Friday, September 25, 2009

Military History and Warfare: World War II: A few thoughts on the co-operation of the minor Axis powers with Germany


Students (and incidentally participants) of the Second World War will remember that Germany did not fight the Second World War alone. Famously, Fascist Italy, Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany signed a 10-year pact in 1940. This would later result in Germany declaring war upon the United States shortly after the Japanese attack upon Pearl Harbour. Given the geographical distances between their territories, more practical day-to-day co-operation between Germany and Japan was extremely difficult, if not impossible. This was obviously not the case with Germany and Italy. German forces under Rommel were sent into North Africa to prop up the failing Italian army. German and Italian troops occupied parts of Greece together and a military expedition of 200,000 (with the rather grandiose designation as the Italian 8th army) was sent by Mussolini to join German forces in Russia.

Whilst Germany, Italy and Japan were the major partners of the Axis, it is also important to remember the manpower and material contributions of the minor Axis powers. These included Finland, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria and Slovakia. However, unlike the Western Allies, the Axis powers failed to achieve the same degree of co-operation, often with disastrous results.


Finland had been fighting Soviet Russia since before Operation Barbarossa. During the Winter War of 1939-40, Finland had fought bravely against superior Russian forces. Despite tactically outmanoeuvring the Russians, Finland had eventually been forced to capitulate under the sheer weight of numbers of the forces arrayed against them. An alliance with Nazi Germany in 1941 was necessary in order for Finland to recover its lost territories and prevent future Russian aggression.

Finnish-German co-operation took many forms. The Finnish army was well trained and had proved its fighting capabilities during the Winter War. In September 1941, the German High Command approached the Finnish military with the proposal of the establishment of creating a school to instruct German officers in winter warfare. The proposal was readily accepted with the first classes beginning in December of that year. In the summer of 1942, the Finns continued to instruct the Germans in fighting techniques for heavily forested areas. The school was considered to be a success by both parties.

During the invasion of Russia, Finnish forces pushed southeast helping to secure the cordon around Leningrad, allowing the Germans to place the city under siege. All in all, Finland’s forces were considered to be reliable and perhaps the equal of the Wehrmacht. This was certainly not the attitude of the Germans towards their other Eastern front allies. Despite this relatively high degree of co-operation, after the winter of 1941 the Germans failed to gain very much more from their Finnish allies. Once the old borders of Finland had been secured in August 1941, Finnish forces stood down from the majority of active operations. The Finnish government clearly saw the Russian war as a war of containment rather than the anti-Bolshevik crusade that Hitler had envisaged.


The Romanian contribution to the Axis effort has received a great deal of bad press from military historians. Much of this is due to the collapse of the Romanian forces on the steppe outside of Stalingrad during ‘Operation Uranus’. It is argued that the failure of the Romanian army to stand its ground resulted in the encirclement and eventual destruction of the German Sixth Army. Whilst there are elements of truth in this account, the reality is more complicated. Crucial to the Romanian (and Italian) failure outside of Stalingrad was the shortage of antitank weaponry. In October 1942, the Romanian Third Army had to defend a front of 75 miles with a total of only sixty anti-tank guns of 50mm calibre or higher. Recognising the crucial shortages of such weapons amongst their allies, the Germans had promised to assist them with additional supplies of modern anti-tank guns. However, with the German war industry now under constant air attack, the Germans were by now facing difficulties keeping their own forces adequately equipped. Consequently, many of these weapon deliveries fell far short of what had initially been promised.

This widespread lack of equipment was not helped by the often contemptuous attitude of many German officers towards their allies. During the difficult latter part of 1942, Romanian horses were supplied with 1 kg of fodder a day compared the Germans 5 or even 6 kg. Subsequently the Romanians were left with fewer horses for transport. Wounded Romanian soldiers complained of being given less rations than their counterparts in German hospitals. All of this was significant because it was usually the Germans who decided where supplies were allocated.

Another major problem with Axis alliance was the political relationship between the smaller powers. Romania and Hungary were in dispute over several regions within their own borders. Each looked to German to favour one over the other. Subsequently, Antonescu of Romania and Admiral Horthy of Hungary were both willing to escalate their troop commitments to the eastern front. However, German commanders had be careful not to place these ‘allied’ units adjacent to each other on the battlefield, for fear that they might start fighting each other. Even as late as 1944, American diplomats claimed that the only army the Hungarians really wanted to fight was the Romanian.


It is interesting to note that of all the Axis armies deployed on the eastern front, only the Germans had a strong ideological component to their training. Subsequently, German forces were much more highly motivated when compared to the Romanian, Hungarian and Italian armies. German reports from the period are filled with stories illustrating the widespread lack of enthusiasm for the war amongst their allies.

Added to this was the widespread problem of lack of modern equipment and transport, which immediately put the minor Axis, powers forces at a major disadvantage in a war that was becoming increasingly technologically sophisticated. For example, much of the artillery of the Hungarian army were World War I remnants from the old Austria-Hungarian army. Germany tried to elevate these problems by supplying captured enemy tanks and equipment. However, this solution could never be more than a stopgap.

It is also important not to underestimate the importance of language barriers as a practical obstacle that could often lead to hostility and misunderstanding.