WW2: National Armies vs. Imperial Armies

From The War of the World: Twentieth-Century Conflict and the Descent of the West, by Niall Ferguson (Penguin Press, 2006), pp. 516-518:

The Axis powers were fighting not only against the British, Russians and Americans; they were fighting against the combined forces of the British, Russian and American empires as well. The total numbers of men fielded by the various parts of the British Empire were immense. All told, the United Kingdom itself mobilized just under six million men and women. But an additional 5.1 million came from India, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Victories like El Alamein and even more so Imphal were victories for imperial forces as much as for British forces; the colonial commitment to the Empire proved every bit as strong as in the First World War. Especially remarkable was the fact that more than two and a half million Indians volunteered to serve in the British Indian Army during the war – more than sixty times the number who fought for the Japanese. The rapid expansion of the Indian officer corps provided a crucial source of loyalty, albeit loyalty that was conditional on post-war independence. The Red Army was also much more than just a Russian army. In January 1944 Russians accounted for 58 per cent of the 200 infantry divisions for which records are available, but Ukrainians accounted for 22 per cent, an order of magnitude more than fought on the German side, and a larger proportion than their share of the pre-war Soviet population. Half the soldiers of the Soviet 62nd Army at Stalingrad were not Russians. The American army, too, was ethnically diverse. Although they were generally kept in segregated units, African-Americans accounted for around 11 per cent of total US forces mobilized and fought in all the major campaigns from Operation Torch onwards. Norman Mailer’s reconnaissance platoon in The Naked and the Dead includes two Jews, a Pole, an Irishman, a Mexican and an Italian. Two of the six servicemen who raised the Stars and Stripes on Iwo Jima were of foreign origin; one was a Pima Indian. More than 20,000 Japanese-Americans served in the US army during the war….

The Germans, as we have seen, had made some efforts to mobilize other peoples in occupied Europe, as had the Japanese in the Far East, but these were dwarfed by what the Allies achieved. Indeed, the abject failure of the Axis empires to win the loyalty of their new subjects ensured that Allied forces were reinforced by a plethora of exile forces, partisan bands and resistance organizations. Even excluding these auxiliaries, the combined armed forces of the principal Allies were already just under 30 per cent larger than those of the Axis in 1942. A year later the difference was more than 50 per cent. By the end of the war, including also Free French* and Polish forces, Yugoslav partisans and Romanians fighting on the Russian side, the Allies had more than twice as many men under arms. Fifty-two different nationalities were represented in the Jewish Brigade formed by the British in 1944. They followed an earlier wave of 9,000 or so refugees from Spain, Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia who had joined the so-called Alien Companies, nicely nicknamed the ‘King’s Own Loyal Enemy Aliens’.

The best measure of the Allied advantage was in terms of military hardware, however, since it was with capital rather than labour – with machinery rather than manpower – that the Germans and the Japanese were ultimately to be defeated. In every major category of weapon, the Axis powers fell steadily further behind with each passing month. Between 1942 and 1944, the Allies out-produced the Axis in terms of machine pistols by a factor of 16 to 1, in naval vessels, tanks and mortars by roughly 5 to 1, and in rifles, machine-guns, artillery and combat aircraft by roughly 3 to 1.

*It is seldom acknowledged that for most of the period from 1940 until D-Day, black Africans constituted the main elements of the rank and file in the Free French Army. Even as late as September 1944, they still accounted for 1 in 5 of de Gaulle’s force in North-West Europe.

I did not quote the immediately preceding section that compares the mismatch in purely economic terms, but I cannot resist quoting the footnote appended to the end of it (on p. 516):

‘We must at all costs advance into the plains of Mesopotamia and take the Mosul oilfields from the British,’ declared Hitler on August 5, 1942. ‘If we succeed here, the whole war will come to an end.’ But three-quarters of total world oil production in 1944 came from the United States, compared with just 7 per cent from the whole of North Africa, the Middle East and the Gulf.


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Filed under Africa, anglosphere, Asia, Britain, economics, Europe, France, Germany, industry, Japan, labor, military, nationalism, U.S., USSR, war

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