As a history teacher, I have often wondered “what would have happened if?”, and so have the children I have taught. One of the most common questions is “Would we be speaking German now if Hitler had won the war?”. There is something incredible about the Second World War in that it seems to make good and evil clearly definable. The fact that good won out in the end still seems to attract huge audiences to all kinds of WW2 media. Nevertheless, for a good few years, the outcome of the second world war was very much in the balance. So, what key events or decisions could have turned the war on its head?
1. If Hitler had ordered the Panzers to attack troops at Dunkirk.
In May 1940, with hundreds of thousands of British, French and commonwealth troops trapped in the Dunkirk peninsula, Hitler could have finished them off with ruthless efficiency. If, he had ordered his Panzer divisions, who were in position for a final assault, into battle. Instead, he held them back for no obvious reason apart from that Herman Goering, the chief of the Luftwaffe, convinced him that the air force could bomb the allied armies into submission on the coast. The few days’ grace permitted by Hitler allowed a mass evacuation to begin in earnest. It eventually led to 334,000 troops being lifted from the beaches by all manner of craft. Had Hitler really pushed the issue on the ground, the bulk of the British army would surely have been annihilated. This could have forced Britain out of the war completely or made it much more difficult for them to ward off the threat of invasion.
2. If Hitler hadn’t changed his tactics during the Battle of Britain
Towards the end of August 1940, the RAF was on its knees with the German strategy of attacking airfields and stationary aircraft reaking havoc. The RAF were not able to replace pilots and planes as fast as they were losing them. Then, suddenly and inexplicably, Hitler ordered the Luftwaffe to instead launch brutal aerial bombing of major cities. This was in response to a British bombing raid on Berlin. The RAF was given some respite. Also, the bombers became much more vulnerable to attack with the extra distance they were travelling to get to London and other cities without fighter escort. The RAF survived and inflicted heavy casualties on the German bombers. Hitler wasn’t able to destroy the RAF and therefore had to postpone operation Sealion (the invasion of Britain) indefinitely. If Hitler had persisted with the bombing of RAF airfields, then its probable the RAF would have been wiped out and an invasion would have been possible. With a home guard and army under equipped, an occupation of Britain by Nazi Germany would have been likely. Perhaps the British fascist Oswald Mosely would have been installed as leader? With Britain out of the picture, the war that would come against Russia just became much more winnable.
3. If Hitler didn’t declare war on the United States
In December 1941, Japan launched its surprise attack on Pearl Harbour. Following this, Hitler declared war on the USA! Before this, the Americans were proposing that the British and Russians fight the European War against Hitler whilst the USA fight Japan in Asia. This would be “Americas war”, after all, they had been attacked by Japan, not by Germany. The American public were still very much against American troops fighting in Europe, with memories of WW1 still fresh. However, Hitler took that debate out of allied hands with his war declaration. US troops started appearing in Europe in 1942 and played a prominent role in Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa. Could Britain have won the war in Europe without American manpower? Again, a matter for debate.
4. If Hitler didn’t fight to the death at Stalingrad
Yes – German supply lines were stretched and yes – the Russians had finally fully mobilised, but even so, if Hitler had made a more considered, tactical decision at Stalingrad, the war in the East could have finished differently. The German 6th Army were under threat of being encircled, but instead of pulling them back out of the city and allowing them to regroup, Hitler insisted they fight it out to the death. This was, of course, predictable of the Fuhrer. But, if he had permitted a tactical fall back, the Russian counterattack may have failed and hundreds of thousands of German Troops and heavy equipment could have been saved and used later. Again, the outcome of the war could have been so different.
If you want to explore what could have happened in WW2 with your class, then check out my brand new resource on TES “The Ultimate WW2 Strategy Game”. It’s the perfect way to engage your students in this debate!
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Tom Rogers tweets @rogershistory and runs rogershistory.com