The flip side of the coin, ten Allied military blunders (Part 1)
An esteemed reader asked if I was going to write about the mistakes the Allies made during World War Two. I hadn’t thought of it, but it is a great suggestion. The Allies certainly made some blunders, though not as many as Hitler and they were more insulated from the consequences because they had such numerical advantages over the Germans. Heck, if we want to be honest, one Allied leader was in the same league as Hitler when it came to military incompetence, a certain Winston Churchill. He might have been an inspiring leader, but every time he meddled in military matters, the results were catastrophic. Fortunately for the Allies, Churchill didn’t have absolute power and for the most part was prevented from meddling in military minutiae. Even Stalin, who most certainly did have absolute power, was smart enough to let competent Russian generals conduct his war.
Also, the Allies had numerous nations and commands, unlike Germany, so somewhat restated no one Allied leader could do the sorts of damage to the war effort against the Germans that Hitler was able to inflict upon the German war effort against the Allies. So while this list does have some global mistakes, it also includes a handful of smaller but spectacular blunders. I have also included the War in the Pacific in this list, so this is a much more mixed bag than my list of Hitler’s ten biggest blunders.
1. Refighting WW1, the Maginot Line. In May 1940 Germany defeated France in ten days of fighting. This was one of the most stunning military victories in history, and while the German attack was brilliant, it was made possible by almost mind numbing narrow mindedness on the part of France and Britain. The high commands of both militaries were completely moribund and run by the heroes of World War One. Heroes incapable of imagination who prepared to refight World War One down to the smallest detail. IE from their grand strategy to how their troops were trained and armed, they were ready for a repeat of World War One. This problem was compounded by France’s investment in the Maginot Line, one of the most extensive fortified lines in history. While most people know the line was useless becasue the Germans simply went around to it, it’s also notable that the Maginot Line sucked up something 40% of France’s military spending in the years leading up to the war. A very strong case can be made that this money would have been far better spent modernizing France’s other military forces, especially the French Air Force, which proved to be almost helpless against the Luftwaffe. The Germans had learnt from World War One, and the result was a crushing German victory.
2. Underestimating the Japanese. Only old folks will remember this, but before World War Two the Japanese were widely regarded as sub-human barbarians incapable of original thought. Their military was regarded as a pathetic attempt to copy the obviously superior western militaries, and there was no doubt their forces would prove no match for western forces. This had many results, the first was that for the most part the Allies only had second string troops and leaders in Asia to defend against Japan. Secondly, the Allies made little effort to study the Japanese military and truly assess its capabilities. Lastly it resulted in Japan conquering more territory in the first six months of the war than any conquerer in history. That’s right, the initial Japanese advance in World War Two was the greatest conquest in history. Pretty slick trick for sub-human barbarians.
3. The Repulse and the Prince of Wales. This is sort of a subset of no. 2 above. Before Japan’s attack Churchill ordered Britain’s newest and best battleship, the Prince of Wales, and an older battleship, the Repulse, to Singapore. Churchill believed battleships were invulnerable and the presence of this force, Force Z as it came to be called, would deter a Japanese attack on Britain’s holdings in southeast Asia. The British admiralty was adamantly opposed to the idea, but Churchill overruled them. Within three days of Pearl Harbor they had both been sunk, the first battleships sunk at sea by hostile enemy aircraft. Churchill was so stunned when he received the news over the phone that he hung up, and later said it was the worst news he received during the entire war. Some have suggested that if the aircraft carrier that had planned to sail with Force Z hadn’t broken down the result would have been different. The carrier in question carried 24 obsolete aircraft at the time, only 12 of them fighters. They would have been no match for the Japanese Zeros, and if the Indomitable had joined force Z, it would no doubt also be a war grave.
4. Russia’s Deployment. One of the biggest mysteries of World War Two is how Russia was deployed prior to the German invasion. For unknown reasons that died with Stalin, Russia had moved vast amounts of military men and equipment right up to the frontier with Germany and its allies. I mean, they had moved so much stuff forward that they didn’t even have places to store it. To their amazement the Germans discovered whole fields of military equipment stacked on pallets covered with tarps! What was Stalin planning to do with all this stuff? He certainly wasn’t preparing to defend against a German attack, his troops weren’t building fortifications, and he was so stunned by news of the German attack that he refused to believe it and didn’t issue orders for the better part of a day. Whatever the plan, it resulted in the Germans capturing the lion’s share of Russia’s soldiers and military gear in the first weeks of the war. Ultimately it didn’t really matter as Russia had manpower to spare and the equipment was quickly replaced with newer better equipment. Still, losing most of his tanks, planes, guns, and soldiers to the German blitzkrieg definitely wasn’t part of Stalin’s plan. If Russia had not had the ability to quickly replace these staggering losses, Germany’s invasion of Russia would ave turned out much differently.
5. Market Garden. Possibly my favourite military blunder of the war, and Germany’s last major victory of the war. Basically in late 1944 Britain’s Field Marshall Montgomery came up with a plan for ending the war by Christmas. Paratroopers would seize a series of bridges in Holland, and British tanks would advance along the corridor so created and pour into the Ruhr, Germany’s industrial heartland. This as an audacious but overly complicated plan that would require coordinating large numbers of troops over a vast area, where the failure of even one part of the plan meant the plan would fail. To compound the problem, Montgomery discounted reports that crack German troops had been deployed in the region. The Americans were skeptical so they allowed the British to be the ones seizing the bridge at Arnhem, the final and furthest bridge to be seized. The plan proceeded, and a reinforced British division (more than 10,000 men) parachuted into the Arnhem region. The Germans were surprised, and their units were only at a fraction of their full strength, part of the reason the British had discounted them as a threat. However, the Germans were all crack veterans of the Russian campaign, armed with the very latest German super weapons, well rested, and commanded by two of Germany’s best generals. Uh oh. There were other blunders made during this battle as well, it turned out for example that the British radios weren’t powerful enough to communicate with the widely scattered British troops, so British units couldn’t even coordinate their actions.The results were predictable, the British got the crap beaten out of them, and didn’t capture the bridge at Arnhem. Fewer than 4,000 of them escaped. Market Garden was easily Montgomery’s greatest failure as a leader, and a mistake he admitted and regretted.
And yes, I promised ten Allied military blunders, but that was too long for one post. However, there are at least seven more Allied blunders worthy of mention and they will be covered in a future post or posts.
Have a great weekend everyone.
Part 2 of this post has now been published: Ten World War Two Allied military blunders (Part 2)
(The above image is Public Domain under Australian copyright law as its copyright has expired. It’s a picture of the Prince of Wales being evacuated onto an adjacent destroyer, the Express. Moments later the Prince of Wales began to roll over and sink, it almost took the Express with it. 870 sailors died in the sinkings of the two battleships, Japanese losses were 6 planes and 18 aircrew.)