Hammer and Anvil: Catching the Axis in a Catch-22

Hammer and Anvil: Catching the Axis in a Catch-22

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22.”

USAAF Captain John Yossarian, fictional protagonist, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

Political Scientist Robert A. Pape published Bombing to Win in 1996.[1] In that work, Pape argued that air power is of limited effectiveness when attacking purely strategic targets such as the enemy’s morale, leadership, or communications. Instead, the most effective use of air power is alongside ground forces in a ‘hammer and anvil’ approach.

© IWM (CNA 1136)

Four Curtiss Kittyhawk Mark IIIs of No. 112 Squadron RAF based at Agnone, Sicily, in stepped line-astern formation, flying south along the Gulf of Catania. (Source: © IWM (CNA 1136))

The air force acts as the hammer while the field force serves as the anvil. Theoretically, any army confronted by an air force with air superiority and an opposing army is in a predicament. The commander can choose to concentrate his forces, leaving them open to the hammer – tactical air power. Alternatively, he can disperse his troops, at which point the anvil – the opposing army – can isolate and destroy these smaller units in a piecemeal fashion.[2] This is what makes air superiority so tantalising in modern warfare. It forces one side into a catch-22. The fundamental principle is that air superiority denies the opposing force freedom of movement. It does not always work out as cleanly as the hammer and anvil concept suggests (and as the below examples illustrate), but removing the opposing force’s freedom of movement is a sure way to win a battle or, perhaps, a war.

The Allies caught the Axis armies in a hammer and anvil catch-22 in Sicily in 1943. The successful Allied landings in Operation HUSKY and the ensuring air battles won the Allies air superiority over the island. Heavy losses in the invasion’s first days and the threat the well-positioned landings posed to their airfields forced the German and Italian air forces to withdraw from the island days into the battle. Field Marshal Albert Kesselring had to rely on ground troops to hold the island and keep Italy in the war as long as possible. To achieve their aim, the Allies needed to secure the island and use it as an advanced staging ground to force Italy from the war.

Some of the heaviest fighting occurred in the island’s centre, on the inland hinge of the Etna Line. Kesselring hoped to hold the Allies at bay using a mountainous ring around Sicily’s active volcano, Mount Etna. 1st Canadian Division, undergoing its baptism of fire in this war, drew the task of punching a hole in the Axis line alongside their counterparts in 1st US Division, the Big Red One.

© IWM (CNA 1134)

Armourers load a Curtiss Kittyhawk Mark III of No. 239 Wing RAF with 250-lb GP bombs and re-arm the machine guns in the wings, at Agnone, Sicily, for a forthcoming sortie against enemy positions in the foothills of Mount Etna. (Source: © IWM (CNA 1134))

As the Americans engaged in heavy fighting near Troina to the north, the Canadians advanced on Regalbuto to the south. In this attack, the Canadians leant heavily on artillery and air support. Air power was to focus primarily on reaching beyond the range of artillery where Allied intelligence expected much enemy traffic movement:

[i]t was believed that the enemy would withdraw when the assault developed, and it was hoped that the air attack would pin him down to the ground and prevent this operation.[3]

Allied intelligence also believed that the Germans were using the town as a motor pool for their vehicles and guns.

The Canadian anvil struck as the hammer waited overhead. Kittyhawk fighter-bombers claimed over 40 enemy motor vehicles destroyed on 2 August between Regalbuto and Adrano.[4] Between the fighting in and around Regalbuto and losses sustained during their withdrawal on Highway 121, the Hermann Göring Division’s panzer engineer battalion was effectively ‘eliminated as a combat force.’[5] The Allies successfully flushed the Germans from their positions after a gruelling attritional struggle. They forced the Germans to use the roads in large numbers, increasing already heavy casualties.

© IWM (NA 5389)

A German Mk III tank knocked out during the fierce street fighting in Centuripe during the drive on Messina. (Source: © IWM (NA 5389))

A similar situation developed in the Battle of Troina. This time, however, the Germans made a much longer stand. Between 31 July and 6 August 1943, 15th Panzer Grenadier Division lost 1,600 men; 10 percent of the division’s strength or 40 percent of the fighting troops. The German commander, General Eberhard Rodt, later noted that losses from heavy artillery fire and massive carpet bombings on the hills and firing positions around the town were very high.[6] Allied aircraft caught a large amount of Axis motor transport on Highway 120 between Troina and Randazzo. Fighter-bombers claimed 50 vehicles strafed and bombed near Cesaro on 2 August.[7] It is possible that this was a reinforcement or supply column for the Troina garrison. Finally, Rodt notes that while his men were able to break contact with the Americans, they were often attacked and suffered losses from low-level aircraft while moving from Troina towards Bronte and Randazzo. Again, the Allies forced an Axis withdrawal to occur in daylight, adding to losses from the earlier attritional struggle.[8]

The German Army was just starting to get used to fighting with minimal support from the Luftwaffe. Air superiority over Sicily enabled the Allies to make use of this hammer and anvil to significant effect. Although elements of four German divisions escaped across the Strait of Messina in mid-August, those units were hollow shells of their former selves.[9] Air power and the catch-22 Allied air superiority forced the Axis into played a significant role in this outcome. The loss of Sicily opened the Mediterranean to Allied shipping, supported the Russians on the Eastern Front, and drove Italy ever closer to surrender.

© IWM (CNA 1139)

Flying Officer Colin Edmends from Australia and his fitter, D. McMinnemy, inspect the tail of his Curtiss Kittyhawk after it was damaged during a sortie over Catania. (Source: © IWM (CNA 1139))

Robert Pape’s writing on air power remains fairly controversial. Other air power theorists argue that the opposing force’s command and control, specifically regarding leadership and communications, are ideal targets. Foremost among these advocates is Colonel (Ret.) John Warden III, who wrote The Air Campaign, while he was at the National War College in the mid-1980s. However, in the estimation of this author, due to the case study examined above, Pape’s hammer and anvil approach has merit. As Philips Payson O’Brien notes in How the War Was Won, ‘except for killing every one of the combatants fighting against you, the only way to “win” a war is to stop your enemy from moving.’[10] Both theories advocate a solution to this problem. The difference is that one gives air power a complimentary role while the other affords it the leading role. In the Second World War, the debate was between the theatre air power school and the victory through air power school. The RAF and USAAF each had advocates for both of these approaches. This debate continues to this day.

This post first appeared at From Balloons to Drones.

[1] Robert A. Pape, Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996).

[2] Robert A. Pape, ‘The True Worth of Air Power,’ Foreign Affairs, 83:2 (2004), p. 119.

[3] Directorate of History and Heritage [DHH], Canadian Military Headquarters [CMHQ] Report No. 135, ‘Canadian Operations in Sicily, Part II Section 2, The Pursuit of the Germans from Vizzini to Adrano, 15 July to 6 August,’ p. 92.

[4] DHH, CMHQ Report No. 135, p. 92.

[5] Samuel W. Mitcham Jr. and Friedrich von Stauffenberg, The Battle of Sicily: How the Allies Lost Their Chance for Total Victory (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2007), p. 254.

[6] US Army Military History Institute, D.739.F6713, Foreign Military Studies [FMS] C-077, ‘15th Panzer Grenadier Division in Sicily,’ report by Eberhard Rodt and staff, 18 June 1951, p. 25.

[7] DHH, CMHQ Report No. 135, p. 92.

[8] Rodt FMS C-077, p.26.

[9] Lee Windsor, “The Eyes of All Fixed on Sicily’: Canada’s Unexpected Victory, 1943,’ Canadian Military History, 22:3 (Summer 2013), p. 31.

[10] Philips Payson O’Brien, How the War Was Won: Air-Sea Power and Allied Victory in World War II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), pp. 487-488.


Greenwood Military Aviation Museum

Hailing from central Canada, maritime military aviation is something I am less familiar with. Having now made my home in Atlantic Canada, I have more opportunities to learn about this subject beyond reading. I recently visited Greenwood Military Aviation Museum. The museum is located at CFB Greenwood, an air base with a storied history. Constructed in the early years of the Second World War, the base began operations in 1942 as No. 36 Operational Training Unit (OTU). The friendly skies of Canada were a great place to train pilots and aircrew. This Royal Air Force (RAF) unit primarily flew Hudson Mk IIIs, training in the maritime reconnaissance role. U-boat successes in 1942 prompted the unit to begin focusing on anti-submarine work. In 1943, the OTU converted to training on Mosquitos. In 1944, the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) took command of the station.


Avro Anson Mk II restored between 2003 and 2009.

The Greenwood Military Aviation Museum has done a splendid job of capturing the history of the station, its various squadrons, and the role of maritime air power, especially in the years since the end of the Second World War. The museum proudly displays a Lancaster Mk X, now converted to a Mk III version in the colours of 405 Squadron, the RCAF’s only pathfinder squadron in Bomber Command. This aircraft served in the Combined Bomber Offensive before the RCAF employed it in the maritime reconnaissance role after the war.


Avro Lancaster Mk III in 405 Squadron colours.

The Lancaster needed a replacement in the mid-1950s. As an interim replacement, the RCAF selected the US Navy’s Neptune P2V, designated the CP-127. It was the first aircraft developed specifically for anti-submarine warfare, a role Canada had played during the Battle of the Atlantic and would continue to play throughout the Cold War. The museum displays the only Neptune in Canada, an aircraft on loan from the US Navy.


CP-127 Neptune

The museum also owns a CP-107 Argus. These aircraft arrived to replace the Neptune in the late 1950s. Canadair built the aircraft under licence as the airframe was actually that of the Bristol Britannia, a 1950s turboprop airliner. The Argus was the backbone of the RCAF’s maritime air capability throughout the hot years of the Cold War. It could stay aloft for as long as 31 hours. The Argus was designed to fly 1,000 miles, remain on-station for 8 hours, return home, and have enough fuel to divert 500 miles to an alternate airfield. These aircraft played a critical role during the Cuban Missile Crisis. When President John F. Kennedy declared a quarantine of Cuba in response to the presence of Soviet nuclear-armed missiles there, Argus aircraft flew patrols over the Atlantic, searching for Soviet submarines and vessels attempting to challenge the blockade. The CP-140 Aurora replaced the Argus in the early 1980s and remains the RCAF’s maritime patrol aircraft to the present.


CP-107 Argus

Inside the museum building, there are a number of great exhibits honouring Greenwood squadrons and aircrew. The standout is the tribute to 404 Squadron RCAF’s “Black Friday”. On 9 February 1945, the squadron participated in an attack on Z33, a German Narvik-class destroyer, and her escorts, sheltered in Førde Fjord, Norway. Of 11 aircraft, 404 Squadron lost six Beaufighters, with all but one of their 12 aircrew dying in crashes around the fjord. The museum has a lovely diorama of the fjord on display, indicating the positions of the 404 Squadron crashes. Z33 escaped destruction, although the destroyer was hardly operational for the remainder of the war.


404 Squadron war and peacetime dead. The “Black Friday” losses are visible under Dec. 9, 1944, a dating error.

Outside the museum, there is a Commemorative Garden honouring the war and peacetime dead of the various units stationed at Greenwood. It also honours the accomplishments of these various units and their airmen and women. The museum and its gardens are a keen reminder of the importance of maritime air power to the history of Canada and our allies. You can learn more about the museum’s aircraft displays and projects here. A team is presently working to restore a Bristol Bolingbroke, a support aircraft for the Mosquito OTU.

The Mediterranean Air War, a Book Review

Ehlers Jr., Robert S. (2015) The Mediterranean Air War: Airpower and Allied Victory in World War II. University Press of Kansas. 520 Pages. ISBN 0700620753

51y2XtcvI2L._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_The Second World War’s Mediterranean Theatre of Operations was a sideshow, right? The road to defeating Nazi Germany where the Western Allies were concerned lay through Normandy, not North Africa. The Allies launched their great Combined Bomber Offensive from the United Kingdom as this incredible animation from the American Air Museum shows. Other efforts were relatively unimportant and sapped resources from where the real air battle took place. Or were they?

Robert S. Ehlers Jr.’s The Mediterranean Air War: Airpower and Allied Victory in World War II offers an important counter-narrative. The Mediterranean was not a sideshow. In fact, it was a critical theatre for Allied victory. Adolf Hitler committed the Wehrmacht to the Mediterranean in 1941 to support Benito Mussolini’s faltering armies in Greece and North Africa. Four years later the consequence of this simple plan was 400,000 Italian and 730,000 German casualties. But human casualties only tell part of the tale. The European Axis lost 42 percent of its merchant shipping in the Mediterranean. The Allies all but destroyed the Regia Aeronautica by mid-1943 while the Luftwaffe lost 17,750 aircraft in the Mediterranean throughout the war. By comparison, the Germans lost 20,419 aircraft on the Western Front while losing only 11,000 on the Eastern Front.

This is just the strategic picture. Ehlers’s work also talks logistics. Historians have often highlighted the importance of tank strength in the Western Desert. The side that could field the most tanks had the advantage. Since both sides had to maintain their forces across long supply chains the ability to retrieve and repair damaged battlefield equipment was crucial. The same was true for aircraft. The Royal Air Force created an efficient system for repair and salvage early in the campaign. Air Vice-Marshal Graham Dawson, the RAF’s Chief Maintenance Officer in the Mediterranean, organized the effort. Dawson was a Battle of Britain veteran who received a Mention in Dispatches for superb engine repair efforts in 1940. He coordinated his crews’ efforts with local Egyptian shops that could repair and manufacturer parts. Dawson’s command was innovative. It created modifications that allowed Hurricane fighters to engage high-flying Junkers Ju 86P photo reconnaissance aircraft. The aircraft’s service ceiling was 36,000 feet, yet the modified version achieved its first victory over the Nile at 49,000 feet.

AVM G.C. Pirie, AVM G.G. Dawson, AC W.E. G. Mann

Air Vice-Marshal Graham Dawson

The Mediterranean was ultimately a battle for sea lines of communication or SLOCs. Air superiority was key to winning this and other battles. With the war in North Africa won, Ehlers argues that the Western Allies were right to take the war to Sicily and then on to mainland Italy. After securing air superiority, the Allied air forces were free to expand their cooperation with Allied armies. The Allies produced great results when the services coordinated their efforts. In the first half of 1944, Operations STRANGLE and DIADEM sought to defeat German forces barring the way to Rome. STRANGLE was an air campaign aimed at depriving the Germans of supplies while DIADEM was a large-scale ground offensive with air support. On its own, air power’s effectiveness was limited. The Germans lost 20 trucks per day during STRANGLE, but that number rose to 100 per day during DIADEM. Pressure from the army kept enemy transports on the road in large numbers, making them easier prey for prowling fighter-bombers. Together these operations cost the Germans Rome and 80,000 casualties.

Ehlers convincingly argues that the final air campaigns flown from bases in Italy shortened the war and saved lives. Targets included the Luftwaffe, the German oil industry, and German lines of communication to the Eastern Front. Instructors who seek to offer their students a fresh perspective on the Mediterranean Theatre of Operations will do well to include this book on their reading lists.

Blushing Brides: Canada’s War Brides by Lindsay Elliott

Blushing Brides: Canada’s War Brides by Lindsay Elliott

March 8th is International Women’s Day, a day to reflect on women’s empowerment. It only seemed fitting, then, to explore a topic on that very sentiment. This blog is about the courageous, adventurous, and passionate Canadian War Brides of the Second World War. These British women fell in love with and married Canadian soldiers. They then left their previous lives and all that was familiar to them behind in search of a new life.

There are so many things to be considered when exploring this topic. There’s the emotional side (love, marriage, war, and leaving home). There’s the societal side (having to adapt to a new culture). There’s also the family side (leaving family, travelling with children, and meeting new family and not always being welcome).

I hope that this brief (since I’ve been given my limit) snapshot either ignites a spark or fuels a passion for a topic that I am also quite dedicated to.

Love, Marriage, and (Sometimes) a Baby Carriage

8b5d8761-cfa3-4718-844e-cd2cd79f13cdThe whole world changed with the declaration of war in September 1939. The arrival of Canadian soldiers on British soil set the foundation for a most remarkable phenomenon: Canadian men and British women met and within months some were married and off to the Canadian coast, seeking out the ‘promised land’ their new husbands had so eagerly discussed. In fact, it wasn’t long until the first marriage occurred: “43 days after Canadian soldiers arrived in December 1939, they celebrated the first marriage between a British woman and a Canadian serviceman at Farnborough Church in the Aldershot area.” Over the next six years, 48,000 marriages occurred, resulting in 45,000 British and European war brides. Understandably, 93% of these were British, as this was where the soldiers spent a large part of the war.

Instead of focusing on their origins, I’m going to focus on their journeys to Canada and their experiences upon arrival. Many travelled alone before their husbands were cycled back, sometimes with children in tow. These new families had quite the adventure ahead of them: “[T]he War Brides have the shared experience of meeting and marrying a Canadian soldier during a war time, leaving their home country for a new world by trans-Atlantic ship across the ocean, crossing Canada by war bride train, settling in to their new homes, raising families and adapting to a new culture, language and religion in a time in our history where the future held great promise for new Canadians.”

Canada: New Beginnings, New Homes

andresan-billy-mitchon-lgWar brides arrived at Pier 21 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. From there they embarked on trains to travel to their final destinations all across the country. As they disembarked the train at their new homes, they were greeted with a variety of reactions and challenges. They were usually greeted by complete strangers (Jarrett, 48), with less than average standards of living (compared to what their husbands had said), faced ridicule from women who had already been patiently waiting back home, and encountered a whole new lifestyle. Some women were scorned at for a number of reasons ranging from their seemingly rash decision to marry, to taking someone’s sweetheart, to joining a family they were not welcome to. Peggy Chalkin’s arrival in Toronto mirrored such a fate:  “We English war brides were treated horribly in the middle forties. We were jeered at, spat at, and called dreadful names. I guess they were trying to break our spirits, but they were dealing with the wrong people. They hadn’t come through what we had. It made you tough” (Wicks, 156-160). Others were welcomed into society as they eagerly sought to fit in and learn the Canadian ways of living. It was hard, rugged, and traumatizing, but at the same time it was new, exciting and rewarding. War brides faced social restrictions upon arriving in Canada, forcing them to assimilate to the gender constructions of Canadian society. Many women arrived with a romanticised idea of what awaited them: a welcoming family, modern conveniences, land, and riches. A good number of them were faced with a crippling amount of culture shock, as many of their new homes had “no inside plumbing, no electricity, no gas, no facilities of any kind, and a little hand pump outside the house” (Wicks, 119). It was also not uncommon for them to have to adjust to a new religion and/or language, especially if they found themselves in a French community (Jarrett, 63).

For some, it was too much, and without their husbands (or in some cases, because of them), they took the return trip back home. The rest who stayed fought and adjusted to becoming Canadians as a way to survive. Wynne Brink (Alberta) was well aware of this: “I had one foot in Canada and one foot in England, and this would never do. I wanted to become 100 percent Canadian, so slowly but surely I began to shuck off my English ways and began to think Canadian” (Wicks, 179). The brides attended classes held by the Red Cross to teach them Canadian language and terms. They had lessons on how to dress, how to manage through the seasons, and they were also issued a Canadian cookbook (Hibbert, xv). For those who had families and young children, “as their children grew up, [they] became more involved in their communities and schools” (Jarrett, 119) and, in time, they found themselves at home in Canada.

Captured Hearts COV-REV.inddThese women uprooted their whole lives at a tumultuous time in history in the hopes of a better life. They overcame obstacles and became solid fixtures within the country. These outstanding individuals created a new generation of Canadians that capture the hearts and fascination of historians to this day.


Melynda Jarratt, Captured Hearts: New Brunswick’s War Brides (Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane Editions & NBMHP, 2008).

Melynda Jarratt, Canadian War Brides: The Authoritative Source of Information on the Canadian War Brides of WWII: http://www.canadianwarbrides.com/intro.asp (accessed 5 March 2016).

Ben Wicks, Promise You’ll Take Care of My Daughter: The Remarkable War Brides of WWII (Toronto: Stoddart Publishing Co., 2002)

Hibbert, Joyce Hibbert, ed., The War Brides (Toronto: Peter Martin Associates Limited, 1978).

Through Blood and Sweat, a Book Review

Zuehlke, Mark (2015) Through Blood and Sweat: A Remembrance Trek across Sicily’s World War II Battlegrounds. Douglas & McIntyre. 288 Pages. ISBN 1771620099

In the summer of 2013 I found myself on a battlefield tour of Sicily. I was there with a group of touring scholars organized by The Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society. Seventy years earlier the island was the site of a relatively overlooked Second World War battle. We visited the battlegrounds of American, British, and Canadian engagements against German and Italian defenders. I was in the midst of research for my master’s thesis, having visited archives in the United Kingdom on my way to the island.

BloodandSweat_frontA second group of Canadians was visiting the island. This group was Operation Husky 2013: The 70th Anniversary Citizens Memorial Campaign. A small but devoted contingent of Canadians led by businessman Steve Gregory marched the approximate route taken by 1st Canadian Infantry Division in 1943, stopping at towns along the way for remembrance ceremonies involving local officials and Sicilians. Mark Zuehlke, Canada’s leading popular military historian, recounts the journey in his most recent book, Through Blood and Sweat: A Remembrance Trek across Sicily’s World War II Battlegrounds.

As someone who was in Sicily at the time but was not at many of the marcher’s ceremonies, I was keenly interested in Zuehlke’s recounting of these moments. Veteran Sherry Atkinson emerges as the book’s – and indeed the memorial campaign’s – highlight in these ceremonies. In Modica, a small Sicilian town that Lieutenant Atkinson helped liberate in 1943, he recalls how he and his fellow soldiers were so moved by the sight of starving children that they gave away all of their rations. Sherry’s war was mercifully short. A couple of weeks later he was wounded outside of Nicosia by shrapnel from an artillery shell. In 2013 he tells the locals, “My blood has been shed upon your earth, and I consider myself one of you.” Sherry’s message throughout the memorial campaign is that remembrance is not about glorifying war, but about hoping that war never happens again.

Another great moment shared by Zuehlke is the effort to capture a piece of history in the present. His group recreated a photo of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada moving up to hear General Montgomery speak in 1943. This is the photo on the bottom half of the book’s cover. My tour group recreated our own historical image. We visited Troina, the site of the heaviest fighting American troops encountered on the island. The town is full of historical posters featuring images of the town and its occupants in 1943. These inspired us to capture our own photograph. We chose one of Robert Capa’s famous images of American troops resting near the entrance to the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption in the battle’s aftermath.

IMG_20160131_102438Markers honouring the fallen along the marchers’ route were another part of the memorial campaign. The exercise was primarily meant to honour the Canadian Army’s losses across the island. I sponsored a marker and, having researched the airman’s fate, sent the campaign an email noting that he and his crew were killed when their Wellington bomber was shot down and crashed in the mountains north of Messina. I was disappointed when my advice for where to place his marker went unheeded, but acknowledged the difficulties of fitting the air campaign into the route. The marchers’ path can be generally said to mark where soldiers fell, but the reality is not so simple for airmen. Canadian airmen lost their lives across the central Mediterranean in support of Operation HUSKY. Their names are on memorials all over the Mediterranean – from the Agira Canadian War Cemetery to the Malta Memorial for airmen who have no known grave. I’d be interested to know Zuehlke’s reflections on this point as he seems to have initially been skeptical of the marker concept.


Missing from the book is a reflection on what Sicily meant in respect to the larger war. Zuehlke makes this connection in his previous work, Operation Husky, but not here. This is a shame, because it needs to be remembered too. It is not enough to say that lives were lost in the fight for the peace, liberty, and freedom of Canadians and Sicilians alike. True enough, but how was that fight being waged, and where did Sicily fit inside that strategy?

The book is an excellent remembrance reflection. It is not often that an historian takes the time to reflect on the battle he or she studies in the manner Zuehlke has. Through Blood and Sweat will make an engaging primary source for future war and memory researchers for many years to come.

How the War Was Won, a Book Review

O’Brien, P.P. (2015) How the War Was Won: Air-Sea Power and Allied Victory in World War II. Series: Cambridge Military Histories. Cambridge University Press. 640 Pages. ISBN 9781107014756

The Second World War is known for its decisive battles. The Battle of Britain, the Battle of Stalingrad, the Battle of Midway, and the Battle of Normandy are among the most popular. But what if there was no such thing as a decisive battle in the greatest conflict in human history? This is what Dr. Phillips Payson O’Brien of the University of Glasgow argues in How the War Was Won: Air-Sea Power and Allied Victory in World War II, a monograph in the making for at least a decade and a half.

whytheallieswonO’Brien seeks to contest the now standard argument that the Soviet Union bore the brunt of the German onslaught. The Red Army broke the back of German power while the Western Allies played a relatively modest role according to this view. This is one of the main themes in Richard Overy’s Why the Allies Won, a well-reputed study of the war from the mid-1990s. Western access to Russian archives emerged as the Cold War ended. Overy and other scholars took the opportunity to learn more about the war from Russia’s perspective. What emerged was significant criticism of western scholarship for downplaying the USSR’s role in the victory over Nazi Germany.

O’Brien’s analysis turns this thinking on its head. Those who laud the Soviet contribution do so within a paradigm that understands the contribution to victory through manpower. O’Brien cannot deny that the USSR engaged a larger percentage of the Wehrmacht than the Western Allies. His argument is that the Second World War was primarily a mechanized war. The production and destruction of equipment is what decided the war in spite of the human cost of 70 million dead (civilians included).

The production of air and sea weaponry far outstripped that of land weaponry. As such, O’Brien argues that the air-sea war was more significant than the fight on the ground. For instance, the German army received only between 30-35% of production when it was lucky. A plurality of production effort was generally aimed at air weaponry. For instance, in May 1943 40% of German production efforts were spent on aircraft. American, British, and Japanese production efforts were similar, with the UK spending approximately one half of its production efforts on aircraft from 1940 onwards. Naval production for each of these four nations also typically outstripped that of armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs) associated with the great land battles.

Air and sea power allowed for more efficient destruction of Axis equipment. This destruction could be achieved in three phases. “Pre-production” destruction prevented the Germans and Japanese from producing weaponry in the first place by damaging factories and destroying or preventing the arrival of raw materials. “Production” destruction meant destroying equipment as it was being assembled in the factories. “Deployment” destruction refers to equipment lost as it was in transit from assembly plants to the front lines. The Western Allies – mainly Great Britain and the United States – were primarily responsible for these equipment losses. The Russians did not maintain a very large navy, nor did they invest in many large, four-engined bombers to strike at the German economy.

howthewarwaswonThe great land battles were not decisive. The incredible attrition sustained by the German and Japanese war machines on a daily basis was decisive. O’Brien’s argument is that this super-battlefield of air and sea weaponry mattered most. Few battles were actually decisive in terms of equipment destroyed. German AFV losses at the Battle of Kursk, commonly lauded as the greatest tank battle of the war, were a meagre 0.2 percent of German armaments production in 1943; German AFV losses at the great British victory at El Alamein were a paltry 0.1 percent of 1942 armaments production. O’Brien does note an exception to this: the Battle of Midway. At that near-decisive naval engagement the Imperial Japanese Navy lost four aircraft carriers, vessels that could not be replaced for a number of years. Consequently, it is little surprise that an image of Japanese carriers under attack at Midway graces the cover of the book.

O’Brien does leave some unanswered questions. He does not discuss the role – real or imagined – of initiative in the conflict. Battles are often considered decisive, not only for the casualties or equipment losses they incurred, but for their role in shifting perceptions of how the war was going. His assessments of certain Eighth Air Force raids over Germany in 1943 may also be open to some criticism. He totes the efficiency of the air-sea war, but the losses sustained on these raids were anything but efficient. More salient to my research is his mixed treatment of the Mediterranean Theatre of Operations. O’Brien acknowledges the significant attrition imposed on Axis air forces there, but laments that this was not a more integral part of Allied strategy. He opposes the Allied decision to focus on the Mediterranean in 1943 instead of mounting the invasion of France.

How the War Was Won is an excellent read for those interested in how the interaction between production, logistics, and combat decided the war against Germany and Japan. This is its greatest contribution to the Second World War’s expansive historiography.

Eagles over Husky with WW2 Podcast

Eagles over Husky with WW2 Podcast

11102735_1633119866923950_1421865506041426316_nIn 2014 I completed my master’s thesis in military history through the Gregg Centre for the Study of War and Society at the University of New Brunswick. Since then, I’ve been working to share my findings with interested readers through popular history journals and other publications.

This past summer I was fortunate enough to be introduced to Angus Wallace, the mastermind behind WW2 Podcast. He graciously agreed to share my findings with his listeners in this month’s episode. The following is a summary of these findings:

Eagles over Husky: The Allied Air Forces and the Sicilian Campaign

Allied air forces played a crucial role in the Battle of Sicily. The Luftwaffe was intended to provide a significant part of the Axis force meant to defend the island and throw the Allies back into the sea. The Allied air forces foiled this effort and inflicted losses on a German Air Force that was badly needed to defend the Reich, serve on the Eastern Front, or held in reserve for the 1944 invasion of Normandy. Raids on mainland Italian railway transport crippled Axis resupply efforts and brought pressure on the Italian state to denounce Fascism and join the Allied side. Army commanders also relied heavily on tactical air power to destroy Axis forces in Sicily. While most histories of the campaign focus on the escape of German forces across the Messina Straits, this thesis argues that these contributions were critical to a strategic victory which forced Nazi Germany to stand alone in the defence of Southern Europe.

Angus has managed to pull together some amazing guest speakers in a short time. I am humbled to be included among the likes of Mark Zuehlke, Canada’s leading popular military historian. Although Mark’s podcast covered the ill-fated Dieppe Raid of 1942, he also speaks to his most recent book, Through Blood and Sweat: A Remembrance Trek into Sicily’s World War II Battlegrounds. I’ve ordered my copy just in time for Remembrance Day and plan on writing a review which will appear here.