World War II

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What were the main differences between the warfare in Europe and the Pacific during World War II?

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In Europe, more complex command structures were needed because more countries were involved. The war in Europe was mostly fought on land, while in the Pacific it was conducted mostly at sea and in the air. The Germans often had better weapons and technology than the Allies, while the Japanese were tenacious fighters who almost never surrendered.

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Although the fighting took place simultaneously, the European theater and the Pacific theater of World War II had significant differences. In Europe, more nations were engaged with each other. On one side, Germany, Italy, and their puppet states faced off against the Soviets, Americans, Canadians, and British. This required more coordination between nations and the establishment of multi-national command structures. In some cases, such as the invasion of Normandy, the forces of several nations fought alongside each other. The Soviets on the eastern front were in charge of their own forces. However, after the Allies gained a foothold in Western Europe, it became necessary to coordinate the operations along that front through an organized command structure. Ultimately, General Eisenhower, an American, was designated as the "Supreme Allied Commander." The war in the Pacific, other than the fighting in mainland China, was mostly a conflict between Japan and the United States. Although Australia, New Zealand, and the British were involved to a certain extent, the United States conducted most of the fighting against the Japanese. Therefore, a complex multi-national command structure like the one in Europe was not necessary.

Geography also played a large role. The war in Europe was primarily fought on land. Both the Axis and Allies fought to capture and control land. The land itself was diverse, ranging from open deserts to alpine mountains, farmland, and forests. Fighting took place in cities and the countryside alike. This diversity in landscape put the focus mostly on infantry tactics. Air, armored, and naval forces supported the infantry, but it was soldiers with boots on the ground who did most of the fighting. The Pacific theater of the war was fought largely at sea and on small, far-flung islands. As a result, naval and air power became much more important. The use of battleships and aircraft carriers defined much of the combat in the Pacific. Soldiers fought on islands, where the landscape and tropical diseases often became as much of a threat as the enemy.

While the Germans were certainly capable of war crimes and atrocities (and did commit them frequently), they were more of a traditional enemy for the Allies. The Germans were also technologically proficient. The Allies in Europe had to face off against superior tanks, airplanes, and even ballistic missiles. The Japanese were not as technologically advanced as the Allies. Their technological deficits included a lack of radar and long-range bombers. However, they made up for this by being tenacious fighters, who usually fought to the death instead of surrendering.

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There were quite a few differences between the fighting in the European and Pacific theaters.  First, there were issues of diplomacy.  Stalin kept asking the other Allies to open a Western front against the Nazis, and he was disappointed that this did not happen until June 1944.  The fighting in the Pacific was largely carried out by the American forces with British support.  This is one major reason why the Soviet Union was left out of rebuilding Asia after the war.  

Next, there were differences in terrain.  The war in Europe was largely a land war, with the exception of submarine warfare in the Mediterranean and around the British Isles.  This meant that supply lines had to be secured before advancing—this was true for both the Axis and Allied Powers.  There were also issues of climate, as the German army learned amidst catastrophic circumstances during its ill-fated Soviet winter campaigns.  The war in the Pacific was largely fought over water with key islands such as Midway and Iwo Jima being flashpoints.  These islands were necessary as air bases; they allowed the capture of further islands were required in order to launch any potential invasion of Japan.  While the invasion of Japan never took place, there was a plan to do it if the atomic bomb failed.  The islands taken during the Pacific campaigns were also used to base American submarines; by 1945 these submarines were destroying most Japanese imports, thus starving the people on the island.  

German soldiers would surrender, preferably to Americans as Soviet soldiers were known for retaliation after German atrocities committed on Soviet soil.  Japanese soldiers and civilians alike committed suicide before capture in many instances to avoid capture during the war.  By 1944, the Japanese air force was launching kamikaze attacks in order to stop American aircraft carriers.  Though the situation in Germany grew quite impossible, the Nazis did not have any major plans to launch suicide attacks against the advancing Allies.  

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There were differences in command structure for sure.  In Europe, the US and the British had to share command with, for example, Eisenhower and Montgomery disagreeing with one another quite regularly.  By contrast, the Pacific was completely an American show.  There was no real need to coordinate with Allies in that theater.

Another major difference was the sort of weapons that could be brought to bear.  The European theater was influenced strongly by tank warfare on the plains of Europe.  By contrast, the Pacific theater offerred very little in the way of open spaces.  Fighting in the Pacific was much more reliant on infantry and was done in jungle to a large extent.

In addition, the enemy was very different.  The Germans were much more of a traditional enemy who would do things like surrendering.  By contrast, the Japanese defended so unrelentingly that very few Japanese defenders survived battles like those on Saipan and Iwo Jima.  This made for a very different fighting experience.

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There were many important differences between the war in Europe and the war in the Pacific. Obviously, the first difference was in the terrain. The war in Europe was fought primarily on land. Yes, there was submarine warfare and naval blockades and crossing of rivers and the Mediterranean Sea and of the Atlantic Ocean. But the war in the Pacific was dominated by the huge expanses of water that had to be crossed, on the water or by air, in order to engage the enemy.

Weather was another variable that affected the two theaters differently. Over the stretch of the war, those fighting in different areas of Europe experienced weather ranging from summer in the Sahara Desert to winter outside Moscow or St. Petersburg. The conditions challenged men and equipment, both directly and in terms of medical complications caused by cold, heat, precipitation of all kinds, etc. In the Pacific, the weather caused different kinds of challenges as fighting took place under tropical heat and humidity with the presence of health complications related to that part of the world.

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