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Turning Points In Ww2 Essays

By Laurence Rees
6/1/2010 • Politics, World War II

The improbable German victory in May (after which Hitler toured Paris) turned a fool's gamble into a great military triumph.

Argument is one of the great pleasures of history. Join the conversation in the comments below.

What was the turning point of World War II? Is it possible to pick one event—great or small—in this immense conflict and say, “This was the decisive moment”? That’s the question I recently posed to some of the war’s finest historians.

Of course, there is no right answer. To come to any decision about when the turning point might have been means making a judgment about what would have happened if things had been different, and counterfactual history is notoriously impossible to resolve. But that was the challenge of asking the question in the first place. History is all about argument, and the issue of when the turning point of the war was stimulated a lively debate about the relative importance of key moments in the conflict.

In my judgment the turning point of the war occurred on October 16, 1941. And toward the end of this article I explain why this date was so crucial, not just to the outcome of the war, but also to the whole course of the 20th century.

But let’s first consider what the distinguished historians I spoke to had to say, beginning with Adam Tooze, recently appointed professor of history at Yale. Tooze—whose book The Wages of Destruction, an economic history of the Third Reich, is a groundbreaking piece of scholarship—is adamant that the turning point occurred less than a year after the war began. “There’s no question,” he told me, “that the entire history of the war is determined in some sense and shaped by the German victory in France in May 1940.”

Tooze was the only historian I talked to who pointed to May 1940 as the moment everything changed, and he makes a powerful case. The mistake most people make, he suggests, is in thinking that the German victory over the British and French in spring 1940 was somehow predestined. It’s a myth, he says, that the Germans had superior equipment in the fight. In fact, in terms of numbers and quantity of motorized vehicles, the Allies held a distinct advantage. No, Tooze argues, the Germans won this battle because of superior leadership and, crucially, because they were lucky.

It’s hard to underestimate, he says, the immensity of the risk Adolf Hitler took with this attack. The German armored thrust through the Ardennes  forest (territory previously thought almost impassable for tanks), and then the race to the French coast at the Bay of the Somme, was a gigantic gamble. If the Allies had been able to isolate or significantly hold up the German advance, then not only would the Nazis have lost the battle for France, they would have lost the whole war.  In essence, what a detailed study of this history has taught him is that if the British and French had not performed so appallingly in this one fight, then World War II would have ended by the summer of 1940 in an ignominious defeat for the Germans.

But because of the incompetence of the Allies and the brilliance of German generals like Erich von Manstein, Heinz Guderian, and Erwin Rommel, the Nazis were victorious, and  Hitler’s status as a war leader rose to stratospheric levels. This was all the more extraordinary given that just months before, he had been considered an incompetent military strategist for even suggesting the invasion of France. In the autumn of 1939, senior military figures like Franz Halder, the chief of staff of the German army, had thought that Hitler was almost insane for directing the Germans to mount an attack west.

The First World War cast a long and dark shadow over any second world war, as far as the German leadership was concerned. And the German High Command feared above all else a repeat of the bloody stalemate of the trench war in France between 1914 and 1918. But instead of repeating that inconclusive and costly struggle, Hitler led the Germans to total victory in six weeks. At the time, it seemed to be the greatest military triumph in history. It also meant, of course, that when Hitler subsequently called for the invasion of the Soviet Union, his generals were relatively relaxed. After all, what problems could the shambolic, ill-led Red Army pose to an army that had so swiftly conquered France?

None of the other historians I talked to picked such an early event of the war as the decisive one. Conrad C. Crane, for example, the director of the U.S. Army Military History Institute and a former professor of history at West Point, chose as his turning point precisely the moment this contest became a true world war. “The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into the war in such a way that it was fully mobilized and fully antagonized and eventually it’s going to have a major influence in both theaters of the war,” he told me. Another distinguished American military historian, Professor Geoffrey Wawro of the University of North Texas, agreed with Crane—at least in the context of the Pacific war. And Akira Iriye, a scholar who was born in Japan and later became a professor at Harvard University, also thought that Pearl Harbor was the turning point of the war—in part because the attack on the American fleet turned out to be such a “monumental mistake.”

But they were the only historians I talked to who believed that Pearl Harbor was the key moment of the conflict. Others, like the presidential historian Robert Dallek, thought Pearl Harbor—while obviously important—could not be considered the turning point because America was already set on a path to war. “I think the United States would have gotten into the war anyway,” Dallek told me, “because the Japanese were intent on delivering a blow to American power in the Pacific, clearing us out of there and not allowing us to really compete with them.”

In fact, Dallek was one of no fewer than six historians who voted for a turning point that took place on the Volga River in the south of Russia, at a city that bore the name of the Soviet leader—Stalingrad. “It was the decisive defeat of Nazi arms in Russia that finally allowed people to say that this is not an invincible force and it can be overcome,” Dallek says.

“Stalingrad changes everything,” agrees the prominent British historian Max Hastings. “Once the Germans have been thrown back from Stalingrad, once they’ve lost that battle, the war was never the same again.”

“The Battle of Stalingrad is not a turning point necessarily in strategic terms, because a lot more has to be done before the Soviets can be certain of defeating Germany,” says renowned World War II historian Richard Overy. “The West has still got a lot to do to get its act together properly. But it’s the extraordinary symbolic power that Stalingrad has for the Soviet people, and it’s the point at which they suddenly begin to believe in themselves, and suddenly historic Russia has been saved. Suddenly the Germans are vulnerable. And this is the message that goes round the world.”

On a practical level it’s hard to disagree with this analysis. The Germans had fought nearly a thousand miles across the Soviet Union to get to Stalingrad. But this was as far as they would reach into the territory of their enemy. They would spend the next 27 months making a fighting retreat all the way back to the center of Berlin. So, quite literally, this was a turning point.

But almost more importantly, the Soviet offensive at Stalingrad marked the moment when Stalin stopped believing he always knew better than his generals. The victory had been possible only because the soviet leader had allowed two of his best commanders, Georgi Zhukov and Aleksandr Vasilevsky, time and space in the autumn of 1942 to plan the vast encirclement, Operation Uranus, that was to trap the German Sixth Army in Stalingrad.

A million Red Army soldiers took part in Operation Uranus, which was launched at 6 a.m. on November 19, 1942. Just four days later, on November 23, units of the Red Army met up at Kalach, west of Stalingrad, and the encirclement of the Germans was complete. Despite Erich von Manstein’s best efforts in Operation Winter Tempest it was to prove impossible for the Sixth Army to be saved, and Stalingrad fell to the Red Army at the end of January 1943.

“Militarily, it’s the moment when the balance significantly shifts,” professor William I. Hitchcock of Temple University told me. “Victory is not inevitable, but it’s far more likely after Stalingrad than beforehand for the Allied powers. It’s also important to pick Stalingrad because it reminds us of the importance of the fighting in the East, where the decisive fate of the Second World War was really going to be decided.”

Other experts I talked to, like the acclaimed British military historian Antony Beevor, agreed that Stalingrad was the turning point of the war because of this combination of military, political, and psychological reasons. As a result, Beevor told me, “Stalingrad became a huge symbol.” Stalingrad was, as Max Hastings admitted, “the boring answer” to the question—what was the turning point of World War II?—but, he claimed, one which “has to be the right one.”

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There’s always a discussion or argument as to what the most important turning point in the war was. This is a very difficult question to answer because every important part of the war happened because of another important part of the war. But is there just one main turning point in the war or could there be multiple?

The Battle of Britain

The Battle of Britain took place between August and September 1940. After the success of Blitzkrieg, the evacuation of Dunkirk and the surrender of France, Britain, on the Western front, was by herself. The Battle of Britain was the closest British Civilians actually got to see any of the fighting in WW2. In July 1940 through to October 1940 a few thousand young men, ably backed by the British Public and the men and women of the RAF ground staff held off the mightiest Air Force assembled up to that point in time. The German Luftwaffe. On September 15th came the last major engagement of the battle. On that day, the Luftwaffe lost 60 planes while the RAF lost 28. The overall casualties amounted to Germany losing 1,100 planes whereas Britain had lost just over half that amount (650). On September 17th, Hitler cancelled the invasion of Britain. The invasion would not have been possible if the Royal Navy had been able to attack the barges; and, with the RAF in existence the Germans could not hope to attack the Royal Navy.

So, no invasion took place. If Britain had lost the Battle of Britain then Britain would have almost certainly been invaded and probably conquered like the other European countries. But Britain did not lose the Battle of Britain and, so, Britain was not conquered. The continued existence of Great Britain as a fighting nation meant that… Germany needed many men to garrison Western Europe rather than attack Russia because the resistance movements in the occupied countries had support from Britain. When Japan and Germany declared war on America, America, being the biggest industrial power at the time, was able to use Britain as a massive base to store all the aircraft they needed to bomb Germany. The majority of Germany`s artillery was kept back in Europe and Germany on anti-aircraft duties because of these huge bombing raids.

These drains on Germany’s resources meant they were not able to conquer Russia in the quick manner needed. This led to the eventual meat grinder of the Eastern front which swallowed so much of their army and air force. How much difference would those guns, men and ammunition have made at Stalingrad? The Battle of Britain boosted British morale through the roof. This was shown in the famous “never was so much owned by so many to so few.” Speech by Winston Churchill. The British also kicked the Axis out of Africa, forcing Hitler to send much needed supplies and men to assist the failing Afrika Korps. All of this would not have happened if the British had lost the Battle of Britain.

The Enigma Code

The German military used the Enigma cipher machine during WW2 to keep their communications secret. The machine was available commercially during the 1920s, but the military potential of the device was quickly realised and the German army, navy and air force all used a more developed model of the machine to encipher their messages believing that it would make these communications unsolvable to the enemy. The Enigma machine is an electro-mechanical device that relies on a series of rotating ‘wheels’ or ‘rotors’ to scramble plaintext messages into jumbled cipher text. The machine’s variable elements can be set in many billions of combinations, and each one will make a completely different cipher text message. If you know how the machine has been set up, you can type the cipher text back in and it will unscramble the message.

If you don’t know the Enigma setting, the message remains indecipherable. The German authorities believed in the absolute security of the Enigma. However, with the help of Polish mathematicians who had managed to secure a machine before the outbreak of WW2, British code breakers stationed at Bletchley Park managed to exploit weaknesses in the machine and how it was used and were able to crack the Enigma code. Breaking the Enigma ciphers gave the Allies a key advantage, which, according to historians, shortened the war by two years thus saving many lives. In one specific case the team behind the Enigma code were able to inform the British 8th Army at El Alamein of an incoming attack from the Afrika corps.


The Battle of Stalingrad was one of the most major and decisive battles of World War 2 where the Axis fought the Soviet Union for control of the city of Stalingrad. The battle took place between August 23, 1942 and February 2, 1943 and was fought with close-quarters combat and lack of regard for civilian casualties. It is among the bloodiest battles in the history of warfare with almost two million casualties. The German attack, led by General Paulus, to capture Stalingrad began in late summer 1942, and was supported by severe Luftwaffe bombing that reduced much of the city to rubble. The German offensive eventually became reduced to building-to-building fighting. Despite controlling nearly the entire city at times, the Germans were unable to shake off the last soviets clinging to their City. Both sides fought vigorously over the city and Stalin ordered his troops, “Not a step back.” The Battle for Stalingrad was rife with sniping on both sides; however the Russians used a tactic no other country did during the war. This tactic was the employing of female snipers on the field, which they did to great effect.

By doing this, the Russian Army was able to fill their ranks further as well as raise morale of troops and civilians by reporting on the lethal effectiveness of the Soviet fighting woman. Morale was one of the most vital things a soldier could have. Without morale a soldier became ineffective and the worst thing for morale was an enemy Sniper. The presence of a sniper was usually revealed to enemy troops by a single shot, followed by the death of one of their comrades. This presented a problem to the remaining troops. Not only were they under fire from an enemy, but they could not see where this enemy was nor could they predict who would be the next victim. Additionally, if the sniper left, there was no way for the opposing men to know unless one of them left cover, and therefore risking his life. The strain of being constantly in danger was increased by the inability of the troops to strike back at the sniper, as well as their anger at the death of their fellow soldiers.

During the Battle of Stalingrad, the Russian snipers, particularly Vassili Zaitsev, proved to cause so much damage to German morale and such a boost to the Russians that German High Command sent in their best sniper, a Major Koning, to hunt down and kill Zaitsev. Unfortunately for the Germans, this plan backfired, and Zaitsev killed Koning, further lifting Russian morale and dropping German fighting spirit to a new low. On 19 November 1942, the Red Army launched Operation Uranus, a two-pronged attack at the weaker Romanian and Hungarian forces protecting the German flanks. After heavy fighting, the Axis army was cut off and surrounded inside Stalingrad. Adolf Hitler’s resolute belief in no surrender led to more loss of life. Eventually, the failure to save the German Forces and lack of supplies led to the surrender. By February 1943, Axis resistance in Stalingrad had stopped and nearly 125,000 remaining troops of the 6th Army had surrendered, the others were killed.

Only 6,000 soldiers made it back home. The battle lasted 5 months, 1 week, and 3 days. It was Germany’s first major defeat. However by the end of the battle 99% of the buildings in Stalingrad were reduced to piles of rubble. “The siege of September 13, 1942 to January 31, 1943 will inspire forever the hearts of all free people. Their glorious victory stemmed the tide of invasion and marked the turning point in the war of the Allied nations against the forces of aggression.” Franklin D Roosevelt, congratulating Joseph Stalin on the soviet Victory at Stalingrad. This shows that not only did Stalingrad spread morale throughout the U.S.S.R but throughout Allied troops around the world. For the U.S.S.R Stalingrad was it. A desperate last stand against the Axis and total inhalation. Not only were there vital oil sources to the South-East but it was a battle between Stalin and Hitler themselves (considering it was Stalin’s city). After the Battle of Stalingrad German forces never recovered to their earlier strength and so gave up their campaign on the USSR. It was the beginning of the end and retreat for the Axis powers in Russia.

El Alamein

Between 1940 and 1942, the desert war went back and forth over the north coast of Africa. After initial British success, the Afrika Korps (the German army) made a determined advance, gradually beating the British 8th Army back as far as a small town called El Alamein near the Egyptian border. At the end of the First Battle of El Alamein, the Allies suffered about 13,250 wounded, captured, missing, and killed, while the Axis suffered 17,000. The Second Battle of El Alamein marked a major turning point in the Western Desert Campaign of the Second World War. The battle lasted from 23 October to 5 November 1942. Germany had: 30,542 casualties, 500 tanks, 254 guns, 84 aircraft. And British and other Commonwealth forces had: 13,560 casualties, 332- 500 tanks, 111 guns, 97 aircraft. After the two battles the world was convinced that the Axis powers, particularly Germany, were not invincible as this was their second major military defeat. A quarter of a million Italian and German soldiers surrendered at El Alamein which was nearly twice the amount that surrendered at Stalingrad four months earlier.

This destroyed Italian moral completely because not only were they crushed at El Alamein, their country became the new frontline, and for Germany It was another momentous disaster. The Battle of El Alamein not only allowed total free access to the Suez Canal for Allied shipping, which was of special importance now that the war had taken on a global nature, but it also stopped the Germans from threatening the Middle-Eastern oil fields, a major supplier of Allied oil reserves. The victory, coupled with joint Allied landings in French Algiers, also finally spelled the elimination of an Axis presence in North Africa and ended the Italian dreams of a ‘new Roman Empire’. There were also strategic implications: the defeat in North Africa began the series of events that led the invasion of mainland Italy and the toppling of the Italian dictator Mussolini. This brought the Italians onto the Allies’ side and left Germany at a strategic disadvantage across the whole of the Mediterranean.

The North African campaign also drew German troops away from the massive battles that were taking place in the U.S.S.R. I have not included D-Day as one of the most important turning points in the war because I believe that the fact that D-Day happened means that the tide had already turned. For the Western Front the tide turned at the Battle of Britain because if Britain had been taken then: America wouldn’t have an Allied country close to Germany, the Allies wouldn’t have been able to win in North Africa and D-Day wouldn’t of been able to happen in the first place. I have also not included Pearl Harbour as a Turning point because I feel Japan only attacked the Americans at Pearl Harbour so they could destroy some of their vital ships and resources.

I think they did this because they knew that war was going to break out between Japan and America at some point and so decided to jump the gun and get the upper hand. This would mean that Pearl Harbour was significant point in the war rather than a turning point. In conclusion I would say that there wasn’t a turning point as such but four main turning points that led do the downfall of Nazi Germany, Italy and Japan. These being: The Battle of Britain, The breaking of the Enigma Code, Stalingrad and El Alamein. This is because the three battles were last chance stands against the mighty German Army, and defeat would have meant loss of highly important resources, land, men and morale. Additionally if the Enigma code had not been broken the war might have raged on for another two or three years and many more millions could have died.