Friday, January 13, 2017

Why the Allies Won World War II

Richard Overy, Why the Allies Won, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1995

Richard Overy asks the question: Why did the Allies win the Second World War? Overy’s argues that, contrary to the conventional answer that the overwhelming material resources of the Allies won the war, “the outcome had not just a material explanation but also important moral and political causes”. Additionally, Overy argues that it was not Axis mistakes that led to Allied victory, but “on a very great improvement in military effectiveness of Allied forces.” Overy cautions, “…statistics do not simply speak for themselves; they require interpreters”. For example, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, the Soviet Union fielded some fifteen thousand tanks compared to 3,648 German tanks, and yet it was the Germans who won the initial victories. Similarly, an American fleet defeated a greatly numerically superior Japanese fleet at Midway. In terms of productive capacity, Overy notes that during the critical middle years of the war the balance of economic resources was not yet weighted heavily in the Allies’ favor. (P.181) The outcome of the war was not inevitable. “Materially rich, but divided, demoralised, and poorly led, the Allied coalition would have lost the war….” (P. 325)

Overy focuses his discussion of the War on what he considers the decisive parts of the conflict. He identifies four main zones of combat: the war at sea, the Eastern front, the bombing offensive, and the reconquest of Western Europe. Success in combat in these zones was determined in great measure by issues of production, scientific discovery, military reform and social enthusiasm. Activities in each combat zone influenced and was influenced by activity in each of the other combat zones. The bombing campaign against Germany, for example, resulted in German forces being denied approximatley half their battle front weapons and equipment in 1944. “It is difficult not to regard this margin as decisive.” (P. 131)

So why did they Allies win the war? Overy points out that the Allies were more agile in adapting to changing circumstances, quickly instituting reforms that covered both the organization of forces, their equipment and operational skills. These reforms achieved improvements in the qualitative performances of all Allied forces and technology in the middle years of the war, “without which later quantitative supremacy would have availed little”. (P. 318) While the gap between the two sides narrowed in every sphere of combat, Axis forces did little to alter the basic pattern of their military organizations and operational practice, or to reform and modernize the way they made war. They responded more slowly to the sudden swing in the balance of fighting power evident in 1943. In Germany and Japan much greater value was placed on operations and on combat than on organization and suppply. (P. 318) Industry was central to the Allied view of warfare. Germany and Japan did not consider economics as central to the war effort, focusing on willpower, resolve, and endurance as the prime movers in war.( P. 206) Eventually, factory for factory, the Allies made better use of their industry than their enemies thereby winning the long war of attrition.

How effective is Overy’s argument? Overy’s description of the organizational skills and adaptability of the Allies is extremely compelling and perfectly captures the concept of the so called “Boyd Cycle” (a concept applied to the combat operations processes by military strategist John Boyd). According to Boyd, decision-making occurs in a recurring cycle of observe-orient-decide-act. An entity that can process this cycle quickly, observing and reacting to unfolding events more rapidly than an opponent, can thereby "get inside" the opponent's decision cycle and gain a military advantage. In short, the one with the shortest Boyd cycle wins. Overy’s insistence on the importance of the moral cause for which the Allies fought is less compelling. “The moral forces at work on the Allied side kept people fighting in a common cause; but as the war went on Axis populations suffered a growing demoralisation, a collapse of consensus….(P. 286)” Overy himself acknowledges that “Words like ‘will’ and ‘courage’ are difficult for historians to use as instruments of cold analysis. They cannot be quantified; they are elusive of definition….” One might postulate that if the war had been going more favorably for Germany and Japan, the populations of the Axis powers would have had higher morale.

Overy’s analysis of the roots of Allied victory, a complex and highly interrelated topic, is brilliant in both its nuance and treatment of hard, quantifiable numbers. His dismissal of gross statistics and mastery and interpretation of specific statistics, such as the shipping losses in the Atlantic (“After years of painful attrition the U-boat threat was liquidated in two months.” ( PP. 58-59)) is eriudite and compelling. In the final analysis, even Overy, however, acknowledges that victory was won by a very narrow margin and that the element of chance was an important variable. “If war had not started until the mid-1940s Germany might well have proved unstoppable” (P. 200) “The decisive engagement at Midway Island was won because ten American bombs out of the hundreds dropped fell on the right target.” (P. 320) “…if Eisenhower had decided at that critical moment to wait for the next brief period when the moon and tides held good the invaders would have been swallowed up by the great gale….”(P. 178)

(An Alternative History)

A first person account of the Normandy campaign from D-Day + 1 to the liberation of Paris. 

War from the perspective of the average citizen soldier.

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