World War II Combat Soldiers: Western Democracies --

Much has been written about the combat soldiers and sailors of World War II. One of the most popular American authors is Stephen Ambrose who has written several insightful accounts of the War. Ambrose in his writings and public appearances often stresses one of his central themes, that the children of democracy, speaking primarily about Americans, in the final analysis outfought the German and Japanese soldiers imbuded with totalitarian leadership principles. Ambrose suggests that Hitler made a bet when he decalred war on America 3 days after Pearl Harbor that the German soldier trained from an early age through the Hitler Youth could outfight the decadent American youth of the Boy Scouts and swing music. Ambrose's contention of course sounds wonderful and is certainly thoughT provoking. HBC has, however, some doubts about his basic contentions.

Figure 1.--American historian Stephen Ambrose maintains thar when Hitler declared war on America, the only country on which he ever declared war, that he made a bet that German boys toughened by the Hitler Youth and the Führer principle could beat the soft Americans youth of the Boy Scouts, weaked by racial mixing and decadent swing music. The Japanese who attacked Pear Harbor also believed that decadent American youth would have no stomache for the cost in blood of fighting a Pacific War.

Children of Democracy

Ambrose maintains, "On the home front we had free labor, which always outproduces slave labor--and the NAZIs were relying on slave labor. Hitler's technicians got stuck in ruts. They were ahead of the world in 1937, but in 1944 they were still building 1930s models. Most of all, we were helped by the fact that in the Army our soldiers accepted responsibility and seized the initiative, which are things that the children of democracy are very good at, and the children of totalitarians aren't. Hitler thought that his kids, brought up in the Hitler Youth, would always outfight kids brought up in the Boy Scouts, because his kids would unquestionably obey, and because they were fanatics. The problem with that was that ultimately the orders could only come from Hitler, so it was difficult to impossible for Germans to ever take the initiative. They would always be waiting for orders. They were paralyzed on D-Day. At a time when they had the means and the wherewithal to drive the British back into the sea, and the tank commanders were ready to go do it, they had to wait to get the okay from Hitler, who was a thousand kilometers away. It was just madness to run an army like that. You see the same thing on a smaller scale throughout the whole war. The Germans made great troops until the lieutenant got killed." [Ambrose, 1998 interview]

Youth Groups

Many groups like the Scouts were in part formed with the idea of creating a more healthy vigorous youth to support the military if needed. Baden Powell was after all an army general and the British were appaled at the number of men would could not pass the physical in the Boer War crisis. Overt military training, however, was not conducted by the Scouts although there was military drill in the Boys' Brogade. The totalitarian youth groups like the Italian Balial, German Hitler Youth, and Soviet Young Pioneers incorporated actual military training, including weapons handling in the program. For the younger boys it was more of a show and tell approach. For older boys there was actual weapons handling and military exercizes. In regards to military training, there appears to be two primary goals. The first is skills training. It seems virtully undisputable that the Hitler Youth better prepared boys with combat skills than any other youth group. The second goal is leadership /command preparation. Here there are differences of opinion.

American Soldiers

HBC is not at all sure that Ambrose is correct when he aserts that the most effective soldiers in World War II were created by the democracies. In some regards training Americans for the military was probably more difficult than already regimented Germans having gone through the Hitler Youth. Americans are individualistic and don't like following orders, characteristics that do not work well in the military. In addition, the Americans had to be taught skills that German soldiers had learned as boy in the Hitler Youth. Even so, American training programs were able to turn out competent soldiers in a matter of months so any German advantage was probably only minor.

One interestng look at American soldiers is available from a French, Alsatian boy, who had seen the French Army defeated, the Weremacht at its peak, Russian and other POWs, and finally the American Army. He writes after liberation in February 1945, "We were disenchanted with the Americans. They seemed to behve like well-fed babies, chewing gum, and didn't seem to care whether they were in France or Germany. Our celebrations and enthusiasms left them cold. In my eyes they didn't act like soldiers--they didn't sem to care very much for their equipment, and I never saw them drill. [HBC note: Apparently the Germans were big on drill.] They would throw chewing gum and chocoalates on the ground and watch isscramble to get a morsel. To me they were like amateurs. They weren't really arrogant, just aloof. To rhem we were part of a 'zoo of savages'. But impressions do not make history--the Americans fought and many died on our soil, for which we re eternally grateful." [Ungerer, pp. 161-163.]

What HBC is unsure about is some of the unmilitary characteristics like individuality were actual advantages in combat because American soldiers were willing to take the initiative in critical situations whereas German soldiers were incapciated and would wait for orders from headquarters. Here HBC simply does have information to assess these two conflicting points of view.

Another author echoing Ambrose is America TV-journalist Tom Brokaw. In his salute to "the greatest generation", Brokaw writes, that the Americans who fought the Depression and than World War II were the "gratest generation any society has ever produced". [Brokaw] While America owes the generation that fought the War and great debt of gratitude, this seems rather over-the-top, sounding rather something that Goebbels might have said about the NAZI supermen. Brokaw like Ambrose tends to forget the huge contribution of the Red Army soldiers. Even in American terms, it seems hard to surpass the generation of the 1770s that fought thE revolutionary war and the generation of the 1860s that fought the Civil War.


Another weakness of the Ambrose assessment is the lack of attention he gives to the home front as a major role in the effectivness of combat soldiers. This is surprising bdecause in his writing he does address the importance of the home front. He in fact speaks and writes very eloquently about the home front. HBC believes that the key factor in the success of the Allies, probably overwealming differences in the skills and competence of the individual soldiers, was the ability particularly of the United States to produce weapons and war materials in staggering quantities as well as to surpass the Germans in many scientific areas, especially radar and sonar. In almost all of the major campaigns of World War II, the Weremacht faced an ememey which outnumbered it in both men and material. The Weremacht was able to succeeded in the early campaigns when their weaponery and tactical doctrine (Blitzkrieg) overwealmed unprepared opponents. Once stopped by the Soviets before Moscoe (December 1941) the Allies were able by 1942 to close the technical and tactical gap dooming the German war effort. It was on the home front that the tremendous productive capacity of American industry and a mobilized work force was used to crush Germany.

Red Army

Another major weakness in the Amrose assessment is ignoring the Red Army. It was not in fact the children of democracy (Western Allies) who fought an essential broke the back of the Weremacht, it was the Red Army. Something 90 percent of the effective strength of the Weremacht was engaged by the Red Army. Now it is true that in 1939 and 40 Stalin and the Red Army were essential German Allies and the defeat of the French Army would have been much more difficult without the NAZI-Soviet Non-aggression Pact (1939). Even so, beginning in June 1941 it was primarily the Red Army which engaged. Without the success of the Red Army at Moscow (December 1941), Stalingrad (January 1943), Kursk (July 1943), the desimation of German Army roupmcentral (1944), and other engagements, D-Day and the victory in France would have never been possible. Thus to say that it was the children of democracy which won the war is an overstatement at best.


Some authors have addressed the subject of the differeing behavior of soldiers from the various combatant nations behind the font lines. The results are somewhat surprising. Red Army soldiers, among the most disciplined on the battlefield, were suprisingly undesciplined hehind the lines. The British appea to have been the most diciplined occupation troops, in part because of the strength of their NC system.


Ambrose, Stephen E. Band of Brothers (1993).

Ambrose, Stephen E. Citizen Soldiers (1997).

Ambrose, Stephen E. D-Day (1994).

Ambrose, Stephen E. The Victors. Eisenhower and His Boys: The Men of World War II

Brokaw, Tom. An Album of Memmories: Personal Histories from the Graetest Generation (Random House, 2001), 314p.

Ungerer, Tomi. Tomi: A Childhood under the NAZIs (Robert Rinehart Publishing Group: Boulder, 1998), 175p.


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Created: June 25, 2002
Last updated: 6:33 PM 7/28/2019