World War II Turning Points :  Moscow,  Stalingrad and Kursk [1941 – 1943]

The question of turning points in a conflict as complex as the Second World War is useful despite the dangers of oversimplification and prejudicial judgment entailed in its consideration.  With caution, discussion of the topic can make explicit tacit assumptions and illuminate underappreciated events.  At the very least, examination of what are conventionally considered the turning points of the war can serve the valuable function of providing a more comprehensive perspective.

With regards to the European Theater, many Americans would point to the D-Day landings in Normandy on June 6, 1944, culminating in the Battle of the Falaise Pocket in August, as the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany.

The locals may have expressed a different opinion when they named streets Rue [de] Stalingrad in Paris, Brussels, Grenoble, Nice, and Toulouse, among other places.

Reasonably the Russians view their efforts as central:  in 1943 approximately 70% of German resources were directed against the Soviets.

Even after the Battle of Stalingrad [August 1942 – February 1943] the Germans took the offensive on the European Eastern Front, counter-attacking brilliantly on the Donets in February of 1943, and attacking the Kursk salient in July and August of that year.  After the German thrusts into the Kursk salient were stopped, the strategic initiative on the European Eastern Front passed to the Russians, who drove relentlessly to Berlin.  So Kursk marks one clear turning point in the war.

Then could Stalingrad be considered another sort of turning point, one where the Germans were proven fallible and lost momentum, if only temporarily?  Perhaps, but there is a prior candidate for that honor:  the Battle of Moscow [October 1941 – January 1942].  But as both the Russian and the German leadership bungled major aspects of that conflict, neither side invited detailed analysis by stressing its importance.

Moscow, Stalingrad, and Kursk are at least as pivotal as the Normandy Campaign, in their very different ways.  Moscow blunted the German drive for expansion; Stalingrad was a colossal German failure for all to see; and Kursk clearly marked the passing of the initiative from the Germans to the Russians.  The Italians, ever sensitive to such matters, made their first serious attempt to drop their German alliance and leave the war when the Nazi failure at Kursk became discernible.  Italy was encouraged along this path by the fact that American and English troops were invading Sicily about the same time [July – August 1943].  The allies at their doorstep gave the Italians somebody to surrender to.  The Russian victory at Kursk gave them spurious hopes they might be able to betray Hitler without reprisals.

A set of turning points in the Pacific Theater can be seen in the battles at Khalkhin Gol [May – September 1939], Midway [June, 1942], and Guadalcanal [August 1942 – February 1943]. The New Guinea campaigns [January 1942 – August 1945], important though they were, like those on the China-Burma-India front [September 1931 – August 1945], do not stand in the direct line of events leading to the defeat of Japan, though their influence was enormous.


Further Reading: 

  • Andrew Nagorski’s The Greatest Battle describes the conflict for Moscow during World War II.
  • Alan Clark’s Barbarossa: The Russian-German Conflict, 1941-1945 is unfortunately titled, as it deals with much more than Operation Barbarossa, but it provides a useful succinct introduction to the WWII European Eastern Front.
  • Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad covers the basics of that epic conflict.
  • Robin Cross’s Citadel: The Battle of Kursk and David Glantz’s The Battle of Kursk are useful introductions to that pivotal campaign.
  • Alvin Coox’s magisterial study of the Khalkhin Gol conflict, Nomonhan, is usefully supplemented by Stuart Goldman’s discussion of the campaign’s broader implications in Nomonhan, 1939.
  • Walter Lord’s Incredible Victory on the Battle of Midway is a rousing classic usefully superseded by Craig Symonds’ The Battle of Midway.
  • Richard Frank’s Guadalcanal should be read in conjunction with Richard Tregaskis’ Guadalcanal Diary.
  • B. Sledge’s classic description of his combat experiences at Peleliu and Okinawa, With the Old Breed, should not be missed.
  • Alistair Horne’s recently published Hubris: The Tragedy of War in the Twentieth Century provides succinct and detailed narratives of 6 pivotal conflicts:
    • Tsushima
    • Nomonhan
    • Moscow 1941
    • Midway
    • MacArthur and the Yalu
    • Dien Bien Phu

The narratives are lively and the judgments generally well considered.  The facts are not new, but the tales are told very well.



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