Why Did Germany Screw Up in 1940? January 19, 2016Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback
The survival of Britain from May to October 1940 is one of the most stirring stories of the Second World War. Britain as Lukacs noted could never have won the war alone but in the first summer of the war Britain could have lost it. From 1936 to early May 1940 the UK had made mistake after mistake in its foreign and military policy. However, from mid May and the collapse of the British army in Flanders, and more seriously the break down of the French army in France the British war cabinet and military leaders played the poor cards in their hand with extraordinary skill. This is true of the evacuation of the BEF, it is true of the Battle of Britain and it is true of foreign policy decisions with the enemy powers and with the wider world. It is probably to be expected that a proud country on the ropes will snap back into form and while it might give pleasure to a Briton to read descriptions of the Luftwaffe getting its comeuppance over the Thames Estuary Britain’s performance was not the most important factor in the summer of 1940. What, in fact, is most striking about that close-run part of the war is not the British playing a weak hand with panache, it is the appalling and entirely uncharacteristic mistakes made by the Germans. The Germans who had done everything right from 1936 until May 1940 starting, unaccountably, tripping over flower pots and walking into doors. Britain could play its cards as well as it wanted, but its survival depended on Germany screwing up hand after hand and the Nazis obliged. What on earth went wrong? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
One of the most interesting aspects of the first act of the Second World War was, to use modern psychoanalytic jargon, Hitler’s ‘conflicted’ attitude towards the British. He recognized that Britain was a foe. But he also seems to have had room for Britain (an ‘Aryan’ nation as he reminded his generals in the later part of the war) in his vision of the world: and this was a man who had a fairly limited vision of the world. This conflicted attitude perhaps proved fatal for Nazi Germany. Almost unbelievably the Germany army failed to war game for an invasion of the UK prior to September 1939. There is an argument that Hitler deliberately allowed the British Expeditionary Force to escape. And Hitler lacked the killer instinct towards Britain in the summer of 1940: his air campaign lacked conviction and even in the changed circumstances of 1940 the invasion of the island was, in the words of one WW2 historian, contemplated but never planned. As Albert Kesselring understood in his Postwar memoir Hitler was convinced that Britain would do the ‘rational’ thing and negotiate its way out of the war. But Hitler constantly misconstrued the British. (It should be noted that the British had constantly misunderstood Germans for the previous twenty years so no use getting triumphalist here). In the end it is this curious ambiguity in the brain of the OKW, not British bravery in spitfires and British pluck in the small boats and British boffins at Bletchley that got the UK through to January 1941. Exemplary British strategy mattered, of course, but it would never have been enough.
Other explanations: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
23 January 2016: The great Mike Dash writes in with a very convincing series of observations:
With regard to grasping the Nazis’ screw-ups in 1940, it is helpful to see things in a wider perspective: the failings of 1940 are far more usefully understood as harbingers of future failure, rather than uncharacteristic deviations from past excellence.
Here it’s interesting to consider a couple of points. One, the disarmament of the 1920s left all participants (British, French, German, Russian, American, you name it…) with a lot of catching up to do during the 1930s in terms of producing properly functioning war machines. The Germans started re-armament earlier than anyone else, so by 1939 they still enjoyed the benefits of a head start. This coupled with the undoubted excellence of their officer training and military planning ensured they were strong favourites to win any short-term campaign, but less strongly positioned to win consistently against an enemy that survived long enough to learn how to fight (compare the hapless Red Army of the Winter War to the grim military machine that entered Berlin in 1945). In addition, German tactics (Blitzkrieg) were still relatively novel; the Nazis were, to use a sporting analogy, like one of those innovative but slightly underpowered football teams that achieves great success in the first half of a season, but then gets “found out” by the larger and better resourced teams they have to play again for a second time after the winter break, and find the tactics that worked the first time around are no longer enough to secure victory.
The truth of the matter is that the Germans had not, in fact, been severely tested up to the spring of 1940. A Poland with no natural defensive barriers along the borders, being attacked from both sides by much larger states, was never going to survive for long, and the French performance in 1940 was far worse than the British, not least thanks to the eggs-in-one-basket, no-second-Verdun focus on the Maginot Line. Neither 1939 nor 1940 can be seen (sorry, France) as not particularly revealing tests. Certainly not compared to the prospect of taking on a United States in full productive flow and a royally pissed-off Soviet Union.
So: contrast 1939-40 to the German performance in general in 1941-45, and one can see that several German failings that first reared their heads in 1940 re-emerged later, and repeated themselves over and over again. There are lots of examples, but let’s take just one: unbalanced forces. The Germans had lots of great infantry, good tanks, excellent light air support. But this came at a substantial cost. Not nearly enough money had been ploughed into the navy. There was not nearly enough serious attention given to innovation (not surprising – campaigns were supposed to be short and sharp and victorious, not slugfests drawn out over years). To a remarkable extent the Germans continued to fight the war right to the end with the same weapons they had begun it with – they introduced no four-engined bombers (imagine what a German Eighth Air Force might have achieved in 1940), no aircraft carriers etc. The innovations they did produce (V1, V2, Me262, Tiger) came very late and in very small numbers, thanks in large part to boneheaded, shortsighted strategic decision-making and political infighting between different parts of the Nazi war machine – an ongoing problem that was a very predictable product of Hitler’s chaotic style of management, plus British naval blockade. Compare what the British and Russians had and were fighting with in 1939 to 1945 – the products of (relatively) smoothly humming economic production lines with good access to raw materials. Their forces and equipment were almost entirely transformed. Everything German was increasingly ersatz, from the coffee (made of acorns) up.
All this in turn ties in to two core German weaknesses which had not had time to be exposed by 1940, but were already present and would prove fatal. One: truly terrible political leadership. Yes, the Germans had the smartest uniforms and the biggest political rallies, but that doesn’t mean we should be seduced into thinking of Hitler’s state as either competent or efficient. The Nazi elite were for the most part horribly educated and, bluntly, pretty stupid, especially when contrasted to their counterparts on the British and American side; I once described the wartime leadership of Germany as a “collection of thugs, sycophants, stone-eyed killers and over-promoted incompetents,” and I still think that judgement stands up. Yes, the Russians weren’t too much better, at first, but there were vastly more of them (try enough generals and you’ll strike a Zhukov eventually), plus Stalin, for all his numerous weaknesses, didn’t fancy himself as a strategist in the Hitler mould. One sometimes reads the suggestion that the Allies deliberately didn’t target Hitler in the latter stages of the war for fear his successor might turn out to be more competent; it’s a fanciful idea, but one built on a certain truth. Certainly the record of the war reveals that Hitler’s misreadings of the British position in 1940 was not the single uncharacteristic mis-step of a strategic genius, but rather the first in a long series of fatal blunders by a fool who had had the good fortune to go on a short “hot streak” against Second Division opposition. Two (a consequence of one): horrible economic mismanagement. The Germans had got to the position they were in by 1940 by rigging their economy during the 1930s in a manner that couldn’t possibly have been sustained; they’d have collapsed into bankruptcy before too much longer in they hadn’t gone to war. They could not (and would not) construct their economy to sustain a long conflict in the way the Brits, Russians and (especially) Americans could. Look, for instance, at their use of women; thanks in large part to Hitler’s obsession with kinder, kuche, kirche, the Nazis made vastly less use of half of the available workforce throughout the war than the Allies did – and surely one key lesson of the war was that a motivated female workforce was more productive than starving, unmotivated male forced labour.
One could go on, but I return to my original point. While, all in all, a Nazi Germany in which Hitler listened to his generals, got women into the factories, and left Hjalmar Schacht to run the economy, would have been a far more formidable enemy in 1940 than the Germany we faced, the reality is that all of the problems that led to German collapse were already present and correct by the time of Dunkirk.