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IT’S GOOD TO BE WEALTHY, and World War II saw the richer side win. The Grand Alliance was a behemoth, consisting of the world’s largest land mass (the Soviet Union), the biggest overseas empire (Great Britain), and the financial and industrial giant (the United States). Germany and Japan were strong states, certainly, but they could hardly compete in terms of production, manpower, or power projection. In retrospect, it is easy to over simplify the Allied victory as an inevitable triumph of superior resources.

It is intuitive to believe that bigger, better armed forces automatically confer an advantage, and like all intuitive ideas, this one does have much to recommend it. After all, no less an authority than Napoleon once famously declared that God was on the side of the “big battalions.” It is always risky to argue with Napoleon, but though his axiom is true to a degree, it is also incomplete. While superior numbers and wealth are obviously important, modern war requires more than numbers.

The real test of the “inevitability” thesis took place on the battlefield. It would be interesting to ask an Allied soldier or sailor, airman or Marine, “How did those superior resources work out for you?” You’d no doubt get back a contemptuous snort, seasoned with the off-color language that made this country great. If the Allies really were fighting a rich man’s war, then why so often did their men have to do so outnumbered and at a disadvantage?

A few specific examples: Try telling a Soviet grunt at Stalingrad that he was fighting a war with “superior resources.” He’d be stupefied. The Germans at Stalingrad had better tanks, better weapons, and even an advantage in numbers through much of the battle. That city fight—forcing the Germans into a murderous block-by-block slog— was the great equalizer. Every Ivan knew that, and so did General Vasily Chuikov of the 62nd Army holding the city. His troops fought a poor man’s fight, moving by night to nullify gains the Germans made the preceding day and deploying as closely as possible to their adversary to limit enemy air and artillery strikes. In the process, tens of thousands of the Soviets were killed. A lot of factors won Stalingrad, but superior resources were not high on the list.

Rich man’s war? Tell it to the Marines on Guadalcanal. The initial landings on August 7, 1942, met only minor opposition, but bad things started happening almost immediately. The naval commander for the operation, Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher, had such jitters about stationing his aircraft carriers in the narrow waters that he actually with drew them on day two. That night (August 8-9), Japanese cruisers inflicted a crushing defeat on U.S. naval forces off Savo Island. With the carriers gone and the Japanese dominating the waters, the U.S. Navy had to suspend transports to the island, leaving the Marines isolated. Fighting for the richest nation on earth, they survived on abandoned stores of Japanese rice and dried fish. Subsequent battles were as hard-fought and as close as they come. The Marines hung on, but only by the skin of their teeth. Admiral Ernest J. King had famously declared that the Marines would land on Guadalcanal “even on a shoestring,” and the men wound up doing just that.

And so it went. American soldiers facing down the panzers on Salerno. Soviet T-34 crews desperately trying to close the range against superior enemy tanks at Kursk. Canadian soldiers landing at Dieppe in the morning and being frog-marched off the beach as POWs less than 10 hours later. British infantry gamely holding the perimeter at Dunkirk, buying time for the rest of the army to evacuate the continent.

And in these moments lies the real problem with seeing World War II as a contest of national wealth. Sure, the Allies had key strategic advantages. At the end of the day, however, winning the war required a lot of men willing to risk their lives, ordinary guys who looked around and realized it was their time to die. It is a disservice to them to think that any of it was inevitable.


Originally published in the June 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.