That 1942 was the turning point of World War II is one of those “facts” that everyone knows. Like much of the received wisdom on the war, however, the concept of its “turning point” requires a certain amount of nuance. This conflict, more than any other before it, was a vast and sprawling set of interlocking campaigns on land, sea, and air. It involved hundreds of millions of human beings, from the freezing cold of the Arctic to the sweltering heat of the Burmese jungle, and the notion that there was a single discrete moment that “turned” it is problematic, to say the least.
Still, it is clear that something important happened in 1942. It was, after all, the year of El Alamein in the African theater, and of Midway and Guadalcanal in the Pacific. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, before 1942 the Allies never won a victory, and after 1942 they never suffered a defeat. But for that year to live up to its billing as the “hinge of fate,” in Churchill’s memorable phrase, a fatal blow had to be dealt to the German armed forces, the Wehrmacht. Could the Allies, even with their sheer superiority in materiel and men, pull it off?
In 1942, the German Army, turning one last time to its traditional Prussian tactics of maneuver, met its end.
The Reich had been locked in a conflict with Great Britain since September 1939, one that it tried half-heartedly to end in the summer and fall of 1940. Since mid-1941, it had done nothing but add enemies. On June 22, with Britain still unconquered, the German führer, Adolf Hitler, had launched an invasion of the Soviet Union, Operation Barbarossa. In its early weeks, the Wehrmacht had smashed one Soviet army after another: at Bialystok, at Minsk, at Smolensk, and especially at Kiev. As summer turned to fall, Barbarossa evolved into Operation Typhoon, a drive on Moscow. The Germans were within sight of the Soviet capital by December 6, when the Red Army launched a great counteroffensive that drove them back in confusion, inflicting punishing losses on an army that had been largely untouched by the first two years of the war. The very next day, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and five days later Hitler declared war on the United States.
Earlier in the year, Germany had been at war with Britain alone. Six short months later, it was at war with an immense and wealthy enemy coalition, which Churchill, with a nod to his great ancestor the Duke of Marlborough, dubbed the “Grand Alliance.” The alliance controlled the vast majority of the world’s resources. It included the preeminent naval and colonial power (Britain), the largest land power (the Soviet Union), and the globe’s financial and industrial giant (the United States): more than enough potential power to smash Germany. But Germany’s situation, being ringed and vastly outnumbered by an alliance of powerful enemies, was nothing particularly new in Prusso-German military history.
In fact, the Reich’s next, and what was to be its last, major campaign—drives to capture Stalingrad and the oil fields of the Caucasus—seemed to offer another textbook opportunity for the Germans to demonstrate that sound maneuver tactics and strategy grounded in more than a century of experience—and including the modern mechanized variant, blitzkrieg—could best even the massive forces arrayed against them.
Until the war’s end, on the eastern front and elsewhere, Germany sought to land a resounding blow against one of its enemies, one hard enough to shatter the enemy coalition, or at least to demonstrate the high price that the Allies would have to pay for victory. The strategy certainly did its share of damage in those last four years, and the Allies and most historians play down how frighteningly close it came to succeeding.
While the German strategy for winning the war failed—and did so spectacularly in 1942—no one at the time or since has been able to come up with a better solution to Germany’s strategic conundrum. Was it a war-winning gambit? Not in this case, obviously. Was it the best strategy under the circumstances? Perhaps, perhaps not. Was it an operational posture in complete continuity with German military history and tradition as it had unfolded over the centuries? Absolutely.
In 1942 the Wehrmacht provided a characteristic answer to the question, “What do you do when the Blitzkrieg fails?” It launched another—indeed, a whole series of them. The centerpiece of 1942 would be another grand offensive in the east. Operation Blue (Unternehmen Blau) objectives would include a lunge over the mighty Don River to the Volga, the seizure of the great industrial city of Stalingrad, and, finally, a wheel south into the Soviet Caucasus, home to some of the world’s richest oil fields. With the final Operation Blue objectives more than a thousand miles from the start line, no one can accuse Hitler and the high command of thinking small.
[continued on next page]