A WWII myth that found a home among conspiracy theorists and Eastern Front fringe scholars claims that Germany invaded the USSR in 1941 as a preemptive strike. Supposedly, Stalin was about to invade the Third Reich, so Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa to beat him to the punch.
The German preemptive strike thesis originated with Viktor Suvorov, a Soviet military intelligence officer who defected to Britain in 1978. Suvorov claimed that Stalin had lowered the conscription age to increase the Red Army’s manpower, and issued maps of Germany to soldiers in the field, as a prelude to attacking. Most historians scorn Suvorov’s claims, because they are bereft of evidentiary support.
19. The Red Army Was in No Shape to Attack Germany in 1941
The Red Army was in bad shape in 1941, and Stalin, whose recent Military Purge had wrecked the Soviet senior military command, knew it. Included among the Purge’s victims were 13 of 15 army commanders, 8 of the 9 most senior admirals, 50 of 57 corps commanders, 154 out of 186 division commanders, all 16 army commissars, and 25 of 28 corps commissars. The results were evident in the Red Army’s poor showing in the 1939-1940 Winter War against tiny Finland.
That dismal performance, and the frightening effectiveness of the German blitzkrieg in Poland and Western Europe, prompted a massive overhaul of the Soviet military to modernize its equipment and tactics. Soviet leadership estimated that the modernization would last into 1943 or 1944 before the Red Army was capable of defending against a German attack, and until 1945 or 1946 before the Soviets could attack the Third Reich.
Attacking Germany was the last thing on Stalin’s mind in 1941. The Red Army’s recent farcical experience in fighting Finland had demonstrated that the Soviet military was poorly trained, poorly equipped, and poorly led. Aware of his military weakness, Stalin grew obsequious in efforts to appease Hitler. He desperately sought to avoid giving the Fuhrer any excuse to attack the USSR, because he knew the Red Army was in no shape to fight a major war in 1941, let alone invade Germany.
Nonetheless, Suvorov’s assertion that the USSR was about to attack Germany in 1941 was embraced by the fringe. Hitler apologists, neo Nazis, and assorted white supremacists were eager to accept anything that portrayed the Fuhrer as having merely been defending his country against imminent communist aggression. However, there is no historic support for that theory.
17. The British Raj’s Greatest Victory Was More a Betrayal Than a Feat of Arms
On June 23rd, 1757, a British East India Company force of about 3000 men, commanded by Robert Clive, confronted a 65,000 strong Indian force, led by Siraj al Dawlah. The ensuing Battle of Plassey was a stunning upset, in which Clive brilliantly led his tiny force to rout the numerically superior enemy. The victory established the British in India for the next two centuries.
In reality, while Clive was an outstanding leader, his victory at Plassey owed more to his opponent getting betrayed on the field by his subordinates, than it owed to any great feats of generalship on Clive’s part. His opponent, Siraj al Dawlah, was double-crossed by his chief general, Mir Jafar, who defected at the start of the battle with most of the Indian army.
Mir Jafar (1691 – 1765), an Arab by birth, had arrived in India as an adventurer. With deft politicking and a series of strategic betrayals, he rose high, especially after aiding a conspiracy that wrested Bengal from Mughal control in 1740. Jafar was commander of Bengal’s army when the British East India Company warred against Bengal’s ruler, Siraj al Dawlah. He promptly entered into secret negotiations with the British to betray his boss.
Fast forward to the Battle of Plassey, where notwithstanding the odds, Robert Clive was confident of victory. Aside from his men’s better training and higher morale, he had cut a deal with the opposing army’s commander. When fighting commenced, Mir Jafar defected with 15,000 cavalry and 35,000 infantry – the majority of Siraj al Dawlah’s army. The demoralized rump of the Bengal army was defeated, and their ruler fled, to be captured and executed later. The British rewarded Mir Jafar by appointing him their puppet ruler of Bengal.
During WWII, the Western Allies convinced themselves that Japanese soldiers excelled at jungle fighting. The British in particular believed that their foes were “natural” jungle fighters during the Malayan Campaign. Advancing from the north, the Japanese advanced the length of the Malay Peninsula, brushing aside or sidestepping all opposition. They capped the advance by capturing the fortress city of Singapore at the peninsula’s southern tip, despite being outnumbered by the British.
In reality, Japan has no more tropical jungles than does Britain, and the Japanese had no more natural aptitude for jungle fighting than any other people from well north of the Tropics. The Japanese prevailed in the Malay Peninsula because their troops were hardened veterans, while their opponents were inexperienced and ill-trained. The Japanese were innovative and adaptable, as illustrated by their vanguard’s commandeering of bicycles to speed up the advance. By contrast, British commanders ranged from mediocre to incompetent.
British generals, examining the Malay Peninsula’s greenery, assumed it was impenetrable jungle and dismissed the possibility of an attack through such terrain. When the Japanese invaded, British generals set up defensive positions, frequently anchoring their flanks to “jungle”. However, a significant portion of the Malay foliage was not jungle, but plantations. They looked formidable when seen from the air, but posed no barrier on the ground. The plantations consisted of rows of trees with wide spaces in between, carefully cleared of underbrush. They formed straight leafy boulevards, down which the Japanese easily bicycled or marched in the shade.
British commanders in far-off headquarters set up defensive lines that seemed formidable on their maps, with flanks secured by “jungles”, only for those defenses to get outflanked by the Japanese strolling past their nearby plantations. The flabbergasted British convinced themselves that the ease with which the Japanese outmaneuvered them could only be explained by a preternatural gift for jungle fighting.
Many believe that if WWII had lasted just a little longer, the Germans would have won or at least secured a draw, because they had been on the verge of developing an atomic bomb when the Third Reich crumbled. The Germans were actually never close to developing a nuke. During the war, American and British scientists assumed that Germany had an advanced nuclear program that might bear fruit at any time. They thus saw themselves as being in a race to produce nuclear weapons.
After the war, however, it turned out that the German nuclear program was nowhere near as advanced as previously thought. Early in their research, German physicists took a wrong turn, and followed it down a path that led away from atomic fission. The war could have lasted another decade, and Germany would have been no closer to having an atomic bomb in 1955 than she had been in 1945.
12. The Nazis Were Nowhere Close to Getting a Nuke
Werner Heisenberg, Germany’s chief nuclear physicist, knew that splitting the atom could produce a powerful weapon, but never figured out how to weaponize the concept. In their last nuclear test in the spring of 1945, German scientists failed to achieve the preliminary first step of criticality – a self-sustaining chain reaction that the Manhattan Project had achieved in 1942. Criticality was the crucial foundation, without which an atomic weapon program cannot succeed.
Moreover, the German nuclear program lacked adequate support. After achieving criticality, it took America another three years, with a massive investment of resources and the personal support and attention of the head of state, to detonate 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.
11. Hitler Deliberately Allowed the Encircled British to Flee From Dunkirk
The Western Powers were humiliatingly crushed in the 1940 Battle of France. The Germans swiftly routed the French and British armies and forced France to surrender, accomplishing in six weeks what they had been unable to do in four years during WWI. By late May, the Wehrmacht had pushed the British army into a shrinking pocket surrounding the port of Dunkirk, and seemed on the verge of annihilating the defenders.
Then, with a decisive victory over the British in his grasp, Hitler inexplicably ordered his panzers to halt, and left the task of reducing the surrounded forces to the Luftwaffe. Taking advantage of the opportunity, the British pulled off a miraculous evacuation. That led to a myth explaining Hitler’s halt decision as a gesture of goodwill, deliberately allowing the British, whom he admired, to escape.
In late May of 1940, German panzers were within a few miles of the defeated and disorganized British milling about the beaches of Dunkirk. Then Hitler ordered them to halt for 48 hours to rest and refit. His generals loudly protested, but to no avail. What happened next proved them right: the British used the breather to organize a defense, that eventually allowed them to evacuate about 338,000 Allied soldiers to safety.
Most historians dismiss the fanciful notion of a merciful Hitler allowing the British to escape as a sporting or goodwill gesture: no evidence supports such a thesis. However, crackpot revisionists have embraced the notion that Hitler had let the British go so he could look like a magnanimous gentleman, and thus draw Britain into peace negotiations.
Hitler was notoriously irrational, but deliberately allowing the British to escape from Dunkirk was too irrational even for him. Considering that he wanted to bring Britain to the peace table, holding hundreds of thousands of British POWs would have been quite a bargaining chip. More so than if those soldiers were back in Britain, armed and defiant.
The fatal halt order had not even originated with Hitler. A panzer unit commander who had lost half his armored forces and needed time to regroup, requested a halt from Army Group A’s commander, Gerd von Rundstedt. Rundstedt agreed, and passed it up to Hitler, who rubber-stamped the order to halt. After the war, German generals – including Rundstedt – pinned the blame on Hitler for ruining their chance to win the war in 1940.
One of WWII’s more persistent myths revolves around Germany purportedly being miles ahead of the Allies in technological advancements. In reality, while the Nazis did develop and deploy some cutting-edge weapons, they were far from being across the board advanced when compared to the Allies. The Germans had flashes of technological brilliance in some areas, but in the workday everyday life of their military, they were technologically average, or even backward when compared to the Allies.
Even in those areas in which the Germans exhibited technological brilliance, the result was often the deployment of weapons that not only failed to advance the German war effort but actually ended up impeding it. Nothing better illustrates that than Germany’s “Vengeance Weapons”, particularly the V2 rocket.
The V2, or “Vengeance Weapon 2”, was the world’s first ballistic missile. It carried a ton of explosives to the edge of space, then plunged at unstoppable speeds to explode over its target. It was a revolutionary technological feat. It was also one of history’s most wasteful weapons. V2s inflicted relatively little damage that did not justify the vast resources devoted to their production. Those resources would have better aided the German war effort had they gone to more effective weapons programs or other uses.
Roughly three thousand V2s were fired between September, 1944, and Germany’s surrender nine months later. They did not all reach their targets, but even if they had, at one ton of explosives per V2 warhead, that would have been 3000 tons of explosives dropped on enemy cities over nine months. During the same period, the RAF routinely dropped over 3000 tons of explosives on a German city in a bombing raid. The US Air Force also frequently exceeded that 3000 ton total in single bombing raids.
While the Germans tried to blast Allied cities with rockets, the Allies blasted German cities far more thoroughly with bombers, which were reusable, and thus far more economical. Most Allied bombers returned to base, reloaded, and returned the next day or night. Each Allied bomber dropped more explosive tonnage on a German city than a V2 dropped on an Allied city, and unlike the V2, most Allied bombers repeated the process dozens of times.
During its nine months of use, the 3000 tons of explosives dropped by V2s killed 2754 people. Most were not soldiers, but civilians whose deaths, while tragic, did not impede the Allied war effort by much. By contrast, it is estimated that over 20,000 workers, mostly slave laborers, died while manufacturing the V2. That gave V2s the tragic distinction of being the only weapons system in history whose production cost more lives than did its actual use.
One of WWII’s most dramatic stories revolves around a soccer match that took place in German-occupied Kiev on August 6th, 1942. The game pitted Ukrainian side Start FC, composed mainly of Dynamo Kiev and Lokomotiv Kiev professional players, against a German team named Flakelf. The locals won 5 – 1.
Three days later, the two teams met for a rematch, that once again ended in the Ukrainian side beating the Germans, this time 5 – 3. The Germans turned out to be sore losers: upset that Slavic Untermenschen had trounced Aryan ubermensch, they rounded up and arrested the Ukrainian players, and had them executed. It is a gripping story, but it did not happen.
4. Snitching, Not Sore Losership, Doomed the Ukrainian Soccer Players
German side Falkelf and Ukrainian team Start FC – whose players worked in a factory under Nazi management – actually did meet for two matches on August 6th and 9th, 1942. About a week later, the Gestapo arrested eight Start FC players. Five of them were eventually executed.
However, the arrests had nothing to do with the matches against Flakelf. Members of another Ukrainian team, that had been humiliatingly trounced by Start 8 – 0, had snitched to the German authorities, informing them that several Start players were former members of the NKVD (the KGB’s forerunner).
Five of the eight Start FC players picked up by the Gestapo were eventually executed. However, their deaths were unrelated to their performance on the pitch against a German, and had more to do with their activities off the pitch against the German occupation authorities. Some of the Start FC players, as former NKVD agents, were suspected of having engaged in recent sabotage activities against the German occupation.
Engaging in resistance against the Nazis was heroic in of itself, but it was not nearly as dramatic as the “Death Match” narrative. Soviet authorities, eager to portray the heroism of the civilian populace during the war, decided to improve upon and embellish the story. After the war, the “Death Match” theme inspired a popular Soviet novel, and a hit movie, Third Time. As the murdered Start FC players, they are commemorated in a statue in front of Dynamo Kiev’s stadium.
Early in WWII, the Germans swept through Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg, and France. The blitzkrieg’s speed and fury, and reports of “Nazi Super Soldiers”, alarmed observers. German success owed much to innovative tactics that integrated infantry, armor, and air, into a seemingly irresistible juggernaut. However, the Allies were baffled by the inexplicable energy and tirelessness of the German soldiers, who seemed indefatigable, advancing and fighting day and night, with little or no rest.
The reason was crystal meth, or Pervitin, which German troops were encouraged to pop in order to fight fatigue. The packaging read “Alertness Aid“, to be taken “to maintain wakefulness“. It was accompanied by a warning that it should only be used “from time to time“. However, once they began popping Pervitin, few heeded the warning. Things got worse when medical authorities realized that the effects of cocaine overlap substantially with those of amphetamines, with the added “benefit” that cocaine produces greater euphoria. So cocaine was added to Pervitin.
1. German Soldiers Were Not Indefatigable: They Were Tweaking
The German military authorities’ spicing of Pervitin with cocaine resulted in an even more addictive drug cocktail. Millions in the German military could not get enough of their crystal meth, and especially not enough of their crystal meth after it got laced with cocaine. Many wrote home, requesting their loved ones to send them Pervitin via military mail.
A typical example was Heinrich Boll, a German postwar author who won the 1972 Nobel Prize for literature. In a May 20th, 1940 letter to his parents, 22-year-old Boll begged them to send him some Pervitin, which he said not only kept him alert but also chased away his worries.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading