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World War II -- 60 Years After: Western Allies Gave Key Support To Soviet War Effort

Josef Stalin As we mark the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, RFE/RL is looking again at some of the factors that determined the course of the struggle and shaped the new world that emerged from it. One of these factors was the alliance between the Soviet Union, the United States, and Britain. The Soviet Union bore the brunt of the fighting against Nazi German forces for three years, from summer 1941 until the Western allies opened a second front on D-Day at Normandy in 1944. But during that time Moscow was not alone. The United States and Britain supported the Soviet war effort through a vast program of aid and assistance, which is credited with giving Soviet forces some clear advantages over the Germans. The Western allies also kept up air bombing of German industrial centers, making arms production difficult and drawing German air power away from the war in the east.

Prague, 4 May 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The figures for Western materiel assistance to the Soviet Union during World War II are staggering.

The scale of the delivery is illustrated by the cargo list of a single convoy which left the U.S. western port of Seattle in January 1944, bound for Vladivostok in the Soviet Far East.

Historian Arvo Vecamer writes that the convoy carried 22,000 tons of steel, 4,100 complete trucks or truck chassis, 2,500 tractors or half-track vehicles, and 2,200 aircraft, as well as many smaller items like batteries and ball-bearings.

Vecamer says that in all, under the Lend Lease aid program between 1941 and 1946, the Western allies delivered some 350,000 trucks, 78,000 jeeps and 22,000 aircraft to the USSR. In all, some 10 percent of total Soviet war production.

British military historian Richard Overy notes that Lend Lease aid covered mostly non-weapon items. That displeased Moscow, but nevertheless it was enormously valuable to the Soviet war effort because it relieved the Soviet economy of the need to manufacture such items.

"What the Western allies supplied was a kind of economic backup to the Soviet Union, which made possible their extraordinary military success, and the extraordinary success of their armaments industry, and this is something which [Soviet leader Josef] Stalin privately admitted during the war as well," Overy said.

And some of the aid went to the front-line anyway. U.S.-built, four-wheel-drive trucks became an important battlefield asset once the German forces were pushed into retreat in 1943.

Using the four-wheel-drive trucks, the Red Army perfected a technique of moving infantry brigades quickly across rough country, with artillery in tow, and accompanied by tanks for armored support. By this means, they were able to appear through the forests and decimate retreating German formations, which stayed on the roads.

Soviet forces thus developed their own form of "blitzkrieg," a concept of lightning strikes which had served Germany well in the early years of the war.

The allied aid was, of course, a supplement to the Soviets' own massive war production. Among other things, Soviet factories were turning out scores of thousands of simple but rugged armaments and war-related items. These included the ubiquitous T-34 tank and GAZ, AMO, and ZIS trucks. The trucks were mostly built with design or engineering help from U.S. companies.

In the absence of a second front on the ground in West Europe, as demanded by Stalin, the Western allies saw their campaign of saturation bombing of German industrial installations and cities as an important way of helping Moscow.

Overy continues: "What the allies offered was another kind of second front, they offered the bombing of Germany, and though that, too, took time to get going, there is no doubt that it diverted a huge amount a military and managerial efforts on the German side, away from what was happening on the Eastern front."

The day and night air raids made uninterrupted production of weapons in normal factories impossible. Production had to be dispersed to small installations in rural areas, or to underground bunkers and road tunnels, or to occupied territories like Czechoslovakia.

Despite the disruption this caused, the brilliant German armaments minister Albert Speer managed to actually lift production of arms in the supremely difficult years 1944 and 1945. In 1944, Germany produced a total of 40,600 aircraft, a record number.

Among them were the first examples of the world's first jet fighter, the Messerschmidt Me262. This was a fearsome weapon in so far because it was heavily armed and almost twice as fast as allied propeller craft.

Irrationally, its employment as a fighter aircraft was delayed for months by Hitler's personal order. He wanted to preserve it for a "revenge" bombing campaign against allied cities, which never materialized.

Expert opinion differs on whether the earlier deployment of the Me262 could have delayed or staved off German defeat. Moscow-based military historian Pavel Felgenhauer believes it could have done so had not the Western bombing been so heavy. "Most likely the Germans could have done as they planned, to produce enough fighters to seriously curtail the allied bombing campaign," he said.

However, Johannes Steinhoff, a wartime German fighter ace who later became head of the postwar Luftwaffe, noted that machines were only one part of the equation. He says flesh and blood were essential too, and, by late 1944, the German air force had been bled dry of experienced pilots.

Youngsters arriving for battle normally survived only two or three combat missions, and freshly-built fighter planes stayed parked in long rows, with nobody to fly them and no fuel to use anyway.

The most decisive Western help to the Soviet war effort came on 6 June 1944 with the D-Day landings at Normandy in France. The invasion of "fortress Europe" came two and a half years after Soviet leader Josef Stalin had urgently requested the opening of a second front to assist the Red Army.

The Soviets has been fighting since Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union in summer 1941 -- three long years of bloodshed on an incredible scale.

The Western invasion had been slow in coming. The United States, under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, had been in favor of an invasion since 1942, but British Prime Minister Winston Churchill would not agree to that, saying the allies were not ready.

A senior historian with the Imperial War Museum in London, James Taylor, comments on Churchill's state of mind: "Churchill was very worried, he was the main figure in delaying the second front; he was particularly worried because he did not feel, he did not want, in fact, to see the slaughter of the first World War repeated."

The terrible years of trench warfare against the Germans in France were still fresh in everyone's memory. On these grounds, says Taylor, Churchill held out for optimum readiness, which was not achieved until early summer of 1944.

The Normandy offensive made the Germans transfer from the eastern front infantry, armor, and aircraft which were badly needed against the Soviets. For instance, when the allies landed unexpectedly at Normandy, the Luftwaffe had only a handful of planes to commit to the fray.

However, the subsequent months, leading up to the last great German offensive, the Battle of the Bulge against U.S troops in the Ardennes forest, saw a big deployment of forces from East to West, including air power.

When the Battle of the Bulge ended in January 1945, Germany had lost 100,000 men, 800 tanks, and 1,000 planes. Such losses were unsustainable for Germany and, by April, Hitler had gone, killed by his own hand. By May, peace had returned to Europe.

A cold peace perhaps, but that's another story.

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