Saturday, February 29, 2020

Female Aces of World War II

There Were Two Female Aces of World War II

Yekaterina Budanova and Lydia Litvyak, female fighter aces of World War II
Yekaterina Budanova and Lydia Litvyak.

It is a little-known fact that there were female fighter aces during World War II. This article is about the two female fighter aces of the Red Air Force, Lydia Litvyak and Yekaterina Budanova.

The Soviet Union had a number of excellent female pilots. At the absolute nadir of Soviet fortunes during World War II, famed Russian pilot Marina Raskova suggested the formation of all-female air force units. Joseph Stalin then personally ordered the formation of several air units specifically intended to be composed entirely of women. By Order No. 0099, dated 8 October 1941, the Stavka (Soviet high command) that Stalin led created three all-female units in the Soviet Air Force.

Marina Raskova, female military pilots of World War II
Marina Raskova on a stamp issued on the centenary of her birth in 2012.
These all-female units were in Aviation Group 122. This group was composed of the No. 586 Aviation Regiment (Yak-1 fighters), No 587 Regiment (later the 125th Guards Dive Bomber Regiment flying Pe-2 bombers), and No. 588 Regiment (later the 46th Guards Night Bomber Regiment, flying Polikarpov Po-2 night bombers). Stalin never rescinded his order and the all-female units went into action even as the Soviet fortunes improved.

The Night Witches of World War II
The Night Witches got down and dirty in the mud just like the male pilots. Here, a bunch of Night Witches pushes their truck out of the ubiquitous Russian mud.

The Night Witches

The most famous (or notorious, depending on your point of view) female pilots flew in the Night Witches, the all-female No. 588 Regiment that flew bombers. The Night Witches unit (a nickname given to them by the Germans) flew over 23,000 missions in obsolete biplane bombers. While not conducting a strategic bombing operation, the Night Witches unit flew harassing missions at night in order to disrupt the Germans’ sleep while causing a little damage.

The Night Witches regiment was considered a success and produced 24 Heroes of the Soviet Union (there was another handful in the 587th Regiment). This was the ultimate accolade, equivalent to the British Victoria Cross or the US Medal of Honor. Receipt of this award granted an annual stipend, placement of a bust of the recipient in his or her home town, and various other highly desirable emoluments.

Restored Polikarpov Po-2 of World War II
A restored Polikarpov Po-2.
I mention the Night Witches because they were the female pilots most people are probably most familiar with. Also, it is to show that female pilots were a very real phenomenon in the Soviet Union and not just a gimmick. Now, before anyone gets excited and defensive about this, no, the female pilots did not win the war all by themselves and were more of an adjunct to the main forces. They were not the core of the Red Air Force and were viewed with some skepticism even by their fellow male pilots. Female pilots did serve a useful function and performed well as part of a team, often operating together or as the "wingmen" (wing women?) of established male pilots.

The Germans considered the female Soviet pilots "unnatural." A legend that may be true grew that they would shoot female Red Air Force pilots on sight.

There apparently were two Soviet female aces, and at the very least one. By “ace,” we use the standard definition of five aerial kills against the enemy. These two ladies followed similar career paths and perished around the same time during 1943.

Lydia Litvyak, female fighter ace of World War II
Lydia Litvyak (RIA Novosti).

Lydia Litvyak, or "Lilya"

One female ace was Lydia Vladimirovna Litvyak. She has received almost no recognition in the West largely because she died midway through the conflict and thus did not get a chance to write her memoirs or get interviewed by Western war correspondents.

Lydia Litvyak, or “Lilya” as she was known, was the real deal. She learned to fly long before the war at the age of 14. She later became a flight instructor at the Kalinin Airclub. She was 19 when the war broke out and she enlisted immediately pursuant to a 1939 law allowing women into the military. Lilya joined one of the three all-female units, the 586th (the Night Witches were the 588th). Already trained on a Yakovlev UT-1 trainer, Lilya learned to fly a military Yakovlev Yak-1.

Yak-1 fighters of World War II
Yak-1 fighters. Designed by Aleksandr Sergeievich Yakovlev in 1938, the Yak-1 first flew in January 1940 was built of metal and wood and the cockpit was notable for giving pilots excellent views.
Lilya was known for maintaining a feminine appearance that was "a model of femininity and charm." She used hydrogen peroxide to bleach her hair and liked to pick flowers to put on the wings of her plane. As a result, Lilya became known as the "White Rose of Stalingrad."

In mid-1942, Lilya transferred to the 437th Fighter Regiment. This was a standard men’s unit. The 437th was based on the east bank of the Volga at Srednaia Akhtuba. She was awarded her first two kills on 13 September 1942, thus earning the distinction of becoming the first female pilot to ever shoot down enemy aircraft. One was a Junkers Ju-88, the other a Bf-109 G-2 “Gustav. She claimed another Bf 109 on 14 September (this was not officially recognized), then another Ju 88 on 27 September 1942 (this was officially recognized).

Lydia Litvyak, female fighter ace of World War II
Lydia Litvyak.
Lilya's unit began using Lend-Lease P-39 Aircobras in January 1943, but Lilya wanted to continue flying her trusted Yak. So, she transferred to the 296th Fighter Regiment (later the 73rd Guard Regiment). Lilya continued her successful flying and shot down another Ju 88 and a Bf 109 on 22 March 1943 but was wounded in the process. While Lilya managed to fly back to base, this led to a long hospital stay. After her release in May and while flying an upgraded Yak-1b fighter ("WHite 23"), Lilya quickly shot down an artillery observation balloon on 31 May 1943 after executing a lengthy flight behind enemy lines to attack the balloon from behind. Later, she shot down another Ju 88 on 16 July 1943 during the Battle of Kursk. She was credited with another Bf 109 on 19 July 1943 and again on 21 July 1943.

Lily perished on 1 August 1943 at the age of 21 on a mission over Orel while escorting some Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik ground-attack planes. Her No. 44 plane, as was customary for "free hunters" as they were known, bore a white lily symbol. Being recognized as a "free hunter," or able to go on your own "seek and destroy" missions as a freelancer, was the highest honor a Red Air Force fighter pilot could receive from fellow pilots.

Lydia Litvyak, female fighter ace of World War II
During her career, Lilya flew in 168 combat missions. She was given credit for at least five kills and possibly as many as a dozen. Lilya's remains were found in 1979 buried in the village of Dmitrievka, Shakhterski district (also known as Dmitrovka in the Cherkasy region of Ukraine). This disproved a common belief that Lilya had been taken captive, which was considered dishonorable, and thus opened her to further posthumous accolades. Senior Lieutenant Lydia Litvyak received the Hero of the Soviet Union accolade on 6 May 1990 from USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev. She since has become a sort of cult figure in some circles and there may be a film made about her life.

Yekaterina Budanova, female fighter ace of World War II
Yekaterina Budanova.

Yekaterina Budanova

The other female ace was Yekaterina Vasilyevna Budanova. Yekatinera and Lilya were great friends and worked almost virtually as a team, though they did not always fly together. Yekaterina was about five years older than Lilya and in some ways guided her young friend. As the more outgoing of the two, Budanova "hardly stood out from the fellows."

A common description is that Lilya and Udanova were "complete opposites. While outgoing, though, Budanova was absolutely committed to the war effort. She wrote to her sister:
I am now devoting my entire life to the struggle against the vile Nazi creatures. If I am fated to perish, my death will cost the enemy dearly. My dear winged ‘Yak’ is a good machine and our lives are inseparably bound up together; if the need arises, we both shall die like heroes.
And, of course, that is exactly what happened.

Yekaterina Budanova, fighter ace of World War II
Yekaterina Budanova.
Like Lilya, Yekaterina Budanova, nicknamed Kaća, learned to fly before the war. Budanova began her career with the 586th Fighter Aviation Regiment. She remained with the unit and began flying combat missions around May 1942. She later transferred to the 437th Fighter Regiment with Lilya and flew a The Lavochkin-Gorbunov-Gudkov LaGG-3 (LaGG-3) fighter.

Yekaterina also began shooting planes down in September or October 1942. Some say that she shot down a Bf 109 on 14 September 1942. There is better proof that she claimed a Ju 88 and Bf 109 on 2 October 1942. Another possible victory was a Ju 88 on 6 October 1942. She then transferred to the 9th Guards Regiment unit. Two kills of Bf 109s followed on 10 December 1942.

Yekaterina Budanova, fighter ace of World War II
Yekaterina Budanova.

In January 1943, Yekaterina transferred to the 296th Fighter Aviation Regiment (73rd Guards Regiment) along with Lilya so that she could continue flying Yaks. She shot down a Focke-Wulf 190 near Rostov on 10 February 1943, then a Bf 109 on 9 March 1943. She shared the destruction of Bf 109 on 30 May 1943. By July 1943, she officially had 11 claims.

Finally, after shooting down one Bf 109 (her undisputed fifth solo victory) and damaging another, Yekaterina took heavy fire near Antratsit in Luhansk Oblast on 19 July 1943. The plane caught on fire. Budanova crash-landed in the no-man’s land (aptly named this time, no?) between the two sides. However, Yekaterina did not manage to get out of her Yak and perished as her plane burned up at the age of 26. She is buried on the outskirts of the village of Novokrasnovka in the Donetsk region, Ukraine (also near Mariupol). Her plane also bore the white lilies of a "free hunter."

Yekaterina was posthumously awarded the title Hero of the Russian Federation on 1 October 1943, missing out on the title Hero of the Soviet Union only because the Soviet Union at that point no longer existed.

Yekaterina Budanova and Lydia Litvyak, female fighter aces of World War II
Lydia Litvyak, Yekaterina Budanova, and fellow pilot Maria Kuznetsova plan a mission beside a Yak-1 fighter (RIA Novosti).


Fellow Soviet ace Vladimir Lavrinjenko recalled Budanov and Litvjak this way:
Kaća was lively and cheerful, and Lydia Litvjak was the opposite - thoughtful and silent. The girls were real friends, but Kaća always had the last word.
So, although Lilya apparently wound up with more victories and more posthumous fame, the relationship between the two women was quite the opposite. Yekaterina was the planner and Lilya more of the follower.

Lydia Litvyak, fighter ace of World War II
Lilya remains the top female ace of all time.
With both Lilya and Ekaterina, there is some controversy about their exact number of victories. The Soviets were not quite so thorough about counting and verifying aerial victories as the Germans or the Western Allies, though they definitely kept score. However, most sources agree that both were awarded credit for at least five victories, with the true number probably closer to a dozen for each woman. There seems little question that at the very least Lilya was a true ace in any common understanding of the term. As far as I am aware, these were the only two female aces of World War II.

Yekaterina Budanova and Lydia Litvyak, fighter aces of World War II
Budanova and Litvyak in 1943, not long before their deaths.


Saturday, February 22, 2020

Workhorses of the Luftwaffe

The Luftwaffe Relied on a Handful of Workhorses

Luftwaffe Ju 52 transport
The Junkers Ju 52 was the Luftwaffe’s true workhorse.
This article is intended as an introduction to the workhorses of the Luftwaffe. I have written separate articles about them, so click on the links regarding each plane if you want to learn more about them. There were many other Luftwaffe planes, but this article is devoted only to the backbone of the Luftwaffe.

These were the workhorses in each of the major categories of every World War II air force: fighters, transport planes, ground-attack planes, and bombers. From them, I will choose the one true workhorse of the Luftwaffe.

There was only one or at most two workhorse aircraft for each of these broad aircraft categories. Generally, the same group of top Luftwaffe planes served throughout the conflict, though they were in a continual upgrade process. There were not a lot of successful designs that entirely replaced serviceable aircraft types during the conflict, though there were some new good designs that supplemented the workhorses. Among other reasons, this heavy reliance on only a few major aircraft types was due to the time and effort it would take to retool aircraft factories - time that the Third Reich did not have in abundance.

Bf 109 fighters
The Bf 109 was the Luftwaffe's workhorse fighter.


Fighters are pretty much everyone's favorite class of aircraft. Which would you rather stand around an admire, a Maserati or a Gremlin? Each has their uses - Gremlins carried home an awful lot of groceries and Maseratis not so much - but faster and deadlier craft will always be more interesting than mundane and practical ones.

Focke-Wulf Fw 190
A lineup of Focke-Wulf Fw 190s.

The workhorse Luftwaffe fighter was the Bf 109 (sometimes called the Me 109 or the "Messerschmidt"). It went through multiple revisions throughout the war, but the design definitely was beginning to show its limitations by 1945 (for example, it could remain in the air for only a little more than an hour while the US P-51 could stay aloft for several hours). Designer Kurt Tank added his Focke-Wulf Fw 190 during the summer of 1941, and it also went through numerous models. The top Luftwaffe pilots tended to prefer the Fw 190 after some initial skepticism. The Fw 190 was a big mystery plane to the Allies until a German pilot got confused and landed one in perfect condition in England by mistake in June 1942.

Me 262 fighter
The Me 252 jet fighter caused the Allies a lot of problems.
The excellent Me 262 jet fighter came along in the fall of 1944 and was the preferred mount for the best pilots from that point on, but there weren’t enough of them to go around. Incidentally, one of the main reasons the Me 262 was so popular with the pilots was that it was very survivable - the Allies had great difficulty shooting them down until they figured out that they could just hang out near their airfields and catch them as they were slowing down to land.

Focke-Wulf Fw 190 fighter-bomber
An FW-190 A5 fighter-bomber loaded with 1x500kg and 2x250kg bombs.
One thing that many people overlook regarding both the Bf 109 and the Fw 190 is that they were good fighter-bombers. Once they dropped their bombs, they were ready to take on the best fighters the Allies could throw at them. The Luftwaffe really began to appreciate this capability as a means of drawing RAF fighter up to battle early in the war, and then also late in the war as their obsolete bombers became more and more vulnerable to Allied night fighters.

Luftwaffe Ju 52 transport
A Junkers Ju 52. I like its appearance, it has a sort of art deco styling.

Transport Aircraft

In terms of transport aircraft, the Junkers Ju 52 was the Luftwaffe’s workhorse throughout the war years. It wasn’t that fast and didn’t have particularly good specifications or defensive armament, but the Ju 52 could fulfill a variety of necessary functions. The Ju 52 originally was designed as a seaplane, but it was the best aircraft to fill the gap in the Luftwaffe’s lineup for cargo planes, so it was adapted to land use.

Luftwaffe Ju 52 transport
A swarm of Ju 52s bringing supplies and troops across the Black Sea to the troops marching on Stalingrad during the summer of 1942.
The problem for the Luftwaffe was that Hitler kept creating situations where the Ju 52 had to fly over enemy territory and in airspace where it could not be adequately defended. It simply was not equipped to do that well. For instance, large numbers were lost during the invasion of Crete, during the supply operations at Kholm and Demyansk, and then at Stalingrad. If the Ju 52 could have just operated behind the front, it would have been available in abundance to do the types of transport jobs it was good at.

Luftwaffe Ju 52 transport
The cockpit of the Junkers Ju 52 embodied classic styling.
Hitler put his own stamp of approval on the Ju 52 by using one as his personal aircraft during the 1930s. Upon the outbreak of war, he switched to a Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor because it was faster and thus less vulnerable to Allied fighters.

The Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor.

The Condor was the best reconnaissance plane in the Luftwaffe and sank a lot of Allied ships, some quite large. It also served as a transport, especially as the war ground on, but this did not maximize its capabilities. The Condor's chief advantage was its exceptional range of 3,560 km (2,210 mi, 1,920 nautical miles). Its payload was up to 1,000 kilograms (2,200 lb) of bombs internally or up to 5,400 kg (11,900 lb) externally on four PVC 1006 underwing racks. However, only 276 Condors were built, and it did not have a very good defensive armament. The Luftwaffe made an early (and wise) decision to prohibit its use as a bomber in order to preserve its numbers.

Luftwaffe Ju 252 transport
The Junkers Ju 252 was "better" than the Ju 52 but too fancy for the Luftwaffe's needs.
The Luftwaffe developed an upgraded version of the Ju 52, the Ju 252, by mid-1941. However, it used too many strategic materials (rare metals) and also used engines that were in short supply (the Junkers Jumo 211F). So, very few of these were built and then back to the drawing board. A subsequent model that used fewer strategic materials and engines that were more plentiful, the Ju 352 "Hercules," was the final model. It was not as well-regarded as the Ju 252 but certainly had better capabilities than the original Ju 52. The Ju 352 even had a hydraulically powered Trapoklappe (rear loading ramp) that facilitated the loading of heavy vehicles or freight whilst holding the fuselage level. It should be noted, however, that the Ju 352 could only carry smaller vehicles, not tanks. Only 43 of the Ju 352 model were built before the war situation required a halt to production.

Luftwaffe Ju 352 transport
The Junkers Ju 352. Was it a better plane than the Ju 52? Absolutely. Was it available when the German war effort would have really benefited from it? Absolutely not.
This progression of the Ju 52 shows a larger truth. Getting a serviceable design in operation at the right time is more important than building superior design later when it no longer matters. This is a trap that many students of the war fall into, thinking that just because some later design had better specifications, that meant it was the "best." A good design that comes along too late to matter is not the "best" in my opinion. The best design is one that you can use when it counts. The Ju 52 was the backbone of the Luftwaffe during the time of decision.

Luftwaffe Ju 87 Stuka ground-attack plane
A Junkers Ju 87 Stuka preserved at The Royal Air Force Museum, London.

Ground-Attack Planes

While it is easy to dismiss ground-attack planes as boring and the old-age home for planes that didn't really make it in other roles, they were supremely important in the Wehrmacht. The German military always focused on the ground campaign to the exclusion of almost everything else, including the air war. This narrow focus paid a lot of dividends (superior army performance) and had serious drawbacks (failure to develop a strategic bomber). It resulted in a highly developed integration between the Army (Heer) and the Luftwaffe. This was the essence of the famous "Blitzkrieg" advances and a source of Hitler's early victories.

Luftwaffe Ju 87 Stuka on the cover of Der Adler magazine
The Stuka of the cover of the February 1942 Der Adler military magazine wears an evil grin as it is loaded for action. 
As mentioned above, the Bf 109 and Fw 190 were useful as ground-attack planes. However, the workhorse in this area was the Junkers Ju 87 Stuka. These were slow and ponderous and thus suffered the same faults as the Ju 52 transport planes. They were a liability when tasked with missions beyond their capabilities, most notably when used for bombing raids in airspace where the Allied held clear supremacy. Thus, they failed miserably during the Battle of Britain and large numbers were lost over Malta.

Luftwaffe Ju 87 with anti-tank cannons
A Stuka equipped with massive tank-busting cannons.
However, the Ju 87G Stukas equipped with the massive two 37 mm (1.46 in) Bordkanone BK 3,7 cannons were outstanding tank-killers even if even slower and more ponderous than other variants. The most battle-hardened Luftwaffe pilots such as Hans-Ulrich Rudel were using them to knock out Soviet tanks right up to the Battle of Berlin. This is an example of where a plane that is not particularly good at many things is an outstanding contributor to the military effort because it does one thing exceedingly well.

Luftwaffe Heinkel He 111 bomber
A Heinkel He 111 shot down in England during the Battle of Britain.


The Germans never really had a workhorse bomber, which was the Luftwaffe’s major failing. They tried all sorts of different medium bombers with mediocre results for each of them. These included the Junkers Ju 88, which was probably the best of a bad lot. Others which were almost all obsolete by the middle of the conflict included the Heinkel He 111, the Dornier Do 17, and the Heinkel He 177 Greif (Griffin). The Griffin was so prone to engine fires that the pilots took to calling it the “flying fireworks.”

Luftwaffe Arado Ar 234 jet bomber
The Arado Ar 234 - too little, too late.
The Arado Ar 234 Blitz Bomber jet may have been the "best" medium bomber of the war on either side. It did enter service in 1945 and carried out a few missions, such as trying to destroy the famous "Bridge at Remagen" (which ultimately was destroyed, but only after it no longer mattered). However, the Ar 234 came along too late to make a difference.

Luftwaffe Junkers Ju 88 bomber
A Junkers Ju 88 downed in Moscow. How the pilot brought it down intact among all those buildings was a miracle.
Some people would choose the Ju 88 as the Luftwaffe’s best overall aircraft. This apparently is because it was used in a wide variety of roles and also helped to fill the critical gap in the Luftwaffe’s lineup as a mediocre bomber. I can understand this view, and it has some merit to it. You certainly may take a different view than me on the relative value of the Ju 88, these are all judgments and evaluations subject to what you view as important in a plane.

Luftwaffe Ju 88 bomber
Junkers Ju 88.
The Junkers Ju 88 and its variants certainly did quite a lot of things well. However, in my view, the Ju 88 was certainly a handy plane, but it really fit the old saying of being a jack of all trades but master of none. It was like the sixth man on a basketball team or the utility player on a baseball team. Certainly, the Ju 88 filled an important role. However, most people would view the starting lineup as having the best players.

Luftwaffe Me 323 Gigant transport
The Me 323 "Gigant" was one of the most massive cargo planes of World War II. However, it was slow and a favorite target of Allied fighters.


If I had to pick one indispensable aircraft in the Luftwaffe that was its true workhorse, I would not pick the one that everyone else would choose, namely the Bf 109 fighter. There were other German fighter designs early in the war reasonably similar to the Bf 109’s capabilities. However, Willy Messerschmitt was a savvy businessman and got his bird chosen by using his connections. So, sure, the Bf-109 won the most air battles for the Reich - while it was still winning air battles. There were, after all, 33,984 Bf 109s built.

Luftwaffe Ju 52 transport

But the Bf 109 was not the most important workhorse of the Luftwaffe. No, I would choose the Ju 52, the “flying toolshed,” because the Luftwaffe never had another aircraft that could do what it could do nearly as well.

Luftwaffe Ju 52 transport


Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Germany's Fiercest Soldier: Erwin Rommel

Desert Fox

Erwin Rommel
Erwin Rommel.

Who was the fiercest soldier in the German military? Let me put forward a name. It’s a name that everyone knows, and many “experts” think is hyped beyond any sense of reality. However, I’ll try to back up my choice anyway. The name is Johannes Erwin Eugen Rommel.

I know there are people shaking their heads over this name. Wasn't someone like Joachim Peiper or some other war criminal the fiercest soldier?

Erwin Rommel
Joachim Peiper the fiercest soldier? I don't think so.
Let me explain one of the parameters of how I am answering this by reference to Joachim Peiper. Peiper was a ruthless SS officer, close friends with Heinrich Himmler, who was a "take no prisoners" type. And, I mean that literally. He had his men liquidate prisoners rather than send them to prison camps. Peiper's most notorious such stunt was when he perpetuated the Malmedy Massacre of American POWs.

We can dispense with Peiper because he was not a legitimate soldier - he was a thug and a convicted war criminal. By disregarding the rules of war, Peiper was no better than a murderer.

So, we are looking for a legitimate soldier who followed the rules of war and did not disgrace his country.

Erwin Rommel

The reason I chose Field Marshal Erwin Rommel is that he became a national hero in not one, but two world wars. Rommel achieved his greatest fame and notoriety due to his exploits during World War II, but within Germany, he was a famous military figure long before that. Sure, there was an element of self-promotion involved regarding Rommel’s World War I successes, and he was chosen to be a propaganda hero during World War II. However, it is undeniable that Rommel became a household name in one war and a legend in the next. That’s not something that happens every day.

Erwin Rommel

Rommel fought on three fronts during World War I. He was in the trenches in France, in Romania, and most famously in Italy. In each of these campaigns, he did something worthy or even spectacular. In France, he served near Verdun, where he and three mates caught a French garrison by surprise. In Romania, he participated in the difficult capture of a heavily fortified hilltop (Mount Cosna). These led to rapid promotions to be the company commander. But it was in Italy that Rommel made his name.

Erwin Rommel

On the Isonzo Front, Rommel’s unit participated in the Battle of Caporetto. Rommel’s company swept across the Italian positions like a plague. He used the rough terrain to his advantage and caught several Italian garrisons by surprise. He and his men perfected the art of silent infiltration and captured 9,000 men. He capped this by later convincing an entire Italian division to surrender to him and his small force. The 1st Italian Infantry Division of 10,000 men was humiliated to find that they had meekly surrendered to Rommel and his company of men pretending to be a much larger force.

Erwin Rommel
Rommel during the 1930s.
Between the wars in 1937, Rommel wrote Infantry Attacks (Infanterie greift an). This used his World War I experiences to draw larger lessons about fluid warfare. Adolf Hitler either read this book or was told what was in it because he quickly became a fan. This led to a series of promotions. Unlike some of Hitler’s other favorites who were mediocre at best, Rommel actually lived up to this trust.

Erwin Rommel
Rommel during the invasion of France in 1940.
In 1940, Rommel led his 7th “Ghost” Panzer Division in a brilliant race to the French coast at Dieppe, then on to Cherbourg. This audacious breakthrough without flank protection astonished everybody. It also gave Rommel the reputation for acting on his own initiative without concerning himself too much with orders. It was during this success that he also established a reputation for leading from the front. In my opinion, this was Rommel’s greatest achievement in World War II.

Erwin Rommel

Rommel extended this reputation in North Africa. Nominally under the command of the Italians, he disregarded them and just did what he wanted. He did not know it, but this was the key to his success in North Africa. The Germans had no idea that the British were reading their wireless transmissions, but since Rommel basically disregarded those communications anyway, it left the British expecting one thing when Rommel would wind up doing quite another. Rommel even somehow figured out how to get some use out of the Italian elements of his command - nobody else ever did.

Erwin Rommel

As everyone knows, Rommel was turned back by the British at El Alamein. However, despite facing an utter calamity, Rommel held his forces together and completed one of the most skilfull retrograde movements in history. He gave his forces another chance in Tunisia when they easily all could have been captured in Egypt.

The issue with choosing Rommel as the “fiercest soldier” is that some people have turned his oversized reputation against him. Figuring that nobody could be “all that,” they developed the “Rommel Myth” theory. This theory says that Rommel wasn’t anything special, he couldn’t follow orders, and he frittered away invaluable opportunities through reckless advances.

Erwin Rommel

I do not think that Erwin Rommel was the greatest German general of World War II. His successes led the Germans into traps that ruined their prospects, and he became so profoundly pessimistic as the war ground on that he began making poor choices. I write about my choice for the best German general here.

Erwin Rommel

However, Rommel’s issues do not detract from his fierceness, sheer audacity, and ingenuity. In my view, when you combine what he did in both wars, not just parts of the second one, it’s hard to find any man who excelled in so many areas of the military art better than Erwin Rommel. There are reasons the main German Army barracks is named after him today, and not just mythical ones.

I talk more about Erwin Rommel here.

Erwin Rommel


Tuesday, February 18, 2020

What Was Italy's Biggest Error of World War II?

Italy Made Some Colossal Errors During World War II

Benito Mussolini
Mussolini announces that Italy is at war from the balcony of the Palazzo Venezia on 10 June 1940.
Italy’s biggest error in World War II obviously was declaring war against Great Britain on 10 June 1940. Without an advanced industrial base (most Italian vehicles and aircraft were hand-made, a very slow and inefficient process) and with a poorly trained-and-paid army, Italy had no business being in a general war. Churchill, known for his wisecracks at the expense of Italian military ability, quickly joked:
People who go to Italy to look at ruins won’t have to go as far as Naples and Pompeii again.
Churchill really didn't lose much sleep about the Italian declaration of war.

WInston Churchill during World War II

Italian leader (Duce) Benito Mussolini, of course, did not see it that way. He felt that Italy could regain the glory of the ancient Roman Empire. However, he hedged his bets slightly by waiting until 10 June 1940 before declaring war. Germany defeated France so soon after that (under two weeks) that Italy did not have time to prove whether its troops were capable or not. However, any unbiased observer of the state of the Italian military in 1940 would have to have concluded that Italy should not have declared war on any major powers. Later events would have justified this view.

Since that is such an obvious answer, I’m going to continue on and look at some strategic and tactical mistakes that Italy made during the war. Well, there are plenty of mistakes to choose from.

I’m going to cheat and pick the errors made during a single day instead of a single bad strategy or something like that because two of Italy’s biggest blunders began on 10 September 1940.

An Italian fighter during the Battle of Britain
Italian fighters were no match for Supermarine Spitfires and Hawker Hurricanes.
First, that was the day that the Italians began forming the Corpo Aereo Italiano (literally, "Italian Air Corps") to operate against the RAF on the Channel Front. This force in Belgium under the command of Generale sa (Air Marshal) Rino Corso-Fougier proved to be an unmitigated disaster. It accomplished nothing and diverted Italian resources from the Mediterranean where they could have been somewhat handy.

Greek soldiers in November 1940 defending against the Italian invasion
The Italians apparently forgot that Greek soldiers such as those shown above in November 1940 could shoot back.
Second, 10 September 1940 was the day the Italian Commando Supremo begins transferring its Greek Expeditionary Corps (40,310 men, with 7728 horses, 701 vehicles, and 33,535 tons of material) from Brindisi to Albania in preparation for an upcoming invasion of Greece. This was a completely boneheaded plan that caused Italy nothing but trouble. It was this invasion that proved to Hitler - too late - that Italy was not going to be of much help at all during the war. It vastly diminished Mussolini’s stature. His failures in Albania gave the Allies tremendous propaganda victories, representing their first victory on land against the fascists.

An Italian bomber during the Battle of Britain
An Italian bomber of the Italian Air Corps during the Battle of Britain.
As usual, the Italian mistakes did not have much impact on the course of World War II because they were really only gestures of futility by an inconsequential military. The Battle of Britain ground on to its inevitable conclusion regardless of Italian efforts, and the Italian presence changed nothing. The Albanian farce actually proved of some use to the Germans because Mussolini’s men had attracted the majority of the Greek Army to the west. When Hitler invaded in the east, his panzers rolled in quickly. Of course, this Italian distraction was not the plan and was hardly worth the cost, but the Germans had a knack for taking advantage of the errors of others (though, of course, they made plenty of their own, too).

The Italian Julia Alpini Division
The Italian Julia Alpini Division marches into the mountains. 28 October 1940.
Of the two errors listed above, the Italian invasion of Greece of 28 October 1940 looms larger in history. Everything about it was just completely wrongheaded. Invading into heavily defended mountains at the onset of winter is just mystifying in its sheer audacity. Invading on a narrow front that naturally favored the defense defied all military orthodoxy. Opening another campaign when the first in North Africa and a second in East Africa were both facing dubious prospects was just inviting ultimate defeat. The only conclusion possible is that Mussolini just had no clue as to the true state of his military and how fiercely his enemies would fight him.

Benito, you had one job...

German motorcycle troops entering Greece on 6 April 1941 Operation Marita motorcycle troops
Wehrmacht motorcycle troops enter Greece, 6 April 1941.
Hitler’s 6 April 1941 invasion of Greece was motivated in large part to bail out Mussolini troops, who had actually lost ground in their “offensive.”. There is a theory, which I think is largely false but is still touted, that this invasion (Operation Marita) diverted essential troops from Operation Barbarossa and prevented the Wehrmacht from taking Moscow in 1941. I personally don’t agree with that theory, but the Italian invasion of Greece did create a giant distraction that the Germans didn’t really need right before their do-or-die invasion of Russia. If Italy had any influence on the outcome of World War II at all, it was due to its completely unnecessary, hopelessly inept, and unexpected (including by Hitler) invasion of Greece.

So, the bottom line is that if you discount the declaration of war in the first place, then Italy’s biggest error was invading Greece.

An Italian CANT Z 1007 bomber during the Battle of Britain
An Italian CANT Z 1007 bomber with the Corpo Aereo Italiano in Belgium.