Scumbag studies: myths and realities of Nazi society and its war machine

Kind of the ultimate modern-day scumbag study, no?

When it comes to Nazi Germany, perception and reputation are a fog clouding reality. Here are some realities you might not know, with pro forma apologies for wandering a little afield here and there:

German industry wasn’t very efficient. As a practical reality, it couldn’t be. There were multiple reasons: slave labor, materials shortages, rushed designs that had to be tweaked, and perhaps most importantly…

German industry did not go onto a full war footing until mid-war. Oh, it got a great head start on the Allies, who began re-armament late in the pre-war picture. Doubt that? In 1939 Germany produced 247 tanks and self-propelled guns. That’s all. 1940? 1,643. Ah, but surely a sixfold increase is a big deal? In 1941 they made 3,790. 1942, 6,180; in 1943, 12,063. Another example? Sure. Combat aircraft: 1939, 8,295. 1944, 39,807. One wonders what might have happened had German industry geared up sooner to its full potential.

Germany wanted to take Gibraltar. Why couldn’t they, with Spain friendly enough to rank as a non-belligerent Axis supporter? Because Franco’s Spain, still bleeding from its internal Spanish Civil War wounds, had no intention of getting into the war unless/until victory was certain. At one point, Hitler went so far as to meet Franco along the Franco-Spanish border. Adolf reckoned that the Spanish dictator owed his victory to Germany and would be thankful. First, Franco made long professions of fraternity, gratitude, and sympathy. Then he began a long litany of the equipment Spain would need from German industry, punctuated with frequent expressions of Spanish poverty and suffering. He then pointed out that of course it would be a matter of national pride for Spanish troops to carry out any such assault (one suspects Franco doubted that Hitler would hand Gibraltar over if German troops were once allowed to occupy it). Adolf went home pissed off and frustrated, thinking dark thoughts about ingratitude.

Malta and El Alamein were indeed great sticking points for the Nazi war machine, but most people don’t realize why. Neither do most realize how much the free world owes to the people of Malta and the motley Commonwealth/Allied (British, Free French, Polish, South African, New Zealander, and Australian) forces defending Egypt. Had the Axis captured Malta–and with a determined effort, they might have done so–Allied movement through the Mediterranean would have become a problem, whereas Axis resupply of northern Africa would have become far easier. Everyone has heard of Afrika Korps supreme commander Erwin Rommel and his genius, but not everyone realizes that his biggest problem was running out of everything (fuel in particular). That’s partly because so much of it got sunk on the way across the drink. So imagine Malta were captured, and a renewed Axis force stormed into the Nile delta (fanning the flames of Arab resentment at Allied control, and running off the disliked colonial powers). The Allied position in the eastern Mediterranean would be compromised. The Soviet positions in the Caucasus could have been flanked, perhaps with Turkish entry on the Axis side. Axis forces could have reached the Middle Eastern oilfields. Doesn’t that sound pretty catastrophic? It could have been.

Germany had high hopes for the Irish Republic to remain neutral, but there might be a united Ireland today if Éamon de Valera had answered Churchill’s note. The Republic of Ireland remained neutral during the war, famously denying the UK aero-naval basing access that made Atlantic convoy protection far more difficult.  When the United States entered the Atlantic war, as a former First Lord of the Admiralty Churchill saw the strategic opportunity and sought to pounce. He sent Taoiseach de Valera a simple note: “Now is your chance. Now or never. A nation once again. Am very ready to meet you  at any time.” Dev didn’t answer. Did Churchill really mean that if the Irish joined the Allies immediately, the six Ulster counties of Northern Ireland would be handed over to the Republic? At least one British leader hastened to advise the envoy to Ireland, John Maffey, that Churchill’s intent was metaphorical rather than literal.

I don’t know what exactly would have happened, but one can hardly doubt that was Ireland’s strongest bargaining moment from a risk/reward standpoint. With Americans in the war to defend the Republic, it might have been bombed but it would not have been invaded; the unpalatable concept of British troops on the ground in the Republic would be avoided; it might have done great work against the U-boat menace without its own military firing a single shot; the Allies would have constructed updated facilities the Irish would inherit. All that, potentially, for letting people use some air and naval bases. I lean to the side that Churchill at least meant to dangle Northern Ireland as a negotiable possibility. He gets bad press nowadays, some of it deserved, but he was a visionary who dared to try things, and he knew the Irish well enough. “A nation once again” remains a very loaded phrase even today, and Churchill was not one for idle words. If Hitler had seen that note, he might well have ordered the Republic added to Northern Ireland as a bombing target.

Myths you might believe, and why you shouldn’t:

Pearl Harbor did the United States terrible harm. This one doesn’t relate directly to Germany, but it always needs repeating because its pervasive inaccuracy had a major impact on German warfare and plans. While the deaths and injuries can never be discounted, in the grand scheme of war one could argue that Pearl was a very lucky beginning from a US perspective. Of the weaponry it damaged, the part that would take years to repair or replace (battleships) was mainly obsolete. None of our carriers were present, and the Japanese use of their own carrier strikes told us much about the wave of the future. Then Hitler decided to throw into war against the US, bringing us into that conflict without putting us in the unpleasant position of having to leave the British and Soviets hanging. As painful a memory as Pearl is, it was about like shooting a sow grizzly in the butt with an arrow. The attack didn’t cripple American naval power, but did piss off an industrial powerhouse.

Germany always had the best tanks and planes. For one thing, early versions were often hurried into the field with serious problems; for another, the opposition often had better gear. The Soviet T-34 series might be the best example: a weapon that, for a time, Germany had no tank cannon that could penetrate at any range (and which could outrun every German tank of the war). While the Messerschmitt Bf-109 was a great early war fighter plane, it met its match in the RAF’s Spitfires. The later Focke-Wolf FW-190 more than met its match in the American P-51 Mustang. Ah, but surely the post-D-Day German tanks were far superior to the Sherman M4 series? They had lower profiles and better gunnery, but there are other factors to consider. First, during that time, Allied ground support aircraft had free rein to terrorize all German armor. Second, German crews were generally more experienced and better led, at least until the end of 1944, so they got more out of their vehicles. Third, German vehicles were more prone to trouble. Say this for the Sherman: for its flaws, it was a reliable tank. The engine tended to start and the gun tended to fire. I wouldn’t take it over a Panther–it was slower, higher profile, and earlier models were undergunned–but I’d take a running Sherman over a non-running Panther.

It was an issue even during the potential invasion of Czechoslovakia, which had better tanks than the Germans. Even with the captured Czechoslovak tank models, the French in turn had better (and more) tanks than Germany. In North Africa, Commonwealth/Allied armor was more than a match for the German models. It should have been unsurprising for the Wehrmacht to arrive on Soviet soil and find that Soviet tanks were also better. It must have been refreshing indeed to face the Americans–finally an opponent with inferior armor!

The Nazis were close to developing nuclear-armed missiles. German rocket science was very advanced, leading to the first primitive cruise missiles (V-1) and surface-to-surface missiles (V-2), as well as a rocket interceptor aircraft. Their nuclear science was far less so, partly because nuclear research was very expensive with no known certainty of ultimate success. The Nazi nuke cause certainly took harm from the large number of scientists who did not stay to work for Nazi ends (or would not have survived had they stayed).

The United States ultimately destroyed the German war machine. No, no, no. The Anglo-Americans, assisted by many allies, did great damage to the Luftwaffe–but they never put onto the Western Front anywhere near the ground numbers that the USSR did on the Eastern Front. In fact, the Germans had more divisions tied up watching occupied areas than they had facing the western Allies. The vast majority of the Nazi forces that were not deployed against partisan activity were occupied in a futile effort to hold back the Soviet avalanche. The main reason D-Day wasn’t thrown back into the Channel was that so much of the Wehrmacht was somewhere else, typically fighting Soviets. If you want to give the United States credit for something major that caused the Nazi war machine enormous damage, let it be the thousands of Studebaker trucks we sent to the Soviet Union. It wouldn’t surprise me if they were still driving some of them in the Russian countryside. Every weapon and vehicle we and the British sent them probably saved Allied lives simply by shortening the war.

The Stuka was the deadliest ground support aircraft of the war. No; it was the deadliest of its early-war heyday. Later on, the Soviet Il-2 Sturmovik, US P-47 ground attack configuration, and the British Typhoon were among the more versatile and deadlier strike craft. By that time, the Stukas didn’t have the survivability to risk precious pilots and fuel in the teeth of Allied air dominance.

American strategic bombing devastated Germany’s ability to produce war materiel. This is one of those areas where there are two polarized sides, neither listening the other, and the truth is somewhere in between. First, of course, it wasn’t just American. The British had begun some strategic bombing very early in the war. They hosted much of the US campaign and joined in it with their own significant numbers. We see from the rise in German production over most of the war that it didn’t decline until the full occupation and collapse process began in early 1945. However, that doesn’t mean the campaign wasn’t a massive pain in Albert Speer’s ass. It conveyed to the people of Germany, who had once been promised by their leaders that they would never be bombed, that the end could not be in doubt and it would not be to their liking. It required the deployment of much of the German interceptor force on the home front, burning scarce avgas and taking grave losses. It certainly tied up resources, hampered transportation, and made Speer’s armaments ministries scramble. Did it devastate German war production? The evidence says not, though it didn’t make production easier. Did it wreck the civilian urban economy and chew up scarce resources, wearing down homefront morale? I think the case for that is strong. Might the war have taken longer without it? I don’t think it’s possible to say. In any case, the Soviet onslaught was about to render the whole thing moot.

The SS were an excellent fighting force. In reality they were mixed. Early in the war, and at first recruitment in most cases, they were brave and enthusiastic but somewhat inept.  Experience makes the difference, and the survivors would gain it. Some units were led by fanatics, and some committed atrocities–in some cases making that a higher priority than fighting the armed enemy. The history-glancing public often does not realize that only about a quarter of the Waffen-SS came from metropolitan Greater Germany. Another quarter or so were Volksdeutsche, hailing from the established German-speaking diaspora in territories Hitler conquered; their record was mixed. Another quarter-odd hailed from variably Germanic peoples of northern and western Europe, generally proving effective in combat, and the last quarter came from all over the southern and eastern territories: Italy, Hungary, Poland, the Baltic states, Belarus, Yugoslavia, and so forth. This portion ranged from good to awful.

The U-Boats were the deadliest subs of the war. Well, not so much. Germany bet most of its strategic warfare resources on submarine warfare, and it had a strong tradition of sub seamanship. When the Allies couldn’t or wouldn’t protect their shipping properly, the U-Boats went to town–but even then, the torpedoes didn’t always work. Surviving U-Boat skippers, a rather small population greatly respected by our own naval community as worthy opponents, have described the frustration of dud torpedoes. Americans should understand this very well because our own early torpedoes also included a high percentage of duds. Evidently the art of torpedo design is a very sensitive one where most laypeople’s assumptions don’t hold true. Best fish of the war? Arguably the Japanese, who invested great effort in torpedo development.

If our precious History Channel wants to do some good, it can stop leaning into pawn shops and ancient extra-terrestrial theories, and start doing a better job of exploring what people think they know and do not.

2 thoughts on “Scumbag studies: myths and realities of Nazi society and its war machine”

  1. Excellent educational post. I am currently reading The Last Green Valley by Mark Sullivan and your post clarified some things happening at the end of the war between the Bear and the Wolf. Thanks.

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    1. Glad you enjoyed it, SE. Nowadays there are a lot of simplistic questions about how we handled the war, such as why didn’t we rip across Germany and grab Berlin? They act as though there were two dozen armored and mechanized Allied divisions for whom Berlin’s defenders would somehow just lie down. In fact, there were hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops nearby and certainly no one we had the strength to fight, even if it were a good idea to extend WWII into a new phase fighting a resurgent adversary with land connection to its supply sources.

      Like

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