Back in 1868, a British company called J. Whitaker & Sons began producing an annual compendium of statistical information about the world; Whitaker’s Almanack has been published ever since, and none has proven more interesting to me than the 1939 edition. It turns out, for example, that despite our penchant for referring to the “Nazi war machine” when describing the Blitzkrieg years, Germany wasn’t all that mechanized. On the eve of war, there were 47 people in Germany for every motorized vehicle; that disparity was even greater in Italy: 104. By contrast, in Britain there were 14 people for every motorized vehicle, 8 in France, and just 3 in the United States.
This had all sorts of implications, for if a country is not very automotive, it has fewer factories, fewer workshops, fewer mechanics, fewer gas stations, and fewer people who know how to drive. Hitler couldn’t just click his fingers and magic more—which was why, when Germany invaded France and the Low Countries on May 10, 1940, only 16 of the 135 divisions involved were mechanized. The other 119 used what soldiers had been using before the advent of the internal combustion engine: horse, cart, and their own two feet.
Interestingly, though, Germany had more radios per household than any other country in the world, including the United States. The Nazis, very early on, realized that propaganda was vital. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda chief, believed repetition was key—a tactic that could also be called “brainwashing.” The Nazis commandeered German media and developed new, cheaper radios. In Nazi Germany, personal radios were no longer big, beautifully made status symbols; they measured 9-by-9-by-4 inches and were made mostly of Bakelite, an early plastic. The Deutscher Kleinempfänger was as innovative as the iPod. For those who couldn’t afford one, the state ensured there were radios in bars, restaurants, and the stairwells of apartment blocks. They broadcast not just Hitler’s speeches—there was, in fact, a wide range of programming— but the underlying message was the same: Jews were bad, as were Bolsheviks; Germans were the master race; Hitler was amazing; and so was the German military. It was a spin-doctoring operation that has probably never been surpassed.
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At the time, the German army was also realizing that small, two-way radios could be used for military purposes—in tanks, trucks, command vehicles, even motorcycles with sidecars. A path forward emerged: a panzer division not just stuffed full of tanks but organized as an all-arms mechanized unit that could operate swiftly and cohesively. It was what had been missing during the years of trench warfare in the previous war: the ability for differing units to communicate efficiently and swiftly exploit evolving situations.
In contrast, General Maurice Gamelin, the commander in chief of all French forces, did not even have a single radio in his headquarters on the edge of Paris; nor did most anyone else in the French army. The result? The army became completely dislocated, out of touch with its component parts, and unable to respond quickly enough to the unfolding battle, despite having more tanks, guns, and men, and a parity in airpower. German concentration of force, and operational and tactical flexibility—the traditional distinguishing feature of the Prussian, then German, military—was able to triumph. And it was those 16 mechanized divisions that did most of the damage.
So, the German preponderance of radios was, arguably, the key factor in their early war successes. Yet the lack of mechanization was what did them in in the long term. Germany’s prewar shortfall could never be overcome, especially with the huge advantage Britain, and then the United States, held in that regard. It was why, for example, Germany produced only 8,553 Panzer IVs—its most numerous tank—while the United States built more than 49,000 Shermans. Radios allowed the Germans short but devastating gains, but ultimately they lacked the mechanization to win the war. If Germany and the Axis had been reading Whitaker in 1939, perhaps they would have realized their fatal shortcomings.