Monday, April 22, 2019

Which Powers could afford to ’do it all’ in World War Two

There’s an old saying that David and Leigh Eddings paraphrased in one of their fantasy books: “any fool can raise an army,  but you start running into trouble around suppertime.” 

(Which is just a simplified way of saying that amateurs discuss tactics, but professionals think logistics.)

So let’s consider World War Two from the ‘who can afford what’ perspective.

Any fool politician can promise Lebensraum, or a Mare Nostrum, or a Greater Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere: the problem comes when your nation lacks the resources to buy the equipment you need to make your plan stick.

It would be correct to suggest that the most rag-tag of ‘governments’ can raise and equip an infantry force, and possible give it some artillery support. Mao and Tito spring to mind, but the Hungarians, Bulgarians and Iranians wouldn’t be far off. (One particularly entertaining description of the vast Operation Barbarossa - the Axis invasion of Russia – describes hundreds of gaily painted peasant carts masquerading as the Rumanian logistics column.) 

Perhaps your government is a bit more advanced in both your tax collection and your industrial base, and you can manage a few armoured cars or tanks, and maybe even a nominal number of fighters and bombers. Think Nationalist China, Finland, Belgium, Greece and Turkey. That still doesn’t mean that you can also manage more than a token number of destroyers or coastal defence ships to manage defensive support. Frankly Canada, Australia, India and possibly even South Africa were greater 'powers' than any of those.

The actual capacity to project power to other parts of the world in your own right – rather than under the auspices of your allies - requires not only a developed army and air force, but a naval element of – at a minimum – a good balanced cruiser force with adequate resources to back it up. Think Spain and Brazil... and, again, Australia.

Actually protecting far flung imperial possessions requires even a bit more than that. (Spain had discovered this while losing a brief war with the United States - which had run out of land to imperially conquer from the French, native Americans or Mexicans, and – after a couple of abortive attempts to invade Canada - therefore turned a quick takeover of overseas bits. Mainly Spanish possessions like the Philippines, but also including otherwise independent states like Hawaii.) 

In fact the best defence of a far flung empire if you couldn’t match other people’s battle fleets was a good submarine force. Think the Netherlands, and particularly it’s half dozen cruisers and two dozen submarines protecting the Netherlands East Indies.

But it is a big jump from a token overseas empire, to being able to play with the big boys. The financial and industrial resources necessary to developing military forces capable of fighting other major powers is simply beyond the resources of more than half a dozen nations at any time. Which is why the term ‘Great Powers’ has always come down to those capable of standing their ground against other great powers.

Personally I have always found the idea of a ‘Superpower’ to be complete bunk. Even Alexander, Octavius, Genghis  and Napoleon had their limits. Admittedly there was a time post the Napoleonic war when the British could use the brief economic and industrial break they had managed to open on everyone else to pretty much do what they want. But that was only if what they wanted didn’t conflict with the goals of any two or three of the other Great Powers of the day. (The Crimean War being an excellent example of the limitations of power projection regardless of your economic and naval superiority…) Britain was ‘Primus inter pares’ (first among equals) rather than a super-power. 

Similarly the idea that either the United States or the Soviet Union were able to dictate to each other during the Cold War (when the stupid term was invented) is obviously laughable. More recently I remember one US Admiral - visiting the University where I was doing a ‘Strategic and Defence Studies Scholarship’ - stating that the days when the USN could influence India on it's own by parking a carrier battle group off the coast were long gone…. that was in 1991!

At this point the US would be hard put to face challenges simultaneously from China, Syria, and Iran. Throw in issue with Russia, Libya and North Korea, and the US position would start to look like Britain alone facing the three Axis powers in 1941. But in fact the Vietnam war (US), and 1980’s Afghan war (USSR) proved what Britain had known since the previous centuries Afghan war… that the idea of a superpower has always been a bit of a fantasy. (Or as France had known since Napoleon; or the Ottomans had known since Vienna; or the Romans had known since Emperor Valerian was captured by the Persians at Edessa and spent the rest of his life as a footstool to his captor… I could go on…). 

Frankly, if you can’t beat a third world peasant force, you should stop pretending to be anything other than merely ‘Great’.

Being ‘Great’ in the ‘Great War’ just meant being powerful enough that it would take two or three other great powers to push you around… and by that I mean militarily defat and force to surrender. By that definition the Turks were clearly no longer a great power (joining the Spanish in the ‘ex’ league). Meanwhile the Russians, Italians and Austro-Hungarians were hard put to make a convincing case, all of them needing significant propping by their allies to even hold their ground against a single other great power. France too struggled to hold the line, but arguably managed to contribute on land, sea and in the air in a way that the first three could not.

Which leaves Britain, Germany, and the United States as the undisputed great powers, with France a shade behind, and – interestingly – Japan overtaking the collapsed Austria-Hungary and Russia, to have a chance of overtaking Italy…possibly even France… in the Great Power stakes. (I hope everyone has seen the prophetic cartoon from the Versailles conference where the ‘Class of 1939’ baby is heard crying in the corner…)

So let’s have  a look at what it took to be an truly ‘great’ power in the Second World War.

The great powers have always had an interesting balance of land power versus sea power. But if you take ‘great’ to imply ability to project power and influence from a distance , it is clear that there need to be elements of both. Britain was a great power in Europe for centuries because her navy allowed her to interpose her small (pre- Great War) army, or to supply allies armies: not because she always had large land forces. Russia was always a great power because she had large land forces, regardless of usually having weak naval forces. But only a few powers could attempt it all.

So let’s assess.

Russia (the Soviet Union if it makes you feel better), deployed large and technically advanced land forces during the World War II, and backed them up with a tactical air force second to none. But it’s naval forces were almost insignificant, and it didn’t even attempt a strategic air arm. As usual, it’s claim to be a great power was based on almost limitless supply of poor bloody infantry to throw into the meat grinder. As such it could threaten other continental powers, but had no ability at all to threaten sea powers like Britain and the United States, except in as much as they wanted to fight in mainland Europe. Realistically, it survived more due to vast allied support. (Not just the planes and tanks to survive in 1941, but the trucks and fuel to take the offensive in 1944. Up to half the food being eaten in Russia in the second half of the war was provided by the Allies.) 

In practical terms Russia was the World War Two equivalent of Italy in World War One. An also ran that could not have survived without significant support.

In WWII by contrast, Italy tried to have an army with tanks (fail), a balanced air-force (not too bad),and a powerful navy. But again Italy lacked the scientific resources to keep up in the air; the economic resources to make her army competitive; and the overall industrial resources to build aircraft carriers or strategic bombing forces on top of what was already straining her abilities beyond breaking point. Italy could not compete with real great powers – even when supported by Germany - and had to give it up. 

Italy, was the Turkey of World War Two.

Japan made a better fist of it. With surprisingly limited resources, Japan militarised it’s economy to the point where they had a first rate army, navy and air force, and could genuinely compete with everyone else. Japan even got aircraft carriers off the ground as well as battleships, a more impressive achievement than France or Germany could manage – in that one limited field where their interests were more actively involved. But the army could not get tanks off the ground, let alone mechanisation; and the air forces only attempt at strategic bombing was hot air balloons armed with incendiaries released in the general direction of US forests. 

Japan’s air-force and aircraft-carriers make it look more impressive than it really was. The Japanese economy and industrial base was not really up to the kind of war it attempted, and it was clear to many apart from Yamamoto that if the dice throw didn’t go perfectly, there was no chance of long term success.

France is more interesting. France had one of the best armies on earth, with probably the best armoured equipment on earth (though bad tactical development of it’s use, that was not corrected in time.) Shame about the collapse of morale amongst the conscripts that didn’t allow such development to take place. 

France also had a fast developing air force with good technical abilities, and certainly the fourth strongest navy. France even had an aircraft-carrier in service, with another couple on order. Only strategic bombing was not on France’s agenda… (hardly surprising since tactical bombing would work just as well against her two most immediate threats, her next door neighbours…)

Had France withstood the initial assault, she remained capable of giving at least as good account of herself as Japan. Indeed France was probably still a better representation of a ‘great power’ than Italy – which collapsed as soon as two allies could concentrate their efforts for a moment, or Japan… ditto (though Japan had used it’s huge initial conquests to delay this collapse longer than could have been expected.). 

So France could be considered unlucky. Which is not to say that France in the Second World War was any better off than Russia or Italy in the first, or than Russia or Japan were in the Second. But France did have the potential to stay in the great power club, had that potential been properly applied.

Which brings us to Germany. Germany is an interesting contrast. Certainly had the energy to be a great power, even if the economy was not a shadow of the potential that their Great War economy had brought to the table. The Third Reich simply could not afford the same army, high seas fleet, and air-force, that had been within it’s grasp in the Great War. As one You-Tube reviewer comments on the Z plan for a naval build-up, the kind of High Seas Fleet that Germany possessed in World War One was beyond Germany’s power in World War Two, no matter how often Hitler got away with Anschlussing other people’s economies.

It was not just the fact that the Germans could not get aircraft carriers to happen, let alone get a strategic bombing force off the ground (pardon the pun). They couldn’t even get a balanced cruiser and battleship force to happen while simultaneously producing an adequate submarine fleet…it was an ‘either-or’ situation. Worse, despite some of the best armoured and mechanised units of the war, the Germans never got the vast majority of their army beyond foot slogging, with horse drawn artillery! Their successes came from the 20% of their high tech or elite (read Panzer, or  Para, or Mountain, or SS) troops. Their 80% standard infantry troops finished up bearing the brunt of the failures, particularly on the Eastern front. (Interestingly the Japanese had the same breakup of numbers, and the same results- just replace the word ‘Eastern front’ with ‘Chinese front’…)

Germany lacked the resources, even with most of Europe to loot, to get it’s army adequately mechanised, or it’s air-force adequately modernised, or it’s navy competitive: let alone to master all the scientific experiments in jets and rockets and atomic bombs it was pursuing. 

Which brings us to the real big boys. Britain and the US.

These two countries were the only states that could, and did, do it all. 

First rate fully mechanised armies, where every single front line division (with a little bit of combat experience) could face the absolute elite any enemy might muster with a reasonable chance of success.

First rate air forces with every category, including strategic bombing and strategic air-lift, being developed to it’s full potential.

First rate navies, with every category: including aircraft-carriers and submarines, fully resourced. Navies with logistical support to potentially enable long term operations across the entire surface of the world (though it took a long time to turn the tide and get everything moving properly). Navies capable of power-projecting major invasion forces to any point on the planet. (It is notable that they also managed the only proper development of landing craft, with Germany and Japan unable to manage more than a few inadequate specialist craft that were really only acceptable against unopposed landings. Neither Germany or Japan could have mounted a D-Day style operation, or even a smaller opposed landing against anything resembling a proper defensive force... and Britain in 1940 was only marginal on that level of defensive force!)

Britain and the US also both had a range of Research projects not only outpacing every opponent except Germany in jets and rockets, but opening entirely new areas like cavity radars, proximity fuses and atomic weapons. With the resources to bring every project into action, rather than the one or two Germany could manage if she shut down her major fleets and cutback her bomber production…

To be honest, no nation could really do it all. Britain was happy to send her radar and atomic weapons equipment to participate in the US program, just as the US was happy to receive both to get her own programs bootstrapped. Either alone would have taken much longer. Likewise there was a lot of sense in some specialising. Britain dropped most of her transport aircraft production for most of the war on the assurance of adequate US supplies. (Only getting back into it with the Avro York and similar after the concentration on fighters and bombers had achieved complete air superiority.) While the US let it’s jetfighter program lapse until post war in the comfortable knowledge that Britain was covering that element. 

Meanwhile Britain slowed it’s escort carrier program to concentrate on surface escorts once the US committed to mass producing jeep carriers, and later slowed her fleet carrier production to produce more landing craft in the comfortable knowledge that the US was producing carriers to spare. Another sensible decision was to let the new US yards mass produce the basic ‘Liberty’ design the British had prepared, leaving some of the more skilled of the British workforce to produce more specialist ships.

Just because they could pretty much do it all themselves, certainly didn’t mean that it wasn’t more sensible to share resources more effectively. In fact they compromises they did make were far more about efficiency than incompetence. Though arguably Britain’s relying for too long on the barely adequate Sherman tank instead of pushing the development of the Centurion a bit faster could have ended badly. Or the United States relying on the barely adequate British Meteor as adequate effort in the jet space, while dropping the jet fighter ball until post war. 

(Actually the American P-80 was in service during the war, it just never saw combat. To me this makes it a wartime design, but I get constant claims that the contemporary Centurion was NOT a wartime design, because -- although they were in Belgium when the German surrender was signed - they didn’t see combat,. So I presume the same people would argue that the P-80  - which was in Italy at the same time - wasn’t a wartime design either? Mind you if neither they – or the Type XXI and XXIII U-boats were ‘wartime designs’, I still wonder what time designs they were supposed to be?)

Which brings up what Britain and the US couldn’t do… Manpower.

Every single nation ran into a manpower crisis after 3 or 4 years of conflict, and every one of them had to make hard decisions as a result.

Germany and Japan were operating on slave labour for much of their workforce by 3 or 4 years into the war, and from then on the decline in quality of front line troops was noticeable. Towards the end of the war the Russian combat units included substantial numbers of women, and conscripts from newly conquered parts of eastern Europe, and their industry could not have coped without basic supplies and finished equipment like trucks and aircraft from the western allies. 

The British and Americans were better off, but both had infantry crises during the advance on Germany, with the British stripping anti-aircraft units to make up numbers , and the Americans having to resort to using black troops stripped from logistic units! (The ever practical Patton was in favour of using black troops of course, but the unreconstructed racists like Eisenhower and Bradley were appalled at the idea of black troops in the front line.)

This manpower shortage is something that many people consider a sign of weakness. (In fact the encroaching US manpower crisis is only marginally recognised by many historians, as the US was only just pushing 3 or 4 years in the war, so what it was facing was no-where near as obvious as to those nations who had fought harder – Russia - or longer – Germany and Britain). 

Nonetheless many so called historians make much -  inaccurate – commentary on the fact that the British lack of infantry in Normandy was a sign that they lacked the resources to be a great power any more? 

In reality of course Britain still had 115,000 fully trained replacement infantry in camps in Britain in late 1944 that could have been used to keep numbers at the front line up. But Britain was reluctant to use them up when it still looked like a long war ahead. No one knew at that point that Japan was only months from collapse. (And the smarter Allied leaders  – Churchill, Brooke and Patton amongst them - were already nervous about what Russia might do after the German defeat, and already considering how to husband resources to be on the safe side.) 

Britain had been fighting for years longer than the US, Russia, or Japan - or even France (which had taken a 4 year break, and was back in the game with more than 20 divisions deployed before Germany surrendered.) Conserving and making the most of available manpower was just as vital to Britain as to Germany or Russia. So Britain’s real priority was enough skilled factory workers to arm and equip the millions of Russians and now French troops that could take some of the load. 

In fact – of course - the idea of using skilled workers as cannon fodder is the height of stupidity. Those countries that were forced to do so - particularly Russia, Germany and Japan – automatically conceding that they could not ‘do it all’.

Actually for both for both Britain and the United States, prioritising factory production over PBI (poor bloody infantry), is a sign of strength, and a sign of sensible choices. 

Britain’s contribution to the ‘Balance of Power’ in Europe for centuries had been concentrating on arming and equipping her allies (with a limited number of elite troops under Marlborough or Wellington or Montgomery to work with those allies). Only during World War I had Britain made the mistake of providing a mass of cannon fodder to hold, and then win, a major land campaign or three. The appalling cost to skilled labour and leadership of that over the top effort had demonstrated why it was a stupid idea to provide mass PBI when you are better providing mass equipment to arm other people’s PBI. 

Which was why Russian infantry entered Germany wearing British boots, and riding in US trucks, which were supplied by American built Liberty ships escorted by British built escorts. And why Chinese troops used British Middle Eastern fuel resources and American ammunition to play games with the Japanese using their American supplied planes and vehicles which had come via the same ships and escorts.

That’s the sensible way for countries with highly skilled workforces to assist countries with large numbers of poorly skilled and under-equipped peasants.

(To be fair Germany had done her best to equip the peasant levies of Italy and Hungary and Rumania, just as the British and Americans did with the Russians, Chinese, Indians and Free French troops from North Africa… It’s just how technically advanced countries maximise the effect of working with less advanced ones…)

But still some historians don’t really understand this process… Partly because some of the countries concerned don’t seem to have understood (or perhaps aren’t willing to admit) that this is what they were actually doing? British historians still understate the idea that it has always been a better idea to provide equipment for other people to die using, and US historians still pretending that the US had no limits on how many soldiers they were willing to sacrifice.

In fact the pretence  that the US could do all the industrial tasks and also provide the sort of mass conscript force the British Empire had used in World War One is still inherent in much of the literature. (Despite Marshall’s appalling ‘replacement’ system of ‘slot in’ soldiers, which was perhaps the most manpower wasteful system ever devised by a Western Democracy.) 

Still, by late 1944 it was apparent to anyone with sense that the United States could not throw unlimited cannon fodder around either. 

Marshall’s original design for an expeditionary army had been about 300 divisions! This was a fantasy based on his vague understanding of PBI, and not understanding the resources required for a modern industrialised and mechanised force. His more realistic follow up plan was for about 150 divisions. The final plan fizzled out at less than 100, and in fact only 88 made it overseas (and half of those only in the last few months of campaigning on their respective fronts in Europe and the Pacific).

Again, this is pure sense. Better to have 80 odd top end highly mobile units to take on the enemy’s elite forces while letting other people’s PBI distract the mass of the enemy’s PBI, than to pretend that you can do both at once.

In fact, by 1944 the British Commonwealth had already joyfully reduced the 100+ divisions – many of them garrison troops of course – from their defensive low point in 1942, and were only fielding about 50 elite divisions for offensive purposes. (Almost all of them fully mechanised, and some  - 78ththArmoured Division with over 2,000 specialist armoured vehicles for instance - equipped to standards unimaginable by any nation that could not ‘do it all’.)

So the correct definition of those who could ‘do it all’, really comes down to those who had the potential to do almost everything, the resources to be able to pick and choose, and the smarts to concentrate their efforts to best effect.

The Anglosphere powers – Britain, her Commonwealth of Nations, and the United States - not only had the ability to do it all, they also had the interoperability and trust to choose the best places to specialise to maximum effect. Britain sending her radar research and atomic bomb project to work with the US team was sensible when the US was relying on British PBI to hold the line and British escort production to stop the slaughter in the Atlantic. The US concentrating on aircraft carriers and Liberty ships while Britain slowed it’s carrier production to concentrate on escorts and then landing ships also worked for both. Likewise the US providing airlift while the British worked on sea lift. Etc.

So really the Great Powers break into 3 ranks. The two that could do it all – Britain and the US; the 4 that could struggle, and almost succeed, against the odds – Germany, Russia, France and Japan – but could in no way ‘do it all’; and the inevitable also ran – Italy.


  1. What do you make of the idea British high command was allowing US armies to predominate in France in late 1944-45 because They were preparing for the final, lethal offensives in Italy and Burma? Much is made of the 2:1 ratio of Crown/US troops by the time of the Bulge in France, but it seems to be forgotten that at the same time Brooke and co. were putting the finishing touches on plans to end the war just about everywhere else. I remember reading somewhere that 14th Army became the largest single field army used by any combatant in the war.

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  3. Nigel, hello!

    I remember that in another post you have said that due to shipping constraints several british divisions were stuck in the UK for the earlier years of the war (instead of going to the fronts elsewhere) and that the indian manpower wasnt fully mobilized because of shipping constraints as well.

    Im desperately needing some good sources on both of these facts, could you tell me of any books or academic articles that mention them?

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