The USSR and Allied Victory in WW II
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The USSR and Allied Victory in WW II

After a war the winners start to argue about credit, whether the Athenians and the Spartans arguing about who saved Hellas from the Mede, or the Allies arguing about who did more to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. And while these debates are nominally about the past, the different positions tend to correspond to different views about who should be honoured and respected in the present. Within Athens there was a debate about the contribution of leisured hoplites and working-class rowers at the same time that advocates of a narrow democracy and a wide democracy were fighting. After the collapse of the USSR, the Soviet contribution became better acknowledged in the North Atlantic world (although Soviet failures which had been covered up were also uncovered after the archives opened and the censors had to get real jobs). In the past ten years, a new view has emerged which argues that the US, UK, Germany, and Japan all put a majority of their manufacturing capacity into air forces and gave ground forces second or third priority. To them:

The Germans lost more infantry on the Eastern Front, but they lost far, far more of their equipment (and best trained forces) fighting the British and Americans. This is because the German Army as I have pointed out, received relatively little German production compared to the Air Force/Navy. Basically, because the Germans could afford to send so little equipment to the Eastern Front, they tried to get by using unsupported soldiers. Actually, the ‘vast bulk’ of German losses were caused fighting the western Allies, and its not close.

Phillips P. O’Brien

Since my readers are human beings, I hope they can see the one fundamental problem with this argument!

You can argue about the relative importance of different factors in the outcome of the war. But nobody has found a way to win a total war without breaking the enemy’s army on the ground. And by the second half of World War II, nobody had a way to do that without suffering many dead and wounded. In our history, most of those dead and wounded on the Allied side were Soviet. Whether an infantryman was Canadian or Kazakh (and whether the state had given him years of training and a Bren carrier, or six months of training and an old rifle) he still had friends and family and lives he hoped to get back to when he stopped a shell splinter or got frostbite.

Tanks and aircraft and locomotives and supply trucks don’t have friends and family to mourn them. People do. Even if you assume that the Western Allies could somehow have fought their way back into Europe in the face of most of the Germany army, millions more of them would have been killed or wounded doing it. Millions of Americans, Brits, and Canadians got to sleep in their own warm beds outside a factory or a farm, not in a barracks or a bunker under strange skies, because Soviets were doing the dying so they could concentrate on production. The US scaled its plans for 300 divisions of soldiers back to 90 divisions of soldiers as it became clear that the USSR would continue to resist.

Ever since the 1920s, dreamers have promised that they could win a war with airpower alone. That failed in World War II, it failed in Korea, it failed in Vietnam, it failed in 1991 and 2003. Nobody who ever fought the old German army, even when it had no air cover, wanted to do it again. We don’t know what would have happened if the USSR and Germany had remained allies and the Allies had won air superiority and developed the atomic bomb. Its possible that they could have bombed the European Axis into surrendering (by burning a lot of woman and children and old men alive, crushing them in fallen buildings, or suffocating them in air-raid shelters) but most of the time to defeat a big and competent army you need a big and competent army. In our history, most of that army (and most of the suffering) was Soviet. Far more Soviet citizens died than had to die because Stalin, and the war might not even have happened when it did without the Nazi-Soviet pact. But on behalf of my grandparents I am still grateful to those ordinary people in the USSR. And I wish Dr. O’Brien would use language which reflects this human reality even if its politically inconvenient or not useful for an academic argument about what makes military power.

Further Reading:

I think the academic version of O’Brien’s theory is in his book How the War Was Won: Air-Sea Power and Allied Victory in World War II (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2015)

I recommend Catherine Merridale’s oral history Ivan’s War (Biblio) on the experience of some of those ‘primitive’ Soviet soldiers who “could not operate true modern complex operations” (but they did not get to choose that Stalin allied with his worst enemy, shot or imprisoned most of their senior commanders, then lost half the army and whole industrial sectors when that worst enemy betrayed Stalin – they had to do what they could in the circumstances they found themselves in)

You can learn about one the life and death of one of those low-value conscripts never sent into combat with precious equipment here

PS 2023-01-07: I wonder if O’Brien’s calculations include labour. Germany had a chronic labour shortage because so many men were in the Heer (and because the Third Reich was on the gold standard – don’t ask), and they had to stay in the army because the Eastern Front was really big. Without the Eastern Front, a lot of men would have been available to build antiaircraft guns and radar sets and U-boats. Just because you don’t have to pay conscripts a competitive wage does not mean that taking them out of the civilian economy is costless.

(scheduled 6 January 2022)

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