6 Misconceptions About World War II

U.S. soldiers in an M24 Chaffee light tank driving through Bologna, Italy, in 1945.
U.S. soldiers in an M24 Chaffee light tank driving through Bologna, Italy, in 1945. / Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images

From the repercussions of Pearl Harbor to whether or not a Polish cavalry on horseback ever took on a battalion of German tanks, we're here to dispel some popular myths about World War II, adapted from an episode of Misconceptions on YouTube.

1. Misconception: The Polish used horses to charge German tanks.

When Nazi Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, the Polish stood their ground in the Pomeranian village of Krojanty and met a German infantry with a cavalry, which, by definition, involves men on horseback. Polish forces were actually able to force the German battalion to scatter, but then the Germans summoned machine guns, which turned the tide. The Polish suffered losses, though the confrontation allowed them time to retreat. By that point, the Germans had also gathered tanks, and German and Italian journalists arriving on the scene made some inferences—namely, that the Polish had pitted pony against panzer to their everlasting regret.

While you can certainly make a sweeping generalization of this story to make Polish forces look foolish, the fact is that no tanks were on the battlefield during the skirmish and no horses ever actually charged them. But that narrative was a benefit to Germany in order to portray Polish forces as inferior to a German military on the forefront of mechanical warfare.

This erroneous narrative undermines the very real contributions made by the Poles during the war. Polish codebreakers had cracked an early Enigma code, and over 250,000 Polish soldiers stood side-by-side with the British during battle and were some of the most successful pilots during the Battle of Britain. Despite these contributions, the Polish have been saddled with this falsehood for decades.

The Polish can actually lay claim to a much better and more flattering animal story. In 1942, Polish soldiers moving through Iran befriended a young boy who had a bear cub. Sensing the boy couldn’t properly care for a bear, the soldiers agreed to take him in exchange for some money, chocolate, a Swiss Army Knife, and a tin of beef. The bear, which they named Wojtek, became a mascot for the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the Polish II Corps. Wojtek learned to salute, drank beer, smoked, and once stole an entire clothesline full of women’s underwear. Wojtek even discovered a trespasser in camp, who began screaming when Wojtek wandered into the shower tent.

Later, when soldiers were dispatched to Italy, Wojtek was supposedly made a private and given a service number. Soldiers there have sworn they witnessed Wojtek carrying ammunition during battles. He retired to the Edinburgh Zoo, where he lived for several decades. If you’re going to remember a good Polish war story, make it that one.

2. Misconception: The Nazis were a fully mechanized fighting force.

The story about Polish horses fighting tanks lent weight to the idea that Nazi Germany was on the cutting edge of military weaponry and technology. Allied forces that ran up against German opposition were in for some intimidating displays of pure firepower. The so-called “Nazi war machine” supposedly produced a dizzying array of machinery designed to make the enemy explode with devastating efficiency.

But that's not really true. Of the 135 German divisions that were operational in the West in May 1940, only 16 were mechanized—that is, had things like armored vehicles used for transport. The remaining 119 were on foot or using a horse and cart to move supplies.

Obviously, the Germans did have some destructive assets. Their Tiger tanks definitely outclassed the American Sherman tanks. But in terms of numbers, that kind of operational sophistication wasn’t really widespread. The Germans were thought to have built 1347 Tiger tanks, while the U.S. had about 49,000 Sherman tanks. And while the Tiger tank was impressive, it was also prone to malfunction and ate up a lot of fuel.

3. Misconception: The U.S. declared war on the Axis Powers because of Pearl Harbor.

On December 7, 1941, Japanese forces carried out a surprise attack on the Pearl Harbor naval base near Honolulu, Hawaii. Hundreds of Japanese planes damaged 20 American vessels and caused the deaths of more than 2400 Americans. It’s believed this assault motivated the United States to join the fight, even though the war had been going on for the past two years. President Franklin Roosevelt even declared war the very next day, December 8. So, it had to have been Pearl Harbor, right?

Sort of. Roosevelt declared war, that’s true, but only against Japan. The United States didn’t turn its sights on Germany and Italy until those countries declared war on the U.S. on December 11. That's when Congress declared war on them. There were a lot of declarations being tossed around at the time, but it wasn’t a straight line between the Pearl Harbor attack and fighting Nazis.

Indeed, America had already been fighting Nazis. Months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the USS Greer was fired upon by a Nazi submarine. The circumstances were complicated, but FDR soon proclaimed that “when you see a rattlesnake poised to strike, you do not wait until he has struck before you crush him. These Nazi submarines and raiders are the rattlesnakes of the Atlantic.” More commonly known as the "shoot-on-sight" speech, many historians argue it marked an undeclared naval war with Germany—before Pearl Harbor ever happened.

There are a couple of other things people tend to overlook about Pearl Harbor. For one thing, people remember it as an attack that came completely out of the blue. But tensions between the U.S. and Japan had been rising for some time prior to December 7. Pacific military commanders had even sent warnings to Washington about a possible move by Japan. There wasn’t any concrete information to act upon and no indication that Pearl Harbor was the specific target, but the U.S. government knew Japan was becoming a looming threat.

Another misconception? Pearl Harbor was the only target that day. It wasn’t. Japan also attacked areas in the Philippines, Wake Island, Guam, Malaya, Thailand, and Midway. Indeed, in the first draft of his “Day of Infamy” speech, Roosevelt talked about how “Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in Hawaii and the Philippines,” the Philippines being largely independent but still American at the time. In editing, that became Oahu, and then “the American island of Oahu” as he was trying to focus the speech as close to the Mainland as possible.

4. Misconception: All the POW Camps were outside of the United States.

When we think of World War II, we tend to conceptualize it as being far removed from American soil. Even Pearl Harbor was 2000 miles from the mainland.

You may know that Japanese Americans were held in so-called “relocation centers” on U.S. soil, a euphemistic term for the rounding up of 120,000 people who weren’t charged with disloyalty and had no method to appeal their loss of property and personal liberty, a heinous violation of their civil rights. But even if we restrict the conversation to enemy combatants who were legitimate prisoners of war, it’s worth noting that actual German soldiers stepped foot in the United States.

From 1943 to 1945, over 400,000 captured German soldiers were relocated to the U.S. to live and work in barracks set up at over 400 sites across the country. One such detention center was in Hearne, Texas, which was considered prime real estate for prisoners due to its available space and warm climate.

There was another reason to host German prisoners in America—labor. With so many Americans sent to the front lines, there were lots of job shortages that Germans could help fill. But despite the expectation the POWs would work, these camps didn’t operate under the harshest of conditions. Here, prisoners could sunbathe, play soccer, take warm showers, drink beer, and have plenty of space to stretch out. Locals who observed Germans being treated so well even gave the camp a derogatory nickname—the “Fritz Ritz.”

The conditions were so accommodating that, at least in Texas, most prisoners wouldn’t try very hard to escape. Those that did were usually found strolling down highways, not really caring all that much if they got caught. By the time the war ended and Germans began to be sent back home, some had lost the ideology that had fueled them in wartime. A few even asked to remain in Texas.

5. Misconception: Bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved 1 million American lives.

The atomic bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki represented a huge evolution in how wars could—or should—be fought. Obviously, a nuclear weapon that could decimate such a large area and create civilian casualties introduced a lot of philosophical and moral issues. American military leaders argued its use ended the war early and may have spared up to 1 million American lives. Remember: At least 80,000 people died in Hiroshima, with 40,000 perishing during the bombing of Nagasaki three days later, and those numbers don’t even include those that died due to radiation poisoning later.

These are terrible numbers, and some Americans at the time found solace in the fact that it was the hard price to pay for saving so many Americans. The idea was that if the bombs hadn’t been dropped, a military invasion of Japan was unavoidable and would have led to up to a million soldiers perishing. But did it really save that many lives? This one we have to attribute to some old-fashioned American propaganda.

The bombings had, understandably, rattled the collective conscience of a portion of the United States. While many Americans supported the use of the bomb, a 1946 New Yorker article by John Hersey, which detailed the human devastation in Japan, left doubts. So, in 1947, former Secretary of War Henry L Stimson published an essay in Harper’s magazine in which he justified the bombings by asserting it had saved a huge number of lives. But Stimson didn’t actually write the essay. Instead, a government employee named McGeorge Bundy wrote it. And Bundy later admitted that 1 million number was pure invention on his part. There was no data or evidence to substantiate it. He used it because the essay was intended to alleviate the public’s unease about the bombings. What better way to do that than to claim thousands of lives lost saved over a million?

The bombings probably didn’t end the war all by themselves, either. While it’s true Japan surrendered after the attacks, Japanese officials were very concerned with the imminent threat of Russia targeting them. The Soviets had joined the fray in the Pacific on August 8, in between the two bombings. Some historians believe it was that threat—not nuclear power—that forced their hand. One man close to Japanese Emperor Hirohito said the bombings did aid the pro-surrender faction within Japan, so the A-bombs were likely a big reason, but not the only reason, that Japan accepted defeat.

The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing myths have endured. During the 50th anniversary of the end of the war in 1995, an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution drew controversy for reasserting the “1 million lives saved” narrative. It was part of the display for the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the first nuclear bomb. The exhibit also said residents of the cities had been warned of the pending attacks with leaflets that were air-dropped. There were leaflets, but they were dropped in other cities, and only after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were attacked.

6. Misconception: Kamikaze pilots were volunteers.

One of the most dramatic components of World War II was the presence of Japanese kamikaze pilots who intentionally dove their fighter planes into American warships in an effort to disable or destroy them, even if it meant their own death. Kamikaze, which means “divine wind,” has come to be associated with any act of self-sacrifice for a perceived noble cause.

But not all kamikaze pilots were excited about deliberately crashing their airplanes. The call for kamikaze activity didn’t go out until 1944, as America was rapidly gaining ground in the pacific. With dwindling resources, it was decided that suicide missions would be appropriate.

Despite what you may have seen in popular culture, kamikaze pilots were not running to the front of the line for the job. Many pilots were farmworkers still in their teens, not seasoned military officers. Some had even originally signed up for air service to avoid violent combat on the ground. Those soldiers did not all of a sudden decide they were happy to sacrifice themselves before they had even reached the age of 20.

In 2017, the BBC spoke to two surviving kamikaze pilots who were told they would be joining this most unfortunate unit. One of them, 91-year-old Keiichi Kuwahara, said, “I felt myself going pale. I was scared. I didn’t want to die.” He was just 17 at the time.

During his mission, Kuwahara’s engines failed and he was forced to turn back. Ultimately, 3000 to 4000 Japanese pilots crashed their planes on purpose, which resulted in roughly 3000 Allied deaths. How many of those kamikaze pilots were true volunteers and how many felt forced into the role, we’ll probably never know.

While serving as a kamikaze pilot was said to be voluntary, many officers were asked to join in front of a large group by raising their hand. Sure, you could technically not do that, but the unspoken peer pressure was hard for many Japanese pilots to ignore.