There were no decisive battles in World War II.” The first sentence of Phillips Payson O’Brien’s book heralds its uncompromising revisionism. No battle, the University of Glasgow historian goes on to argue – not El Alamein, not Stalingrad, not Kursk, not even the naval engagement of Midway, which he sees as having the best claim – can be said to have seriously weakened the Axis powers.
Far more important to German and Japanese defeat was the engagement of their air and sea weaponry, and what sealed their fate was the destruction of their aircraft and warships and submarines by the US and UK, not so much in battle, but by the denial, principally by bombing, of their capacity to produce and deploy them.
Conventional wisdom asserts that the Soviet Union made the decisive contribution to Allied victory in the great land battles fought on the Eastern Front. The core reason for this “extraordinary consensus”, O’Brien asserts, “is the underlying assumption that manpower in armies is the determining measure of national effort”. To the contrary, what was truly decisive was the role of America and Britain in achieving predominance in air and sea power, and it was this that destroyed Germany’s and Japan’s ability to fight effectively and led to their defeat.
What won the war were not battles in the conventional sense of engagements limited in time and space, but what O’Brien terms “super-battles”, in which the UK and US fought an air and sea war on battlefields thousands of miles in length and breadth, areas that dwarfed the land war and which allowed for a far more systematic destruction of German and Japanese weaponry and munitions than was achieved by conventional battles.
These super-battles were fought over years and involved home economies and their capacity for production. That their importance was recognised was attested by the importance that all the great combatant powers, with the exception of Russia, attached to the manufacture of aircraft and ships as they geared their economies by a large proportion to their manufacture above that of armoured fighting vehicles.
Once Anglo-American dominance in the air and at sea was won, as it was in the super-battles in the Atlantic and Pacific – and, after the painful lessons of the earlier strategic bombing campaigns, in the skies above Europe – the Axis war effort was progressively destroyed. O’Brien categorises the methods of destruction as attacks upon the pre-production, production and deployment of weaponry, including aircraft and ships, and armaments; the first prevented weapons from even beginning to be made, the second saw their destruction as they were being made, and the third prevented them from ever being used in battle.
Such a thoroughgoing revision of the history of the war will outrage many historians. It will be argued that it seriously underestimates the importance of armies and land warfare; after all, only armies can take and occupy territory.
O’Brien has, however, made a strong case, backed up by a mass of statistical evidence, for the overwhelming importance of Anglo-American air and sea power. The success of D-Day and the Normandy campaign would probably have not been possible without it, nor would the US Army Air Forces and the RAF have been able to prevent the deployment of German forces without it.
The Soviet armies would have faced formidable German opposition in 1944 and 1945 if the Luftwaffe had not had to utilise nearly all its effective aircraft to defend the Reich from British and American bombers. And if Iwo Jima and Okinawa were taken by the US army and marines, their defenders knew that they could not win, as the whole defence infrastructure of Japan had been destroyed.
This is a brave, important and impressively researched book, and all who have written on the Second World War will have to consider O’Brien’s cogent arguments.
How The War Was Won: Air-Sea Power and Allied Victory in World War II
By Phillips Payson O’Brien
Cambridge University Press, 640pp, £25.00
Published 1 May 2015