Allied Strategy and Tactics

In the Second World War

By John Ellis

Viking. 643 pp. $29.95

NO ONE handles statistics more deftly than John Ellis. A British military historian, Ellis lays down an unremitting barrage of facts, figures and tables about the relative Allied and enemy strengths in World War II. His message, which will come as no surprise to viewers of Ken Burns's brilliant pictorial treatment of the Civil War, is that God remains on the side of the big battalions.

According to Ellis, the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union emerged victorious not because their cause was just, or because their strategy was superior, but because of their absolutely overwhelming preponderence of manpower and materiel. As a hapless German artillery officer lamented, the Americans insisted on charging their Sherman tanks down the barrels of his battery of 88s, where they were picked off one after the other. The problem was that he ran out of ammunition before the Americans ran out of Sherman tanks.

This was scarcely accidental. Whereas President Roosevelt deliberately undertook to make the United States the arsenal of democracy and quickly converted American industry to a war footing, Hitler cavalierly ignored the need to mobilize, and made few inroads on civilian consumption. Not only were battlefield losses in Poland and France not made good, but German aircraft production actually declined 40 percent between September 1940 and February 1941, when the Battle of Britain was at its height. "Years of hard fighting lay ahead but the prosaic arithmetic of natural resources, generating capacity, industrial plant and productivity was to be incontrovertible."

In the last 18 months of the war, the Allies deployed 80,000 tanks to the Germans' 20,000; 1.1 million trucks to 70,000; 235,000 combat aircraft to 45,000. And while German U-boats sank 630,000 tons of merchant shipping, Allied shipyards busily launched 20 million tons as replacement. The discrepancies were equally one-sided in the Pacific. From 1942 to 1945, the Japanese built 13 aircraft carriers. The United States built 137. "The Battle of Production was virtually a walkover."

Ellis is at his best describing the battlefield impact of insufficient resources. In Russia, Hitler and his general staff allowed false optimism about the prowess of Germany's armed forces to obscure war's logistical dimension. When the Red Army failed to disintegrate, German ammunition, fuel and spare parts quickly ran out. Inadequate transportation facilities became hopelessly clogged; once again battle losses were not made good; and the inevitable erosion of the German war machine set in. "The opening weeks of the campaign soon highlighted the gulf between the planners' vague hopes and the realities of the situation."

The figures were ghastly. By the beginning of November 1941, the Germans had suffered 743,112 combat casualties. Russian losses were much greater. But the Red Army inducted 3.2 million replacements during this period, while German replacements to the Eastern Front did not exceed 100,000.

Losses were particularly severe in the overstretched panzer divisions. Even the benign summer weather posed unanticipated problems. As one division commander reported:

"The shocking roads, the heat, and the dust were more dangerous enemies than the Red Army. The tanks were enveloped in thick clouds of dust. The dust and grit wore out the engines. The filters were continually clogged up with dirt . . . Engines got overheated and pistons seized up."

By the end of August 1941, 1,478 German tanks had to be written off completely. That was roughly half of the invasion force. The winter was even more severe. By the end of March 1942, the 16 panzer divisions in Russia had only 140 operational tanks among them. ONE OF the salutary features of this book is the emphasis Ellis rightfully places on the Eastern Front. Fully 90 percent of the 5.5 million German battle casualties were inflicted by the Red Army. "Perhaps if Russia had been knocked out of the war, the Americans would eventually have invaded Europe. But in that case they would come up against 150 more divisions they had to fight and one million extra German soldiers they had to kill."

Ellis is less successful when he second-guesses Allied tactics. With a historian's retrospective knowledge of enemy strength and deployment, he repeatedly faults those in command for excessive caution; for relying on firepower and materiel superiority ("brute force"), rather than maneuver. Ellis knows where enemy resistance was weakest; Zhukov, Montgomery and Konev did not.

This is a thoughtful, well-written book, and its publication at this time is fortuitous. It provides a valuable antidote to those who talk glibly about surgical strikes and tout the invincibility of sophisticated weapons. In the end, war is about death, and Ellis reminds us of how costly it can be.

Jean Edward Smith, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto, is the author of "Lucius D. Clay: An American Life."