There is still much-heated debate over many of the military strategies enacted during the Second World War. In particular, those decisions which put the Nazis on the path to defeat. Historians may still disagree on precisely when and where Hitler went decisively wrong, but here are four turning points that had a huge impact on the course of the war.
The Halt Order at Dunkirk
The ‘miracle of Dunkirk’ – the audacious rescue of more than 338,000 British, French and Belgian forces from the beaches of a French port, as Germans forces closed in – is one of the most fabled chapters of the war. The evacuation, which unfolded in May and June 1940, also presents us with one of the most contentious questions. Why, with the huddled and helpless Allied forces practically in their sights, did the German panzer units pause their advance for more than three days, buying the British time to organise the evacuation armada?
It’s been suggested that the infamous ‘halt order’ was given because Hitler actually wanted to let the troops escape, and so facilitate peace talks with the British. Hitler is alleged to have told his inner circle that he wanted to preserve the British Empire, and in 1945 the dictator would ruefully recount that ‘Churchill was quite unable to appreciate the sporting spirit’ of his decision to ‘refrain from annihilating them at Dunkirk’.
However, the general consensus is that such talk was Hitler trying to justify what was actually a major military blunder. Historians tend to agree that caution over a possible Allied counterattack, concerns about the suitability of the terrain for the German tanks, and Hermann Goering’s boast that the Luftwaffe could be relied on to vanquish the Allied forces all fed into the decision to halt the advance. No less a figure than Erich von Manstein, a top German commander, called it one of Hitler’s ‘most critical mistakes’.
Defeat in the Battle of Britain
Stretching throughout much of 1940, the Battle of Britain saw the RAF successfully fend off the Luftwaffe, saving the UK from a potential Nazi invasion. France had by this point fallen to the Germans, and the fear was that Hitler was on the cusp of consolidating his hold over Europe. As historian and Hitler biographer Ian Kershaw notes, ‘People thought final victory was around the corner. Only Britain stood in the way.’
While the Luftwaffe was undoubtedly a formidable force, the British had an invaluable tool in their arsenal: the Dowding system, the world’s first integrated air defence network, where alerts regarding incoming enemy aircraft were communicated through a phone network from a series of radar stations. This gave the RAF a crucial edge during the Battle of Britain, while the pilots who flew iconic planes like the Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire would become immortalised as ‘The Few’.
The Battle of Britain proved to be Hitler’s first major defeat of the war and cast a new, more optimistic light on what was happening. US journalist Ralph Ingersoll, based in Britain at the time, believed it deserved to ‘go down in history as a battle as important as Waterloo or Gettysburg’.
The invasion of Greece
It was in October 1940 that Italian dictator Mussolini, eager to establish himself as Hitler’s equal, launched an invasion of Greece. The Italian troops used Albania, which they had overcome in 1939, as a base for their attack. However, the Greeks would vigorously counterattack, and actually push back across the border into Albania. With assistance from the RAF and British ground forces, the Greek troops put the Italians in such a precarious position that they needed to be bailed out by the Germans.
Hitler’s intervention came in April the following year – a critical juncture, as the Germans were braced to commence Operation Barbarossa, the monumental invasion of the Soviet Union. Hitler’s invasion was successful, with Axis troops marching into Athens on 27 April. However, the German leader would later rue the entire episode, believing that the delay it brought to Barbarossa was a major reason why the Germans later fell into such a quagmire in Russia.
According to one of Hitler’s confidantes, he would later say that ‘if the Italians hadn't attacked Greece and needed our help, the war would have taken a different course. We could have anticipated the Russian cold by weeks and conquered Leningrad and Moscow. There would have been no Stalingrad.’
The failure of Operation Barbarossa
Though Hitler and Stalin had signed a non-aggression pact in 1939, that marriage of convenience was spectacularly annulled when the Nazis launched Operation Barbarossa on 22 June 1941. Stalin was stunned by the move, which opened up a 1,800-mile front and proved to be the biggest military operation in history. For Hitler, this was a far cry from his attacks on France and the UK, which were nations he admired. The attack on the Soviet Union was a far more bitter and hateful enterprise, with Slavs, Jews, Bolsheviks and others cast as the racial and ideological foes of Germany.
Hitler was confident that the Soviet Union would fall in short order, famously saying that ‘we have only to kick in the front door and the whole rotten Russian edifice will come tumbling down.’ But he miscalculated the scale of the challenge, both in terms of the sheer size of the country he was invading, and the numbers of soldiers his men would be up against.
The fighting was bitter and gruelling, with horrendous war crimes perpetrated by the Einsatzgruppen, SS death squads who would massacre civilians and incite anti-Jewish pogroms in local communities. Ultimately, however, the German forces found the tide turning against them. Questionable strategic decisions by Hitler, and a delayed attack on Moscow, gave the Soviets an opportunity to reinforce their defences and fight back in patriotic fervour for Mother Russia. Then there were the harsh weather conditions, with roads first reduced to rivers of mud during the autumn, before the landscape was frozen by a devastatingly fierce winter.
What was intended to be a short, sharp victory had become a drawn-out mess for Hitler, and a decisive blow to the Nazi war effort. As the German general Franz Halder put it in his diary, ‘the Russian colossus… has been underestimated by us.’