So one of our readers asked us this question the other day. We often hear about the great battles the Allies won during WW2, and how victory in Europe was in some part because of Hitler’s poor decision making. But what were some of the largest tactical f**k ups the Allies made during WW2?
This was supposed to be a post in AskUs format, but due to the length that we went into research this topic and 10 points that we dug up, we thought of writing this in an article format. But props up for the user who gave us this topic to research on.
01. Battle of the Hürtgen Forest
The Battle of the Hürtgen Forest was a serious prolonged fu*k up (the extent of the true scale of the disaster remained classified until the 1950’s and it is still poorly understood today) on the part of the Americans during WWII.
It lasted six months from September 1944 until February 1945 and cost about 33,000 American casualties. It potentially delayed the end of World War II in Europe by months, as the Americans were unable to break through the Westwall by the time winter hit and were forced to dig in and wait until the spring thaw (March 1945) to launch any sort of offensive into the heart of Germany. The Americans attacked blindly into the forest dozens of times without their usual advantages of armor and air support, and paid dearly for it. (the 28th Infantry Division affirmed its grim nickname (the “Bloody Bucket”) by taking over 6,000 casualties in the span of a week; the 112th Infantry Regiment suffered 2,316 casualties out of an authorized strength of 3,207) The 9th Infantry Division suffered 4,500 casualties while advancing less than two miles. All or parts of eleven divisions and a Ranger battalion were thrown into the forest, chewed up, and spat out by a combination of poor weather and terrain, halfhearted planning, and a vicious, well-executed German defense.
02. Operation Cottage
Although this wasn’t a huge tactical error, and the body count wasn’t high, it was an embarrassing fu*k-up regardless. Operation Cottage, part of the Aleutian Islands campaign. The two day fight left 32 dead, 50 wounded, and further men injured from various accidents when a combined US and Canadian effort landed on the island of Kiska.
The landings were unopposed. The Japanese forces had secretly evacuated the island a full two weeks earlier under heavy fog. The loss of Attu Island made their position on Kiska dangerous, and indefensible. In the subsequent two days the Allied forces blundered around a thick fog, running into each other, and getting into firefights. 28 Americans and 4 Canadians were confirmed killed in friendly fire, and another 50 wounded. Booby traps left by the Japanese killed some troops, and a Japanese sea mine was struck by a ship, killing another 71 soldiers. A further 191 troops just went straight up missing over the two days, likely dying from friendly fire incidents and booby traps.
Due to poor intelligence, the Allies attacked an unoccupied island, and shot at each other. In days prior to the landing, Allied planes received no anti-aircraft fire from the island which should’ve been a clue the Japanese had left.
03. Dieppe Raid
The Dieppe raid was pretty disastrous. Of the 6000 men, mostly Canadians, who landed that day over half became casualties or POW’s. There were multiple goals to the raid. The primary goal was to capture a port on the French coast and hold it for sufficient time to put it out of action. This would allow the allies to test their weapons, tactics and intelligence in preparation for the future invasion of France. It would also serve the purpose of boosting British morale and show the Russians that their allies were serious about opening up a second front.
The landings themselves were a clusterfu*k. Intelligence on the landing site was poor, with many Germans positions having been overlooked and the beach terrain improperly researched for tank suitability. There was no preliminary bombardment from the air and the naval bombardment was minimal. An insufficient number of tanks landed late and promptly became bogged down. This forced the infantry to attack machine gun emplacements unsupported, leading to heavy losses. The RAF kept the Luftwaffe at bay in the beginning of the day but losses began to amount as British fighters were operating at the limit of their effective range. At this point in the war also RAF ground support tactics were very underdeveloped. The raiders were forced to call a retreat after just 5 hours.
Afterwards the heavy losses, which were particularly devastating for the Canadians, were called a necessary evil. They were justified by claiming the intelligence and experience gained on the beaches led directly to successful landings in North Africa and D-Day. Personally I think that was a convenient sop to the allied commanders conscience after a disastrous raid which was undertaken without sufficient preparation or consideration for its dangers.
04. First Arakan Campaign
The first Arakan campaign (1942-43) had all the elements of both strategically and tactical failure. It was planned by a man who underestimated his enemy, by a general who was too stubborn to see that what he was doing was simply not working and by soldiers who did not have the training for the task at hand.
The Arakan Campaign of 1942–1943 was the first tentative Allied attack into Burma, following the Japanese conquest of Burma earlier in 1942. The British Army and British Indian Army were not ready for offensive actions in the difficult terrain they encountered, nor had the civil government, industry and transport infrastructure of Eastern India been organized to support the Army on the frontier with Burma. Japanese defenders occupying well-prepared positions repeatedly repulsed the British and Indian forces, who were then forced to retreat when the Japanese received reinforcements and counter-attacked. All in all around 900 Allied soldiers died and 4000 soldiers were wounded and went missing.
05. Operation Market-Garden
Dwight D. Eisenhower wrote to George Catleet Marshall that large scale airborne offensives took up too many resources and had too little effect for their human cost. Arnhem, arguably the biggest Allied airborne disaster of the Second World War, lived up to that.
In September 1944, the 1st British Airborne, and the American 82nd and 101st Divisions were to establish a narrow corridor in Holland. This would jumpstart the stalled Allied advance, open an avenue for provisions, and put the Allies in an excellent position to take the resource-rich Ruhr region and enter Germany. Indeed, the benefits of a successful operation in Holland would mean the prospect of the war ending in 1944, and would have resulted in several post-war advantages as well. These positives combined with sheer frustration with the frequently cancelled operations (due to weather and the advancement of ground forces) pushed the continuation of the assault of Market-Garden.
This operation was inarguably a failure overall. The British had delivered approximately 9000 troops near Arnhem, and less than 2500 returned. One soldier recalled his experiences at Arnhem, “each man was weary to his bones, and miserable, and most were wounded. Yet they were filled with such great spirit that they could never be defeated.” It was this kind of spirit combined with the fighting prowess of the airborne forces that allowed them to accomplish what they did in Market-Garden. Though Arnhem was abandoned, “the corridor was held against repeated attacks, and this in itself was a considerable achievement, because it included the important bridges over the Maas and Waal, as well as adding considerably to the security of Antwerp.” This operation under-estimated the enemy opposition; over-estimated the Allied ability to deliver, supply, and link up with the airborne forces; overreached the capabilities of the airborne forces; and everything that could go wrong, seemed to do so. The total Allies causalities amounted to 15,326–17,200.
06. Failed Defense of Belgium and France
The initial actions of most of the allied nations are a comedy of errors. There was a complete strategic incompetence on the part of allied generals in many operation. Inflexibility in defense, an over reliance on static fortifications and inexperience with mechanized infantry tactics. Case in point: The counter attack at Arras. British Matilda tanks were actually superior to the German Panzers of the time, mostly due to having vastly superior armor. They were able to break through German lines by the virtue of being impervious to German anti-tank weapons but were completely unsupported and eventually destroyed by the clever re-purposing of anti-aircraft weapons.
Although the Allies initially made gains, they were repulsed by German forces and forced to withdraw to avoid encirclement.
07. The Winter War
The Soviet union, having signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact felt that they were entitled to carve up eastern Europe between themselves and the Nazis. Part of this would be the establishment of bases in Finland similar to the Baltic states. They were also worried about a potential invasion towards Leningrad from Finnish territory, which is less than 20 miles away. On October 5th the Soviets demand wide areas of land near Leningrad, which happens to included all of the major boarder fortifications, that these defenses are destroyed and that Finland would cede other tactically valuable territory and allow the Soviets to establish military bases for the next 30 years. The Soviet union would give up an area of land twice as large but much less valuable both tactically and economically in return. Finland makes a counter offer, where they are prepared to offer approximately half the territory that the Soviet union is asking for, but not allow them to establish bases on Finnish soil. Here ends the negotiations and they went to war.
The Finns were able to hold out all Winter until, eventually, their main defensive line was overwhelmed in March 1940. By the end of the Winter War the Finns had suffered almost 26,000 casualties, with almost 50,000 wounded or captured. They lost a further 30 tanks and 60 aircraft. On the other hand the Soviets suffered over 150,000 casualties with a further 190,000 wounded or captured as well as 3,500 tanks and approximately 500 aircraft.
There were several reasons for this. The biggest being the poor leadership in the Red Army at that time, including the confusing chain of command caused by political commissars and serious oversights in the terrain and climate of Finland.
08. Battle of Crete
Antony Beevor argues in Crete: The Battle and the Resistance that the Commonwealth and Greek forces under Bernard Freyberg should have been able to defeat the German invaders. The Germans lacked the means to contest the Royal Navy and stage an amphibious landing, so they decided to launch an airborne assault instead, led by Kurt Student. This was to be the first (and last) major airborne German assault of the War.
Firstly, the Allies failed to improve the infrastructure and communications on Crete until the invasion was practically imminent. This made the shifting of supplies and issuing of orders difficult.
However, Beevor argues the biggest single failing was a misreading of intelligence. Freyberg had been convinced from the beginning that the main thrust of the invasion would be by sea, and that any airborne drops would merely be in support. However, it was exactly the other way around. He was given exclusive access to ULTRA transcripts that pointed towards a large airborne assault on the island, but misinterpreted it as supporting his own view. As a result, he kept back many of his reserves to guard against beach landings (geographical factors meant they knew where any potential landing would have to come).
When the eventual airborne assault came, it’s main objective was Maleme, the island’s airfield. The German paratroopers were bloodied extremely badly during the drop, due to poor German intelligence, stout Allied resistance and a very hostile civilian population (who would often kill any isolated Germans out of hand). But the Germans eventually managed to gain a very tenuous hold on the airfield.
But due to his misreading of German intentions and hindered by bad communications, Freyberg did not commit to a major counterattack until it was too late. By then, sufficient German forces had landed to make the ultimate conclusion of the battle certain. Many of the Allied forces’ best formations were extremely demoralised to learn that despite their own decisive local victories elsewhere on the island, that they would have to evacuate regardless.
The defeat gave the Germans an important Mediterranean base and airfield and meant many Allies who couldn’t be evacuated were taken prisoner, which numbered around 17000 soldiers.
09. The Great Purge
This really should go without saying, but Stalin was more afraid of his own people than military invasion from abroad. Russian weapons were closer to his person after all, and he was the beneficiary of a coup against Russia’s previous Democratic-Socialist government. The high reputation gained by the officer corps during the civil wars, its ties to foreign socialists and its preference of scientific objectivity over political subjectivity all combined to lead Stalin to massacre. Even Marshals of the army, such as the combined-arms theorist Marshal Tukhachevsky who developed blitzkrieg techniques with Wehrmacht officers was killed in the Great Purge.
The result of course of butchering capable officers was to discourage innovation and create an ossified system unable to tactically adapt to the complexities of war. Good officers like Rokossovsky who later conquered Prussia in 1945, were imprisoned and tortured in the gulag for ethnic or politically obscure reasons. Antony Beever’s books on Stalingrad and the fall of Berlin make for excellent readings, but they also identify a major reason for Red Army gains after 1942: their generals regained confidence and were allowed under desperate circumstances by Stalin to occasionally disagree with him over tactics (in closed door sessions of course).
10. Ignoring Military Intelligence
Due to communist-ideological distrust and a solid fear of being drawn into a large war, Stalin ignored accurate intelligent reports from British SIS & Churchill. British sources were ironically accurate, but hindsight is harsh: the reports definitely seemed self-serving coming from an island nation desperately in need of an ally. Yet Stalin also ignored his own international agents, deserters from the gathering Wehrmacht forces, as well as common-sense observations from the front. His own preconceived notion of how Hitler would behave led Stalin to a stupid decision: ignore reports and shoot scouts. Simply put, Stalin was a lucid pragmatist with an irrational dislike of hearing contravening opinions; he couldn’t dream of a gambler like Hitler throwing his weight against a nation twice as large as Germany, and wouldn’t let outside sources change his view.
The result: the first week of Operation Barbarrosa was Pearl Harbor times a thousand. A fairly sophisticated Red Army Air Fleet was massacred on the ground. Thousands of airplanes were destroyed, giving the Wehrmacht a healthy technology edge they retained into 1943. If modern history shows anything, air power coupled with a strong army creates a very powerful offense. The Germans were able to easily take advantage of other Soviet mistakes throughout the war. They were aided and abetted by simple Soviet incompetence. The Red military was led by political appointees and sycophants, not effective soldiers. The best had been killed by their own Soviet secret police.