There’s no shortage of armchair experts on World War 2, due to the humongous scale and impact of the war, and its relative proximity to today. While widespread passion for history is great, it’s important to not fall for the huge number of myths and misconceptions surrounding the conflict. From winter saving Stalin’s neck to D-Day being a turning point, let’s bust some myths about WW2 in Europe.
10. Blitzkrieg was an official strategy
As German armies bulldozed their way through Europe in the opening blows of WW2, one word was plastered across global newspapers: “Blitzkrieg.” Meaning “lightning war” in English, it was the official battlefield doctrine of the Nazi war machine and was employed with devastating effect from 1939 to early 1942. Right?
Well, not really. First, the only thing directly implied by “lightning war” is “attacking fast,” and it would be absurd to suggest the Nazis were the first ones to come up with that idea. It’s not like Alexander the Great used to tell his guys to “attack slow and make sure they see us coming.”
Turns out, the Germans were as surprised by the speed of their success in Poland and France as anyone else was, indicating that they were anticipating much longer, more difficult campaigns than they actually got.
In the end, “Blitzkrieg” was a buzzword coined by the press to sell newspapers. The Germans were just making the most of out what they had to work with.
9. Germany was more mechanized than the Allies
Europe stood no chance against Hitler’s Wehrmacht in the early years of the war. While Britain and France were still working with old WWI equipment and strategies, the Germans were using the most bleeding edge tech of the day.
Nope! As it turns out, the image of legions of Panzers being the tip of a mechanized German spear was an invention of Nazi propaganda. They wanted the world to look on their war machine with envy and fear. But the reality was vastly different. Due to shortages of oil and spare parts that only worsened as the war continued, the Germans were actually far more reliant on marching, as well as horses and other pack animals, to get around, than any of their foes.
When they attacked France in 1940, only 16 of their 135 divisions were mechanized. In November 1943, 52 of 322 total divisions were mechanized, and a year later, only 42 of 264 divisions got around without horses. The Allies, meanwhile, enjoyed almost full mechanization due to an abundance of oil, spare parts, trained mechanics and engineers, and every other critical resource of which the Third Reich was cripplingly short.
8. The Soviets relied on human wave attacks
Nobody suffered more in WW2 than the USSR, which lost at least 26 million people. But they inflicted many casualties on themselves through human wave attacks: hurling masses of inadequately armed peasants into German machine guns until there was no ammo left to resist them. With limitless manpower, who needs better tactics?
Yeah, no. Did the Soviets launch poorly coordinated infantry assaults in the desperate early months of the war, that the Germans may have mistaken for human wave attacks? Many times. But they learned. And at no point were Red Army soldiers ever sent into combat without weapons. Also, regarding “limitless manpower,” their numerical superiority was significant – but rarely exceeded 3:1 odds in their favor: not enough of an advantage to recklessly waste the lives of their men.
Let’s also debunk the myth that the Soviets never learned from their mistakes. During the Battle of Kursk in July 1943, for example, they stopped spreading anti-tank guns evenly along the line and grouped them together in well-defended hardpoints. It’s just one example, but it’s enough to disprove the notion that they were nothing but savage, idiot brutes who relied solely on overwhelming numbers.
7. Winter saved the USSR
The Axis were unstoppable leading up to their invasion of the Soviet Union. But then they stupidly invaded Russia during the winter and forgot to bring jackets! With temperatures plummeting, they were forced into retreat.
Okay, let’s put this tiresome, cartoonish myth to bed. No, the Germans did not invade during the winter. Operation Barbarossa began on June 22, 1941 – the second day of summer. The Germans merely thought the campaign would be over long before winter started. It seems foolish in hindsight, but they weren’t alone in thinking that the battle-hardened Wehrmacht that had brought France to heel in just 6 weeks could make short work of an unprepared Red Army.
When the winter hit, both sides suffered from it. And if anything, it helped the Germans more because it froze the ground solid and allowed Panzers to get back on the road to Moscow after spending months stuck in the Autumn mud. Rather, it was fanatical Soviet resistance, and German logistics breaking down so deep into freezing enemy territory, that saved Moscow and allowed the Red Army to fight another day.
6. The Soviets slaughtered their own men
Movies love depicting Soviet officers in WW2 gleefully shooting their own men for anything that even looked like cowardice, defeatism, or desertion. But is there any truth to this?
A little – but just a little. Blocking detachments, which had orders to fire on their own men to prevent unauthorized withdrawal, did exist. They were established in summer 1942 by Stalin’s Order no. 227 (made famous by the quote “Not a step back!”) to enforce a new no-retreat policy as the Germans advanced into the Caucasus, and towards Stalingrad.
But here’s the thing: any army desperate enough to employ such measures to prevent the collapse of the front line was certainly too desperate to waste good men and weapons outfitting them. Therefore, actual blocking units were far more toothless than popular history suggests, and were really only useful for rounding up stragglers.
Of the 900,000 Soviets found guilty of cowardice throughout the war (a small fraction of the total Red Army), 422,000 were sent to penal (punishment) battalions, and 436,000 were jailed. Very few men were executed during the war, much less on the spot and without trial.
5. D-Day was the turning point
Hitler was winning the war on June 5, 1944. But then Anglo-American troops stormed the beaches of Normandy, in Nazi-occupied France, bringing about Germany’s defeat less than a year later.
Well… not exactly. Operation Overlord was a huge deal: it opened up a second front, and laid the foundations for the liberation of Western Europe and the downfall of the Third Riech.
But a turning point? Not so much, because the Germans were well on their way to defeat by 1944. It’s tough identifying a single turning point in a war this big, but November 1942 might be the closest we’ll get. That month, the Germans suffered back-to-back-to-back reversals from which they never recovered. In Africa, a tide-turning British triumph at El Alamein immediately preceded long-awaited American landings in Operation Torch, which began squeezing the Axis out of the continent entirely. Weeks later, the Soviets surrounded the Germans at Stalingrad. Germany still held onto much of its conquered territory in June 1944, but the battles that in hindsight determined the war’s final outcome had already been fought.
Rather than turning the tide, it’s more accurate to say that D-Day accelerated an already inevitable Allied victory.
4. The Western Allies weren’t important
The narrative that brave, selfless America and plucky sidekick England saved the world from Hitler alone has been rightfully criticized. But while it’s true that the Soviets did much of the fighting and dying in Europe, it’s an overcorrection to say that the Western Allies dawdled on the sidelines and jumped in at the last second to seize the glory.
Between the Allied blockade, the Battle of the Atlantic which destroyed the German Navy, Lend-Lease, and the strategic bombing campaign which devastated Axis industry and cities and which tied down and destroyed the once-mighty Luftwaffe (thus preventing the German air force from supporting the front, giving their enemies a decisive edge), the Allies took a huge bite out of Hitler’s plans. Furthermore, the Western Allies still liberated massive swaths of territory from, and inflicted huge casualties on, the Axis, and captured millions of POWs in the process (just as effective as killing them if your goal is to remove enemy combatants from circulation). They also prevented the Germans from ever being able to fully concentrate on the Eastern front.
It’s not diminishing the sacrifice of the Soviets to appreciate the importance of the Western Allies.
3. Germany almost won the war with an atomic bomb
Several issues here. First, Germany was never getting a bomb. Between Nazi rejection of “Jewish science” (nuclear physics), Allied sabotage, and resources being needed elsewhere, their atomic program was mothballed long before the science, much less the logistics, of developing one had been worked out.
Second, it wouldn’t have saved them. It would take multiple nukes to bring Britain, the USSR, and the USA to heel – none of which would’ve been on the brink of defeat, when shock and awe weapons are most psychologically effective. Furthermore, the Germans lacked bombers capable of carrying such a device. And where would they drop it? London was the easiest target, but also the capital of the least threatening member of the “Big Three.” The Soviets had already lost 26 million people (what’s another 80,000?) and New York was well out of reach.
For Germany to blast its enemies to oblivion, it would need a larger (unbombed) economy to develop multiple nukes, and control of the seas and skies to deliver them. If they had those advantages, they’d be winning the war without a Bomb in the first place and therefore wouldn’t need it.
2. The Wehrmacht didn’t commit atrocities
Everyone knows the Nazis were evil, but the worst were the SS. Short for Schutzstaffel, this group (and its paramilitary arm, the Waffen SS) was controlled directly by the Nazi party and responsible for many of their most heinous crimes, from massacring civilians in the field to staffing the Reich’s numerous concentration and death camps, like Mathausen and Auschwitz. Regular Wehrmacht soldiers shunned such behavior and were just trying to fight the war.
Yeah, let’s stop right there. This is the so-called “clean hands” myth, and was cooked up by Wehrmacht generals after the war as a way of absolving themselves of responsibility for countless atrocities.
Putting aside the fact that the distinction implied by “controlled by the Nazi Party” isn’t meaningful in a totalitarian regime where everyone answered to Hitler, the fact of the matter is that the German military not only happily participated in war crimes and massacres, but that it was an anti-semitic organization before the Nazis even came to power. Furthermore, to Hitler’s Germany, mass murder wasn’t just an accidental byproduct of their conquests – it was the entire point. German soldiers were fighting for genocide. And they knew it.
1. Germany could have won
No, they couldn’t have. Why would capturing Moscow force the Soviets to quit? Sure didn’t help Napoleon. Why would Hitler merely listening to his generals more have changed anything? They agreed with him most of the time and weren’t always right when they didn’t. Merely producing more of this tank or that plane wouldn’t have saved them, either, due to oil shortages and logistical problems preventing them from being properly utilized. And Nazi “wonder weapons” were either laughably unfeasible or didn’t work well enough to change anything.
It’s true that Hitler foolishly forbade some retreats that might’ve prevented this or that disaster. But he authorized withdrawals at Rzhev, Kursk, and Southern France. Those retreats didn’t save Germany. And even if the Nazis had averted a few more disasters, it would’ve only extended the war long enough for them to get nuked.
Here’s the thing – Germany didn’t lose because it made blunders, and therefore couldn’t have won by merely avoiding them. It lost because it was outnumbered, outgunned, out-industrialized, and out of fuel. One way or another, these Nazi buffoons were going down. Maybe they shouldn’t have picked a fight with the whole world in the first place?