Turning Point

Over the years, I’ve heard and participated in many discussions about when, exactly, Germany “lost” the war.  It seems like everyone has an opinion on that moment in time when the fortunes of war turned against Germany, with every minute before that moment leading to victory and every minute after leading to defeat.  Stalingrad, Alamein, Kursk, and Normandy all have mentions as that “moment” where the tables turned.  I don’t think it is that easy.  My opinion is that there were several moments that served to doom Germany’s chances in the war–some of them very early.  Here is my take.

July 19, 1940:  In a speech to the Reichstag, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler offered peace to Great Britain.  At that time, Germany occupied half of Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Luxembourg, The Netherlands and large parts of France.  The only remaining intact power with which Germany was at war was Great Britain.  Hitler’s offer, much like an earlier offer in October 1939, was half-hearted at best.  Indeed, at the time of his first offer, he was already planning to invade France, and at the time of his July 1940 speech, he had already determined to attack the Soviet Union.  German forces, following the fall of France, seemed invincible, and large quantities of British weapons lay abandoned after the evacuation from Dunkerque.  Yet Hitler’s “offers” were meant more for German public consumption than they were serious efforts towards peace.

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German Troops crossing the Polish Border – September 1, 1939

It is unlikely that Great Britain would have agreed to any peace terms with Germany following the fall of France–especially as long as Winston Churchill was alive and influential.  Yet, there were those in Britain who believed that Germany was ascendant and with some support and encouragement, peace in the Summer of 1940 might not have been completely impossible.    Yet, Hitler believed he could defeat Britain and then turn his forces east.  Hitler’s speech cracked the door, very slightly, for a peace that would have left Germany the most powerful nation in Europe.  Instead of seeking to pursue peace, however, Hitler returned his attention to continuing the war and lost a chance to conclude the war favorably.

June 22, 1941:  Having conquered Yugoslavia and Greece, successfully occupied Crete, and with a small armored force assisting the Italians operating in Africa,  Germany faced few immediate perils.  The Luftwaffe had failed in its efforts to destroy the Royal Air Force, but the British bombing campaign was in its infancy and German cities and infrastructure were mostly intact.  On the morning of June 22, 1941, however, German forces attacked the Soviet Union along a broad front.  An overconfident Hitler stated, “All we have to do is kick in the door, and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.”  Expecting a short war, the Wehrmacht was not prepared for sustained fighting against seeming endless supplies of Soviet soldiers.  For almost four years, the brutal combat that followed on the

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German Troops in the Soviet Union – 1941

Eastern Front sucked up manpower and resources that Germany simply could not afford to lose.  As the air war intensified in the west, and as Germany’s military fortunes turned sour in Africa, Italy, and Western Europe, the Eastern Front constantly demanded more men, more material, and more resources.  Hitler had long coveted the vast territories of Russia and the Ukraine.  It is doubtful that there was any person alive who would have been able to convince him to avoid war with the Soviet Union.  Had he done so, the war in the west would have been more manageable, and war fatigue might still have brought Britain to the table for peace talks.

December 10, 1941:  With German forces deep in Soviet territory, and with little threat of invasion in the west, Hitler had good reason to believe that the winds were still blowing in favor of the Axis.  The surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor spurred him to declare war on the United States.  War with the United States assured Germany’s eventual defeat.  The combined industrial capacity of the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union dwarfed production of Germany, Italy, and Japan.  The Untied States churned out weapons at a rate that German strategists could not contemplate.  The coming year–1942–would begin with more victories for Germany.  German forces occupied Tobruk, Sevastopol, and broad territories in the Ukraine, the Caucasus, and the Don River basin.  But by the end of the year, the industrial capacity of the Allied nations began to show.

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German Chancellor Adolf Hitler addresses the Reichstag, December 10, 1941

Men and materials stopped Axis advances at Stalingrad and Alamein.  British, French, and U.S. forces landed in Algeria and Morocco.  German territorial expansion had been halted.  For the next two and a half years, Allied forces grew stronger while Axis forces weakened.  German technology and industry continued to produce outstanding weapons, but there were never enough of them, and the men required to man them did so with less and less training.  By the end of 1944, Allied forces stood on the borders of Germany itself.  The final major German attempt to end the war on favorable terms was an attack through the Ardennes.  It failed.

Truly, the best way to not lose a war is to not start a war.  The German High Command recognized that a short war offered the best chance for a lasting victory.  The Wehrmacht won a series of these short wars in Poland, and then in France, Denmark, Norway, and the Low Countries.  Yet, with his attack on the Soviet Union and shortly thereafter his declaration on the United States, Hitler ensured Germany would no longer fight short wars.  Instead, the nation would fight continuously for almost four years, during which time Allied bombing campaigns, massive Soviet offensives, and Allied invasions laid waste to the German nation and ensured complete Axis defeat.

 

Italian Armor – M11/39

Last week, I saw an interesting post on Instagram with a picture of an Italian M11/39 tank.  That made me think that the subject of Italian tankers in World War II might be a good subject to spend some time with.  I will not get too far into the technical data of Italian armor.  If you are reading this, you already know that the quality of Italian tanks left a lot to be desired.  Still, I would like to get the ball rolling on a discussion of Italian armor and the men who took them into battle.

For as long as I have been studying World War II, I’ve admired the Italian tankers.  Imagine going to war with equipment that you knew to be inferior to almost anything that the enemy could field.  Such was the lot of the Italian tanker.  The M11/39 is a very good example of substandard armor design.  While most advanced nations were building tanks with main guns in turrets (one exception being the French Char B1–

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M11/39  For the Record

which mounted a 47mm gun in a turret and a 75mm howitzer in the hull), the M11/39 mounted its main gun in the forward hull.  This limited its traverse, and required aiming the whole tank at potential targets.  The M11/39 turret, mounting two 8mm machine guns, provided minimal defense against infantry, and next to no attack value when facing enemy armor.  Armor protection on the M11/39 was relatively light at 10 to 30 mm.  Such armor might be useful against some of the 20mm weapons employed early in the war, but would not hold up against the 37mm and larger guns being mounted on most contemporary tanks.  Compounding the weaknesses in fighting capacity were the facts that the tank was slow–topping out at 20 miles per hour–and subject to mechanical breakdowns, particularly in the harsh desert conditions in which it was principally deployed.  Nevertheless, the Italian army fielded 100 of these vehicles.  Most of the M11/39s fielded during served in the North African campaigns of 1940-1941.  Almost all of them served in the Gruppo Maletti, organized in two medium tank battalions.  The Italian offensive of September 1940 saw the M11/39s meet with mishap after mishap.  After initially getting lost trying to move to their jumping off positions, Gruppo m11-39-09Maletti then found itself hampered by supply and organization problems more than the enemy.  By the time the offensive stalled at Sidi Barrani, roughly 50 miles inside Egypt, M11/39s were breaking down and straggling to keep with the main body.  So far, however, there were few casualties due to enemy action.  That would change when, on December 9, Commonwealth forces counterattacked.  Attacked by the superior British tanks, the M11/39s did not fare well, with large numbers of them being destroyed or captured.  The tank simply did not hold up against the British 2-pounder guns that were carried on the cruisers and Matildas.  The Italian’s 37mm main gun also fared poorly against the thicker armor of the British tanks.  Only against the Vickers Mk. VI did the M11/39 have any success.

Unfortunately for Italian tank crews, serving in an M11/39 did not offer very good chances for longevity.  Contemporary enemy anti-tank weapons easily pierced the tank’s armor, and even small arms fire could cause crew casualties if a bolt or rivet were img_0047hit.  Crews courageous enough to climb into equipment like this deserve respect–something not often given to Italian soldiers in World War II.  Unfortunately, Italian tankers could not count on newer designs to level the playing field, as the successors M13/40 and M14/41 were obsolete before they ever fired a shot.