SA did its bit in five world war battles that shaped the world – Business Day, 4 May 2015

THREE days from now, on Thursday May 7, is the 70th anniversary of the surrender of the forces of the Third Reich in Europe. South Africans, white and black, men and women, played their part on land, in the air, and at sea. They should not be forgotten as Europe celebrates Victory in Europe Day on Friday.

By John Kane-Berman 

THREE days from now, on Thursday May 7, is the 70th anniversary of the surrender of the forces of the Third Reich in Europe.

By the time Japan finally surrendered on September 2, 1945, the Second World War had claimed the lives of 15-million soldiers and 40-million civilians.

Germany finally surrendered when caught in a vice between Russian forces advancing from the east and those of the Americans and the British Empire closing in from the west.

But the five major battles that culminated in the destruction of Nazi Germany were all fought elsewhere — and probably the most important of them all took place not on land, but at sea.

The first of the turning points in the war was the Battle of Britain, fought between July and September 1940 in the skies over England.

German air attack was supposed to be the prelude to an amphibious landing that would have brought the UK under Nazi rule, but the German air force lost 1,733 aircraft against the British loss of 915.

Whether Adolf Hitler really intended to conquer the UK remains a moot point. He was banking on a deal in which he would guarantee the British Empire in return for a free hand in Europe.

In any event, he made the fatal mistake of turning to invade Russia while leaving his rear exposed.

The second great battle was at Alamein in October and November of 1942.

Germany hoped to conquer Egypt, then the largest British military base in the world, cross the Suez Canal, and team up with German troops moving down from the Caucasus.

Thus the Middle East would follow Europe into German occupation, possibly as a prelude to a German invasion of India.

British triumph at Alamein destroyed that plan.

A few days later, the Americans landed in North Africa and, by June 1943, all German and Italian forces there had been captured.

While Alamein was raging, so was an even greater battle, at Stalingrad. Surrounded and starved, Field Marshal Friedrich von Paulus surrendered to the Russians at the end of January 1943.

Stalingrad was the turning point in the Nazi invasion of their erstwhile Soviet ally.

The fourth great battle followed the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe on D-Day, June 6 1944.

As the Allies advanced upon Germany, Hitler launched a huge surprise counterattack in the Ardennes forest in Luxembourg on December 16. But the Battle of the Bulge in the end delayed the Allied advance into Germany by only six weeks.

The fifth and longest confrontation was the Battle of the Atlantic. Germany planned to starve the UK into submission by sinking all the merchant ships carrying its supplies, weapons and, later, troops, from the US and Canada.

Had the U-boats won the Battle of the Atlantic, the D-Day invasion launched from the UK could never have taken place.

And Hitler would have been free to concentrate all his forces against the Russians, instead of fighting on two fronts.

As the US was the origin of vast quantities of weaponry, German victory in the Atlantic would have prevented supplies from reaching the Russian forces round the top of Norway and via the Cape of Good Hope. British forces in Egypt were also supplied around the Cape.

A German victory in the Atlantic could have meant a German victory at Alamein.

The Battle of the Atlantic raged from the very first sinking (of a passenger ship) by a U-boat on September 3 1939 until Allied counterattack and faster ship-building forced the Germans to withdraw their U-boats from the Atlantic in May 1943.

South Africans, white and black, men and women, played their part on land, in the air, and at sea.

They should not be forgotten as Europe celebrates Victory in Europe Day on Friday.

• Kane-Berman is a consultant with the South African Institute of Race Relations.

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