May 28, 2012

Seventy Years Ago: The Week the Tide Began to Turn

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Seventy years ago this week, the world looked unspeakably grim.

By the end of May 1942, Germany had occupied France, Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxemburg; all of Eastern Europe not already under control of its allies Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania, including the Baltic, the Ukraine, and a large chunk of Russia; Greece and Yugoslavia; and the former Italian colonies of North Africa. Italy wasn't helping much, but in the Far East Japan had occupied much of China, all of Indochina, Indonesia, Malaya (including Singapore), the Philippines, and part of Burma. German bombers were battering Britain's cities; German submarines were sinking Allied shipping at half a million tons a month. In Russia and Ukraine the German Army was launchng new offensives; at Khar'kov, in a battle that ended seventy years ago today, the Red Army lost a quarter of a million men. Across Europe and East Asia, millions of non-combatants were being machine-gunned, gassed, starved, and worked to death.

At this very moment, beneath the surface of these terrible events, the tide of the war was beginning to turn. Up to that time, Axis forces were advancing on all fronts. Within a few months they were in retreat everywhere.

In 1942 the war was fought in three main theatres: the Pacific, the Mediterrean, and the Eastern front. In each theatre the turning point of the war was marked by a decisive battle. These were the Battles of Midway (June 4 to 7), the seventieth anniversary of which we are about to mark; El Alamein (July 1 to 30 and October 23 to November 4); and Stalingrad (September 13 to February 2, 1943).

In obvious ways these battles could not have been more different: Midway in the remote northern Pacific, Alamein in the desert sands of Egypt, and Stalingrad in the smoking ruins of a great city on the Volga river. These battles differed also in the orders of magnitude of the forces involved. Japanese losses in four days at Midway were five ships, 250 aircraft, and 3,000 men. German losses in two weeks at the second battle of Alamein were 800 tanks and guns and 30,000 men, and in five months at Stalingrad 7,500 tanks and guns and three quarters of a million men killed or missing. Red Army losses at Stalingrad alone were half a million; do not forget these figures if you want to understand how powerfully the war continues to stir national feeling in Russia.

In other respects, these battles had important common features. Each began with an enemy offensive. The Japanese planned to use Midway Island as a launching pad from which to invade Hawaii. The Germans planned to drive the British out of North Africa; if the Mediterranean could not be an Italian lake, then let it be a German one. From Stalingrad the Germans planned to seal off the Caucasian oilfields and turn north to take Moscow from the rear.

After the offensive came the counter-offensive, which in each case took the enemy by surprise. After the successful surprise attack on the U.S. Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the Japanese believed they had finished American naval power. Just six months later, in the summer of 1942, the U.S. Navy was already three times the size of the previous year. Such was the speed of mobilization of America's industrial power, and the resilience of American national feeling, both of which had been entirely discounted in Tokyo and Berlin. The same underestimation of Allied reserves was present in the calculations of the Axis commanders at Alamein and Stalingrad.

The Allied victories of 1942/43 were no accident. Underlying them was the translation of Allied economic power into fighting power. In 1941 the Axis Powers were poised for victory. But victory would be theirs only if they exploited the advantage of the aggressor to the full. With a potential coalition of economically more powerful enemies ranged against them, they had to win every campaign quickly and avoid a stalemate at all costs. Had they done so, the war would have been over and they would have won.

Economic mobilization, the translation of economic power into fighting power, takes time. The Allies bought this time with "blood and treasure." First came the British refusal to surrender in the summer of 1940, followed by the Battle of Britain. Next came the U.S. Lend Lease Act of March 1941 which offered American aid to the British (and a few months later to the Soviet Union). The third thing was the unexpected -- in German eyes, often senseless -- resistance of the Red Army in the summer and autumn 1941, which led through appalling losses to the failure of the German invaders to take Leningrad and Moscow before the end of the year.


Source: Harrison (1998, pp. 15-16).

Having bought time, the Allies used it to mobilize their economies. The chart shows the production of combat aircraft by the main powers year by year through the war. It illustrates how, during 1942, Allied -- and especially American -- mobilization rapidly tilted the military-economic balance against the Axis. The Allies began to outproduce Germany and Japan in aircraft, and also in munitions generally, by a substantial multiple. This advantage persisted through the end of the war, despite belated mobilization of the German and Japanese war economies. In 1942, however, the grit and bloody determination of Allied soldiers, sailors, and airmen was still required to turn material predominance into victory on the battlefield. Midway, Alamein, and Stalingrad were the signals that this had been achieved.

Why was the struggle so much, much more intense on the Eastern front? From mid-1941 through mid-1944 this was where 90 percent of German fighting power was focused. To occupy the territory of Ukraine and European Russia, kill the Jews, decimate the Slavic population, and resettle this vast landmass as a German colony, was Hitler's prime objective. The Soviet economy, although large, remained poor and industrially less developed, so that it was on the Eastern front that German resources were most evenly matched. The Allies' material advantages were much greater elsewhere. If the Axis could not win in Russia, it would not win anywhere else. On the Eastern front a war of mutual annihilation developed, in which both sides threw everything they had and more into the scales. As I discussed in a paper entitled "Why Didn't the Soviet Economy Collapse in 1942?" (Harrison 2005), Hitler had every right to expect final victory. The Soviet Union only just managed to retain a critical advantage over Germany, based on mass production, colossal sacrifice, and utter ruthlessness.

Up to the summer of 1942, the forces of the Axis were advancing everywhere; from the beginning of 1943 they retreated on all fronts. After this it was no longer possible for the Axis powers to win the war against the economically more developed, more mobilized, and more powerful Allies. One of the most horrifying faces of the war is seen in the fact that, despite this, years of intense fighting still lay ahead. Through 1943, 1944, and into 1945 the German and Japanese Armies and Navies retreated continuously, killing and being killed every day and every inch of the way, maintaining discipline and cohesion, not giving up until the last possible moment. Every day of those years their governments persisted in genocidal policies that destroyed millions of lives through famine, overwork, and systematic mass killing.

Without Midway, Alamein, and Stalingrad our world today would be far different from the one we know. The Axis powers might have ended the war victoriously, with consequences that we can only guess at. Alternatively, the war would have been dragged out in some other way, but there would have been no Allied victory in 1945. Or perhaps there could still have been victory in 1945, but the evolution of events would have been entirely different. Regardless of events on the battlefield, by the summer of 1945 the Americans would have had the atomic bomb. If the war still raged in Europe, the first victims of atomic warfare would more likely have been German than Japanese.


  • Harrison, Mark. 1998. Economic Mobilization for World War II: an Overview. In The Economics of World War II: Six Great Powers in International Comparison, pp. 1-42. Edited by Mark Harrison. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Harrison, Mark. 2005. Why Didn't the Soviet Economy Collapse in 1942? In A World at Total War: Global Conflict and the Politics of Destruction, 1939-1945, pp. 137-156. Edited by Roger Chickering, Stig Förster, and Bernd Greiner. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. RePEc handle:

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I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).

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