Productive factories provided abundant materiel, but the ability of individual soldiers to adapt made the real difference.
Fighting quality plays too small a role in most assessments of why the Allies won World War II. Perhaps this is because conventional wisdom has traditionally emphasized the Allies’ ability to outproduce the Axis. The dominant interpretation stresses resources and such factors as numbers of tanks and ships, and the ability to mobilize the homefront to produce weaponry rather than consumer goods.
From this perspective, the Allies won because their benign, more-integrated societies allowed them to totally mobilize for war, while the conservative, even reactionary attitudes of the Nazis and the Japanese ensured that they lost. “Rosie the Riveter” and her many counterparts in the Allied countries thus won the war.
This interpretation rests on a degree of accuracy. Nazi racism and Japanese oppression did make it difficult for the Axis to derive the full benefits from the increased resources acquired through conquest. Mistreatment even led to popular resistance, especially in Eastern Europe, that diverted Germany’s military assets. The Allies never encountered comparable civilian resistance. Indeed, the weakness of popular resistance during the conquest of Germany indicates how unpopular the Nazi regime had become, and the depth of the Germans’ sense that they deserved to fail.
But like all too much analytical military history, these assessments take the fighting out of the war. In World War II, the Allies outfought the Axis on land, in the air, and at sea. To this day, there is still a tendency among Germans to believe that they lost only because they were outnumbered, and to minimize or ignore the extent to which they were outfought. Similarly, Germans in 1918 blamed their defeat on everything other than the Allied ability to defeat Kaiser Wilhelm’s troops on the Western Front.
German commanders and staff officers reflecting on their own campaigns have created too many of these postwar analyses. In doing so, they may have been influenced by American interrogators bent on finding reasons to maintain significant stocks of weapons to thwart their assumed new enemy, the Soviet Union. German officers have tended to blame their losses on lack of resources, the size and inhospitable climate of the Soviet Union, and, above all, on Adolf Hitler’s interventions.
Hitler was indeed a seriously flawed commander, especially in regard to his unwillingness to yield territory. He proved unable to match Josef Stalin’s ability to delegate. By 1944, his diminished grasp on reality exacerbated the difficulties of Germany’s concentrated command. Yet Hitler’s deficiencies were part of a more general failure the Germans exhibited in making war—particularly their inability to compel opposing states to accept German assumptions. As in 1914, the Germans could not offset their failure to set sensible military and political goals simply by their will to win.
Postwar German analyses also ignore mistakes German commanders made on the battlefield, and therefore downplay the issue of Soviet fighting quality. This flaw reflects a more wide-ranging German failure of perception. Most German commentators, for example, apparently do not appreciate the extent of the atrocities the Germany army committed. Rogue commanders cannot always be blamed when soldiers routinely violated unarmed civilians; this conduct was integral to the Wehrmacht’s prosecution of the war. Believing their adversaries racially and politically inferior, the Germans treated them as such. This also helps explain why Germans have been so reluctant to give credit to the fighting qualities of enemies they considered inferior.
The Japanese overemphasize the impact of Allied bombing, especially the dropping of the atom bombs, and are equally unwilling to address comparative fighting quality in the field in 1944–45. Yet there are sound military and political reasons why Japan, even with the capability to plan and execute major advances (equivalent to German blitzkrieg offensives), could not knock China out of the war.
In focusing attention on Allied fighting quality, the intention is not to imply that superior resources did not matter. Clearly, both resources and fighting ability were crucial. American shipbuilding capacity was central to the ability to secure—and then exploit— naval superiority in the Pacific. Yet the U.S. Navy defeated the Japanese navy in battle, and American air and submarine attacks weakened the Japanese war economy. Allied fighting quality and command skills defeated Japan, with help from flawed Japanese military doctrine. For example, the Japanese used their submarines far less successfully than the Americans.
More and better weapons themselves cannot produce victory. They can enhance confidence and morale, but they can also encourage misguided confidence. Fear of compromising superiority in weaponry might even lead to reluctance to close with the enemy. In World War II, better fighters used their resources more effectively, as the Americans did in the Pacific in the latter stages of the war.
Fighting quality at the outset favored Axis forces, but Germany and Japan didn’t match the advances in Allied fighting proficiency. Even the initial Axis successes—by the Japanese in 1931–42 and the Germans in 1939–40—were not due solely to their superior fighting qualities. As the success of the German blitzkrieg amply demonstrated, tactical and operational factors were crucial. They played a key role, for example, in Germany’s surprise assault on the Soviet Union in 1941 and, later that year, when the Japanese attacked Britain and the United States.
Axis strength and success grew incrementally. Japan was able to successfully invade Manchuria in 1931 and launch a full-scale attack on China in 1937 without other powers intervening. Two years later Japan began a limited border war with the Soviet Union that failed but did not escalate. When the Japanese attacked Britain and the United States, they rightfully did not fear the Soviet Union entering the war against them.
Germany first engaged in rearmament—and then in aggression against Austria and Czechoslovakia in 1938-39—without encountering any united hostile response. Hitler then successively attacked a series of weak opponents: Poland, Denmark, Norway, Yugoslavia, and Greece. The Soviet Union stood by, at least nominally neutral, while the United States remained unwilling to aid fellow neutrals.
By the end of May 1941, Germany had essentially won the war, as then conducted. Britain and its empire fought on, but Germany dominated Europe and maintained a diplomatic link to the Soviet Union, while the United States remained neutral. Britain seemed unable to reverse its early defeats.
While the impact of the Soviet Union, and later the United States, entering the war is well known, the improvements in Allied fighting quality over time are often overlooked. Take, for instance, the German-Soviet conflict. In late 1941, the Germans had inflicted heavy casualties on the Soviets by linking firepower and mobility. They outmaneuvered Soviet defenders and imposed their tempo on the conflict. Yet with time, the Red Army learned to counter German tactics by skillfully using antitank guns to repulse German armor attacks and establishing defenses in depth to cope with any breakthroughs.
The Soviets also developed an effective offensive doctrine. After the Winter War with Finland in 1939–40, the Soviets conducted a high-level analysis to honestly assess why their forces had at first been so ineffective against a small opponent. It led in May 1940 to Order No. 120, which pressed for better training, improved combined-arms coordination, and more-fluid infantry tactics.
The Soviets clearly demonstrated the fighting lessons they had learned from the Finnish conflict in their war with Germany, as in Operation Uranus—the encirclement of the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad in November 1942. This operation succeeded because the Soviets had re-established their munitions industry, especially tank production, and rapidly improved their tactical proficiency. Better planning and preparations magnified their resource advantages. Poor German command decisions that included allocating what became key flank positions to weak Romanian forces and a feeble German response to the Soviet breakthrough were also crucial.
Earlier, the large-scale Soviet counteroffensive in the winter of 1941–42 had eventually run out of steam. As with the German offensives on the Western Front in 1918, the Russians’ front was too broad. Field Marshal Erich von Manstein’s successful fighting defense stopped the Soviet counteroffensive in early 1943. Thereafter, however, the Germans proved far less successful in stemming Soviet advances.
The major Soviet constraints in 1944 and 1945 were logistical. They could not resupply advance units, especially with fuel. In 1944’s Operation Bagration, which overran Belarus and destroyed Germany’s Army Group Center, in their advance into the Balkans that same year, and in the Manchurian campaign of 1945, the Soviets showed that they had mastered their weaponry and learned how to outfight their opponents.
In 1944, the Red Army proved adept at coordinating armor, artillery, and infantry, and in successfully executing encirclements. Soviet assets outnumbered German, particularly in artillery and aircraft. True, the Germans also suffered from the consequences of “no retreat” orders that robbed them of mobility, but enhanced Soviet operational effectiveness and tactical skills blunted German counterattacks more successfully than in early 1943. The Soviets used their reserves well to maintain the pace of their advances and to thwart German initiatives.
Still, the Red Army could only achieve so much before exhaustion, losses, and supply difficulties stopped its offensives. This added to the sense that the conflict was a war of attrition that depended on the quality and quantity of each side’s resources, as well as how wisely each used those resources.
In Manchuria in 1945, the Japanese were outnumbered, particularly in artillery, armor, and aircraft, but they were also decisively outfought. Soviet troops were better trained, and many brought combat experience from the German front. Using skillful deception, they immediately seized the initiative and advanced rapidly to envelop their opponents. Although the Japanese fought tenaciously, employing suicide tactics that included carrying explosives up to tanks and detonating them, the speed of the Soviet advance dismayed them. In particular, the Japanese underestimated Soviet mobility and inaccurately assumed the Soviets would need to stop for resupply after about 250 miles, giving the defenders an opportunity to counterattack. When the fighting proved that assumption wrong, they were unprepared to deal with the consequences.
The fighting abilities of the Western Allies also improved. In initial clashes, they had been found wanting: the British conspicuously so in Norway in 1940, and the Americans at the Battle of Kasserine Pass in North Africa in February 1943. With time, however, better Allied training and experience both paid dividends, especially at the command level. The Allies also became far more skilled at integrating their forces. Air support played a major role in the Normandy Campaign, for example, enhancing the ground forces’ offensive capabilities.
Fighting a two-front war strained the United States. The relatively small size of the American army, and the lack of reserve divisions, forced individual units to endure combat without a break in 1944–45, creating serious difficulties for the troops involved.
Allied fighting quality also improved during the war with Japan. The Japanese clearly outfought the British in Malaya and Singapore in the winter of 1941–42, and easily handled American forces in the Philippines. With training and experience, the Australians in New Guinea and the British in Burma became superior fighters, while the Americans improved with each engagement as they island-hopped across the Pacific.
British training came to emphasize patrolling the jungle aggressively and, if flanked or surrounded, avoiding a disorderly retreat as had happened in Malaya in 1941–42 and Burma in 1942. Instead, they stood firm in defensive boxes with all-around fields of fire. By contrast, the Japanese never changed their tactics.
Obviously, resources played a big part in each victory. Recovering Burma depended on the Allied ability to airdrop supplies along the India-Burma border in 1944, yet the campaign was won by the troops on the ground who fought successfully using those supplies. The Americans displayed similar improvement in their two Philippines campaigns.
Thomas Blamey, commander in chief of the Australian army, took personal command of Allied operations in New Guinea in September 1942. By July 1943, he reported that “the chief reason for our success in this campaign was that our ground troops proved to be better led, better equipped, and better trained than those of the enemy and were man for man better fighters.” Blamey’s report recognized the role of resources, arguing that air support was particularly crucial, but he stressed that victory stemmed from human resilience and effort.
A subsequent report by Major General Stanley Savige on the operations of his 3rd Australian Division in the Salamaua area in 1943 emphasized the value of air support but also underscored the need for ground troops to be physically fit and led by experienced junior officers and noncommissioned officers. He maintained that the Australians fought more effectively because of their training and determination. In contrast, the Japanese relied on simple, inflexible tactics, disliked moving in small patrols, and were inaccurate with small arms.
Allied medical care, particularly important in jungle warfare, was far better than Japanese care. Resources and technology were important, but so was the way in which medical science was employed. The British army transformed its care of sick and wounded during the war. Doctors used new medical practices that included immunizing against tetanus, and new drugs like sulfanilamides and penicillin.
In contrast, the Germans lacked antibiotics and many of their wounded suffered from severe sepsis. The British army Blood Transfusion Service, providing blood transfusion apparatus to all forward units after 1938, stood in sharp contrast to the Germans’ inadequate collection and storage of blood in forward areas.
When early campaigns indicated that large field hospitals were of limited use in mobile warfare, the Allies emphasized field ambulances and mobile specialist units. By 1944, most British casualties were receiving treatment within hours of being wounded. By using antimalarial drugs and emphasizing hygiene, the British helped cut troop hospital admissions in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and the central Mediterranean, with rates of sickness falling considerably lower than in the German, Italian, or Japanese armies.
Abundant Allied resources alone didn’t decide the war at sea either. With experience, the Allies made incremental advances in antisubmarine tactics, weaponry, and doctrine. These steps included not only better equipment (improved radar and searchlights) but also the development of formations and tactics for convoy escorts that proved more effective.
In the crucial Midway Campaign, flawed planning and preparation doomed the Japanese. They underestimated American strength, and their deployment in pursuit of an overly complex plan was very poor, as was their tactical judgment. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto also overestimated the role of battleships in any naval combat with the United States.
American preparation was superior. The United States had developed carrier warfare techniques, enhancing cooperation with other surface warships. By intercepting and deciphering coded Japanese radio messages, Americans were able to anticipate what their opponents would do.
Despite these systemic advantages, the United States still had to win at Midway. Far from being an inevitable result, that victory reflected superior American tactical flexibility. This was a battle in which American ability to locate opposing ships proved crucial.
In the air war, the Allies produced more airplanes than Japan and Germany, but also excelled in supporting them on the ground. Training large numbers of airmen and mechanics paid off in the Pacific. In particular, there was a growing disparity in quality between American and Japanese pilots. The Japanese soon had fewer aircrews, and these typically had less training and flying experience than their adversaries.
By 1943 the Allies had significantly better aircraft. The Japanese introduced no new plane types in quantity after the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, which had made such an impact in their initial advances. The Americans had developed a variety of competitive planes, including the Vought F4U Corsair, Lockheed P-38 Lightning, and Grumman F6F Hellcat. All not only outperformed the Zero but also had better protection. The Zero’s light weight gave it superior range and maneuverability, but its lack of armor sacrificed pilot safety.
In 1944, the Luftwaffe lost large numbers of planes responding to American air raids, partly because the fighter ultimately developed to guard the long-range bombers, the North American P-51 Mustang, was superior to German interceptors. Since the Germans had not increased their training programs in 1940-42, by 1943 they were finding it difficult to replace pilots, and in any event the Luftwaffe could not afford fuel for training pilots. By the time of the Normandy landings, the Germans had already lost the air war.
Historians have also given insufficient attention to the failure of the Axis as an alliance. Germany and Japan never created a military partnership or provided mutual economic assistance that in any way matched Allied cooperation. Their attempts at naval coordination proved ineffectual. Even where cooperation was possible, as when Germany shared technology with Japan, no real achievement resulted. Once the Japanese lost their offensive capability, after the sinking of so many of their carriers at Midway, thoughts of joint action with the Germans in the Indian Ocean, for example, became impractical.
The contrast in resources in the closing stages of the Pacific War was readily apparent. Although the Japanese XIV Area Army in Luzon had more than a quarter million troops in 1945, it only fielded about 150 operational combat aircraft. These planes and pilots could not match the American air arm, and American carrier planes destroyed most of them even before the invasion.
The Japanese troops had little ammunition and insufficient fuel for their relatively few vehicles. Even so, the troops themselves were motivated. Although the Americans overran key parts of Luzon and eventually took Manila, they suffered almost forty-seven thousand casualties in doing so. Training, experience, and improved tactics may not be as obvious assets as an impressive array of weaponry and materiel, but they were nevertheless vital to the Allied success in World War II. Victory in the modern world is rarely a simple process, nor is explaining the factors that contributed to it.
Originally published in the Summer 2008 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.