Sunday, March 8, 2009

Oversimplification: The Numbers Fallacy in WWII

Some historians, and many politicians, have simplified World War Two into a few stupid statements. “The war in the west was won on the Russian steps” is one that springs to mind. They usually base such statements on traditional political incompetence – bad use of statistics. The truth is that numbers have rarely overthrown a technological edge (though the Americans under Custer and the British at Isandhlwana might have reservations on this), and World War Two is certainly not the best sample case to argue such a thing.

During the war the smaller campaigns tended to get less credit - though it is sometimes suspicious that numbers are valued in some circumstances, and area in others. The Mediterranean Front against the Axis was an extraordinarily long campaign over an extremely large area, yet many – particularly Americans who often fail to understand the Mediterraneans importance to intercontinental strategy – discount it’s scale and significance. (A British general visiting the Soviets responded to toasts about the battles of Stalingrad and Moscow by offering a toast to El Alemein. The bemused Soviet’s asked how big the battle was, and then commented “we would call that a skirmish” – a point which emphasises the fact that the hundreds of Soviet Divisions embraced by historians of the Eastern Front were rarely as big as a British Brigade or American Regimental Combat Team. To get a real comparison all western divisions should be compared to soviet corps.)

Similarly the Burmese and New Guinea theatres are incredibly undervalued in their role against Japan. There were more Japanese divisions fighting longer and harder in either place than everywhere that American troops fought the Japanese put together. (The fact that in New Guinea it was Australians rather than Americans who did most of the successful fighting – the American troops first assigned disappointed their vainglorious Fuhrer MacArthur enormously at first – might have had an influence on this ranking.)

By contrast the Western Front against Germany in 1944 to 45 is overstated both in the area it covered, and in the number of troops involved (almost half the US troops listed for that campaign did not arrive until it was already almost over. A dozen divisions had barely landed in France before the Germans surrendered.) Which puts it in the same category as the Pacific campaign, which, if the allied troops are discounted – as they so often were by the Americans – rarely saw more than a couple of American divisions at a time engaged anywhere.

The confusion is added to by the enigma that remains China, which is simultaneously undervalued and overvalued. It is undervalued in that China and Manchuria occupied the attention of 80% of the Japanese army throughout the war. Which means that by any the standards applied by some historians: China was the Soviet Union of the East, and deserves all the glory that was lavished on communist Russia by the trendy historians of the last generation. On the other hand it was overvalued, in that China achieved virtually nothing in the war against the Japanese apart from occupying large numbers of very low grade garrison troops. In fact when the US Air Force in one of it’s fits of vainglory, attempted to bomb Japan into submission from bases in China: the Japanese garrison troops stirred themselves enough to sweep forward and conquor – without any trouble at all – the provinces being used as bases (Operation Ichi-Go).

Again the issue is size versus value. Vast areas could be dealt with in World War Two in one of two ways. Large numbers of low quality infantry – as in Russia or China, or small numbers of high technology elite forces – as in African and Asia. The real mistake historians make, which any half way competent wargamer could disabuse them of, is to fail to understand that a good armoured or mechanized division is worth, in both cost and combat value, up to three corps of low value infantry. Indeed the Blitzkrieg campaigns by the Germans in Poland, France, the Balkans, North Africa and Russia; or by the Japanese in the Pacific and Asia; or by the British in North Africa, East Africa and the Middle East; or by the combined Western Allies (British, French, Canadian, Polish, and American) in France in 1944 to 1945; or by the Russians in Europe and the Far East in 1944 to 1945: all had the same things in common. Well trained and well supported elite combat forces sweeping aside large numbers of inadequately trained or equipped infantry.

It is a mistake to imagine that entire campaigns were engagements of similar types of armies. There is a word for the engagements of similar types of armies – stalemate. That word applied to the Western Front while Germany was busy using it’s elite troops to defeat Poland; to the middle years in North Africa (after the British professional troops who had swept aside the Italian, French and Iraqi masses were dispersed to Greece and Iran and Asia); and to the middle part of the war in Russia (after the German’s key strike formations had been worn down and then dispersed to the Med or the west). Stalemate, or ‘too and fro’ engagements, are what characterised North Africa, Russia, Burma, New Guinea and the Pacific islands throughout1942 and 1943.

Consider the German advance of operation Barbarossa for instance. Impressive statistics of over 200 German and allied divisions sweeping into the Soviet union and destroying vast formations and capturing millions of prisoners, hide a simple truth. The Germans sent two armies into Russia. One was a highly trained and superbly equipped mechanised army of about thirty divisions. The other was a vast and largely unskilled force of badly equipped and horse mobile infantry, which trailed along to try and perform the role of garrison troops. The successes and headlines came from the former, while the failure to win was almost entirely due to the inadequacies of the latter. (Though Hitler can personally claim a lot of the credit for destroying the chances that the former almost did have to succeed.)

Incompetent scholars – and that includes most politicians – might ask whether Germany would have been better investing the same resources in another thirty mechanised divisions instead of 170 infantry divisions. Well, yes… Duh! Which completely misses the point. If Germany had been able to, she would. She couldn’t, and therefore she had to make up the difference with as many inferior substitutes as she could get her hands on. For the Germans, those thirty high value divisions were of greater value than the other 170 - a point particularly obvious when many of them had to be sent to the Med or the West. (It may not sound much to transfer a mere 18 divisions to other fronts, but if they amount to more than half of your high tech strikeforce, sheer numbers become irrelevant). By the end of the war it was the Soviet troops who had the mechanised edge – thanks largely to lavish supplies of American trucks (Blitzkriegs are stopped by lack of supplies, not lack of tanks).
The same applies everywhere else.

The Japanese demonstrated an ability to shatter the Chinese at will – when they could spare the effort or inclination. But the great Japanese advances against the Western Allies in Asia and the Pacific were made by the ten most well trained and equipped divisions, while the Army staff acknowledged that the ninety odd divisions assigned to China and Manchuria were both fully occupied, and incapable of contributing much of additional value. Those ten divisions were of greater importance than the other 90, and no advance was possible without them (except against the hopeless Chinese of course - see Soviet attack in 1945).

Similarly the British could sweep the Italian, or French, or Iraqi, forces from the Middle East and Africa at will: but faced stalemate when their obligations in Greece, Iran and Asia dispersed their professionals and left lower quality recruits to take the brunt of German professionals. As long as the Germans could drain the Russian front of high quality divisions for North Africa, Italy, or France: they could reduce the Allies to sheer attrition just the way the Russian infantry were reducing the Rumanian and Hungarian levies in the east (while the remaining German mechanised forces wore themselves out charging around playing firemen).

US troops were usually as highly mechanised as the British from when they entered the war (the lightweight marine division at Guadalcanal being a possible exception – but then it was an elite force in it’s own right). While the Germans could continue to find high quality units to deploy against them – which pretty much meant up until the collapse of the German Armies in Normandy – the Americans found themselves, like the British, reduced to sheer attrition by numbers. Only where they had the chance to sweep up large numbers of lower quality troops – as in the end in North Africa and France and Germany, did their ability to indulge in Blitzkreig came into affect. (The same forces deployed on the Eastern Front would have been indulging in Blitzkreigs much earlier.)

So the whole argument of comparing numbers becomes ridiculous. The vast Japanese army in China was not held by massive Chinese efforts, it was just an immobile mass in it’s own right. The vast hordes of infantry of either side wandering around the Russian plains, were in fact little more than second rate garrisons waiting to be swept away by whichever side next concentrated a high tech strikeforce. The real count of what was going on, was where the elite were being engaged.

In Europe, the vast quantities of Geman infantry being slowly chewed up in Russia were not nearly as significant as the much smaller numbers of mechanised and anti-aircraft troops and planes being slowly chewed up by the western allies. The infantry were of little value, and could be replaced by all sides, in numbers which put the Great War to shame. It was the mechanised forces which broke the budget. Similarly in the East the vast number of Japanese troops sitting around in China were of less significance than the dozen crack divisions and thousands of aircraft being chewed up by the British and Australian armies and the US Navy respectively.

The most significant fact of the Second World War was that numbers always collapsed in the face of technology. It took six to nine Sherman tanks - sometimes more - to have a hope of beating a Tiger tank; but six to nine low quality French or Russian or Italian or Chinese infantry divisions had little chance of stopping a good armoured division. Put elite troops against elite troops, or cheap infantry against cheap infantry, and you get stalemate and attrition. Put elites against cheap, and you get Blitzkrieg.

Returning to what each army would have ‘liked’, the Germans had to halve the size of their armoured divisions in 1941 to ‘create’ the additional numbers they would need to invade Russia while still fighting Britain. Their industrial capacity left them no alternative. The US army initially planned to create over 300 divisions to fight the war. Then 220. Then 150. In fact they eventually made do with 88, and had a hard time manning those because of the sheer cost and production requirements needed to keep 88 mechanised divisions in the field. Similarly the British Commonwealth had over 130 divisions in the field in 1942, but had rationalised that to about 60 highly mechanised units by 1945. The Australian Army for instance, went from a high point of 12 divisions including two (poorly) armoured when facing invasion in 1942, to five well equipped with two armoured brigades by 1945. (Though jungle combat made mechanisation difficult to use, so most operations used far less trucks and tanks than were available to the mainland based forces- making up the mechanised factor with lavish use of landing craft and transport aircraft.) Even the Russians – the great advocates of sheer numbers - reduced the numbers of formations as they improved their quality towards the end.

So which was more important to winning the war – the numbers in Russia or China, or the technology in the West and the Pacific?

How about both?

Without the technical attrition, Germany or Japan could have devoted their technical edges to winning in the numbers theatres. (As a single example consider he million plus men and tens of thousands of anti-aircraft guns the Germans were using against Allied bomber offensives being redeployed as anti-tank guns against the Russians.) But without the numbers being tied down, Germany or Japan might have developed the resources to prevent the Allies from defeating them in the West or Pacific. (As another example consider how close D-Day came to failure despite the Germans having millions of soldiers deployed in the east.)

It is not quite as easy as saying that one tank equals forty infantry, but it is certainly not as farcical as claiming that the numbers on the Eastern Front outweigh the technology on the Western.


  1. OK, that's very persuasive, certainly Dafydd

  2. some good observation mixed with a lot of incorrect statements... how someone can define 1941 german infantry as poor quality escapes me...

    also in 1945 Australian divisions were not mechanized, in new guines successful fighting was pullod off both Australina and Americans and Japanese high quality formations were used as garrisons of several islands in central pacific.

    Good starting point, bad history.

  3. The story that the Germans halved the number of tanks in their Panzerdivisions to create new ones to attack the SU ,is WRONG.

  4. To be precise, the story of halving to double is an oversimplification, and is not exactly how it worked. The Germans actually found it more efficient to have less tank heavy units with more balance for operational purposes. that is at lest part of the reason for there changes.

    But this does not alter the fact that the approximately 10 Panzer divisions of 1939-40 had over 500 tanks each, while the 25 of 1941-2 had approximately 200 each, while the 35 of 1944 were often down to 100 each (except for some SS units).

    1. Yes. And Soviet armored Brigade had maximum of 60 tanks (many times hardly even 50). Soviet Armored or Assault Gun Regiment just 20. Their infantry divisions in 1944 hardly more than 5 500 - 6 500 soldiers (with some exceptions). We should never too easily fall in love with myth of 400 Soviet divisions and compare them to those of western allies or even those of Wehrmacht.

    2. Panzer companies and battalions needed more infantry support. Infantry should have their at least half tracked carriers to followr combat tanks. Separated tanks were too easily destroyed by AT-guns. I guess every army realized this grim situation very soon. How pathetic that too many studies have forgotten Soviet Union did not have own half tracked infantry carrier prodoction (or atleast not much production). That the reason why apostoles of Great Patriotic War don't want even talk about it. They are focusing only tank, artillery and air craft production figures.

  5. Interesting point of view. One question not answered is what were the "garrison troops" doing. Was it useful? What would have happened if it had not been done?
    A case has been made by others that the German Army of 1942 was not a modern army. Their basic infantry weapon was sadly out of date. The horse hauled/pulled far more supplies than trucks, etc. Nonetheless they were able to dominate the battlefield, all of their battlefields for a long time. This does not entirely support your technology coupled with elite forces is dominant theory.
    While it clearly took more than one Sherman to knock out a Tiger tank, nonetheless Patton's Third Army did it often enough to dominate its battlefields. Was that because the Germans did not have enough Tigers, or because the Americans had too great a surplus of Shermans? Or, perhaps because American air power was dominant enough to cancel the advantages of the Tiger tank? Or, was it the terrible, constant American artillery that the German memoirs often speak about? What was that broke the back of the German Army?
    I think casualties are as good an indication of combat power as we are likely to get after the fact. How many men did the Germans lose on the Eastern Front vs. how many men did they lose on the Western Front? How many tanks did they lose on the Eastern Front, vs. the Western Front? How many planes? How many planes/tanks/trucks were not made because of the bombing campaign? I know production went up almost till the end of the war, but how high would it have been?
    What was the effect of the Royal Navy, the American Navy, and the strategic bombing campaign on WW II? You ignore it in your writing. If all of the 88 MM guns used as anti-aircraft in Germany and particularly around the Ploisti oil fields had been on the Eastern Front would that have made a difference?
    Your dislike/disrespect for MacArthur is amply evident. But even a quick analysis will see that he was incredible thrifty in his use of troops. He won battles with fewer casualties than other generals, in fact than any other general in WW II. How did he do this? He was also caught with his planes on the ground in the Philippines long after the attack at Pearl Harbor should have warned him of the necessity of preparedness. Why?
    Clearly you like the battles where the Australian Army engaged the Japanese. But these campaigns however important for Australia had little or nothing to do with the ultimate defeat of Japan. The United States Navy accomplished that at Coral Sea, Midway and Leyte Gulf among others. Once the American Navy established its dominance in the Pacific, the Japanese units you tout as being far better than the garrisons in China were hostages more than soldiers.
    As I say interesting post, valid observations, but overdrawn conclusions and more than a little jingoism related to the Australian contribution.

    1. Should we finally debunk the myth of Hitler" trying to conquer the world" too? At least there are data enough suggesting that his military forces were far from that Blitzkrieg myth. Some studies have even claimed their infantry was even more poorly trained than that of Kaiser's in 1914.

      I have my own opinion. Wehrmach paradoxally was winning when it was surpisingly out of date, and loosing when it was getting better (1943-44). What even more surprising: Red Army in 1943-45 was getting better with new Made In USA mobility but worse when comparing their infantry in 1944 to that of 1941.

      The brilliance of 1944-45 Red Army is a myth. We should never believe in it.

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  7. I'd go along with alot of what you said apart from "Put elites against cheap, and you get Blitzkrieg". The British units in France in 1940 were not cheap, They were elite and yet were on the back foot from the word go. This wasn't just down to weak French and Belgian units on the British Armies flanks it was the superior tactical use of Mechanised forces against the inferior tactical use of mechanised forces. Blitzkrieg was alot more than you suggest!

    To Mr Anonymous in reference to your comment
    "Clearly you like the battles where the Australian Army engaged the Japanese"
    With regards to the Australian Army comment above. I think you'll find the Japanese army was repulsed in New Guinea by Predominantly Australian militia, hastily formed into fighting units by a small group of regulars. Most of the militia (dockers, construction workers etc)hadn't even had basic training. The Australian Army as you call them were still in the Western desert fighting the Germans and only got back to fight the Japanese in Papua in 43. The Imperial Japanese armies Crack or Elite forces had been repulsed by a bunch of Aussie Blokes with local help from the Islands inhabitants. I guess this kind of flys in the face of the suggestion that "Put elites against cheap, and you get Blitzkrieg"

    I've just looked up the definition of "Jingoism" and I can quite honestly say that would be the last word I would use to describe this blog.

  8. German losses from 1941 until March 1943 in Africa and eastern front.

    Africa: 7 534 KIA, 26 440 WIA, 16 478
    Eastern front: 452 952 KIA, 1 612 012 WIA, 313 494 378 458

    The loss rate was about 1:50. A very good measure of noteworthiness of both fronts. Of course i'm not talking about abstract terms like "value" of this and that unit. It looks like blogger himself has an idea that all British troops are "elite" while Russians and Wehrmacht divisions in east are not. Anyway Russians caused 50 times more casualties to Germans in eastern front than "elite" allies in North Africa. And that is a measure should be taken under consideration by military history.

  9. Funny how "anonymous" forgot the Tunisia and didn't stretch time to 31st of May 1943. But i will repair it. Here they are:

    Africa: 8 566 KIA, 115 187 MIA
    Eastern front: 472 962 KIA, 319 983 MIA

    Irreplaceable losses (KIA+MIA) in Africa 123 753 and in eastern front 792 945

    Rate 1:6.4

    Isn't it interesting how apostles of Great Patriotic War mythmakers (Russians and others) are spreading their message so eagerly nowadays?

    1. I also note that 'Axis' rather than 'German' losses in Africa were somewhat higher. Tunisia alone saw as many Axis surrender as Stalingrad. Somewhere about 350,000 in this single battle.
      Yet on the Eastern front 'German' losses usually seem to include all the minor allies - Finns, Hungarians, Rumanians, etc.
      But that would lead us to suppose that losing Italians or Rumanians aren't as important to the Axis as losing Australains or South Africans are to the Allies...
      Whoops, back to people pre-supposing that quality is different to quantity are we?

  10. Well if someone is still confused by this division issue just take a look what kind of mechanized units Germans would have needed much more than just this one example:

    Yes there were some others (e.g some Waffen SS elite divisions) but not many.

  11. So... that's lots of theory, and speculation, but how about some more exact numbers with sources? How many total German troops were there on the Eastern Front at the time of Stalingrad/El Alamein? How many total facing the Western Allies. How many of those were elite troops (for both fronts)? How many tanks on both fronts? How much did these numbers change at the time of Kursk/the invasion of Italy? I'd like to see a straight-forward comparison.

    1. It is probably worth you looking some of that up if you are interested.

      Hitler routinely pulled the Luftwaffe from the Eastern front in winter to fight in the Med. Quite sensible really. (though Malta didn't enjoy it.)

      Equally he routinely switched his armoured forces back to try and smash allied invasions in the hope they could then return to beat the Russians before it was too late. See PanzerArmee Africa, Tunisia, Sicily, Italy, D-Day, and a little effort called 'The Bulge'.

      Of the 20 - 30 armoured divisions (really) functionally available at any time, at least half (and often the better half) were facing west not east after Salerno. (Please note that many so called divisions were little better than battalions at some stages - particularly those in the East.)

      But his other elite troops - particularly Students paratroop army - spent most of their time in Italy or France, not Russia.

      The biggest single 'command' in the Germany forces was Anti-Aircraft command. You can probably guess who took up all their time.

      The Kriegsmarine of course devoted at least 80% of its efforts against the west.

      Exact numbers are difficult. Panzer Lehr facing D-Day had up to 20,000 men, and a full complement of the latest tanks. The equivalent 'panzer division' on the Eastern front at that point usually had about 8,000 men, and hopefully a third of its theoretical tank strength. Infantry divisions even more variable.

      Good luck with getting accurate numbers (I've never found most of them very convincing), though you can get a rough idea if you dig hard enough.

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  13. "Blitzkrieg" is just a classic envelopement strategy but with tanks. The whole point is to avoid contact until the enemy is surrounded while infantry holds the line. Those low tech beggars on the Ost Front were awfully good at holding a line. Even towards the very end of the war, casualties were still lopsided. The Germans lost in the East because they lost the ability to pull the same gambit starting notably at Kursk. Largely because infantry simply got better at dealing with tanks; anti-tank guns in-depth, anti-tank mines, HEAT weapons, etc.

    I think it's important to note the best Panzer divisions left in the war in Winter 1944 were turned by well positioned, largely immobile infantry in the Ardennes counteroffensive.