5 Quotes that explain the barbarism of World War II
1. “Fixed fortifications are monuments to man’s stupidity.”
—George Patton, General of the US Seventh Army
The Maginot Line has come to symbolize a lack of foresight and the dangers inherent when conservative military planners fail to accurately anticipate changes in technology and tactics. The French spent much of the 1930’s constructing the impressive, but ultimately futile Maginot line – a series of defensive fortifications stretching from the French Alps to the Belgium border – to prevent a repeat of the 1914 German invasion. Of course, the Germans basically just drove their tanks around it, encircled the French defenders and in a little more than a month, Nazi tanks were rolling through Parisian streets.
But not everyone was so blind to the changing times. George S. Patton, known primarily for his leadership during the Allied invasion of Europe, the Battle of the Bulge and the allied advance into Germany, had become interested in tank warfare as early as 1917, when he was charged with establishing one of the first American tank schools, the AEF Light Tank School. Patton was the most experienced tank operator of WWI and led the first American tank offensive of the war. As the new tanks helped break the stalemate of trench warfare, it was becoming clear to men like Patton that the future of land warfare would be dominated by mechanized infantry and tank battalions, rendering defensive fortifications, such as the aforementioned Maginot Line, largely obsolete. The inability of European military planners to anticipate the effectiveness of the German Blitzkrieg is one of the leading contributors to the scale and devastation of the war.
2. “If we come to a minefield, our infantry attacks exactly as if were not there.”
—Georgy Zhukov, Marshal of the Soviet Union
While Zhukov was probably making the case that advancing directly through a minefield (rather than slowly progressing through a breakthrough point, allowing Germans to concentrate their fire) would lead to fewer overall casualties, this quote has nonetheless been used to substantiate claims that the Soviet Army did not value the lives of its soldiers. While I think that is an exaggeration, the reality of total war on the Eastern Front dictated that equipment, artillery, planes and tanks were far more valuable than the lives of ordinary soldiers.
The story of the Shtrafbat battalions that fought on the Eastern front highlight this reality. The Shtrafbat were Soviet penal units, composed of deserters, cowards, and relocated gulag inmates. Assignment to the Shtrafbat was basically a deferred death sentence. Often not even given weapons, the Shtrafbat were used as decoys, sent on dangerous reconnaissance missions, and in general deployed as cannon fodder to absorb heavy causalities that would be otherwise inflicted on more effective and battle ready battalions. The most dangerous of such assignments was “trampler duty,” which entailed the Shtrafbat units running across mine fields shoulder to shoulder to clear the area of any enemy mines ahead of advancing troops.
3. “Prussian Field Marshals do not mutiny”
—Field Marshal Erich von Manstein
The Prussian Military tradition has a long and storied history stretching as far back as the Thirty Years War (1618 -1648). The main doctrine of the Prussian army was to achieve victory as quickly as possible by making use of mobile, aggressive flanking maneuvers. Prussian military theorists also refined the concept of drill for infantry troops and implemented a severe disciplinary system to instill obedience, loyalty and unwavering professionalism in the army.
Erich Von Manstein, a Prussian with a long family history of military service, was arguably Hitler’s most effective commander. During Fall Gelb, the Nazi invasion of France, it was Manstein’s plan that was ultimately put in place with resounding success. Manstein was not a member of the Nazi party and while he disagreed with many decisions made by the Nazi high command (especially towards the end of the war), he followed his orders unwaveringly. At the battle of Stalingrad, Manstein repeatedly urged Hitler to allow him to attempt to break out of the city with the 6th Army, potentially saving it, however Hitler refused, leading to the surrender of 91,000 German troops and the deaths of many more.
The following year, the July 20th conspirators approached Manstein to secure his support for Claus Von Stauffenberg’s infamous attempt on Hitler’s life, but he refused, giving the above quote as an explanation. This unquestioning loyalty was all too common among the top German commanders, many of whom were either Prussian or trained in the Prussian tradition, including Field Marshals Heinz Guderian, Gerd von Rundstedt, Fedor von Bock and others. Most were reluctant to disobey or even disagree with orders from the High Command even as their Führer, who had assumed direct control of military decisions, made blunder after blunder on a certain path to total disastrous defeat.
4. “In the first six to twelve months of a war with the United States and Great Britain I will run wild and win victory upon victory. But then, if the war continues after that, I have no expectation of success.”
—Isoroku Yamamoto, Admiral of the Imperial Japanese Navy
This quote might go down as one of the most prophetic of all time. The Japanese strategy to defeat the Americans was to deliver an initial blow at Pearl Harbor and then whittle down the American Navy further as it made its way across the Pacific. The Japanese Navy would then engage the Americans in a final decisive battle after which the Americans would hopefully be willing to sue for peace. There were several problems with this approach, for one, even in war games this strategy hadn’t worked. Secondly, the Japanese were aware that America’s industrial output capabilities could outpace their own and thirdly, some, such as Yamamoto himself in all likelihood, felt that a surprise attack would eliminate the possibility that the U.S. would accept a brokered peace. These miscalculations ensured American entry into the war, further expanding the scale of the conflict.
Admiral Yamamoto made other prophetic statements as well, including this one: “the fiercest serpent may be overcome by a swarm of ants”, in opposition to the construction of the Yamoto Class of Battleships, which he feared would be vulnerable to relentless American dive bombing attacks launched from aircraft carriers. He was right about that too but one thing Admiral Yamamoto could not predict was Magic, the American code breaking operation that led directly to the destruction of the Japanese fleet at Midway and Yamamoto’s own death at the hands of American fighter pilots who, acting on intelligence provided by Magic, intercepted and shot down the plane he was flying in on April 18th, 1943.
5. “I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal.”
—Curtis LeMay, Major in the US Air Force
The Pacific War took the concept of total war to horrific new heights with atrocities committed on both sides. The air-raid campaign against Japanese cities being particularly brutal with its large scale use of incendiary explosives. The key to Curtis LeMay’s strategic bombing campaign was saturation bombing – of military installations, industrial areas, commercial zones and even dense residential urban centers – with the hopes that it would weaken the resolve of the Japanese people and stunt their ability to wage an ongoing war.
It is estimated that between 250,000 and 900,000 civilians alone were killed during the air-raids. 60% of the urban area of 66 Japanese cities was burned to the ground, leaving many millions of people homeless. Whether you think LeMay’s firebombing campaign was justified or not, his estimation of his fate should Japan have won the war is probably correct.