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Posted on May 27, 2014 in Front Page Features, War College

What If? – Three Strategic-Level Questions of World War II

What If? – Three Strategic-Level Questions of World War II

By Chris Heatherly

There are two words in the English vernacular that never fail to elicit a response from historians, professional soldiers and military enthusiasts: What if? These two words spur endless debate, discussion and, occasionally, vehement argument. They generate innumerable books and articles analyzing nearly every conflict in human history.

World War II, in particular, presents a seemingly endless number of “what if” scenarios. While fascinating, too many of these questions narrowly focus upon analysis of individual, tactical-level events, leading to often-erroneous “war-changing” conclusions, e.g., Japanese victory at Midway leads to American defeat in the Pacific Theater.

This article takes a different approach, positing “what if” at the strategic level of decision-making among the Axis nations of Germany, Italy and Japan. Additionally, rather than revisit tried and true questions—What if the Nazis developed atomic weapons? What if Operation Overlord failed? What if Franklin D. Roosevelt had lost his election for a fourth presidential term?—we will examine three less-frequently explored potentialities.


Scenario #1 – What if the Axis had not pursued programs of racial superiority during World War II?

Both Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were governments built upon the idea of racial superiority. Adolf Hitler wrote on his views of Aryan supremacy while in prison, ultimately leading to the book Mein Kampf. Japan’s leaders saw themselves as racially superior to all other cultures, including those of other Asian nations. The Axis’ atrocities committed during WWII are well documented and need not be explored in detail here. Nor is it my intent to castigate the entirety of the Japanese, Italian or German peoples. The Germans, in particular, continue to be singled out for their actions as if no other nation has black marks on its national history. Obviously, the idea of racial equality was antithetical to Imperial Japan’s political ideology as well as to the fascism espoused by Mussolini and Hitler. Arguably, such radical alteration to Axis racial policies would have removed the casus belli for war in the first place—without untermensch there is no lebensraum to be taken.

However, the Axis as a whole failed to grasp the incredible opportunity presented as they began operations at the start of the conflict. Japanese military forces could easily have assumed the role of liberators freeing their fellow Asians oppressed by the yoke of European colonialism (which they claimed they were doing). This approach may have even gained traction amongst the Chinese people tired of internecine Communist/Nationalist warfare and warlordism in general. Allied governments would have faced an uphill battle convincing their former colonial subjects of the value of returning to the European fold.  President Roosevelt, recognizing the futility of such a Sisyphean task, would likely have refused to assist Great Britain, France and the Netherlands to regain pre-war colonial control over their former possessions. Had the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere lived up to its namesake of equality, Japan may have dominated the Pacific region throughout the remainder of the 20th century.

A similar approach would have been particularly useful to the German war machine in the campaign against Russia and may well have been the key to Nazi victory in the east. The lead elements of Germany’s regular army were routinely welcomed as they advanced towards Moscow. Only with the arrival of the infamous Einsatzgruppen (paramilitary units whose purpose was the liquidation of Jews, Communist Party members, and any other groups deemed undesirable by the Nazi regime) did Russian civilians turn against their assumed liberators. Photos from the start of the operation often show smiling civilians greeting Wehrmacht soldiers with gifts of flowers, food and drink. It is entirely plausible the Germans could have recruited personnel beyond the estimated 200,000 to 1,000,000 “Hiwis” who fought against Stalin. Even had recruitment numbers remained unchanged, the lack of partisan activity would have freed up regular army formations, police units and anti-partisan forces for operational use elsewhere.

Scenario #2 – What if the Axis had developed a comprehensive, partnered approach to operations?

Much ink has been spilled describing the differences of opinion between the American and British governments’ approach to strategy during WWII. Historians bemoan British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s attempts to open additional fronts in Italy and the Balkans as unnecessary drains on limited resources and combat power. Some have even accused Churchill of attempting to revisit his failure at Gallipoli during the First World War through ill-advised Turkish and Balkan adventures. Meanwhile, some American leaders are criticized for their emotional focus on the Pacific Theater during WWII and ignoring the existential threat posed by Nazi Germany on Western Europe and the Soviet Union.

These arguments, while interesting, miss the larger historical context of these meetings. First, the Allies held numerous high-level conferences where they debated and decided upon their nations’ combined policy of total, global warfare. Second, the leaders of the respective Allied nations frequently attended and participated in these discussions—no small feat in the days before Air Force One, satellite communications and other technology advances that allowed the president or prime minister to remain in command outside their national capitals. Third, agreements and plans from these conferences were largely adhered to during the execution phase. Was there deviation and did plans change from what was decided at the conferences? Certainly. The strategic and operational environment matured and changed in unexpected ways. Slavish adherence in the war’s latter years to plans developed in 1941 would have failed to take advantage of the opportunities presented and the lessons acquired from reverses on the battlefield that occurred in the intervening years.

The Axis, by comparison, never truly operated as a multinational alliance with common goals and complimentary war plans. This was partly a function of geography given that the two major partners, Japan and Germany, were separated by thousands of miles of land and sea. Even cursory communication between Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany was incredibly problematic given the era’s available technology. The inability or unwillingness of the Axis to coordinate operations ensured they could never remove a major Allied power from the war. Imagine the pressure upon the Soviet Union, for example, had Japan launched a similar-sized attack concurrent with Germany’s Operation Barbarossa. As it stands, however, the Axis governments too often acted individually with little thought as to the second- or third-order effects upon their partners. Returning to the Barbarossa example, Italy’s inability to subdue Greece forced Hitler to deploy forces already earmarked for the Russian campaign and delay operations for six weeks. Both Germany and Japan attempted to communicate via submarines, but the scant number of completed trips prohibited effective strategy development, centering instead upon raw material and technology exchanges. Senior German and Japanese political and military leaders never met to plan and work as a multinational partnership. The Axis’ inability, or unwillingness, to coordinate synchronous or sequential military campaigns guaranteed the Allies sufficient time and space to absorb losses, raise and train tremendous militaries, put their national economies on a war footing, develop strategy and ultimately win the war.

Scenario #3 – What if the Axis had developed a strategic-level intelligence program?

As with all other major nations during WWII, Germany and Japan employed numerous intelligence-gathering organizations to gain understanding and predict their opponents’ next moves. Fortunately for the world, these individual offices were often unable to see beyond the immediate tactical level or coordinate their efforts towards a comprehensive intelligence picture. For example, the Japanese successfully developed the requisite intelligence for their sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, leading to the short-term loss of some of the United States’ Pacific Fleet surface vessels—a minor tactical victory for Japan. At the strategic level, however, Japan’s intelligence network, thinking the United States weak and decadent, failed to adequately predict the visceral American response to December 7th, a major strategic mistake that would eventually lead to Imperial Japan’s downfall, the deaths of nearly 3 million Japanese, and the end of the Japanese Emperor’s divine status.

Even tactical-level intelligence was lacking, given that Japanese naval experts were unable to foresee how quickly America would raise and refit those ships sunk at Pearl Harbor. Nor did those experts understand the speed with which American industry could launch new ships. Throughout the war, the United States built 22 fleet aircraft carriers and 141 escort carriers compared to a paltry 22 Japanese carriers. The disparity in production numbers holds true in other naval categories as well, with the US fleet gaining nearly 400 new cruisers and destroyers, compared to less than 250 for Japan. The difference in merchant ship tonnage is even more stunning, with the US outbuilding Japan at a ratio of nearly 8 to 1.

In Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler’s personal style of command leadership was the primary cause of intelligence failures. First, Hitler played his subordinates against one another and created unnecessary friction between senior military and political figures. While this infighting afforded the Fuhrer some degree of protection from potential rivals, it virtually doomed interservice and intergovernmental cooperation. Further, Hitler often ignored accurate intelligence assessments in favor of his own erroneous—often fantastic—estimates. As the fortunes of war turned against Hitler, he assumed more and more personal control of all decision-making, removing those who dared oppose his views and decisions. This in turn created a climate of “yes men” in Hitler’s inner circle unable or unwilling to provide truthful intelligence products or predictive analysis. Additionally, Germany’s intelligence-gathering apparatus suffered from poor operational security and ineffective counterintelligence that failed to note the Allies’ ability to crack their codes, the turning of every agent in the United Kingdom and the anti-Nazi machinations of Abwehr (German military intelligence) chief Admiral Wilhelm Canaris. Thus, Germany had scant understanding of the Allies’ war plans, the true size of the Russian military, of America’s willingness to wage war, or the deception operations surrounding the D-Day landings.

(To read about some Axis intelligence successes, see the Armchair General articles “German Intelligence Successes in World War II” and “Japanese Intelligence Successes of World War II.”—Ed.)

* * *

It is fortunate that the Axis did not adopt any of these programs or policies. Germany and Japan never truly collaborated and coordinated their operations. Neither nation developed effective intelligence services capable of providing their leaders with accurate information. And both countries pursued programs of racial superiority that alienated conquered peoples from their camps. Like so many other fascinating aspects of World War II, these questions will forever remain in the fascinating world of “what if?”

The opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of the United States Government, the Department of Defense, or the United States Army.

Lieutenant-Colonel Christopher J. Heatherly enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1994 and earned his commission via Officer Candidate School in 1997. He has held a variety of assignments in special operations, Special Forces, armored, and cavalry units. His operational experience includes deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq, South Korea, Kuwait, Mali, and Nigeria. He holds master’s degrees from the University of Oklahoma and the School of Advanced Military Studies.


  1. There is a fourth question: What if Hitler had enforced industrial co-operation between the Axis powers? As it was Italy suffered from inadequate aircraft engines and tank guns simply because Krupp and the other German industrial giants refused to allow their patented products to be used to full advantage. Enforced Italy would have had planes comparable to the Me 109 in 1940 (there was nothing wrong with Italian airframes) and Japan tanks comparable to the Mk IV a year later.

  2. If the Japanese had captured Midway, it would just have prolonged the war. What I’d like to know is , what was the list of targets for the 3rd strike on Pearl Harbor and what effect that would have had ?

    • The primary targets for a third strike on Pearl Harbor were the drydock facilities, the oil storage tanks, and finishing off any likely targets not destroyed by the first two strikes.
      General consensus is that it was a strategic blunder not to destroy these first two targets. Loss of the drydocks would have greatly delayed repair of the ships which were not total losses. Loss of the oil reserve would have required pulling the bulk of the fleet back to the west coast where it could be properly supplied.
      There’s no doubt that a third strike would have been much more costly to the Japanese, especially since a combat air patrol would have to be held back to guard against the sudden appearance of the US carriers. Admiral Nagumo instead decided he had sufficiently accomplished his mission and that it was more important to guarantee preserving Japan’s #1 weapon in the Pacific – the six carriers of the First Air Fleet.

      • Also missed the sub bases. While the Japanese had some early success with the use of their submarine force. The over 30 different types made for a logistical supply nightmare and with being a island nation , one would think have had a better ASW program.

  3. Interesting subject. My take:

    Scenario #1 – What if the Axis had not pursued programs of racial superiority during World War II?

    Then they would have not started the war. It was Hitler’s notions of a Herrenvolk needing lebensraum that promoted him to start a war in the first place. Japan’s national pride prompted them to try and create an economically independent empire rather than just work with the rest of
    the world as they do today.

    Scenario #2 – What if the Axis had developed a comprehensive,partnered approach to operations?

    It wouldn’t have helped them. Germany’s principal enemy in WW2 was Russia, Japan’s was the USA, and the bulk of their war effort had to be directed at these opponents. Germany could do nothing at all to help Japan and Japan had her hands full conquering and holding her empire against Britain, the USA and China. She could not afford to
    start fighting the USSR as well.

    Scenario #3 – What if the Axis had developed a strategic-levelintelligence program?

    The one prominent individual in the Axis leadership who did serious intelligence gathering was Admiral Yamato. He visited the US and saw American industrial might first-hand. When the Central Council met to discuss whether to go to war with the US, he said: “I will run amok for six months, after that I promise nothing.” He knew Japan would lose.

    Modern war on a grand scale is a war of factories. Blitzkrieg, pincer attacks, and other tactical nicities gain only so much. In the end you have to have more stuff to throw at the enemy can he can throw at you. Germany and Japan in going to war knew they were taking on the rest of the world. Five minutes comparing the economic might of the Allies against their own economic capabilities should have convinced them war was a bad idea.

    • Your points make since though would have to disagree with your last two.

      In the case of the second point, the Japanese minister was actually in Berlin just prior to the beginning of Operation Barbarossa to sign the Tri-Partite Pact. If the two countries had actually talked, it could have been a coordinated assault against the Soviet Union, thereby pinning down the Siberian Army, which by the way had already handed the Japanese Army a defeat in the field. This would have put Stalin in a desparate straight later in the campaign because those battle tested troops would not have been available to turn the pincers of Operation Typhoon as they were in real life. This would have possibly taken the largest of the Allies out of the fight, prior to Japan’s attack and subsequent entrance of the US into the war because Pearl Harbor would not have taken place, and the Japanese would have gained the one resource that they actually needed, the Siberian oil fields.

      The last point about Industry fails to take several points into consideration. Up until the beginning of 1945, by the own estimates of both British and US war records, German industry was outproducing the total allied production in all war materials. This was done even with the German economy not taking a war footing to maximize production facilities, in fact the German economy was never put on a war footing at any time during the ENTIRE war. Even with this fact known, they still were out producing the entire allied effort in tanks, planes and other essential war material. Their problem was that after five years of war they did not have the manpower or the oil reserves to move or man the material effectively. This was partly due to training programs, such as flight schools which were never scaled back to reflect losses, and due to the fact that a war footing was NEVER put into place that pulled manpower into the available replacement pools.

      In the end, would any of this made any difference to the final outcome? I rather doubt it. The strategic and operational theories of both countries forecast their own defeat. Logistical choices doomed the Russian invasion because the general staff did not take into account the difference in railway gauges when crossing into Russia, to where supply could not keep up with operational tempo. This in itself doomed the spearheads to eventual defeat due to lack of adequate and appropriate supply as the offensive continued. Choices such as these by all Axis nations led to their eventual demise.

      • “Up until the beginning of 1945, by the own estimates of both British and US war records, German industry was outproducing the total allied production in all war materials. This was done even with the German economy not taking a war footing to maximize production facilities, in fact the German economy was never put on a war footing at any time during the ENTIRE war. Even with this fact known, they still were out producing the entire allied effort in tanks, planes and other essential war material.”

        I have looked at several reliable sources and they all confirm that Germany’s industry was hopelessly outperformed by the Allies by 1944 at the latest: GNP, acquisition of resources, manufacture of armaments in all categories, etc. Germany was economically being buried alive.

        “This would have put Stalin in a desperate straight later in the campaign because those battle tested troops would not have been available to turn the pincers of Operation Typhoon as they were in real life. This would have possibly taken the largest of the Allies out of the fight, prior to Japan’s attack and subsequent entrance of the US into the war because Pearl Harbor would not have taken place, and the Japanese would have gained the one resource that they actually needed, the Siberian oil fields.”

        This is not certain. It was Zhukov’s use of combined arms that defeated Japan’s armies, demonstrating that Japan was not properly equipped for armoured land warfare. The Japanese took the point. And what stopped the Germans more than the Russian counterattack was the logistics and the weather, combined with the enormous distances they had covered. Half their tanks were no longer operational and the other half were immobilised by the winter freeze. The German attack had petered out even before the Russian counteroffensive in December 1941 – but the counteroffensive did not break or even seriously weaken the German army. Russia showed up the limitations of the blitzkrieg doctrine: it was fine for taking out smaller states quickly but it did not have the reach to neutralise a country as big as Russia, and it didn’t work in winter. Russia could lose hundreds of miles of land, hundreds of thousands of soldiers, and still not have its ability to wage war seriously compromised, and by the second half of 1942 she had got the idea of how blitzkrieg worked and used it against the Germans at Stalingrad. The odds were now even and the bigger battalions won.

      • I researched and wrote about unarmored vehicles of WWII for ABC-CLIO’s Encyclopedia of World War II. Based on the information I gathered from multiple sources (Sorry, but its been 10 years and I don’t remember all of them.), this was my second paragraph:

        “During the war, the United States manufactured 3.2 million military vehicles, a production level previously thought unattainable. Canada made no military vehicles in 1938 but turned out nearly 816,000 between 1939 and 1945, more than were produced by all the Axis nations combined.”

        An article by Harold R. Carfrey about armaments production, in that same set of WWII encyclopedias, shows that in 1942, when Germany produced about 6,200 tanks and SP guns, the US produced 27,000 and the USSR over 24,000. That same year Germany produced 41,000 guns; the US produced 188,000, the USSR 127,000, and the UK 106,000, according to Carfrey’s figures. German production of tanks and SP guns nearly tripled in 1944 from its 1942 levels, while the US dropped to 20,500 – but the US had produced 38,500 the previous year, while Germany produced less than 11,000.

  4. what if Germany had lost the campain in the west of may-june 1940?
    Capitulation of Germany in Berlin to the French and the brittish victors,Hitler hanged
    No second ww.

  5. What if Germany had properly supplied the deutsche Afrika Korps and won in Afrika? Not only is North Africa the soft underbelly of Europe with a second front available against Russia but securing the oil supplies of the Middle East would mitiagte a resource issue not to mention remove the threat of Italy as a launching point for the invasion of Europe.

  6. In the first half of the war Germany fought in 4 distinct theatres,discounting the Balkan: Poland, France, North Africa and Russia. Poland and France were walkovers. Germany outnumbered Poland and fought on a rough parity with the French and British, but in both cases her blitzkrieg tactics using armoured divisions and close air support won through.

    There was plenty of opportunity for blitzkrieg in North Africa, but that theatre was essentially decided by numbers. If outmanoeuvred by Rommel’s tactics, the British always had space to fall back, and Rommel did not have the tank and air muscle, or the logistic support to finish off the 8th Army. Once the British outnumbered the Germans 3 to 1, it was all over bar the shouting.

    Russia proved conclusively that if you couldn’t occupy all of a country in a single summer campaign, then it would come down to a slogging match. Russia ultimately beat Germany simply because she was large enough to survive encirclement after encirclement and have somewhere to put her factories (the Urals) to keep production going, besides having enough manpower to supply her army. If Germany could not occupy enough of Russia to neutralise her industry and population, then she was bound to lose.

  7. The 3 scenarios are only a wast of time

    1) racial superiority :this was totally irrelevant for the defeat of the Axis .

    2)Cooperation between Germany and Japan was out of the question

    3)I like to see the proof for the claim that the Axis had not developped a strategical level intelligence program .

    Besides : the anti nazi machinations of the Abwehr are an invention of the tabloids .

    • Did you even bother to read the article?

  8. Scenario #2 – What if the Axis had developed a comprehensive, partnered approach to operations?

    There are probably very good reasons why the Japanese did not, but: What if Japan had declared war on the USSR in June 1941, but not the UK and USA? Could the USSR have survived a war on two fronts?

    Assuming that the Russians still held out then Japan would still have started the Pacfic War because the Axis had a habit of starting new campaigns before finishing old ones. Also for the Japanese in 1941 war with the USA was “now or never” in the real world and it would be the same in this version history. Also a war against the USSR would not deplete the forces available for the southern drive because it would be an all Imperial Japanese Army operation and a small proportion of it was involved in the Pacific War.

    If this did help the Germans conquer the USSR in 1941 then it would be very hard for the UK and USA to defeat Germany and Italy. They would be self-sufficient in raw materials, return a large proportion of their army to the factories and build more aeroplanes and u-boats instead of tanks and field artillery.

    The Royal Navy was relived of the burden of the Artic Convoys, which allowed it to give the Malta convoys more protection, but this would have been to no avail because the Luftwaffe would have sent most of the aircraft it had on the Russian Front in 1942 in the real world to the Mediterranean in this version of history. Malta would be part of Italy by the end of June 1942 and Rommel would have been in Cairo by September 1942. The Luftwaffe would also be able to build up a formidable anti-shipping force in France to support the Kriegsmarine with aircraft that were not needed on the Russian Front.

    This would have helped the Japanese because the Americans would have had to pull out forces from the Pacific to help the British in the Atlantic and Mediterranean, which might have meant no Coral Sea or Midway and given the Japanese more time to develop their defensive perimeter, which nicely brings us back to Europe because having no Eastern Front also allows Hitler to put more resources into the Atlantic Wall.

    Communications between the Japanese and their European Allies would be much easier. They could trade via the trans-Siberian railway and in the summer by sea via the Artic Ocean. That would offset some of the annihilation of the Japanese merchant marine. It would be possible for the Axis leaders to meet in person and decide a joint strategy.

    This might have forced the USA and what was left of the British Empire to make a compromise peace with the Axis.

    In the real Second World War was effectively one industrialised continent, North America, against another, Axis controlled Europe. The latter lost due to insufficient oil and raw materials, plus they didn’t make the maximum use of what they had until it was 2 years too late. In this version of history the Axis has enough raw materials to keep its factories running at full capacity. In this version of history not putting their economies on a total war footing is of less importance because one of their three principal enemies was out of the war.