A few WWII hypotheticals

  1. Britain and France go on the offensive against Germany as promised, in 1939. Seems little doubt to me that the offensive would have met with bloody failure, but assuming they keep up some pressure on Germany, does Germany still have the ability to just run right over France like they did in May 1940, or would it have been a more grinding, slower battle in the West?

  2. Britain sends 200,000 troops to Finland in early 1940. I’m not sure there were any great plans to do this(probably not), but Chamberlain in a speech right after Finland agreed to terms with the Soviets stated, “If we had sent 200,000 troops as some had suggested, they’d all be captured now!” But Finland held off the Soviets with far fewer and never really were routed. The Soviets just finally achieved a key breakthrough and the Finns were exhausted. Seems to me that 200,000 Tommies would have resulted in the Soviets never actually being able to win and themselves having to come to terms. Also, would this have meant war with the Soviet Union, or would they have regarded it as an isolated battle and not gone all total war on the Allies? THe Allies for their part wanted to aid Finland and even send some troops, but did not consider themselves at war with the Soviet Union. Would Stalin have seen it as advantageous to also show restraint?

  3. After FInland’s defeat, the Allies stated that if Russia attacked another neutral that they would consider themselves at war with the Soviet Union. Source: Time magazine, 04/01/1940 issue. If it had come to that, would Hitler still attack the Soviets while they were helping him fight the Allies, or would he have seen that as an even more perfect time to strike? Assuming he does still attack, does that mean a three-way war? And if he doesn’t strike and accepts the Soviets as part of the Axis until the Allies are defeated, how does the war end? Do Allied troops have to do what the Germans failed to do, conquer Russia? or does the war likely end with Germany’s total defeat but a settlement with the Soviets? If we were at war with the Soviets, do the Allies dare to issue their “unconditional surrender” demands?

There actually was a half-hearted Allied offensive in '39. However, given the speed of the German victory over Poland (greatly accelerated by Soviet participation, which the Allies were not anticipating), I doubt that even a full-throated effort would have been successful, as you suggest.

Germany themselves were planning to strike Belgium and France in '39, until the attack was called off after repeated delays due to bad weather, in late November. Given the particular nature of the German victory in May '40 and how very different conditions would have been in late '39, I think more of a WW1-like stalemate becomes likely, as the Allies were anticipating.

Looking at both of these questions together, it’s helpful to recall that, until the collapse in May '40, there were Allied plans to bomb the Soviet oil industry around Baku. Churchill also wanted to send troops to Finland to fight the Soviets, though it is hard to see how that would have been logistically supportable.

I think in the case of actual Allied hostilities with the Soviets prior to Barbarossa, that Hitler would continue to maintain, if not strengthen, his ties with Stalin. Operational planning for Barbarossa began as the Battle of Britain was being lost. Hitler claimed that the only way to defeat the British would be to destroy the Soviets, on whom they (the British) were counting on eventually becoming allies (it wasn’t a rational theory, but it was how he saw it at the time).

An Allied attack on the Soviets frees Hitler to focus on defeating the British. After their defeat, then he would turn on Stalin (who would likely be trying to do the same thing).

I know about that, but the offensive came to a complete stop, which allowed the Germans to plan and move forces into place at leisure for the 1940 offensive. If the bulk of German forces were already locked in combat in May 1940 I wonder if such an overwhelming offensive would have been possible. German blitzkrieg tactics only succeeded against enemies who were not yet in combat and tying up their forces.

Yeah, the Norwegians and Swedes hoped the crocodile would eat them last and so forbade troops to cross their territory to aid Finland.

Yeah, that’s what I figured, but I don’t think the Soviets and Hitler beat Britain. Neither had the naval capacity and the Soviets wouldn’t have added much useful air power to the Battle of Britain, so Britain still resists until the US enters the war.

The part that intrigues me is, do the Allied forces keep going until they destroy the Soviets’ ability to resist, or do they just stop at Poland’s 1939 border and then see if the Soviets want to talk?

Another factor I forgot to consider is the atomic bomb. Would the atomic bombing of Japan force the Soviets to the peace table as well?

Several years ago, I read a good book on the subject of the Fall of France. The jist is that the French defeat was far from inevitable, and in fact hinged upon a sequence of improbable contingencies. And that was what really happened. In your alternate scenario, I agree that a swift German victory would be most unlikely.

Of course, the Germans beat the British to it by the slimmest of margins. Either way, Norway wasn’t going to be sitting this war out.

Doenitz gets his 300 U-boat fleet, and the British go down. Done. End of discussion. Being able to apply extra Luftwaffe pressure or beef up the Afrika Korps is just the icing on the cake. Without the massive diversion of resources to Barbarossa, and an Allied attack on the Soviets, I see the British forced to terms in '41, '42 at the latest.

I think in your scenario, that both sides would struggle to a stalemate and would eventually make peace without one side crushing the other.

I don’t see the Soviets being forced to terms nearly as easily as the Japanese were in '45 by the use of a handful of atomic bombs. Not if they can shake off 25 million dead and not knuckle under, like they did in reality.

I don’t really think a stalemate was possible with great power WWII armies. During that war, one side was always on the offensive, and the offensive side usually won, and if it didn’t, the other side would take the offensive. Either the Allies would march as far as supplies and manpower would let them, or the Soviets would. I suppose there could be a scenario where the Allies make it as far as Ukraine and then get pushed back all the way to Berlin, whereupon both sides become exhausted. Was that the stalemate you were thinking of?

Well, in the first case, I don’t agree with your assessment of the assurance of a UK-US victory over a German-Soviet alliance. But, going with it, I think that any Allies/USSR showdown would have to be over the bones of a crushed Germany, as it would have been in reality. Both Western Allies and Soviets would be exhausted, as their real-world counterparts were. I cannot see the political will to continue that war once Nazism has been extinguished.

I strongly disagree. If Britain and France had made a serious effort to attack in the opening weeks of the war, it would have been an almost guaranteed success. Germany was still building up its army and had exaggerated the size of its military for propaganda purposes. They had committed most of what real forces they had to Poland. The forces along their western border were understrength and the fortifications they were defending were still being built. The troop balance was 5-1 in favor of the allies. And the German troops were infantrymen with rifles; virtually all of the artillery, tanks, and aircraft had been sent to Poland.

I disagree it would have been a success Little Nemo. At this stage in the war the Allied logistic train was poor at best and would have collapsed trying to support 4 Armies inside Germany. Just look at British operations in N Africa in '41 and '42 where outrunning supplies doomed multiple offensives.

AFAICR Britain could had ended the North Africa campaign on 2 different occasions, the blame has to fall on the British leadership that undermined the troops in Northern Africa by sending more supplies and men to the doomed efforts in Greece against Germany and then to Singapore and the East Indies against Japan.

But that was going to take place later, the item here is that the retreat of the French troops back to France was IMO a mistake. Italy declared war on Britain until June 10, 1940. While I do think that an invasion by the allies into Germany might not had succeeded in 1939, it would had IMHO shaken a lot of the support the Germans gave Hitler that had promised that the Nazis would succeed with little harm coming to the nation. It would also had delayed the Germans by a lot and gave more time for the French and other nations’ defenses to develop more.

I don’t see logistics being anywhere near as much of a problem in Western Europe as they were in North Africa.

You are right, it would have been worse.

*The BEF did not arrive in some numbers until late September and would have been unable to carry out offensives at all until some time later. The French mobilization took nearly as long, committing as they were, about 4x the troops. So by the time the Allies are ready the Polish goose is already cooked and served.

*The Franco-German border region at the time had a paucity of good roads, in the 1944-45 campaign the Allies logistic situation; with much greater experience, resources and equipment than in 1939-40, was always pretty precarious.

*French logistics were terrible. Looking at the actual battle in 1940, when the French ordered a Field Army to go and deal with the German movements in the Ardennes, it took three days for the first elements to arrive, ten for the entire formation, of course, the Germans had long since broken through.

  • Lots of ink has been spilled on the German Army’s backwardness, the relative lack of motorized transport compared to the Allies. But this ignores German superiority in organization. German logistic units were an integral part of the Panzergruppes. They could carry several days worth of supplies and this made the Panzergruupes very mobile. The Allies logistic units were controlled directly from HQ and it took days to get material to frontline formations, making them slow and cumbersome.

  • French units lacked wireless for armour units and also tended to disperse them in penny packets (probably for the best due to the logistic issues I have outlined above). Command and control were notably poor.

To win like you say, the Allies needed fast maneuver warfare. Which they had little capability to have and their ability to bring all their strength to bear at the same place in time was limited.

Any attack ran a risk of ending up like Adrianople. The Allies formations arrive one after the other, launch uncoordinated offensives and get trashed in detail.

No, I can’t see that at all.

Britain and France chose a relatively slow mobilization plan. They had plans for fast mobilizations (after all France wouldn’t have spent weeks mobilizing if Germany had attacked France instead of Poland). The slow mobilization was a choice not a necessity.

There were plenty of good roads running between France and Germany in 1939. France and Germany had major trade between them before the war; there was an existing transportation network for moving goods between the two countries. It was far beyond anything that was available in the North African desert.

Plus there’s the significant fact that French supply lines ran back to France. There was no need to load supplies up in ships and transport them to Africa. Ports are a huge bottleneck for transportation and there wouldn’t have been any involved in a French offensive into Germany. The factories producing supplies were only a short drive away from the troops.

The Germans did have superiority in organization and planning but that’s only a paper advantage. The replacement of ten people in the French Army would have solved the problem. In every other category, France had the lead. The French Army had more tanks than the German Army in 1939 and their tanks were superior in quality. And that’s not counting the huge factor that the German tanks were all fighting in Poland and wouldn’t have been available to resist a French offensive. The Germans couldn’t have beaten the French in detail because they had no forces to concentrate anywhere close by. By the time the Germans would have been able to pull their troops out of battle in Poland and sent them west to meet the French, the front line would have been on the Elbe.

The transport was excellent. It was based on rail not roads. Rail is excellent for moving large amounts of men and material. It is not that good for supporting fast moving Armoured formations, which need to have integral logistics units to help them. Rail has many of the problems (admittedly not to the level of ports) that you identified, including bottlenecks at marshaling yards and railway platforms.

And your opinion that the French would suddenly increase their speed if needed, is belied by the fact that they were unable to move quickly in real life when needed in May 1940.

For me, this sums up the likely futility of a serious French offensive in September '39.

Those troops that were sent to Poland were not busy very long - the last battle fought was over on the morning of October 6. That leaves the French only 33 days (counting from their DOW on 3 Sept.) to achieve decisive results before the Wehrmacht uses that excellent rail network AK84 mentions to transfer troops to the Rhine. I think the only way that happens is if we get into real alternate-history conjecture here and have at least a couple French armored/motorized corps and covering air support ready to go on 3 September.

May I add another hypothetical?

In the dying days of the Fall of France Churchill proposed an Anglo-French Union - a complete unification of the two countries to keep the French in the war. It was rejected by the French and came to nothing.

But what if it had been accomplished? Obviously with the loss of Metropolitan France the UK would have remained the vast bulk of this ‘Union’, and it would have widened the North African conflict massively, but I wonder what ramifications it would have had once the war was won by the Allies. Or indeed, on the direction of the war entirely.

I think that understates the problem for the French, actually. Their doctrine was explicitly based on slow-moving formations relying on heavy firepower to advance. The had no capability for the kind of sweeping advance that would be needed to do major damage to Germany between September 3 and October 6 (33 days). They didn’t train for it, they avoided commanders who would push for it, and they didn’t have equipment or logistics set up to support it. The logistics problems that they had inside of France fighting off the German invasion were atrocious enough, now you have them going on the offensive in foreign territory through a really narrow front (since they can’t invade Belgium) and then having to maintain that offensive or defend against a counteroffensive when all of Germany’s front line troops are freed up.

Doesn’t the Japanese campaign in China disagree with that? Or are you counting China as more of a ‘big minor power’ than a great power?

It seems that they really didn’t know how to fight a modern war yet though. That experience only came through a lot of bloody losses. The Allies assumed a repeat of WWI, which would have meant basically frontal attacks, which as you say, probably would have succeeded given how weak Germany was in the West, but they would have been unlikely to know how to exploit their gains.

The Japanese weren’t really using modern tactics. It wasn’t quite WWI-style warfare, but it wasn’t the truly mobile warfare Germany pioneered either. I don’t even think the Japanese had quality heavy tanks, did they? The air force was sure there and they used it to great effect.

An Allied-Soviet clash in Europe though would have been classic tank warfare. And the Allies would have massive air superiority and far more manpower and industrial resources than Germany did. Plus a more cautious leadership that didn’t overrule the generals in the field and trap huge armies for the Soviets to encircle.

Your claim was that the logistic situation in Western Europe was worse than it was in North Africa. Are you standing by that? Are you going to argue that there were more rails in Libya and Egypt than there were in France and Germany?

What troops do you think France was still mobilizing in May 1940?

Germany overran Poland in 35 days. Germany overran France in 46 days. And they weren’t using wizards.

France had a larger army and more tanks than Germany had in 1939. There’s no material reason they couldn’t have used the same offensive tactics Germany was using.