Before Overlord – Turning Points in World War II: A Brief Summary

Featured image by Piotr Forkasiewicz

Six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States Navy halted the seemingly unstoppable progress of Japanese expansion across the Pacific at the Battle of Midway. On the other side of the world, German and Russian forces were engaged in the titanic struggles of Stalingrad and Kursk. Both campaigns have been called turning points. Evaluate the accuracy of that statement. Was there an earlier shift in momentum on either front?”

Supermarine Spitfires on patrol (Getty)

One could argue that the German failure to conquer England was a turning point of sorts, in that it allowed the Allies the foothold they needed to invade Europe, as well as the psychological effects it had on both the Nazis and the rest of the world.  The unstoppable German war machine had been unable to conquer a small island.  Confidence was lost in the Reichmarschall and his Luftwaffe.  England was proof that the Nazis could be resisted! (This is a point upon which I have greatly expanded, and I will now argue that the Battle of Britain was, in fact, a decisive turning in the war. You can read more about that here and here.)

However, in regards to Stalingrad, it is appropriate to regard it as a major turning point in the war.  Had Hitler honored the Nazi-Soviet pact, he would been truly unstoppable with the might of the Soviet Union at his back.  One wonders if even American aid would have been able to prevail against the Red Army.  Hitler made friends with the biggest bully in the school yard, and then decided to punch him in the nose.  He would pay for that choice most dearly.

This meme never gets old.

First of all, the German losses on the Eastern front were staggering.  According to the official OKW report 1939-1945, the Germans casualties were recorded at 1, 105, 987 and another 1,018,365 were counted missing, bring German losses to Russia to well over 2 million men.   That is more than all the other fronts for the entire war combined!  Like Lee’s Gettysburg, the blow was a serious one.

Furthermore, the Germans quickly lost so many of their vehicles that they were forced to rely on horses.  Before they moved to Stalingrad, the losses were already so severe that they were below their 1941 strength (Weinberg 408).  This was due in part to Hitler’s ambitious shift from building for the army to the navy, his sights on the war with America before he had even finished with Europe.  His lack of focus ended up leaving his army ill-prepared for what proved to be a much tougher battle than they had reckoned.   Hitler also had his focus so widely scattered throughout Russia that the resources he did have were spread rather thin, not to mention the continual need to bail the Italians out of their own messes!

The Japanese Cruiser Mikuma, destroyed at Midway. Photo @ https://www.nationalgeographic.org/thisday/jun4/battle-midway-begins/

The Midway Battle was also a turning point because the Japanese fleet was devastated.  Yamoto foolishly chose to divert half his fleet for other projects, including a take-over of the Alaskan islands of Attu and Kiska.  Reserving only four carriers for the Midway attack, all of which were short on planes, would leave “no margin for the hazards of war” and prove a terribly costly mistake (Weinberg 337).  Accurate intelligence allowed the commanders at Midway to anticipate the attack and prepare, and when the Americans swooped down upon the carriers it was to find their flight deck in chaos, the planes freshly refueled, freshly bombed, and highly explosive.   All four Japanese carriers involved at Midway were lost, reducing the fleet by half, a loss from which they could not hope to recover.  They also lost a total of three hundred planes, which again came to half the amount carried by their fleet, plus the loss of trained pilots was also very difficult to recover from.  (Read more on Midway here.) Aside from leaving their fleet in shreds, the American victory at Midway put the halt on Japan’s plans for an invasion of India and the south.  Crippled as their fleet was, the Allies were now free to focus on Germany.

In short, while D-Day was indeed the final move in bringing the war in Europe to an end, there were many other important turning points along the way.

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