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Turning Point of World War II?

By Robert M. Citino 
Originally published under Front & Center Blog. Published Online: July 31, 2009 
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What was the turning point of World War II?  I've been teaching university courses on the war for a long time, and it's one of the questions I get asked most often (right up there with "Would you repeat that?" and "Is this going to be on the exam?").

I'll confess from the get-go that the question makes me somewhat uncomfortable. This war, more than any other before it, was a vast and sprawling conflict on land, sea, and air.  It involved hundreds of millions of fighters and civilians from the freezing cold Arctic wastes to the sweltering heat of the Burmese jungle, and the notion that there was a single discrete moment that "turned" it is problematical, to say the least.

A second problem with the concept is the sheer number of turning points that historians have identified over the years.  The German halt at Dunkirk, allowing the British to escape the continent and fight another day; the German decision to shift to city bombing and terror raids in the battle of Britain when they "clearly" had the RAF on the ropes; Hitler's gratuitous decision to give himself a two-front war by invading the Soviet Union in June 1941; his diversion of the Panzer formations into the Ukraine in August; his equally gratuitous decision to declare war on the United States in December; El Alamein in October 1942; Stalingrad in November:  the list goes on and on, and there are more than a few historians who identify more than one.  That's cheating, of course.  A second turning point should put you right back where you started!

The real problem, however, is that "turning point" simply isn't a very useful way to think about war.  A quarterback throwing an interception–a single bad decision, a faulty throw, a badly run route by a receiver–that's a turning point.  Momentum is a real factor in a sporting event, no doubt.  But is it the same in war?  Let's think about El Alamein.  It was something different, certainly, a smashing victory for the British 8th Army after years of humiliating defeat in the desert.  It crushed Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's Panzerarmee Afrika, and although the "Desert Fox" managed to retreat to Tunisia, it clearly signaled the onset of the end game in North Africa.  No less a figure than Winston Churchill said so:  "Before Alamein, we never had a victory – after Alamein we never had a defeat."  But Alamein wasn't some shocking bolt out of the blue.  By the time it was fought, the British (backed by American muscle and materiel) had achieved a decisive superiority in manpower, tanks, aircraft, and gun tubes.  At Alamein, they used all these things to good effect to wear down (and eventually grind down) an enemy who was already mortally inferior.  Therefore, while Alamein might have made Churchill feel better, it can't be seen as the "turning point" of either the desert war or the war as a whole.  The very fact that the British 8th Army could win it in the fashion it did showed that a turning point of some sort–or at least a dramatic shift in the balance of forces in the desert–had ALREADY taken place.   

"Turning point" confuses cause and effect.
 


26 Responses to “Turning Point of World War II?”


  1. 1
    David says:

    Well then surely Midway would, by most of the criteria listed, be a turning point. The U.S. fleet, out numbered in ships, stopped the invasion. This despite the inferiority of Allied aircraft in both numbers and quality.

  2. 2
    Paul says:

    It is, in my opinion, totally reasonable to have more than one turning point and there is no better example of this than WW2. Turning points tend to be incremental; that is, the direction of events turns by identifiable stages, each pivotal event tending to tilt the balance progressively more in favour of one side. In this way, a second 'turning point' does not "put you right back where you started". Of course, it is possible to suffer reverses along the way and indeed, at times this did happen to the Allies but it's the overall trend we need to look at, and the pivotal events that helped to keep that trend going. Therefore, when asked, "What was the turning point of WW2", we should be answering that there were a number of turning points, or pivotal events, that can be identified as being of major importance in shaping the Allied victory.

  3. 3
    Gerry Proudfoot says:

    "Turning points" may very well be hard to pin down to single events, that much is true. By the time the battles of Stalingrad, 2nd Alamein and Midway were fought we now know the Germans had already lost the war. Remaining with Alamein for discussion purposes it does qualify as a turning point in at least one way, it finally showed that the British and Commonwealth armies could fight the axis and win the battle.

    Too many point to the 8th Army's numerical advantages and claim the battle would have been won anyway. This is clearly false. The 8th Army had a numerical advantage for Battleaxe, Crusader, Gazala and 1st Alamein in July 1942 but in none of the above cases was it able to truly defeat the Italo-German army in Africa. Battleaxe and Gazala were clear defeats, Crusader can best be described as a tactical success but an operational and strategic failure and 1st Alamein is little more than a draw despite a numerical superiority held by the British that exceeded what was to follow during the October battles.

    If numbers did not guarantee success it must be another factor that final led to victory. The missing piece to the puzzle was training and doctrine. Prior to 2nd Alamein the British and CW formation were simply not all reading from the same script. Doctrine was applied haphazardly and training was faulty to say the less. The British tried, under Auchinleck, to fight as the Germans did without understanding the German methods or being trained to use their own version of their doctrine.

    The 8th Army did not fight as a whole whether it was at the divisional, corps or army level. Armour did not understand the needs of the infantry and artillery and they, in turn, did not understand the peculiar needs of armoured formations. Even long after the use of "columns" had long been discredited they were still being formed and sent into action (only to be destroyed or badly mauled) as late as July 1942.

    The "turning point" for 8th Army and the British in the European theatre was the appointment of commanders that both understood the social make up of the army they led. They took the time to train these men in the methods that they would need to use in battle and applied doctrine uniformly across the army. Second Alamein would likely have ended in a British failure if the British commanders had tried to apply their old methods. As such, it would have never have achieved its status as a "turning point".

  4. 4

    To David: You may be right! Midway may well qualify as a "turning point"… a series of chance occurrences turned the tide there, and in the Pacific War as well. But even here: WHY was Midway so pivotal? We say it all the time: "Japan lost four carriers it could not replace." But the US built dozens of carriers in the course of the war. The issue that made Midway crucial was lack of Japanese productive capacity. Japan had launched a war where even a single defeat could well represent a mortal blow.

    To Paul: Your analysis is spot on. My only disagreement with it is that the traditional view of "turning point" is something that marks a 180 degree turn! I really like your notion of a long series of incremental "pivotal events". I think it really gets at the problem of modern war's complexity.

    Gerry–Great analysis of the desert war and the role of Alamein in it. No argument: the 8th Army had to learn how to fight. But the Panzerarmee
    was vastly whittled down by the Fall of 1942–five straight months of offensive operations, a top-speed lunge into Egypt, non-existent logistics, loss of air superiority. They all need to be factored in as well.

    Thanks, everyone, for weighing in. As I like to say, "your mileage may vary" on all these questions! That's why it's so interesting to discuss them.

  5. 5
    Paul says:

    Hi Robert. Thanks for the comments, and glad to have been able to make a small contribution. I guess the main thrust of my position is that the 'traditional' concept of a turning point, being a 180 degree turn, is fundamentally flawed or at least, too simplistic. War generally, and modern war in particular, is IMHO usually too complex for the overall situation to go totally in reverse on account of a single pivotal battle, campaign or event. (Or, to put it another way, 'full ahead' and 'full reverse' are not the only two directions things can go in.) The direction of a war can be, and IMO frequently is, turned by degrees; often at distinctly identifiable points. Hence, multiple turning points rather than just one. :-)

    Gerry: I agree with Robert; very good analysis (as is usual for you).

  6. 6
    Gunner says:

    All the commnets are spot on, no doubt. I agree with the fine statements about turnarounds and how many there could be. The question is: "What was the Turning Point in WWII?" I will have to side with Midway being the turning point. I agree with the definitions of turning points and how many there could be. However, if the brave warriorshad not defeated Yamomoto he wouldn't have stopped at Midway, he wwould be churning blue water towards Hawaii. This would have caused the U.S. to draw back on support to Europe to defend Hawaii and possibily even the mainland. Europe would have been put on hold and then who knows how the Axis would have responded.

    Midway gets my vote.

    Gunner
    CWO5 USMC (ret)

  7. 7
    Rick Solomon says:

    I agree that it is nearly impossible to point at a definitive battle that was the turning point of WW2. Although my vote would have to go to Pearl Harbour. Pearl Harbour engaged the US in WW2 which with it's industrial might made the outcome inevitable.

  8. 8
    dee t. says:

    I agree with most of the above remarks, there are several actions that were turning points.
    Still the question is "Turning point of World War II. In my humble opinon the turning point was Pearl Harbor. The war had been going on for over two years before Pearl Harbor was attacked and the United States of American entered the war. With out Pearl Harbor and American military forces and industry might would any of the other "Turning Points" even happened? With out Pearl Harbor how long would it have been before America entered the war, or would she have entered the war?

  9. 9
    Tioedong says:

    Don't forget the Anzac were a big part of the "British" fight…

    link

  10. 10
    Rob Citino says:

    Rick and dee t.–

    Pearl Harbor was huge, no doubt, the moment a war in Asia and a war in Europe became a "world" war. Question: was the Axis defeat "inevitable," in your opinion, after December 7th, 1941?

    Tioedong–

    ANZAC forever! Rommel himself listed the New Zealanders as being among his toughest opponents.

  11. 11
    LongView says:

    I am sorry to disappoint all western thinking on this, even though being part of this myself.

    The two leaders in WW2 where Germany and USSR. They engaged their society most thoroughly, rendered the two largest armies the world has ever seen and the turning point must surely be on this front. All the events in Western Europe, Africa and Asia or USA must be considered secondary and of minor importance even though continuously enlarged in media ever since. In comparison, they remain minor and without overall impact.

    Even though the industrial output of USA running outside the war zone could have had a large impact, the actual effect is smaller and the potential of it hampered by the US lack of commitment and lack of actual war experience.

    There is in my mind no doubt that the Stalingrad surrender at Feb 2nd 1943 following the decision not to pursue Stalin in Moscow, is the turning point of WW2.

    The second most important turning point is the bombing of Nagasaki August 9th 1945. This is naturally most important to Japan but the main effect on WW2 is the way it stopped USSR from invading at least the rest of Europe and thereby showing the western World that it had the greater war machine. Since this is hypothetical and does not involve the Third Reich, it is perhaps to be considered in terms of WW3 more than WW2. This is why most of us can continue to form our own image of the history rather openly.

    We ought not to create a basis of wishful thinking where minor events involving US/English persons suitable for films, are made into decisive battles.

    • 11.1
      Dushka says:

      Why is nobody ready to say that Axis and Hitler were doomed from the start? Hitler wanted to conquer Europe, at the end even the British Isles. He only had one country that fought seriously, Japan. Mussolini had no designs on the whole world. Japan was a wrong ally of Axis, geographically and in ideals. But the factor is also that Evil doesn't prevail in the final reckoning.

  12. 12
    Terence says:

    I'd say that Longview is just a little bit right.
    The Turning point of the European/N. African leg of WW2 was the German failure to force a decision anywhere by the end of 1941.
    No decision in September 1940 in the Battle of Britain. No Decision in North Africa. No decision in the Atlantic and no Decision on the Eastern front.
    After the halt at Moscow in Dec 1941 and the entry of the US, there was no real chance of a short war and no real chance of a German victory on sheer economic criterea (Paul Kennedy, Rise and Fall of the Great Powers).
    As far as the US contribution is concerned it was American industrial strength and the incredible economic capacity to produce (possibly inferior) military equipment in such quantities that it drowned Axis potential. Remember the ammunition, food and personnel for the Red Army a Stalingrad and Kursk was carried principally on American Lease-Lend trucks!

  13. 13
    Nathan says:

    Of course you can have multiple turning points when war is made of battles, area dominance and supply chain.

    Win a battle but dont have area dominance then you are going to have another battle. Conquer the area but lose your supply chain then you havent won much ground for very long.

    As long as the enemy isnt vanquished then there can always be turning points.

    "A second turning point should put you back right back where you started" What a mind-w*nk of a word twist.

    Next time, maybe start the article with a popular definition of turning point or maybe emphasise the real intended meaning of the question by asking what was the "Critical" turning point.

    Then you can have a discussion that isnt basically arguing about definitions

  14. 14
    Scot says:

    The reality of the moment was that the War was decided on the eastern front. The speculaton of what would have happened if the Germans had not made any number of the errors they did would not have affected the eventual outcome of the war. Atomic weapons and there delivery system {B29's} were the trump card. The Germans were first on the hit parade.

    Pearl Harbor may have accelerated both systems development and intergraton.

  15. 15
    Chris says:

    I too have been teaching WWII at the university level for years. I agree that there is no single turning point but a series of events and historical changes (which can never be inevitable since that is ahistorical and leaves out human agency) that made the allies vastly superior in every way. Ironically, we cannot agree on a turning point, but the state of Massachusetts, in their teacher licensure test, asks aspiring teachers that exact question in a multiple choice question. The choices are a) El Alamein b) D-Day c) Stalingrad d)Pearl Harbor. In their infinite wisdom, the ONLY correct answer is c) Stalingrad. So the state of Massachusetts knows the answer what is wrong with all of you…..

  16. 16
    Rob Citino says:

    Chris–

    Well, far be it from me to argue with the state of Massachusetts–case closed!!

    :)

    –Rob C

  17. 17
    americangoy says:

    The turning point of WW2 was the battle of Khalkin Gol.

  18. 18
    Andrew Morris says:

    In a war which was truly global with multiple theaters of war and multiple combatants, I don't think you could ever say that there was ONE "turning point" (however you define that).

    I think, building off of Paul's analysis that it's rather a series of incrementally increasing events that ultimately leads to the end result, and that each occurs in each theater of war that contributes towards the overall end scenario.

    So, rather than ask "What was THE turning point of WW2?" the question would be better phrased as "What WERE the turning pointS of WW2?". That would lend itself to better discussion and debate than a singular definitive answer.

    As to Pearl Harbor being THE turning point, based on bringing in the US to WW2: I would say that the US was already heavily involved (Lend-Lease the primary example) and they were already heavily down the road to more significant involvement. The US was going to be involved in the war no matter what; it was just a case of "When?" rather than "If?" and Pearl Harbor made the decision a whole lot easier for the American public and Congress to accept.

  19. 19
    Rob Citino says:

    americangoy–

    I would add one thing to your excellent post. If things tend to change incrementally, then we need to drop the term "turning point" altogether, because "turning point" will ALWAYS mean the same thing to most people: the ONE event that changed World War II. As my original post argued, I don't think one event could possibly have changed the course of something as vast as World War II.

  20. 20
    Lee says:

    24 August 1939

  21. 21
    JOSEPH DONATO says:

    When one looks for the turning point in the Second World War they must realize that the war was fought over four continents involving numerous battlefronts. One particular event cannot be singled out as being completely desicive in the victory or defeat of the Axis forces. Rateher many problems, miscalculations, and blunders would leasd them on the road to defeat . In the case of the Eastern Front I believe the turning point came with the the launch of Opearation Uranus and the encirclement of the 6th Army. The Wermacht was severly overextended when Hitler launched Operation Blue in June 1942. The hopes of rapid victory had been buried in the snows outside of Moscow the previous winter with the failure of Barbarossa to knock Russia out of the war in one season of campaign. By 1942 the Reich needed the oil of the Caucuses to sustain their growing military endevours and to deal the Soviets a vital blow. The depleted Wermacht was revamped and refitted for the summer campaign. However, Hitler's decision to bleed the 6th army white in Stalingrad was a tremendous mistake. The city should have been surrounded and reduced (similar to Leningrad's status in 1941) The desruction fo the 6th army and the reversal of all german gains during the summer campaign was a catastrophe. The scale began to tip in favor of the Red Army. After Stalingrad, the effects of Lend-Lease and the "Total War" Soviet economy began to give the Soviets the advantage. After the abortive "Zittadele" in July 1943, the intiative was passed unquestionably to the Soviets. After Kursk the Germans could only hope to slow down the Soviet tidal wave. With the defeat on the Eastern Front, Germany could only hope to break up the alliance building against it and hold out.

  22. 22
    William Green says:

    All the previous posts ignore one undeniable fact. As Winston Churchill stated at War's end "If we had lost the Battle of the Atlantic-we'd have lost the War!"
    CANADA declared War on Sept 10, 1939 and began delivering one million tons of food, clothing, arms, tanks, trucks aircraft & ammunition by ship from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Britain and provided trained pilots and aircraft to take part in the Battle of Britain in 1941. Without Canada and Canadian direct support-Germany would have invaded Britain and the Allied D-Day Invasion would have been in the British Isles rather than on the beaches of Normandy!
    And where would Gen. Eisenhower have prepared for Invasion? In Bermuda? In Iceland? In new York?
    Certainly, Pearl Harbour & Midway were significant "turning points" in getting USA involved and underway-particularly in the Pacific-however, early Intervention by Canada and Canadians in re-supplying Britain with weapons, equipment & food after the evacuation at Dunkirk was indeed remarkable.
    For your teaching notebook: The Battle of the Atlantic was the longest (6 years) Naval Battle in History. 2. At War's end, Canada possessed the third largest Navy and Fourth largest Air Force in the World!
    Best Regards,
    Bill Green,
    CANADA

  23. 23
    William Green says:

    All the previous posts ignore one undeniable fact. As Winston Churchill stated at War's end "If we had lost the Battle of the Atlantic-we'd have lost the War!"
    CANADA declared War on Sept 10, 1939 and began delivering one million tons of food, clothing, arms, tanks, trucks aircraft & ammunition by ship from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Britain PER WEEK and provided trained pilots and aircraft to take part in the Battle of Britain in 1941. Without Canada and Canadian direct support-Germany would have invaded Britain and the Allied D-Day Invasion would have been in the British Isles rather than on the beaches of Normandy!
    And where would Gen. Eisenhower have prepared for Invasion? In Bermuda? In Iceland? In new York?
    Certainly, Pearl Harbour & Midway were significant "turning points" in getting USA involved and underway-particularly in the Pacific-however, early Intervention by Canada and Canadians in re-supplying Britain with weapons, equipment & food after the evacuation at Dunkirk was indeed remarkable.
    For your teaching notebook: The Battle of the Atlantic was the longest (6 years) Naval Battle in History. 2. At War's end, Canada possessed the third largest Navy and Fourth largest Air Force in the World!
    Best Regards,
    Bill Green,
    CANADA

  24. 24
    David Luck says:

    A very enlightening discussion. However, inasmuch as the Pacfic War – U.S. vs Japan – and the European War – in essence, Germany vs Russia – were two fairly distinct (tho certainly related) wars, I think we can identify two decisive moments and, of these, one perhaps more important than the other. First, Hitler's "No Moscow" decision, reached as early as April '41 (cf. Halder's Diary) probably doomed the Germans on the Eastern Front. By the time he realized the error of his ways, in mid-September, it was too late…not by much, maybe a week or two, but as events proved, too late. Next question would be, is this then the decisive moment of the entire World War? Many historians would say yes, given the vast forces and issues involved in the Eastern Front. But I don't think so. What the Russians and the Germans contested was really "only" hegemony in continental Europe; neither was or would become a global air-sea power. At issue between America and Japan, though, was precisely this question: who was going to succeed a fading Britain as global hegemon by controlling the world's oceans and the adjacent verticle and horizontal airspaces? And I think that issue was substantially resolved at Pearl Harbor, when the Japanese fell into FDR's trap, dragged America into the Pacific War, and did so without administering any substantial strategic damage. Of course, something else besides Roosevelt's provocations made the Japanese attack southward and eastward, rather than westward into Russia in Support of Hitler's war, and that something would be – as per americangoy's post above – the 1937-39 border war between Russian and Japan.

  25. 25
    Harry says:

    The real turning point of the war is indeed, when Germans had to stop at Moscow, having failed to knock Russia out in Blitzkrieg.

    Once that happened then Germans had to face the full weight of a larger country, numerically, territory wise and also with larger industrial output. . As Russia getting, the needed breathing, time, exploited ruthlessly and in 1942 started out-producing Germany in Tanks and Aircrafts. In addition Russian Tanks were superior to German Tanks,, basically Germans were out-gunned until 1943. Afterwards it was only a matter of time before a larger country would overwhelm a smaller country in attrition war.

    After that only luck, such as some new far-advanced weapons or colossal mistakes by Russian Generals, could have save Germans from eventual defeat.

    Other point worth noting is that if Hitler had waited until he conquered Britain to attack Russia, he would not have been able to achieve the same spectacular results he achieved in 1941.Because by that time Russia would have become much stronger. Russia was slowly encroaching on Balkans after 1940 and was closer to Romanian oilfields. With German conquest of Britain, Russia would be expecting German attack any time and would not have been caught off guard in surprise attack and would not have lost so much men, territory and material in first year, granted that much of equipment lost were of inferior type, not T-34 or KV type tanks. It was surprise attack that enabled Germans to destroy Russian Airforce in very early stage. Stalin, being highly cautious man, did not expect Hitler, after conquering so much, to gamble for another front while he had not finished Britain.



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