Could Germany Have Won the Second World War?

By Chuck Hawks

The USA, and to a lesser extent the USSR, held what might be called the decisive advantage in WW II. By which I mean these two countries had the resources, manpower and materiel to decide the war in Europe in favor of either the Axis or the Allies.

Had neither become involved, the war might have become a stalemate; Germany and Italy would not have been able to conquer the British Empire and the British Empire might not have been able to conquer Germany and Italy. Whichever side either of these two countries joined would have the advantage.

Once Hitler opened a third front by attacking the USSR, the Nazis were in deep trouble. They did not have the resources in people, materiel, industrial production or logistics to simultaneously wage an air/sea/land battle in the Mediterranean/North African theatre, an air/sea battle against the UK and an air/land campaign against the USSR.

To militarily defeat Russia, Germany needed to destroy their huge military, their industrial base and the people's will to fight. During the First World War Imperial Germany (with the help of the Bolsheviks) was able to destroy the Russian people's will to fight. Hitler's orchestrated brutality against the people in captured Soviet territory negated that possibility in the Second World War. Despite all their tactical successes early in Barbarossa, Germany never came close to eliminating the huge Red Army in the field or the Soviet Union's means of production.

Moscow, had the Germans managed to get there, would have become another battle like Stalingrad and Leningrad, only worse. The German army was built for a war of movement, assisted and protected by Luftwaffe air superiority. They didn't fare well fighting in cities, where those advantages were drastically curtailed. Again, note Leningrad, Stalingrad, etc.

Even in the unlikely event that Moscow had fallen, the city would have been destroyed in the fighting and burned by the Russians (scorched earth) as they withdrew, leaving nothing of value to the Germans. The Russian military and people would have fought on, as Napoleon had discovered earlier. In any case, the vital means of production had already been moved east.

Nor was the Luftwaffe able to attack Soviet industry. What they needed, but failed to develop, was the "Ural bomber" (a long range heavy bomber) to attack those means of production. However, the Luftwaffe was strictly a tactical air force, with almost no strategic capability. Thus, the Germans could only destroy Russian war materials on the field of battle, the most inefficient, costly and ultimately futile way.

Of course, the reverse was also true, as the Soviet Air Force was also purely tactical. However, this was far less critical, as the USSR was allied with the Western Powers, who did have the four-engined heavy bombers necessary to carry a strategic air war deep into Germany.

While the USSR alone did not have the economic power to hammer Germany to her knees, the bottom line is that the USSR had the numbers and resources to win a war of attrition on the Eastern Front and Germany did not. The war on the Eastern Front would inevitably have bled Germany white, as it did, adversely affecting Germany's ability to fight on all other fronts.

One theory is that Germany's best chance to defeat the USSR would have been to talk Japan into attacking the USSR from the east, instead of expanding the war into SE Asia. Unfortunately for Hitler, the Japanese did not want to fight a war in Siberia, which was of little value to them. The strategic raw materials the Japanese war machine needed, particularly oil and bauxite, were to be found in the Dutch East Indies, not Siberia.

In 1941, the Imperial Japanese Army was already heavily engaged in the vastness of China in a war they were unable to finish, so the Japanese army was in no position to also take on the Soviet Army. In any case, the Japanese Army had earlier been handled roughly by the Soviet Army on the northern border of Manchuria and wanted no more battles with the Red Army. (When the Soviet Union did enter the war against Japan, they rolled all the way into Korea in a very short time.)

In fact, Japan produced very few armored fighting vehicles (tanks, etc.) during the war; only a tiny fraction of what the other major powers produced. Japan was a sea/air power. Something like 75% of their entire war production went to aircraft and ships. The bottom line: no way could Japan have successfully attacked the USSR to support Germany.

Once the US entered the war on the Allied side, Germany was doomed. Even if Hitler had refrained from attacking the USSR and that power had remained neutral (but friendly to Germany) throughout the war, America simply had too many resources. Just as in the First World War, the US (plus most of the rest of the Western Hemisphere) and the British Empire would have eventually won a war of attrition.

Of course, Hitler did invade the USSR on 22 June 1941 and Japan drew the US into the war on 7 December 1941. Even though Germany gained Japan as an active ally, she was doubly doomed. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly to the Germans, who undoubtedly hoped that Japan would keep America fully occupied in the Pacific, the US and UK made winning the European war their first priority.

In North Africa, Rommel ran out of fuel and supplies at El Alamein, because the Allies were able to successfully interdict his supply lines. Allied naval and air power were ultimately able to control the supply routes. The Germans lost far more war material in transit than they did in battle. The British (with American assistance while the US was still neutral) outproduced German and Italy in aircraft and ships and used their superiority as a air/sea power to throttle the Africa Corps, then force Italy out of the war.

By then, the Allies had clear air and naval superiority throughout the Mediterranean region and the US 9th Air Force was able to start strategic bombing targets, such as the oil fields and refineries at Polesti and war industries in Austria and southern Germany. Meanwhile, the 8th USAAF and the RAF began smashing German war production and cities from the north.

In the west, Germany lost the Battle of the Atlantic because the British, Canadians and Americans were technically superior in radio intercept, code breaking, ASW, ship building, escort vessels of all types (including CVEs), radar/sonar/electronic technology, long range maritime patrol aircraft, etc. For a time, early in the war, Britain was sorely pressed by the German U-Boat offensive. As soon as the convoy system was firmly established, ship losses dramatically decreased and remained far below new ship production for the rest of the war. The little known truth is that the vast majority of U-boat successes came against single, unescorted ships, not against convoys.

In the air, the British and American strategic aerial offensive, particularly the USAAF's daylight bombing campaign against Germany's aircraft and petroleum production facilities and transportation system, severely degraded Germany's ability to continue the war. Although the Third Reich devoted over half of its entire war materials production to the Luftwaffe, the Allies massively out produced Germany in warplanes and associated weapons, not to mention trained pilots. When the Luftwaffe lost control of the skies, especially over Germany itself, the war was lost.

The two most important and decisive technologies of WW II were radar and the atomic bomb. Germany (and Japan) lagged far behind the Western Allies in both.

I do not mean to imply that defeating Germany, Italy and Japan was easy. In fact, it was a long, costly, dangerous and bloody road to victory.

At the time, it appeared to Allied leaders and soldiers alike that the Axis powers might win the war. From their perspective, they were engaged in a death struggle that they might very well lose. However, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that their overwhelming industrial might meant the odds heavily favored the Allies. In addition, none of the Axis governments had any plan or strategy for a joint war effort, so the Allies were able to defeat them piecemeal.

I would like to make a few comments about Adolf Hitler, since he personified the Third Reich, and made all of the strategic decisions. I regard Hitler as a superb (although evil) politician with great political insight. This allowed him to gain power, re-arm Germany and gobble-up parts of Europe with impunity.

Once the war started, however, his weaknesses became evident. He was a very poor strategist. As far as I can tell, he never had a "grand strategy." By which I mean a clear set of goals for the war and a plan to reach them. As David C. Evans and Mark R. Peattie succinctly defined it in Kaigun, "A grand strategy ideally harnesses all the resources of a nation--military, political, economic and diplomatic--to achieve national policy objectives."

Hitler didn't even believe there was going to be a major war when he invaded Poland, despite warnings from France and Great Britain. He was taken by surprise when they declared war on Germany.

He had no plan beyond partitioning Poland with the cooperation of the USSR, which simultaneously invaded Poland from the east and occupied the Baltic states. Hence the period of "Phony War" after the defeat of Poland, while the German generals hurriedly planned the campaign against France and transferred their army to the west.

When Italy joined the war, Hitler and Mussolini made no serious attempt to devise a common strategy. In fact, Mussolini's military mis-adventures in Greece and North Africa initially came as a surprise to Hitler and drained away valuable German resources.

After the defeat of France, Hitler seemed to have no idea what to do next, no plan at all for winning the air/sea battle required to defeat the British Empire. Instead, against the advice of his generals and without consulting the Italian or Japanese leadership, he decided to attack the USSR, to that point essentially a German ally supplying the bulk of the oil for Germany's war machine.

Hitler fought the whole war on an ad-hoc basis, a campaign at a time. This lack of any coherent, overall strategy cost Germany dearly.

After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and brought America into the war, Hitler made no attempt to formulate a common strategy with Japan. Again, he was taken completely by surprise.

The Japanese leaders did not consult with Hitler, either, and perhaps did not have much respect for him. Before the war, Admiral Yamamoto declined an offer to meet with Hitler when the Admiral was traveling across Germany).

I have always blamed this failure to consult with his allies, at least partly, on Hitler's arrogance. Hitler generally seemed to believe himself superior to his allies, as if he knew more. In fact, strategically, he understood even less.

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Copyright 1998, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.