The Blog


12:00 AM, Aug 5, 1996 • By AARON FRIEDBERG
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To begin with, as Overy points out, the critical, early successes that helped stem the tide of Axis advance were achieved without benefit of overwhelming material advantage. The stunning American victory at Midway in June 1942 was won by a numerically inferior force, but one blessed with superb signals intelligence, more than a little good fortune, and twenty years of preparation for precisely the kind of battle that it was called upon eventually to fight. Victory in the Battle of the Atlantic came quite suddenly, in the first half of 1943. It was due not to a cumulative attrition of German submarines by vastly superior Allied navies but to the successful Anglo-American integration, after many months of experimentation and bitter experience, of cryptography, high-frequency airborne radars, small numbers of extended range aircraft, and aggressive tactics for hunting and killing enemy U-boats. The Nazi forces encircled and destroyed at Stalingrad at the end of 1942 were not markedly inferior in size to their Soviet counterparts, but they faced an opponent fighting on his own soil, with a hard-won mastery of the arts of deception, growing skill at combining massive air and ground forces, and a willingness to accept virtually unlimited casualties in the defense of the motherland. Even late in the war, aggregate Allied numerical superiority was not sufficient, by itself, to ensure victory. If the Germans had known in advance where the blow would fall, or if they had been willing, early on, to concentrate their forces in a massive counterattack, the June 1944 invasion of France could easily have ended in catastrophe.

While the Allies may have possessed more raw, industrial resources at the outset of the war, there was no guarantee that they would be able to mobilize them effectively. This was a particular problem for the Soviet Union, which in the wake of the Nazi invasion lost as much as 40 percent of its electric generating capacity and two thirds of its coal and steel. It was only by dismantling hundreds of factories, loading machinery and workers hastily on trains, and shipping them east of the Urals that the Soviets were able to sustain even minimal levels of production. No statistical measure of prewar industrial output could have predicted the presence of the organizational skill, willpower, and sheer ruthlessness essential to the performance of such a feat.

Nor did superiority in materials assure an advantage in arms production. Although the Germans manufactured more steel and mined more coal in 1943, it was the Russians who were able to squeeze out much larger numbers of tanks and heavy guns. The reasons, according to Overy, include not only the increasingly disruptive effects of Allied strategic bombing, but the ability of the Soviets to mass-produce a relatively small assortment of simple but effective weapons. The Nazis, with their hopes of quick victory and a short war, were slow to gear up for a protracted all-out struggle, and as they did so, their mobilization effort reflected the chaotic, irrational character of their political system. In the end, the German economy "fell between two stools. It was not enough of a command economy to do what the Soviet system could do; yet it was not capitalist enough to rely, as America did, on the recruitment of private enterprise." Instead, German war production remained remarkably disorganized and subject to constant interference from the military, which persisted in pressing for development of a dizzying array of weapons, many so sophisticated as to be difficult and costly to manufacture and maintain.

Ultimate Allied victory depended not only on the individual productive efforts of the three main powers but on their ability to combine forces effectively to defeat the common foe. Cooperation was not a given, even between Britain and the United States (whose top officials had deep differences about how best to conduct the war), and certainly not between the democracies and their Soviet counterpart. Here Overy rightly gives the bulk of the credit to Franklin Roosevelt and Churchill, extraordinary wartime leaders who never lost sight of the need for the Allies to hang together if they were not to hang separately.

In a striking comparison of the Allied chiefs with their Nazi nemesis, Overy argues that by the later stages of the war, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin had adopted the same essential managerial style. While retaining enormous power in his own hands, each was ultimately willing to delegate a large part of the authority for the actual conduct of the war to a top staff of highly competent military and civilian officials. Critical tasks "were carried out by professionals whose experience and qualities singled them out for office. The Allied wartime administration was on balance surprisingly free of political stooges and dud appointments."