The European modes of warfare from WW2

There's a widespread misconception about what WW2 in Europe looked like on the macro scale. The typical view is that the victorious armies reduced opposing armies, seized land and concluded the campaign victoriously.

I meant to write about (against) this for a while but didn't because I deemed a lot of evidence necessary to convince anyone. Obviously, I did not muster the motivation to compile all the stuff I already know for such a blog post. Instead, I finally settled on a cheapened version of the blog post; no evidence, but possibly inspiring some people to keep the eyes open so they can see the evidence more clearly elsewhere themselves.

OK, so what's wrong with the typical view as mentioned before?

The thing about "reduced" is badly misleading at best.

This is quite fundamental, for the prevalent idea of a war between great power is one in which one side's military destroys the other and then victory happens. A totally mislead belief even without francs-tireurs or similar guerillas.

What really happened were two different modes of achieving success in campaigns, with a third mode relevant in almost all inconclusive campaigns/offensives.

(Mode 1:) Some of the German successes 1939-1941

Characteristic of these successes were very quick campaigns, mostly decided by striking where the opponent wasn't prepared.

1940 Norway: Norway was poorly defended, not the least because Britain wasn't prepared to intervene in sufficient strength. They had considered the option of invading it themselves, but were still unprepared.
1940 Western Campaign: Rear airborne invasion in Netherlands and the famous Ardennes push with tank divisions prevented an effective defence by the enemy. The Western powers were actually not substantially inferior in any quantitative parameter, but almost half of the Western forces were defeated with remarkably little fighting. The key to success wasn't destruction of many Western powers divisions, but rendering them useless for the defence of France.
1941 Yugoslavia: 11 days of the most successful preemptive attack ever. Very little combat. An entire regiment rolled through the country without a single even only platoon-sized fight.
1941 Greece: Overrun because the Greek forces were focused on the Italians in Albania and simply not positioned for successful defence.

The primary mechanism was capturing territory through turning movements and encirclements in 1940/41.

(Mode 2:) Overpower for victory, reduction of enemies as a mere finisher

The German military forces were ultimately defeated (depending on how to determine it they had effectively lost sometime between late '41 and mid-'43). Yet, the German military had more (and more powerful) combat aircraft, tanks, AAA and more troops and field artillery pieces in in early winter of 1944/45 than in 1939/40!* It had sustained huge losses for years, but it did NOT shrink. Its reduction was NOT the key to Allied victory!

It was driven back because
(1) The share of aggressive young soldiers in the combat arms was reduced.
(2) Mode 3 rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat

This leads to 
(Mode 3): How most non-decisive offensives really looked
One force overpowers another (or threatens to do so), the weaker force enters a retrograde movement usually with delaying actions, eventually the culminating point of the offensive is reached and both armies get a break for a while (including receiving many replacements for personnel and material).


The idea of WW2-ish warfare being about destruction of an army in the field followed by occupation of land and forcing the political leadership into surrender is largely misguided as far as it concerns Europe. This is what the war of 1870/71 looked like (albeit the initial political leadership in person of Napoleon III surrendered with the army). WW2 wasn't about reducing the hostile army to get your way. It was about forcing it to yield by overpowering it or by making its geographic position horrible.

I suppose this fundamental misconception has probably caused a lot of damage to at least Western military thought for decades.
You can win by reducing the other army and then occupying their capital, but this isn't really WW2-ish. It's more close to the Israel wars style where destroying a tank army in the field (irreplaceable during the war) yielded success.

*: This is what I meant to collect evidence about, but didn't for want of motivation. The Luftwaffe had thousands of fighters and many other aircraft even by War's end (little fuel and too few fully trained pilots, though), there were thousands of capable tanks in early '45 whereas the force of 1939 was a collection of fewer training tanks by comparison. AAA figures multiplied. Field artillery is tricky, as the share of smaller calibres and low quality captured guns rose over time. Troops quantity only collapsed in '45, while quality collapsed already in '41/'42.
Likewise the "defeated" German submarine-centric navy entered the war with less than a hundred subs and had hundreds about a week before war's end, on average larger and much more powerful ones.

P.S.: Very huge conflict, very short text. Readers should take it as an inspiration to look at WW2 history in order to check whether this blog text is about right. Small deviations in the grand scheme of European WW2 from the text's description don't bother me. I suppose those who get all-focused on minor deviations will never benefit from any model-like approach attempting to describe general patterns.

To be really, really clear: The remark that drove me towards finally writing this blog post was about destroying the enemy quicker than he can replace his losses. That's what I meant with "reduction" here. This "reduction" is not the same as attrition, but the balance of attrition and replacements. WW2 did work like this in the Pacific Naval Warfare (not even the air war), but WW2 in Europe was not about taking more out of the contest than gets added to it.
To assume the latter is analogue to thinking of a fight as a pushing match in which the opponent ultimately goes down.
In European WW2, said match was rather about going past him or about pushing him until he yields with a step backwards, then follow up with a step forward of your own and finally resume with exerting pressure. Rinse and repeat.


  1. The Red Queens Race phenomina goes a long way toward explaining how the Germans could still have a large army and much better equipment, and still be in a much worse postion relative to their enemies.

    But part of it is also that peace time modern economies have an enormous reserve of military power if they are given enough time to bring them into play. The French, because of their somewhat flucky loss never got that chance, but just about everyone else did.

  2. Indeed, an excellent text. The misconception about the reduction seems to be sometimes even larger, depending on the people you argue with. Many guys think that a battle rages on until most soldiers or pieces of equipment of one side are killed or destroyed while in reality one side usually retreats when less than half(number depending on morale and other factors) of its fighting elements have been neutralized.
    So thanks for your article.

    1. This has already been lamented as a defect of army exercises. Losing units often fight to their annihilation in such exercises (no lives really at stake, not even careers), while in reality only the hardiest divisions didn't yield prior to 40% casualties. Most yielded at about 10-15% at the latest.
      (Psychology and incentives seem to be among the problems of simulated warfare.)

      This will be even more extreme in modern warfare if a sophisticated army formation ever faces a peer again; modern army formations have few per cent teeth and even only 5% casualties might indicate horrendous losses in such a case.

    2. Sven, you would have to order people to be cowards in front of their pals and then expect anyone to believe you are not a coward in combat...
      I really want to see the guy who decides who has the right to show of bravery in an exercise and who must play struck with panic.

    3. The umpires do a lot less popular things in exercises than to send some chaps to run towards some hot chow.

      The problem furthermore extends into the realm of computer-based wargames.

    4. Honestly, any computer-based wargames that doesnt include a large component to assess morale and create retreats & routs, is as fantastic as D&D, and as useless for real life purposes.

    5. Are units more likely to yield because of weakening position than because of losses?

    6. I don't see how this could possibly be compared. How to quantify a 'weakened position'?

      It can be said that it has often been observed how entire armies gave up their disposition and entered a retrograde movement without much fighting, while some extremely bloody battles have been fought to hold positions on other occasions.

  3. I see three fields of German problems:

    Lack of fuel for operations and supply, makes maneuver impossible and thus allow an enemy to outmaneuver.
    General lack of rare, but critical resources for enhanced performance due to being cut off from most sea lines of communication.
    The political framework made most German-aligned armies of little combat value and hindered cooperation with Japan.
    Plus, it destroyed a lot of educated manpower in concentration camps and on bogey-chases for Aryan physics (mindset problems of science).

    Production rates - were comparatively low (Red Queen's race) in relation to their enemies, too much emphasis on outstanding characteristics of the product (necessity due to the lack of resource access).
    Up to date rearmament of experienced units seems to have been lacking.

    How much of a defensive concept for warfare did exist on the German side?
    I always have the impression that this was not well developed. The retreats could have been turned into horrendous losses for an attacker by asymmetric threats and the Soviets were quite good at that.
    In communication the widespread employment and reliance on Enigma is simply strange. There were viable communication alternatives much harder to break. The standard enigma encryption could have been improved a lot by introducing another layer of encryption (one time pads for example) for critical message parts. In this sense, Germany had a very low security level communication system and was not willing to think much outside the box or commit to operational research on enemy efficiency and odd things.

    1. The overengineering accusation is widespread, but usually overplayed.

      There was a VW Typ 82 car design for every Tiger design, and the Tigers were actually worth their price until the Panther matured, which did cost about as much as the Pzkpfw IV (this is usually perceived as being cheaper due to lower weight and shorter gun - but had almost the same price).
      Many elaborations were worth their expense because the simpler solutions often lacked performance or reliability.

      The raw materials issue was a problem to all great powers of WW2, including the Soviets and U.S.. Most shortages were managed well, important exceptions for Germany were tungsten and some steel alloy additives. The fuel shortage was largely a fuel refining and syntesizing shortage due to bombing.

      Regarding defensive tactics, I recommend

    2. Great analysis dispelling the mythical image creating by media about WW2. I think we still have this fake images in our minds when we are trying to understand what war means. A sort of 5-6 years long Kursk mixed with Stalingrad.
      Very little of that in fact.

      About overengineering I think we have the tendency - also media created images in our minds - to over talk about tanks. All armored vehicles of the German army consumed around 7% or the total armament budget. But I think - empirical estimate - over 90% of the debates about overengineering are related to tanks.
      I encountered for example the comment made by Freemen Dyson about the ballistic missile project.
      That the entire expense - research/development, creation of manufacturing base, actual production etc - represented the equivalent of some 20- 24 000 brand new new generation fighter jets. So in effect the entire program was the equivalent of a unilateral disarmament of the Nazi empire by courtesy of Adolf. Their military utility was marginal at best.
      Only this example had a far larger impact on the MIC of the Reich then all the different bad decisions about tank procurement.

    3. The ballistic and cruise missile production was rather late, the aviation gas production was crashed by bombers in IIRC May/June '44.

      The Luftwaffe's key problems were different ones; most severe was the poor training program. Fighter pilot training was barely adequate in quality during '38-mid-'44 and lacking in quantity. Mechanician and other ground crew training was a huge problem as well. I've read a third of the Luftwaffe's need for mechanicians wasn't met in early '43.

    4. I said overengineering not with any reference to tanks, but rather ships and aircrafts come to my mind. These were not in a serial production mode, like among the Western Allies, but quality craftsmanship.

    5. I understand. It applied to everything.
      Nice amusing case is the famous AT/AA canon of 88 mm.
      A marvel of engineering due to its high velocity and precision.
      So was it a good development?
      Apparently not.
      Very expensive it was , so very few were made. So German/allied infantry had much lower fire power then the Soviet one.
      By overengineering Nazi approach become a sort of disarmament. A unilateral one in the middle of a large war.
      Compared to this this Terminator of AT weapons soviet Zis 3 seems weak and low tech. But it could provide the infantry forces with tremendous fire power due to its availability.
      So the result was that Soviet infantry was well equipped with AT weapons while German one wasn't.
      It took me some time to understand that such high performance equipments were very idiotic ideas. For the attempt to tie the very limited soviet industrial resources into producing a few high performance weapons , leadind to the disarmament of the Armed Forces, Stalin would have shot the guilty officials.
      Disarming the country so that it can be destroyed by its enemies and insuring that the great leader will die like a rat in a basement fit perfectly the description of treason. If it happens due to pure stupidity or due to evil intents I do not believe makes any significant difference.

    6. Nonsense. The 8,8 cm Flak 18/36/37 series was produced in great quantities; it was in short supply at the front because
      * it needed a 8-ton towing halftrack (about as expensive as the gun itself!)
      * it was needed for anti-air purposes at home

      There was a small issue with decisions about the barrel construction, but the gun overall wasn't more elaborate than its foreign counterparts.
      The 8,8 cm Flak 41 series was expensive, but its price was justified by its very much better performance against high-flying U.S. bombers.

      The ZIS-3's counterpart was the mass-produced 7,5 cm Pak 40.

      The Soviet Union had plenty elaborate and inefficient designs such as very large artillery or large bombers as well. They weren't produced in greater quantities in part because the evacuated industry wasn't capable of it. Likewise, the production run of light Soviet tanks continued because the factory could not tool up for T-34s.
      Outcomes are often more random than the result of superior wisdom.
      "So the result was that Soviet infantry was well equipped with AT weapons while German one wasn't."

      Their AT gun were the almost ineffective 45mm guns. The 76 mm guns were actually field artillery pieces (light field cannons, not heavy anti tank guns) and pressed into AT service only because the Soviets had no decent AT guns (57mm ZIS-2) in quantity.
      Furthermore, it was the Germans who introduced the super-simple and effective Panzerfaust, not the Soviets. Red Army infantry of '45 used captured Panzerfaust munitions.
      The Germans were also the first to make use of simple and cheap tank destroyer and assault gun designs.
      As I wrote, there's a Typ 82 design for every Tiger design.

      Now stop talking nonsense about "disarmament", please. Use the term when appropriate or elsewhere.

    7. 1. I'll let someone else explain the sense in whih the term is used:
      "… those of us who were seriously engaged in the war were very grateful to Wernher von Braun. We knew that each V-2 cost as much to produce as a high-performance fighter airplane. We knew that German forces on the fighting fronts were in desperate need of airplanes, and that the V-2 rockets were doing us no military damage. From our point of view, the V-2 program was almost as good as if Hitler had adopted a policy of unilateral disarmament." (Freeman Dyson)
      In many other cases we can say the same, but this is huge compared to the others.
      The fact that Adolf wanted armament and got disarmament does not change the physical facts as Dyson explains quite nicely. Do you understand that desire and results do not always match each other?

      2. About PAk 40.
      Some 23 000 pcs were made. Less then a quarter of the Soviet equivalent which had double use. And it was very heavy. Needed specialised tractor.
      Debates about strictly technical aspects are not always relevant.
      It is like comparing a cataphract with a light mounted archer. At a frontal clash of course the heavy one is better. Just that it never happened. Something called doctrine exists.
      Heavy and expensive does not mean better if your opponent does not give you the chance to use your punch.
      I fully agree with the assessment that the cheaper low perfomance Soviet Zis 3 was a "masterpiece". Because looking in awe at numbers on papers describing great technical performances is not always relevant in real life.
      RPG s were a great technical development. Just that in the 40s they were in infancy. What German army needed were large quantities of metal tubes on wheels, of an aceptable weight. And all the industrial capacities of Europe prouved unable to supply them.
      Due to a lack of competence and rationality at high level leadership of state and army.

      Later on Soviet MIC developed them further to the logical limits. The idea was exactly the same as in the 40s. To put as much fire power in the hands of infantry at the minimum cost possible. And to use as light as possible systems so that in real life people can actually carry the equipment around so that they have it at hand when needed.

    8. Something simmilar happens now with the JSF.
      "From our point of view, the V-2 program was almost as good as if Hitler had adopted a policy of unilateral disarmament."
      Replace V2 with JSF and Adolf with whatever you consider appropriate and it fits perfectly the description.

  4. Cruise missile seems to have made sense.
    Its costs were low and the impact was significant.
    Usually people have the tendency to lump both types of weapons together but they were some 2 orders of magnitude apart back then as regard to expenses.
    Fighter pilots training involves large costs in fuel and aviation equipment.
    Germany had none of them to spare.
    The fuel case is quite simple. No amount of belief in magical solutions can bring liquid fuels in real life.
    About the machines - useless anyway without the fuel to power them and the trained pilots, meaning fuel again - the fact that they were in low supply is harder to understand.
    I think Adam Tooze made a great analysis in Wages of destruction why it happened.
    It was not only the extraordinary Nazi inefficiency but also a problem of timing of the production/investment proportions. Rather complex subject.
    Interesting thing to notice that we know why the Reich with some 90 mil people, controlling in 1941 - 42 some other 300 mil - little less directly, if we add close economies like Switzerland or Sweden more - could not do it. Like not having enough mechanics. We know because German sources detail extensively the constraints.
    What is much more harder to understand is how a part of Russian Federation plus the Central Asian republics could do it. Some 80-90 mil in RF plus some 30-40 mil in rest , some 110 - 120 mil in total.( That was the gigantic SU from 41 to 44). Uzbeks and Tadjiks as natural mechanics?
    So I do not buy the lack of technical personnel on the Nazi side.
    It seems to me that the degree of imbecility and incompetence of the Reich leadership is mind boggling.
    But pretty creative people they were. It ain't easy to waste the resources you have in such a way that you end up having less output then a competitor 4-5 times smaller and with a less robust and sophisticated technical/manufacturing complex.
    The soviet leader Djugasvilli would have have considered such incompetence treasonous and would have dealt harshly with it. I tend to agree with his assessment in this particular case. Just like criminal neglect exists in penal code such high level imbecility has to be considered outright treason and treated as such.

  5. Shipbuilding and aircraft production was a craftmanship affair everywhere.

    Nevertheless, Germany pioneered the production of submarines in sections:

  6. Actually the British and French were in the process of carrying out their plans to invade Norway.

    They started with operation Wilfred which was a plan to mine Norway's coastal waters to stop the iron ore shipments and provoke the Germans into responding with their own violation of Norway's territory.


    This was to be followed by Plan R 4. This was the plan for British and French troops to seize ports in northern Norway and specifically Narvik, and its railroad connected to Sweden.


    Operation Wilfred the mining of Norway’s coastal waters was carried out prior to the German invasion and there were troops standing by on British ships waiting for the word to carry out Plan R 4. It was only that the Germans were conducting their operations at the same time that the British/French plan went wrong. In fact the British/French managed to actually get control of Narvik but abandoned it when the Battle for France went wrong.

  7. Mhh,

    France 1940:

    REDUCE allied forces by encircling their main mobile forces, pressing them against the channel, and eliminating them one way or the other, while gaining a POSITION that was ONLY SLIGHTLY DIFFERENT FROM what was achieved in 1914. Consolidation of a weak french Force on the Somme-Asine within a two-weeks operational pause (to reduce the Dunkirk pocket). Rather easy breakthrough of the french lines in early june (definitely not helped by the destruction in all but personel of a large part of the allied army at all, serious man!). Victory (june 18th).

    Sorry to ruin your parade, but the war in France didnt end 6 pm, may 18th. Intuition tells me, the wehrmacht would have fared much better at Moscow with the red army "reduced" as planed.

    Furthermore I guess german widows should have sued for negligence after 1945. Those allied generals clearly didnt know what they were doing, having had to kill 20% of all german soldiers to win the war. I mean it seems like they must have had some nefarious plan not to set food on germany until they burried at least 4mil germans.

    1. You look at the superficial, not at what meant victory.

      The French lost as much territory in Fall Gelb as they did because of positional dislocation coupled with their inability to withdraw and set up a new firm line not yet penetrated by spearheads already.
      Furthermore all troops pocketed in the north could have escaped with equipment intact and France would still have lost few weeks later, for the evacuated forces couldn't have arrived, regained order and be integrated into the defence in time.

      About your later remarks; simply (re-)read the by now days-old final "edit:" part of the blog post. You're shadowboxing.

  8. You obviously have to mention the spectacular effort the Greeks put into defending themselves from the Italians, but also the Germans in the Metaxas Line, Thrace/Macedonia. The only reason Greece focused most of its primary force in Albania was because they had secured inaction from the Turks (obviously) and the Buglarians (which were clearly only predestined as occupation forces by the Germans.)

    But I guess heroism and bravery is only one virtue of war, that doesn't always neccessarily win you the battle, ignoring various last stands to the extent of complete obliteration of their division(s) by the SS.