This section deals with events in Europe and Africa. In summary:
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'Blitzkrieg', AKA Germany does far too well for everyone else's liking
On September 1, 1939, World War II begins with the Nazi invasion of Poland, preceded by a series of False Flag Operationsnote . Britain and France declare war on Germany, beginning the Western Front, but they don't actually do anything to help beyond imposing a blockade and the latter initiating a limited offensive into the Saar region. Poland's odds get that much grimmer as the Soviet Union invades from the east to make good on their part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Poland's regular forces are crushed in just five weeks, having dealt far less casualties than anyone had anticipated on account of their overwhelming numerical, material, and organisational disadvantage. That said, neither the Germans nor the Soviets manage to round up all of the now-former country's military personnel, and these living loose ends will cause trouble later. Some, like the Polish air force - many former pilots of which join the Royal Air Force - flee the country and fight alongside the Allies, and others form resistance groups and await the time to strike. The Soviet Union follows up its acquisition with the quiet annexation of the Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Next comes a weird eight-month pause variously nicknamed the 'Phony War', the 'Sitzkrieg' (Sitting War), or the 'Bore War' (a pun on the Boer War), in which the British and French mobilise all their industries and quietly churn out all the armaments they can, mobilising and organising all their reserves for a defence of the Low Countries while they sit behind their naval blockade and the Maginot Line. Germany does much the same in this period, but unbeknownst to the Allies the blockade strategy is near-totally ineffective - the Allies were right to assume that Germany had been largely unprepared for a war with them, and that the Nazis' strategic-resource stockpiles were very small. However, the Soviet Union is now trading with Germany as per the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and so numerous types of Unobtanium like tungsten and gasoline are freely available to them. A brief spurt of excitement comes when Scandinavia gets involved - the Allies were considering getting involved there to stop Sweden supplying Germany with high-quality steel (a trade which was drastically less important than it appeared in the short term, as Germany was also able to get steel from the Soviets), but the Germans see this coming and attack Denmark and Norway to preempt them. This audacious attack in the face of England's superior seapower catches the Allies completely flat-footed, and in the resulting confusion prevents the Royal Navy from intervening until it's too late, though the brand-new heavy cruiser Blucher is sunk and the pocket battleship Lutzow heavily damaged by the Norwegian shore batteries defending Oslo. While an Allied force (originally destined for Finland) manages to take the important Norwegian port of Narvik (through which Swedish iron ore is sent to Germany), they are in no position to hold it and are ordered to withdraw to France for a more important battle. Taking some of the sting from Britain's first major retreat the initial Royal Navy assault on Narvik managed to sink eight of Germany's twenty-two destroyers, a coup which, along with their other naval losses, will have serious repercussions later. When the Germans do declare war on Belgium on May 10, 1940, the Allies are seemingly ready for them. The Allies have a numerical advantage in troops, artillery and tanks, and though the Royal Air Force and Armée de l'Air have less bombers than the Luftwaffe, they have more fighters. Almost all their troops have modern weapons with sufficient ammunition and the training to use them properly - France has had conscription for years, meaning that virtually all of the troops in their army have completed at least a year or two of military training. The Wehrmacht, on the other hand, is largely inexperienced and ill-equipped, though the veterans of the 'Condor Legion' have disseminated their experiences from the Spanish Civil War, and they have also been blooded in the Invasion of Poland and the battles in Scandinavia. The Allies' forces also have far more horses, and more 'motorised' troops (infantry units that use trucks to get around). Few Allied troops or commanders have seen actual combat, though, and the bulk of France's troops are trained to man static positions, rather than engage in mobile warfare. Many of the deployed French units are also second-line reserves, lacking the equipment of their regular forces. French High Command decides that this time, the Allies will hold the line in Belgium at a series of major rivers while making good on their industrial-commercial advantage by further building up their forces, before (when the Germans are virtually out of fuel because of the blockade) pushing the Germans back across the border. They haven't, however, ironed out the details. Politicking within High Command (careers and reputations were at stake when the Allies' plans were devised) meant that only one plan (holding the line in Belgium, building up their forces) was fleshed-out in detail. Even so, it's a good idea (despite the whole 'blockade not actually working' thing). Germany is the only Great Power not to have a High Commandnote , but German's top Generals and Hitlernote are all too aware of their forces' inadequacies, and how the Allies' advantages will only increase with time. They are also uncomfortably aware of just how untenable their alliance with the Soviets is in the long term. With all this in mind, Hitler has chosen to launch an offensive against the Allies through Belgium. Germany's small and out-classed force of panzers and motorised units will use their superior speed and communications to punch a tiny opening in the Allied front and force their way through it so they can wreak havoc behind Allied lines - and the rest of the German army will follow, on foot, to encircle half the entire French Army in one fell swoop by attacking where they least expect it! Those of Hitler's Generals who have actually seen combat realise that this is monumentally stupid. France's reserves will stop the Wehrmacht's panzer forces dead in their tracks or worse, lure them into a huge trap and destroy them at their leisure. The only thing stopping the French Army's massive, albeit non-motorised, regular forces from doing much the same would be speed. And no modern army could survive for long with such constricted lines of supply. But, fool's mission though it should have been, it works. This is a result of the way France has designed, organised, and deployed her forces in general terms and with regards to the plan they are implementing (moving into Belgium to defend it with a few solid lines of defence). The French forces engaged there have held far too few units back as a strategic reserve, which would be fine if they were facing an enemy offensive on a (relatively) broad front - but not one that so insanely narrow and concentrated. The organization of France's military also did not help - France has more tanks than Germany, but very few dedicated tank units. Instead, France's large number of well-armoured tanks are dispersed throughout their regular infantry divisions and move at speeds to match, all part of their strategy of defending and advancing on broad fronts. Most of the Armée de l'Air's planes are either obsolete or unserviceable, meaning they are outnumbered and outclassed by the Luftwaffe despite their numerical superiority on paper. The French armed forces also have too little communications equipment, with most of the stuff they do have being of poor-quality, and having too few operators to match - meaning that it takes French officers longer than their German counterparts to receive, pass on, and implement new information and new orders.note But perhaps more importantly, the French don't have a plan to counter the German one and have a very hard time improvising a solution. Politicking has led to a critical failure of strategic planning - a failure to devise contingency plans for the overall 'Battle of France' - and not-universally-competent leadership lower down the chain of command means that its harder than it should be for France's forces to respond on-the-fly. Essentially, German planning and organisation has France's factious, ponderous brawn outmatched. What happens is that, as planned, all of Germany's mobile forces lead a rush through the Ardennes Forest (the French thought it impossible to get that many tanks through and adequately-supplied over such poor terrain with such little trace, and it was admittedly difficult) and make a mad, frenzied dash to the English Channel before the French reserves or regular forces can catch up with them in detail, with as many battle-ready regular troops as Germany can spare following in their wake. France's commanders are too slow to react, and a 'very' large portion of the French Army (plus the Belgian Army and British Expeditionary Force) is cut off in Belgium with very little supplies (the idea had been that they would move up to establish a forward perimeter first, and their supplies would follow). Hitler orders his panzers to stop short of totally destroying the BEF, believing he can cut a deal with Britain, allowing the Royal Navy to evacuate the BEF (the 'miracle of Dunkirk') and a sizeable number of French troops as well, albeit with the loss of most of their weapons and all of their vehicles. So the BEF lives to fight another day and France gains the nucleus of a "Free French" army in exile, though as Churchill himself puts it, "Wars are not won by evacuations." The triumphant German army then turns north and crushes - or forces the surrender - of what pockets remain of the entrapped French Army. In seemingly no time at all, they've solved their supply problems by linking up their forces and continue to overrun what badly-outnumbered and increasingly isolated French forces to the south. The whole campaign only takes about six weeks, but the Germans take heavy casualties in the process - much as you'd expect, given their less well-equipped and numerous but much better coordinated and applied forces. As France collapses, Benito Mussolini decides to imitate his buddy Hitler and attack France too. The Italian army does badly despite greatly outnumbering the French, a sign of things to come for Germany's worse-than-useless ally. Nevertheless, after the dust settles, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France have all fallen to the Axis Powers. The Fall of France can be better understood if one notes the near-total collapse of French morale that came with the encirclement and then destruction of the Belgian-pocket; with this one stunning strategic victory French defeat was certain, and her soldiers knew this all too well. Whereas Germany's forces were on a morale-high after the conquest of Poland that was backed up by a culture of gung-ho militaristic Revanchism that had characterised pre-WWI French culture, France's post-WWI culture was marked by its rejection of all that in favour of a kind of cynical (if not fatalistic) pacifism. Thus, when it was clear that France had lost, many of her soldiers (wisely) legged it rather than die pointlessly - and her leadership looked for a way to end the war on the least harsh terms possible under the circumstances, i.e. as quickly as possible while the Germans' terms were still kinda acceptablenote .
Scandinavia, Winter, and the War
Half a year ago by then, the Soviet Union renounced its non-aggression pact with and declared war upon Finland in response to the latter's shelling of a Soviet village. In retrospect, this incident was very probably a set-up by the Red Army or the NKVD, the fore-runner to the KGB. This was after the two countries' negotiations on exchanging territory had failed; though the Soviets had offered the Finns control over large Finnish-majority areas, the Finns were just not willing to give the Soviets the - strategically critical, as it lies along the most direct route from Helsinki to Leningrad - land they asked for in exchange. The whole process was not helped, it must be said, by the two countries' lack of close ties and the Soviets' reputation - the Finns had just seen them take half of Poland and annex the Baltic States, and within living memory had fought a truly ghastly civil war against Soviet-backed Communist attempts to bring them to heel. Several of the (relatively few) "Red" Finnish survivors had fled to the USSR, and helped dampen results. When 'The Winter War' breaks out, the Red Army's poor performance comes as a surprise to everyone, including themselves, as they had done quite well in a Mongolian border clash with Japan just a year previously at Khalkhin Gol (which lead to an non-aggression pact with Japan, expiring in 1946) and in the invasion of Poland. While the Soviets have the Finns outnumbered in every conceivable way, the Finnish doctrine is informed by their victory in the Civil War against the same enemy they were fighting again. In what turned out to be an amazingly bitter and grinding war between mass armies of conscripts, small but elite and well trained units (like the Jaegers) turned out to make all the difference. As such, they put their faith in a phenomenally well trained force skilled at static defense and commando raids in equal measure, relying on superior initiative, leadership, and mobility to accommodate for their lack of pure force. In contrast, the Soviets were still stuck with the problems of their old Civil War doctrine, including chronic organizational and logistical problems that prevented them from bringing their advantages to bear over the deathly cold, swampy, densely wooded landscape which the Finns are all-too familiar with. This was not at all helped by the Finns using strategies and tactics that centered on breaking Soviet forces up and destroying them in detail. The undisputed star of the conflict - at least according to the Soviet Press, which becomes increasingly eager to seize upon any and all reasons why the war isn't over yet that don't make the Red Army look bad - is the 'Mannerheim Line', named after the Finnish Commander in Chief who helped mastermind the defense note The Soviets have it bad as they suffer casualties at 'at least' a rate of 3 to 1 in the Finns' favour, but they eventually manage to purge some of the deadweight and gather enough soldiers to win in spite of that. After six months of fierce and increasingly-better-coordinated fighting, the Soviets get their act together enough to make a breakthrough. By this time, the war has become something of an expensive embarrassment which they are all too glad to finally be rid of when they get the Finns to sign a peace treaty - under which the Finns give up all the land they'd originally been asked for, and then some. Finland was phenomenally under-equipped in both military force and economy to prosecute such a war for any length of time, and everyone knew it. That they lasted so long is a point of real pride for the Finns and a cause of serious concern for the Soviet leadership, which accelerates their military's reform program. The Allies had been keen to get Finland on-side and put together a task-force to send to Finland, should the latter formally ask them for it. This was because having a task force in the area, which could use Finland as a base, would allow them to project their (military) power into the Baltic and hopefully get Sweden to stop exporting steel to Germany (by 'offering' to buy it themselves). As it turned out, the Germans preempted Finland and the Allies by seizing Denmark and attacking Norway in a surprise offensive, thereby making the Allies' diplomatic overtures meaningless as Germany now controlled access to the Baltic. The task-force was diverted to Norway, but too late- the Germans' hold over the country was already too strong, and the Allies had to withdraw. Over the coming months, Germany soon draws neutral-but-Axis-sympathetic Sweden and a now-embittered, staunchly anti-Russian and anti-Soviet Finland into their orbit... On a brighter note, the campaign finally gives a name to one of history's most eponymous improvised weapons. When the Russians started dropping cluster and incendiary bombs on Finnish towns, Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov claimed they were actually dropping food - 'Bread Baskets' - for the starving Finnish proletariat. The Finns subsequently dub their improvised petrol bombs, of the same type used by desperate infantrymen trying to take out tanks in China and Spain, 'Molotov Cocktails'. 'Cocktails', because they're a drink to go down with the 'bread'. Appropriately enough, a majority of them were filled with high-proof grain and potato spirit rather than petrol and were manufactured by Finland's government-controlled liquor monopoly.
Battle of Britain and the Giant's preparations
When France surrenders, the result is the most bitter chapter of the Franco-Anglophone war effort. France's fleet is only a fraction the size of Britain's, with just eight battleships and battlecruisers (Capital Ships) to Britain's fifteen, and just twenty cruisers to Britain's sixty-six. Before the Fall of France, The Allies' fleet was able to quite handily contain that of The Axis and impose a relatively effective sea-blockade upon them both - Germany had just three capital ships and eight cruisers, and Italy six capital ships and nineteen cruisers. However, if Germany were to demand the services or even just claim the vessels of the French Navy for the Kriegsmarine and/or Regia Marina - by effectively (or quite literally) holding the families of its leaders and servicemen to ransom - then the Axis could have enough ships to threaten Allied shipping in the Mediterranean and/or, worse, escort an invasion force across the English channel with the aid of the Luftwaffe. Britain therefore quietly seizes the French ships that had taken refuge from the Fall of France in Plymouth and Portsmouth, and issues ultimatums to the French flotillas in Alexandria and Mers-el-Kébir - surrender, or be destroyed. The Alexandrian flotilla of one battleship and four cruisers does not surrender but promises to sit out the war, which the Royal Navy reckons is good enough. But Admiral Darlan's flotilla of four battleships and six destroyers refuses either to surrender or make any promises to their former allies, and so the Royal Navy reluctantly uses carrier-based aircraft and the guns of three capital ships to try to sink the fleet at its moorings. The attack on Mers-el-Kébir doesn't do much damage, but it sends a powerful message to The Axis and The Commonwealth that Britain will fight the war to the end, no matter what. More importantly, the Germans keep their word to the new 'Vichy' French regime under Marshall Pétain and let him keep what remains of the French Navy - three (damaged) battleships, and a handful of cruisers and destroyers. Much of the captured French fleet goes on to be used by the "Free French" forces under General Charles de Gaulle, the Alexandrian flotilla rejoining the war in 1943. Britain now stands alonenote against the might of Hitler's Third Reich, and Mussolini's Fascist Italy. Their army is shattered and in no condition to resist an invasion, but they still have the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force and the English Channel to protect them. The Germans, however, don't have specialized landing forces or amphibious landing gear and their navy is tiny; even more after their significant losses invading Norway, and their failure to seize the French fleet means it will be a long time before the Kriegsmarine can be reinforced . Aerial superiority, therefore, is necessary to shepherd an invasion force across the Channel and protect their supply convoys afterwards. Fortunately for the British, the Luftwaffe is exhausted by the high-tempo close air support operations their blitzkreig tactics require, so the Germans must pause for several weeks to rest and reequip their air forces before a full-scale assault can begin. The Luftwaffe does its best to put pressure on the RAF by targeting its aerodromes and radar installations. However, Nazi leadership once again insists upon meddling in the Luftwaffe's affairs, forcing changes in tactics and targets at the first signs of resistance in order to keep the "victories" coming. Bombing priorities are switched between RAF airfields and British urban-industrial centres at critical moments, and they fail to appreciate - largely as a result of false intelligence reports, mind - the significance of radar installations in drastically increasing the RAF's operational and tactical efficiency. Luftwaffe commanders had claimed that they would be able to reduce the RAF's capabilities to the point that an invasion would be a possibility within as little as two weeks; but after three months of trying for multiple objectives (destroying the RAF, destroying Britain's industry, destroying civilian morale through attacks on urban centres) they still haven't gotten anywhere, and they've taken an awful lot of losses. The Germans decide to take their strategic bombing campaigns down several notches, making them purely night-time affairs to avoid further losses. Operation Sea Lion (which was never taken all that seriously to begin with) is suspended pending the acquisition of sufficient Lebensraum and industry to produce a massive surface fleet - the minimum time-frame for which is five years, hopefully. Many come to believe, in retrospect, PM Churchill's claim that this was the UK's finest hour. Still, the Germans remain the masters of Fortress Europe and the Allies just don't have the strength to defeat them... and Britain isn't off the hook just yet, what with the Nazis taking submarine-based commerce-raiding warfare to new heights; Britain has to ship half of her food supplies and virtually all her rare materials in across the Atlantic Ocean, and there's an awful lot of water out there for the Kriegsmarine's 'wolf-packs' to hide in. A constant menace, they destroy thousands of tons of vital merchant shipping, and in just a brief window from June until October of 1940, U-boats sink an astounding 270 Allied ships. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, the United States, still isolationist but not wanting a repeat of the conditions that pulled them into World War One, declares a state of "armed neutrality" and a resolution to defend neutral shipping on their side of the pond, which effectively results in a state of undeclared war between the U.S. Navy and the German Kreigsmarine. Deeply disturbing for the Imperial Japanese Navy is the announcement of a huge naval construction program to make that defence possible - the "Two Ocean Navy" act of 1940 would see it dwarf even the Royal Navy within ten years note . This comes as a tremendous shock to the Japanese, who had long chafed under the hated 5-5-3 battleship ratio: the Two Ocean Navy act effectively set the new ratio at five to one, with similar increases in other classes of warships and 10,000 additional aircraft; in all their fulminations against the hated treatiesnote they'd never considered that they also served as a check on American behavior. This rearming also allows the US an opportunity to "loan" 50 aging but still serviceable destroyers to the UK, in return for long-term leases on naval bases, a sale in all but name. The "loaning" continued with the Lend-Lease Act of 1941, which throws the government's support behind the production of massive quantities of armaments for sale to the embattled European powers. This isn't just mere war-profiteering though, unlike the earlier "Cash-and-Carry" Act, which was technically open to all belligerentsnote , this offer is open to the Allies only, and Great Britain in particular. It features decent prices and jaw-droppingly huge low- (and some no-) interest loans so that the Allies can actually afford to keep fighting, and more importantly to buy the USA's armaments.note Meanwhile, the US starts subsidizing airfield construction across the South Pacific with large gifts of cash and construction equipment to Australia and New Zealand, hoping to preserve a lifeline to the Philippines. Taken together, these measures mean that the United States' neutrality is now a mere pretense.
The Second Roman Empire's "Glorious" Conquest of the Mediterranean
Mussolini feels left out of all this conquest, so he decides to try and jump in. Shortly before the Fall of France, things kick off when British troops in Egypt (garrisoned to protect the Suez Canal) under the command of General Archibald Wavell, launch raids into the Italian colony of Libya, with the Italians responding in kind. Initially, things look like they might go well for Mussolini. The Italian military has a massive numerical advantage over the local Allied forces, which grew even greater after the fall of France, and they possess a formidable surface Navy, one that looks like it can actually wrestle with the Royal Navy and defeat them locally. In addition, their air force is more sophisticated and advanced than the Luftwaffe in many ways, as befitting their roles as aerial pioneers. However, underneath this apparent strength lies many weaknesses. Mussolini had turned one of the most formidable militaries on the planet during WWI into a paper tiger. He expanded the military to the point where it became unwieldy and could not provide adequate training to all its troops, while technologically, it slunk well below the cutting edge. And finally, Mussolini's agenda meant that he made enemies unnecessarily, especially ones that would prove too difficult for him to chew. Unfortunately for Italy, his previous targets had been too weak to effectively contest him. So, ignorant of the pitfalls, he decides to charge right ahead. In August, Mussolini opts to escalate the campaign and orders the Libyan forces, led by General Rodolfo Graziani, to launch an attack into Egypt to take the Suez Canal, against the General's protests that his forces aren't properly equipped. Not long afterwards, the Italian army launches attacks along the borders they have with the British colonies of British Somaliland, Sudan, and Egypt, pitting somewhere around 400,000 soldiers against less than 100,000 Allied troops. Outnumbering the British by around 6 to 1 on the Libya-Egypt front, Graziani drove deep into Egypt while the British commanders scrambled to reorganize their forces in the face of generalized attacks against them stretching from the Western desert to the Sudan. Within a matter of days, Graziani reaches and stops at Sidi Barrani due to supply problems while his compatriots overrun British Somalilandnote and seize sizable chunks of Egyptian and Sudanese borderland, to the point where Il Duce engaged in (possibly exaggerated) Evil Gloating by claiming he had seized territory equal to the British "Home Islands" in the Horn of Africa. However, even though horrendously outnumbered and initially outgunned, the Allied forces were able to engage in model fighting retreats that saved the overwhelming majority of their forces and inflicted far heavier losses than they took. When the overstretched and poorly tended Italian infrastructure and supply lines snapped, it only got worse. Unable to advance and unable to withdraw, the Italians dig in to try and consolidate their gains. They establish a series of fortified camps, stockpiling supplies in anticipation of a renewed offensive to take Alexandria and The Canal. Before they get the chance to do so, though, the British launch Operation Compass - which was meant to be a 5-day raid by some of the 40,000 Commonwealth troops to weaken the Italians' force of 130,000 soldiers before the latter launch their next offensive. It succeeds beyond their wildest expectations, due to the Italians' chronic lack of communications equipment and staff, and general disorganisation and command-confusion. The inferiority of Italian equipment note , their lack of motorized transports and the highly dispersed nature of their camps meaning that individual force after individual force of Italians is surrounded by much bigger and better-equipped forces and its members are forced to choose between being massacred or surrendering. The British capture virtually all the camps, huge stockpiles of supplies, and tens of thousands of Italian soldiers for less than 700 casualties. The Italians execute a disorganized retreat back to Libya as the ever-advancing British vanguard leads Compass through a localized counteroffensive into a full-blown offensive that continues to drive the Italians westward. While this is going on, Mussolini decides to divert even more troops to his Albanian protectorate and issues an ultimatum to the (quasi-Fascist!) Greek Government: renounce the British guarantee of their neutrality and allow Italian and German soldiers to occupy undisclosed points of the country. When this is unsurprisingly refused, Mussolini claims that Greece holds an un-neutral attitude against the Axis. The Italians promptly invade Greece across the mountainous border with Albania during late 1940, forcing Greece into the Western Allied camp. What follows is a series of Curb Stomp Battles on every front. The British push into Libya, culminating in the encirclement of the Italian Tenth Army (about half of the Italian force in North Africa) near the town of Beda Fomm, where they were eventually forced to surrender en masse despite increasingly desperate and fiercely-fought breakthrough attempts using their new and improved M13/40 tanks... which aren't enough to compensate for the way the Italian army fundamentally lacks the communications equipment and staff they need to actually exploit such breakthroughs, even after the issues of who exactly was in charge and whom was supposed to be obeying whom were largely sorted out. After all is said and done, the British have taken most of eastern Libya and captured 115,000 soldiers, several hundred vehicles and over a thousand artillery pieces. In addition, they have given the Allies their first major victory of the war, a major morale boost given the litany of defeats they've suffered beforehand. In the South, the British take charge of an Allied force, consisting of themselves, much of the Commonwealth, the Free French and Belgians, and begin to push back into Italian East Africa. Resistance is considerably sterner than in the North; while the overextended Italian positions crumble, they don't go down without a fight. However, even with their superior numbers, the utter lack of supplies and poorer quality slowly tell out while Ethiopia erupts beneath their feet. The Italians turn and fight numerous hard actionsnote , but the clock was ticking and they were running out of room. Meanwhile, the Italian invasion of Greece first stalls and then is routed by the woefully outnumbered Greeks utilizing superior leadership, the terrain, and Allied aid. The Greeks then pursue them into Albania itself and over the course of several bitter months of fighting, they push steadily towards the coast in spite of Axis reinforcements pouring in from just across the Adriatic, inflicting heavy casualties. Here too, the Italians fight staunchly and bitterly at times, but they are still slowly losing. Simultaneously, the Regia Aeronautica's attempts to bomb Malta into submission fail, and the naval war in the Mediterranean turns sharply against them with a series of battles, most notably the battles of Tarantonote and Cape Matapannote . It seems like a perfect sweep. Nonetheless, while the Western Allies have won a series of victories, they have not completely driven the Italians out of any of the theaters just yet. This gives the Italians time to regroup, rearm, reinforce and, more importantly, call in help from Nazi Germany, forcing the diversion of much-needed troops.
The Desert Fox
In response, Germany sends the "Deutsches Afrikakorps" to North Africa, led by the newly promoted Major General Erwin Rommel (formerly commander of the 7th Panzer Division, notable for its stunning maneuvers in the Battle of France, which earned it the nickname "The Ghost Division") and launches an invasion of the Balkans. The Wehrmacht then proves their success in France was no fluke by blitzing through Yugoslavia and Greece, capturing most of the Mediterranean. The British take the militarily risky but politically necessary step of stripping their army in Egypt of troops in order to reinforce Greece, only to be thrown back in their third hasty evacuation of the war. The Germans take the island of Crete in the world's first major airborne assault, though the extremely high casualties discourage them from ever launching another like it. Only the plucky island of Malta manages to hold on despite heavy casualties and near-starvation, an act that gets the entire island awarded the George Cross. Mussolini is humiliated, and Hitler is provided with a whole raft of snide remarks for future cocktail party conversations (It's worth noting that Italy suffered nearly as much as France in World War One, so the Allies weren't the only ones suffering from fatalism and defeatism). The battle shifts to North Africa, where the Axis and Allies wage battles for control over the vital Suez Canal and access to the priceless oil supplies of the Middle East. Rommel arrives in Tripoli on February 14, 1941, to begin supervising the offloading of his new command, and finds himself both undermanned and under-equipped. But does that stop him? Nope. When he sees how short-handed he is in tanks, Rommel pulls a few cheap tricks to make the British think he actually outnumbers them. At a parade in Tripoli, the Panzers are driven in circles around the square, making British spies think the Germans have an endless column of tanks. He orders his troops to begin moving as quickly as possible, getting anything with an engine to move in order to create huge clouds of sand, plowing through British positions in Cyrenaica before they knew what hit them, capturing considerable amounts of supplies and prisoners - including the man who masterminded Compass - in his wake. However, while he defeats and drives back the Allies, he fails to crush them, and in a weakness we will see a lot from him, he overextends his supply line by overly relying on captured enemy supplies. When the British reorganize and launch a desperate counterattack that drives him back, those supplies dry up. This leaves him high and dry, but not before he has taken thousands of prisoners and encircled the crucial port of Tobruk, leaving it as the only main Allied base in Cyrenaica. For the next several months, the battle lines are largely static. The Allies and Axis raid each other constantly with varying success, but attempts to change the main situation fail; Rommel repeatedly launches attacks to seize Tobruk that are all driven back by the Australian 9th Infantry Division, the Allies (especially the famed British 7th "Desert Rats" Armored Division) launch attacks to try and relieve Tobruk and liberate Cyrenaica but are pushed back themselves. The Allies take disproportionately heavy tank losses, the Axis suffer extreme manpower ones, and neither could decide the issue. This was partially because at this time, the Allies had to deal with numerous conflicts tied directly into the North African campaign but far flung from it at the same time as they were fighting Rommel. They were committed to supporting several Free French takeovers of Vichy territory throughout the world. At the same time, Iraqi ultranationalists and Islamists rose up and overthrew the British puppet monarchy in Baghdad and aligned themselves with the Axis, laying siege to the major RAF base in the region. The British reacted quickly and dispatched reinforcements by land, sea, and air to relieve the siege and crush the rebellion, one of the highlights being a squadron of armored cars driving from Egypt to Iraq in a matter of days to help knock out a rival Axis armored car column and open the way to Baghdad. Unfortunately, the Axis Iraqi government then fled to the Vichy colony of Lebanon-Syria and it was revealed that the Axis planes resupplying the enemy in Iraq had to use the posts in Syria (which was governed by an "unusual" alliance of the Vichy French and their Syrian ultranationalist enemies). At the same time, they suspected that the Persian government favored the Germans and refused to transport supplies to the Soviets (who were by then at war with the Axis), leading to the British Commonwealth invading from the South and the Soviets invading from the North, opening the way for an occupation to allow supplies to be funneled across. Somewhere in there, they managed to wrap up the East African campaign, netting somewhere to the tune of 200,000~ Italian soldiers. Having dealt with those side episodes, the Western Allies were finally able to redeploy their forces to deal with Rommel in Cyrenaica. In the end, they manage to punch through and Rommel runs out of tanks, supplies, and mobile men, forcing him to retreat after one final attack, Operation Crusader. This showcases how the war in Africa will be fought for the next year. Nevertheless, the African Front will come to be known as the most humane and romanticized combat zone of the war, where Rommel becomes a well-respected commander (earning praise from Winston Churchill himself). However, the war in Africa is small compared to what is coming down the tubes, as Germany gears up to break its alliance with Russia (and winds up depriving Rommel of much-needed reinforcements and supplies for his offensives that he overspends anyway). In spite of this, the North African front remains important for various reasons, second only to the Eastern Front for the time they were both raging. It represented either the largest or second largest Western Allied commitment in a combat theater (possibly bigger than the contemporary PTO depending on how one measures it) and remained the second largest European Axis frontline commitment, second only to the Eastern Front itselfnote . Rommel's retreat and a coherent Allied pursuit lasted only a few months. Then, the Japanese entry into the war and other Free French commitments forced a massive weakening of the Western Desert Front (including the diversion of virtually all of the Australian war effort). Not the least of which was the ambitious invasion of the Vichy Indian Ocean colonies (grouped here for clarity) because of the Allies' fear that they would support Rommel and/or allow Japanese bases to be made like the Vichy had allowed in French Indochina. What followed was a bit of foreshadowing, since it was one of the single largest amphibious invasions in history against Madagascar. It lasted far longer than optimal, but in a few months, the British had cleared the Indian Ocean of European threats just as the Japanese were coming in (a few of their submarines made a minor appearance during the battle) and seized one of the world's largest islands. Unfortunately, this was a hollow victory as Rommel takes advantage of the confusion. He regroups, resupplies, and starts blunting the Allied attacks before smashing them at Gazala, his masterpiece. This, coupled with the simultaneous Japanese entry into the war and growing Axis successes in the Mediterranean, stretches the British to the breaking point, and since North Africa was overly dependent on them, they fell back in a chaotic retreat, leaving Rommel free to pick off plenty of them and to finally overwhelm Tobruk. The Western Allies lost somewhere along the lines of 50,000 men in the Gazala campaign. The main Western Allied forces only stop running when they reach El Alamein, due west of the Nile River Valley. There, they are able to reorganize, rearm, and set up strong defensive positions that Rommel cannot outflank due to the terrain. Rommel sees yet another opportunity to drive all the way to the Canal and tries to bounce the Commonwealth off the last line. The Western Allies promptly beat him back at the height of his power and thanks to the attempt, Rommel sees his supplies dry up again, leaving him awkwardly wedged a position where he can neither attack nor defend very well. Nevertheless, the disaster at Gazala demands reckoning and Churchill sacks the Western Desert Force commander (Again) and appoints new leadership, including a replacement commander for the Eighth Army, as their previous one had died before he could take command. This replacement is one Lieutenant General Bernard Law Montgomery.
Operation Barbarossa, aka Germany does far too well...?
After failing to bring Britain down, Hitler looks east to his old enemy — the Soviet Union. Until then, the Soviets weren't officially Hitler's enemy. In 1939 the Germans and Soviets had entered into the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, in which they declared they would not fight each other, would continue trading with each other in the event of a war with the Allies, and secretly agreed to divide up Eastern Europe between them. More specifically, they agreed that Finland down to Eastern Poland would constitute a new 'Soviet Sphere' and Prussia/West Poland would be the new 'German Sphere'. Germany also licensed the Soviets to produce a model of the BMW motorcycle.note This alliance of convenience was useful to both sides but neither expected it to last, and one of Hitler's life dreams had always been to destroy the "Jewish Communists" in the Soviet Union as a stepping stone to taking on the USA - the true heart of "The Jewish Conspiracy that was Secretly Controlling The World". Josef Stalin had agreed to the proposition, as he needed time to rebuild his army - the invasion of Finland had shown it to have serious problems, which would take precious time to fix. Finally on June 22, 1941, exactly one year after the fall of France, Hitler launches Operation Barbarossa. It is the greatest offensive in the history of warfare, one so massive that three dedicated Headquarters are needed to co-ordinate it, with each HQ managing an army group of over a million men each, for a total of nearly four million men. The Germans only account for some two-thirds of this Axis force, the other third consisting of Slovaks, Hungarians, Romanians, Italians, Croats, and Finns. The battle line stretches from the northern Baltic down to the Black Sea. It's pretty obvious that to effectively wage a land war in the vast reaches of the USSR, one would need to avoid open hostility from the non-conscripted populace, ideally gaining their support, or manage things brutally but effectively enough to crush them underfoot anyway. The Mongols had conquered Russia by being able to do the latter, and the "special" governing practices of Stalin and the Communist Party (which among other things included confiscating land and food, mass arrests, exiling and executions) made that quite possible, so German propaganda prepared a number of leaflets with slogans like "beat up jew politruk" and "we're not fighting your nation, we're fighting your Communist leader scum". Initially at least the propaganda was effective, which factored into the early German success. However, Hitler's ultimate goal was of expanding Greater Germany into the east, not liberating the oppressed peoples already living there. In fact, he viewed the Slavs as vermin that were spoiling the farmland and 'Lebensraum' (living space) he was planning on colonizing. Of course, these "subhumans" would in time have to be replaced with proper Aryan settlers, so the officer corps wasn't particularly bothered about forestalling their men from using the locals as target practice - there are a few particularly egregious and much-publicised (by the Soviet Union's state press) incidents in which villagers came out cheering the invaders and bearing gifts, happy to be liberated from Stalin... only to be mowed down anyway. This does little to endear the Axis to the locals, but it is only when partisan warfare by isolated groups starts up and the Axis starts killing the locals in retaliation for the partisans' actions, that they start to form their own partisan groups and withdraw active support for the Axis. This was in stark contrast to the Mongols, who made it a point to butcher those who were tardy in surrendering (or didn't) and crush any resistance with Disproportionate Retribution but otherwise didn't have a problem with them after they put their hands up. The true degree of local support for the Axis is hard to determine and varied from place to place and over time. Suffice to say that the contemporary and later Soviet Union liked it to be thought that the Germans and the Axis were instantly and completely reviled by all the Peoples of the Soviet Union. At least in the beginning, this was untrue. The sheer hatred for Stalin and the Russians in some areas of the Ukraine, which had suffered a man-made famine in the '30s (the Holodomor), made many Ukrainians from those areas which had been hardest-hit stout supporters of the Axis right up to the end of the war. Soviet propaganda of the time appeals to pan-Slavic and particularly Russian national pride, presenting the conflict as a Great Patriotic War in the defence of Mother Russia. Conscious of the fact that many Soviet citizens, such as those in the Ukraine, dislike or hate Stalin and his cronies, they ease off the oppression a little to make room for the proper expression of popular patriotism, even as Stalin's cult of personality reaches new and ever more grandiose heights. Whatever Hitler had been claiming about the inferiority of the Soviet Union's Slavic peoples assuredly making this an easy campaign, the Germans make much more progress than they expected. They soon realize that they are surrounding hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops; huge sections of the standing Red Army have been camped virtually right on their shared border and what's more, are caught virtually unprepared for the Axis assault. The Luftwaffe, too, finds that it has the skies to itself after the first week; they have almost wiped out the entire Red Army Air Force, much of which was destroyed on the ground. What planes the Soviets have left are too few to fly openly against the Axis, and are held in reserve until their numbers can be replenished. The Soviet Union's dire situation, with its air forces destroyed and armies in disarray, is in large part a failure of the Soviet intelligence services and the Soviet leadership. The former, because despite having the world's best-placed and best-informed spies, they didn't have the bureaucracy to match. Though they had mountains of information on the Germans' every move, they just didn't have the staff or the experience required to sift through all this information properly and come up with an accurate picture of what was happening. The latter, because Stalin and the Red Army's commanders refused to make preparations for or even concede the possibility that Hitler would betray them so soon - or even at all given the Soviets' industrial advantage (of at least half again) over Germany. After a long string of increasingly plausible-looking reports that something big and offensive-looking was brewing, Stalin did, eventually, accept that the Red Army should start planning for a defense of the country... on June the 21st, 1941, just one day before the attack comes. Thus the Axis plunge deep into the USSR as the Red Army is basically left unable to do anything but blow bridges and dams, tear up railway tracks and cut telephone lines to slow the Germans' advance and make effectively controlling the soon-to-be occupied territories more difficult. Even when they 'do' muster the required forces, the German organisational advantage is huge; too much is happening with too many different units in too many places and the Soviets' various headquarters can barely keep track of it all. This isn't helped by the lingering effects of the purges, which have left the Army short of experienced senior officers and encouraged junior officers to systematically misreport things so that everything (on paper) looks like their superior officers expect it to be. Nor is this helped by various Headquarters units getting captured along with their men and the early orders from Moscow to attack everything on sight at every opportunity. Despite their lack of co-ordination, which sees many such scratch-armies getting surrounded and eventually crushed, numerous Soviet forces fight fiercely until they are broken as military units. The Germans don't actually have enough soldiers to encircle these formations properly, even with their Axis allies to-hand, so many men from these destroyed units manage to slip off into the vastness of the countryside to become partisans. The Axis also begins to have serious difficulties with supplies as they advance farther and farther east, the lengthening of the front as the Soviets withdraw into the interior serving to dissipate their forces and make their supply lines more vulnerable to attacks by irregular forces. Survivors from crushed Soviet, Yugoslavian and Greek forces continue to cause serious problems, and the Germans are forced to divert additional manpower to the Balkans to bring them back under control as the Soviets scramble to reconstitute their forces. The Red Army's reserves are at full strength by November, and the first Soviet citizens to enlist in The Army of the Proletariat start arriving just in time to help stabilise the front. The latter have only just completed their scratch-training with the units of the Soviet Far East, who themselves remain in position opposite Japan's Kwantung Army. (Even though they are bogged down in China and have a non-aggression pact, Stalin isn't entirely sure the Japanese aren't crazy enough to attack him anyway.) The newly-formed infantry divisions lack machine guns and light artillery, and more importantly, virtually none of the men have seen combat before. Many of the officers haven't either, and don't have much experience in leadership positions to boot. This is really, really bad news for the newly-formed artillery and armored units, which require a high degree of training and experience to be properly effective. The entire Red Army has to watch its usage of ammunition; numerous factories produce nothing for weeks and months at a time as the Soviets are forced to move entire manufacturing plants and their specialist staff deep into the interior of the country to avoid losing them to the Axis. Many are eventually moved all the way to western Siberia, where they will be protected from the bombers of the Luftwaffe by their sheer distance from Axis-controlled airfieldsnote . Even if the Germans somehow make it this far, it is reasoned, the Ural Mountains will allow the Soviets to hold out and still retain much of their industry. Come November, the Soviets have managed to form and stabilize a proper front against the Axis. This has come at great cost; their critically inexperienced officers have led their likewise-inexperienced troops to die by the droves in a series of costly defensive and counter-offensive actions which have, at least, halted the Germans for now. Hitler is convinced, however, that one last offensive before winter falls will win the war; given its proximity to the front lines he reasons that Moscow will be an easy target. Operation Typhoon fails, however, as he fails to appreciate three things: the sheer bloody-mindedness of the city's citizens and defenders, the extent of the supply problems that have yet to be resolved, and just how cold it is. It's a long, long, windy, increasingly partisan-filled way from Berlin to Moscow, and Hitler's decision to not produce and issue winter gear at an earlier date is looking really stupid right now, especially since it was done to reassure the troops that the conflict would be over before they would need it. To make up for the resultant shortfall, the Wehrmacht has had to ask German citizens to donate winter gear for its troops, in some cases to replace the parade uniforms which they'd been issued in anticipation of a victory march in Red Square on the anniversary of the October Revolution. These factors bolster the Soviets' steadfast all-or-nothing defence, halting the Germans literally within sight of Moscow. What's more, the offensive has caused the Germans to dangerously over-extend and a last-minute counter-offensive just as winter falls in earnest forces them to retreat. The barely-coordinated Soviet offensive is itself a lacklustre affair, however, and it too grinds to a halt after just a month of some of the coldest temperatures on record. Stalin and the Soviets have avoided defeat, but the Axis remains in control of vast swaths of the western USSR. On the plus side, though, this defeat causes Hitler to begin actively distrusting his generals and begin taking more personal control over military operations. Hitler also gives Stalin and Churchill a huge Christmas present by declaring war on the United States following the Japanese attack on Hawaii in December. Granted, it will take a while for the unprepared U.S. war machine to get up to speed, but in the meantime, the Allies can start reaping the full benefit of the world's largest industrial economy. U.S. war production will soon exceed all of the other combatants put together, and all of their factories are safely beyond the reach of Hitler's forces. Doenitz's U-boats will do their utmost to prevent the fuel, weapons, and munitions from crossing the Atlantic, but the next time the Red Army advances, their supplies will be carried aboard the first wave of an ever-increasing number of American trucks.
The tide turns
The Soviets, emboldened by the winter offensive's success, launch a general offensive along the entire front with a particular focus in the Ukraine. Soviet commanders have forecast a renewal of the German assault on Moscow, so the offensive there is kept light. However, the Germans have already persuaded Hitler to launch an offensive in the Ukraine as well, having convinced him that the Soviets will be on the defensive and will deploy the bulk of their forces around Moscow. Consequently, the two forces trip over one another; the Soviet one is encircled and almost totally wiped out, having delayed the German offensive for about two days at the most and leaving the entire front significantly weaker as a result. Advancing past the southern reaches of the Volga River and into the oil-rich Caucasus, the panzers are on the move again. The Axis take a lot of territory, but the Soviet armies in the sector manage to execute a fighting retreat to an industrial city called Stalingrad, on the banks of the Volga (originally named Tsaritsyn and currently called Volgograd, it was named Stalingrad at the time because Stalin commanded Red troops there during the Russian Civil War). Hitler becomes increasingly convinced that taking the city directly by brute force will win the war. In all fairness, the city is a major transport hub through which both the products of Soviet industry and Allied Lend-Lease material make their way to Moscow via Persia. What Hitler seemingly forgets is the reason *why* Stalingrad was renamed Stalingrad even before "Uncle Joe's" rise to absolute power: because Stalin had helped lead a defense of the city against concentrated White attempts to take it before calling down reinforcements to hit the over-committed Whites in the side. The Axis forces' German vanguard and the Soviets fight a bloody, titanic battle in the streets and buildings of the city which claims 700,000 German and 800,000 Soviet casualties. As the Spring grinds on, it becomes clear that the Axis doesn't quite have the strength to take both Stalingrad and the Caucasus oilfields, and may end up with neither as a consequence of trying for both. While this is going on, "Monty" - as Montgomery is known to his men - and his staff receive start planning to break Rommel and his Panzer Armee Afrika/Afrika Korps, starting by breaking the hold their mystique has on Western Allied troops. Monty starts conducting a series of speaking tours around his military to reinforce morale, improve training and discipline, and both hone his command into an even more elite fighting force and position himself as a rival to Rommel. In the meantime, Lend-Lease kicks into full gear and the Western Desert Force receives equipment and reinforcements from across the Western world, effectively jumping in size and getting an upgrade in equipment. However, both sides know that speaking tours and pipes alone are not going to defeat tanks, so Montgomery and his commanders devise a plan to take advantage of Rommel's overriding trait: his aggressiveness. First, they began to spread false maps showing areas of quicksand to be solid ground. Secondly, they begin an elaborate intelligence ruse to convince Rommel that that a far position on their flank- Alam Halfa Ridge- is poorly defended by chasing away or shooting down enemy aerial recon and hiding tanks behind the ridge or under various ingenious covers. Rommel takes the bait hook, line, and sinker to launch an attempted outflanking attack to go around Alam Halfa and cut it off. Unfortunately, the attack is barely underway before many of his troops get stuck in quicksand - and thus exposed to blistering fire from every quarter - and just as the troops that *aren't* stuck or killed prepare to round the bend, the Commonwealth sends the tank reserve they'd been holding back to block their route. Out-Gambitted and taking heavy losses, Rommel feigns a retreat in an effort to force the British to follow him so he can outflank them in the battles of maneuver and attack he is so good at. Monty doesn't bite and the feigned retreat becomes a real one as the Afrika Korps returns to its' former lines with serious damage. However, while this was going on, the Commonwealth was devising another plan on the other side of the theater: an elaborate and dangerous experiment in how to make a cross-channel invasion. Its target is a port town in Northern France by the name of Dieppe. The around 6,000 strong force assigned to the operation is primarily composed of Canadians and is supported by British Commandos (including 50 US Army Rangers), a Canadian Armored Regiment equipped with brand new Churchill tanks, several destroyers from the Royal Navy and dozens of aircraft from the Royal Air Force. Despite the best attempts of the soldiers involved, the raid is a near-complete disaster with over half the force being killed, wounded or captured. There are many reasons whynote , and the Allies take note of all of them for future operations. In November of 1942, the Soviets launch another massive offensive in an attempt to push the German Armies from Moscow. It fails miserably and Operation Mars, along with the Ukrainian offensive of the previous summer - Zhukov's only big defeat - is subsequently swept under the historical carpet, never to be mentioned in Soviet or Russian school textbooks. However, a secondary encirclement offensive meets with success. Striking behind the elite German units in Stalingrad itself, the mechanized units of Operation Uranus break through the virtually-anti-tank-weapon-less Romanian and Italian forces guarding the flanks of the Sixth Army - trapping the entire German contingent in Stalingrad just as the Russian Winter falls in earnest. Despite repeated requests, Hitler refuses to allow the troops to withdraw. He instead demands they fight to the last man and martyr themselves rather than shame him and his visions of Aryan superiority by retreating. He also promotes Sixth Army's commanding officer, Friedrich Paulus, to Field Marshal, with a reminder that no German Field Marshal has ever surrendered alive. Paulus doesn't take the hint, whiling away his time as his troops are ratted out and exterminated or forced to surrender one house/basement/bunker at a time until they are all dead or - like himself - captured. A last-ditch offensive to rescue the trapped army stalls out as winter grinds on, and the mere trickle of supplies that the Luftwaffe can manage to airdrop to the besieged army arguably only prolongs the suffering. The last remnants of the Sixth Army finally surrender on February 2, 1943. It's the largest and costliest defeat the Germans have suffered to that point, and even Nazi politicians publicly admit the battle is an enormous loss. Over 100,000 German soldiers are taken into Soviet captivity and the rest of Hitler's troops in southern Russia hastily retreat. For now, the Red Army continues to learn how to best launch an offensive the hard way, taking the process in much smaller steps this time and giving themselves time to bring their material and manpower advantages to bear properly. A frightfully successful German counter-offensive at Kharkov sees the latest Soviet operation halted, but there is no doubting now that the tide has turned. The Waffen SS, which has become another branch of the German military at this point, steps up its recruitment of foreigners with the help of a huge propaganda drive to portray Germany's war as a war for the survival of European civilisation in the face of annihilation at the hands of "The Jewish Communist Hordes Of The Barbarous Orient". Even the German civilians are made dimly aware of the desperation of the situation in February 1943 by Joseph Goebbels "Sportpalast" or "Total War Speech" - the first acknowledgement by the Nazi government that the war is going badly and that they must mobilise the German economy and society for total war.note Meanwhile, the battles between the Axis and the Allies in North Africa - while far smaller in scale than the titanic conflict in the East - also end with more crucial Allied victories. The decisive Second Battle of El Alamein in October of 1942 sees the British turn Rommel back from the Suez and the Middle East oilfields for good and force the Axis to retreat westward towards Tunisia. Here, they are trapped against additional Allied forces that have executed Operation Torch and landed on the coasts of Vichy French Morocco and Algeria. Caught in the pincer, the Germans have nowhere to go. By May 1943, those Axis soldiers that have not yet managed to retreat back across the Mediterranean to Europe are prisoners of war and the fight for the continent is over. The campaign is a major morale boost for the Western Allies, who see their first sustained offensive successes against the Axis as well as the combat debut of US troops as America joins the fight directly.
Hitler has a bright idea, and Italy has had enough
Throughout 1943, the Axis forces on the Eastern Front are relentlessly pushed back. The success of a German counter-offensive in pushing back the Soviets' own push to retake the Ukraine results in the so-called 'Kursk Salient', which becomes the focus of the last German offensive campaign. Operation Citadel, launched to cut off and exterminate the forces within the salient, leads to the biggest tank battle in history and a crushing tactical and strategic defeat for Hitler - the Soviets anticipate the manoeuvre correctly and hold their strength back until the German offensive is totally spent before launching a devastating offensive operation of their own which successfully encircles and then annihilates - or forces the surrender of - the remnants of the Germans' own encirclement forces. The result is the destruction of the Wehrmacht as an offensive force, but it would be a mistake to assume - as numerous Soviet Generals and commanders do in subsequent operations, at a great cost in time and lives - that Hitler's legions are now a 'spent' force incapable of strategic counter-offensives (let alone tactical counter-attacks). As is typical of the East-European front, the Soviets casualties are larger (at a million men dead or wounded), but they have already taken and can continue to afford far worse losses. What's more, now that they are on the offense the Soviets are able to treat their wounded and recover damaged vehicles in large numbers now - and the Germans (who have taken 250,000 casualties) cannot. Stalin sees the success of the operation, together with that of Operation Uranus, as a vindication of his growing trust in his Generals and their Staffs. Increasingly, he settles for directing overall strategy and letting the military organise and execute their own operations. Hitler sees the outcome as proof of his own generals' incompetence - though the offensive was his idea - and moves to micromanage the entire German war effort in ever-greater detail. With morale skyrocketing, the Soviets spend the rest of the year inexorably pushing the Germans further and further back - a process helped by Hitler's continued refusal to allow his forces to make strategic withdrawals. The cumulative effect of this is to leave his forces spread thin defending bad positions. The Soviets' burgeoning advantage in tanks, armoured vehicles, artillery and air-support allows them to take advantage of this strategic blunder and crush pocket after pocket of increasingly-easily-encircled Axis forces. In southern Europe, the era of 'Vichy' France is over as the Germans annex the state in the wake of their defeat in North Africa. Part of this plan includes the seizure of the French Fleet moored at Toulon, which includes three capital ships and seven cruisers - nowhere near enough to turn the tide of the war, but enough to give the Allies grief. However, the French are ready for them and the entire fleet promptly scuttles itself at anchor, right down to the cargo cranes and the tugboats. The crews of three destroyers and a few motorboats are overpowered by the Wehrmacht's motorcycle-based combat squads, but it's a hollow victory for Hitler - whose annexation of 'Vichy' France lets anyone who still needed convincing know that, yes, he considers treaties to be nothing more than ink on paper. The Allies follow up on their victory in North Africa by landing in Italy after feeding the Germans false information that the real thrust of the invasion will be through Greece/Yugoslavia and into the Balkans. note The Germans swallow this, diverting a significant force from Italy to Yugoslavia. With the Allies at the gates of Rome, the Italian government execute what appears to be a blindingly quick Heel-Face Turn - abandoning Germany, deposing Mussolini, and signing a peace treaty with the Allies. In reality, this move has been coming for a long time now - ever since Mussolini declared war on France, in fact. German forces are unfazed by this and quickly occupy the remainder of the Italian boot, setting up a puppet regime to rule in their stead; the Allied forces in Italy will take another two years to conquer the rest of the narrow, hilly and easily-defensible peninsula, their main role in the meantime being to keep German forces tied down and distracted from the real fighting in the east. Mussolini is later liberated from house arrest by a German commando raid and installed as the figurehead of the puppet government in northern Italy. At the very end of the war, on 28 April 1945, he and his mistress are caught by partisans while attempting to flee to Switzerland. They are summarily shot and their bodies are hung upside down in the local town square.
Dissidents, Po Ws, and 'Undesirables'
While the war turns against him in Europe, Hitler and his cronies begin planning a thorough program of genocide, one that we know today as 'The Holocaust'. This is an organised response to the problems created by Germany's dominion over various new subject peoples come Operation Barbarossa. Ghettos and work-camps were only part of the solution; while many Red Army prisoners and able-bodied undesirables could be worked to death in the mines, minefields and factories, there was really no reason to suffer the existence of (male) homosexuals - female homosexuals might yet be cured by corrective sexual activity, it was hoped - gypsies and Jews, who by their very natures could never be anything but a blight upon any superior people. To this end, a steady stream of unusable undesirables were stealthily moved out of the ghettos and concentration camps and sent to dedicated death-camps to be processed for their belongings and used for whatever materials could be extracted from their corpses. At Auschwitz-Birkenau, over a million Jews from all over Europe are gassed. At Treblinka, dedicated to the extermination of Polish Jews, over eight hundred thousand are gassed. Estimates vary, but around six million Jews or people of Jewish descent (Nazi race laws meant even people with a single Jewish grandparent could be counted as Jewish, though whether this was brought up depended on your connections) are gassed, shot, starved or worked to death before the Reich surrenders. This figure is about half of the prewar Jewish population in Germany and the areas conquered by Hitler. Over 90% of the Jews of Poland are murdered. It is not known precisely how many Roma (Gypsies) were killed in the Holocaust. While exact figures or percentages cannot be ascertained, historians estimate that the Germans and their allies killed around 25% of all European Roma. Of slightly less than one million Roma believed to have been living in Europe before the war, the Germans and their Axis partners killed up to 220,000. Between 1933 and 1945, the police arrested an estimated 100,000 men as homosexuals. Most of the 50,000 men sentenced by the courts spent time in regular prisons, and between 5,000 and 15,000 were interned in concentration camps, some of which were interned immediately after the Nazis seized power in January 1933. Those interned came from all areas of German society and often had only the cause of their imprisonment in common. Some homosexuals were interned under other categories by mistake, and the Nazis intentionally miscategorized some political prisoners as homosexuals. Prisoners marked by pink triangles to signify homosexuality were, according to many survivor accounts, one of the most harshly treated groups in the camps. Because some Nazis believed homosexuality was a sickness that could be cured - a moderate and (scientifically-)progressive view for the time, mind; take for instance the treatment and eventual fate of the father of Computer Science, Alan Turing - they sought, accordingly, to 'cure' homosexuals of their 'disease' through indoctrination, humiliation and labour, with emphasis on the latter two; guards ridiculed and beat homosexual prisoners upon arrival, often separating them from other inmates. There are no reliable figures for the number of homosexuals in the camps, let alone those who died in them. Though 5 million Soviet POWs were taken, less than 2 million were liberated come the end of the war: German treatment of Russians in captivity was diabolical. The Red Army's initial attitude to repatriated POWs wasn't much better either: ex-prisoners were sent into filtration camps that were effectively high-security prisons. However, 90% were proved clear from collaboration or treason charges and were freed, and many were redrafted into the army. Soldiers and officers that had committed mid-rate crimes (not enough to warrant a firing squad, but too much for just a penalty), like unauthorised retreats or surrendering when still fully capable of fighting, were stripped of their rank and sent into penal regiments "to wash off shame with blood". Penal regiments got the hard, dangerous and dirty jobs and the death rate for men condemned to them was far heavier.
The Allies return! Amid much fanfare and terror-bombing
Germany's situation goes from bad to worse when the Western Allies - principally the Americans, British and Canadians - execute Operation Overlord and land in Normandy (northern France) on the 6th of June, 1944; Hitler is now fighting a two-front (three if Italy is counted) war against larger and arguably better-equipped armies with better artillery and air support. The Germans have seen this coming, of course, but 'The Atlantic Wall' - a massive series of beach-based anti-amphibious-landing fortifications - begins to look like a poor investment in the wake of the Allies' advance into the interior. Incredibly effective Allied counter-intelligence operations and the general confusion of battle keeps the Germans guessing if the Normandy landings are the "real" invasion or just another diversionary attack. Consequently, the Germans hold back their reserves until it's too late to prevent the landing force from establishing a proper beachhead - a virtual impossibility once the Allies break out of the beaches themselves, as the sheer volume of Allied fire-support from the massive fleet they have sitting in the Channel is enough to obliterate any force within miles of the coast. Logistical and strategic co-ordination issues, not German resistance, are the biggest limitation to the Allied-Soviet advance now. Two weeks after the Allies' return to the mainland, the Soviets launch the biggest offensive of the war: Operation Bagration, which annihilates the Germans' Army Group Centre. The Red Army leaps forward some two hundred miles, clearing almost all of the USSR of Germans and advancing to the gates of Warsaw - the limits of what their supply situation allows. Having inflicted at least 300,000 casualties (including 150,000 captured) for only 200,000 of their own, they have broken the back of the Wehrmacht. The Allies initially disbelieved that the Soviets could accomplish such a feat, which lead to a huge "POW march" wherein 57,000 German POWs were paraded through the streets of Moscow. The Red Army's armoured and mechanized columns cross the Carpathians and spend the latter half of '44 and early '45 mopping up Hitler's allies along the Danube. With the seizure of Romania's oilfields, the last of the Germans' panzers are now quite literally in danger of running out of fuel, collapsing morale aside. Though their armed forces had been crushed and their government subordinated early on, the Polish people did not remain idle during the war. Many of the country's military personnel managed to escape through the Baltic and the Balkans and make it to British territory, whereupon they signed up with and fought alongside the British in nearly every theatre. Others stayed behind as founding members of the resistance movement that had bided its time for years. The leaders of the resistance, seeing how close the Soviets are, believe the liberation of Warsaw to be at hand and give the order to overthrow their German occupiers. However, the Soviets have supply problems and are busy trying to take the Balkans; they are not interested in risking their troops' lives for the sake of a New Poland that has such close ties with the Allies. Neither do the Germans just let them be; indeed, their response makes quite liberal use of armoured vehicles, artillery, and air-support. With the Soviets denying Britain access to their airfields, the Polish Home Army is left to fend for itself. They hold out for two months, but by the time the Soviets enter the city in January 1945, the Home Army has been exterminated and Warsaw is a ghost town. In the meantime, the Western Allies have amassed sufficient supplies to finally break out of their beachhead in Normandy. Increasingly-frequent Allied bombing raids like the one described in Slaughterhouse-Five put a real dampener on the German war effort, causing massive damage and disruption to German industry and infrastructure in civilian-casualty-heavy attacks which grow steadily more intense. With more and more French airfields becoming available and fewer and fewer Luftwaffe interceptors around to stop them, it is not long before the burgeoning British and American Air Forces reduce every major industrial town and transport hub in Hitler's Reich to ruins. With the Luftwaffe's own bombing campaign rendered increasingly ineffective as they lose serviceable airfields, Hitler turns to using the newly-developed Vergeltungswaffen (retaliation weapons), the V-1 'Buzz Bomb' and later the V-2 ballistic missile to try and exact some more vengeance upon the British - who, after the devastation of years past, by and large consider this nuisance not worth getting worked up about.
Why didn't we try this earlier?
At this point, several German officers decide they've had enough, and try to save Germany from total destruction under Hitler's rule. There had been mild resistance within Germany to the Nazis and Hitler ever since they came to power in 1933, mostly from members of the officer corps who were more traditional and conservative in their politics. However, the spectacular victories in Poland and France quelled these notions for a bit, until the Eastern Front became a massive, endless retreat. On July 20, 1944, Colonel-Count Claus von Stauffenberg plants a bomb in Hitler's "Wolf's Lair" field headquarters during a staff meeting. As part of the plan, other German officers prepare to initiate Operation Valkyrie, a contingency plan to use reserve Army units to secure the German home front in the event of a breakdown in command and control or a POW/slave labor uprising. The conspirators also carefully reword the orders to allow for the arrest of top SS and Nazi officials. However, Stauffenberg is interrupted and only packs half the planned amount of explosives into the bomb, which also detonates on the other side of a table leg, creating just enough of a shield for Hitler to survive the bombing with relatively minor wounds. While they had intended to launch Valkyrie even if Hitler survived, the plotters in Berlin nonetheless waste several crucial hours waiting for confirmation that he had been killed. By the end of the day, the plot is in shambles and Stauffenberg is summarily executed along with his closest co-conspirators. Hitler's distrust and paranoia of his armed forces predictably gets worse in the wake of the failed coup, and more than 5,000 people are executed in connection to the plot by the end of the war. Among these is the famed Erwin Rommel, whose direct connection with the plot (like many others who died) was dubious at best.
The Allies bicker, not 'quite' unlike little old women
The Allied invasion goes well and by August, Paris is liberated by French and American forces. Soon after, American and French forces land in southern France in an amphibious landing known as Operation Dragoon. After some minor fighting, over 140,000 German soldiers are outmaneuvered and surrender. However, the invasion goes a little too well. Allied forces race forward to confront the rapidly retreating Germans, well ahead of their supply lines (which become dangerously long due to a lack of deep water ports). In addition, the Germans are able to pull back a sizable amount of their forces. Nevertheless, this causes the Allied High Command to believe that the Wehrmacht is a spent force which poses little threat. Unable to supply both of his top generals, British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery in the north and American General George S. Patton in the south, Dwight Eisenhower is forced to choose which one to give priority of supplies to. Patton's plan is to simply break through the German lines and get to Berlin before the Russians do. However, this means smashing through the heavily fortified Siegfried Line. Montgomery proposes a daring plan called Operation Market Garden, which envisions a massive paratrooper deployment in Holland to seize a number of vital bridges. If it succeeds, they will be able to cross the Rhine and seize the Ruhr, the industrial heart of Germany. He claims that this will end the fighting by Christmas. Pressured by civilian leaders to bring a quick end to the war, Eisenhower is forced to agree. Unfortunately, a combination of bad weather, intelligence, logistics and equipment causes the operation to fail despite the best efforts of the troops assigned to it, particularly the intelligence part. Cells of the Dutch Underground managed to pass on reports that two SS Panzer Divisions were being held in reserve there, but the Allied High Command distrusted them. The presence of skilled leadership such as Gerd von Rundstedt and Walter Model allows the Germans to stabilize the front line just along their border, helped by Allied supply problems worsened due to the failure of Market Garden. To add insult to injury, Market Garden delays Allied efforts to make the port of Antwerp usable, which would likely have solved the logistics problems. It also consumes much of Britain's remaining available manpower; after nearly five hard-fought years of war, British losses can no longer be replaced, forcing them to cede more and more of their role in western Europe to US and Canadian forces. In general, this was considered an honourable backing down by their allies, given all the British had done and sacrificed for the war effort up till this point. Their industry however, continues to churn out tanks and guns for the Canadian forces until the end of the war. As autumn continues, the war in the West enters a brief lull as the Allies attempt to reposition themselves along the German border. Nightly bombing raids devastate the German infrastructure, though for civilians they become as routine as the weather. The Eastern Front faces total collapse, and France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and half of the Netherlands are liberated. However, despite their critical situation, the Germans still possess a few advantages over the Western Allies: they are now no longer defending all of Western Europe, thereby significantly shortening their supply lines while the Allies' are critically lengthened. Fighting closer to the German heartland means increased usage of telephones and telegraphs, reducing their reliance on radio and limiting the effectiveness of ULTRA codebreakers. However, as autumn turns to winter, ULTRA is able to intercept enough messages to indicate that the Germans are planning something big.
The last, bloody days of European war
It must be said that at this point, Hitler and his fellow-minded Nazis continually fail to understand or admit that the Allies will not settle for anything less than their unconditional surrender. Despite all evidence to the contrary, they still see their western enemies as fundamentally decadent, weak-willed, and likely to sue for peace if only they can be drawn into open battles that will inflict heavy casualties and drain their morale. A few of the more deluded even believe that it would be possible to "bury the hatchet" with just the US and convince them to instead join Germany in fighting their "true" common enemy, the oncoming Soviets. (Such a separate peace is their only 'realistic' option to turn them back at this point, and that speaks volumes.) Towards this end, Hitler gathers what offensive strength he has left and hurls it all at the Allies in a surprise attack in December of 1944, while Allied supply problems remain constant and their air forces are grounded by bad weather. His legions attack through the Ardennes - the same route by which they snuck into France four and a half years before - in a desperate and ill-advised attempt to cut a wedge between the American and British forces. The attack catches the Allies completely by surprise and initially looks like it may, against all odds, succeed. However, there is a huge difference between the Ardennes of 1939 - when the forests were picketed by only a few detached cavalry vedettes - and 1944, when the lines are manned by elements of three US Army Groups under the command of Patton, Bradley, and Hodges, four divisions (two veteran and two green) backed by Allied tactical airpower and the world's best artillery.note The so-called "Battle of the Bulge" results in German gains for a few days under the cover of bad weather, followed by inevitable defeat as dogged American resistance delays Hitler's tight operational timetable just long enough for his panzer formations to run out of fuel, sometimes literally within sight of their objectives. Most famously, American troops, primarily the 101st Airborne Division, manage to hold on to the critical road junctions in the Belgian town of Bastogne despite being surrounded, outnumbered nearly five to one, and severely lacking in cold-weather gear, medical supplies and ammunition. Delaying actions such as these prove invaluable as the attack bogs down long enough for the streak of cloudy days to run out and the Allied air forces to resume resupply and tactical operations. By the end of January, the Germans find themselves back where they started, with much of their valuable armor either destroyed or left behind with empty fuel tanks. This defeat essentially breaks the back of Germany's power to resist in the West. With the last reserves of their professional army now depleted, every loss of man and machine from this point forward is literally irreplaceable. Casualties from the battle are high, with the Americans and British losing nearly 100,000 men killed, wounded or captured, with German losses about even. But, like the battles on the Eastern Front, as great as the Allied losses are, they are survivable. With Allied industry safely beyond the reach of the Germans, and their own industrial centers under constant air bombardment, it's now only a question of how long before Germany will be forced to surrender for lack of ammunition and fuel, if nothing else. Germany is now a country void of teen- and middle-aged males, who have virtually all been drafted into citizen militias to defend the Fatherland to the last. Even those who see the futility of continuing the war cannot escape it. Die-hard Nazis in the ranks ensure anyone who doesn't fight risks summary execution for cowardice. With the ultimate outcome essentially decided, no one on the Allied side wants to be the last casualty in a war that's drug on for years with the end finally in sight. Accordingly, many pockets of resistance are reduced to rubble from afar by massed airpower and artillery barrages. In this manner, countless small towns and cities, some centuries old and without military value, are pointlessly sacrificed in die-hard defensive actions fought by fanatical German troops. This is especially bad news for civilians who arguably now face death from both sides. Anyone who tries to surrender as much as their own home is threatened with reprisal as the defense of Hitler's Third Reich becomes less a military objective and more a fanatic's cause with every passing day. By 1945, the war in Europe has entered its endgame. The last major German army on the Western Front has surrendered to the Americans and British after being outmaneuvered and the Ruhr, the primary steel-making and manufacturing center of the country, is captured. Meanwhile, the Soviets clear Poland of German forces and push all the way to the Oder river, 56 miles from Berlin, taking the time to advance through the Balkans, Hungary, and Romania before advancing into Germany proper - ensuring that the "Soviet Sphere of Influence" Stalin has negotiated with the Allies will answer directly to Moscow in future. In April of 1945, Soviet and American troops famously link-up at a German village called Torgau on the Elbe river. The job of taking Berlin is left to the Soviets, who are far closer and have claimed the city as part of their sphere anyway. Indeed, Stalin is eager for the Red Army to have the honor of taking the very heart of Nazi Germany, which Hitler has refused to leave. Germany drives the pensioners of the Volkssturm and the boys of the Hitler Youth to defend her from "The Depredations of the Jewish Communist Hordes", mustering a force of 800,000 men and a thousand armoured vehicles in the city's defence. For their part the Soviets manage to bring some 2.5 million of their best veterans - supported by tens of thousands of tanks, aeroplanes, and artillery pieces - to take it from them. After a spot of some of history's most brutal and bloody urban combat ever, the Red Flag waves above the Reichstag on the 1st of May. Finally admitting that the war is lost, Hitler kills himself in his bunker. On the 8th of May (9th in Moscow), 1945, his successor - Admiral Doenitz - approves the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany. The war in Europe is over.