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, Estonia, and even Lithuania. For althought the latter was supposed to be a German-dominated state in the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement, the Soviets want it as it had been part of the Russian Empire. The Germans hastily revise the treaty so Lithuania's in the 'Soviet Sphere' and the Germans aren't legally obligated to go to war with the USSR over it. On the naval front, the Battle of the Atlantic begins slowly. The German Navy has learned many lessons from its experience of commerce-raiding in the First World War and the new Commander of U-boats, Admiral Karl Dönitz, had been planning for a new submarine war for nearly twenty years. He and his staff expect the British to quickly adopt the convoy system, which lead to a sharp decline in sinkings by U-boats during the last war. In addition, the British have developed sonar (a form of remote-detection device that uses sound-waves) and are confident they can easily locate submerged boats. However, German U-boats will spend most of their non-attack time surfaced for practical reasons (as they have limited range and speed while submerged) and to reduce the effectiveness of sonar. Dönitz also has planned a new tactic to use against convoys: groups of submarines will stalk convoys by day, then converge on and attack them at night. Unfortunately, he has less than a fifth of the submarines needed for strategically significant operations.note Nevertheless, he sends his "Grey Wolves" into the North Sea to begin sinking ships. One of them, U-47, is sent into Scapa Flow, the main naval base in the British Isles, and sinks the battleship HMS Royal Oak before escaping unharmed. The British are stunned. Next comes a weird eight-month pause variously nicknamed the "Phony War", the "Sitzkrieg" (Sitting War), the "Drôle de Guerre" (Funny 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 Britain'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 Blücher 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 a third of Germany's modern 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 fewer 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 bloodied 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. The 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 the 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 Germany'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 armoured 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! The old guard of Hitler's generals- who saw combat in World War One - believe 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. In effect they say it is a fool's mission, and waste no time telling Hitler and his "new guard." But, fool's mission though it should have been, it works. This is a result of the way France had 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 it's 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 Dunkerque", though Dunkirk was just one of the many evacuations that happened at the time) 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 remain 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 . As this happens, the German U-boat flotillas begin relocating to the ports on France's western coastline, giving them a clear and open window into the North Atlantic.
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 so-called "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 Russian 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 concentrate their artillery, improving also their artillery-infantry communications so said artillery doesn't waste so much firewpower The real breakthrough comes when, after a bit of a break, in the last month of the war the Soviets use their massed artillery to suppress the defensive positions on the Karelian isthmus and take them with their infantry. But although victory is at hand, by this time the war has become something of an expensive embarrassment which they are all too glad to finally be rid of when the Finns happily sign a peace treaty under which the they give up all the land they'd originally been asked for and then some. Finland was economically and militarily incapable of continuing the war, 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 Stalin, who during the course of the war came to understand that the reforms he instituted to politicise the Red Army were a bad idea and have severely impacted its fighting ability. One concrete result is the way that Commissars are reduced to their pre-1937 status of mere advisers and liasons with the Communist Party, rather than being co-leaders of their units. He also accelerates the armaments program, which should see the Red Army become the most modern and lavishly-equipped fighting force in the world by 1943 or so. The Allies had been keen to get Finland on their 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 Marshal 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 alone, with even some of its Channel Islands occupied by German Forces, note 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.note Aerial superiority, therefore, is essential 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 Blitzkrieg 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 "wolfpacks" 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. In May 1941, the Germans complete their flagship, the Bismarck, and send her out into the Atlantic raid commerce because the Germans do not have the numbers to take on the Royal Navy. The British quickly get wind of this and dispatch a squadron composed of battlecruiser HMS Hood and the brand new and untried battleship HMS Prince Of Wales to intercept.note But Hood is an old ship, designed before the WWI battle of Jutland convincingly demonstrated the vulnerability of battlecruisers, and she quickly explodes under Bismarck's accurate gunfire during their encounter in the Denmark Strait, taking all but three of her nearly 1500 man crew with her. Shocked, and yearning for revenge, Churchill personally orders anything that can float or fly to hunt down Bismarck. Damaged by Prince of Wales during their battle, the Germans decide to return to the safety of France and successfully manage to give their pursuers the slip, causing the British Admiralty many sleepless hours until Bismarck can be located again. Realizing that Bismark is already safely beyond interception unless it can somehow be slowed, the British launch a last ditch aerial torpedo attack using outdated biplanes flown by inexperienced pilots in appalling weather conditions. Fortunately, with the weather working in their favor to the biplanes prove impossible to hit and their squadron leader scores the lucky torpedo hit that jams Bismark's rudders and allows the Royal Navy to catch up. Bismarck goes down fighting and like a certain ship that also went down on her maiden voyage, becomes a legend. Ironically, the U-boats sent to "Help" Bismarck only succeed in scaring off the British ships, leaving most of her crew to join HMS Hood's at the bottom of the Atlantic. 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 Suez. 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 General Metaxas' (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 Axis 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 a neutral nation at peace 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 ally-cum-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 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 liked territory, he liked the idea of Germany exhausting herself fighting a years-long World War One-esque conflict with France and thus being too busy to attack the USSR, and he liked the idea of The Red Army having time to modernise before it had to worry about being attacked by the victors of that said years-long conflict. Contrary to the usual stereotypes of invasions of Russia being doomed to failure, Russia actually suffered a major German invasion in World War One and lost. A string of Russian governments were brought to their knees thanks to a combination of truly catastrophic losses, German attacks and then occupation of large swaths of their European heartland, the inability of the Western Allies to effectively supply them, and massive instability and sabotage plaguing the rears. And everybody remembers it, especially the Bolsheviks—who took power because they had the good sense to cut a deal with the German Empire to stage a coup in Russia and then to give up before being fatally undermined when the Germans called their bluff—and the Germans themselves. From its onset the Soviet military suffered from bloat, technical backwardness, over-reliance on infantry and cavalry, and a high degree of politicization that had only just begun getting solved by the time Stalin took power. At which point he began prioritizing industrialization and cementing his power, resulting in the Red Army getting expanded to be a truly global power in scope and utterly lumbering in action. In particular, the invasion of Finland had shown the Red Army to have serious problems as a result of its expansion and politicisation, which had seriously affected its combat effectiveness, and meant that the Red Army as a whole had an awful lot of new/"green" recruits and was generally undermanned at every level. The new units had been created by splitting the old full-strength ones and making each scrap the nucleus of a new unit, the idea being that the extra/new people would be added bit-by-bit until. The plan was that most units should be at half-strength by 1942 or so and at full strength by 1945 at the latest, that being when the German-Allied war would finish and the Red Army might be needed to fend off the victor or simply make them behave and be a good neighbor to Mother Russia. This overambitious plan generally didn't work; beyond upgunning and upgrading certain "core" units into professional standards the rest of the military was scarcely better and possibly even worse thanks to the disorganization that was caused by any military reform of this scale. It was right at the middle of this process that the European Axis attacked. It should be noted that the Germans were not going into Russia completely blind. They spent months researching Napoleon's invasion, and noted many differences between 1941 and 1812. For one, Russia now had specific centers of strategic importance in Ukraine and the Baltic States, the former now being an area of agricultural and industrial importance. To simply abandon these, along with Leningrad, would have been disastrous to the Soviet war effort, so they would need to be defended and so there was little chance that the Russians would simply pack up everything and retreat. Like the invasions of France and Poland, this would depend on the Wehrmacht outmaneuvering Russian armies, cutting them off from resupply and so forcing them to surrender with not much fighting. Finally on June 22, 1941, exactly one year after the fall of France, Hitler launches Operation Barbarossa. It is the largest offensive in the history of warfare, one so massive that three dedicated headquarters are needed to coordinate it, with each HQ managing an army group of more than a million men each (including logistics personnel) for a total of about 2.7 million combat troops (of whom half are "first-rate"/can be used for offensive actions and the rest only "second-rate"/only useful for defensive actions and policing stuff), 624k horses, 120k trucks, 3k tanks, and 3k aeroplanes (i.e., only half the Luftwaffe). In this initial period of the war the Germans are the only only ones making up this forcenote . The front is 1000km long and stretches from the lower Baltic, across the Polish plains and Carpathian mountains, to the Black Sea. Like we said, it's a truly massive undertaking. The awe that this generates is undermined by how their preparations are completely inadequate. Wishful thinking, oversights, and flat out incompetence pervades every fabric of the top-level planning process (see Easy Logistics for more details). The "logic" for this endeavor roughly goes like this: it took three years to defeat the Russians in WWI, and France fought on until the end in four. In 1940 France fell apart in the span of a few weeks, so obviously Russia will capitulate to the Blitzkrieg in even less time. So surely they had no reason to worry about the finer details such as cold weather equipment, occupying the territory, and what have you. Right? The operational plan for Barbarossa is a prime example of the dangers inherent in politicizing a military force, and in how self-destructive prejudice and a belief in one's superiority can be; it marks a milestone along the road to the death of professionalism, objectivity, and eventually logic in Nazi German policy. It says a lot that Joseph Goebbels, a man with no military training but at least one ounce of common sense, is the only German leader on-record as doubting the Wehrmacht's ability to completely defeat the USSR in the six weeks specified in Unternehmen Barbarossa. Barbarossa also faces another overwhelming risk before the first shot is ever fired: keeping it a secret. Or rather, how the measures that should have been in place to keep it secret prove woefully inadequate, and it's so large that absolutely everybody should be able to see it coming. Especially the Soviets, who are supposedly the world's best-informed power (especially by the crazy conspiracy theories the Nazi Party was based on). They have spies everywhere, claim to know (within 5%) every vital statistic on German armaments production, troop and vehicle numbers, and can pinpoint the locations of vast amounts of units. And if they couldn't do it, there were no shortage of other factions that could and who would have reason to pass the information along (and indeed, they did). All of this meant that Barbarossa should never have come as a secret. Yet it did, and the Red Army and Soviet Union as an institution is caught woefully unprepared for the war, even as plenty of individuals in it predicted and prepared for it. As it turns out, the insanity of the NSDAP has once again proven to be its greatest asset, with considerable aid from one Iosif Vissarionovich Dzugashvili. For although Germany's preparations for invading the USSR were very transparent, absolutely nobody and nothing was able to convince Uncle Joe of it, and the Nazis were able to tie together a few lies that kept it that way. Even if many of them were highly improbable. The German explanation for why millions of soldiers and their equipment were deployed all along the border with the Soviet Union is that they are being sent to train out of the range of Western Allied air attack, for instance. Did Stalin actually believe this? Of course not. But he did made the mistake of assuming that the Nazis were sane. Part of this mind-boggling inertia on the Soviet side might also be explained that to a very large degree, German preparations were so utterly and mind-bogglingly stupid that it made it very hard for Stalin to take them seriously when a complete copy of the campaign plan falls into Soviet hands. Doubly so when Germany is not producing the kind of things she'd need to fight the USSR—training up and arming large manpower reserves to replace the colossal losses she could expect to take in a years-long warnote . Stalin dismisses Barbarossa as mere posturing by Hitler—he's just using it as a way to test Stalin's resolve and make him back down from his talk of getting friendlier with Rumania, as well as honoring the conditions of the First—and particularly the Second—Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The second includes further trading for rubber and aluminium, which Germany has no other way to get and would need (in quantities she doesn't currently have) to successfully prosecute the aforementioned years-long war against the USSRnote . There's also the way the start date is changed from May to June because of bad weather which would ground the Luftwaffe and bog down the advance in swollen rivers and mud, which seemingly confirms the plan's fakeness. The (faulty) logic of both sides is also visible in the way the opening chapters of the war played out. Germany decided to strike north of the nigh-impassable Pripyat Marshes which take up a great deal of Belorussia and basically divided the theatre-of-war in two. This is because they thought that the forces on their mutual border (a million combat-troops) accounted for more than 1/2 of the entire Red Army and that the Red Army as a whole was largely based north of the marshes. This meant that, in order to destroy the Red Army and so win the war, they needed to strike north - there also being a provision here for attacking Leningrad and Moscow in a secondary, follow-on operation that would surely do the trick even if the Soviets hadn't totally surrendered by that point. While they were right about the border-troops being based in the north, they were only 1/3 of the entire Red Army and Soviet forces were in fact concentrated along the Dnepr-Dvina rivers (100-300km east of the border) along a line 1500km long with their main strength being in the south. This is because the Soviets prioritised protecting The Ukraine, their chief agricultural and industrial region.note . The looming catastrophe is made worse by the Soviets themselves and Stalin in particular as the most-politicized military in Europe, at least ever since the Army Purges of 1937. Stalin had been instensely distrustful of the military's freethinking spirit. Ithad to stop because a military that thought long and hard about things was also a military that might think about the orders it was given—and whether or not they were good ones. So he decided to stamp that out the hard way: arresting people, beating people so severely their eyes fell out, hosting show trials, executing several of the finest commanders and military theorists the Soviet Union—and indeed the world—had (as well as just as many if not more utter incompetents)… et cetera. So at the end, Stalin's will is the Army's will, etcetc. But Stalin didn't have a clear will when it came to the Red Army's preparations for a Soviet-German war. On the other hand, he also wanted to field substantial mobile forces that could be used for a more active defense in which they could counter the enemy's mobile forces. On the other hand he also wanted the old Stalin line of border fortifications dismantled and reassembled on the new Soviet-German border with lots of added bits so it'd be pretty good really when it was done. The stuff about mobile forces was pulled straight from the recently-purged Tukachevsky's manual on "deep battle"note , the latter was just Stalin hedging his bets. The fundamental problem with both approaches, however, is that the Soviets still haven't built either of these things yet… and all their planning is based around preparing for when they are, rather than planning to make do with what they have. The first two weeks were a colossal defeat for the Soviets' border armies as what little organized resistance there was was too piecemeal and the forces involved were so vastly outnumbered that it didn't really make a difference. The Germans managed to use commandos, air power, and artillery to completely sever almost every level of the Red Army's chain-of-command in the border districts, meaning that the Red Army on most of the Soviet-German border basically cease to exist within hours of Barbarossa. Worse still, none of the Soviet troops are prepared to fight—they aren't even on alert and they and certainly haven't manned any defensive positions, brought their weapons and vehicles out of storage, etcetc. The German mobile forces are able to start exploitation on just the second-to-third day (though they'd planned to do so on the first). This is all with the notable exception of the southern-most military district, which was actually on alert when the war starts. Dealing with the individual Soviet soldier proves to be trickier, since they do exist and try to do the the best they can with what they know. And with overwhelming Axis forces crossing the border, that is to run and to hide. The 300k men in the Galicia-Podolia pocket in the south have nowhere to run and so are more or less obliterated, but in the center and north c.500k Soviet troops flee east in an attempt to reach the Dnepr-Dvina defensive line and c.100k of them make it, running more than 300 km note . This is where the Wehrmacht's headaches begin. Fleeing Soviet troops with no anti-tank weapons can't make a dent in the mobile forces, which have armored vehicles, and without heavy weapons either (machine guns, mortars, etc.) have trouble with enemy infantry as well. But the supply trains of the Wehrmacht's forces, with nothing but trucks and horse-carts guarded by "second rate" troops, prove to be far easier and indeed very attractive targets to starving Soviet infantrymen stuck behind enemy lines. And here a major problem of Blitzkrieg becomes apparent—when you advance forces behind the enemy lines, your forces' supply lines also have to advance behind enemy lines. So unless you clear every square kilometre of the area you've "captured" (the Minsk pocket covers maybe 200,000 square kilometres, much of it forest and bog)… they're still a problem. The problem becomes so bad that the German mobile forces have to station a tank along every hundred metres of road to protect their trucks — and this means the mobile forces at the leading edge of their armies get weaker as the advance continues, even when they don't lose troops to mechanical problems or fighting. And they do. Somewhat amusingly, Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels is also facing a major dilemma — how to show the German people just how 'Lebensraum' the Wehrmacht has managed to conquer while avoiding drawing attention to the size of the USSR. He settles for focusing instead on the raw numbers of captured Soviet personnel and material without reference to the Soviets' ability to replace it, something many ex-Wehrmacht Generals do in their own post-war memoirs. On some level, this makes some degree of sense. The Germans won the Eastern Front of WWI by finally cracking the Tsarist Russian army and its' Romanian allies after the latter two had replaced almost their entire military a few times over, and the Polish and 1940 campaigns were over before Germany's enemies could even begin to replace the forces they'd lost — and this is exactly the kind of campaign that Barbarossa is meant to be. Unfortunately, they underestimate that this was not the same Tsarist military they were facing in 1914 or 1917, that the logistical difficulties are several fold more immense than the campaigns they fought earlier in WWII, and that the Soviets have even more resistance to resist a genocidal enemy than a merely imperialistic and racist one. With Soviet troops still pouring through the southern and eastern sides of the Minsk pocket, in the third week of Barbarossa the 300k men of Army Group Centre's mobile forces are given the OKH's approval to take the Dnepr-Dvina rivers and the city of Smolensk under the assumption that they've already destroyed 1/2 of the Red Army and there are just 200k troops between them and Moscow. Closing the Smolensk pocket should take just another two weeks, meaning the end of all organised Soviet resistance and the start of a virtually unopposed advance to Moscow by the end of July. However, the actual number of Soviet troops is more like 300k. And they have a lot of artillery and air superiority—whereas the German Mobile Forces, at the end of a very tentative logistical tether that's severely strained by transport bottlenecks and breakdown-rates over horrible road-infrastructure as well as being badly disrupted by 50k Soviet troops still trying to flee from the Minsk pocket… have precious little. The Germans' first stab at making a pocket around Smolensk actually fails in the face of a artillery-heavy Soviet counter-attacks upon the forces trying to pinch it off. At this point, German Blitzkrieg doctrine calls for the heavy use of artillery and/or air-power to suppress the defenders. But whereas the Soviets have enough ammunition to continously bombard certain sectors of the front for days at a time, and enough planes to make dozens of attacks a day, most of the German mobile forces only have enough ammunition for half an hour's firing per day. And the Luftwaffe is nowhere to be seen, with only forty-fifty combat-capable 'fighter' aircraft able to patrol the front-lines on any given day. After considerable bickering between German generals not eager to take the (tank-)losses involved, one finally forces their army to bludgeon its way through to completing the encirclement. But then a Soviet counter-offensive with 200k fresh troops hits in earnest, opening it again. And then, when the Soviets have completely exhausted themselves trying to encircle the Germans, the Germans manage to summon just enough strength to pinch it off one last time and then hold their positions as July ends... and the fighting doesn't. The Germans want to pull their mobile forces back so they can rest and repair all their damaged tanks. The Soviets won't let them, because if they can do this then they can use said mobile forces to go on the offensive again. So while 300k Soviet troops are captured and 100k escape, the fighting doesn't actually stop. The Wehrmacht wins a victory at Smolensk, but it costs them any conceivable ability to fulfill Barbarossa's timetables. At Smolensk their mobile forces attacked a force that they had assumed was much weaker than it really was, and so they took far worse losses and far longer to defeat them than they'd planned for. The Wehrmacht's offensive ability rested on those mobile forces, and with them so badly damaged that the Wehrmacht was a whole was unable to keep attacking and the front bogged down in attrition trench-warfare. Before Smolensk there was talk of reaching the Caspian Sea and the Urals according to the timetable set out in the planning for Barbarossa (i.e. by the end of August). After Smolensk the commanders of the Wehrmacht's mobile forces are begging for a two-week rest-and-refitting period because their forces are completely incapable of further combat operations. Before Smolensk Imperial Japan was considering attacking Soviet Siberia. After Smolensk they rule it out. The Wehrmacht have lost a third of their total of 3000 tanks, another third need repairs, and half of the ones currently combat capable (i.e., 1/6 of the total) are obsolete and can be destroyed by weapons carried by even ill-equipped Soviet regulars or particularly crafty partisans[[/note]]. Monthly German tank-production is less than 50 units (5% of the current total) and tank-engine production is less than 300 units per-month versus more than 1000 units requiring major repairs of this type... against Soviet production of 200 tanks per-month. The Luftwaffe is also suffering. Half the Luftwaffe's planes on the Eastern Front have been destroyed or need repairs and they require six months to recover their losses, and for now the rest cannot support operations beyond the current front-lines or even continually defend the current ones from Soviet air attacks. One problem that the Wehrmacht itself does not address or even acknowledge is their awful supply situation and the rapid degradation of their motorised transport pool in particular—something that was never meant to happen, since the planning assumed that the railways would be sufficient for the front's requirements. In other words, they assumed that the trucks and horse-carts would be hauling supplies to the front from depots already fairly close to the front (no more than 50km, say) rather than depots in Poland and Germany (200-400km). But even when, in August, the railways all the way up to the front were converted to European gauge the forces at the front still had to send carts and trucks to germany and back. In late August, Army Group Center was only getting 3/4 of its substince-level food requirements from the rail network - and this is when they're supposed to be building up large stockpiles of food and ammunition ready for the next big offensive campaign in September! While 1/6 of the Wehrmacht's horses had died and 1/5 of its trucks were inoperable for one reason or another, these numbers would only increase as they were called upon to sustain the demands made upon the supply-chain (250-800km round-trips over terrible infrastructure). While the replacement-rate for the horses is theoretically 100% (with delays and a general decline in quality), monthly truck-production can only replace 1% of the total force. In other words, the Wehrmacht will never again be able to make another advance like they did during in those first two weeks of Barbarossa—and certainly not within the next few months. They will take a year to replace the modern tanks they lost, six months to replace the planes, and approximately a decade to replace the trucksnote … and that's not counting the losses of manpower—especially veteran manpower—or additional costs they're going to take if they attempt any more combat operations. In contrast with the competition of industrial rebasing East of the Urals and Western Lend-Lease, the Red Army will replace its own far worse modern tank losses in six months, modern plane losses in six months, and truck losses in a year. Joseph Goebbels notes with considerable irritation that the British press actually reports Smolensk as a Soviet victory, but acknowledges that German propaganda has to change direction and begin steeling the German people to accept a longer and much harder war. He, for one, does not think, now that Barbarossa has failed, that it will succeed by Christmas instead as the Wehrmacht is promising.
Kiev & Taifun, aka 'Germany does far too well………………?''
From the outset the combat in the South goes far worse for the Germans; the Red forces there were the only ones to pass the Red Army's own standards of combat-readiness just one month previously and were the only Red Army forces actually on alert and prepared for military action on June 22nd, and the Axis trust the Romanian military to take up the heavy lifting when the Romanians suffer from problems similar to the Italians. The result is that while the Romanians and their local and German Auxiliaries are able to take (/ liberate according to them, as it was actually an area the Soviets had extorted out of them just a year before) what is now Moldova, they take worse than they get before becoming bogged down in lengthy and bloody sieges at Uman and Odessa where their inferiority and the merits of the Red Army's Southern troops make themselves all too clear. They get stuck there for the following months, paralyzing the Southern flank of Barbarossa even as the German and Axis Allied troops just North of them continue pressing into Ukraine. However, even there they prove to face hard opposition. Army Group South confronted one of the few major Soviet mobile and armored forces in existence at the time, the Kiev Military District and surrounding forces under the command of competent commanders like Kirponos, Rokossovky, and Vlasov... along with the lemon of a cavalry officer and Stalin's BFF Seymon Budyonny. Kirponos throws five mechanized divisions and 3,500 tanks- including new equipment like the soon-to-be-feared T-34- at the relatively isolated First Panzer Group around Brody. The resulting melee is bloody for both sides, but the Germans prove the better and manage to devastate a Soviet force with a 2-1 advantage in numbers and an even larger advantage in tanks, turning most of the Soviet formations involved non-operational. Afterwards, they unproblematically sealed up in a southern pocket around Kiev. After yet more fighting, they achieve victory and all but eviscerate the Kiev Military District. Kirponos is killed fighting bravely in a breakout attempt and the Axis kill and capture more than their weight in Soviet soldiers between taking out an overwhelming majority- around 700,000- of the troops and an even higher proportion of the equipment. Unfortunately for the Axis, the makings of a logistical nightmare start coming to boil; almost no Russian-gauge trains have been captured and 100k Wehrmacht horses have died in combat and from wounds and from exhaustion, heat-exhaustion, disease, and starvation - they push the poor creatures way too hard in trying to keep up with the Wehrmacht's 'mobile' forces, which have no horses and use trucks for everything (and so can, theoretically, travel faster and for longer and be supplied over greater distances). While Kiev is captured along with a few hundred thousand Soviet troops - but again, many escape and the area captured is worthless (machinery gone or destroyed, mines collapsed, harvest taken or burnt, railway lines and all trains destroyed, etcetc). And yes, the 'land bridge' between the Dnepr and Dvina rivers at Smolensk is captured, and this opens the way for an advance along the Smolensk-Moscow highway to Moscow... but half the remaining vehicles in the mobile units are out of commission and are awaiting spare parts that will take months to arrive given the supply-backlog, most of the captured railway network has yet to be repaired and converted to European standard-gauge, the horses are dropping like flies and literally cannot sustain any further advances... And worse, Soviet resistance is getting competent. While various Soviet soldiers and units fought like lions on day one with individual courage and initiative, the catastrophic muck-ups of the early campaign mean many others collapsed catastrophically with little problem, reinforcing the expectations- and complacency- that the "inferior Slav" will fold. But Smolensk, Uman, Odessa, Kiev, and Brody show that is about to change; the Soviets are beginning to get their act together and fight smart too. Hitler, in one of his rare moments of insight, reckons that taking everything up to the Dvina-Dnepr is good enough and that even if Barbarossa has failed - it's taken them two months more than they had 'planned', inverted commas, and the Soviets still haven't given up and peaceably let them exterminate every last man woman and child in their country (for some reason) - they can just have another crack at destroying the USSR next year, when the supply situation is alright again and they've brought up enough fresh horses and stockpiled enough fuel. The Wehrmacht's Chief of the General Staff, Halder, and Armegruppe Mittel's Commanding Officer, Brauschitch, have however tried their best to manipulate their subordinates into marching on Leningrad and Moscow as soon as possible. While this is insubordination, it's only because they are convinced that they know how the war can be won i.e. taking Leningrad and Moscow which to their minds will cause Soviet resistance to crumble. Hitler is not happy about this. Not one bit. But eventually, he lets them have their way - though if they fail, they're fired. The parts of the Red Army's reserves that were not destroyed or have their recruiting districts overtaken by the advance are fully mobilized by October, and the first Soviet citizens to enlist 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 going to attack him anyway (even though he received intelligence saying they wouldn't....), especially since they and the European Axis would actually outnumber the Soviets on the whole.) 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, thereby destroying any remaining domestic American isolationist opposition to intervening in Europe. 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. Dönitz'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. Nevertheless, in January 1942, five U-boats are sent to the East Coast, and sink hundreds of ships, shocking American morale. The U.S. Navy, stretched thin due to having to fight a two-ocean war, is forced to sacrifice coastal cargo ships to protect troop transports bound for Britain until enough ships are available to initiate convoys.
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, Stalingrad itself is worth some talking about because of its' importance and history. It was named Stalingrad at the time because Stalin commanded Red troops there during the Russian Civil War, and did such a job holding out against the White pincers that it was actually re-named *before* he assumed absolute power. The Red troops had fought an increasingly bitter defense of the city center itself against the encircling Whites and had managed to more or less hold their ground against more numerous, better equipped, and better trained troop. However, the final stroke in the victory was apparently Stalin's doing even according to his enemies, since it involved ignoring deliberate orders from the Soviet command to recall an esteemed commander and his army from the Caucasus to fall on the flank of the Whites when they least expected it, crush the forces trapped between the defenders and the reinforcements, and route the rest. Afterwards, Stalin had said commander executed upon taking power. If this reminds you of what would actually happen at the Battle of Stalingrad, it isn't surprising. However, It was one of the great industrial and even cultural showpieces of the Soviet Union, and so it was believed that its' fall would be as great a moral defeat to the Soviets as it would be a material one. Especially since it was by far the biggest target to bear Stalin's name. So they started in without remembering why it had Stalin's name in the first place. 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 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 began an elaborate intelligence ruse to convince Rommel 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 Afrikakorps returns to its former lines with serious damage. Meanwhile, 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 ~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 Armoured 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-antitank-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. Having lost both the initiative and strength to break out themselves, Sixth Army can do little but wait and hope for a rescue. It will never come, the promised counter-offensive stalls out miles short of the city. As winter grinds on, their situation only grows more dire. Moreover, operating at the very limits of their logistical ability, the mere trickle of supplies that the Luftwaffe can manage to airdrop to them are completely inadequate. Soon, the death toll will begin listing men killed not by enemy action, but by starvation, disease and frostbite. 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. In the Atlantic, the U-boat war is starting to change as well. Allied escorts are getting better in tracking down submerged U-boats. A top-secret program called ULTRA has successfully broken the German code system, allowing the Allies to know the destinations of the submarines, though they use the information provided sparingly to not tip-off the Germans that their codes are compromised. Even without knowing the exact messages, destroyer escorts are able to locate U-boats simply by their excessive usage of radio, as Admiral Dönitz sends some boats upwards of seventy messages a day regarding their position, fuel status, and other minutiae. This culminates in "Black May" 1943, when 43 German submarines are destroyed, a full quarter of its operational U-boat fleet (which is the highest deployment it will be for the entire war). From here on, U-boats are being sunk faster than they are being built. Admiral Dönitz orders all boats to fall back to France, and begins implementing new technologies to help improve operations, such as the snorkel (which allows U-boats to remain submerged and recharge their batteries while hidden) and new torpedoes. However, the loss of so many boats and experienced crews has already taken its toll on the U-boat force's morale, to the point where several flotilla commanders tell their departing crews "Never mind sinking ships, just come back, please."
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 Bulge", 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 manśuvre 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 counteroffensives (let alone tactical counterattacks). As is typical of the East-European front, the Soviets' casualties were 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. Germany is now starting to deal with a new threat on the homefront as the Western Allies have decided to leverage their industrial might to engage in strategic bombing on a heretofore unimagined scale, launching waves of first hundreds and later thousands of four-engined heavy bombers across the channel in an around-the-clock effort to damage the German economy. Strategic targets (Factories, railyards, docks) are bombed by day, urban-industrial centers by night. The results are initially small and the casualties relatively high, but the Allies persist and the Germans will gradually be forced to divert more and more of their resources to defending the Reich itself. Meanwhile, in the Atlantic, the Allies are at last gaining ground against the submarine threat by increasing the employment of similar aircraft to patrol the sealanes and force the U-boats to concentrate their operations in the mid-atlantic "air gap". 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 Balkansnote . The Germans swallow this, diverting a significant force from Italy to Yugoslavia. With the Allies at the gates of Rome, the Italian government votes Mussolini out of power and signs 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, POWs, 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) homosexualsnote gypsies, the mentally incompetent, 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 the 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. Tank crews in such circumstances would be sent out again with their hatches padlocked shut, to keep them from surrendering again, while infantry might be tasked with clearing mine fields the most thorough way possible.
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 for more than two months after the actual landings. 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.note 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 Western Allies initially disbelieved that the Soviets could accomplish such a feat, which led to a huge "POW march" of 57,000 German POWs being 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 were 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. Even their vaunted new jets prove ineffective as the bomber's Mustang escorts outnumber them 60 to one and the capture of French airfields starts to bring their own airfields within range of Allied tactical airpower and increasingly under the near-constant cover of the dreaded Thunderbolt and Typhoon fighter bombers that are devastating Wehrmacht formations in France. 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 short-range 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. 1944 also marks the turning point in the Battle of the Atlantic: better ships, new technologies, and the loss of French ports deal a crippling blow to the U-boat service, and a new type of "escort" aircraft carrier has closed the "Air Gap". Even worse for the Germans, U.S. war production is now running at a blistering pace. North American shipyards, immune from attack by their sheer distance from the fight, are now mass-producing new vessels at the rate of one every few days, literally faster than they could be sunk. The US has even produced enough of their new Escort Carriers and Destroyer Escorts to start dispatching free-roaming hunter-killer groups, a tactic which had proved unproductive until now. But with new technologies like sonobouys, tight beam sonars, microwave radars and acoustic homing torpedoes added to old standbys like radio direction finding even schorkel equipped u-boats are no longer safe. German morale collapses as the number of sinkings plummet and 6 out of 10 boats fail to return from their patrols. U-boats will continue to sortie until the very end of the war but the real threat to the transatlantic lifelines between the U.S. and Britain and the Soviet Union has passed. As the Western Allies push out into the interior of France, it soon becomes clear to the German people that they are going to lose the war. The mighty juggernaut of the Red Army is approaching from the east, and the British and Americans, with their superior weapons and air power, are rapidly approaching from the west. The devastation of cities like Hamburg, Mainz, and Düsseldorf forces millions into refugee camps. On the Eastern Front, the fighting becomes more desperate as the German soldiers know all too well what awaits them, and their families and friends back home, after three years of atrocities against the Soviets. Reichsminister Goebbels starts to up the rhetoric in his broadcasts, using the idea of the new "wonder weapons" to say that the final victory will still be theirs. However, only the most delusional or fanatical Germans continue to believe him. Ever since Stalingrad, the news has gotten progressively worse; many Germans start behaving as though they have nothing to lose, recognizing that they only face total destruction.
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 when they came to power in 1933, for even though the officer corps was fond of the 'good old days' when the military was much bigger and wielded more political influence they weren't Nazis (with all the concentrated crazy that entailed). However, due to the expansion and politicisation of the military this 'resistance' was confined to only the highest ranks of the military (e.g. 'the Generals' plot' to assassinate Hitler if he tried to declare war on Czechoslovakia). By 1940, this 'resistance' consisted solely of trying to steer German foreign policy and strategic direction down what they deemed to be the most sensible path and by 1941 even the army was enthusiastically issuing proclamations to the effect that War Crimes wouldn't exist in coming Soviet-German war. This is because they didn't want to miss out on the opportunity to score points with Hitler by proving their commitment to the National Socialist cause and contributing to the 'Germanification' of the USSR through the extermination of her peoples, though in practice this was mostly to be done under the 'Hunger Plan' to just steal all their food and trust that starvation and disease would do most of the work (thus solving the Wehrmacht's inability to supply her troops with sufficient food into the bargain). However, this changed in late 1943. Germany's ability to launch strategic offensives had been in steady decline (due largely to her continuous and crippling loss of trucks), but this had been codified during Unternehmen Zitadelle that summer (Germany's third-last offensive, and the biggest of these three). Worse, Germany's mobile ('motorised' and 'panzer') forces were all but destroyed during the Soviets' follow-up campaigns in the summer, autumn, and winter of 1943 and while new forces were fielded, they were inexperienced and just a bit rubbish at their jobs (despite their better-quality weaponry). Basically, Germany was stuck on the defensive and was facing powers with more than five times her industrial capacity and manpower. There was absolutely no way, in short, that Germany could win. But the Allies and Soviets had declared they would never make peace with madmen like Hitler and his cronies. Seizing on these Exact Words (okay, they weren't Exact Words, but they read between the lines of their enemies' declarations) a minority of Germany's officers, most of them from the pre-Nazi days, think that a negotiated peace might still be possible with a different leadership. On July 20 1944, one month after the destruction of a third of Germany's entire army in Operation Bagration and the Anglo-American landings in France (Operation Overlord), 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 arms half the planned amount of explosives in the bomb, which also detonates on the other side of a table leg from its target, 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 (which, based on history, he really should've known not to say). Pressured by civilian leaders to bring a quick end to the war, Eisenhower is forced to agree. Unfortunately, a combination of bad weather, inaccurate intelligence, insuperable logistics and poor 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 years of war the British can no longer be replace their losses, forcing them to cede more and more of their role in Western Europe to U.S. and Canadian forces, though this goes unnoticed by all but the very highest echelons of the Allied command and only becomes apparent in retrospect. British industry 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 the Western powers as fundamentally decadent, weary of fighting and weak-willed. If the Allies can be forced to fight for every inch of German soil, or better yet, drawn into costly open battles, the heavy casualties will surely drain morale so drastically that the American people in particular will demand their leaders sue for peace and end the pointless sacrifice of lives to subjugate a country that, technically, never attacked theirs. A few of the more deluded even believe that it would be possible to convince the US to join Germany in a stand against the "true" enemy of civilization, the oncoming Soviets. Such a desperate separate peace is their only realistic option to turn the Red Army 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 U.S. 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 can resume resupply and tactical operations, the devastatingly powerful and accurate airstrikes slow German forces even further and make their advances all the more hopeless. By the end of January, the Germans have been pushed back to 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, any place that may be hiding German troops is reduced to rubble from afar by massed airpower and artillery barrages at the first signs of resistance. In this "better safe than sorry" atmosphere a single sniper shot from a single building can effectively doom an entire village to being wiped off the map. As the Allies advance ever deeper, countless small towns and cities, some centuries old and without any military value, are destroyed in ultimately pointless delaying actions. This is especially bad news for civilians who arguably are now facing 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 River Oder, 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 Western Allies will answer directly to Moscow in the 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 Dönitz—approves the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany. The war in Europe is over, and Allied attention now turns to ending the war in the Pacific.