Wednesday, May 24, 2017

How Could the Axis Have Won World War II?

(This is the answer to a Quora question.)

The great wars of the 20th century were primarily economic. In World War II, the Axis powers had an advantage in military forces that they needed to use to overcome the economic advantage of the Allied powers, before the Allied advantage turned into a military advantage. Britain was far stronger than Italy economically, Russia was at least as strong as Germany, and the United States was overwhelmingly stronger than Japan, in the long run stronger than all the Axis powers together .

So to win the war the Axis would have needed to use its military forces more effectively, and focus on improving their economic situation. I suggest that two things would have helped, though I’m not sure even those could have brought victory, maybe a standoff. The first and most important of these was for the Germans to focus on the Mediterranean in 1941 and hold off the invasion of Russia until 1942. The second would be for the Japanese to declare war conventionally, rather than by surprise attack, and confine themselves primarily to action in Asia, with the idea that the United States would have been much less committed to a long-term war to unconditional surrender in this situation.

Focus on the Mediterranean

The Axis could never defeat the remote, enormous, and industrially powerful United States, so they needed to defeat either Britain or the Soviet Union. Britain was never in real danger of invasion given the strength of the British Navy, though if the Germans had continued to attack British air forces as they were successfully doing early in the Battle of Britain, they would have been able to make life even harder for the British. It was the Soviet Union that could conceivably be defeated. Unfortunately for Germany, Adolf Hitler was not a military strategist, he was an ideologue. He believed that lebensraum (living space) was the ultimate objective of war, and that living space was in the Soviet Union. So war between Germany and the Soviet Union was inevitable.

Conceivably if Germany held off a year the Soviet Union would’ve attacked the Germans first. I don’t know anything about Soviet plans though I’m sure historians have looked into it.

When it became necessary for the Germans to divert troops and planes to Africa and to the Balkans to help the Italians, both for the fighting and for subsequent occupation (keep in mind also the German paratroop force was practically destroyed) , the Germans should have decided to delay the invasion of Russia for a year. They could then have devoted far more than two divisions and a small fraction of the Luftwaffe to the task of defeating the British in Africa, including neutralizing or even capturing Malta, and driving the British Navy out of most of the Mediterranean. Yes, more divisions mean more supply problems, but the Luftwaffe would have provided much better protection for convoys, especially after Malta was reduced to defense only. (As it was, the Germans nearly succeeded.) Rommel would have taken Egypt (as it was on a shoestring, he was on Egyptian soil), which would have driven the British fleet out of the Mediterranean. Keep in mind the Allies were at the end of a much longer supply line than the Germans and Italians. I don’t see that the Vichy French or the Allies could have prevented German occupation of the entire Middle East; logistics more than defenders would have limited the number of divisions the Axis could deploy there, even after the eastern Mediterranean became an Axis lake. This would give the Axis large amounts of oil, lack of which became a big problem for them later in the war. It would also allow them to pose a small threat of attacking the Soviet Union through the Caucasus (where Soviet oil reserves were located), and even via raids from Afghanistan. Again, logistics would have limited forces available.

Who knows what the Turks would have done when more or less surrounded by Axis forces and the traditional enemy, Russia. Would they have joined the war to attack that traditional enemy? The Turks were with the Central Powers in World War I, but Ottoman government had been replaced with a secular government, so who knows?

I don’t think the Germans could have posed much of a threat to India because of the native Indian logistical support for native Indian divisions. But the need to defend India would not allow the British to deploy troops elsewhere.

So when the Axis and Soviet Union started fighting in 1942, the Germans would have had more strategic options. Would Germany have been better off vis-à-vis the Soviet Union in 1942 than in 1941? I don’t know, but I think the same incompetence the Soviets exhibited at the start of the invasion in 1941, would have existed in 1942. I don’t know whether it was a diversion of forces or the weather that prevented in 1941 invasion from starting before June 22, but if it was the former then in 1942 they might’ve started earlier.

Whether this would have been enough to enable the Axis to finish the Soviet Union no one knows, but the Germans would have been in a much better situation with respect to their enemies, in terms of strategic position and in terms of resources (especially oil).

This brings us to the second and less important point.

No Surprise Attack

Japan traditionally used surprise attacks to start wars. Admiral Yamamoto knew how the Americans would react to a surprise attack, and evidently having no choice, he chose to attack Pearl Harbor in hopes of catching the American aircraft carriers there. Fortunately for the USA, none of the carriers were there, where they almost certainly would have been sunk. Depending on the number of carriers sunk, the Japanese might have captured all of New Guinea, and Midway Island, and Guadalcanal, and it would have taken much longer for the Americans to break down the Japanese.

But if the Japanese had declared war in the accepted manner, confining their attacks to the East Asian sphere, the theory is that Americans would have been much less committed to war, and especially much less committed to an unconditional-surrender war. In other words, going back to economic superiority versus military superiority, the Americans might not have stayed in the war long enough to gain overwhelming military superiority. I don’t know, I don’t think anybody could know, though I have no doubt that some historians have tried to answer the question of how this would have affected the war effort.


So in summary, if the Mediterranean became an Axis lake, if the Axis held the Near/Middle East, if the Japanese fought a limited war in Asia so that the Americans would not have gone into the war wholeheartedly, and especially if this all resulted in the Soviet Union being defeated by the Axis, then the war might have ground to a halt rather than to an Axis loss. That’s not exactly a win, but there was no way the Axis could ever defeat the United States. In the long run whichever side gained the upper hand scientifically (nuclear weapons, jets, snorkel submarines, etc.) might have been able to win a continuation of the war, immediately or at a later time.

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