Image credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-217-0465-32A / Klintzsch / CC-BY-SA 3.0
This article is an edited transcript of World War Two: A Forgotten Narrative with James Holland on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 22 November 2015. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.
It’s actually extraordinarily surprising that the Wehrmacht (the armed forces of Nazi Germany) did as well as it did in World War Two. It is amazing that it got from Brittany to the Volga given that the German fighting machine was totally rubbish in lots of ways.
The Wehrmacht was good on a tactical level. Or, at least, the best of the Wehrmacht were. The big thing they had during the second half of the war was discipline.
But if you look at World War One, why did Germany sign an armistice in November 1918? It was because it had run out of money and wasn’t going to win.
Well, by that reckoning, you could say that by the middle of 1942, the Nazis should have been ready to surrender. But they didn’t.
It breaks all the codes of recent warfare that Germany would carry on in 1942 because it clearly was not going to win. Despite all the talk of wonder weapons and all the rest of it, it was not going to happen.
What’s so amazing is that if you think about the war in the East and look at the Eastern Front and the German drive in the summer of 1942 down to the Caucuses, you have to wonder, “What are the Germans going to do if they get to those oil fields? What is going to happen?”.
First of all, the Russians weren’t going to let them get out there; they were going to destroy them first.
But just say the Russians didn’t, what was going to happen once the Germans got to Baku and Azerbaijan and they got all that oil? How were they going to transport it to the front? Because how you transported oil in World War Two was by ship.
Well the Germans didn’t have any of that. They weren’t going to be able to get through the Mediterranean and out around the North Sea and back into the Baltic – that wasn’t going to happen. So the only way they were going to be able to get the oil out was by rail. But they didn’t have the rails.
There were no pipelines back into Germany. It was just bonkers, absolute la-la land.
So to really understand World War Two is to understand how the Germans kept going when all around their position was falling. And the truth was discipline and making do with less – all that sort of stuff.
The squandered Heinkel 112
And yet, at the same time, they squandered so much. Before the war they had the world’s two best fighter airplanes by a country mile, and one of them they never used. The Heinkel 112 had a range of some 750 miles, the same armament as a Messerschmitt 109 and an inward-folding undercarriage.
So it was incredibly stable on the ground, which was really good news if you were a greenhorn straight from flying school.
It had elliptical wings like the Spitfire, an amazing rate of climb, and it was fast. In terms of performance, it was fractionally below the 109 and what a winning combination that could have been.
But instead the Germans binned it because Heinkel had a “whiff” of being Jewish about him, and Hitler didn’t like it. And so the Germans went for the Messerschmitt 110 instead, which was a two-engine fighter plane and a total dud.