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.