Race of Aces Cover

Why the Axis Lost

An Analysis of Strategic Errors

John Arquilla

McFarland, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2020, 223 pages

Book Review published on: July 24, 2020

By late May 1942, thirty-three months after the Nazi invasion of Poland, Axis powers were close to reaching their maximum extent of territorial expansion and threatening defeat of Allied nations around the globe. By December, Axis dreams of conquest had been thwarted and the initiative shifted to the Allies. John Arquilla, an author and professor of defense analysis at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, offers a fresh explanation of the Axis defeat in Why the Axis Lost: An Analysis of Strategic Errors.

Arquilla begins in describing the evolution of analyzing and explaining the outcomes of conflict. One explanation argues that outcomes are essentially a “numbers game” where material advantages prove decisive. Another explanation postulates that war-related technology advancements are crucially important to victory. An additional explanation attempts to explain outcomes as contingent upon happenstance or result of the complex interactions of the combatants’ relative skills and choices in the fight. Arquilla offers numerous examples in countering why none of these explanations adequately explain outcomes in war. In reminding us of the complex nature of warfare, Arquilla offers a fresh look called “strategic design” that provides a more compelling explanation for the Axis defeat in World War II.

The author offers several strategic design errors by the Axis that contributed to their defeat. Most notably, Germany’s decision to continue the production of Me-109s and FW-190s instead of building jet fighters early in the war denied the Germans a capability to which the Allies would not have had an answer to. Several squadrons of Me-262 jet fighters in 1943 would have destroyed the Allied air campaign in Europe. The same is true regarding German Hellmuth Walter’s design of the Type XXIII submarine. This submarine had a submerged speed of twenty-five knots, three times the standard of the Type VII, and could stay submerged for greater periods. The German Kreigsmarine’s decision to go with incremental updates of the Type VII versus adopting the Type XXIII submarine denied Germany a capability that would have thwarted Allied antisubmarine efforts and enhanced Germany’s ability to cut Allied sea lines of communication.

Similarly, Italy’s decision to continue building biplanes during the interwar years placed the Italians at a great disadvantaged in combating the British Royal Air Force and providing support to the Italian navy and army. Japan’s failure to replace the Mitsubishi A6M “Zero” with a fighter that could match the Allies ever increasing technological advances in aviation gave Japan’s early air superiority to the Allies. Equally, Japan’s failure to develop a viable antisubmarine capability resulted in the slow strangulation of the island nation by Allied submarine warfare that cut Japanese sea lines of communication. Japan could neither support itself nor Japanese troops on islands throughout its empire.

Arquilla offers what may have been the Axis’s greatest strategic design blunder of the war—its ideology. Both German and Japanese invading forces quickly alienated the local populace through inhuman acts of barbarity. In many cases, the local populace viewed these forces as liberators and openly welcomed them. The Axis not only missed an opportunity to gain local support and volunteers to their cause, but they also created partisans who forced the Axis to divert manpower and resources toward antipartisan operations.

What appears most lacking for the Axis in Why the Axis Lost was the lack of strategic design regarding a strategic end state and supporting objectives to achieve it. Japan was decisively engaged in a stalemate in China when it decided to attack the United States and United Kingdom. Japan’s belief that the United States and United Kingdom would be defeated quickly, allowing Japan to continue its conquest in Asia, removed any need for a comprehensive plan or strategic end state. The same was true with Germany and its decision to attack Russia after its failed attempt to subdue the United Kingdom while simultaneously diverting military forces to rescue Italian allies who were blundering in North Africa and in Greece.

Arquilla reminds us that despite the miscues by the Axis and increasing superiority of the Allies regarding strength and technological advancements, the war was not a foregone conclusion in late 1944. The author recounts Luftwaffe Gen. Adolf Galland’s rage over German losses following the Battle of the Bulge. Galland believed the outcome would have been different if Germany would have focused its efforts on stemming the Red Army in the East and using its fighters to regaining air superiority over Germany. Galland’s argument is compelling given that the Red Army was experiencing serious manpower shortages.

The real value of Arquilla’s work, beyond offering a compelling explanation of the Axis defeat in World War II, is the numerous lessons for today. Most notable are three. First, operational security is imperative. The Allies’ successful breaking of German and Japanese military codes through MAGIC and ULTRA enabled the Allies to decisively defeat the Japanese navy at Midway and German submarine warfare in the Atlantic. German and Japanese forces never realized that the Allies had hacked their communication systems nor did they take the time to change their codes as required by their own security policies.

Secondly, military planners should never view campaigns as short term. This has been a lesson learned the hard way numerous times throughout history. Germany was no different believing that its defeat of the Soviet Union would be as quick as it was in the First World War. German generals were so confident that their army would quickly defeat the Soviet Union that they did not acquire cold weather equipment nor adequate manpower. The deeper and deeper the German army went into the Soviet Union, it found itself forced to fight on a larger front requiring greater manpower. As temperatures dropped, the German army quickly found itself unable to provide basic winter weather uniforms and equipment to its soldiers. Instead, desperately needed arms, ammunition, and repair parts were the priorities of the German army.

Finally, be careful who you choose as allies. Germany’s Tripartite Pact with Japan and Italy did not serve Germany’s interests in the long term. Japan forced Germany to declare war on the United States following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Historians have argued that Germany had no desire for war with the United States based on its experience during World War I. Germany honored its part of the pact and expected Japan to reciprocate by attacking the Soviet Union. The Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact prevented the Japanese from declaring war on the Soviet Union. Italy simply did not have the military for modern war, thus forcing Germany to divert manpower and resources to aid its Italian allies.

The strength of Why the Axis Lost is Arquilla’s exceptional prose and style. It is simply hard to put down. His exhaustive research of both primary and secondary sources provides a comprehensive look of the Axis defeat from many perspectives. The work is highly readable and may be the most comprehensive examination of the Axis defeat to date. This would be an excellent addition to the library of any historian or student with an interest on the subject. It is a must for foreign policy makers and military strategists.

Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas