Doug's Darkworld

War, Science, and Philosophy in a Fractured World.

How Did Two of History’s Most Crushing Military Victories Go So Wrong?

with 5 comments

FT 17

Military force is often touted as a solution to problems, especially in militarized countries such as the USA and Israel. And given great credence in the past for what military force has accomplished. Generally this sort of military can-do analysis is of the comic book variety, but sadly  it tends to be pervasive. Today I will examine two of histories most resounding military victories, and discuss why they not only both should have been done differently, and why each of them contained the seeds of ultimate defeat. These two victories are the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and the 1940 German attack on France. They were two of the most stunning and unexpected military victories in history, what went wrong?

Pearl Harbor. The classic and in some ways the ultimate surprise attack, nowadays known as a preemptive strike. The entire American Pacific battleship fleet was caught by surprise and sunk. Basically America’s plan to defend its Pacific holdings when war broke out with Japan was sent to the bottom of Pearl Harbor in a  few short hours. Japan basically crippled the US Navy with a single air raid, how could that not be anything but a stunning victory? Unfortunately it was an illusory victory. For one thing the nature of naval warfare was changing, and battleships were no longer the ultimate weapon they had been for decades. Secondly, every single battleship that was sunk with the exception of the Arizona, was re-floated and back in action within a year. Lastly, the attack was a huge propaganda boost for the USA, in one fell swoop Japan had sunk eight obsolete battleships … and utterly destroyed America’s isolationist and peace factions.

The way to best see how this was a mistake is to look at alternatives. There are two possibilities. For one, Japan could simply have attacked Britain and Holland and seized the oil fields in Dutch Indonesia. While the USA might have voted to declare war on Japan, they might not have. At the very least the war would not have been as popular in the USA, and a negotiated settlement might have been possible. More importantly though, the Japanese had wildly underestimated their tactical superiority at the beginning of World War Two. If the USA had declared war on Japan, or Japan had simply attacked the USA without attacking Pearl Harbor, the USA would more than likely have followed its plan for war with Japan. And that plan was to send the battleship fleet to the Philippines. And that battleship fleet would almost certainly have suffered the same fate as the Repulse and the Prince of Wales, sunk by Japanese aircraft. And in this case the battleships would have gone down in deep water, far fewer of their trained crew members would have survived, and by no means would they have been re-floated and been back in action within a year. Basically a case can be made that in retrospect, however brilliant it may have been, the attack on Pearl Harbor was the worst option the Japanese had.

Then there’s the Battle of France in 1940. In World War One, Germany attacked France with pretty much everything they had. It resulted in four years of trench warfare and millions of deaths, and Germany ultimately lost. In World War Two, Germany defeated France in ten days! The fighting lasted for six weeks in total, but on the tenth day German tanks reached the coast and cut off the bulk of the French army from supply. The president of France called Winston Churchill and told him it was over, and that he should start trying to get the British troops back to England. Which they did at the historic retreat from Dunkirk. And that was that, Germany’s historic enemy crushed and humiliated at a cost of about 40,000 dead. Hitler even had the railroad car that Germany surrendered in in World War One dragged out of a museum and forced the French to sign their surrender in it. The defeat was so profound and unexpected that the French people basically went into shock, and there was no resistance to the German occupiers for at least two years. How could it have gotten any better than this?

Well, it could have. The big problem with the Fall of France is that the British got away! If the British forces in France in 1940 had been destroyed or captured, there would have been no British troops to send to North Africa to defend against Italy. In fact there wouldn’t even have been enough troops to defend England against a  German invasion. To say that the course of the war would have been different is an understatement. How could this have come about? Well, the original German plan had been a repeat of World War One, a massive invasion through Belgium. If the Germans had gone with the original plan, they would have suffered higher losses, but they still would have won. The German blitzkrieg tactics made their forces vastly superior to the French and British forces in the field who were still fighting World War One style. More importantly, the BEF, the British Expeditionary Force, would have been right in front of the main German advance, and almost certainly would have suffered devastating losses. There would have been no Dunkirk evacuation, because most of the British troops would have been killed or captured by the German steam roller through Belgium.

And in both my examples, there’s another layer of failure. In both cases the victor learned the wrong lesson from their victory. At Pearl Harbor, the Japanese got an exaggerated idea of the power of carrier strike forces. When they tried one again at Midway less than a year later, they suffered a truly crushing defeat, one that sealed the fate of the war for Japan. And in France, the German’s spectacular success convinced Hitler that he was a military genius on par with Alexander or Napoleon. He wasn’t, and he proceeded to make one disastrous military decision after another. If Hitler had gone with his generals’ plans in France, his victory wouldn’t have been as spectacular, but it would have been more thorough. And Hitler might have been more prone to heed his generals’ advice as the war went on.

Is there any lesson in all this? Just the point I make all the time. The results of war are wildly unpredictable, and even spectacularly successful military ventures can has disastrous unintended consequences. 9/11 had its roots in the stunningly “successful” desert storm war with Iraq. This leads to the second point, which I usually leave unstated; people who make confident predictions about the results of any proposed war are idiots.

Have a great weekend everyone.

(The above image is probably Public Domain under US copyright law. It was likely taken by the German military during World War Two. It’s a destroyed French FT 17 tank. That’s a dead French soldier beside it. The FT 17 is a World War One tank. Hundreds of them were taken out of storage and used to equip hastily raised units at the start of the World War Two, which led to the myth that France lost the war because the Germans had better tanks.)


Written by unitedcats

November 30, 2012 at 7:20 am

5 Responses

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  1. Wonderful analysis on the reversal of fortune that a war can bring…..

    I really enjoy reading your blog on the vast array of topics. Keep it up!


    November 30, 2012 at 8:00 am

  2. I don’t think your analysis with Fall Gelb is correct. The Allies expected an WWI style invasion of Belgium and were prepared. Their elite divisions were deployed to counter the Wehrmacht and swing into Belgium to defend prepared positions.
    France and Britain had combined more troops, artillery and more and better tanks than Germany.
    The key to the swift German victory was the surprise attack through the Ardennes. That was the weak link in the allied defense. Two!!! Panzer-Corps at Sedan and their escape out of the bridgeheads towards the canal sealed the fate of the now trapped Allied troops in Belgium.
    A frontal assault on the amassed defenders may have been successful, but at what cost? Despite the tactical superiority of the Wehrmacht that could have gone either way. As many German generals feared.

    And who knows what would have happened without Hitlers “Halt” orders. Hitler basically enabled the evacuation at Dunkirk.


    November 30, 2012 at 12:45 pm

    • No, the Germans had absolute tactical superiority in the Battle of France, as well as control of the air. Sure, the allies had more and better tanks, but they were parceled out as infantry support vehicles, not concentrated into armored divisions. This has been war-gamed out extensively, it’s not just my off-the-cuff opinion. However, as with any alternate history, it certainly is debatable. Which is half the point of the post, to provoke thought and debate. — Doug


      November 30, 2012 at 12:54 pm

      • The Germans had the tactical superiority because they followed Fall Gelb. Because they had the initiative. Not to mention the personal freedom some commanders took to ignore orders (Rommel, Guderian). Which made Hitler furious, leading to his “Halt orders”.

        We know how it happened. But to surprise an enemy and gain a tactical advantage is one thing. To do as your enemy expects you to do another. Same reason Germany didn’t attack the Maginot-Line.


        November 30, 2012 at 1:29 pm

  3. The Germans’ real blunder in 1940 was not to have offered Britain a reasonably generous peace settlement after the fall of France. They just sat back and expected the Brits to ask for terms – which was something Churchill would not do, although many at the time thought he was crazy not to.

    The Germans had careered around Europe, knocking over every country they’d come to grips with in a matter of weeks. The BEF had escaped, but immensely battered and without most of its equipment. Everybody expected a rapid invasion that we would struggle to repel. At that time there hadn’t been that many amphibious assaults attempted, and people didn’t appreciate how difficult they were to carry off. In Normandy in 1944, the allies had air, sea, land superiority and friendly civilians to help them – but it was still a close-run affair. The Germans were in a far less favourable situation in 1940, with the Royal Navy to contend with as well as the RAF (and just the practical barrier put up by the English Channel). Viewed in hindsight, Britain had relatively little to worry about.

    But that’s not how it seemed at the time. Had the Germans offered a deal – keep the empire, give us a free hand in Europe, leave us to take on the Russians – a lesser man than Churchill might have taken it (or Churchill might have been forced to do so). There were plenty in the British establishment who felt that communism was the real enemy, and were more than happy to let the fascists take them on.

    There’s a great book on the subject called “Operation Sea Lion” by Peter Fleming (brother of Ian Fleming), which is well worth a read.

    Chris Hunt

    December 13, 2012 at 5:06 am

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