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D-Day and Putin

Written by Robert Tombs

Wars are inevitably won by economic and industrial power. But only on condition that governments and peoples are willing to use it.

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As we remember D Day, we reflect on the perils of the seaborne invasion of a coast which the German had had four years to fortify and which was defended by 58 divisions (the British Army today can probably muster one) commanded by the formidable Erwin Rommel.  Vast resources had to be marshalled.  One of history’s greatest secrets had to be kept.  (General de Gaulle was furious at not being told in advance of the invasion of France.)  Not least the weather had to be good enough.  And it worked brilliantly.  Casualties were thankfully low.  The Germans were surprised and then overwhelmed.  Much bloody fighting was yet to come, but the end was in sight.

There is a less epic way of looking at the history of the war.  It was inevitably won by the side with superior industrial power and the best access to resources.  A German-ruled Europe or a German-dominated world was a Nazi fantasy.  Many of the German general staff realized this as early as 1938.  The surprise of May 1940 – wrong-footing the French army – gave Germany a slim chance.  But Churchill refused to talk peace, and Britain could not be defeated.  Hitler tried to break the stalemate by attacking Russia, making Germany’s strategic situation far worse.  Its fate was sealed as early as December 1941, when America entered the war.  D-Day and the Battle of Normandy were made possible by control of the seas and overwhelming air superiority over France and Germany, which was being bombed into the stone age.  And of course, the Russians were preparing to advance.  Perhaps one statistic sums it up.  Germany had at most 8 million tons of oil per year, and from this it had to try to supply its allies and occupied countries; whereas Britain alone imported 20 million tons in 1944.

Yet if Germany could not have won, the manner of its defeat mattered immensely.  Decisions made by individuals were crucial.  Hitler’s insistence on war in 1939.  Churchill’s refusal to give in.  Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour.  Roosevelt’s willingness to give priority to the war in Europe.  Otherwise, how many years might the Nazis have held down the Continent?  How much further would their genocidal plans have gone?  Would the atomic bomb have been used in Europe?

The simple lesson is that the Allies always had the resources to defeat Germany, but there was no guarantee they would use them, or use them effectively.  It was consistent political will by Churchill, Roosevelt and indeed Stalin (who hadn’t much choice), backed by (eventually) efficient military staffs, ministers and civil servants, and above all by peoples who saw the rightness and necessity of having their lives disrupted and put at risk by the national war effort.  Oil makes modern war possible, but oil doesn’t fight.

We see this simple lesson today.  Like Hitler, Putin rationally cannot win, however much damage and suffering he can cause.  The Russian economy is only twice that of the Netherlands.  Russian troop numbers are inadequate to conquer Ukraine, and could not annexe a country ready to fight a guerilla war and supported and supplied by the West.  Their early attempted blitzkrieg failed.  Logically, Putin’s ambitions to destroy Ukraine are absurd.  But only if the West – its leaders and its peoples – are willing to defeat them.  As it is, we give the Ukrainians just enough to keep them fighting and dying for what we proclaim is our security too.  We struggle to find 2.5 percent of GDP for defence – when affordable.  Chamberlain tripled defence spending in the late 1930s in the face of Labour’s opposition, which of course does not today apply.  In the end, resources must count, but only if and when they are used.  Putin can mobilize more of his limited capacity.  Have we the will to mobilize a fraction of our vastly superior resources?

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About the author

Robert Tombs