Book Review: “1941: The Year Germany Lost the War” by Andrew Nagorski
Published by Simon and Schuster, 381 pp. $39.99
Review by 12570 Mike Kennedy
Eighty years ago at this time, it seemed like the people of Great Britain had little to cheer about. Not quite twelve months had passed since the opening shots of the Second World War had been fired, but in that time the Germans had made short work of Poland and subsequently overrun much of Western Europe. At sea, the U-boats of the Kriegsmarine were sinking Allied shipping almost at will, while in the skies over the English Channel; the Battle of Britain was rapidly heating up. It was true that over 300,000 Allied soldiers had been rescued in the “Miracle of Dunkirk”, but this had been accomplished at the cost of a tremendous loss of essential war material. The seemingly invincible Nazis were at the top of their game, and for those in the free world, the situation looked dire indeed.
In the wake of Neville Chamberlin’s resignation in May, Britain looked for leadership to its new and untested Prime Minister, who just a year earlier had emerged from a lengthy period in the political wilderness to become First Lord of the Admiralty. No one could have foreseen it in 1940, but the year that was to follow would see a number of pivotal events take place that would serve to drastically turn the tide of the war in the Allies’ favor. In 1941: The Year Germany Lost the War, veteran journalist Andrew Nagorski examines the events of that fateful year, and discusses how they came together to change the course of history.
Nagorski’s book examines the critical turning points of 1941 by lowering the microscope on the personalities and decisions of four leaders who were key actors in the drama of the greatest war that history has ever seen:
- Adolf Hitler, Chancellor of Germany: Fifteen years after leaving the Kaiser’s service as a lowly Corporal, Hitler made a spectacular ascent to power on his promise to restore the Fatherland to its former glory. Nagorski’s book paints a portrait of a complex demagogue who was obsessed with his dreams of European domination, and whose early successes during the first year of the war left him increasingly convinced of his own invulnerability. Even before the opening shots were fired Hitler’s ambitions had imposed an onerous burden on the German economy, and as the war went on, he became ever more erratic and delusional, and did not hesitate to summarily dismiss very senior Generals whenever their views clashed with his own. Countless millions would perish as a result of the Führer’s orders until he died by his own hand on the last day of April 1945, barely a week before the war in Europe finally ended.
- Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of Great Britain: A Sandhurst graduate and former cavalry officer, Churchill had resigned from the British Cabinet in 1915 in the aftermath of the debacle at Gallipoli. During the 1930’s he had watched from the sidelines as the storm clouds gathering over the continent grew increasingly ominous, and he arrived at 10 Downing Street seemingly at the very moment when things were at their lowest ebb. Notwithstanding the private doubts he harbored about the gravity of the situation, Churchill realized that Britain had no alternative but to fight on to the bitter end, no matter how high the cost might eventually be. Two months after V-E Day his government would fall in the general election of July 1945, but the man who “marshaled the English language and sent it into battle” would nonetheless be forever remembered by his fellow Britons as being their nation’s savior during its darkest hour.
- Franklin Roosevelt, President of the United States: Confined to a wheelchair by polio, Roosevelt had first been elected President in 1932. He had guided America through the depths of the Great Depression, and as 1941 dawned he was beginning his third term in office, the only President in history to do so. Although the United States remained officially neutral almost until the end of 1941, Roosevelt nonetheless sympathized with Britain’s plight and did everything he could to help the beleaguered island nation stay alive. He would not live to see the end of the war, but decisions he made in 1941 would nonetheless have a major influence on its eventual outcome.
- Joseph Stalin, Premier of the Soviet Union: The son of an impoverished shoemaker from Georgia, shortly after the turn of the century Stalin had dropped out of a seminary and began associating with revolutionary elements. Known to the Tsar’s secret police, he was arrested several times and survived multiple periods of imprisonment. A disciple of Vladimir Lenin, the “Man of Steel” became General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1922 after his mentor was incapacitated by a massive stroke. During the “Great Terror” of the 1930’s Stalin’s determination to purge the Soviet Union of his enemies, both real and imagined, would eviscerate the senior ranks of the Red Army, something that would later cost the USSR dearly during the opening the months of the war. After the initial shock of the German invasion in 1941, Stalin rose to the occasion and rallied his people, and in the process set the stage for the Germans’ eventual defeat.
As Nagorski’s book shows, 1941 would prove to be an eventful year during which the Allied cause would make important progress on a number of different fronts. But there were arguably three key developments during that time that would profoundly alter the future course of the war, and make essential contributions to the Allied victory four years later.
The first was the Act to Promote the Defense of the United States, which was passed by the House of Representatives in February 1941, and signed into law by President Roosevelt the following month. Colloquially known as the “Lend -Lease Act”, this new legislation empowered the American government to lend or lease war materiel to any nation “deemed vital to the defense of the United States”. In practical terms, the Act provided Roosevelt with the power to throw Britain a desperately needed lifeline, and as soon as the bill became law he immediately made prodigious use of his newfound authority.
The Lend-Lease Act came about largely in response to Winston Churchill’s personal appeal to Roosevelt for help. Prior to the passage of the Act, the United States could provide war materials to the Allies, but they had to be paid for in cash, and the recipients were responsible for transporting them to where they would be used. By late 1940 these stipulations were becoming increasingly problematic for the British, whose cash and gold reserves were rapidly dwindling. Compounding the situation was the fact that after the Germans gained control of the French coastal ports in the summer of 1940, the Battle of the Atlantic escalated to a fever pitch and Allied shipping losses skyrocketed.
Roosevelt sought to solve the problem by passing new legislation that would eliminate the requirement for essential goods to be paid for in full upon delivery, and that would give the U.S. government the discretion to lend or lease war materiel to its Allies for what could be a potentially indefinite period of time. Initially, his proposal was vigorously opposed by isolationists who were determined to keep America out of the war, and who feared that the proposed new legislation would threaten the nation’s neutrality. But when the time came, the House and the Senate, both of which were controlled by Roosevelt’s Democratic Party, voted decisively in favor of the legislation.
As a result, over the next four years nearly $50 billion in aid (equivalent to $570 billion in today’s dollars) would be provided to the Allies. For Great Britain, which would be the recipient of two-thirds of that, the Lend-Lease program could not have come at a more opportune time.
The second critical milestone of 1941 would come in the summer, when on June 22 Hitler unleashed Operation Barbarossa, his invasion of the Soviet Union. Having watched the Russians’ bumbling in the Winter War of 1939-40 against Finland, during which they suffered nearly 400,000 casualties in the space of less than four months, the Führer undoubtedly surmised that the Red Army was poorly trained and ineptly led, and consequently would be easy pickings for his legions. His decision to attack the Soviets, who on paper had previously been Germany’s allies, would prove to be a fatal miscalculation that would end any hopes that the Nazis might ultimately win the war.
Even though more than three million German soldiers had massed in preparation for the invasion, when they finally stuck the USSR was caught completely off guard. Just two years earlier the Soviet Union had signed a non-aggression pact with Germany, and Stalin had disregarded repeated warnings from Richard Sorge, his principal spy in Tokyo, that an attack was imminent. In the face of the Nazi onslaught the Soviets’ defences rapidly collapsed, and enormous numbers of Red Army soldiers surrendered and were taken prisoner. As Hitler had expected, his forces rapidly advanced across the Russian steppe, and by early December they had had advanced to Krasnaya Polyanaa, a suburb approximately 20 kilometers from the heart of Moscow. Reportedly, some German officers were able to see the spires of St. Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square in their field glasses.
Then came the reckoning that would prove to be the Germans’ undoing. First, the few roads that were available into Russia were reduced to a virtually impassible quagmire of mud by the onset of the rasputitsa, the season of heavy rain that descend upon the countryside each fall. This was followed by the arrival of the one General who was impossible to defeat: “General Winter”, the same bitterly cold weather that had laid waste to Napoleon’s army in his ill-fated expedition of 1812.
Even by generally accepted standards, the Russian winter of 1941 was exceptionally brutal, with temperatures plunging to – 40 ° C by the beginning of December. Having anticipated a rapid and decisive victory over the Soviets, the Germans had neglected to issue winter clothing to their troops. Adding to the soldiers’ miseries was the fact that, because they had advanced approximately seven hundred miles into the heart of Russia, their supply lines had been stretched to the breaking point.
The Soviets, meanwhile, had recovered from the initial trauma of the invasion, and with the fate of the Motherland hanging in the balance, it wasn’t long before they discovered a newfound will to fight. Their prospects for survival greatly improved in the first weeks of December with the arrival of large numbers of fresh troops from Siberia who were equipped and trained to fight in the harsh conditions of the Russian winter. As a result, even though the Germans had come tantalizingly close to capturing Moscow, the suburbs of the USSR’s capital would be as far as they would ever get. Over the next three years they would suffer a relentless pounding at the hands of the Red Army, and in the end approximately three-quarters of German casualties in the war would be incurred on the Eastern Front.
The third pivotal event that would serve to dramatically alter the future course of the war came on the morning of December 7. Shortly before 8:00 AM local time, 350 Japanese aircraft attacking in two waves unleashed a massive hailstorm of destruction on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. In the space of barely 90 minutes, four U.S. Navy battleships were sunk, nearly 200 aircraft were destroyed, and over 3,500 Americans were killed or wounded. It was the worst attack the United States had suffered on its own soil in history, and would remain so until the September 11 terrorist attacks nearly 60 years later.
Up until the time of Pearl Harbor, the United States had remained deeply divided over the prospect of actively entering into hostilities. While large numbers of Americans feared and distrusted the Third Reich and were sympathetic to the perilous situation Great Britain was faced with, many of their fellow citizens were reluctant to see the nation become involved in what they viewed as being another European war. One of the most high profile and vocal opponents of American military participation was the famed aviator Charles Lindbergh, who in 1927 had become a national hero following his solo transatlantic flight to Paris. In testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs in January 1941, Lindbergh expressed the view that a decision by the United States to enter the war “would be the greatest disaster”.
Much as had been the case with the German invasion of Russia, the catastrophe at Pearl Harbor caught the Americans completely by surprise. The Japanese had gambled on the hope that by making a preemptive strike they would be able to neutralize the U.S. Navy in the Pacific, and deal a crushing blow to American morale that would prompt the United States to negotiate for peace. As matters subsequently turned out, they were sadly mistaken. After Pearl Harbor, everything changed, and any further thoughts of continued U.S. neutrality suddenly vanished in a heartbeat.
Immediately after he was informed of the tragedy at Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt took to the airwaves, famously denouncing the events of December 7 as a “Day of Infamy”, and vowing to fight back. The following day, a declaration of war against Japan was unanimously endorsed by the U.S. Senate, and passed the House of Representatives with only one lone dissenting vote. Upon hearing the news, Germany and Italy promptly declared was upon the United States, and three days later, on December 11 the Americans reciprocated, thus placing the nation officially at war with all of the Axis powers.
As a result of these events, as 1941 drew to a close, the Führer now found himself faced with not one but three formidable opponents, all of who were intent on assuring his defeat. In Russia, his army was suffering from hunger and exposure to the bitter cold, and was already starting to be pushed back to its eventual destruction. The deteriorating situation in the Soviet Union wasn’t the only problem that Hitler was facing. In May, the Royal Navy had captured the submarine U 110 and with it the latest Enigma machine, and Allied codebreakers were now busily deciphering German naval communications, something that would prove to be an essential game changer in the Battle of the Atlantic.
That same month, the Nazis had suffered a huge embarrassment when Rudolf Hess, one of Hitler’s key deputies, had made a sudden and unexpected solo flight to Scotland, hoping to negotiate with the British for peace. His defection caused an international sensation, and in the wake of it Hitler rushed to condemn him as a “madman” and strip him of his Nazi Party offices. After parachuting from his aircraft Hess was promptly taken into custody, and would later spend nearly 50 years in prison before committing suicide in the summer of 1987, at the age of 93.
Although Nagorski’s book does not mention it, 1941 would also be a fateful year for Canada, as it would be the first time the Canadian troops would see combat during war. The setting for this was the British Colony of Hong Kong, where shortly after Pearl Harbor Canadian troops would mount a valiant but ultimately futile defence against a Japanese onslaught. Details of their story are provided in Nathan Greenfield’s excellent book The Damned, a review of which can be found here https://everitas.rmcclub.ca/book-review-by-12570-mike-kennedy-the-damned/.
The events of 1941 would, of course, set the stage for many of the key developments of the following year, in which it would become increasingly clear that the tide of the war was turning decisively in favor of the Allies. In June 1942, the American naval victory at Midway effectively crippled the Japanese fleet, while in August, the invasion of Guadalcanal would be the beginning of the bloody and painstaking effort to reclaim the Pacific islands. That same month, the Germans and their allies became mired in the slaughterhouse at Stalingrad, a battle which would eventually cost them over 850,000 casualties. Meanwhile, in November the British achieved a decisive victory over the Germans at El Alamein, thus marking the beginning of the end of the war in North Africa.
As an overall assessment, Nagorski’s book is an interesting and thoroughly readable analysis of the events of a year that would not only be the turning point of the Second World War, but also one that would arguably serve to define the subsequent course of history for much of the rest of the 20th century. This book is highly recommended for any Ex-Cadet or serving officer who has an interest in modern history.