The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 16 No 1 - June 2013

A re-appraisal of the two men who did most
to affect the outcome of the Second World War

By ex-Sapper Ian Glauber

About the author

Ian Glauber is a veteran of the Second World War. He served in the South African Engineer Corps during the campaign in Italy and formed part of the team of South African sappers who cleared the great line of tunnels and bridges in the Apennines linking Florence and Bologna. He is an avid reader of Second World War and Cold War histories.


The history of the twentieth century was dominated by the First and Second World Wars, their causes and aftermath, and the subsequent Cold War which was to be our inescapable destiny for most of the century. An enormous volume of material was studied and written about it, and this represents my primary reading interest through most of my life and the basis for some of the conclusions that I have drawn.

I set down here the reasons why I believe the achievements of certain people far transcended what have been credited to them by history, and why I think they supersede in significance the accomplishments of those great military leaders who have largely been credited with having saved civilization from the ravages of the predator nations. The list of successful military leaders is extensive and would include generals of the calibre of Marshals Zhukov and Koniev - I have less focus on most of the Russian military leaders because of my ignorance - Generals Marshall, MacArthur, Eisenhower, Alanbrooke, Montgomery, Alexander and Slim, Admirals King, Cunningham and Nimitz, General Arnold, Air Marshals Portal and Tedder, and others for whom it could be claimed that their contributions in defeating the enemy were of supreme significance.

I have never seen anywhere the due recognition given to the two supreme military leaders on whom I wish to focus attention here. In fact, both were viewed with some disdain by their peers and never achieved the recognition that was their due. Perhaps this was because, essentially, they were dedicated loners.


It is necessary that I first discuss some general history. During the approximately 140 years covering the ninetee nth century and that part of the twentieth century up to Hitler's assault on the Soviet Union, a string of German - particularly Prussian - philosophers and thinkers succeeded in consolidating a doctrine asserting that the Teutonic peoples of northern Europe, particularly Prussian, were ordained to be masters of all non-Teutonic peoples (including the Slavs). Certainly, Hitler was able to grasp all the possibilities of this arrogant dogma for the many in Germany who were inclined to subscribe to it.

During that period, European wars took place with an approximately predictable periodicity and it is interesting to observe that whether Germany won or lost a war, firstly this general dogma remained broadly unaltered; secondly, no war took place on German soil and hardly a window pane was broken; and thirdly, massive German losses (particularly in the First World War), were incurred and reflected in terms of extensive casualty lists - dead and wounded, who were replaceable - but not in terms of damage to the Fatherland, which was not.

As distinct from the civilian populations of those places that had been smashed up in actions of war, such as Verdun, Ypres, Sedan, Warsaw, Rotterdam, London, Coventry, Kiev, Leningrad, Stalingrad, etc, the civilian population of Germany had, until 1940, never experienced such direct devastation and could hardly have known where these places were. War consisted of the loss of relatives, but not the wholesale destruction of their own cities, and no doubt this accounted for the enthusiastic support they gave to Hitler in his military adventures.

There had to come a change in this scenario and some vital lessons needed to be learnt. The one man who achieved this more than anyone else was Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, and it is to his team and their efforts and sacrifices - approximately 55 000 aircrew lost their lives - that credit must be given for the education of the German nation as to the realities of the ravages of war, and for its transformation into the model, peace-loving nation that it is today.

'Bomber' Harris and the area bombing of Germany

Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris made a major mistake in antagonising his peers. He believed - wrongly, as it transpired - that the war could be won by pulverising Germany by bombing alone and that land conquest would not be necessary. This created hostility and he was strongly criticised on a number of issues. Firstly, the area bombing was not sufficiently accurate in attacking military targets. Secondly, it failed to disrupt road and rail communication effectively. Thirdly, Germany's armaments production in the fourth year of the war was greater than in the second year, but of course other factors must be considered in assessing this. Fourthly, the bombing raids should have been more effective in dealing with Germany's oil resources. Furthermore, it caused casualties among women, children and other civilians not engaged in the war effort, and so on.

Bombing of an industrial area
during the Second World War
(Photo: DNMMH)

It should not be forgotten that it was the precision and skill that the Royal Air Force (RAF) acquired in their gruelling campaign in Germany that led directly to the successful destruction of the storage and launching sites of Hitler's secret weapons - the unmanned V1 and V2 bombs - in which he had placed his hopes of winning the war.

In reality, the bombing .that could be described as random in relation to some conceived standard that is more easily held in the mind than can be attained in real, variable flying conditions, is less significant than the more fundamental objective described above.

Throughout the war, the Germans showed their efficiency and speed in restoring damaged marshalling yards, railways, roads and bridges. Even the tremendous destruction wrought by the bombing of the Möhne Dam, which called for a great deal of planning, pure heroism and much loss of life, was deemed, from German sources, to have been of relatively short-term strategic effect due to the efficiency of their remedial measures.

What was needed and delivered was the bitter reality that every morning, when the German civilian survivors emerged from their communal bomb shelters, they saw a bigger pile of rubble to climb over than the previous day, as an inescapable and escalating part of their lives. The reality of war was brought right to the Germans' doorstep by the RAF, and not kept far away in Stalingrad where it could demoralise their enemy's citizenry instead.

But 'Bomber' Harris achieved much more than this and it would be impossible to assess the real value of his role in winning the war. To contend with the nightly bombing raids to undisclosed destinations, Hitler was forced to increase every available means of defence of the Fatherland. To do so, he discontinued the production of bombers in favour of producing more fighter aircraft for the Luftwaffe. Most available fighters were brought into service to protect the Fatherland, and this had a devastating effect on the performance of the German armies everywhere. In Africa, Italy, Russia, Normandy, and later, after 1943, in northern France, his armies complained bitterly that Goering's Luftwaffe was practically non-existent. If the Allies had not had this mastery of the air everywhere, the war might have proceeded differently, especially at Normandy. For example, at the time of the Battle of the Bulge (December 1944), the skies were densely overcast and the Allied air forces were grounded. There, the Germans made startling progress, but as soon as the weather cleared, the battle turned in favour of the Allies, who had mastery of the skies once more. At the time of the Battle of Stalingrad in December 1942, Goering had made grandiose promises to keep the Sixth and Army alive with his air support, but failed to do so and this was the turning point in the war.

But it was not only the fighters that were kept in Germany to contend with the bombers. Also kept permanently active were many hundreds (possibly thousands) of 88mm anti-aircraft guns and a constant supply of ammunition. These - and the estimated two million men who manned them and the corresponding number of searchlights required to be on permanent duty in Germany - would have caused tremendous havoc to Allied armies had they rather been installed in the fearsome Tiger tanks.

How many land battles might have had a different ending if Harris and his team had not had such an undermining impact on the effectiveness of all the German armies facing the Allied forces?

To the extent that, in due course, the United States' Army Air Force joined in the massive bombing undertaking over Germany by taking over the task durinfl daylight hours, Generals Spaatz and Eaker and their US team must also take their share of the credit for this achievement. A cynical observation of these events by the women caught in the Russian invasion of Berlin was - 'better a Russian on top than an American overhead!'

But I have no doubt that in the three and a quarter years of relentless pursuit of his objective, 'Bomber' Harris earned the honour of being, in the long term, the second most significant military leader to contribute to the elimination of that aspect of the German nation that needed to fight wars - as claimed by Hitler - and not merely to win campaigns in the course of a war. Above all, Harris was the man most responsible for their conversion to the most peace-loving of nations. Let us hope that History pays him his due.

A telling statement

In 1976, Albert Speer wrote a letter to 'Bomber' Harris, enclosing the following statement he had written in 1959, while he was in prison:

The role of Harris and Bomber Command in depriving the German armies of the mastery of the air in every campaign in which they fought after 1942, by drawing away the Luftwaffe fighters, was a most significant factor in the ultimate defeat of Germany. This renders the vicious criticisms of Max Hastings, Bomber Command (1979) and other detractors as prejudiced, ignorant and irrelevant.

General Leslie Groves and the atomic bomb

It is quite a straight-forward matter to determine whose victorious campaign had been the most significant in its impact on the history of the war and of the world, and who stands head and shoulders above all others in this respect.

If, on 4 August 1914, all the political leaders of Europe, including Kaiser Wilhelm II himself, had been able to foresee what the state of Europe and their own respective countries would be on 11 November 1918, there would have been no war. They would have found some other means of dealing with the paltry problem in Serbia. Without the First World War, there would have been no breeding ground for Hitler to develop his mission and no Second World War. Notwithstanding this outcome, if, on 1 September 1939, all the political leaders of Europe (including both Hitler and Stalin) had had the opportunity to foresee the outcome of the war on Europe and their own countries on 8 May 1945, there would have been no Second World War and they would have found other ways of solving their problems.

In June 1948 and again in 1961 in Berlin, and in Cuba in 1962, the politicians of the world's major powers, under the most severe provocation, came very, very close to starting another war, but they managed to shrink from the crises and did not do so. Why? They did have some idea of the devastation that another war would cause, having seen the destruction created on 6 and 9 August 1945 by the dropping of the atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively. The alternative they found to solve their problems was to sit around tables for 45 years in Geneva, Paris, Moscow, Washington, Helsinki and Reykjavik debating and bartering ICBMs, ABMs, MIRVs, Polaris and SS-9s, SALT I, SALT II and anything else that might come up to comprise what came to be known as the Cold War, the only alternative to a hot war with nuclear weapons. Paul Nitze's account of his experience in From Hiroshima to Glasnost (1989), tells vividly of this ordeal. The scientific development of the atomic bomb was not - and would not be - a deterrent to the waging of war as long as it remained in the laboratory without its power of destruction being demonstrated by explosion. To merely speculate from theoretical calculations what would be its probable destructive capacity is unlikely to have deterred the outbreak of a third World War. Without the horror of the bomb having been vividly demonstrated and witnessed, there is no doubt that a new war would have been inevitable. That the world was by no means secure after the collapse of Germany is evidenced by ~the speed with which Stalin destroyed the accord between the Allies that was supposed to be the agreed-to basis of post-war reconstruction. With the Western nations hastily demobilising to return to civilian life after the war, what was it that kept Stalin at bay, when the provocations for war were infinitely more threatening than at any time in 1914 and 1939? He was shown on 6 August 1945 what would happen and that was enough. In this connection, a monument ought to be erected as a lasting tribute to the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki for having been called upon to bring about the realisation that world wars among major nations were no longer to be a recurring feature of life on the planet.

To whom should the credit go for creating this pinnacle of understanding? More than 100 000 people were involved in the creation of this monstrous but totally effective deterrent, the atomic bomb. They are represented by one military leader. In September 1949, Edward Teller, the father of the H-bomb, was interrupted in expressing his unflattering opinion of General Leslie Groves of the United States' Corps of Engineers by Sir James Chadwick, a most taciturn man who had headed the British delegation to Los Alamos during the wartime development of the atomic bomb. Chadwick emphatically and repeatedly stated that the atomic bomb project would never have succeeded without General Groves, that the scientists could never have built the bomb without him, and that the fact that he happened to be an Anglophobe was totally irrelevant. General Groves was neither popular nor tactful, but he was unique in his ability to carry out so massively complex a task so rapidly as to have it bring about the immediate ending of the war and thus saving countless more lives. General Groves should unquestionably be rated as by far the most significant military leader of the Second World War and be accorded that unique tribute.


Nitze, Paul H, From Hiroshima to Glasnost: At the center of decision (Grove, 1989)
Norris, Robert S, Racing for the Bomb: General Leslie R Groves, the Manhattan Project's Indispensable Man (Steerforth Press, 2002)
Probert, Henry, Bomber Harris: His life and times (Greenhill Books, 2001)
Roberts, Andrew, A history of the English-speaking peoples since 1900 (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2006), especially pp 371-9
Roberts, Andrew, The storm of war: A new history of the Second World War (Allen Lane; 2009)
Speer, Albert; Inside the Third Reich (Macmillan, 1970)
Speer, Albert; Spandau: The secret diaries (Macmillan, 1976)

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