flames. The heroism of these aviators is difficult to overstate. Death rode the wings of every flight. Bravery, of course, knows no nationality. Russian air losses were perhaps even greater than those of the British and Americans. As for the Germans, very few of those bright eyed young Luftwaffe pilots who flew off to war in 1939 survived the conflict.
All during the war Allied and Axis scientists worked on new techniques or devices to protect their own homelands while inflicting death and destruction on the enemy. Churchill referred to this as the “Wizard War”. The British initially surged ahead in the development of radar and sonar. Later they also developed the “dam buster” bomb. Although several nations had produced early jet aircraft models, the Germans were first to deploy an operational jet fighter; but it came too late to affect the air war in Europe. They made similar progress in submarine design (e.g., the snorkel), but again it was too late. The Germans also employed flying bombs (the V-1) and rockets (the V-2). The V-2 rocket was an amazing scientific achievement, but the V-1 and V-2 were essentially terror weapons and had little strategic impact. Of course, the greatest scientific effort of all related to the development of nuclear weapons. The British and the Americans were very fearful of German efforts along these lines, but the Germans expended most of their scientific expertise on other weaponry.
With the Allied breakout from Normandy in August 1944 and a landing in the south of France by American and French troops, the finish in Europe was almost in sight; but near year’s end the Germans made one last desperate attempt to defeat the western Allies by attacking through the Ardennes. The aim was to drive a wedge between the American and British armies and perhaps force them to consider a negotiated peace. This campaign became known as the Battle of the Bulge. Interestingly, this is the same area in which the German panzers surprised the French in 1940. In December 1944, just as in May 1940, the Germans struck with a massive blow in a lightly defended area where an attack was least expected. This time, however, the German Army no longer had the reserve strength to exploit its initial success. By early January the Germans had been thrown back to their original lines, and their military strength was now thoroughly depleted.
In early 1945, the Allies resumed their offensive in the west while the Soviets attacked from the east. As concentration camps were overrun, people began to comprehend the true horror of the Nazi effort to eliminate Jews and other “undesirables”. The world learned that Hitler and his henchmen, in a cold-blooded program of unimaginable cruelty, had executed millions of Jews in Auschwitz and other death camps.
On April 25, 1945, American and Soviet troops linked at Germany’s Elbe River. Meanwhile, the Russians were fighting their way deeper into the city of Berlin. On April 30th Hitler committed suicide, and on May 7th Germany finally surrendered. The long European nightmare, costing tens of millions of lives and untold misery, had finally come to a close.
Japan was still holding on in the Pacific, but the end was near. American war production reached its full potential by early 1944. The United States had built new aircraft carriers, battleships, and craft of every type, and the Japanese navy could no longer face the Americans with any prospect of success. American airplanes filled the Pacific skies, and American submariners gradually destroyed the Japanese merchant fleet, starving the enemy of vital war supplies. Forward bases were seized within flying distance of the Japanese homeland, and fleets of American bombers began to strike Japanese cities from air bases on Guam and Tinian and other islands. Fire and fury rained down on Japanese cities with little concern for civilian casualties, and they died in the hundreds of thousands. As Allied forces moved ever closer to the Japanese homeland, the enemy launched desperate, suicidal air attacks. In the island fighting on Iwo Jima, Okinawa and elsewhere, Japanese soldiers and airmen proved themselves ready to fight to the last man, and American casualties were high. Military planners contemplating the coming invasion of the main Japanese islands anticipated Allied losses ranging from a half-million to a million men, and there was no definite sign that the Japanese were ready to give up the fight.
It was in these circumstances that President Truman approved the use of the atomic bomb. It had been developed in secret, and the attack on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, was a total shock to the American people as well as to the rest of the world. On August 8 the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and Russian troops surged into Manchuria. On the following day the second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. On August 15 Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender.
World War II was finally over. Much of Europe and Asia lay in ruins, and sixty million people lay dead in the carnage of the most destructive war in human history. Displaced persons wandered the streets of Europe. Parents looked for their children, and children looked for their parents – usually to no avail. The pall of sorrow was everywhere, and the world cried out for peace. But was lasting peace finally within our grasp? Had mankind really learned anything? Were we finally cured of war madness?
Less than five years after the end of World War II, American troops were fighting in Korea. Then came Vietnam and the wars with Iraq. More recently, the United States has been engaged in the seemingly endless conflict with militant Islam. I do not blame America for these wars. None of them was started by the United States for the purpose of conquest. Rather, each began to prevent the spread of Communism or militant Islam or to deter development of a deadly threat to the American homeland. Perhaps some of the wars should not have been fought, but our intentions were honorable.
I am not a pacifist. War is sometimes necessary to defend the homeland – our homes, our wives, and our children. There is genuine evil in this world, and if we did not resist there would be no end to the horrors inflicted upon us. Quakers and others sometimes cite the Biblical admonition “Do not kill,” but a more accurate translation of the Hebrew phrase would be “Do not murder,” or “Do not shed innocent blood.” War is sometimes necessary. But, though not a pacifist, I oppose the glorification of war. We should be honest about it. War is altogether a bloody, dirty business, and there is nothing glorious about it except for the fact that many brave men and women are willing to hazard their lives for the sake of others.
The war fever that possessed many of the advanced nations of Europe during the early 20th Century seems to have dissipated, but it appears that the combative fire still burns in the hearts of many young men everywhere. Why are young men in every age and nation so often attracted by thoughts of conflict and war? Why do they feel a need to prove themselves in some life and death endeavor against other men? Consider the candle moth. We all know how the moth is attracted to the flame and how it will come closer and closer until the heat kills. Man is like a candle moth when it comes to war and battle. From a distance, a battle is glorious and exciting. When you come closer, it will destroy you. A battle is blood and mud and sweat and dirt and terror and pain and exhaustion and death. The camaraderie of shared service may be celebrated, and it is surely noble and brave to give one’s life in battle to protect home and hearth, but there is nothing glorious about it.
Yet, we are prone to glorify war. Some years ago, I and my family visited the city of Philadelphia. After a tour of Independence Hall and some other historical sites, weboarded the USS Olympia, Admiral Dewey’s flagship in 1898 when he defeated the Spanish fleet at Manila Bay. Truthfully, it was not much of a battle. The Spanish were ill prepared and offered feeble resistance. For the American public of 1898, however, it was a whiff of military glory, and journalists made the most of it. Prominently displayed on the Olympia are Dewey’s unforgettable words with which he opened the battle. “You may fire when ready, Gridley.” (Gridley was the captain of the Olympia). Dewey’s words have been entered into the pantheon of famous American military utterances along with “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes,” “Don’t give up the ship,” and “Nuts.” Actually, I rather like the last one. It is an eloquent comment on the nature of war in general.
It is also interesting to reflect on how often we tend to denigrate the valor of fighters from other lands and try to make all our own people into peerless warriors. That is foolishness. We can say many bad things about those who would destroy us, but we should not call them cowards simply because they fail to adhere to what we consider the “rules of war.” Where were the rules when the Japanese raped Nanking in 1937, the Germans bombed London and Coventry in 1940, or the Allies devastated Hamburg and Dresden in 1943 and 1945? Any nation or tribe is capable of producing both heroes and cowards, and even civilized men are inclined to drop the rules when it might mean the difference between victory or defeat.
Apparently, the Germans and the Japanese developed their own rules. The Nazis controlled occupied territories with an iron fist. If a resistance fighter was foolish enough to murder a German soldier or Nazi official in or near a town, it was likely that citizens of that town would be marched out en masse, men, women, and children, and slaughtered without mercy. The Germans were particularly brutal to the Slavs, whom they seemed to consider subhuman. Russian civilian casualties were in the millions. Whereas German atrocities appear to have been more organized, on an individual level the Japanese soldiers were more vicious. Horrors were perpetrated in China, the Philippines, and Malaysia that beggar description. And woe be to that Allied soldier so unfortunate as to fall into the hands of Japanese captors.
American and British soldiers were comparatively restrained. There were few reports of acts of savagery against civilians as the Allies moved into enemy territory, and, with rare exceptions, enemy prisoners were treated humanely. In the heat of combat, of course, things were different. Paraphrasing an old Welsh fighting song, in battle’s strife “mercy shrieks to heaven.” Both sides were guilty of battlefield atrocities. It is sad to consider how in war’s fury the veneer of civilization is so often stripped away to reveal the beast that lies within some men’s hearts.
As for the Russians, as they moved into eastern Germany they unleashed a torrent of vengeful horror reminiscent of the depredations of Genghis Khan. Rape, rapine, and murder were inflicted on the civilian population on a horrendous scale. As for the military, as resistance collapsed desperate German soldiers tried to flee from the east to the west, preferring to be captured by the Americans or British, but for most of them it was too late.
Be they civilized, primitive, educated or ignorant, never denigrate or underestimate an enemy. Any man is capable of acts of evil and can do you harm. And remember that war is a slippery, treacherous, and sanguinary business. Expect the unexpected. Every nation is capable of producing brave men willing to die for their country. In waging war, however, there is no substitute for leadership, strategy, tactics, weapons, and morale. When these elements are combined in the right proportions it creates a fearsome force. In this light, it is interesting to review the performance of the major national participants in World War II.
The German army of the Third Reich had all the elements needed for success. Some of its top commanders were brilliant strategists. Its officers and non-coms were steeped in the art of war and hardened in battle, and young German soldiers were inspired to perform sometimes incredible feats of valor for the Fatherland. Furthermore, tactical sophistication and speed of movement were far superior to those of their opponents, and Germany had developed an awesome arsenal of weapons. As the war went on, the disparity between the fighting abilities of the various armies decreased, but it was never entirely erased. The Germans retained an edge in tactical skill almost to the end of hostilities. As for the air war, the Luftwaffe was far larger than any other air force at the beginning of the war, and it was highly effective in the campaigns in Poland, France, and the Soviet Union. Gradually, however, the German air arm lost its superiority both in numbers and quality of aircraft. The German navy, though relatively small in numbers, also performed well, and the German U-boat was a truly formidable weapon in the hands of a skilled and dedicated crew. By 1944, however, the tide had turned. When the European war ended in May 1945, three out of every four German submariners had gone to a watery grave.
The Japanese had an experienced and hard fighting army, and their soldiers were fearless in battle. The Allied forces that first faced them in southeast Asia usually consisted of a mixture of a few regulars along with colonial and native troops with little or no combat experience. The result was rapid defeat and retreat. The Japanese navy was also an excellent and disciplined force, and it performed extremely well in the early battles, as did Japanese airmen. Following this period of initial success, the tide turned quickly. Japanese strategic plans were often overly ambitious and excessively complicated, and their tactics were unimaginative and predictable. The Japanese army, navy and air force gradually succumbed to Allied numerical and technological superiority.
The Italian army of World War II was a mystery. It performed poorly in early contests against the French, the British, and the Greeks; yet some Italian units fought well alongside Rommel in Africa and in support of the Germans at Stalingrad and in other campaigns. Despite Mussolini’s grandiose visions, the Italian people appeared to have had no passion for the war, and this was especially true once the United States entered the conflict. The Italian air force and navy were mostly ineffective against the better led and trained British and Americans.
The Soviet army was large and powerful, and, following the initial disasters of 1941, it grew in strength as the war went on. Its soldiers were tough fighters, and they could survive an incredible amount of punishment. The Russian never matched the Germans in tactical abilities, but Russian tanks and other weapons were actually superior to those of their enemy late in the war. The Soviet air force also became much more powerful as the war went on.
The British army always fought well, and some units were truly outstanding. Unfortunately, British field leaders often appeared to lack the brilliance of their German opponents, and their battlefield performance was seldom spectacular. The Royal Navy entered the war as the world’s strongest fleet, but it lost supremacy to its American allies by 1944. The Royal Air Force functioned splendidly throughout the war but never exceeded its glorious achievements during the Battle of Britain.
American military forces performed with great distinction during the war. The United States Army started with almost nothing. By war’s end some American elite units, such as the marine and airborne divisions, were on a par with anything the enemy could field. The regular American army, composed principally of conscripts, acquitted itself with honor. The average soldier probably looked upon the war as an ugly business that simply must be dealt with for him to return to home and loved ones. He had no great hatred of the enemy, and he was not anxious to win a medal. Survival was uppermost in his mind. The first clashes with experienced German or Japanese troops was a soul-shattering experience. Nevertheless, once the initial shock wore off, he learned to fight back and to win. The American soldier learned quickly. As for the American navy, it was very strong when the war began, and three years later it had been transformed into the greatest armada the world has ever seen. The American air arm, naval and land based, also evolved into a force of almost unimaginable power.
The French army has been described in previous paragraphs. Its performance in World War II is usually thought of as being miserable; and even today, based on that World War II record, the French military is sometimes subjected to scurrilous attacks about its quality and bravery. The attacks are undeserved. The disaster of 1940 was brought about by an unfortunate coincidence of incredibly poor planning and inept leadership on the French side and a brilliant strategic stroke by the Germans. A fine army was destroyed. In 1942, after the Battle of Bir Hakeim, Adolf Hitler was reported to have said, “After us, the French are the best soldiers in Europe.” As for the French navy and air force, their World War II contributions were relatively insignificant.
It is also interesting to consider the part that grand strategy played in the final Allied victory and Axis defeat. The amazing degree of cooperation between the Americans and British was key. There were frictions, of course, but the top commanders kept their eyes on the ultimate goal, and they did not allow the swollen egos of military men like MacArthur, Patton and Montgomery destroy the alliance. Strategic planning between the western Allies was virtually seamless, and there was some degree of wary consultation and cooperation with the Soviets. On the other side, the Axis powers did almost nothing in the way of cooperative strategic planning. Germany and Japan each pursued its own particular aims with very little consideration of the other’s. Japan never helped Germany in the war with Russia, and in 1942, when a thrust into the Red Sea might have helped Rommel in Egypt, the Japanese turned east toward Midway. The Germans appeared to be equally unconcerned about Japan’s military needs. The Allies were the beneficiaries of this Axis failure.
Looking back on more than a century of warfare, the bloodiest century in the long history of mankind, it is well to question man’s sanity. How can we have allowed these things to happen? Is there any hope?
On September 2, 1945, as General Douglas MacArthur stood on the deck of the USS Missouri to sign the peace terms with Japan, he expressed the following sentiment:
“It is my earnest hope and indeed the hope of all mankind that from this solemn occasion a better world shall emerge out of the blood and carnage of the past—a world founded upon faith and understanding—a world dedicated to the dignity of man and the fulfillment of his most cherished wish—for freedom, tolerance and justice
He also offered his own analysis of man’s problem in achieving lasting peace
“Military alliances, balances of power, leagues of nations, all in turn failed, leaving the only path to be by way of the crucible of war. We have had our last chance. If we do not now devise some greater and more equitable system, Armageddon will be at our door. The problem basically is theological and involves a spiritual recrudescence and improvement of human character that will synchronize with our almost matchless advances in science, art, literature and all material and cultural developments of the past two thousand years. It must be of the spirit if we are to save the flesh.
MacArthur was an eloquent speaker, but he often employed overly elaborate phraseology. Instead of using the term “spiritual recrudescence”, a Christian evangelical speaker might have expressed the same thought by saying, “We must be born again,” or “Only by being filled with the Holy Spirit will men be able to truly love one another.”
Have we achieved the spiritual recrudescence of which MacArthur spoke? Sadly, the answer is no. Too many people in this world reject the concept of the “Brotherhood of Man” and are driven by feelings of envy or hatred directed towards those persons of another nation, race or religion. The United States of America is a particular object of that hatred. Those people would destroy us if they could. Therefore, we must maintain an effective military force to deter them.
I believe that the American military of today compares favorably with elite military forces of the past. I pray that this is so. In these perilous times we need a strong and vigilant force to defend us from those who wish our destruction. It is especially critical that we maintain our advantage in weapons technology and tactics to hold our enemies at bay. I thank the Lord that our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines stand ready to defend us. May God protect them and help them keep the peace.
Who knows how it will all end? There are still madmen in the world willing to plunge all of us into an abyss of destruction for the sake of some twisted ideology or to satisfy some insane thirst for personal power. The threat of instant retaliation might not deter them. Nuclear devices or other weapons of mass destruction in the hands of such men could mean death and devastation on an unprecedented scale. Could civilization survive such an event?
May God protect us.
And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. Isaiah 2:4