Sunday, August 23, 2009

Sunday Warbooks: Why the Allies Won

A review of Why the Allies Won, by Richard Overy.

Just as the title indicates, this is a thorough examination of how WWII --- the outcome of which was decidedly uncertain before late 1943 or so --- ended the way it did. Overy is a masterful and convincing historian, who over the course of 330 pages lays out a cogent argument based on everything from economy and materiel production to the warped philosophy of the Axis powers.

It's impossible to distill the mass of fascinating information into a few paragraphs, but there are a few main points that especially ring true. The first is, of course, the industrial production of the USA and USSR, unmatched by any of the Axis powers. Overy argues that America’s capitalist society and the Soviet centralized dictatorship were each in their own way ideally suited to maximize their vast resources. In contrast, Hitler's less focused, more cutthroat dictatorship failed to make the most of Germany's limited resources. A telling example is when Hitler’s armies took Soviet oil fields, but then had no engineers to make the oil available to Germany, so it made no discernible change in their production.

Overy further argues that the Allied powers made simple, reliable, mass-produced weapons, and kept a healthy ratio of mechanics on hand. The opposite was true of the Germany industrial complex, which was fixated on ever-newer technologies, so obsolescence and difficulty of repair became issues as the war progressed. Overy concludes that even Germany's much-vaunted missile program, which was inarguably years ahead of anything the Allies had, was "a lost cause" for these reasons: impressive, yes, but not a war-winner.

The second main theme is the rapid learning curve of the allied powers, who learned from their many early defeats and focused intently on producing only what was needed to win. The Germans and Japanese, by contrast, has a very slow learning curve, and coasted on early victories, believing that their militaristic will-to-power philosophy made victory a foregone conclusion. This learning curve extended to every facet of the war --- improvements in bombing, defense, codes, and so on ensured the Allies’ early losses were not often repeated.

The final main theme that runs through the whole book, though it's not made as explicit as the others, is the mindset of the various leaders. Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin had many philosophical and strategical differences, but were able to work in lock step for the single goal of destroying Nazism utterly. Hitler had no such restraint, unable to maintain even the farce of an alliance with Stalin until the war in the west had been concluded. Stalin, for all his faults, promoted reliable men, wanted to hear the unvarnished truth about how the war was progressing, and allowed himself to be overruled when it came to important strategic decisions. Hitler, famously, removed officers who told him bad news, even if it was true, and obsessively insisted on micro-managing the war (sounds like Bush and Rumsfeld!), with a deleterious result for Germany's chances for victory.

Perhaps the most interesting example of how much Hitler's self-supposed strategic genius hurt Germany was Hitler's insistence on treating the Normandy landings lightly, thinking they were only a ruse, until it was far too late and Patton had already swept over half of France. Historical events like this always give rise to their hypothetical counterparts: what if Hitler had allowed Rommel and others to fight the war they wanted to? The modern Anglo-American mind reels at the horror.

In all, this is an inexhaustibly fascinating book, one sure to promote argument among WWII buffs for its calm, reasoned analysis and sometimes unexpected conclusions.


Sunday warbooks scoreboard:

Greco-Persian wars: 2
WWI: 2
WWII: 6 <----winning big, like the Allies in late 1945
Vietnam: 2
Iraq wars: 2
Afghanistan war: 1
General warfare: 2

1 comment:

daveawayfromhome said...

..."a very slow learning curve, and coasted on early victories, believing that their militaristic will-to-power philosophy made victory a foregone conclusion. This learning curve extended to every facet of the war"...

At the risk of invoking Godwin's law, this sounds amazingly familiar.

hee hee! WV="undrops"