Top 10 Greatest Military Blunders of World War II

There’s no doubt that the Second World War was the greatest conflict in modern history and the one event that continues to impact our world to this day. Consider how the world would look today had it not been fought, or had Japan and Germany won? And, even more intriguing, what if B had happened instead of A and the world taken a different direction as a result? It staggers the imagination.

The fact that it turned out the way it did, however, was the result of a number of factors, both positive and negative. What’s perhaps most important in understanding why one side won and the other lost is in recognizing that victory was not determined so much by who won the most battles—although ultimately that was a factor—but by who made the fewest costly mistakes. With that in mind then, below is my list of the ten greatest blunders, missed opportunities, bad judgment and just plain bad luck committed by both sides that were instrumental in either lengthening the conflict or in managing to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.


Douglas MacArthur lands

Not a defeat, but an unnecessary operation that may have extended the war by months. After having been kicked out of the Philippines two years earlier, General Douglas MacArthur was itching to get back and convinced Roosevelt that he might lose reelection in 1944 if he didn’t liberate the island chain he had so ineptly tried to defend in 1942. However, by 1944 the Japanese air and naval presence on the island had been largely nullified and it was too far from Japan to be of use as a base from which to launch raids on its cities, leaving little reason to invade the place other than because that’s what Douglas wanted (and what Doug wanted, he usually got). The time spent securing the islands and the resources committed to doing so delayed the more important invasion of Okinawa in 1945 and probably extended the war by several months—but at least it gave MacArthur the chance to wade ashore at Leyte Gulf to proclaim that he had returned.

10. (Tie) KURSK, RUSSIA, 1943

Kursk Battle Illustration

Having apparently learned nothing from the trouncing he had just taken at Stalingrad six months earlier (see below), Hitler decides to launch yet another big offensive against the now large and well entrenched Soviet defenders, this time at a place called Kursk (an important industrial city some 300 miles south of Moscow). Billed as the largest land battle in history, the Soviet lines bent but didn’t break, and ended up costing the Germans pretty much the rest of the best of its army and air force and initiating Germany’s long and slow retreat back to Berlin, with all the unfortunate consequences for Hitler and the German people that eventually entailed.

9. ANZIO, 1944

What is not well known to the average history buff is that American troops had a golden opportunity to finish off the Germans in Italy early on with their surprise landing at Anzio, Italy—a quaint little place just a hop, skip, and a jump from Rome. So taken by surprise were the Germans, in fact, that a few yanks in jeeps managed to drive all the way to Rome without hindrance, demonstrating that the way was open for allied forces and portending a major disaster for the Germans dug in to the south of the city. Unfortunately, the allied commander of the operation, Major General John P. Lucas, proved to be a bit timid and decided to consolidate his beachhead before pushing on to Rome, which gave the Germans time to move their forces and contain the Americans there for the next few months and costing Lucas his job. Had the man shown a little Pattonesque-like bravado, the Germans might have been forced back to the Austrian frontier two years earlier than they eventually were and countless allied and axis lives might have been saved in the process.


Italy invades Greece

With dreams of restoring the glory that was Rome, Mussolini unleashed his oversized but inept army against Albania (yes, I said Albania) and Greece in the summer of 1940, and decided to push into Egypt from his colony in Libya as well. Not remarkably, Mussolini had his head handed to them by the British-Greek forces in the Balkans and the British-Allied forces in Egypt, forcing Hitler to have to send in his army to save his hapless ally. This ended up costing the Germans dearly, for it pulled valuable resources away from other fronts and delayed Hitler’s time-table for the conquest of the Soviet Union (see below), gumming up the whole affair. Chances are had Mussolini followed Franco’s lead in Spain and simply had Italy remain neutral, Germany may have won the war.

7. MAGINOT LINE and the FALL of FRANCE, 1940

Maginot Line

Having apparently learned nothing from World War One, the French set about creating an impenetrable line of fixed defenses on its border with Germany guaranteed to keep the Huns at bay. Called the Maginot line, it proved to be every bit as formidable as advertised; the problem was it didn’t go all the way to the coast, leaving a hundred mile wide gap that the Germans were able to plow through with relative ease in the spring of 1940, thereby encircling the British and French Armies in Belgium and handing the French a humiliating defeat that they don’t like to talk about to this day. Debate rages whether the Maginot Line would have stopped the Germans even if it had been complete, but considering how much warfare had changed since the trench warfare of World War One, it probably would only have slowed them down. Once the Germans breached it at any point, most likely the results would have been the same—just a little later in being realized.


Japanese Troops Bataan 1942
Japanese soldiers celebrate victory on Bataan

General Douglas MacArthur’s hare-brained scheme to defend the entire archipelago from the Japanese in the spring of 1942 was doomed from the start. Scattering his supplies of food and ammunition throughout the islands in hopes of defending every square inch of the place only ended in disaster for his men when he was quickly forced to abandon the plan—along with the stockpiles of food and ammo—and pull them all back to the Bataan Peninsula. After a few futile months of resistance, over 76,000 American and Filipino troops were starved into surrendering, leading to the greatest defeat in American military history. Not to worry, though; ‘ol Doug high-tailed it out of there before the end came and spent the rest of the war lobbying to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his brilliant defense of the place (which he got, by the way).


London Blitz

With the fall of France in June of 1940, England stood alone against the Germans, making the likelihood of a sea-borne invasion of England—already in the planning stages—a very real possibility. Only Britain’s undersized air force—the RAF—stood in the way of keeping the German’s much vaunted Luftwaffe from seizing air control and making a sea invasion possible. At first the Germans were winning the war of attrition by attacking British airfields, but after a small-scale RAF bomber raid on Berlin on August 25th, 1940 (which did little real damage) enraged der Fuhrer, Luftwaffe Air Marshal Goering decided to retaliate by switching targets from the RAF airfields to London. In doing so, he gave the British a much needed chance to regroup and rearm, the result being the Luftwaffe’s eventual defeat and the cancellation of the invasion of England a few months later.

4. INVASION of the SOVIET UNION, 1941-1945

Invasion Soviet Union

Hitler’s ambitious plan to defeat Communism on his own doorstep by knocking out the Soviet Union in one bold move very nearly worked, but it also forced him to fight a two-front war against two enemies—the USSR and USA—that far outmatched Germany in terms of manpower and industrial capability. After Stalingrad (see below) in 1942, Germany was on the defensive and defeat, pending some miracle weapon that never managed to emerge, was inevitable. Had Hitler finished off England first and secured his western front before taking on his Soviet foe (and staying out of war with America in the process) history could well have had a very different ending.


Pearl Harbor Newspaper Headline

A well-planned and executed operation that resulted in a spectacular victory for Japan, it also planted the seeds for their own eventual defeat. In concentrating their efforts on the largely obsolete battleships, the Japanese pilots failed to knock out the major infrastructure on the island—the oil farms, repair shops, and munitions storage facilities—that made it possible for the Americans to use Pearl Harbor as their forward base of operations throughout the war. Had they done so, it would have forced the U.S. to fall back to the west coast, making operations in the Pacific far more difficult and probably extending the war by a year or more. The Japanese also failed to sink the aircraft carriers—their primary targets that were out to sea at the time and a force that would come back to extract retribution later on—or attack the submarine pens. This was truly a case in which short-term victory resulted in a long term defeat.

2. DUNKIRK, 1940

1940 Dunkirk troops

Having successfully encircled the combined Anglo-French army in northern France and Belgium in June of 1940, German forces were poised to deliver the coup d’grace to the allies when Hitler inexplicably ordered his armies to halt their advance just miles short of final and total victory. It was said he did this to make a point to his generals that he was the hero of the day, not they. As a result, over 300,000 British and French soldiers were able to be evacuated to England before the noose was closed, allowing them to fight again. Had they not been evacuated, it is doubtful the British could have stood up to the Germans and Italians in North Africa the following year, potentially altering the outcome of the war by permitting the axis to take Egypt and the oil-fields of the Middle East—in which case it really would have been game over.


Battle of Stalingrad

This is the battle which essentially cost the Germans the war. Hitler’s ambitious plan to seize the oil-rich Caucasus region of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1942 ground to a halt on the shores of the Volga River at a city named after the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. After months of brutal fighting that left hundreds of thousands dead on both sides and the city leveled, Hitler’s man on the spot, Field Marshal Von Paulus, found his army entirely surrounded and was forced to surrender over a quarter million men in February of 1943. Had Hitler allowed him to withdraw a few months earlier when victory was truly out of reach, it would probably have staved off Germany’s ultimate defeat by months or, possibly, even years (giving them the time needed to develop an atomic bomb, perhaps?)