The Biggest Mistakes in World War II

The alternative decisions which could dramatically change the course of the war.

This essay explores some of the greatest decision making mistakes of World War II. It does not discuss miraculous alternative history events such as “what if Hitler had a heart attack”, only reasonable and realistic alternative decisions which were not made, with or without proper discussion by decision makers, which could dramatically change the course of the war. Some of these alternatives could end the war significantly sooner, with less bloodshed in both sides.

Too few submarines – Germany

The German Navy’s main task at war was to cut Britain’s maritime lifeline by a maritime blockade. Since Britain is an island, without fuel, metals, other materials, all imported by merchant ships, its military production will stop, its Air Force, Navy, and mobile ground forces will be immobilized, and it will no longer be able to defend against a devastating air bombardment campaign that will reduce its war effort to futile suffering of single-sided mass destruction, and it will have to surrender. This was true against Britain and also against Japan, both island nations.

In World War I, German submarines almost succeeded in cutting Britain’s maritime life line by sinking a huge number of British merchant ships in the Atlantic Ocean. Despite this fact, the new German Navy built for World War II was similar to the old one. Most of its resources were invested in mighty battleships and heavy cruisers, which were a serious headache to the large Royal Navy, but not anywhere near the threat posed by the German submarines. The German surface Navy could not achieve its goal, only die trying, and Admiral Roeder, head of the German Navy, said so himself. Doenitz, head of the German submarine force, pleaded repeatedly for producing more submarines, but his arguments were irresponsibly dismissed by Roeder, who said that Royal Navy claims that it solved the submarine problem with ASDIC, a new device which could detect submarines underwater. There was no serious attempt to properly evaluate the change, if any, to the proven ability of a large force of submarines to defeat Britain.

As a result, when the war started in 1939, the German Navy had 3 mighty battleships and 8 heavy cruisers, and more in construction, and only 12 submarines capable of Atlantic operations (there were also 43 smaller submarines for coastal and training duties). It was a tiny fraction of the 300 Atlantic submarines Doenitz asked for (in order to always have 100 in position).

The events of the war soon proved that Doenitz was right. Under his brilliant leadership, German submarines were the greatest danger to Britain although they were so few. Their number increased slowly, but this gave Britain enough time to adapt to the threat and survive, with enormous effort and horrible losses. By mid-1943 Germany had about 400 submarines, but it was too late, because by then they faced a gigantic and fully developed anti-submarine force which defeated them.

It’s important to state that with the resources and manpower needed to build and operate a single battleship, about 50 Atlantic submarines could be built and operated, so if Roeder or Hitler had supported Doenitz before the war, and for example built 150 more submarines by 1940 instead of the 3 almost useless battleships, Britain could be decisively defeated at sea by 1941, before the US and Russia were at war, and Hitler could win the war.

Too few submarines – America

It is well known that the tremendous American war production since 1942 was a major factor in its victory. The US Navy grew rapidly to a giant, but only a small fraction of resources and manpower were invested in submarines. With a total of only 288 submarines (the Germans built 1170), this force sunk most of Japan’s merchant fleet, causing severe shortages of fuel and other war materials. If more resources were invested in submarines (and 30-40 large Pacific submarines could be built and operated with the resources used to build and operate a single battleship), Japan could be immobilized and defeated much sooner. Instead of just 288 submarines, the US Navy could easily deploy 1000 submarines, or 2000, or more. They could quickly sink the entire Japanese merchant fleet, cut Japan’s oil and materials supply lines, stop its military production, and immobilize its Air Force and Navy, so that it could be defeated about two years earlier.

The neglected North Pacific

The devastating strategic bombing campaign which burned Japan’s cities one by one and forced it to surrender, started only in late 1944, after three years of a costly war that was required to push the Japanese back in the South and central Pacific, until finally long range heavy bombers could be deployed in Pacific islands close enough to reach and bomb Japan. Instead, American bombers could strike Japan from North. The potential was demonstrated in the 1942 Doolittle Raid, when Tokyo was bombed for the first time, but it remained a single event.

Until April 1941, Russia was at war with Japan in the Far East, and in 1941-1942 it fought desperately against the German invasion. But since the end of the battle of Stalingrad in Feb. 1943, Russia knew that it was going to win the war, and that Germany and Japan were losing it. It was convenient for Russia to focus entirely on defeating Germany and leave the war against Japan entirely to the US, which also provided Russia with enormous material support. During the war, Russia provided air bases for British heavy bombers which bombed Germany, but refused to provide such bases for American bombers in the Russian far East, apparently in return for a quiet Japanese agreement not to attack American supply convoys sailing to Russia’s far East ports.

US air bases in Alaska and the Aleutian islands were too far to bomb Japan, but there is a vast territory in the Russian Far East, North of Japan and West of Alaska, that was out of reach for Japan’s army and Navy. Given the enormous cost, human and material, of the long American campaign to defeat Japan in the Pacific, surely the US could make the Russians a very generous offer they would accept, in return for providing air bases for American heavy bombers in the Russian far East. From such bases, American bombers could reach Japan since 1943 and force it to surrender at least a year earlier.

The rejected superior bomber

Since 1942 the British Air Force was using a bomber with performance and combat achievements far superior to all other British and American day and night bombers. It was the Mosquito, a bomber designed to survive by using superior speed and agility to avoid being intercepted, instead of carrying gun turrets and gunners to fire back at enemy interceptors. It was also truly capable of precision bombing, unlike all the heavy bombers, which were very inaccurate and therefore relatively ineffective.

The Mosquito’s advantages were not theoretical; they were repeatedly proven in combat over Europe. It was much faster than German night fighters, and hard to intercept by day fighters. Its relative loss rate was 10 times lower than that of heavy bombers, and if lost, a Mosquito carried a crew of two, not seven or more as a heavy bomber. And it cost a third of a heavy bomber’s price. When a Mosquito group commander said “It’s quite clear that the value of the Mosquito to the war effort is significantly greater than that of any other aircraft” it was not an overstatement.

Bomber Command was aware of the Mosquito’s combat proven advantages, and used this fantastic bomber, in small numbers, in roles designed to increase the accuracy and reduce the losses of the other bombers. It was also used in large numbers as a bomber interceptor, night fighter, and other roles. But Bomber Command stubbornly rejected the proposed alternative of using the Mosquito not to help the slow and inaccurate heavy bombers but to replace them as the main bomber. Instead of very inaccurately dropping over a million tons of bombs (British only, not including American bombs) all over Germany from thousands of slow heavy bombers and suffering very heavy losses in doing so, a large force of Mosquito bombers, with significantly lower losses and significantly higher precision, could crush the German military industry much sooner, and Germany could be defeated at least a year earlier.

Hitler’s total war – but not in the home front

Hitler, the Nazi dictator, said that Germany is fighting a total war. This was true in battle, where the German military fought ferociously, and with the German occupation, which brutally exploited occupied countries and committed planned genocide against the peoples of Eastern Europe. But while The Allies performed a successful total effort to increase and optimize military production, in Germany there was no such effort until 1944, when it was too late. Allied factories produced 24 hours/day, and millions of women became production workers. In Nazi Germany, starved prisoners were used instead, and German women remained at home.

While The Allies produced enormous numbers of just a few types of simple, reliable, and combat proven products (weapons, aircraft, tanks, vehicles, engines, etc), the German military used a very large number of types, which not only reduced production rates but also required mobilizing inventories of spare parts for all. The German military and the enthusiast Hitler demanded the most advanced weapons, even when not fully developed, and endlessly demanded improvements and special variants in their constant quest for the ultimate weapons, and this further reduced German weapons production rate and the reliability of some new types. German development and production were also seriously hampered by the political rivalries and organizational chaos of Hitler’s regime. Eventually Hitler nominated Albert Speer, an organizational genius, to manage military production, but it was too late, and even then Speer was not given full authority.

With the obsession for advanced weapons, the German leaders and Generals also neglected less glorious but critical items such as trucks, infantry vehicles, and winter readiness, so beside its formidable tank divisions, the German army was still a large infantry army which had to walk great distances and relied heavily on horses, and it was not equipped for the harsh Russian winter. The German military was one of the most capable and formidable armies in history, but it was imbalanced, and its domination over the military industry reduced its efficiency, and often led it to develop and produce, too little and too late, very impressive but often immature or relatively ineffective advanced weapons, instead of large amounts of greatly needed mature weapons and other equipment.

In Japan there was a similar chaos and imbalance, caused by the endless army-Navy rivalry and the fanatic belief that courage and determination can fully compensate for ever increasing material shortages.

The great personal mistakes of the totalitarian dictators

In World War II, Hitler and Stalin, two of the most brutal dictators ever, commanded total control and led murderous terror regimes, in which fear of extreme punishment made it almost impossible to criticize or even to offer unfavorable advice, or even to awake the dictator late at night in case of emergency. In such regimes, one man makes all key decisions, and too many lesser decisions, and it’s almost impossible to change his mind before or after he makes a major mistake. Here are some examples.

In the invasion of Russia in the summer of 1941, instead of focusing on the objective of destroying the Russian army and taking Moscow before winter, Hitler diverted to other directions which caused significant delays, and re-focused in the direction of Moscow only in September, when he realized that winter was too close, and indeed it was too late, and it cost him the entire war. His Generals argued a lot against this mistake, but in vain.

In the invasion of Russia, German propaganda directed at the Russian population presented the invasion as an opportunity for them to liberate themselves from Stalin’s terribly cruel regime. Stalin’s regime was indeed monstrous, but Hitler’s strict directive to the German forces to use “maximum cruelty” (based on his racist ideology), quickly made it clear to the Russian people that no matter how bad Stalin was, the Germans were much worse, and it forced them to fight back one of the toughest wars ever. Hitler could wait with the cruelty until after the victory, but he was too eager.

In 1940 Hitler missed two major opportunities to defeat Britain when it was weakest. In June, when allied defences in France and Belgium collapsed, he ordered his tanks not to attack the British force of 338,000 soldiers besieged on the beach at Dunkirk. He never explained this decision, but it is believed that he quietly accepted Goering’s request to let “his” bombers destroy them from above (Goering was both Hitler’s political deputy and commander of the Air Force). So the most powerful units of the German army had to idly watch from short distance as the core of the British army was allowed to escape from a hopeless situation. Three months later, in the peak of the Battle of Britain, when the German Air Force was getting close to breaking the smaller British Air Force, Hitler changed the objective of the German Air Force from defeating the British Air Force to killing the people of London in an air bombardment campaign. The result was that the British Air Force could then recover, keep fighting effectively, and win the battle, keeping Britain from invasion, and denying Hitler victory in the West.

In 1941, Stalin received a stream of information from military intelligence and spies, that Germany is going to invade Russia, as Hitler promised since the 1920s. After discussions, Stalin decided that the information was inconclusive and perhaps deliberate disinformation, and decided that there will be no invasion. As the invasion came nearer, the stream of information indicating invasion intensified, but then Stalin forbid his advisors from further disturbing him with it. Anyone who still suggested that there might be a German invasion, risked execution. Fear was such that when the invasion started, no one dared to wake up Stalin and tell him about it, until Zhukov, the deputy supreme commander, told Stalin’s bodyguards that he takes responsibility for awakening the dictator and telling him the bad news.

Hitler had a powerful and aggressive ally, Japan. He knew that Japan was considering attacking either to the North (they had an undeclared border war with Russia then in the Far East), or to the South (against South East Asia and the US). He didn’t bother to try to coordinate his invasion of Russia with Japan or even inform it. If he did, Japan could stay at war with Russia for 8 more months, and that alone was enough to keep large Russian forces in the Far East until the German army advanced all the way to Moscow by December 1941. Instead, the uninformed Japan signed a non-aggression pact with Russia just two month before Hitler invaded it, and as a result, when the exhausted and frozen German invaders reached Moscow, and thought that Russia had no more reserves, they were massively attacked by fresh Russian units which were transferred from the Japanese border in the Far East.

Both Hitler and Stalin refused to allow retreats, as a matter of principle and regardless of the military situation. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers in each side died in vain because they were not allowed to retreat when was necessary. Russia almost lost the war because of that in 1941, and Hitler’s army suffered horrible losses because of that, mainly in the winter of 1942 and in Stalingrad a year later.

Hitler, as supreme commander, also made himself commander of the German army since the end of 1941, and later spent most of his time acting as commander of the eastern front, obviously neglecting his other roles. Churchill and Stalin replaced Generals with other Generals, but Hitler, considering himself a military genius, decided to do a General’s job by himself. He also dismissed some of his best Generals mostly because they argued with him. Only in July 1944, when losing in all fronts, he appointed the formerly dismissed General Guderian, one of Germany’s greatest military talents, to commander of the army, but then he ignored his good advice, with obvious consequences.

Ploesti – the most important target

Since the beginning of World War II, allied military planners knew that the German military is critically dependent on a single source of oil, the oil fields and refineries in Ploesti, Romania. Aware of this vulnerability, the Germans developed and used an expensive industrial process to produce alternative fuel from coal and other materials, but even so, the German military, especially the Air Force, was always critically dependent on Ploesti’s oil, and British and Russian military planners knew it. Since October 1940, Ploesti was directly protected by German army and Air Force units. Eventually Ploesti’s oil industry was systematically destroyed by a series of air bombardments in mid-1944, followed by Russian occupation, and indeed since then the German military suffered a paralyzing shortage of fuel. But Ploesti, the most important target in Hitler’s Europe, could be destroyed much earlier.

Between the German invasion of Poland in 1939 and the invasion of Russia in 1941, Russia knew that eventually it will be Hitler’s next target in the East, as he declared many times in the past. During these 21 months, Stalin’s Russia acted both to delay Hitler’s attack and to prepare for it. In addition to military build-up, it signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler, provided him with war materials he wanted, and ceased its anti-German propaganda. It also created a buffer zone that allowed it to move its defense lines further West. To do so, Russia invaded Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, and Finland, and also in June 1940, a week after France surrendered to Hitler, Russia annexed the Bessarabia and Bucovina border regions of Romania, which gave them without a fight to avoid a full Russian invasion.

In the following four months, with most of the German military far away in France and busy with the Battle of Britain, very large Russian forces were positioned just 100 miles from Ploesti, with ready operational plans to get there, and nothing to stop them from quickly doing so if given the order, but Stalin hesitated. Hitler responded only four months later, and sent large German units into Romania, which particularly protected Ploesti. Nine months later he invaded Russia. If Stalin had decided to exploit the opportunity and take Ploesti in 1940, World War II could be very different, and shorter.

In April 1941, British forces evacuated from mainland Greece to the large Greek island Crete in the Mediterranean. A month later Crete was invaded by German paratroopers. Although numerically superior, the British troops were defeated and evacuated Crete too. The main reason was that the British force in Crete lost to the Germans in a test of determination. While the German paratroopers were elite troops who fought desperately for their life against the larger and better positioned British force, the British wanted more to preserve themselves. In such dire time to Britain, which then fought alone against Germany and Italy, the British force was not given a reason to defend Crete at all cost, and acted accordingly.

But Ploesti was such a reason. Ploesti is about 700 miles North of Crete, across the Aegean sea. Britain already had then operational bombers (Halifax, and later Lancaster) capable of reaching Ploesti from Crete’s air bases. Crete could be held just like the tiny island of Malta was, despite all attacks. If only Bomber Command had alerted Churchill in April/May 1941 that Crete is the only place from which their bombers can strike Hitler’s oil supply, Churchill could order to hold Crete at all cost, and it could remain in British hands, and used to bombard and destroy Ploesti’s oil industry and paralyze Hitler’s military much sooner than in 1944.

After the German invasion of Russia, a large part of the Russian Air Force was destroyed, but its bomber command kept a large and increasing force of Ilyushin 4 long range bombers, which during the war bombed targets all over Eastern Europe and also bombed Berlin. They bombed Ploesti, which always remained within their attack radius, but they never concentrated a major effort to destroy it as the American bombers did in 1944, and as they should have done. Instead, 80% of Russian bombing targets were within 10km from the war front, since almost the entire activity of both the Russian Air Force and Navy was tactical, and closely supported front line ground warfare.

If the Russian bomber command had concentrated its efforts on destroying Ploesti, the German army in Russia could be paralyzed not just by the Russian winter but also by severe fuel shortage, and could be defeated much sooner.


The appeasement of Hitler by Britain and France in 1935-1939 was a huge mistake. Hitler’s Germany was initially weak, and gradually became more aggressive as it became stronger. Hitler, the ultimate aggressor who wanted the entire world and said so clearly, could be stopped sooner. But instead, these countries turned to appeasement and to great unilateral reduction of their own military forces. The result was that when Hitler invaded France in 1940, their armies were weak and not modern, while his modern army used not only German weapons, but also the arsenal of the dismantled Czech army, enough to equip 40 divisions. Sacrificing Czechoslovakia to appease Hitler just gave him much more power to defeat the western allies.

War against America

Despite America’s help to Britain against Germany, and its tense relations with Japan, in 1941 the American public wanted to stay out of war. The militarists in Tokyo, who assumed that the US Navy will interfere with their plans to invade the entire South East Asia, made a huge mistake. Instead of letting the US hesitate and perhaps act in a limited way, they attacked the world’s most powerful nation in a way which ensured that it will destroy them with all its enormous strength. A few days after Pearl Harbor, Mussolini and Hitler, already in serious trouble with their own war against Russia and Britain which consumed all their national resources, decided to also declare war against America. This just ended America’s hesitation about them and ensured their defeat too.

By Uri Noy

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