12 World War II Myths That Still Persist Today
12 World War II Myths That Still Persist Today

12 World War II Myths That Still Persist Today

Khalid Elhassan - September 13, 2017

12 World War II Myths That Still Persist Today
Trinity Test, 15 seconds after detonation. Atomic Heritage Foundation

Hitler Was Close to Getting the A-Bomb

This myth has it that German physicists were on the verge of unlocking the secret of fission and giving Hitler an atomic bomb. During the war, the Manhattan Project operated on the assumption that Hitler had an advanced nuclear program which might bear fruit at any time. As such, those in the know viewed the US as being in a race against Germany over which country would first produce nuclear weapons.

However, it was discovered after the war that the German nuclear program was nowhere near as advanced as had been assumed, because early in their research, German physicists took a wrong turn and followed it away from the path that leads to nuclear weapons. The war could have lasted another decade, and Germany would have been no closer to producing an atomic bomb in 1955 than she had been in 1945.

Germany’s chief nuclear physicist, Werner Heisenberg, had nebulous ideas that splitting the atom could produce a powerful weapon, but he never understood how to put in practice nuclear fission. In Germany’s last test in the spring of 1945, scientists failed to achieve the preliminary first step of criticality – a self-sustaining chain reaction that the Manhattan Project achieved in 1942. Criticality was the crucial foundation without which an atomic weapon program could not have succeeded.

Additionally, the German nuclear program lacked the necessary support. After achieving criticality, it took the US nearly 3 years, with a massive investment of resources and the personal support and attention of the head of state, to successfully test the first atomic bomb. The Germans had not accomplished the criticality breakthrough by the time the war ended, and their nuclear program had never received anything close to the support enjoyed by the Manhattan Project.

12 World War II Myths That Still Persist Today
Lend-Lease convoy en route to the USSR via Iran. Historical Boys Clothing

The Soviets Could Not Have Won Without Lend-Lease

Another myth has it that the Soviets could not have survived or won WWII without massive American Lend-Lease. Lend-Lease clearly helped, and Soviet successes in the second half of the war would not have been as dramatic without the hundreds of thousands of American jeeps and trucks that improved logistics and allowed for deep advances. And American airplanes were greatly appreciated – the Soviets’ second-highest scoring fighter ace of the war downed most of his kills while flying an American P-39 Airacobra.

However, the bulk of Lend-Lease did not arrive until 1944-1945, by which point the Soviets were already nearing victory. Indeed, meaningful amounts of Lend-Lease did not begin arriving until late 1943, by which point the Soviets had already halted the German advance and gone on the counteroffensive, rolling back German gains and beginning the relentless march westward that ended in Berlin and Central Europe.

By the time the bulk of Lend-Lease arrived, the Soviets already had significant accomplishments under their belts and were well on the way to winning the war, including halting the Germans at the Battle of Moscow in 1941; major victories at Stalingrad and Kursk in 1943; liberating the Ukraine and reaching Poland in the winter of 1943-1944, and shattering Army Group Center in Operation Bagration in 1944.

It all comes down to when the Lend-Lease equipment was delivered. US commitments and promises of Lend-Lease were made early, beginning in 1941. But a variety of factors caused significant time to elapse before the US could make good on those commitments, starting with the time needed for American factories to transition from peacetime production of civilian goods to a war footing. Moreover, America had her own rapidly expanding military – 16 million men were put in uniform during the war – to arm and equip, which was often a higher priority than Lend-Lease.

Additionally, deliveries, especially during the war’s first year, were further delayed by a perception that the USSR might collapse at any moment, so Lend-Lease equipment could simply end up as German war booty. Because of such fears, on more than one occasion during the Soviets’ darkest hours in 1941-1942, ships loaded with Lend-Lease destined for the USSR were either offloaded and the equipment redistributed to the US military, or the ships were diverted to Britain and the equipment given to the British instead.

Even when the goods were ready and fears of Soviet collapse had receded, it took years to establish reliable routes. Deliveries were initially routed across the Arctic Ocean to Murmansk, but it was a hazardous passage in which many convoys were decimated by German planes and submarines operating from Norway. The quantities delivered were more symbolic than meaningful, and were of use only in the peripheral Arctic fronts facing Finland.

Another more meaningful was through Iran, which the Allies occupied precisely for that purpose, but the road and rail infrastructure necessary for the delivery of significant aid was not completed until the second half of 1943. Aid through this route went mainly to the Soviets’ southern fronts, which were more important than the northern ones supplied through Murmansk, but were not the main front.

The main supply route, through which Lend-Lease finally gushed like a torrent, was through Vladivostok and thence across the Trans-Siberian railway to the central fronts and the Soviets’ main war effort. However, that was the most difficult route that took the longest time to establish, requiring not only significant work on the Soviet end, but the creation of an entire road and rail network from scratch, across Alaska and Western Canada, to handle the massive mountains of aid.

12 World War II Myths That Still Persist Today
Raising the Red Banner over the Reichstag. Wikimedia

The Red Army Won Only by Weight of Numbers

A myth developed during and after the war, propagated by German generals whose memoirs explained their defeat by claiming that their professional and technical superiority were undone by the Soviets swamping them with numbers. Running counter to that perception, before the war was even a year old, is the often ignored Battle of Moscow in 1941 – history’s biggest battle when measured by number of participants. During most of that battle, the Germans outnumbered the Soviets by 2 million men to 1.4 million, yet the Soviets not only halted their foes but went on the counterattack and pushed the Germans back 100 miles.

During the war’s first year, Soviet performance, with some exceptions, was marked by incompetence and poor leadership. However, the Germans and bitter experience were good teachers, and by late 1942 Soviet commanders had become quite proficient. Indeed, many of the Soviets’ greatest victories resulted not from superior numbers, but from superior Soviet generalship. Examples include Operation Uranus in November 1942, which caught the Germans by surprise and culminated in the surrender of a German army at Stalingrad, and Operation Bagration in June 1944, which completely wrong-footed the Germans, shattered an entire army group (Center), and cost the Wehrmacht upwards of 500,000 casualties.

During the first year of the war, particularly after the huge losses of Operation Barbarossa, the Germans frequently outnumbered the Soviets on the Eastern Front. The Soviets eventually gained a numerical superiority and steadily widened the gap, but numerical superiority was not something they enjoyed throughout the entire conflict, and they did manage to hold on when they were outnumbered. By the war’s late stages, the Soviets achieved significant numerical superiority during offensive operations, but it was not because of unlimited manpower, but because Soviet commanders had grown adept at concentration of force, and because the necessary logistics had improved significantly.

Stalin, especially early in the war, frequently overrode his military professionals’ advice and ordered ill-advised last stands or foolhardy attacks. Even without Stalin, Soviet commanders were more ruthless and less concerned about casualties than their Western counterparts. However, it was not a reflection of callousness, but a mark of their desperation early in the war, when they had to buy time at any cost. Later in the war, when on the offensive, it reflected a rational calculation that even a high price paid upfront in an attack, so long as it resulted in an exploitable breakthrough, would translate into overall lower casualties, both in the medium term because losses during rapid advances following a breakthrough were lower than the norm while those of the reeling Germans were higher, and in the long term by bringing the war to a speedier end.

12 World War II Myths That Still Persist Today
Territory still under Japanese occupation (in blue) at the time of the atomic bombing. Gifex

The Atomic Bombing of Japan Was Unnecessary

Another of WWII’s persistent myths is the one positing that the atomic bombing of Japan was unnecessary because Japan was already reeling and on the verge of surrender. The Allies simply had to blockade Japan, goes the myth, and the Japanese government would have come to its senses sooner rather than later, and thrown in the towel. A variety of factors make that theory nonsensical.

The first is that the war when the atomic bombs were dropped was not limited to the Japanese home islands and the choice of whether to invade or simply blockade them. Japan in August of 1945 still occupied vast territories in Asia and the Pacific, and misgoverned hundreds of millions of conquered subjects who endured daily horrors from their Japanese overlords, from casual brutality to torture, rape, murder, and massacres. Their suffering would have continued every day the war dragged on.

Japan also had millions of soldiers stationed in her overseas empire, who were fighting millions of Allied opponents, producing thousands of casualties on both sides every day. Moreover, Japan held hundreds of thousands of Allied POWs, and subjected them to barbaric treatment every day, beating, starving, withholding medication from, or murdering them. Those casualties from continued fighting and from Japan’s atrocious treatment of POWs would have continued to mount every day the war continued.

The main reason, however, is that the alternative to the atomic bombings would have been a massive invasion of the Japanese home islands, which the Japanese government was determined to resist via national suicide. Japan’s leaders were morally bankrupt and cowardly, and refused to confront the fact that they had taken their country into an unwinnable war and lost. Ethical leaders would have shouldered the responsibility for getting their country into such a fix, but Japan’s leaders sought to escape their burden via histrionics, and determined to immolate themselves and their country with them.

So they sought to save face by training women to fight off heavily armed invaders with bamboo spears, and training little boys and girls to fight US Marines with pointy sticks. Rather than sacrifice themselves in order to spare their country, Japan’s leaders sought to sacrifice their country in order to spare their egos from the humiliation of surrender.

Such dishonorable notions of honor meant that the estimated cost of an invasion was upwards of a million Allied casualties, and tens of millions of Japanese, the overwhelming majority of them civilians. Compared to that, the 200,000 casualties of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings were an acceptable price. Morally speaking, there was nothing exceptional about the innocent victims of the atomic bombings that would have justified sparing them at the cost of the millions of other lives that would have been lost elsewhere had the war continued.

12 World War II Myths That Still Persist Today
Hiroshima after atomic bomb. NBC News

Japan Was Atomically Bombed Because of Racism/ Germany Would Not Have Been Nuked

Another myth related to the atomic bombings posits that the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki because of racism against the Japanese. The theory goes that atomic bombs were not dropped on Germany, and would not have been dropped, because the Germans were Caucasian and neither the US government nor US public opinion would have stomached nuking them. The Japanese on the other hand were racially different, which made the decision to drop atomic bombs on them easier.

While there was undoubtedly intense and vehement racism against the Japanese during the war, far exceeding that directed at the Germans, the theory is flawed for a variety of reasons. The first is that Germany surrendered before the atomic bomb was ready to drop on anybody. Germany surrendered unconditionally on May 8, 1945. The first atomic bomb was successfully tested on July 16, 1945, more than two months after Germany’s surrender.

Additionally, the US atomic program, which began with a letter from Albert Einstein to FDR advising him of German research into atomic weapons and the danger should Hitler get an atomic bomb first, was viewed and pursued as a life and death race to beat Germany to the atomic punch. The entire goal of the Manhattan Project – its raison d’etre – was to develop atomic bombs to drop on Germany before Germany developed atomic bombs to drop on America and her allies. Germany was simply fortunate in that she surrendered before the Manhattan Project bore the fruits that had been intended all along for Germany.

Moreover, nuclear weapons were not viewed at the time with the same repugnance with which they are viewed today. Far from horrific last resort weapons whose use would be unthinkable except in the direst emergency, atomic bombs in August of 1945 were new weapons whose potential and impact had not yet been thought through. They were simply seen as another bomb, albeit a big and exceptionally devastating one. Modern abhorrence of nuclear weapons did not exist to the same extent when Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed, so if the US had atomic weapons before Germany’s surrender, there would have been little reason to refrain from dropping them on German cities.


History Collection – 11 Myths Dispelled and Details Revealed about World War II Tank Ace Michael Wittmann

Commack School – Was it necessary to drop the atom bomb on Japan?

The Atlantic – If the Atomic Bomb Had Not Been Used

LA Times – Nuking Japan Was Immoral and Unnecessary

The Bulletin – The Racial Underpinnings of The Hiroshima and Nagasaki Bombings

US Department of Energy – Manhattan Project: Einstein’s Letter, 1939