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A common topic in alternate history fiction works is what would have happened if a major war had been won by the other side. These usually focus on the events after the war, and the change itself is not depicted realistically: it's either not discussed, or attributed to a superweapon or deus ex machina.

I know that WW2 was a very complex war, with a huge number of social and economic factors in it so that there was no single realistic "miracle" which would have guaranteed a certain different outcome. Therefore I list a number of disclaimers in order to make this question fit into the topic of this site.

  • It doesn't have to guarantee an Axis victory, but it has to increase its probability significantly.

  • A victory doesn't necessarily mean global domination (which neither power had any realistic chance of achieving). If Germany ends up in control over most of Eastern Europe (like the Soviets ended up doing in real life after the war), with a Soviet Union unwilling to fight, and with a peace treaty with the western Allies at least slightly favorable to Germany, it counts as a victory for Germany.

  • The change has to be a single event, or a collection of tightly coupled and interdependent events. It has to happen either during the war, or not more than a few years before it. The war should, at least in the beginning, look very similar to what happened in real life: the alliances should be roughly the same, the events like the conquest of Poland, the occupation of France, an attack against the Soviet Union, and a naval war between the USA and Japan should occur (or at least begin), even if at different dates or different order. The major participants should be the same.

  • The change should have a realistic justification (so no secret Nazi super laser), I would think in the following changes: events progressing slightly faster or slightly slower than in real life, a single large battle or series of interconnected battles won by the opposite side (if that had even a small chance of happening)

I'm thinking along the lines of Germany and its allies advancing faster against the Soviets and crushing them before they had any chance of putting up a good defense, or Hitler not antagonizing scientists so they could develop even better equipment or maybe even a nuclear bomb, or Japan winning the battle of Midway and keeping the USA from entering the European theater, or a different sequence of diplomatic events leading a peace on one front which in turn could lead to a victory on the other front, etc.

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    $\begingroup$ The nazis not invading Poland and thus turning the USSR against them. $\endgroup$
    – Jake
    Commented Dec 2, 2015 at 20:28
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    $\begingroup$ The axis chances were actually not that great, they started with a huge standing army sure, but couldn't keep up with the rate the others could build up forces so it was just a matter of time until attrition took them down. The biggest change though would be a simple one, never attack Russia! They lost allot to Russian winter, and having an extra flank to defend divided what forces they had. I don't know rather or not it alone would have saved them, but I know avoiding attacking Russia would be a huge boon, and doesn't require a spectactical change, someone realized it was crazy $\endgroup$
    – dsollen
    Commented Dec 2, 2015 at 21:10
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    $\begingroup$ I'd go with "not invading Russia" -- Napoleon. $\endgroup$
    – Criggie
    Commented Dec 3, 2015 at 3:38
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    $\begingroup$ Considering that this question already has 20+ answers, it makes me appreciate history way more knowing that there were so many pivotal points during the war, and that any minor changes could have swung the victory in the opposite direction. I know with the benefit of hindsight it's easy to see what went right/wrong, and if things had happened differently at the time the other side would have reacted differently to counter it etc., but it's fascinating to think that the outcome of the conflict was balanced on a knife edge. +1 $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 3, 2015 at 11:08
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    $\begingroup$ Funny, we have a whole Stack Exchange spin-off for history, but this question would get crucified there. $\endgroup$
    – user243
    Commented Dec 3, 2015 at 20:47

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First suggestion:

J. M. Stagg was the alliance meteorologist. In June 5, 1944, despite a storm along the French coast, Stagg insisted that conditions would improve. This was essentially a guess: that region's weather is so unstable that, even today with satellites, modern meteorologists have a 50% miss rate.

If the storm had not stopped, the alliance troops would have arrived at the coast in horrible conditions, wet, nauseated, in no condition to fight. In addition, there would have been no possibility of dropping paratroopers or bombs. The operation to free France would have failed.

Another change:

If, in 1941, Hitler had chosen to conquer Turkey--it would have been easy for Germany to do so--he might have started a campaign to extend German power across the Middle East, giving Hitler control over huge petroleum fields. After that, they could have begun the invasion of Russia by moving up from the southern Soviet Union, where the winter is not so harsh, thereby keeping Stalin away from his main petroleum sources.

After this, they could have conquered Russia and India. During that time, the Japanesese could have taken control over China, linking the axis powers across Asia. From that point, it would have been easy to dominate England, with its small population; indeed, without its colonial resources, it would certainly have been occupied. Keep this line of taking colonies in Africa and then you have control over Europe, Asia and Africa before 1950.

I think they would not stop. The German economy needed war. After 1950, it would be war between Germany and the USA for many years to come.

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    $\begingroup$ For Overlord, at that point of war, that Germany was going to be defeated was not a secret to anyone who knew the big picture. Overlord being a failure would probably just meant that the war would have lasted a little more, and the Soviet and Western armies would have met further West. $\endgroup$
    – SJuan76
    Commented Dec 2, 2015 at 17:57
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    $\begingroup$ By the time of the Normandy landings, the Soviet armies were advancing through Poland at a fairly good speed. Operation Bagration and the Lvov–Sandomierz Offensive were just about to begin. If the landings failed, the only likely change would be an extra six months of war, ending with Soviet domination of all of Europe rather than just the eastern half. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Commented Dec 6, 2015 at 19:37
  • $\begingroup$ I like the weather suggestion, but Turkey? 20M ppl, very mountainous terrain (much like Afghanistan), and they leaned to Axis already. Britain's Navy would surely supply the Turks and bog the German downs far more than they were in Southeast Europe (such as Crete). There is even a whole question on it on History.SE with many answers: history.stackexchange.com/questions/16806/… (BTW, how you you propose Germany deliver the Middle East oil? And Russia and India? Very big countries, very big populations, very far from Germany. Overextended.) $\endgroup$
    – DrZ214
    Commented Apr 9, 2017 at 6:37
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  • Japan acting according to the plan. The plan for Japan was to attack the east coast of Russia, instead of the USA. The failure to do so caused two devastating consequences: It enabled the USA to join the war, and it freed the forces in eastern Russia to fight on the western front causing massive trouble for the german forces. Japan attacked the US instead of Russia mostly because they needed fuel. So to ensure the attack on Russia in your alternate reality have germany invest heavily in coal-to-liquid, some tankers, and ship lots of fuel to japan pre war.

  • Win the Battle of Britain. The german air force could have one air superiority over England, but failed for two main reasons: They used the V1 and V2 on civilian targets instead of air fields, and they did not realize how much they were hurting the british air force by targeting the radar. By wining air superiority over England an invasion would have been possible, preventing the allies from bombing germany and invading in france

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    $\begingroup$ By the time the V1 and V2 entered the war, Germany had long since lost the Battle of Britain. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Commented Dec 6, 2015 at 19:40
  • $\begingroup$ The Battle of Britain -- a battle for strategic air superiority over the channel in order to stand off the Royal Navy so a crossing could be made, forcing England out of the war -- had nothing to do with the V1 / V2, which were "Vergeltungswaffen" and of very little strategic value. If anything, different fighter tactics could have made a difference in BoB. Forcing the Me-109 to fly close bomber escort robbed them of initiative in aerial combat. Giving them free hand to fly above the bomber formations, entering combat at an energy advantage, could have made a change. $\endgroup$
    – DevSolar
    Commented Dec 7, 2015 at 15:50
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    $\begingroup$ As for Germany shipping fuel to Japan... Germany did invest heavily (and I mean heavily) in coal-to-liquid, and still wasn't able to meet its own demands, let alone exporting any. $\endgroup$
    – DevSolar
    Commented Dec 8, 2015 at 13:01
  • $\begingroup$ There was no consulting on plans between Germany and Japan. $\endgroup$
    – Oldcat
    Commented Dec 8, 2015 at 18:43
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Single change: No radar available.

Without it United Kingdom would not have the tool to fight agaist Germany neither during the Battle of Britain nor the Battle of Atlantic. Hence UK would have been invaded and USA would not have the chance to cross the Atlantic to help. Leaving the Soviet Union alone.

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  • $\begingroup$ Successfully invading Britain would have cost the Germans a lot more casualties, so they would've invaded USSR with significantly less reserves, reserves that would be desperately needed by 1942/1943. Invading and occupying Britain for a time probably would have delayed Barbarossa too unless they decided to ignore Yugoslavia and Balkan Campaign. $\endgroup$
    – DrZ214
    Commented Apr 9, 2017 at 7:12
  • $\begingroup$ @DrZ214. After Dunkirk UK army almost did not have weapons to cause high casualties during the invasion. But even if Germany delayed Barbarossa to 1942 they would have had a huge army, because no defenses were needed in the west. Yugoslavia and Balkan campaign would not have existed with UK defeated. $\endgroup$
    – Santiago
    Commented Apr 10, 2017 at 12:02
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Honor the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact

Stalin was afraid of Hitler and Germany which was reflected in orders to avoid antagonizing the Germans and to give generous trade concessions. Stalin even considered a full alliance with Hitler in dividing up Europe and Asia. Stalin hesitated only because Hitler actually thought Britain was a more desirable ally. However, Hitler does not have that prejudice in this timeline.

Hitler and Stalin divide up Europe and Asia. This allows Germany to put all resources into invading England. Russian troops move into the Middle East and South Asia, occupying the majority of British and French possessions. The destruction of the British Empire allows Japan to rapidly expand into the South Pacific probably without the need to attack Pearl Harbor since the British Fleet would be defending the home island.

America now sees the hopelessness of defending Europe and reinforces its isolationist positions.

Even if Pearl Harbor happened, the US would quickly sue for peace with three major power navies to have to defend against.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Molotov%E2%80%93Ribbentrop_Pact_negotiations

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The only real hope the Germany had was to not attack the USSR and to either not declare war on the US after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor or to have Japan not attack the US at all.

After the fall of France, Germany had the potential to be an economic power on the same scale as the US. Hitler refused to sit back and rationalize the economy. Germany went to war against the USSR unprepared to fight a long war. They either won with a short decisive victory using a superbly trained, semi-mechanized army or they would get sucked into a multi-front war of attrition that would likely lead to Germany's defeat.

In addition, Germany's decision to declare war on the US after Pearl Harbor was a gift to those in US Gov who wanted to prioritize the destruction of Nazi Germany.

The Japanese decision to go to war against the US was foolish. The Japanese went to war to secure natural resources - especially oil. They saw the US military presence in the Philippines as a possible barrier to their expansion. The Japanese could have attacked the Dutch East Indies and ignored the Philippines. Before the war, the US military had come to the conclusion that they could not defend the Philippines.

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    $\begingroup$ Attacking the USSR was the point of the war. $\endgroup$
    – DevSolar
    Commented Dec 7, 2015 at 15:50
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What if the German strategy from 1930s onward had been to focus on the resources needed for a sustained war, Oil/Ore/Coal/Food, rather than to focus on the peoples/politics of Europe. Germany actually prepared to win WWI again, but better, rather than thinking about the next steps beyond a German breakout.

If the German plan had been to focus on Russia and Finland, they could have capture all the resources they need, whilst leaving mainland Europe alone. If they hadn't attacked France/BENELUX they may have been able to come to an agreement with Britain, and had peace in Europe, having gained the border with Russia that they needed. Then they could have applied Blitzkrieg to Ukraine/Russia, at the start of spring 1940, before the Russians had managed to ramp up their far eastern industry. If they'd managed to capture the oil fields of the caucuses, and the coal fields of eastern Ukraine, and the naval base in the Crimea, they would have then been in a far better position to Ally with Turkey and Italy to control the Mediterranean, whilst maintaining a constant land based supply of resources. Conquering mainland Europe really gained them nothing strategically, beyond shoring up the defence of the Fatherland.

As Sun Tzu said, avoid cities. Well Europe was one big city, by working around it, they could have controlled the world.

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  • $\begingroup$ Hitler didn't start the war with France/England. They declared war on him, because of Poland gamble. At the start it was a phony war, but France/England would turn it hot after some time. How to invade Russia without conquering Poland? $\endgroup$
    – kubanczyk
    Commented Dec 11, 2015 at 20:45
  • $\begingroup$ The posture germany had adopted by 1939 faced west, france/britain declared war over poland because it was a further sign of german intent. If Germany had followed the same strategy in poland that it had done in Czechoslovakia, my fomenting an uprising then 'going in to protect threatened germans' (much like the russians are doing today), would have makes it almost impossible for uk/france to declare. Only arrogance allowed the out/out invasion on poland, forced a war that was not neccesary at that time. $\endgroup$
    – sibaz
    Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 22:48
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Fascinating answers on this question. I'll throw a few small twigs on the fire.

Idea 1. Hitler attacks Russia first. Most of the western powers weren't excited about either Stalin or Hitler. Had Hitler started on Russia in 1939, there would not have been time to move the factories, no supplies to Murmansk, and a single front war.

The key here would be to grab a rail line deep into Russia, and keep it.

Follow that up with a grab for the oil in the middle east.

Idea #2 Build submarines, not battleships. Ship building is close to linear per ton. A Class 7 Uboat is 700 tons. A Bismark class battleship is 40,000 tons. Heavy cruisers are abut 10,000 tons. Same effort could have added 200 more subs.

The Kreigsmarine were already worried enough about their code machines that they moved to a 4 rotor version. Had they been a bit more paranoid, and gone to 5 rotor one, changed the settings more than once per day, and picked the 5 from a larger set of rotors total, then decoding would have been far more difficult.

Idea #3 One of the ways the allies got a lead on a sub was through radio direction finding. Consider the invention of the "Cry Wolf" This is a bouy with a timer, a battery and a radio. Every now and then it broadcasts a stream of giberish that is similar to a code broadcast. The Radio DF on it, but there is only a buoy there. Cheap to make, hard to spot. Could waste a lot of resources sending planes to check them.

Idea #4. The german's acoustic torpedo wasn't sensitive enough to hear slow moving ships. Modify the torpedo so that its speed isn't constant. It runs X yards on launch, then slows down to listen, gets a bearing on the noisiest target, sprints for a thousand yards, slows again. Various actions could be set by a device much like the works in a fancy coo-coo clock, with a music box drum to control timing.

A slower torpedo has a longer range. The G7 had a range of just under 6 km at 24 knots. Drag goes up with the cube of speed. Convoys weren't fast. A torpedo that was launched from in front of the convoy and set to 'travel at 15 foot depth a 6 knots for 30 minutes (about 6 km. At 1/4 speed, it's battery is almost untouched) then go active. Active sonar wasn't very effective for an object close to the surface. And a slow torpedo wasn't going to be very noisy for passive sensors.

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A forgotten tipping point is the battle of Bir-Hakeim, in May/June 1942. The British not sending the 1st Free French Brigade may have had dramatic consequences for the entire war.

In 1942, the British Eighth Army and the German Panzerarmee Afrika are rushing to take position and gain control of North Africa. The British need to reach El Alamein to stand a chance, but Rommel's forces is going to arrive there too soon. So they sent a small force to engage in delaying actions. Namely, they sent the 1st Free French Brigade, under General Kœnig (yes, this is a French name - from Alsace, in fact, for extra irony), which was at this point pretty much the entire Free French regular army.

For several weeks, Kœnig's entrenched men held against the Panzerarmee Afrika. Then, after buying enough time for the British forces to take position, they punched through the Axis siege and managed to escape with half of the initial forces.

The following clash of El Alamein would be hard fought, and ultimately result in a British victory.

Now, what if the British had sent another force, one that would not have held as well and buy enough time for the Eighth Army? What if the subsequent Battle of probably-somewhere-else-than-El Alamein result in a British defeat?

First, the Allied morale suffers a harsh blow, instead of a huge boon. The German are still victorious, battle after battle. That won't be enough to knock Britain out of the war, but it will weaken its war effort. It may possibly weaken American support before Pearl Harbour, with dramatic consequences for the British.

Second, there is no spectacular Free French victory to give them much needed recognition. The Vichy regime is still the internationally recognised French government, and the Allied will futilly continue trying to talk with it instead of relying on the Free French.

So no Free French army to speak of. The absence (and even worse, opposition) of the elite French Alpine troops would be felt during mountain battles. French Resistance is divided, weakened by Communist Resistance betrayals, and the Vichy regime has more support. No General Leclerc, depriving the Allied from one of their best generals. Worse, the French colonial empire doesn't switch to the Allies. In addition to facing the entrenched Axis forces, invading French North Africa will be a serious challenge.

With Britain and French Resistance weakened, landings in Normandy and later Provence will be much more difficult, if they are attempted at all. The Aquitaine region won't liberate itself, nor will Paris. Festung Europa holds.

Axis forces holding North Africa alleviates one of the biggest problems they historically faced: oil shortage.

So a stronger, oil-supplied Germany is attacking the Soviet Union. Enough to make a difference? Possibly. Even through the Soviet Union still had colossal manpower reserves and an immense territory to retreat to, a more successful operation Barbarossa may have reached vital rail centres and/or oil fields, preventing the Soviet to efficiently counter-attack.

Germany would still be over-extended, lacking many resources, with an inefficient long-term economy policy and constant political infighting in its administration, opposed by an industrial giant protected by two oceans and facing Resistances all over its occupied territories.

It would not have survived for very long.

But technically, it would have won the war.

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U.S. Carriers were in port on Dec. 7th and were mostly destroyed with the rest of the Capitol ships in the 7th fleet.

The morale boost gained by Doolittle's raid would never have happened.

Midway would have been lost.

Japanese invasion of Hawaii more likely.

Hard to say if this would have changed the outcome. Delayed it certainly.

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    $\begingroup$ The US had lost all its carriers but one by 1943. The building program produced some 8 more and then dozens per year after that. Losing the carriers makes the early campaigns less active, but Japan had little capability to mount major sustained offensives much farther out than they did. This includes invading Hawaii, Australia or the West Coast. $\endgroup$
    – Oldcat
    Commented Dec 4, 2015 at 21:45
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    $\begingroup$ All that would have done would be lengthen the war, not give Japan a victory. America's ridiculously greater productive ability meant that Japan had lost the Pacific war the second the first bomb fell at Pearl Harbor. Roosevelt made the conscious decision to put 90% of the effort into defeating Germany, the Pacific got the scraps. And yet even with that, just look up the number of Essex class fleet carriers we were able to crank out over the war years. Then compare it to the number of fleet carriers the Japanese were able to build. Just that one stat will show you it was no contest. $\endgroup$
    – Rich
    Commented Dec 5, 2015 at 2:53
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    $\begingroup$ Between the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Japanese surrender, the United States commissioned 26 fleet and light fleet aircraft carriers, with another 14 under construction. Loss of the carriers would have been annoying, and probably would have drawn the war out by a year or so, but would hardly have been fatal. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Commented Dec 6, 2015 at 20:00
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