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Myths of the Second World War

John Simkin

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I would highly recommend Clive Ponting's book, "1940: Myth and Reality" to those who want to really understand what really went on during the first 18 months of the Second World War. This is taken from the introduction of the book:

I can still remember the impact that reading Churchill's history of the Second World War had on me many years ago; its wonderful language redolent of Macaulay and Gibbon, its dramatic story so clearly told, its moral message so apparent. Some years later, when I was reading the government papers of the time in the Public Record Office, I began to realize that the story was far more complex and that there was much that had been oversimplified or even left out altogether in Churchill's account. Despite all its virtues, his six-volume history is a politician's memoir designed to relate his version of events and to present the story as he wanted. On returning to the archives recently I was even more struck by how much the accepted story of 1940 differed from the picture that emerges from the government papers.

The current widely accepted view of what happened in 1940 could be summarized as follows. In the 1930s the British Empire was one of the strongest powers in the world, but through a misguided and craven policy of appeasement and failure to rearm it allowed the aggressor states (Germany, Italy and Japan) to expand until war became inevitable. Britain and France missed a golden opportunity to defeat Germany in the autumn of 1939 and then in April 1940 Chamberlain's incompetent direction of the war let Hitler conquer Denmark and Norway. Popular discontent with the government swept Churchill into the premiership as the war leader acclaimed by all. The old policy of appeasement and British weakness disappeared under Churchill's inspiring leadership. Immediately on taking office he had to face the collapse of France caused by the numerically superior and highly mechanized German army using waves of modern tanks in a new style of blitzkrieg warfare. The British army, let down by the French and betrayed by the Belgians, fought its way back to the coast, where it was evacuated by a fleet of small boats from the beaches of Dunkirk. Left alone, the British government, refusing even to entertain the possibility of peace with Germany, decided to fight on to final victory. Facing a determined threat to invade Britain, brilliant direction of the RAF defeated a German air force that held all the advantages in the Battle of Britain. Morale in Britain remained high, as the country, united as never before and inspired by Churchill's regular radio broadcasts, was guided by a benevolent government which had great faith in the strength and steadfastness of the British people. The Blitz, one of the heaviest bombing campaigns ever mounted, began when Hitler started the policy of bombing major cities. Well-prepared and efficiently organized emergency services ensured that there were few problems in dealing with the results of the Blitz. Churchill, working closely with his friend President Roosevelt and taking advantage of the strong identity of interest between Britain and the United States, brought the Americans to the brink of entering the war. By the end of 1940, Britain was still a great power and firmly established on the road to victory.

When we examine the historical record, however, not one of these statements turns out to be true.

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One of the myths that Ponting looks at is that the arrival of Churchill did not end the appeasement policy:

The British government entered the war in September 1939 with a distinct lack of enthusiasm. For two days after the - German invasion of Poland they tried to avoid declaring war. They hoped that if the Germans would agree to withdraw, then a four-power European conference sponsored by Mussolini would be able to devise a settlement at the expense of the Poles. But Hitler remained obdurate and the British government, under immense pressure from the House of Commons, finally declared war seventy-two hours after the German attack on their ally. Until the summer of 1940 they continued to explore numerous different approaches to see whether peace with Germany was possible. The main advocates of this policy after the outbreak of war were the Foreign Office, in particular its two ministers - Lord Halifax and Rab Butler - together with Neville Chamberlain. But the replacement of Chamberlain by Churchill had little effect on this aspect of British policy and the collapse of France forced the government into its most serious and detailed consideration of a possible peace. Even Churchill was prepared to cede part of the Empire to Germany if a reasonable peace was on offer from Hitler. Not until July 1940 did an alternative policy - carrying on the war in the hope that the Americans would rescue Britain - become firmly established.

British peace efforts in the period 1939-40 remain a highly sensitive subject for British governments, even though all the participants are now dead. Persistent diplomatic efforts to reach peace with Germany are not part of the mythology of 1940 and have been eclipsed by the belligerent rhetoric of the period. Any dent in the belief that Britain displayed an uncompromising 'bulldog spirit' throughout 1940 and never considered any possibility other than fighting on to total victory is still regarded as severely damaging to Britain's self-image and the myth of `Their Finest Hour'. The political memoirs of the participants either carefully avoid the subject or are deliberately misleading. Normally, government papers are available for research after thirty years but some of the most sensitive British files about these peace feelers, including key war cabinet decisions, remain closed until well into the twenty-first century. It is possible, however, to piece together what really happened from a variety of different sources and reveal the reality behind the myth. pages 96-97

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This is just one example from many of how Churchill distorted the truth in his war memoirs:

It was in this fervid atmosphere that the war cabinet formally considered whether Britain should seek a compromise peace. None of this was made public, although the American government was aware very quickly of what was happening inside the war cabinet. In public Churchill had declared, in his first speech as Prime Minister, that the government's policy was "victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival". After the war Churchill was determined to maintain the heroic myths that by then already surrounded the dramatic days of the early summer of 1940. He wrote in his war memoirs: "Future generations may deem it noteworthy that the supreme question of whether we should fight on alone never found a place upon the War Cabinet agenda ... we were much too busy to waste time upon such unreal, academic issues." The first part of that statement is just about technically correct in that most of the discussions in the war cabinet about whether to sue for peace were under the heading of "Italy: Suggested Direct Approach to Signor Mussolini", but it is an example of Churchill being extremely economical with the truth. The second part of the statement is untrue and designed to conceal the five meetings held by senior ministers during the three days 26-28 May at which the questions of peace and whether Britain should fight on alone were debated at length. page 103

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This passage shows that there was little difference between Winston Churchill and Lord Halifax views on doing a deal with Hitler:

The meeting also considered what Britain might have to give up in order to obtain a settlement. There was general agreement that Mussolini would want Gibraltar, Malta and Suez and Chamberlain thought he might well add Somaliland, Kenya and Uganda to the list. It was more difficult to see what might have to be conceded to Hitler. The war cabinet were united in agreeing that Britain could not accept any form of disarmament in a peace settlement but that the return of the former German colonies taken away in the Versailles settlement was acceptable. At one point Halifax asked Churchill directly "whether, if he was satisfied that matters vital to the independence of this country were unaffected, he would be prepared to discuss terms". Churchill's reply shows none of the signs of the determined attitude he displayed in public and the image cultivated after the war. It reveals little difference between his views and those of Halifax, and shows he was prepared to give up parts of the Empire if a peace settlement were possible. He replied to Halifax's query by saying that "he would be thankful to get out of our present difficulties on such terms, provided we retained the essentials and the elements of our vital strength, even at the cost of some cession of territory". Neville Chamberlain's diary records the response in more specific terms than the civil service minutes. He quotes Churchill as saying that "if we could get out of this jam by giving up Malta and Gibraltar and some African colonies he would jump at it".

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Clive Pointing on Dunkirk:

By May 1940 the British contribution to the Allied forces was minuscule - just seven per cent of the total. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in northern France totalled nine divisions (less than the Dutch army and only forty per cent of the size of the Belgian) compared with the French army of eighty-eight divisions, raised from a population smaller than Britain's. The discrepancy confirmed long-standing French suspicions that Britain expected its allies to bear the brunt of the fighting and made for strained relations even before the events of May 1940. Under the pressure of war and the sudden prospect of defeat, conflicting national interests came rapidly to the fore. The French, quite naturally, regarded the battle in northern France as the decisive moment of the war and took the view that every effort should be made first to contain and then defeat the Germans. For the British this was not the crucial battle and they believed it was more important to preserve their forces so that they could continue the war on their own. During the last three weeks of May the inter-Allied conflicts centred on two key issues: the involvement of the RAF in the defence of France and the British evacuation of their forces from Dunkirk at the end of the month...

On 19 May Gort rejected a French request to fight alongside the 1st French army and the BEF retreat continued. The British did not have to fight their way back to the coast (they sustained only 500 casualties in the first eleven days of the campaign), leaving the bulk of the fighting to the Belgians and French. On 20 May the war cabinet ordered Gort to attack southwards to disrupt the Germans moving towards the coast and link up with the French armies on the other side of the German salient. This led to the limited British attack around Arras on 21 May (the only BEF offensive action of the campaign), but when this failed Gort placed all the emphasis on evacuation through the Channel ports. The withdrawal from around Arras was made without consulting the French and it convinced them that the British were interested only in saving themselves. This view was reinforced by events at Boulogne. The British occupied the port on 22 May but were evacuated by sea within twenty-four hours (when armed sailors had to stop drunken troops rushing the ships) and left the French to defend the port against the Germans for another thirty hours. The British, on leaving, sank a ship in the harbour, which stopped the French evacuating any of their troops before the port finally fell. On 24 May there were similar scenes at Calais. British stevedores refused to work under sporadic German shelling and had to be dragged out of hiding by armed troops. But with the British about to abandon the port after holding it for forty-eight hours, the French formally protested. The British commander was ordered not to surrender `for the sake of Allied solidarity' and received a message full of Churchillian rhetoric and designed primarily for publication. In private Churchill was scathing about the performance of the British army and telegraphed to Gort: `Of course if one side fights and the other does not, the war is apt to become somewhat unequal.' Churchill omitted this sentence when he published the text of the message in his war memoirs.

British interest in withdrawing the BEF from the continent began very early in the campaign. On return from his 16 May visit to Paris Churchill asked Chamberlain to start planning for evacuation and the military were also instructed to begin preparations. Gort had his first plans ready by 19 May and a week later, before the start of the Dunkirk evacuation, the British had already brought 28,000 troops back to the UK. As the surrounded Allied armies retreated into a pocket around the port of Dunkirk, the British relied on their Allies to hold the Germans without offering to evacuate their partners. The Belgians were encouraged to keep fighting and on three occasions held positions to enable the British to retreat, though from 24-26 May the British rejected five appeals from the Belgians to counter-attack. The British showed little respect for Belgian military prowess and still less interest in their fate. General Pownall, Gort's chief of staff, described them in his diary as "rotten to the core and in the end we shall have to look after ourselves".

When asked about the possible evacuation of the Belgians, Pownall replied, "We don't care a bugger what happens to the Belgians." Early on the evening of 25 May Gort told Eden, Secretary of State for War, that he was moving the BEF back to the coast for evacuation. Eden replied, "It is obvious that you should not discuss the possibility of the move with the French or the Belgians." The next day Gort ignored a French order to attack southwards and break out of the pocket, relying instead on the strong resistance put up by the 1st French army around Lille, which lasted until 1 June, to hold off the encircling Germans. On the evening of 26 May Gort asked for the Canadian division in Britain to be sent to France to hold the bridgehead while the British were evacuated. This move was rejected after strong Canadian pressure against the sacrifice of their only trained troops.

The large-scale evacuation of troops from Dunkirk began on 27 May. The British were given only a small part of the bridgehead to hold because the French did not expect them to fight. When the Belgians surrendered late that evening the French took over their part of the front. The senior Royal Navy officer at Dunkirk, Captain Tennant, commented on 29 May: "The French staff at Dunkirk feel strongly that they are defending Dunkirk for us to evacuate, which is largely true." On that day French troops were manhandled off British ships and soldiers from the two armies came close to shooting each other. By 29 May 73,000 troops had been evacuated but only 655 were French. One of the reasons for this was that the French had not been informed about the evacuation. Churchill had not told Reynaud of the decision when he visited London on 26 May and did not do so until 29 May. On the next two days another 83,000 British troops left Dunkirk but only 23,000 French. At the Supreme War Council meeting in Paris on 31 May, Churchill, after French protests about the situation, offered them half the future evacuation places. Since at that stage there were only 50,000 British troops left compared with 200,000 French, this was a less generous offer than it appeared. Only in the last few days, when virtually all the British troops had been evacuated, did the French numbers exceed the British. At the 31 May meeting in Paris Churchill had insisted that the British should act as the rearguard for as long as possible. However, at Dunkirk the British commander, General Alexander (who had taken over after Gort left), though nominally under French command, agreed with Eden that evening that the British should not be left behind and would pull out within twenty-four hours. The French held the bridgehead for another two days after the final British withdrawal, until they surrendered on 4 June.

One of the myths of Dunkirk is that the troops were evacuated from the beaches by an armada of small boats manned by volunteers from all over England. In fact two-thirds of those evacuated were lifted directly on to Royal Navy ships from the east mole of Dunkirk harbour. No public information about the evacuation was given until the evening of 30 May when nearly three-quarters of the BEF had already been rescued. Only then could volunteers come forward and play a part in the operation. Over the last four days of the operation the small boats helped lift 26,000 troops from the beaches, about eight per cent of the total evacuated from Dunkirk.

As part of the myth surrounding the operation it also came to be represented as an heroic episode in British military history. Like that of other armies in retreat, the morale and cohesion of the BEF was poor as it moved through France and Belgium towards the coast. The problems began on 10 May when the German attack caught the BEF by surprise and with many key personnel on leave. This confusion was compounded by Gort's decision to move his headquarters near to Lille while leaving his operational and intelligence staffs at Arras. This confusion was made worse by the almost total collapse of communications during the retreat: the wireless system broke down and the telephones did not work. Within ten days there were only three days' rations left (although plenty of ammunition because of the lack of fighting) and the troops looted what they required from the locals. In the panic about 'fifth columnists' there were a large number of shootings of 'suspicious' characters, many of whom had done nothing worse than possess fair hair. British troops were also using dumdum bullets, banned under the Geneva convention, and had orders not to take prisoners except for interrogation. The Germans replied with two massacres by the SS of a total of 170 British prisoners. When the first troops arrived at Dunkirk discipline nearly broke down altogether and for the first two days of the evacuation order had to be kept by armed naval personnel until more disciplined regiments arrived on 29 May. Even then men were rushing the boats in their anxiety to get away and General Alexander was shocked by the behaviour of the soldiers. Later in the year, during a secret session of the House of Commons, several MPs told how a large number of officers had run away and deserted their troops so as to get on to the earliest boat. Privately, the War Office was alarmed at the state of the army. As the Director of Statistics later told one newspaper editor: "The Dunkirk episode was far worse than was ever realized in Fleet Street. The men on getting back to England were so demoralized they threw their rifles and equipment out of railway-carriage windows. Some sent for their wives with their civilian clothes, changed into these, and walked home." In private, Churchill told his junior ministers that Dunkirk was "the greatest British military defeat for many centuries'".

None of this, the government and military decided, could be told to the public. They were able to enforce this decision because no journalists were present at Dunkirk. Once it was clear that the BEF was being evacuated, General Mason-Macfarlane, the head of military intelligence, summoned journalists on 28 May and told them: "I'm afraid there is going to be a considerable shock for the British public. It is your duty to act as shock-absorbers, so I have prepared ... a statement that can be published, subject to censorship." The journalists were also told to blame the French for not fighting and to say that the BEF was undefeated; both statements were travesties of the truth. No news of the events at Dunkirk was released to the public until the 6 p.m. BBC news on 30 May, five days after the evacuation had started and when nearly three-quarters of the BEF were already back in Britain. The public were then told, in a statement approved by the Ministry of Information, that "men of the undefeated British Expeditionary Force have been coming home from France. They have not come back in triumph, they have come back in glory." Pages 90-92

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Clive Pointing on the Channel Islands:

The British, having decided on demilitarization (of the Channel Islands), refused to tell the Germans of the decision on the ludicrous grounds that it might encourage them to occupy the islands. The result was that the islanders suffered the worst of both worlds: no defence and no announced demilitarization. The Germans, thinking the islands were still defended, started bombing and killed thirty-three civilians. Only then, on 30 June, did the British announce the demilitarization they had carried out ten days earlier. News of this fiasco was suppressed by Whitehall. The German occupation of the islands took place on 30 June and 1 July.

The Channel Islands remained occupied territory until the end of the war and the final German surrender. What happened during that period shows that a British population came to terms with German occupation in the same way as the rest of Europe: there was little or no resistance on the islands and a great deal of collaboration. Many Germans found the islanders far more cooperative than the French and the internal government of the islands continued normally under generally light supervision. Government members broadcast over German radio and even paid for the publication of a guide book for the occupying forces. Anti-Semitic laws were passed voluntarily by the local parliaments on both Jersey and Guernsey and the small number of Jews on the islands were sent to the death camps of eastern Europe. Little attention was paid to the islands during the war by Britain; there were for example no special programmes from the BBC to keep residents in touch with their families who had been evacuated to Britain. Churchill refused to allow in food ships for the civilian population in 1944, even though the Germans offered safe passage, in a fruitless attempt to starve out the garrison. After the war there was no elimination of the effects of occupation. Nearly all the wartime laws were confirmed as valid, people who had traded with the Germans were allowed to keep between twenty and forty per cent of the profits they had made and no prosecutions were brought for collaborating with the enemy. The example of the Channel Islands shows what might have happened if the Germans had mounted a successful invasion of Britain.

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Clive Ponting on the Battle of Britain:

On 31 August Goering held a conference with his Luftwaffe deputies. They knew that they had not yet established air supremacy but faulty intelligence suggested that the RAF was running out of planes. The Germans believed that Fighter Command had only 420 aircraft left (the true figure was about 750) and that reserves were down to 100 aircraft (in fact they were double the German estimate). Goering decided to shift the attacks from RAF bases to London itself. (Hitler had given permission for the docks to be attacked after the British bombed Berlin.) Goering confidently believed that this change of tactics would force the RAF to commit the remains of its strength in a last battle to defend the capital. In fact the Germans made a fundamental miscalculation and were committing themselves to the most hazardous of all possible operations - daylight mass bombing - against a still intact and well-organized defence.

The Luftwaffe began to implement the new tactics on 7 September, when they launched a massive raid on the London docks that marked the start of the third phase of the campaign. The RAF badly misjudged the situation and thought the attack was still aimed at RAF bases. In the confusion the fighters did not attack the bombers until they were returning from London after inflicting major damage. The Germans lost only slightly more aircraft than the British and when the raid was repeated on 11 September suffered fewer losses than the RAF. Superficially, the German change of tactics seemed to be working, but during this phase the RAF bases were able to recover from previous damage and remain operational in the vital area of south-east England. It was at this point that Hitler had to make the crucial decision about whether an invasion should go ahead.

Hitler's lack of enthusiasm for any invasion that would amount to more than a straightforward occupation of an already defeated Britain had not altered by early September. For the previous month he had been content to wait and see if the Luftwaffe could defeat the RAF, and had made no effort to direct operations in the way he had during the attack on France. He was making it quite clear that he was not personally involved in what he saw as a highly dubious undertaking. Meanwhile the ramshackle invasion forces were slowly gathering in the Channel ports, where they came under attack from RAF Bomber Command, but preparations were far from complete. The German military had decided that the last possible date for an invasion, taking into account weather and tides, was 27 September. They needed ten days' warning to launch the attack and so a final decision was required by 17 September. On 13 September Hitler was still hopeful that an invasion would not be needed and that the Luftwaffe would be able to force Britain to make peace, although how still remained unclear. On 14 September he put off a final decision on an invasion for three days, until the last possible moment. The next day the Luftwaffe launched its biggest, and what it hoped would be its decisive attack against London. It only demonstrated that daylight bombing was too difficult, even with fighter cover, against a competent defence. Waves of bombers, heavily escorted by fighters, were launched in the morning and afternoon against London. The Germans made the mistake of not undertaking diversionary raids, and so the RAF was able to concentrate all its resources (twenty-three squadrons in the morning and thirty in the afternoon) against the attack. The result was a heavy defeat for the Luftwaffe, which lost about sixty aircraft to the RAF's twenty-six.

On 17 September, with a final decision on invasion required that day, Hitler held a meeting with his military planners. The events of 15 September demonstrated all too clearly that the RAF was still a potent force, and Hitler, deciding that his own scepticism about invasion was well justified, postponed the plan indefinitely. He was now free to turn his attention to his ultimate aim: the destruction of the Soviet Union. Three days after the meeting the dispersal of shipping was ordered but desultory activity was maintained in an attempt to confuse the British (without success). The Luftwaffe kept up its attacks, but apart from a few isolated raids on aircraft factories it concentrated more and more on night raids on cities, especially London. By the end of September the British government knew that an invasion was only a remote possibility, that the daylight raids had not defeated the RAF and that it could now probably expect a long winter of continued night-time bombing. Britain had survived.

Both at the time and since, Britain's survival has been attributed solely to the efforts of `The Few': the pilots of Fighter Command. There can be no doubt that their skill and courage, maintained over a long period of intense combat, was essential in ensuring the defeat of the Luftwaffe. But the Germans too had highly skilled and dedicated pilots and modern battles are decided by more than individual heroism. After Dunkirk and the defeat of France, Britain had not only to survive but also to create a myth that would sustain the nation for the long and difficult period after immediate defeat had been avoided. The myth-creation process was strongly at work in the summer of 1940. British success was greatly exaggerated at the time and many of the misleading statistics issued in 1940 have since become accepted facts. For example, on 15 September, the date still celebrated as Battle of Britain day, the British claimed 185 German aircraft destroyed. The true figure was sixty. During the crucial phase, from 16 August until 6 September, the British people were given an unjustifiably optimistic picture of progress. Figures broadcast by the BBC gave British losses as 292 aircraft compared with an actual figure of 343, an underestimate of fifteen per cent. More important, German losses for this period were reported as sixtytwo per cent higher than the real figure (855 instead of 527). The reality of combat was also very different from the stirring picture painted at the time and subsequently. Only half of the Spitfires and Hurricanes scrambled to intercept attacks ever engaged the German bombers and fighters, and only fifteen per cent of pilots were credited with shooting down any Luftwaffe planes at all. Real "aces" were extremely rare: only seventeen pilots in the RAF accounted for more than ten aircraft each. The most successful squadron (No. 303) was not British, but manned by Polish pilots, and the two most successful individual pilots were a Czech and a Pole.

The real reasons for British survival in the summer of 1940 are more deep-seated than the courage of individual pilots, important though that was. The most significant factor was geography. The German army might dominate the continent, but it lacked the capability to launch an invasion. Such an operation was highly risky and required meticulous planning, as the Allies demonstrated before the Normandy landings in 1944. Hitler was right to be extremely cautious about launching an attack across the Channel without the British being on the point of defeat. The German navy was too small to control the sea in the area and therefore everything turned on whether the Luftwaffe could defeat the RAF and establish local air supremacy. If they had done so, an invasion might have been feasible. The Royal Navy would have found it very difficult to operate in the Channel under German air attack and if the German army had landed then the poorly equipped British army was probaby too weak to do more than delay its advance. As the chiefs of staff told the war cabinet in May: "Should the enemy succeed in establishing a force, with its vehicles, firmly ashore, the army in the United Kingdom, which is very short of equipment, has not got the offensive power to drive it out." Resisting the Luftwaffe attack on the RAF was therefore the key to survival. The RAF came perilously near to losing the Battle of Britain through its stubborn adherence to tradition and hidebound procedures even at a time of supreme national emergency. Under a more flexible system `The Few' could have been more numerous. Victory in the air was achieved through two factors which in the end gave Britain a vital advantage. The first was Britain's ability to produce more aircraft than Germany. Here the advantages of unorthodox and makeshift methods in response to a national crisis were apparent. The second was rooted in German failings: although superior in numbers the Luftwaffe was hopelessly ill-equipped for the task of defeating the RAF over Britain, and this weakness was compounded by the erratic direction of the campaign, whereas fortunately for Britain the pre-war policy-makers had taken the right decisions.

The fall of France, followed by the threat of invasion, the Battle of Britain and the Blitz on British cities in the autumn and winter of 1940, for the first time brought the war to bear directly on the civilian population. How much did the war alter the nature of prewar British society and how well did the civilian population stand up to these new strains? Just as important, how did the government view the task of controlling the country?

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