Sunday, July 8, 2012

Could the Allies have won the war without the United States?

Some readers of my earlier articles have asked me to consider discussing this, and I am feeling a bit light hearted, so here goes with a bit of what we Australians call 'shit-stirring'. (Ie: a post inviting furious, sometimes rabid, response... Enjoy)

The answer is yes.... and no.

Let me put it another way.

Would the Allies have won the war better if the Americans had been contributing as an 'arsenal of democracy' but NOT involved in the fighting?

Probably yes.

American industrial reserves and financial reserves were as important to the Allies winning WW2 as British industrial and financial reserves were to the earlier Allies winning WW1, and the Napoleonic Wars (in which by the way the US fought on Napoleon's side).

In fact in the Napoleonic war, as in WW1 and in WW2, the money and equipment delivered by Britain/the US was far more important than the numbers of their actual boots on the ground. (I am perhaps understating the importance of the British army in WW1, but realistically its input in ground troops during the Napoleonic wars were as negligible as American input to WW2 prior to 1945.) The vital impact of Britain in both the earlier wars was in equipping the millions of Prussians or Austrians or Russians or Italians or French or Serbs or whichever warm bodies were available. I would contend that the same goes for the US in WW2 (especially on the Eastern Front).

Let us consider a few negative impacts of the Americans joining the war.

1.    The battle of the Atlantic, well on the way to being won in 1941, was almost lost in 1942 and 1943. Up to three quarters of shipping lost during the war was because of the loss of the American 'safe zone' in the Western Atlantic - and particularly the second 'Happy Time' for the U-boats - the diversion of US Navy vessels to the Pacific, and the latter withdrawal of escort carriers to invade North Africa. A very, very good argument can be made that this alone caused many extra military losses for the Allies, and slowed their resurgence by.... well by the number of ship loads that would have got through without those horrendous losses. It is no joke to suggest that a still neutral US, guaranteeing the Western Atlantic, and putting all the resources needed for replacement shipping into tanks and aircraft and landing craft, would have greatly improved the fighting position of the many millions of under-resourced Allied troops fighting with inadequate supplies. Net effect on the length of the war... incalculable.

2.    The equipment lost to American entry had a terrible effect on Allied fighting resources for years. By this I literally mean that the Allies - particularly Britain, but also Russia and China and many others like the Netherlands East Indies - had commissioned, and sometimes paid for, the development and production of vast quantities of equipment needed for winning the war: much of which was then syphoned into American training programs for recruits who would not be available for several years. Some of these things, ranging from ships and tanks to planes and guns, were supposed to come on line in 1942, but did not get into action large scale until 1944. (Consider the Mustang fighter for instance, a design commissioned by the British, and on order for the British, and eventually  - when equipped with a British Merlin engine - a war winner. Supposed to come into Britain's arsenal in 1942. Arrived in useful numbers 1944.) It is not just the fancy items that count here. The thing that eventually gave the Soviets the maneuverability to drive the Germans back was tens of thousands of American trucks. They were supposed to start arriving in 1942, but between American requirements, and shipping losses, they actually started arriving in numbers in 1944. (See Russia's 1944 Blitzkreigs and the loss of Germany's Army Group Centre... Hmmm.) Net effect on the length of the war... vast.

3.    Roosevelt 1: Invasion North Africa. Possibly also a useful military exercise to practice amphibious warfare, but it was hardly vital. (The invasion of Madagascar was actually more informative, and Sicily was just as easy.) But enormous resources had to be wasted on it for two reasons. First, because Roosevelt needed American troops in action somewhere in 'Europe' by election time. Second, because American troops desperately needed exposure to real combat in the easiest possible environment to counter Marshall's fantasy that his new conscripts were ready to face German veterans. (Thank God for Kasserine Pass.) Would Montgomery and 8th army have pushed the Axis out of Libya any faster? No. Would Germany have invaded Tunisia without such provocation? Unlikely. Would it have made a long term difference if they had anyway? Probably not. The most damaging part of the whole operation was stripping all the new escort carriers and vast numbers of naval escorts away from shipping routes for several more months leading to: A) greatly increased shipping losses, and B) another huge slowdown in when counterattacks in Europe could begin. Net effect on length of the war almost certainly negative.

4.    Roosevelt 2: Unconditional Surrender. What an idiot politician will do for a good sound bite. This statement cost the lives of more Western Allied soldiers than any other piece of stupidity since President's Wilson and Clemencau's willful destruction of any prospect of a workable WW1 peace settlement. German soldiers in the rubble of the Ruhr preferred to die than to be shipped to Canadian forests and American mines (yes really Goebbels was that good), while Japanese resistance went on endlessly because this seemed to threaten the sacred Emperor. Long term effect on the length of the war... absolutely indescribable.

5.    Admiral King. Need I say more?... All right, I will just comment that British CIGS Alan Brooke later bemoaned that he hadn't accepted King's offer to go 75% Europe and 25% Pacific, because that is way, way better than what happened. Effect on lengthening the war... quite a lot. (See shipping loses in Atlantic and King's refusal to run convoys for a start. In fact most of points 1 and 2 are magnified by King.)

Having definitively stated that American involvement and decisions made the war longer (and there are many other examples, but they amount to nit-picking and could have been committed by non Americans... the above couldn't), is still not necessarily going to prove that leaving the American forces out of the war would have made it shorter. For although I think this is at least arguable in the European case, there is Japan to consider.... Not the Japanese army, because American supplies to Russia (particularly via the Bering Strait if the US was not a belligerent) and China and Australia and India would have more than made up for the negligible numbers of troops the Americans actually used prior to 1945; and possibly not to the air force, where the same follows. But there is the problem of the Japanese Navy.

Put simply, would the continued security of the Western Atlantic, due to continued American neutrality have given Britain the extra flexibility needed to win in the Indian Ocean? (Given option A: that if Japan had attacked Britain and the Netherlands and NOT the US in the East the Japanese would have had to keep a constant guard against the still vast American naval presence in the Pacific/Philippines, or B: the unlikely possibility that had America backed down and surrendered after Pearl Harbor, a guard against their ever increasing West coast navy would have still been somewhat desirable for the Japanese.)

This, as far as I am concerned, is the only issue about whether the Allies could have won the war without US military involvement. The Allies simply had too many millions of underemployed - because under-equipped - spare men in Russia and North Africa and India and China to not have benefitted from the US sending more equipment sooner, rather than less for a long time, and then badly trained conscripts later. (The British Empire and Commonwealth alone had several times the population of the Axis, as did the Russians, and the French Empire, not to mention the Chinese... manpower was never a problem. Equipping and moving it was. See 1 and 2 above, again.)

So it comes down to this.

On April 5 1942 the Japanese launched their only serious attack on the Royal Navy in the Indian Ocean. Effectively it was the Pearl Harbour task force less 1 carrier. (Pearl Harbor was the biggest concentrated Japanese force of the war because it was the only time they had surprise and could take such a risk.)

5 carriers and 4 battlecruisers was certainly one of the biggest raiding fleets possible that far from the home islands unless any other possible opponent was not a threat. (Could they have left NO home fleet even if the US was still neutral? Of course not. Nor can I push the somewhat unlikely 'US surrendered after Pearl Harbor' concept as far as NO need to have a screen against the mainland US. There is the impossibly unlikely, and then there is pure fantasy.)

The Royal Navy force was still incomplete, having only 5 battleships and 3 aircraft carriers of the 9 battleships and 5 aircraft carriers due within the next few weeks. (The two sides were about even in cruisers, destroyers, and submarines.) But the British still used radio intercepts to be in position to ambush the Japs on April 1, unfortunately deciding to return to base just before the Japs arrived 3 days late.

The result was inconclusive. Despite a few days of maneuvering (the Japanese advancing in daylight and retreating at night, and the British doing the opposite), the British were not able to undertake their ambush, and lost dozens of aircraft, two dozen merchant ships, and a few warships (including an ancient escort carrier with no planes on board and 2 cruisers) and temporarily relocated units to other ports in India and Africa while waiting for re-inforcements. The Japanese lost a, never admitted, number of irreplaceable aircraft and pilots (perhaps only 40 or 50 directly but probably more written off), but failed to win the much desired decisive victory. They had to rush back to try again against the Americans, only to see their weakened and increasingly exhausted units lose consecutive rounds at Coral Sea and Midway.

But what if the Americans were not in the war? What if the Japanese could push harder? What if the British had been able to send more, faster? (The delay for some British capital units had been waiting for American battleships and carriers to move to British ports, which was caused by the expanding losses in the West Atlantic - which required more ships, which was caused by America joining the war... You can see where this is going.)

The conflict could have seen approximately equal naval forces facing off for a proper Midway style battle at Ceylon. In which case the same factors hold true as at Midway.

The Japanese had more aircraft on their carriers, but both aircraft and carriers had a tendency to explode easily in combat. The British (like the Americans at Midway) had back up aircraft on land.

The Japanese think they are doing a sneak attack. The British (like the Americans at Midway) know from intelligence that the Japanese are coming.

The Japanese are under an irresolute commander who time and again (Pearl Harbour where he didn't finish the job, Ceylon where he didn't find the British fleet, Midway where he waffled inconclusively) proved he should not be leading an aircraft strike fleet. The British (like the Americans at Midway) have a brilliant commander whose war record is almost faultless. (In 1942 Admiral Sommerville had been commanding the worlds first and best 'Carrier Task Force' - Force H, successfully in battles and raids for 2 years. Spruance was actually an beginner at Midway, but his war record thereafter was pretty good.)

But then there are a few differences.

The British have radar, and two years combat experience using it. (See Cape Matapan  for instance). The Japanese don't have either.

The British have much slower strike aircraft, but they are radar equipped and trained for night strikes. They have successfully demonstrated their abilities at places like Taranto and against the Bismarck. Japanese (and American) attempts in 1942 or 1943 to use aircraft in the evening usually led to scores of invaluable aircraft and pilots lost at sea, or trying to land on each others carriers.

The British carriers are armoured, and easily shrugged off bombs and Kamikaze attacks throughout the war. Both the Luftwaffe and the IJN repeatedly declared kills of British carriers that were back in operation within a few hours. (Both Japan and the US were trying to get armoured carriers in operation by 1945, but mostly too late.)

The Japanese battlecruisers are far faster, but show the fatal tendency to blow up when facing battleships (or even American 8 inch cruisers of Guadalcanal) that always bedevilled battlecruisers. The majority of the British battleships are much slower, but have radar to guide them that the Japanese don't. (For speed vs radar see Matapan for instance.)

The British have also used years of experience in the Mediterranean to perfect using radar to vector in defending fighters out of the sun. For the entire war British carriers need much smaller fighter patrols than Japanese or American ones to achieve the same results. (American naval co-operation officers comment extensively on this in 1945.)

I don't want to make it sound too simplistic what the result would be. The Japanese had individually skilled pilots, and their cruiser commanders showed considerable flair. (And most naval battles of 1942-3 had extremely high components of pure luck.) However I am on record as being generally appalled by how the Japanese admirals handled fleet actions. It may have been understandable when both they and the Americans were feeling their way in early 1942, but by 1944, when they should have been a bit more experienced, they were just pathetic. (When they finally, at immense cost, achieved their unlikely goal of a general fleet action, and were in a position to annihilate the American amphibious forces and put off threatened invasions for years: they sailed around in circles for a while and went home!) Their likely opponents in the Indian Ocean, Somerville (possibly even Cunningham), were considerably better, and had literally years of experience at winning combats with inferior forces against combat veterans (which the Japanese certainly were not yet).

It may not have been a route for either side. A drawn out melee as in the Mediterranean was always more likely than something as accidentally decisive as Midway. But with American aircraft supplies and dockyards on the British side, the end was probably just as inevitable.

So (with these reservations about the IJN), on the new and improved 'would the Allies have won without the Americans in combat', I will go not only with 'yes', but also with 'possibly quicker'.

(In fact I am drafting another post on production too, which will provide more thoughts...)

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Allies vs Axis: Empires vs Wannabes...

A couple of weeks ago, a very entertaining Maltese tour guide at the new 'Malta in Wartime' museum explained to the ignorant tourists the difference between the Axis and the Allies. The Axis powers, he said, were all new nations established in the 1860's, who wanted more than they had; whereas the Allies were all old established Imperial powers, who had just about everything they wanted.

Now I have always taught the origins of WW2 to students by lining up the surviving powers from WW1 and having the students tell me which got what they wanted and which didn't. That gives you the sides for the next war. The two on the 'goodies' side in WW1 who switched to the 'baddies' in WW2, being Italy and Japan. (Italy because they didn't get the territorial aggrandisement they were after - and which had been promised to them until the Americans blocked it; and Japan because the Americans were so paranoid/racist they insisted - during the Washington Treaty talks in the 20's - that the British abandon the Anglo-Japanese Treaty that had worked so well for the 'goodies' in WW1. thug Canadian and Australian racism was not far behind in this preference.) France was also screwed over by the Americans at Washington, for scrapping battleships a bit too fast, but there was no chance they were leaving the British team for the German one.

So I found his assessment pretty straightforward and simple. In fact I was happy to accept an insight that my multiple research degrees and many years of writing on WW2 had previously overlooked, and resolved to include the comment just as casually in my future writings.

But then it occurred to me how it would sound to Americans... (United States of...)

That made it much more deliciously challenging.

To be fair he was not aiming the point at Americans. (In a week in Malta, surrounded by thousands of European and African and even Asian tourists, I can count the Americans I came across on the fingers of one hand.) He was making the point mainly to French and Germans and Italians, all of whom have fantasies about how nice their Republics/European Union are, and all of whom face a reality check at Malta. The first French Republic in particular was invited in to replace the rule of the decadent Knights of St John in 1798, and took only weeks to make itself so obnoxious that the large scale revolt the Knights had never provoked exploded. The request to the British to help drive out the French, and a couple of years later to join the Empire, is one of the main lessons he was making to the new Europeans who are still gamely fighting to convince everyone else to take one for the Union team. Idealism is no replacement for competence, and wishful thinking no replacement for trustworthiness. Got that Euro-fascists?

The American reference was not even actually stated. Just automatically implied when he said that all the major Allies were old fashioned empires that had spent centuries accumulating territories. But the very casualness with which it was assumed was striking to anyone who reads much American history... at least that written by Americans.

Americans like to pretend to lots of contradictory things. And this, almost accidentally, and very innocently, poked fun at a whole group of them.

Americans like to pretend that A) they are a young and energetic country, and B) that they have a very old constitution by world standards. They aren't actually either of these things really, with their founding colonies being far older than most European nation states, and even their original federation predating the German and Italian federations by a century. Only if you consider their 'nation' as dating from when the North re-conquored the newly independent South do they come out resembling a 'young' nation (making them the same age as the dictatorships). But surely that would make their 'reborn' constitution forcibly imposed on conquored states a new entrant too?

Americans try to pretend that Europeans are imperialists, while Americans are not... Which is a bit of a laugh considering that the United States occupied and incorporated more territory of Indians, Mexicans, Hawaiins, Pacific Islands etc; than any other nation (except its 'old imperial' Allies Britain, France and Russia). Consider the French Territories and Alaska for instance? The American conquest of most of the Spanish overseas territories, and their incorporation into its possessions (for their own good of course), just prior to WW1 is in no way relevant to the war of the imperial powers a few years later, is it?

Americans like to pretend that the 'old world' is set in bad old ways, and the 'new world' is different. See previous paragraph.

Americans like to pretend that republics are good, and monarchies are bad. But of course Germany only finished up with Hitler because it was a Republic, and the entire British Commonwealth of Nations, not to mention Norway, Denmark, Netherlands, Belgium, etc, have to be swept under the carpet for that one to fly in WW2... Axis republics included Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, the Soviet Union (at the start anyway), and various other German and Japanese puppet states like Manchuria. On the Allied side a search for republics would only leave France (3rd Republic possibly, but Vichy and de Gaulle are doubtful in this category)... and perhaps Brazil? Republics good, monarchies bad? Take that you French/Italian European Union troublemakers

But most importantly, Americans like to pretend that they never played the 'Great Game', and that their motives were always pure. (See comments on why Japan finished up on Axis side above.)

So why was our guide making this point? Well, I am not sure how the Maltese usually act (though Australia has the highest number of immigrants from Malta - more than Britain and Canada combined, so I do know quite a few people of Maltese extraction). But I doubt that the Maltese newspapers and news are usually so covered with critical articles on the Euro and the problems of the Union. I also doubt that the nostalgia for British rule is usually so often repeated. I was particularly amused to hear the guide point out that Maltese independence had started as a Dominion under the Queen (like Australia or Canada or New Zealand or Malaysia, etc, etc), but then moved to a republic within the Commonwealth also under the Queen (like India, and Pakistan and South Africa, etc, etc). He commented that he supposed this meant that they had had the best of both world's, but as a self consciously first world country, the subtext of which group Malta should belong to seemed pretty clear.

To have an Italian background, Maltese speaking guide, carefully explain to the dumb French and Italian and German tourists, why the Maltese should not fall for some fairly baseless assumptions (and giving an entirely unconscious but devestating put down to American assumptions almost by accident)... was irresistibly amusing.

I left him a nice tip.