Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Luftwaffe '46 - An Alternative History


Battle of the Baltic.

Focke Wulf TA183 second generation single engined fighters escort Heinkel Hs132 jet dive bombers in an attack on a British Convoy heading for Oslo. Over the horizon lurk Meteor F3s and Tempest Vs, scrambled from their Norwegian bases.

Models in 285 scale from my collection.


Alternative History

Alternative histories have always been a mainstay of imaginative writing. I exclude pure time travel SF stories where some future time patrol goes back in time complete with fully functioning ultra-tech equipment. I mean where history is changed by a small event that cascades.

This is classic chaos mathematics by which a complicated system is so sensitive to initial conditions that it is effectively unpredictable. This is the classic butterfly’s wing effect so beloved of journalists. Chaos is rather rare in the natural world except at small scales. For example, predicting the temperature at an exact spot in England at an exact time and date in 2010 is impossible because it is chaotic. However, I could have a very good stab at estimating the mean temperature of that spot over the course of the year because all the complicated processes intermesh to give random distributions driven by large predictable processes.

This was brought home to me when I bought a set of miniature wargame rules for recreating dogfights between German jets and allied planes in 1946, Luftwaffe ’46 is a popular airgaming theme. The authors of the rules felt the need to devise a scenario of how this might have come about.

They postulated that Eisenhower might have been shot down over the D-Day beachhead in 1944. They then predicted a cascade: (i) the British would have taken over control of the allied armies, (ii) due to their incompetence, the Battle for Normandy would have stalemated, (iii) the Nazis would have held onto their eastern empire by throwing back the Russians, (iv) so the Germans would have the resources, strategic material, and time to develop advanced jets and the fuel to fly them, (v) that the British would have refused to develop their own technology (there is no end to British stupidity), and (iv) therefore Germany would be the only country with advanced jet planes.

This is a classic chaos assembly but why would WWII follow chaos mathematics and how likely is this result. The answer is that it is nonsense as a model of an alternative history (even allowing for British stupidity).

WWII followed a war pattern repeated through history. A ‘country’ builds a military superiority in quantity and/or quality which it uses to attack its neighbours, who collective have a far superior economic and military potential. The question is can the aggressor win before that potential is realised and they are crushed?

A classic example is the Second Punic War. The Barcas built a superior war machine in Spain, which they used to attack the Rome. The Carthaginians ran riot, winning battle after battle until they destroyed the Roman Army at the decisive battle of Cannae, a battle without a morrow if ever there was one – except that it wasn’t. It had no effect on the eventual course of the war. . Hannibal couldn’t overrun Rome so he couldn’t win. Eventually Rome would overwhelm him. Carthaginian victories merely delayed the process. You can make a similar case for Napoleonic France, Confederate America, Imperial Germany and WWII.

Germany started well in WWII, neutralising Russia and overrunning France but then came unstuck in the second half of 1940. To win in the west they had to occupy London. They lost the German fleet in the Norwegian sideshow and then the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir. Fighter Comand’s defeat of the Luftwaffe meant that they would never take London. They were now fighting for a stalemate in the West. Hence all those Hitlerian offers of peace to the UK in 1940.

German lunges into the Balkans and North Africa merely pitted then against the British on British terms and brought no strategic gains. The German defeat in the Battle of Moscow in December 1941 marked the German high mark in the east. London and Moscow had survived the initial rush. From now on, Germany was fighting for a draw.

1942 and 1943 saw giant battles initiated by German offensives with disastrous results: 900,000 in North Africa, 600,000 in the Stalingrad Campaign, and 200,000 in the Kursk salient – with all their equipment. Germany lost the war in 1942 and 1943.

The Russian offensive against a weak, equipment light German army in 1944 destroyed Army Group Centre and 900,000 troops overall. Whatever happened in Normandy was irrelevant, even assuming Eisenhower was irreplaceable, which I doubt.

So I want to play Luftwaffe 1946. I don’t need a historical rationale to play wargames with toy soldiers but thought it might be fun to try. What might extend the life of the Nazi Empire such that they could field jets in ’46?

Clearly it had to be something that happened in 1941. Actually there was something odd that happened in 1941. After Pearl Harbour, the USA declared war against Japan on the 8th Dec., but not Germany. Germany declared war on the USA on 11th Dec.

Initiation of war with the USA was an insane decision even by Hitler’s standards. It was also unnecessary. Germany’s interests were best served by peace with the USA and letting it take its vengeance on Japan. The USA was militarily weak in 1941, both in quality and quantity, but it had enormous potential as the world’s largest economy. It is possible that had Germany not made that rash move then America might not have come into the European war for years – see WWI.

Germany could not win WWII after the Battle for Moscow but without American intervention it is by no means inconceivable that it could survive as a going concern into 1946, probably going down to defeat in ’48 or ‘49.

Hence Luftwaffe ‘46.




So here’s the challenge: Can you think of a decision in history that could reasonably have gone the other way in such a way as to change history?

22 comments:

C Kelsey said...

I can think of a number of things that might have either fundamentally changed history or delayed events to a later point. For example, if Britain had softened the taxes as colonists here requestet I'm fairly certain it would have delayed the American Revolution. Such a delay may have placed different officers in charge of the British army here. That could possibly change the ultimate outcome of the war. Perhaps a swift victory for the British even.

Another interesting one might be what would have happened if John F Kennedy hadn't been willing to stare down the USSR over the Cuban missile crisis. Would that have changed anything? What if we'd actually invaded Cuba over it?

Jonathan D. Beer said...

If Matthias Corvinus hadn't died without a legitimate heir, and instead left a strong king that followed in his father's footsteps. As a result, Hungary would not have lost Belgrade to the Ottomans in 1521, would (in all likelihood) have not even fought the Battle of Mohacs which led to the near-elimination of Hungary as a country. This would have made such a massive difference to European politics that the world would quite literally be a different place (maybe).

What if (to follow in a similar supposition) Oliver Cromwell's son Richard hadn't been the unpopular, weak-willed man he was, and instead retained power as the Protector of England? If the position had lasted his lifetime, and the military-government style of things had lasted long enough to become institutionalised, would we Briton's now be living in a military dictatorship?

I absolutely adore what-if history (which, amongst history graduates, seems to be a very love it/hate it affair), and in my wild dreams of story ideas, I have my own which I'm tinkering with (both examples are drawn from that alt. world, by the way). If done well in fiction (and I mean really well - the writer needs to have spent some serious time researching history from before the point he/she wishes to change, and way, way beyond it), it is a joy. Also, one of the reasons I love steampunk fiction so much (again, done well).

matapam said...

I love a well done AH. My own grasp of history is both generalized and weak. I would never dare try one.

Turning points. Hard to say. Keep the White Ship in port, so Henry I had an heir, skip all the mess with Stephen and Maud and what would Britain look like today? Much the same, or would it cover most of Europe? Would it have been more or less likely to form a world spanning Empire?

And my favorite, put the Tungusta Event off by half a century and initiate a global nuclear war before all sides had so much firepower they could kill every one. How would the rest of the world develop without the US and the USSR throwing their weight around?

C Kelsey said...

What might have happened if Admiral Perry had failed in his bid to open Japan up to international trade. Japan remaining severely isolationist for even another 30 years might have dramatically changed history.

Jim McCoy said...

How about this...

It's December 7, 1941 and a massive tropical storm envelops Hawaii. The planned Japanese airstrike cannot take place because of weather conditions. In Washington, the Japanese letter breaking off diplomatic relations is delivered. The planned attack goes through on December 8.

This doesn't sound like it changes much at first, but think about it. The second the storm breaks, American ships are going to be heading out towards the Philippines where an attack was expected. The battleship fleet may avoid the attack. Existence of a battleship fleet could have changed the way the war was fought on the water completely. The battlewagons were in port at that point because of how slow they were, but after the shooting started the task force commanders may very well have felt it necessary to take them along. This brings us closer to the type of fleet engagement the Japanese sought at the end of the war. It also makes travel times much longer.

Not only this, but if there were a dearth of ships to strike it seems likely that the attack would have been redirected toward the oil storage tanks/dry docks where the third wave of attacks (if there had been one, Nagumo left early) were planned to go. No fuel for a fleet is a big problem and no way to repair battle damage is almost as bad.

So what if the United States can't get it's fleet in place in time to fight at Coral Sea or Midway? A loss by Allied forces at Coral Sea could have opened up Oz to invasion by the IJA. A loss at Midway would have given the Japanese a refueling port much closer to Hawaii and even the continental US. This is frightening.

This probably would not have led to a Japanese victory, but it would have definitely lengthened it and could conceivably have been a disaster for the civilians of New Guinea and Australia both.

Oops. I just realized that a storm isn't a decision. I guess I fail the assignment. It would still make a cool story though.s

Francis Turner said...

In re the Japan question. What I wonder is what would have happened had Britain decided to stick with Japan after the Triple Intervention in 1895. This was the end of the (first) Sino-Japanese war when the Japanese had bascially defeated China and Korea. Unfortunately for the Japanese the Russians, French and Germans decided to make Japan give back to China most of what it had just conquered. If the British had stuck up for Japan at this point (they British gave Japan a certain amount of help while it was beating China) then probably the other three could not have made their demands stick.

This would probably have had two benefits,
1) it would probably have slowed down Japans militirization versus its civilian development and hence stopped it from becoming the unpleasant state it became in the 1920s
[1a) the Russians might have tried to fight the Russo-Japanese war 9 years early when they had no army on the ground and thus they would likely have lost even more embarrassingly - this could well have caused even more revolutions etc. in Russia]
2) it might have seriously harmed the entente cordiale which might well have stopped Britain from being quite so keen to help France next time the Prussians decided to invade.

In addition there might well have been radically different developments in China, korea (which would have become Japanese 10 years earlier in less violent terms) and so on.

Of course if this were to have happened there would have needed to be a different British Foreign Secretary (and probably different British Prime Minister) so either Irish Home Rule would have passed in 1894 so Gladstone would have remained in power - this to me sounds like it would have been a good option - or the Tories would have won enough seats to form the government in 1892

Kate said...

There are any number of possibilities - but personally I'd keep chaos theory out of it since most people get it wrong: while accurate predictions are impossible, the strange attractor effect means that probabilities can be estimated fairly well. Large scale chaotic functions are visible everywhere if you know what you're looking for - they show up in the year-to-year population distribution of species in relatively closed systems, the exact orbit of the planets, the growth patterns of trees, cloud shapes... You just have to know what you're seeing (Anyone who's interested, take a look at James Gliek's Chaos for a good, easily understandable introduction).

As for scenarios where something small changed things, the US pilots at Midway, who hung on just a bit longer than they should have and found the Japanese aircraft carriers with all their fighters on deck are a pretty good example. Without that, Japan would have won Midway, and been able to island-hop to the US coast. Once established there, the US would not have been able to stop them: the best outcome would have been an uneasy truce somewhere around the Rockies. Before Midway, the Japanese fleet was seriously technically superior - they would have overwhelmed Hawaii in an invasion. Alaska, too - although that might have caused the Soviets to break their non-aggression pact with the Axis powers.

As I recall, Germany and Japan were allies well before Pearl Harbor, and Japan was pressuring the USSR via China and Korea. Hitler had to support his principal allies because he needed their access to arenas he lacked: Italy in the Mediterranean and Japan in the Pacific. What was insane was breaking the non-aggression pact with the USSR and calling off the Luftwaffe when most of the estimates of the day put Britain within 2 weeks of total collapse - the combination of the naval blockade and constant bombardment would have starved Britain into submission.

Personally, I prefer to play with much earlier areas of history - alternate WW2 is kind of overdone, especially from the Germany wins side. I wouldn't mind seeing a Japan wins scenario, though. They could have, if they hadn't lost their aircraft carrier capacity at Midway.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

What a great post, John,

Really interesting topic. I'm writing an alternative history set in Australia at the moment!

John Lambshead said...

Dear Kate

Thank you for commenting on my essay. However, I need to clear up a few misconceptions. I have put your comments in quotes.

"There are any number of possibilities - but personally I'd keep chaos theory out of it since most people get it wrong: while accurate predictions are impossible, the strange attractor effect means that probabilities can be estimated fairly well. Large scale chaotic functions are visible everywhere if you know what you're looking for - they show up in the year-to-year population distribution of species in relatively closed systems, the exact orbit of the planets, the growth patterns of trees, cloud shapes... You just have to know what you're seeing (Anyone who's interested, take a look at James Gliek's Chaos for a good, easily understandable introduction)."



You misunderstand chaos mathematics, particularly with regard to species distributions. They follow stochastic models not chaotic models. And you can't predict the end result of a chaotic system using probability. If you can, it's not chaotic but stochastic. By definition, chaotic systems are initial condition sensitive such that the slightest change in the starting conditions wildly changes the results. Gleick wrote his popular book on chaos way back. Chaos has turned out not to be particularly useful in natural science. Gleick (not Gliek) is a journalist who writes popular books. He is no authority on science or mathematics.

"As I recall, Germany and Japan were allies well before Pearl Harbor"

The tripartite pact was a DEFENSIVE alliance. Hitler was under no obligation to declare war on the USA just because Japan attacked the USA. You will notice that Japan did not declare war on the USSR.

"Hitler had to support his principal allies because he needed their access to arenas he lacked: Italy in the Mediterranean and Japan in the Pacific."

Hitler had little interest in anything outside of Continental Europe and certainly not the Pacific. He got dragged into the Med by Italy and it was a disastrous diversion. Japan and Germany offered each other little in the way of practical support. How could they.

"What was insane was breaking the non-aggression pact with the USSR"

You seem to miss the point. From Hitler's point of view it was all about Russia, always about Russia.

"calling off the Luftwaffe when most of the estimates of the day put Britain within 2 weeks of total collapse"

Hitler did not call off the Luftwaffe - they lost and had to switch to night bombing which they were ill equipped to do. Britain was never within two weeks of collapse. That is ridiculous.

"the combination of the naval blockade and constant bombardment would have starved Britain into submission"

Germany lost their navy in Norway. The UK had the largest fleet in the world. The blockade worked the other war round. If you mean the U Boats, Germany tried that and lost. How were the Germans going to bombard Britain? They had no strategic air force. From 1941 on, the bombardment was the other way around, not that bombardments have ever won wars.

Who thinks Germany, let alone Japan, could have won WWII. My essay was about finding a decision point where a change meant that they could have staggered on for a bit longer before defeat – as a rationale for a wargame.

I hope that clarifies matters.

John

Stephen Simmons said...

C Kelsey,

What if the Yankees had decided Castro's curve-ball was good enough to offer him the pitching contract he tried out for? How woould Cuba be different today, without his mind behind the revolution?

What if Castro's (relative) sanity hadn't prevailed during the missile crisis, when Guevera tried to seize control of the Soviet missiles and launch them against major east-coast American cities without orders of any kind from Moscow?

As for alternate Civil War history, the one I'd like to see (but haven't yet learned enough history to attempt myself) is this: What if shots had actually been fired at Fort Sumter in April 1832, during the Nullification Crisis, starting the war THEN, instead of 30 years later? 30 years less industrialization in the north, 30 years less railroad infrastructure to solidify the northern advantage ...

Excellent post, John. Lots of food for thought here. And LOTS of bad art out there on the subject, sadly.

John Lambshead said...

Dear Rowena,
Thanks - I put a great deal of thought into it so I am glad you liked it.

I find it fascinating how the mathematics of the humanties is so like those of my own area of expertise in natural science. The whole area of how preordained are the results of these complicated systems is fascinating.

Just before I retired I published a paper with Karl Ugland on species distribution analysis of 'healthy' to 'stressed' ecological communities. Healthy communities show a semi log-normal distribution, stressed a log series. You get the same distributions for wealth. The richest countries (say, Norway) show a log-normal distribution of wealth. The poorest a log series.

John

John Lambshead said...

Dear Chris, I agree that the Cuban Missile crisis could have gone various ways. I think the AWI was preordained as it was not really about tax but more fundamental reasons.
John

John Lambshead said...

Dear Jonathon
Interesting idea about Hungary. I confess that I am very ignorant of E European history. I once looked at a map of Europe and the Med of the 16th Century and it struck just how like the late Roman period it was.

The eastern Empire was controlled from Turkish Constantinople and was a strong unified empire. The western Empire was splintered between the Hapsburgs, Valois and Tudors with a few independents such as Venice, all of which owed nominal allegiance to Rome but were, in practice, independent. It's as if the geopolitics had not changed in a thousand years.

John

John

John Lambshead said...

Dear Pam
The Tungusta Event. Yes, imagine something similar hitting, say, London in 1968...

John

John Lambshead said...

Dear Francis
Yes, Britain and Japan made a far better strategic fit than germany and Japan.
John

John Lambshead said...

Dear Jim
The American carriers at sea but the obsolete battle fleet at anchor, instead of the other way around is one of the fascinating what ifs. In the long run, I don't see how Japan could beat the USA. It was Carthage against Rome all over again. the only issue was when Japan lost.
John

C Kelsey said...

John,

I agree that the "AWI" as you call it -- ;P -- was preordained. Many things other than simple taxes led up to it. For one thing, the absolutely abominable opinions the British leadership had of the colonists was a severe sticking point (and one of the reasons the British army was flat-out not trusted). (I'm, of course,not adressing the fact that the colonists, like current americans, may actually have been so intractable as to sort-of have deserved those opinions.) But the war was bound to happen. It's the end of the war that is in question. A win for the colonies was a tenuous thing at best for most of the war, after all.

Chris McMahon said...

One that has often intrigued me is what if China had continued its early global explorations and its fleets reached Europe?

That had reached as far as India and I think Indonesia.

It woudl be an interesting world if China had taken control of the globe in 1400AD:)

Kate said...

John,

Apologies for any spelling errors - I was writing on break at work and didn't have time to dig any deeper or look up names, dates and the like. I still have to get tomorrow's post in, so I'm no better off now.

However, I did point out that Chaos is a good introduction. It's an accessible wrapper for some of the fascinating and truly weird implications of chaos theory. It was one of my starting points: I went digging for more elsewhere after that.

You can make predictions within a moderately definable measure of probability for chaotic systems. Those predictions will usually be tolerably close for a limited time range - that is, you can be fairly sure next year's winter will be colder than next year's summer, and that there will probably be something in the vicinity of the average amount of snow. Those are useful for human purposes - and certainly useful for likely results of a pivot event.

The strange attractor side of chaos theory (which also describes the exact planetary orbits, which wobble around a fair bit and don't ever quite take the same path - but stay within a pretty well defined band nonetheless) suggests that most changes aren't pivot events. The momentum of everything that had gone before is sufficient to prevent a change of path from one person doing one thing differently.

As for events of WW2, Japan didn't declare war on the US, either, until after Pearl Harbor. According to the Guardian's archives (http://century.guardian.co.uk/1940-1949/Story/0,,127505,00.html), Japan's declaration of war wasn't announced until the day after Pearl Harbor, and was effective from 6am of the day after Pearl Harbor. That was one of the reasons the US got a bit irritated. Japan may not have declared war on the Soviets, but they were certainly eying off Soviet assets, and the Soviets were keeping a pretty close eye on them. At that point, Stalin's policy was essentially to wait, and have a nation undamaged by war to take over whatever was left when everyone else was finished.

It's too damn late at night - I just went digging and worked out I'd conflated a few things. I was actually thinking of Hitler's inexplicable delay which allowed the UK to complete the Dunkirk evacuation - which then cascaded on to the rest of it. The starvation estimate rested on the potential for German/French control of the Atlantic should German forces be able to use the French warships.

I still contend that attacking the USSR without having completely subdued Britain was insane regardless of ideology - and in many ways the anti-communist spiel was a way to help disguise the similarities of Nazism to Communism. It wouldn't do to have das Volk realize that the evil Enemy Nation is organized just like them, complete with personality cult and all.

My issue with any kind of "Germany staggers on a bit longer" is this: Germany, the USSR and the US were all frantically researching nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. If Germany had either developed or stolen one, they would have used it. At which point we're into end-game apocalyptic scenarios, possibly with irradiated zombies.

Playing "what if" with nuclear warheads doesn't interest me - but the very real potential for Japan to have won the Pacific on purely conventional military weaponry and tactics does.

matapam said...

Chris,

Yes, China's withdrawal from exploration is one of the big pivotal points in history. Consider if China had explored northward, followed islands and coasts down to the Americas. The Early European Explorers would have had a different reception. If nothing else the Indians might have had a century to recover from the introduction of new diseases.

John,

Tungusta would have ignited an atomic war anytime after '58. If it happened early enough to have regional, but not global effects, who would have emerged as the new world powers? China? A Country or group there of in South America? India? Perhaps Australia and South Africa? If Europe was trashed, probably the Middle East and Northern Africa would have been affected enough to put an Islamic power out of the question.

John Lambshead said...

dear Chris

AWI is wargamers jargon. We divide popular wargaming eras up into, eg, AWI, ACW, ECW :)

I think the thing about the AWI is that it was about ideas. This was the Enlightenment. The colonists who drove the war were radicals.

John
PS will email you seperately rather than drivel on in public.

C Kelsey said...

John,

I look forward to discussing offline. I'm currently living about 5 miles from the place the AWI actually kicked off. Since I love history it adds some spice to my life.