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Most mistaken decision of WW2

LAURENCE REES: And the single most mistaken decision of the war?

ADAM TOOZE: Well, there’s something I’d like to talk about that we haven’t spoken about so far, which is the strategic bombing campaign. I actually think that the RAF had the German war economy by the throat by the summer of 1943. The series of attacks launched by the British from March 1943 through to the cataclysmic attack on Hamburg at the end of July has a devastating impact on the German war effort that’s been very, very largely underestimated so far. But from the inside of the Speer Ministry there’s no question that this is seen as a fundamental turning point in the war and a moment potentially of no return. They expect the German war economy to be crippled in the winter of 1943 and the reason why that doesn’t happen is that the RAF turns its attention from the west of Germany to Berlin, and makes a vain attempt to destroy Berlin. However, Berlin is an inappropriate target. It’s too large, it’s too far away and it’s at the end of the productive chain, whereas the Ruhr stands at the very beginning because it’s the centre of German coal mining, without which the heavy industrial economy of Germany grinds to a halt.

And the Germans are deeply puzzled why the British make this move. And in the autumn of 1944 and into the spring of 1945 when the attacks on the Ruhr are resumed and focused on the shunting yards which are necessary to move the coal around they have an immediate and absolutely dramatic effect on the German war economy. So I think the RAF’s decision to shift its focus from the west of Germany and the Ruhr in particular to Berlin does count as a pretty major strategic miscalculation.

LAURENCE REES: And it also follows from that that you think the strategic bombing campaign was extremely effective?

ADAM TOOZE: Yes. There’s no question that it had an absolutely devastating impact on the functioning of the German war economy from as early as the spring of 1943. The Germans just about begin to believe by the beginning of 1943 that despite the setbacks on the Eastern Front the Russians are a long way away, and they actually began to get a real grip of their armaments production and are beginning to shuffle resources around in a quite strategic, and deliberately calculated way, and had put the organisation in place to do that. That’s the substance behind the Speer 'miracle'. What then happens is that steel output becomes completely unpredictable because of the impact of the British attacks and begins to fall, and immediately you see a plateauing off of armaments production. Instead of continuing to rise it grinds to a halt at a moment when everybody else’s is ramping up and the American war economy in particular is hitting top gear.

And this is a complete disaster for the German war effort and produces a major political crisis. Speer begins to lose his grip on power and has, in the end, to solve this problem with his ill fated alliance with Himmler which emerges in the autumn of 1943 and unlocks a whole new supply of slave labour for the German war economy.