The Mistakes of World War 2 - 1939-1940

by Joshua Horn

Last time, we examined the mistakes on the part of France and Britain which caused the Second World War. Now we will look at several mistakes which the Allies and Axis made from 1939-1940.

The Battle of France
At the beginning of the war there was what Churchill called the “Twilight War”. It was the eight months when war had been declared, but had only partially begun. During this time Germany crushed Poland and other nations while the French and British army was waiting on the border of France, building their armies and fortifying themselves. During 1939 through the spring of 1940 the German army improved in quality. They were able to hone their techniques upon the smaller nations before they attacked the stronger France. On the other hand the French army declined in quality. They waited on the border in their forts for the German attack, and their morale and discipline declined.

There were several mistakes in the French arrangements for the German attack. The first mistake was allowing the troops’ discipline and quality to decline through the winter of 1939-1940 as previously mentioned. The second and more important one was their arrangement of troops;. There was a great change in military tactics between the world wars. In the First World War, the armies entrenched and dug in and there was really no way to over run your opponent’s fortifications without the loss of hundreds of thousands of troops.  In the Second World War, there was the tank. It gave a way to quickly and relatively bloodlessly break the enemy’s fortifications simply by driving over them. This drastically changed the way battles were fought. It made a large reserve force behind the front lines even more important, so that you could plug the gaps made in the line by the enemy’s attacks. The French had little or no reserve. Their other mistake was partly unavoidable. They spent large amounts of time building the “Maginot Line”, which could easily be turned by a German attack through neutral Belgium. The Belgians knew that they would be attacked, but they would not let the French and British forces into their country to help defend them, until they actually were invaded.

The Battle of France began on May 10th, 1940, and it was finished very rapidly. The German army attacked Belgium, and pierced the French and British forces.  They drove the Allies back miles every day. They completely flanked the Maginot line, making all those defenses useless. About one month after the first German attack France was beaten. Many of the French officials wanted to leave France and continue the war from the colonies, but eventually the other side one and the French government, called “Vichy France”, surrendered to the Germans and were out of the war.

A Plane that Fought in the Battle of Britain

The Battle of Britain
With France out of the war, Britain alone stood to meet the powerful German forces. At this point Prime Minster Winston Churchill and the British people made one of the great decisions of the war. They decided that even though the British had only a few divisions to counter the great German armies, they would still fight on and not surrender. Here is what Winston Churchill told the Parliament:
Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail, We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight in the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air; we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing-grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the Old. 1
Since Britain is an island, the logical way for Hitler to attack was through an invasion. Churchill said, “Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war.”2 And for a time it looked very much like he would break them. There were several obstacles to his invasion. One was the British navy's sea power. This the Germans were not able to overcome because of the huge amounts of time and resources necessary to build ships. The second was air power. Hitler and his advisers believed that they needed to control the air above Britain to invade. This would also help balance the British sea power because  planes were able to attack and sink ships. Hitler ordered the German air force to gain air superiority in preparation for the invasion of England.

A British Soldier Scans the Skies for German Aircraft

The Battle of Britain was a huge strain on the British pilots. Germany had more planes and pilots, but the British were of higher quality. The Germans at first tried to destroy the British air fields, but then they gave up at just the wrong time and switched to bombing the cities. Though the Germans never gained absolute air superiority, there may have been a time when a bold attack at invasion may have succeeded in gaining a landing because of the strained state of the British air force. Once they had landed, they had a chance of conquering the island with their superior forces if they were able to keep them supplied. It may or may not have succeeded. Winston Churchill for one thought that it would not, but it was the only hope for Germany to win the war.

The next mistake was the friendliness of Russia towards Hitler, while he was plotting to destroy them. Russia ended up on the wrong side of the Second World War. “Hitler and Stalin had much in common as totalitarians, and their systems of government were akin.”3 Stalin desired to work  with Germany, Italy and Japan, but Hitler was just negotiating to gain time to prepare to destroy them. Hitler's policy was ‘one at a time’: while you are defeating one nation make sure if possible that no others declare war on you. It was successful with Belgium, and it also worked here with Russia. However, we do not know what would have happened if Hitler had changed his mind and if Germany and Russia did make an alliance. Churchill said, “We cannot attempt to describe what might have happened as the result of an armed alliance between the two great empires of the Continent, with their millions of soldiers, to share the spoil...”4 And, “The combination against us of Germany, Russia and Japan was the worst of our fears.”5 If Hitler had joined with instead of attacking Russia the Allies probably would have been defeated.

Hitler and Mussolini

These important mistakes and decisions of 1940 have changed the world. If France had beaten back Hitler's attack, the United States would not have nearly as much influence over the world today. If Britain had given up, the war would have been lost. If Germany had made the decision to invade Britain, there is a chance that they would have been successful and won the war. And finally, if Germany had allied with the Soviet Union, the Allies probably would have been defeated. If any of these decisions had been made differently, the world would be a very different place.

German Tanks Spearheading an Assault on Russia

1 Churchill, Winston. The Second World War. (London: Cassell & Co. Ltd 1948) volume 2, p. 104
2 Ibid, p. 198
3 Ibid, p. 117
4 Ibid, p. 519
5 Ibid, p. 524


Anonymous said...

I am doing a thesis on Winston Churchill and this helped me a lot. My thesis was how Winston Churchill effected World War II. Thank you for posting this.

Anonymous said...

Doing a thesis on Hitler's biggest mistakes

Srikant Mohapatra said...

Good Post.

Srikant Mohapatra said...

Good Post.

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