The British Army WW2
The British army prior to 1939 was quite small, still suffering the hangover of World War One, and consisted almost entirely of volunteers. The army was tentative, and reluctant to engage in anything that would be seen as similar to the reckless destruction of the First World War. However, with the threat of Hitler growing more and more severe, conscription was instigated in early 1939, and the age boundaries were widened when war was declared, and kept widening until 1945. At the peak of conscription fervour, men between the ages of 18 and 41 were called up to fight. In September 1939, the entire army – including reserves – amounted just over a million men; by the end of the war, 3.5 million had served in the British Army.
The British Empire – though weakened by the First World War – was still a significant part of the British Army, especially the recruits from India. As such, whilst the ‘typical’ soldier in the British Army would have been British, a large proportion of the entire Army was international. Because of the insecure state of the army prior to the outbreak of war, the first soldiers to serve in 1939 were not adequately trained or prepared for a conflict of this scale, and thus the army was quite a weak contribution to the Allied effort to begin with. However, as the war progressed, and the Tommies (slang word for British soldiers) proved their mettle on the battlefield, the confidence that had been lost in World War One slowly began to grow, and the army went from strength to strength.
The average British soldier in the war was therefore a conscript unprepared for warfare, fearful that this world war would be just as brutal and dehumanising as the previous one. A huge proportion of the entire British force was made up of soldiers from the British Empire, and yet black men and women living in Britain who volunteered to serve were often turned away, with even Winston Churchill sent telegrams to the High Commission, suggesting they find some ‘administrative means’ to reject black volunteers.
Most British soldiers had never been abroad, and so for many of them France was a new territory, though they perhaps had heard about it from older relatives who had served in the First World War. Soldiers would have come from a wide range of educational and financial backgrounds, which continued the break-down of the ‘us and them’ class mentality that had begun to weaken in the First World War. The average soldier was a conscript, overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task ahead, and only partly aware of why Britain had gone to war in the first place.
American Soldiers World War 2
Similar to Britain, the American army instigated a ‘peacetime conscription’ in 1940 after the defeat of France. Having started the war in a neutral position, it became apparent early on that American involvement may come at some point in the war. In 1940 and 1941, America supplied resources to the Allies, and then after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, America declared war on Germany.
The British soldiers – though conscripts who were ill-prepared for warfare – considered their American counterparts to be unrefined, crass, and loud. American men aged between 21 and 45 were conscripted in 1941 – before the attack of Pearl Harbour – requiring service of a year. This later increased to two years, and after Pearl Harbour, this was extended to the duration of the war, and the age boundary was widened to 18-64. Some 50 million American men were registered into the army during World War Two.
The average American soldier was a conscript, but significantly more prepared for warfare than the British conscripts, since the American army prior to the war was in better condition than the pre-war British army. The G.I.s, as they were known, were unlikely to have ever been abroad.
German Soldiers WW2
Hitler had been in control of Germany for six years when World War Two began, and in that time had worked hard to create a formidable army, breaking many of the stipulations of the Treaty of Versailles. The establishment of the Hitler Youth essentially acted as a training programme for young men and women in Germany, moulding them into the adults who would serve in the Wehrmacht (the German Army). These adults had been taught from a very young age the principles of Nazism, and Hitler’s nationalist ideals had been embedded into their collective psyche. As such, Hitler created an army which was fundamentally an extension of his own desires.
The average German soldier was a graduate of the Hitler Youth, participation in which was compulsory after 1936. They would have been taught that Germans belonged to a superior race of human, and the German soldiers believed this to varying degrees. A significant portion were likely to have believed this, having been brought up in the volatile environment of inter-war Germany, suffering the incompetent left-wing leaders and financial difficulties of the Weimar Republic; by comparison, Hitler was the answer to all problems, and so his word was taken as gospel.
Many German soldiers will have understood that Hitler was one of the most charismatic and persuasive leaders in recent history, and that he was a strong contender in the battle for domination. These men and women may have fought simply to protect themselves, but may not have wholly bought into the ideals of the Nazi regime. Some such people were behind the July 1944 assassination effort, leading the attempted military coup from within the Wehrmacht.
Roughly 20 million persons were active in the German Army at various points in World War Two. The Wehrmacht was a particularly well-oiled machine; the 1936-1939 Spanish Civil War allowed Hitler time to try out his new army, and refine any issues that were apparent. Conscription was introduced in Germany as early as 1935, meaning that conscript German soldiers had significantly more time to prepare and train for warfare than British or American conscripts.
The Wehrmacht had a particular edge of the British and American armies in that soldiers underwent thorough examinations to determine which posting would suit their capabilities best, meaning that each division of the armed forces was made up by the people who could perform the best. Neither the British or American armies did this, meaning that strengths were not utilised as well as in the Wehrmacht, and contributed to the overwhelming successes that the Axis forces enjoyed early in the war.
Italian Soldiers WW2
Under the moniker of the Royal Italian Army, the Italian armed forces served in World War Two until September 1943, when the Italian Government signed an armistice with the Allies. At this point, roughly 4 million of the R.I.A. had served in the war. By the time that World War Two began, the army had arguably already exhausted its resources participating in the Spanish Civil War, and its successful operations within Ethiopia and Albania. Little rearmament, retraining, or modernising of equipment had been done in the years since World War One, meaning that the R.I.A. paled into insignificance next to the German Wehrmacht, and even the forces of America and Great Britain.
Typical soldiers in the Royal Italian Army would have served in the campaigns prior to World War Two, such as those in Spain and Africa. As such, they would have been somewhat used to warfare, but an antiquated, out-dated version of warfare compared to the German ‘blitzkrieg’ style. Because the R.I.A. was vastly ill-prepared for the war, the soldiers would have been overwhelmed by the scale of the war, (and thus, possibly resentful towards those who had left them so unprepared), as well as under-nourished and under-equipped. They did have something to fuel their spirits: a deep-set sense of betrayal by the Allies. Italy had entered World War One on the side of Great Britain and France in 1915, and despite the fact that they picked the ‘winning side’, they suffered immense losses in the war, and came out with next to no reward in the Treaty of Versailles. This led to a feeling of resentment towards the countries that later became the Allied Powers in World War Two, and may well have been the driving force within the Royal Italian Army, from Mussolini down to the soldiers at the ground level.
Italian soldiers had a problem that German soldiers did not: split allegiance. Mussolini was Prime Minister of Italy, but King Victor Emmanuel III was commander-in-chief of the Royal Italian Army, and at times the two did not agree on the best course of action for the Armed Forces. This may well have led to a confused sense of loyalty in the individual soldiers, since the lines of strategy were not always clearly defined. Being the sole leader of the German people, Hitler was able to avoid this difficulty, which perhaps accounts for the unity and continuity within the Wehrmacht. The soldiers in the Royal Italian Army could not enjoy such clarity, and having different messages coming from the two commanders was potentially detrimental to the armed forces.
Japanese Soldiers WW2
The Imperial Japanese Army had been established in 1867, and the concepts of honour and nationalism that had been encouraged at its inception were still very much embedded into the minds of soldiers in World War Two. Japanese soldiers were taught that to die was better than to dishonour your family, and your country. The concept of Yamato-damashii trained each soldier to believe that one should never: break down, allow oneself to be captured, or surrender. Furthermore, the Emperor was to be worshipped as a divine figure. This intense sense of nationalism and perseverance was an integral part of the manifesto of each individual person within the Imperial Japanese Army.
The I.J.A. gained a reputation as one of the most brutal forces in the world. Soldiers were subject to this ruthlessness themselves upon initial training, having to earn their place through a series of needlessly fierce challenges. Within the war itself, prisoners of war and civilians fell victim of horror at the hands of the Japanese soldiers. For example, February 1945 saw 100,000 civilians were massacred in Manila, the Philippines. A number of inhumane experiments were conducted on Chinese prisoners of war by branches of the Japanese army, and a significant number of P.O.W.s were tortured for information before being executed.
Prior to World War Two, the Imperial Japanese Army was relatively small in numbers, but well-practiced in conflicts, having engaged in operations in Siberia and China. Japan also fought in World War One on the side of Great Britain and France, but made a significantly smaller contribution than other countries: the Japanese involvement is limited to a minor encounter in Tsingtao in 1914. In 1940, there were 376,000 active service-personnel, which grew to approximately 5 million by 1945. The growth of the I.J.A. was rapid, which led to a severe problem in terms of resources, hindered further by a loss of submarines and ships after 1943. Soldiers were left with incredibly low supplies of food, medicine, and ammunition, leading to an alarmingly high proportion of soldiers dying of illness and/or starvation (it is estimated these may account for up to two-thirds of all deaths within the I.J.A.).
The average soldier within the Imperial Japanese Army was, therefore, hungry, medically unfit to serve, trained to be vicious and unforgiving, and taught that to die for the Emperor and the country was the greatest honour they could have. Their method of warfare was intense and unrelenting, making them an easy target for Allied propaganda, which led to a deep-set fear – particularly in American troops – of the rancorous, wild, and unpredictable Japanese warriors.
Russian Soldiers WW2
The Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army was the name given to the Soviet Forces that served in World War Two. It was established in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution of 1917, and honed its fierce and brutal qualities in the Russian Civil War. After this, the Soviet Union engaged in a series of conflicts with Poland, China, and Finland, (amongst others), meaning that the Red Army was not often inactive.
At the outbreak of World War Two, the Red Army invaded parts of Poland, making Russia a direct neighbour of Germany. This continued amiably until Hitler pushed the Wehrmacht forward to St Petersburg and Moscow in 1941, at which time the Red Army consisted of roughly 4.8 million soldiers. When Hitler invaded, the Red Army was rapidly expanded – an estimate of 30 million men were conscripted during the war – meaning that a significant proportion was not adequately trained for warfare, and the unexpected nature of the attack meant that the entire army found itself unprepared for the conflict ahead. A number of inexperienced officers were placed in the charge of divisions, meaning many strategic errors were made in the early stages of Soviet involvement in World War Two.
The machinery and equipment available for the Red Army in 1941 was inadequate next to the resources the Germans could boast. By the final years of the war, such rapid development had been made that Russian weaponry became some of the best on the battlefield – in particular, their tanks were considered vastly superior to those of the Wehrmacht.
The soldiers within the Red Army felt betrayed by Germany, since the Soviet Union had been led to believe that relations between the two countries would be cordial. As such, when the ground forces were mobilised for war, they were hungry for victory. They were also intensely nationalistic, being fed propaganda during the war years that spoke of the Motherland, and drawing on previous Russian victories dating back to the Napoleonic wars. The German Wehrmacht was ill-prepared for the harsh weather conditions they would meet on the Eastern Front, whereas the soldiers of the Red Army were hardened to the wind, snow, and sub-zero temperatures, meaning they could fight with tenacity during the Siberian winters when the Germans could not. The baptism of fire that the Red Army had during the Russian Revolution and Civil War set the precedent for brutality and ruthlessness within the soldiers, and their conduct within World War Two and the subsequent occupation of East Berlin was suitably fierce. The soldiers fought to kill, and German P.O.W.s captured in 1945 considered themselves lucky if they were captured by Western forces, since they could escape the vengeful treatment of the Red Army.
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