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75 Years Ago – The End of World War II in Europe, East & West; March-May 1945: The Battle for Berlin & Eastern Europe.   Leave a comment

The Collapse of the Reich:

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The final year of the war in Germany saw state lawlessness and terror institutionalised within the Reich. The People’s Court set up in Berlin to try cases of political resistance, presided over by Roland Freisler, sat ‘in camera’, while the prosecutors bullied prisoners into confessing political crimes, as in the Stalinist show trials of the 1930s. In February 1945 the courtroom was demolished in a bomb attack and Freisler killed. In the last weeks of the war, the SS and Party extremists took final revenge on prisoners and dissidents. Thousands were murdered as Allied armies approached. Thousands more died in the final bomb attacks against almost undefended cities, crammed with refugees and evacuees. Ordinary Germans became obsessed with sheer survival. There was no ‘stab in the back’ from the home front, which Hitler had always used to explain defeat in 1918. Soldiers and civilians alike became the victims of a final orgy of terror from a Party machine which had traded on intimidation and violence from its inception.

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Above: Berlin, 1945

Crossing the Rhine:

By the beginning of March, Hitler must surely have known, as Göring had intimated to Albert Speer in February, that the Reich he had created was doomed. The German front in the west cracked. For the final assault on Germany, the western Allies had eighty-five divisions, twenty-three of which were armoured, against a defending force of twenty-six divisions. In the east, the Soviet forces fielded over fourteen thousand tanks against  4,800 German and put 15,500 aircraft in the air against just fifteen hundred. A series of carefully organised military punches brought Soviet armies to within thirty-five miles of Berlin. On the 2nd, criticising Rundstedt’s proposal to move men south from the sector occupied by the 21st Army Group, Hitler perceptively pointed out: It just means moving the catastrophe from one place to another. 

Five days later, an armoured unit under Brigadier-General William M. Hoge from the 9th Armored Division of Hodge’s US First Army captured the Ludendorff railway bridge over the Rhine at Remagen intact, and Eisenhower established a bridgehead on the east of the Rhine. Hitler’s response was to sack Rundstedt as commander-in-chief west and replace him with Kesselring. The latter was handed a poisoned chalice in this appointment, with American troops swarming over the bridge into Germany, and Patton crossing on 22 March, telegraphing Bradley to say, For God’s sake tell the world we’re across … I want the world to know the 3rd Army made it before Monty. 

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Montgomery’s crossing of the Rhine, codenamed ‘Operation Plunder’, watched by Churchill and Brooke (above), established a six-mile-deep bridgehead within forty-eight hours.

Poland & The Red Army Marshals:

Also in March, having tricked them into attending a meeting, the Soviets arrested and then imprisoned former members of the Polish underground council. Both the American and the British governments found it hard to reconcile the oppressive Soviet actions with the business-like leader they had seen at Yalta. So they fell back once more on what had by now become their standard excuse. Stalin himself was trustworthy; it was the other powerful but shadowy figures in the Kremlin who were preventing the Yalta agreement being honoured. Charles ‘Chip’ Bohlen, the prominent American diplomat and Soviet expert, recorded that by May 1945 the view of those in the State Department who had been at Yalta was that it was the ‘opposition’ that Stalin had encountered ‘inside the Soviet Government’ on his return from the conference that was responsible for the problems. Even those in Moscow deduced that it was ‘Red Army Marshals’ who were somehow trying to pull the strings in the Kremlin. But there was no-one behind Stalin pulling the strings. His occasional inconsistency of approach, including the tactic of sending a conciliatory telegram simultaneously with an accusatory one, was deliberately designed to keep the West guessing. In reality, his overall strategy was clear enough: He had always wanted the states neighbouring the Soviet Union to be ‘friendly’ according to his definition of the word, which meant eliminating anyone whom the Soviets considered a threat.

But neither Churchill nor Roosevelt would recognise that Stalin was simply being consistent. To begin with, each of them had had too much political capital wrapped up in the idea that they could deal with the Soviet leader. Laurence Rees has pointed out:

Each of the two Western leaders came to believe that they could form a ‘special’ bond with Stalin. Both were wrong. Stalin had no ‘special bond’ with anyone but in their attempts to charm him they had missed the fact that he had, in his individual way, charmed them instead. 

It was Churchill who felt most upset at the perceived Soviet breaches of Yalta, something that bemused Stalin. After all, Churchill had let the Soviets have a free hand in Romania without any problems, just as the Soviets had let the British use force to quash the revolution in Greece. For Stalin, that meant that Churchill supported the concept of ‘spheres of influence’. He thought that Churchill’s protest over Poland, regardless of the precise wording of the Yalta agreement, was a case of double standards on Churchill’s part. For the British PM, however, as he wrote in March, in a lengthy and emotional telegram to Roosevelt, Poland was the…

… test case between us and the Russians of the meaning which is attached to the such terms as Democracy, Sovereignty, Independence, Representative Government and free and unfettered elections. … He (Molotov) clearly wants to make a farce of consultations with the non-Lublin Poles, which means that the new government in Poland would be merely the present one dressed up to look more respectable to the ignorant, and also wants to prevent us from seeing the liquidations and deportations that are going on, and all the restof the game of setting up a totalitarian régime before elections are held, and even before a new government is set up. As to the upshoot of all this, if we do not get things right now it will soon be seen by the world that you and I, by putting our signatures to the Crimean settlement, have underwritten a fraudulent prospectus.

Roosevelt, whose telegrams were now being drafted by his advisers, Byrnes or Leahy, replied to Churchill’s message on 11 March, saying that the ‘only difference’ between the British and Americans on this key issue was ‘one of tactics’; Roosevelt’s ‘tactics’ were not to escalate their protests over the issue before diplomatic channels in Moscow had been exhausted. But this attempt to calm Churchill down failed, as he replied in even more emotional terms on 13 March:

Poland has lost her frontier. Is she now to lose her freedom? That is the question which will undoubtedly have to be fought out in Parliament and in public here. I do not wish to reveal a divergence between the British and the United States governments, but it would certainly be necessary for me to make it clear that we are in the presence of a great failure and an utter breakdown of what was settled at Yalta, but that we British have not the necessary strength to carry the matter further and the limits of our capacity to act have been reached.

Roosevelt, convinced that Churchill was over-reacting, subsequently pointed out that the agreement at Yalta could be read in such a way that Stalin could deflect many complaints. So why was Churchill so upset? Churchill, unlike Roosevelt, re-elected the previous year, had an election coming up, and the British electorate would not take kindly to accusations that Poland, the country over which Britain had gone to war in September 1939, had finally been the victim of wholesale betrayal. Moreover, Churchill’s own expansive rhetoric about Poland and Stalin meant that this was no ordinary issue of foreign policy, but a principle that had come to define the latter part of his war-time premiership. Roosevelt, although gravely ill, was only just starting his new term in office for the Democratic Party, and so was unburdened by such electoral concerns. But Churchill had overplayed the emotional rhetoric, and on 15 March Roosevelt sent him a cold reply:

I cannot but be concerned at the views you expressed… we have been merely discussing the most effective tactics and I cannot agree that we are confronted with a breakdown of the Yalta agreement until we have made the effort to overcome the obstacles incurred in the negotiations at Moscow.

Retreat from the Oder & Roosevelt’s departure:

Hitler visited the Eastern Front on 12th March, at Castle Freienwalde on the River Oder, where he told his commanders that Each day and each hour is precious because he was about to unleash a new secret weapon, without disclosing its nature. This was just another morale-boosting lie, since he had run out of rockets, the last V-2 landing a fortnight later and the new U-boats were also far from seaworthy. By mid-March, he had found a new scapegoat to blame for the coming victory of the ‘Jewish-Bolshevik hordes’; it was all the fault of the German ‘Volk’ who had betrayed him by losing the war. By that stage, he positively invited the retribution that the ‘Aryan race’ was about to undergo at the hands of the Russians, believing that it had been the people’s weakness as human beings that had led to the disaster, rather than his own strategic errors. He even said as much, at least according to Albert Speer’s subsequent testimony:

If the war should be lost, then the ‘Volk’ will also be lost. This fate is unavoidable. It is not necessary to take into consideration the bases the ‘Volk’ needs for the continuation of its most primitive existence. On the contrary, it is better to destroy these things yourself. After all, the ‘Volk’ would then have proved the weaker nation, and the future would exclusively belong to the stronger nation of the east. What would remain after this fight would in any event be inferior subjects, since all the good ones would have fallen. 

He thus repudiated his own people as being unworthy of him. The mere survival of the German people would, for Hitler, have conferred an unacceptable Untermensch status on them, and the utter destruction of them would, he believed, be preferable to this and to domination by Stalin. He had only ever referred to the Soviets as ‘barbarians’ and ‘primitives’ and on 19 March the Führer gave his orders that…

All military transport, communication facilities, industrial establishments, and supply depots, as well as anything else of value within Reich territory that could in any way be used by the enemy immediately or within the forseeable future for the continuance of the war, be destroyed.

These orders included the destruction of all factories and food stores on all fronts. Fortunately, these orders were largely ignored by Speer and the other Nazi officials. If they had been carried out to the letter, the German people could hardly have survived the winter of 1945/6, which was harsh enough for them as it was. Yet, despite his decision not to act on this one particular order, it was Speer who had commanded the vast army of slave labourers that produced German armaments in barbarous conditions.

Meanwhile, Churchill realised that he had gone too far in his ‘quarrel’ with Roosevelt over Poland and tried to charm his way out of the situation. On 17 March, he wrote to the President:

I hope that the rather numerous telegrams I have to send you on on so many of our difficult and intertwined affairs are not becoming a bore to you. Our friendship is the rock on which I build for the future of the world so long as I am one of the builders.

Roosevelt did not reply but later acknowledged in an interchange on the 30th that he had received Churchill’s ‘very pleasing’ private message. But Roosevelt did get angry with Stalin when the latter accused the Americans of deception by holding a meeting with German officers in Berne in Switzerland about a possible surrender in Italy. Stalin saw this as a reason for both the strengthening of German resistance against the Red Army in the East and the swift progress of the Western Allies through Germany. Roosevelt was furious that Stalin had effectively accused him of lying, writing to him on 4 April that I cannot avoid a feeling of bitter resentment towards your informers, whoever they are, for such vile misrepresentations. … In his reply, Stalin immediately moderated his attack. But even though he was prepared to give way on this issue, he would not move an inch over Poland. On 7 April, he wrote to Roosevelt, agreeing that matters on the Polish question have reached a dead end. But Stalin was clear that the reason for this was that the Western Allies had departed from the principles of the Crimea Conference. The whole debate about Poland between the Western Allies and Stalin for the last three years and more were now plain for all to see. Stalin stated not just that the Lublin Poles should make up the bulk of the new government, but also that any other Poles who were invited to take part should be really striving to establish friendly relations between Poland and the Soviet Union. Of course, the Soviets themselves would vet all the applicants for such invitations. Stalin justified this in writing:

The Soviet Government insists on this because of the blood of the Soviet troops abundantly shed for the liberation of Poland and the fact that in the course of the last thirty years the territory of Poland has been used by the enemy twice for attack upon Russia – all this obliges the Soviet Government to strive that the relations between the Soviet Union and Poland be friendly.

Roosevelt recognised that, given the loose language of the Yalta agreement, there was little the Western Allies could do apart from to protest, and there were limits to that given the need for continued co-operation both in Europe and the Far East. Roosevelt left the White House on 30 March 1945 for the health resort of Warm Springs in Georgia, where his office was filled with documents about the forthcoming conference in San Francisco that would initiate the United Nations. Right to the end of his life, Roosevelt never lost his focus on his vision of the UN. Alongside this grand ideal, the detailed question of Soviet infractions in Poland must have seemed to him relatively unimportant. On 12 April he finally fell victim to a cerebral haemorrhage. Churchill paid tribute to the President in the House of Commons but chose not to attend his funeral, perhaps a final statement of disappointment that Roosevelt had not supported him in the last weeks over the protests to be made to Stalin.

The Exodus from the Baltic & the Berne talks:

Meanwhile, on 31 March, Stalin had ordered the assault on the capital. Both the planning and conduct of this final battle in the war in Europe demonstrate further signs of the disintegrating alliance with Stalin. The planning for the operation was conducted at the end of March and the beginning of April against the background of Stalin’s suspicion that the Western Allies were planning some kind of separate peace with Germany via the Berne talks. Stalin met Marshal Zhukov, the most prominent of the Soviet commanders, in the Kremlin late in the evening on 29 March and had handed an intelligence document which suggested that the Western Allies were in discussion with Nazi agents. The Soviet leader remarked that Roosevelt wouldn’t break the Yalta agreement but Churchill was capable of anything. Stalin had just received a telegram from General Eisenhower which, much to Churchill’s subsequent annoyance, confirmed that the Western Allies were not pushing forward immediately to Berlin. For Stalin, this was evidence of Allied deceit: if they had said that they were not moving to take Berlin, then they clearly were. In the spirit of saying the opposite of what one really intended, Stalin sent a telegram to Eisenhower on 1 April that stated that he agreed that the capture of Berlin should not be a priority since the city had lost its former strategic importance.

He may well also have written this because he still had other priorities since there was still fighting taking place across the broader front from the Baltic to the Balkans. It was extraordinary, considering that the war’s outcome had been in doubt since the destruction of Army Group Centre in the summer of 1944, that the Wehrmacht continued to operate as an efficient, disciplined fighting force well into 1945. As many as four hundred thousand Germans were killed in the first five months of 1945. General Schörner’s newly re-created Army Group Centre, for example, was still fighting around the town of Küstrin on the Oder in April 1945. Similarly, the 203,000 men representing the remains of Army Group North, renamed Army Group Kurland, kept fighting into May, showing astonishing resilience in the face of utter hopelessness and retaining military cohesion until the moment that they were marched off into a ten-year captivity spent rebuilding the infrastructure of the Soviet Union that they had destroyed.

Following their seizure of Budapest on 13 February, the Red Army advanced towards Vienna. The Sixth Panzer Army halted the Russian advance down the Hungarian valleys into Austria for as long as its fuel could last out during March 1945, but Vienna finally fell to Malinovsky’s 2nd Ukrainian Front on 13 April. Hitler’s headquarters had by then adopted a policy of lying to the army group commanders, as the commander of Army Group South discovered when he received orders to hold Vienna at all costs. Rendulic was given to telling his troops:

When things look blackest and you don’t know what to do, beat your chest and say: “I’m a National Socialist; that moves mountains!”

Since, on that occasion, this didn’t seem to work, he asked the OKW how the continuation or termination of the war was envisaged, only to receive the answer that the war was to be ended by political measures. This was clearly untrue, and Rendulic surrendered near Vienna in May. In the first five months of 1945, he had commanded Army Group North in East Prussia and Army Group Centre in January, Army Group Kurland in March and Army Group South in Austria in April. After the fall of Vienna, the Soviet troops met up with American and British troops at the River Enns and in Styria. After that, the advance of the Red Army from Pressburg to Prague led to the Czech uprising against the German occupation of Prague on 5 May.

In the north on the Baltic coast, the Germans were in a dire situation because of Hitler’s refusal to countenance Guderian’s pleas to rescue Army Group Centre in East Prussia and Army Group Kurland (formerly Army Group North) in Latvia. Yet with both  Zhukov and Rokossovsky bearing down on more than half a million trapped on the Kurland peninsula, the German Navy – at tremendous cost – pulled off an evacuation that was far larger even than that at Dunkirk. No fewer than four army divisions and 1.5 million civilian refugees were taken from the Baltic ports of Danzig, Gotenhafen, Königsberg, Pillau, and Kolberg by the Kriegsmarine, and brought back to Germany. Under constant air attack, which claimed every major ship except the cruisers Prinz Eugen and Nürnberg, the German Navy had pulled off a tremendous coup. The Soviet Navy was, surprisingly, a grave disappointment throughout the second world war, though one of its submarines, the S-13, had managed to sink the German liner MV Wilhelm Gustloff in the Baltic Sea on 31 January 1945, and around nine thousand people – almost half of them children – perished, representing the greatest loss of life on one ship in maritime history.

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How the West was won (but almost lost to the V-I):

Nevertheless, in the west, when 325,000 men of Army Group B were caught in the Ruhr pocket and forced to surrender, Field Marshal Walther Model dissolved his army group and escaped into a forest. Having recently learnt that he was to be indicted for war crimes involving the deaths of 557,000 people in Latvian concentration camps, and after hearing an insanely optimistic radio broadcast by Goebbels on the Führer’s birthday, he shot himself on 21 April. A few days earlier, Churchill had proposed a triple proclamation from the Big Three, which now included the new US President, Harry S. Truman, …

… giving warning to Germany not to go on resisting. If (the Germans) carry on resistance past sowing time then there will be famine in Germany next winter … we take no responsibility for feeding Germany.

Churchill was advocating the most extreme measures, but like several others, he put forward this was not adopted. Despite encountering some fierce resistance, the Allied victory in the west was not in doubt in the minds of rational Germans. For the most optimistic Germans, however, Goebbels’ propaganda about the so-called ‘wonder weapons’ kept their hopes alive, but on 29 March, six days after Montgomery’s Second Army and the US Ninth Army had crossed the Rhine, anti-aircraft gunners in Suffolk shot down the last of the V-I flying bombs launched against Britain in the Second World War. Called the Vergeltungswaffe-Ein (Vengeance Weapon-I), they were nicknamed ‘doodle-bugs’ or ‘buzz bombs’ by the Britons at whom they were targetted. The V-I was certainly a horrific weapon, powered by a pulse-jet mechanism using petrol and compressed air, it was twenty-five feet four inches long with a sixteen-foot wingspan, and weighed 4,750 pounds. Its warhead was made up of 1,874 pounds of Amatol explosive, a fearsome mixture of TNT and ammonium nitrate. Its sister-rocket, the V-2, was equally fiendish, but with the Luftwaffe unable to escort bombers over England due to British fighter protection, the rockets were a sign of Hitler’s desperation rather than his strength.

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As the V-I’s maximum range was  130 miles, London and south-east England were its main targets, and they suffered heavily. Launched from 125-foot concrete ramps and flown by autopilot from a preset compass, the flying bomb contained in its nose propeller a log which measured the distance flown. Once it reached the correct range, the elevators in the wings were fully deflected and it dived, cutting out the engine as it did so. This created a sinister change in the noise created which signified that they were about to fall on those below, bringing a terrifying certainty of an imminent, devastating explosion. It has been estimated that eighty per cent of V-I’s landed within an eight-mile radius of their targets. Between 13 June 1944 and 29 March 1945, more than 13,000 V-I bombs were launched against Britain. They flew too low for heavy anti-aircraft guns to be able to hit them very often, but too high for the light guns to reach them. It was therefore left to the RAF’s radar-guided fighters to intercept them and bring them down. As the Normandy launch-sites were shut down by the invading British Army, some of the V-I’s were launched from the modified Heinkel bombers. In all, more than twenty-four thousand Britons were casualties of the vicious ‘secret weapon’, with 5,474 deaths. Whereas the Luftwaffe had long-since confined its raids to night-time when its bombers could be cloaked in darkness, the pilotless bombs came all through the day and night.

The V-I bombs could also devastate a huge area over a quarter of a square mile, but as more and more were brought down by a combination of barrage balloons, anti-aircraft fire and the fighters it soon became clear that Hitler, who had hoped that the V-I’s might destroy British morale and force Churchill’s government to sue for peace, was wrong about the weapon’s potential. He then transferred his hopes to the V-2, devised in Pomerania as a supersonic ballistic missile, flying faster than the speed of sound, which meant that the victims heard was the sound of its detonation. It was impossible to intercept as it flew at 3,600 mph, ten times faster than the Spitfire. With production at full capacity in the autumn of 1944, Hitler had hoped that London could be bombed into submission before the Allies could invade Germany. Yet it was largely his own fault that the V-2 came on stream so late, so that the first rocket to land on Britain didn’t do so until September 1944 in Chiswick, west London, having been fired from a converted lorry in the Hague. Over the five months of the campaign, 1,359 rockets were fired at London, killing 2,754 and injuring 6,523. Antwerp was also heavily hit by the weapons, resulting in thirty thousand casualties. It has also been estimated that up to twenty thousand people died in the horrific slave-labour conditions while manufacturing the rockets. Life in the factories, which were scattered all over Germany, was nasty, brutish and short: apart from the horrific accidents, there was mass starvation, disease and mistreatment. The concentration of labour, raw materials and technological research engaged in the production of the V-weapons was in no way justified by their results, and their deployment was too late to change the outcome of the war.

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From mid-March, the military situation slipped completely out of Hitler’s control: The Rhine front had collapsed as soon as the Allies had challenged it, and they then swept forward to the Elbe. At the end of March, Hitler again dismissed perhaps the best of his battlefield commanders, Heinz Guderian, and replaced him with the utterly undistinguished General Hans Krebs. Other fanatical Nazi generals such as Schörner and Rendulic were promoted, not so much for their military competence as for their ideological loyalty.

Planning for Nuremberg:

How would the maniacal genocide of these dedicated Nazis be punished after the war? During the ‘lull’ in the fighting on the Western front, On 12 April, at 3.30 p.m. the British War Cabinet discussed how to deal with German war criminals. Antony Eden set out his policy for a large-scale trial. Preferring the summary execution without trial of the senior Nazis, Stafford Cripps argued that either the Allies would be criticised for not giving Hitler a real trial, or they would ‘give him a chance to harangue’ with the result being ‘neither proper trial nor political act’ but ‘the worst of both worlds’. Churchill suggested a ‘Trial of the Gestapo as a body first followed by proceedings against selected members. The Americans, however, had made it clear that they would not agree to ‘penalties without trial’ and Stalin also insisted on trials. The historian in Churchill was unconvinced, and he advanced a ‘Bill of Attainder, not impeachment’, such as that used to execute Charles I’s advisor the Earl of Strafford in 1640 without the need for a trial.

The Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison, believed that a ‘mock trial’ was objectionable, and it would be better to declare that they would put them all to death. Churchill agreed, saying that the trial would be a farce. Turning to the wording of the indictments and the defendants’ right to be given access to defence barristers, the PM argued:

All sorts of complications ensue as soon as you admit a fair trial. … they should be treated as outlaws. We should however seek agreement of our Allies … I would take no responsibility for a trial, even though the United States wants to do it. Execute the principal criminals as outlaws, if no Ally wants them.

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Above: A scene from the Nuremberg Trials of the major war criminals held between November 1945 and October 1946. Twenty-two principal defendants were tried, and Martin Bormann, Hitler’s secretary, was tried ‘in absentia’. Göring (seated, left) kept up a rigorous defence and admitted his support for Hitler, but not his guilt. He committed suicide on the night of his execution when another nine were hanged. Bormann was condemned to death but never caught.  

But Field Marshal Smuts thought that Hitler’s summary execution might ‘set a dangerous precedent’ and that an ‘Act of State’ was needed to legalise Hitler’s execution. Churchill added that allowing Hitler to right to make judicial arguments against his own execution would ape judicial procedure but also bring it into contempt, and Morrison interjected that it would also ensure that he would become a martyr in Germany. Churchill concluded the discussion by saying that Lord Simon should liaise with the Americans and Russians to establish a list of grand criminals and get them to agree that these may be shot when taken in the field. In the end, this expedient was not adopted, and instead, the long process of putting the Senior Nazis on trial was established by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg (featured above), which for all its drawbacks did lead to justice being seen to be done.

The Final Assault on Berlin:

On the Eastern front, the Russians didn’t move until mid-April. As he opened the last planning session for the capture of Berlin, Stalin said I have the impression that a very heavy battle lies ahead of us. Yet he had 2.5 million troops, 6,250 tanks and 7,500 aircraft to throw into this enormous final assault, and on Monday 16 April around twenty-two thousand guns and mortars rained 2,450 freight-car loads of shells at the German lines, which were also blinded by a mass of searchlights shone at them. Zhukov’s troops launched a massive attack on the Seelow Heights outside Berlin, and within four days they had broken through this last major defensive position in front of the capital. The Russian artillery gunners had to keep their mouths open when they fire, in order to stop their eardrums bursting. After a massive bombardment of the far bank, they crossed the Oder and advanced from the Neisse River. The leading Soviet columns joined at Nauen and encircled Berlin by 24 April. In a move calculated both to speed the advance and deny Zhukov the glory of overall command, Stalin had announced to his generals that he was splitting the task of capturing Berlin between two Soviet armies. It was to be a race for the capital between Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front and Konyev’s 1st Ukrainian Front. Mahmud Gareev, then a major in the headquarters of Soviet 45 Infantry Corps, recalled:

Stalin encouraged an intrigue … When they were drawing the demarcation line between the two fronts in Berlin, Stalin crossed this demarcation line out and said: “Whoever comes to Berlin first, well, let him take Berlin.” This created friction. … You can only guess Stalin was do that no one gets stuck up and thinks he was the particular general who took Berlin. … At the same time he had already begun to think what would happen after the war if Zhukov’s authority grew too big.

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By Hitler’s birthday, the 20th, the Red Army was shelling the German leader’s subterranean refuge, the Führerbunker. For Vladen Anschishkin, a captain in a mortar unit in Zhukov’s Belorussian Front, this was the culmination of years of fighting:

At last it was the end of the war, it was a triumph, and it was like a race, like a long-distance race, the end of the race. I felt really extreme – well, these words did not exist then – but I felt under psychological and emotional pressure. Naturally, I didn’t want to get killed,. This is natural. I didn’t want to be wounded. I wanted to live to the victory, but it was somewhere in the background, and in the foreground were things I had to do, and this state of stress that was in me.

He was sure that the years of brutal warfare had changed him and his comrades:

In the end, in the war itself, people go mad. They become like beasts. You shouldn’t consider a soldier an intellectual. Even when an intellectual becomes a soldier, and he sees the blood and the intestines and the brains, then the instinct of self-preservation begins to work. … And he loses all the humanitarian features inside himself. A soldier turns into a beast.

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The battle for Berlin was one of the bloodiest and most desperate of the war. Within six days, the Red Army was inside Berlin, but desperate fighting in the streets and rubble there cut down their advantages and increased those of the Germans. The Wehrmacht’s lack of tanks mattered less in the built-up areas, and hundreds of Soviet tanks were destroyed in close fighting by the Panzerfaust, an anti-tank weapon that was very accurate at short range. Vladen Anchishkin recalled:

So many of our people died – a great many, a mass. … It was a real non-stop assault, day and night. The Germans also decided to hold out to the end. The houses were high and with very thick foundations and basements and very well fortified. … And our regiment found itself in terrible confusion and chaos, and in such a chaos it’s very easy to touch somebody else with your bayonet. Ground turns upside-down, shells and bombs explode. 

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Above: The ruins of Berlin with the Brandenburg Gate in the background. The city was hit by twenty-four major bomb attacks which destroyed one-third of all housing and reduced the population from 4.3 to 2.6 million as the bombed-out families moved to safer parts of the country. The Soviet offensive in April reduced large stretches of central Berlin to rubble.

Within the chaos of the battle, the rivalry between Zhukov and Konyev was intense. Anatoly Mereshko, an officer with Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front, was ordered to find out just which Soviet forces had captured a particular suburb of Berlin first:

I got into my car with machine gunners. Rode up there and talked to the people in the tanks. One said: “I am from the Belorussian Front”, another: “I am from the Ukrainian Front.” “Who came here first?” I asked. “I don’t know,” they replied. I asked civilians: “Whose tanks got here fist?” They just said: “Russian tanks.” It was difficult enough for a military enough for a military man to tell the difference between the tanks. So when I came back I reported that Zhukov’s tanks got their first and Konyev’s tanks came later. So the celebration fire-works in Moscow were in his name.

In the heat of the battle, it was also clear that the race between Zhukov and Konyev had not helped the soldiers to know just which forces were friendly and which were not. Vladen Anschishken recalled:

They were rivals… There was rivalry between two fronts. There was nothing criminal about it… But this rivalry in Berlin did not always have the positive effect because sometimes soldiers didn’t know who was where. … This was on the borders between the fronts, and a lot of people died only because of rivalry between two fronts.

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Despite the difficulties, the Red Army fought with immense conviction in Berlin, fuelled by the sense that they were on a mission of retribution. We are proud to have made it to the beast’s lair, one soldier wrote home: We will take revenge, revenge for all our sufferings. Taking overall command of the great final offensive against Berlin itself, Marshal Zhukov gave up his 1st Belorussian Front to Vasily Sokolovsky and took over an army group combining both that and Konev’s front, reaching Berlin on 22 April 1945 and encircling it three days later.

The Capture & Capitulation of the Capital:

On Wednesday 25 April, units from the US First Army, part of Bradley’s 12th Army Group, and from the 1st Ukrainian Front met up at Torgau on the Elbe.

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Although criticised since for his desire to leave the fight to the Soviets, Eisenhower was correct in the assumption that there would be heavy losses in the struggle. It is perfectly possible that Simpson’s US Ninth Army, which was on the Elbe only sixty miles west of Berlin on 11 April, eleven days before the Russians reached it, could have attacked the city first. It had crossed a hundred and twenty miles in the previous ten days, and the Germans were not putting up the level of resistance in the west that they were in the east. But, despite the complaints of Montgomery and Patton that the Western Allies should be taking Berlin ahead of the Russians, the Western Allies did not have to suffer the vast number of casualties in the final desperate struggle, though they would probably have fought it in a less costly manner. Bradley’s assessment, made for Eisenhower, was that a Western attack on Berlin would cost a hundred thousand casualties, which he considered a pretty stiff price for a prestige objective. Konyev later stated that the Red Army lost eight hundred tanks in the battle for Berlin, and Russian casualties amounted to 78,291 killed and 274,184 wounded. These figures could have been smaller had Stalin not insisted on taking Berlin as soon as possible, regardless of the human cost involved. They also include all the casualties incurred in the fighting from the Baltic to the Czech border. It has been estimated that twenty-five thousand died within the capital itself.

Despair, Suicide & Resistance:

Meanwhile, in his bunker beneath the Old Chancellery in the Wilhelmstrasse, Hitler continued to indulge himself in fantasies about the Allies falling out with each other once their armies met. Although he has often been described as moving phantom armies around on maps in the bunker and making hollow declarations of coming victory, this was in part the fault of the sub-standard communications centre. Unlike the well-appointed Wolfschanze, his Berlin bunker had only a one-man switchboard, one radio transmitter and one radio-telephone which depended on a balloon suspended over the Old Chancellery. Officers were reduced to telephoning numbers taken at random from the Berlin telephone directory, the Soviet advance being plotted by how many times the calls were answered in Russian rather than German. Hitler decided to stay where he was. He held his mid-day conferences, as usual, charting the progress of the Russians across the city block by block. He also composed his political testament, denouncing his oldest friends as traitors all and railed against the ‘Jewish conspiracy’ that he believed had brought him down.

The last time Hitler appeared in semi-public was on his fifty-sixth and last birthday on 20 April, when he congratulated a line-up of Hitler Youth who had distinguished themselves as fighters. One of these children, Arnim Lehmann, recalls the Führer’s weak voice and rheumy eyes as he squeezed their ears and told them how brave they were being. The German Ninth Army under General Theodor Busse in the south of Berlin and the Eleventh Army under General Felix Steiner in the north would now try to defend a city with no gas, water, electricity or sanitation. When Steiner, who was outnumbered ten to one, failed to counter-attack to prevent Berlin’s encirclement, he was subjected to a tirade from Hitler. The last direct order to be personally signed by the Führer in the bunker was transmitted to Field Marshal Schörner at 04:50 on 24 April and reads:

I shall remain in Berlin, so as to play a part, in honorouble fashion, in the decisive battle for Germany, and to set a good example to all the rest. I believe that in this way I shall be rendering Germany the best service. Fot the rest, every effort must be made to win the struggle for Berlin. You can therefore help decisively, by pushing northwards as early as possible. With kind regards, Yours, Adolf Hitler.

The signature, in red pencil, looks remarkably normal, considering the circumstances. Schörner, who had large numbers of men shot for cowardice, was named in Hitler’s will as the new head of the Wehrmacht, but nine days later he deserted his army group and flew off in a small aircraft in civilian clothes to surrender to the Americans. He was handed over to the Russians and kept in captivity until 1954. In all about thirty thousand death sentences for cowardice and desertion were handed down by the Germans on the Eastern Front in the last year of the war, two-thirds of which were carried out.

The Red Army had long been shooting anyone captured in SS uniform, and those SS men who had discarded it nonetheless could not escape the fact that their blood group was tattoed on their left arms. It is thought that it was this knowledge of certain death which kept many formations at their post during the dark days of the battles for Berlin, but, just in case, the military police remained vigilant to the last, ready to hang or shoot suspected deserters. Spreading defeatism was also a capital offence; after a short mockery of a trial by the SS or Gestapo, those suspected of it for whatever reason were hanged from the nearest lamp-post, with signs around their necks stating I have hanged because I was too much of a coward to defend the Reich’s capital, or I am a deserter; because of this I will not see the change in destiny or All traitors die like this one. It is thought that at least ten thousand people died in this manner in Berlin – the same as the number of women who died (often by suicide) after having been raped by the Red Army there.

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Above: Two women lie dead after taking cyanide in Leipzig at the end of the war.

Because of this horror, the Germans fought on with an efficiency that was utterly remarkable given the hopelessness of the situation. Yet at Berlin, as at Stalingrad, the indiscriminate artillery and aerial bombardment created fine opportunities for the defenders, of whom the city had eighty-five thousand of all kinds. As well as the Wehrmacht, Waffen-SS and Gestapo contingents, there were several foreign volunteer forces, including French Fascists, and the desperately under-armed ‘Volkssturm’ (home guard) battalions made up of men over forty-five and children under seventeen. Many of the three thousand Hitler Youth who fought were as young as fourteen, and some were unable to see the enemy from under their adult-sized coal-scuttle helmets. The looting, drunkenness, murder and despoilation indulged in by the Red Army in East Prussia, Silesia and elsewhere in the Reich, but especially in Berlin, were responses of soldiers who had marched through devastated Russian towns and cities over the previous twenty months. Max Egremont has written of how…

Red Army troops loathed the neatness they found on the farms and in the towns of East Prussia: the china lined up on the dressers, the spotless housekeeping, the well-fenced fields and sleek cattle.

The Red Army’s ‘Retribution’:

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Above and Below: A Russian photographer captures the smiles of German women at the Brandenburg Gate in defeated Berlin. The Soviet soldiers were ready to claim the spoils of war and seek retribution for Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union. There were widespread acts of looting and rape, and the latest research shows that as many as two million German women were raped. The other half of the photo (below) shows a Soviet tank.

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The women of Germany were also about to pay a high personal price for the Wehrmacht’s four-year ravaging of Mother Russia. Antony Beevor, the historian of Berlin’s downfall, at least two million German women are thought to have been raped, and a substantial minority, if not a majority, appear to have suffered multiple rapes. In Berlin alone, ninety thousand women were raped in the last few days before the city surrendered. As one Red Army veteran joked, he and his comrades raped ‘on a collective basis’. When the Red Army arrived in Dresden, the Soviets committed atrocities in direct view of the house where twenty-two-year-old American, John Noble, lived with his father, who owned a camera factory, and the rest of his family, all of whom were American citizens. Although not imprisoned by the Nazis, they were effectively interned, reporting regularly to the police. Noble recalled how:

In the house next to ours, Soviet troops went in and pulled the women out on the street, had mattresses that they pulled out, and raped the women. The men had to watch, and then the men were shot. Right at the end of our street a woman was tied onto a wagon wheel and was terribly misused. … Of course you had the feeling that you just wanted to stop it, but there was no possibility to do that.

The open abuse of women and the general looting of the city continued for at least three weeks before a semblance of order returned. Even after this period, the Nobles regularly heard reports that women who worked in their camera factory had been assaulted on their journey to and from work. Far from seeking to stop or even discourage rapes and assaults of German women, the Soviet authorities encouraged them as a legitimate and appropriate form of retribution. This was articulated by Ilya Ehrenburg, the Soviet propagandist, who wrote: Soldiers of the Red Army. German women are yours! The rapes in Germany were on a massive scale, even more so than in Hungary. Around two million were assaulted. In one of the worst examples of atrocity, a Berlin lawyer who had protected his Jewish wife through all the years of Nazi persecution tried to stop Red Army soldiers raped her, but was then shot. As he lay dying, he watched as his wife was gang-raped. Potsdam, just outside Berlin, was devastated and much of it lay in ruins. Ingrid Schüler, who lived in an apartment block within a mile of the proposed site of the forthcoming conference, was seventeen years old when the Red Army arrived in April. She recalled:

My parents hid me. … we were extremely lucky because my mother was not raped. … women were of huge importance to them (the Soviets). That was the worst thing: the rapes. … I can tell you about a baker’s family in our street. The Russians had gone into their house intending to rape the baker’s wife. Her husband, who happened to be at home, stood in front of her trying to protect her and was immediately shot dead. With their passage to the woman clear, she was raped.

The scale of the atrocities perpetrated by the Red Army in Germany in the first six months of 1945 was clearly immense. And the motivational factors were obvious as well. Vladen Anchishkin put it this somewhat incomprehensible way:

When you see this German beauty sitting and weeping about the savage Russians who were hurting her, why did she not cry when she was receiving parcels from the Eastern Front?

Only very occasionally, in their letters home, did the soldiers admit what was happening. One Red Army soldier, writing home in February 1945, commented that the fact that the German women did not speak a word of Russian, made the act of rape easier:

You don’t have to persuade them. You just point a Nagan (a type of revolver) and tell them to lie down. Then you do your stuff and go away.

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It was not only German women who suffered in these last few days before the city capitulated and the Reich finally surrendered. Polish women, Jewish concentration-camp survivors, even released Soviet female POWs were raped at gunpoint, often by up to a dozen soldiers. Because Order No. 227 had decreed that Russians who had surrendered to the Germans were traitors, gang-rapes of Russian female POWs were permitted, even actually arranged. Age, desirability or any other criteria made virtually no difference. In Dahlem, for instance, Nuns, young girls, old women, pregnant women and mothers who had just given birth were raped without pity. The documentary and anecdotal evidence is overwhelming and indisputable. The Red Army, having behaved so heroically on the battlefield, raped the women of Germany as part of their reward, with the active collusion of their officers up to and including Beria and even Stalin himself. Indeed, he explicitly excused their conduct on more than one occasion, seeing it as part of the rights of the conqueror. He asked Marshal Tito in April 1945 about these rights of the ordinary Russian soldier:

What is so awful in his having fun with a woman, after such horrors?… You have imagined the Red Army to be ideal. And it is not ideal, nor can it be … The important thing is that it fights Germans.

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Stalin with Churchill at the Yalta Conference in February.

Some historians have argued that these atrocities, like those committed by the Red Army earlier in the year during the siege of Budapest, must be seen in the overall context of violent retribution on all sides of the war. After all, they claim, for years the Red Army had been fighting an enemy who had announced that they were fighting a ‘war of annihilation’. As well as for the sexual gratification of the soldiers, mass rape was intended as a humiliation and revenge on Germany. If the men of the Wehrmacht had sown the wind in Operation Barbarossa, it was their wives, mothers, sisters and daughters who were forced to reap that whirlwind. Yet it is perfectly possible, given events elsewhere the same year, that the Red Army would have brutalised the Germans even if they had not envied their enemies’ prosperity and sought revenge for the terrible acts of war they had exacted during their invasion, occupation and destruction of vast tracts of their ‘motherland’ and its defenders.

It was not the Red Army alone that indulged in the ‘weaponisation’ of rape against civilians. In North Africa and western Europe, the US Army stands indicted of raping an estimated fourteen thousand civilian women between 1942 and 1945. But though these resulted in arrests, convictions and executions (iniquitously of black GIs), nobody was ever executed for raping a German woman. Nor is there any evidence that Russian soldiers were reprimanded for rape, despite the two million cases in one campaign lasting at most three months. It was no doubt in the context of that ‘campaign of retribution’ against both the Wehrmacht and the German civilian population that Vladen Anchiskin later admitted to committing the ultimate act of revenge in Czechoslovakia when he and some of his comrades were fired upon by a group of retreating SS soldiers. All his pent-up hatred burst through into what he himself described as ‘a frenzy’. Once they were captured, he had a number of these soldiers brought in to see him in an apartment block, one by one, for “interrogation”. He stabbed the first man to death, also cutting his throat. He tried to explain his actions:

I was in such a state. … What could I feel? … only one thing, revenge. … I felt, “You wanted to kill me? Now you have it. I waited for this – you were hunting me down for four years. You killed so many of my friends in the rear and on the front, and you were allowed to do that. But here I have the right. … You asked for it.”

Three Suicides, Two Surrenders & a Celebration:

As Soviet forces approached the bunker under the chancellery on 30 April 1945, at about 3.30 p.m, Hitler simultaneously clenched his teeth on a cyanide capsule and shot himself through the temple. When Winston Churchill was told the next day of the German official broadcast stating that Hitler had died fighting with his last breath against Bolshevism, his comment was: Well, I must say he was perfectly right to die like that. Lord Beaverbrook, who was dining with him at the time, observed that the report was obviously untrue. It had taken units as hardened as Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front to force their way into the capital of the Reich, which was defended street-by-street all the way up to the Reichstag and the Reich Chancellery. Vasily Ivanovich Chuikov, the hero of Stalingrad, commander of the Eighth Guards Army and now of Soviet forces in central Berlin, recalled the Germans’ attempted capitulation, which took place at his command post on May Day, with the visit of General Hans Krebs, whom Hitler had appointed Chief of the OKH General Staff in Guderian’s place the previous month:

At last, at 03:50 hours, there was a knock at the door, and in came a German general with the Order of the Iron Cross around his neck, and the Nazi swastika on his sleeve. … A man of middle height, and solid build, with a shaven head, and scars on his face. … With his right hand he makes a gesture of greeting – in his own, Nazi, fashion; with his left he tenders his service book to me.

Speaking through an interpreter, Krebs said:

I shall speak of exceptionally secret matters. You are the first foreigner to whom I will give this information, that on 30 April Hitler passed from us from his own will, ending his life by suicide.

Chuikov recalled that Krebs paused at this point, expecting ardent interest in this sensational news. Instead, Chuikov replied that the Soviets had already heard this news. In fact, this was not true, but he had already determined that he would show no surprise at any unexpected approaches, but remain calm and avoid drawing any hasty conclusions. Since Krebs had brought only an offer of a negotiated surrender with a new government, headed by Dönitz as president and Goebbels as chancellor, Chuikov – under orders from Zhukov and the Stavka – refused and demanded an unconditional surrender. Krebs then left to report to Goebbels, commenting as he left that May Day is a great festival for you, to which Chuikov responded:

And today why should we not celebrate? It is the end of the war, and the Russians are in Berlin.

After Krebs had told Goebbels the news, they both committed suicide, their remains being thrown in with those of Mr and Mrs Hitler. Goebbels’ corpse was identified by the special boot he wore for his clubbed foot. The next day, 2 May, Berlin capitulated and six days later so did all German forces throughout the now-defunct Reich. Soviet attacks in Kurland continued to be repulsed until the day of capitulation, but over the next week, the German armies still in the field surrendered to the Allied forces encircling them. Limited resistance continued until the remaining German forces surrendered on 7 May. In the early morning, General Alfred Jodl, Chief of Staff of the German High Command, signed the document of unconditional surrender. The next day, the war in Europe, which had cost some thirty million lives, was finally over. The capitulation of all German forces became effective on 9 May.

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The famous photograph (above and below) of the red flag being waved over the Reichstag in 1945 was taken by the twenty-eight-year-old Ukrainian Jew Yevgeny Khaldei with a Leica camera. The flag was actually one of three red tablecloths that the photographer had, in his words, got from Grisha, the bloke in charge of the stores at work. He had promised to return them and a tailor friend of his father’s had spent all night cutting out hammers and sickles and sewing them onto the cloths to make Soviet flags. So it was a tablecloth that was flown, somewhat precariously, over the devastated Berlin that day. When Khaldei explained to Gisha what had happened to his tablecloth, the latter reacted ‘angrily’:

What do you mean, you left it on the Reichstag? Now you’re really going to get me into trouble!

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The Tass picture editor spotted that the young soldier propping up his flag-waving comrade had watches on both wrists, a clear indication of Red Army looting, so he made Khaldei airbrush the supporting soldier out of the photograph, also making the flag-wavers act look more hazardous and heroic. Although Zhukov was relegated after the war by a suspicious and jealous Stalin, his eminence and popularity in the West did at least allow him to escape the fate of 135,056 other Red Army soldiers and officers who were condemned by military tribunals for counter-revolutionary crimes. A further 1.5 million Soviet soldiers who had earlier surrendered to the Germans were transported to the ‘Gulag’ or labour battalions in Siberia. The issue as to how many Soviets, military and civilian, died in during what they called their ‘Great Patriotic War’ was an intensely political one, and the true figure was classified as a national secret in the USSR until after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Even then, the figures were disputed. Richard Overy has chosen to believe the 1997 Russian figures of eleven million military losses and civilian losses of around sixteen million, giving an aggregate figure of twenty-seven million. In a conflict that claimed the lives of fifty million people, this means that the USSR lost more than the whole of the rest of the world put together.

The Immediate Aftermath & Routes to Potsdam:

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The fact that it was not until May 1945  that Germany bowed to its conquerors, is testimony to the sheer bloody-minded determination of the German Reich was one reason for the length of time they were able to hold out against the Allies, but the high quality of their troops was the other. The statistics are unequivocal: up to the end of 1944, on a man-for-man basis, the Germans inflicted between twenty and fifty per cent higher casualties on the British and Americans than they suffered, and far higher than that of the Russians, under almost all military conditions. Even in the first five months of 1945, the Red Army’s advance on the Eastern front was very costly because the Germans continued to inflict more losses on their opponents than they suffered themselves. Although they lost because of their Führer’s domination of grand strategy as well as the sheer size of the populations and economies ranged against them, it is indisputable that the Germans were the best fighting men of the Second World War for all but the last few months of the struggle when they suffered a massive dearth of equipment, petrol, reinforcements and air cover. But although throughout the last year of the war the Germans inflicted higher casualties on the Russians than they received, this was never more than the Soviets could absorb. Attacks, especially the final assault on Berlin, were undertaken by the Red Army generals without regard to the cost in lives, an approach which German generals could not adopt because of a lack of adequate reserves. From his Nuremberg cell in June 1946, Kleist reflected:

The Russians were five times superior to us poor but brave Germans, both in numbers and in the superiority of their equipment. My immediate commander was Hitler himself. Unfortunately, Hitler’s advice in those critical periods was invariably lousy.   

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As the Red Army prepared to celebrate victory in eastern Europe, Roosevelt was replaced by his Vice President, Harry Truman, who immediately brought new energy to the presidency, as George Elsey, working in the White House map room, discovered:

Harry Truman was utterly unlike President Roosevelt in terms of a personal relationship. First of all, our impression of him – here’s a guy who can walk. And he was vigorous, physically vigorous. He was only a few years younger than Franklin Roosevelt but in behaviour, attitude, speech and so on would have thought he was twenty-five years younger. When he first came into the map room he walked briskly around, introduced himself to each of us – “I’m Harry Truman” … and he took an intense interest in what we had in the map room, wanted to read our files. … Truman was open and eager to learn, and was very willing to admit that he didn’t know. Roosevelt would never have admitted that he didn’t know everything himself.

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As for the Soviets, they knew little about him and disliked what they did know. Truman was unaware of the intricacies of US foreign policy; so, in those early weeks of his presidency, he relied on old hands like Harriman and Hopkins. On 25 May, six weeks after Roosevelt’s death, Harry Hopkins arrived in Moscow at Truman’s request. He met Stalin on the evening of 26 May. It was an important meeting, not so much in terms of what was decided, but because Stalin’s behaviour demonstrated that there was no doubt that he – rather than, allegedly, the ‘people behind him’ – controlled Soviet policy. Hopkins emphasised that ‘public opinion’ in the USA had been badly affected by the inability to carry into effect the Yalta agreement on Poland. Stalin replied by putting the blame for the failure squarely on the British, who, he claimed, wanted to build up a ‘cordon sanitaire’ on the Soviet borders, presumably in order to keep the Soviets in check. Hopkins denied that the United States wanted any such thing, and added that the Americans were happy to see ‘friendly countries’ along the Soviet borders. The use of the trigger word ‘friendly’ was welcomed by Stalin who said that, if that was the case, then they could ‘easily come to terms’ about Poland.

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But Hopkins’ remarks were turned to his disadvantage by Stalin at their second meeting on 27 May. The Soviet leader said that he would not attempt to use Soviet public opinion as a screen but would, instead, speak about the views of his government. He then stated his position that the Yalta agreement meant that the existing Lublin government could simply be ‘reconstructed’. He went on to warn that:

Despite the fact that they were simple people, the Russians should not be regarded as fools, which was a mistake the West frequently made, nor were they blind and could quite well see what was going on before their eyes. It is true that that the Russians are patient in the interests of a common cause but their patience had its limits.

Stalin also remarked that if the Americans started to use the issue of ‘Lend-Lease’ as a ‘pressure’ on the Russians, this would be a ‘fundamental mistake’. Hopkins was bruised by these remarks and denied the accusations that he was ‘hiding’ behind American public opinion and attempting to use the issue of Lend-Lease as a ‘pressure weapon’. Stalin was using offensive remarks as a means of probing the strength of his opponent, as he had done with Churchill and Roosevelt in April, by correspondence. But Stalin knew that these negotiations had nothing to do with ‘friendship’ or ‘personal relationships’. He did not care whether he was liked or not. What mattered to him was power and credibility Eden, with all his experience of international relations and negotiations wrote that:

If I had to pick a team for going into a conference room, Stalin would be my first choice.

Stalin was toying with the new President’s envoy, telling Hopkins that the ‘Warsaw’ (formerly Lublin) Poles might be persuaded to concede four ministerial posts in the Polish provisional government to the ‘London’ Poles from the list submitted by the British and Americans. The idea that he had to bow to the wishes of his own puppet government in Poland was also a trick he had used before, but no-one had yet dared to say to his face that it was obvious nonsense. Towards the end of the meeting, Hopkins made an impassioned appeal for the Soviets to allow the three ‘freedoms’ so core to the Atlantic Charter – freedom of speech, assembly and religion – to be guaranteed to the citizens of the newly occupied territories. In his response, Stalin once again played with Hopkins, saying that in regard to the specific freedoms… they could only be applied… with certain limitations. Eventually, a ‘compromise’ of sorts was agreed, with five ‘democratic’ Poles joining the new provisional government, far from the ‘ideal’ that Roosevelt and Churchill had hoped for in the immediate aftermath of Yalta.

The harsh reality, of course, was that the Soviet Union was already in possession of Poland and most of the other countries bordering the Soviet Union and that the Western powers could do little about this ‘take-over’, a reality that was brought home at the Potsdam Conference. By the time of the Conference in July, the British had already considered and rejected the possibility of imposing upon Russia the will of the United States and the British Empire. In the wake of the Soviets’ perceived failure to stick to the Yalta agreement, Churchill had ordered British military planners to consider a worst-case, military option against the USSR. Called ‘Operation Unthinkable’, the final report was completed on 22 May. Its conclusion was stark, if somewhat obvious:

If our political object is to be achieved with certainty and with lasting results, the defeat of Russia in a total war will be necessary. The result … is not possible to forecast, but the one thing that is certain is that to win it would take us a very long time.

The Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir Alan Brooke, was less bland in his diary, writing on 24 May:

This evening went carefully through the Planners’ report on the possibility of taking on Russia should trouble arise on future discussion with her. We were instructed to carry out this investigation. The idea is, of course, fantastic and the chance of success quite impossible. 

After the experience of Operation Barbarossa, the idea of ‘conquering’ the Soviet Union was something that few would contemplate seriously. In any case, Truman had already recognised that Britain was now very much the minor partner in the triangular relationship with the Soviet Union. The new American President had not even bothered to discuss Hopkins’ mission to Moscow beforehand. He also declined Churchill’s invitation to meet together before the Potsdam Conference, to discuss tactics. Truman had also received a number of impassioned suggestions from Churchill about how the relationship with Stalin should be hardened because of the Soviets’ failure to implement the Yalta agreement. In particular, Churchill suggested that the Western Allies should not withdraw from the area of Germany they currently occupied, which lay within the Yalta-agreed Soviet-controlled sphere. He even sent Truman a telegram warning that an iron curtain is being drawn down on their front. But Truman wanted no dramatic confrontation with Stalin, especially one orchestrated by Churchill. The British PM got the impression that Truman was trying to edge him out of matters still more by asking the British to attend the Potsdam Conference only after the Americans had already spent time alone with Stalin. On that basis, said Churchill, he was simply ‘not prepared to attend’. As a result, the Americans agreed that he should be present from the beginning. So Winston Churchill was there to witness the fall of the Iron Curtain and the beginning of the Cold War in Europe. It took forty-five years for the West to win it, but cost far fewer European lives, though many more American ones.

Appendix:

Article by Max Hastings from The Observer Magazine, 7/7/19:

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Sources:

Andrew Roberts (2009), The Storm of War. London: Penguin Books.

Laurence Rees (2008), World War Two: Behind Closed Doors. London: BBC Books.

Richard Overy (1996), The Penguin Historical Atlas of The Third Reich. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Hermann Kinder & Werner Hilgemann (1988), The Penguin Atlas of World History Volume II. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Colin McEvedy (1982), The Penguin Atlas of Recent History (Europe since 1815). Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

 

Posted February 29, 2020 by TeamBritanniaHu in American History & Politics, anti-Communist, anti-Semitism, asylum seekers, Austria, Austria-Hungary, Axis Powers, Baltic States, Berlin, British history, Britons, Castles, Child Welfare, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Churchill, Civil Rights, Civilization, Cold War, Commemoration, Communism, Compromise, Conquest, democracy, Deportation, Domesticity, Economics, Education, Empire, Ethnic cleansing, Europe, Factories, Family, Fertility, France, Genocide, Germany, History, Hungary, Imperialism, Jews, Journalism, Labour Party, liberal democracy, manufacturing, Migration, nationalism, Navy, Patriotism, Poland, Population, Poverty, Refugees, Roosevelt, Russia, Second World War, Siege/ Battle of Budapest, Stalin, Stuart times, Technology, terror, The Law, Transference, tyranny, Uncategorized, United Nations, USA, USSR, War Crimes, Women at War, Women's History, World War Two, Yugoslavia

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October-December 1939: The Not-so-Phoney War at Sea & in Poland and Finland.   Leave a comment

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Above: HMS Royal Oak at anchor in 1937

The Royal Oak & the Graf Spee; Orkney to Montevideo:

Eighty years ago, On 14 October 1939, HMS Royal Oak was anchored at Scapa Flow in Orkney, Scotland, when she was torpedoed by Lieutenant-Commander Günther Prien’s submarine U-47. It got through a fifty-foot gap in the defences of Scapa Flow and fired seven torpedoes at the 29,000-ton battleship, of which three hit the ship, capsizing it. After the sinking of HMS Courageous the previous month, this was an almost equally spectacular symbolic success for the Kriegsmarine. Of Royal Oaks complement of 1,234 men and boys, 835 were killed, 810 in only thirteen minutes that night, the others dying later of their wounds.  While the loss of the outdated ship, the first of the five Royal Navy battleships and battlecruisers sunk in the Second World War, did little to affect the numerical superiority enjoyed by the British navy and its Allies, the sinking had a considerable effect on wartime morale. The raid made an immediate celebrity and war hero out of Günther Prien, who became the first German submarine officer to be awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross. Before the sinking of Royal Oak, the Royal Navy had considered the naval base at Scapa Flow impregnable to submarine attack, and U-47s raid demonstrated that the German Navy was capable of bringing the war to British home waters. The shock resulted in rapid changes to dockland security and the construction of the Churchill Barriers around Scapa Flow.

002 (2)One task of the U-boats was to place magnetic mines in the sea-lanes around the British Isles; this could be done by low-flying Heinkel He-IIIS and by E-boats (motor torpedo boats, shown in the painting on the right) and destroyers. Lacking a large surface fleet, the German Navy used small vessels for fast hit-and-run attacks.

By the end of November, these had sunk twenty-nine British ships, including the destroyer HMS Gipsy and had also put the brand-new cruiser HMS Belfast out of action for three years. Through the immense bravery of bomb-disposal experts Lieutenant-Commanders R C Lewis and J. G. D. Ouvry, who removed the two detonators, one of which was ticking audibly, from a mine spotted in the Thames Estuary, the secrets of the steel-hull activated device were discovered. Within a month, Admiralty scientists had discovered ways of counteracting the mines by fitting electric cables around ships’ hulls, to create a negative magnetic, or ‘degaussed’ field. Soon afterwards a means of blowing up the mines, using wooden-hulled trawlers towing buoyant electrical cables, was also invented.

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The map above shows the early stages of the Battle of the Atlantic, from 1939 to 1941, with the green line showing the areas of severe U-boat impact. While in the U-boat Germany had deployed a potentially war-winning weapon and it also had three purpose-built ‘pocket-battleship’ commerce raiders and two powerful modern battleships, the Bismarck and the Tirpitz, launched early in the war, there were always too few to challenge the Royal Navy directly. Instead, as in the First World War, Germany was once again made use of its limited naval resources to attack Britain’s sea communications. Its formidable capital ships were used as raiders against British commerce. Tracking down and destroying these threats severely stretched British resources. It was the spotting, disabling and forced scuttling of the German pocket battleship the Admiral Graf Spee that was the RN’s greatest victory during the so-called Phoney War. Operating off South American coast, Captain Hans Lansdorff’s ship had enjoyed considerable success at the beginning of the war, sinking ten ships totalling more than fifty thousand tons. The term ‘pocket’ battleship is somewhat misleading, however, since although a limit of ten thousand tons had been imposed on German warships by the Treaty of Versailles, once the Graf Spee was loaded up with her six eight-inch, eight 5.9-inch and six 4.1-inch guns, as well as ammunition and stores, she weighed more than half as much again.

In the Battle of the River Plate on 13 December, off the coast of Uruguay, the German ship took on the eight-inch guns of the cruiser HMS Exeter, along with the six-inch guns of the light cruisers HMS Ajax and the New Zealander-crewed HMS Achilles, badly damaging the first two ships. However, she was eventually outfought by the three British cruisers and was forced into the harbour of Montevideo, capital of neutral Uruguay, on 15 December by the pounding she had received. Langsdorff then magnanimously released the Allied sailors he captured from ships he had sunk, who reported they had been well-treated. Then, mistakenly trusting to BBC radio broadcasts about the imminent arrival of the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and the battlecruiser HMS Renown, and unable to hire a small plane to see whether this was in fact so, Langsdorff then sailed the Graf Spee to the entrance of Montevideo  harbour just before dusk on Sunday, 17 December and scuttled her. The explosions were watched by over twenty thousand spectators on the shore and heard on the radio by millions around the world. In fact, only the cruiser HMS Cumberland had managed to reach Montevideo; the BBC had patriotically participated in releasing a giant ‘fake news’ story. Five days later, Langsdorff shot himself.

Back to Europe: Poland, the Baltic States & Finland:

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Meanwhile, in Poland, by 5 October, resistance to the Nazi-Soviet Pact forces had ended; 217,000 Polish soldiers taken captive by Soviets, 619,000 by Germans; up to 100,000 escaped via Lithuania, Hungary and Romania to join Free Polish forces under General Wladyslaw Sikorski, Prime Minister in exile in Angers, France. Seventy thousand Polish soldiers and twenty-five thousand civilians had been killed, and 130,000 soldiers lay wounded. A hundred thousand Poles in the Russian ‘sector’ were arrested by the NKVD and sent to concentration camps, from which hardly any returned. Adolf Hitler travelled to Warsaw by special train to visit victorious troops. Then, on 10 October, Admiral Erich Raeder urged Hitler to consider invading Norway as a way of protecting the transportation of iron ore from northern Sweden to Germany and establishing U-boat stations along the fjords, especially at Trondheim. Hitler ordered the OKW to start planning for an invasion in January 1940. At that point, Hitler did not want to divert troops from the attack he was planning in the west and was persuaded to do so only by signs that the Allies were planning to invade Norway themselves, possibly using aid for Finland as a cloak for their actions.

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September 1939 (II): All at Sea – Naval Developments & Diplomacy; Appendices – Documents and Debates.   Leave a comment

Political Reaction to the Polish War in Britain:

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Even at the very late hour of August 1939, there were some ministers who publicly argued for the continuation of the appeasement policy. War is not only not inevitable, said Sir Thomas Inskip, the Minister for Defence Co-ordination, seeking to reassure the British public, but it is unlikely. R A (Richard Austen) Butler, later responsible for the 1944 Education Act, then Under Secretary of State at the Foreign Office, praised Harold Nicolson’s Penguin Special book as a work of art and perfectly correct. As the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax sat in the Lords, Butler was the Government’s spokesman in the Commons, valiantly defending its policy. An enthusiastic Chamberlainite, he regarded Munich not as a means of buying time but as a way of settling differences with Hitler. An unrepentant appeaser down to the outbreak of war, Butler even opposed the Polish alliance signed on 25 August, claiming it would have a bad psychological effect on Hitler. Critics of Chamberlain’s post-Prague policy for ignoring the necessity of encirclement thus found common cause with the ardent appeasers, though Butler himself remained loyal to Chamberlain, even after his final fall from grace. He blamed the Prime Minister’s demise and ultimate disgrace on the growing influence of Sir Horace Wilson at this time, as, for different reasons, did Nicolson.

However, even the tiny window of ‘encirclement’ was soon shut and shuttered by the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. For those on the Left of British politics, both inside Parliament and out,  this represented an unthinkable nightmare and spelt the immediate decapitation of the idea of a Popular Front with communism against the Fascist threat. In particular, Nicolson’s argument for an alliance with the Soviet Union was suddenly invalidated. When he heard of it, Harold Nicolson was, like Drake at the time of the Spanish Armada, on Plymouth Sound. He rushed back to London, to hear Chamberlain’s statement to the House. The PM was like a coroner summing up a murder case, Harold suggested. Although sympathetic to Chamberlain’s hopeless plight, he agreed with the verdict of Lloyd George and Churchill that the PM was a hopeless old crow… personally to blame for this disaster. 

002As Hitler wasted no time in crossing the border into Poland at daybreak on 1 September, the moral and diplomatic disaster became a military reality. Later the same day, Churchill was asked to join a small War Cabinet, a sign to all that Chamberlain had finally accepted that reality and now meant business. When the PM addressed the House that evening, visibly under tremendous emotional stress, he read out the allied dispatch sent to Berlin. This contained the familiar words that unless Germany gave a firm pledge to suspend all military activities and to withdraw its troops from Poland, Britain would instantly honour its obligations. However, there was no time limit attached to the word ‘instantly’ at this stage, so the dispatch could not be read as anything more than a warning. It was not an ultimatum. Apparently, this was largely due to the procrastination of the French Government, which, even at this late hour, was hoping for another Munich Conference to be held within 48 hours.

When the House met again the next evening, Chamberlain’s statement was still loosely-phrased.  Was there to be another Munich? was the unspoken question in everyone’s mind, if not on their lips. When the opposition spokesman, Arthur Greenwood, rose to speak, there were shouts from the Tory benches urging him to Speak for Britain. Chamberlain turned around to his own backbenches as if stung. The House adjourned in indescribable confusion and the Cabinet reconvened in Downing Street on what, by all accounts, was literally a very stormy night. The Cabinet decided to present the ultimatum at nine in the morning in Berlin, to expire two hours later. Chamberlain ended the meeting with the words Right, gentlemen..this means war, quietly spoken, after which there was a deafening thunderclap.

As Chamberlain himself remarked soon afterwards, no German answer to the allied ultimatum was forthcoming before 11 a.m. on the third. Harold Nicolson attended a gathering of the Eden group. At 11.15 they heard Chamberlain’s announcement. For them, as for the masses of British people listening, it seemed like the present did not exist, only the future and the past. What could any of them, with all their grandness and wealth, do now? In a strained and disgusted voice, Chamberlain told a benumbed British people that, after all, they were now at war with Germany. As if a harbinger of the nine-month ‘phoney war’ which was to follow, the air-raid siren sounded the last of the Thirties’ false alarms. In the chamber of the House of Commons, an ill-looking Prime Minister made a ‘restrained speech’. As Nicolson drove out of London towards his home at Sissinghurst in Kent, a convoy of evacuees overtook them. From one of the trucks, an elderly lady accompanying the children leaned out, shook her fist, and shouted, it is all the fault of the rich.  There was a real sense in which both the war itself and its aftermath, became a class war in which the aristocratic control of politics which had helped to cause it, was jettisoned by the British people.

British diplomats were even less enthusiastic about the prospect of conflict with the Soviet Union than the politicians. In a secret telegram to the Foreign Office, the British ambassador to Moscow, Sir William Seeds, wrote:

I do not myself see what advantage war with the Soviet Union would be to us, though it would please me personally to declare it on M. Molotov. …the Soviet invasion of Poland is not without advantages to us in the long run, for it will entail the keeping of a large army on a war footing outside Russia consuming food and petrol and wearing out material and transport, thus reducing German hopes of military or food supplies.

In a public statement on 20 September, however, the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain spoke to the House of Commons about the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland:

For the unhappy victim of this cynical attack, the result has been a tragedy of the grimmest character. The world which has watched the vain struggle of the Polish nation against overwhelming odds with profound pity and sympathy admires their valour, which even now refuses to admit defeat. … There is no sacrifice from which we will not shrink, there is no operation we will not undertake provided our responsible advisers, our Allies, and we ourselves are convinced that it will make an appropriate contribution to victory. But what we will not do is to rush into adventures that offer little prospect of success and are calculated to impair our resources and to postpone ultimate victory.

Fine words, but not matched by action. After the signing of the German-Soviet border treaty in Moscow a week later, Sir William revised his opinion in a telegram of 30 September:

It must be borne in mind that if war continues any considerable time, the Soviet part of Poland will, at its close, have been purged of any non-Soviet population or classes whatever, and that it may well be consequently impossible, in practice, to separate it from the rest of Russia. …our war aims are not incompatible with reasonable settlement on ethnographic and cultural lines.

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On the face of it, this was an incredible suggestion. The Soviet Union had just invaded and was subjugating the eastern territories of a nation to which Britain had given its pledge of protection, yet a senior diplomat was privately suggesting that this aggression should be immediately rewarded. Back in London, another senior diplomat, Sir Ivone Kirkpatrick endorsed Seeds views in a report produced on 1 October to which he appended a sketch map of Poland, pointing out that the new Soviet-imposed border mostly followed the ‘Curzon Line’ proposed by the British Foreign Secretary in 1919, which had been rejected by both the Poles and Bolsheviks at the time.

The picture on the right shows German officers discussing with a Soviet officer (far left) the demarcation line between their various pieces of conquered territory after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact and the invasion of Poland from west and east. 

Nevertheless, there were many among the general population in Britain who were bemused as to why their country had not declared war on the Soviet Union. If the British treaty to protect Poland from aggression had resulted in war with the Germans, why hadn’t it also triggered a war with the USSR? What they were not aware of was that it was not only the Nazi-Soviet pact which had a secret clause, but also the 1939 Anglo-Polish treaty. That clause specifically limited the obligation to protect Poland from ‘aggression’ to that initiated by Germany.

The ‘Phoney War’ and the War at Sea:

The sixth-month hiatus between the end of the Polish campaign in October 1939 and Hitler’s sudden invasion of Denmark and Norway on 9 April 1940 is known as ‘the Phoney War’. With little going on in the West on land and in the skies, the British and French publics were lulled into thinking that the war was not truly a matter of life and death for them in the way it obviously was for the Poles, and their daily existence was carried on substantially as usual, in all its bureaucracy, inefficiency and occasional absurdity. The National Labour MP Harold Nicolson recorded in his war diaries that the Ministry of Information censors had refused to publish the wording of a leaflet, of which two million copies had been dropped over Germany, on the grounds that… We are not allowed to disclose information that might be of value to the enemy.

The map below shows the full details of the war at sea, 1939-45:

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There was nothing phoney about the war at sea, however. It was perfectly true that the British Air Minister Sir Kingsley Wood made the asinine remark that the RAF should not bomb munitions dumps in the Black Forest because so much of it was private property, but at sea, there were no such absurdities. As early as 19 August, U-boat captains were sent a coded signal about a submarine officers’ reunion which directed them to take up their positions around the British Isles in readiness for imminent action. Within nine hours of the declaration of war, the British liner SS Athenia was torpedoed on its way from Glasgow to Montreal, with 1,400 passengers on board, the captain of U-30 mistaking the ship for an armed merchant cruiser. Had they hit the radio mast, and the SOS signal not been transmitted, many more than the 112 passengers would have perished. A Czech survivor recalled:

There was a column of water near the ship and a black thing like a cigar shot over the sea towards us. There was a bang, and then I saw men on the submarine turn a gun and fire it.

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above: a poster recruiting for the German submarine service. Submarine attack was the main activity of the German Navy during the war, and it succeeded in reducing allied tonnage substantially. Submariners were often absent for up to eighteen months and returned weather-beaten and bearded. Casualties were very high. Some seventy per cent of all submariners were killed.

Neither side was prepared for sea warfare in 1939, but neither could ignore the lessons of the 1914-18 sea war: the German High Seas Fleet had remained largely inactive, while the U-boats had brought Britain perilously close to catastrophe. In the U-boat, Germany had deployed a potentially war-winning weapon, and there was no reason not to attempt to use it more decisively in a second war. For Britain, the Battle of the Atlantic was the longest and most critical of World War Two; defeat would have forced Britain out of the war and made US intervention in Europe impossible. Airpower was also crucial in the battle of the Atlantic. German spotter aircraft could locate convoys and guide U-boats to their targets, while land-based air patrols and fighters launched by catapult from convoy ships provided essential protection. While Germany had entered the war with a number of particularly capital ships, including three purpose-built ‘pocket battleship’ commerce raiders and two powerful modern battleships, there were always too few to challenge the Royal Navy directly. Instead, Germany was once again to use its limited naval resources to attack Britain’s sea communications. The capital ships were used as raiders against British commercial vessels. Nevertheless, tracking down and destroying these threats severely stretched British naval resources. The pocket battleship Graf Spee enjoyed considerable success at the beginning of the war.

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Just as in the previous war, however, it was the U-boat that was to provide the greatest danger to Britain’s supply lines, causing Churchill intense anxiety as First Lord of the Admiralty. Had Hitler given first priority in terms of funding to his U-boat fleet on coming to power in 1933, rather than to the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe, he might have built a force that would have strangled and starved Britain into surrender. As it was, the navy was the weakest of Germany’s armed services when war broke out. Against the twenty-two battleships and eighty-three cruisers of the French and British navies, Germany had only three small ‘pocket’ battleships and eight cruisers. Early in the war, the German Navy under Admiral Erich Raeder recognised that the submarine offered the only effective German action at sea. In 1939 there were only 57 U-boats available, and not all of these were suitable for the Atlantic.  They had limited underwater range and spent most of their time on the surface, where they were vulnerable to Coastal command bombers. However, under Admiral Karl Dönitz the submarine arm expanded rapidly and soon took a steady toll of Allied shipping. To Dönitz, as commander of the U-boat fleet, it was a simple question of arithmetic: Britain depended on supplies that were carried by a fleet of about three thousand ocean-going merchant ships, and these could carry about seventeen million tonnes. If he could keep sufficient U-boats at sea and sink enough of this tonnage, Britain would be forced to capitulate. He had devised tactics to overcome the convoys, based on the simple concept of overwhelming the escorts. Dönitz introduced a new tactic to undersea warfare, with the ‘wolf packs’ hunting at night linked by radio, often attacking on the surface and at close range. But Dönitz simply did not have enough boats to launch sufficient attacks in groups.

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above: Convoy with escorts, seen at sunset in the Atlantic in July 1942. The adoption of the convoy system was a key element in defeating the U-boat threat.

At the same time, the British had made very few preparations. The first of hundreds of Atlantic convoys left Halifax, Nova Scotia, on 15 September. Learning the doleful lessons of the Great War, the convoy system was adhered to rigidly by the British between 1939 and 1945, even for ships moving along the coastline between Glasgow and the Thames. Destroyers, frigates and corvettes used an echo-sounding device called ASDIC (named after the Allied Submarine Detection Investigation Committee) to try to track U-boats, while the convoys’ merchantmen sailed together within a protective cordon. But although it was initially seen as a complete solution to the U-boat threat, it proved less than perfect and was only really effective at ranges of two hundred to a thousand metres, when most U-boats were operating on the surface in any case. Britain’s escort fleet had been allowed to run down to such an extent that Churchill was prepared to trade valuable bases in the West Indies and Newfoundland in return for fifty obsolete American destroyers. Perhaps even more damaging was the misuse of resources: the Royal Navy insisted on largely futile attempts to hunt down U-boats instead of concentrating on escorting convoys.

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above: a depth charge explodes astern of a Royal Navy ship hunting for a submerged U-boat. Dropped from surface ships, depth charges could cause fatal damage to a submarine, but they had a limited effective range.

The convoys also adopted a zig-zagging route, the better to outfox their submerged foes. Overall the system was another success, but when a waiting U-boat ‘wolf-pack’ broke through, the losses among the huddled merchantmen could be correspondingly high, and on one occasion as many as half of the vessels were sent to the bottom. The Royal Navy started the war with only five aircraft carriers and so merchant shipping lacked essential air protection out at sea. RAF Coastal Command was left critically short of aircraft because of the priority given to Bomber Command, and the flying boats it received did not have enough range – there remained a gap in the central Atlantic where no air patrols were possible; the ‘Greenland gap’, where U-boats could congregate in relative safety. This was the period that the Germans referred to as the ‘happy time’ when their losses were slight and successes high. In a desperate attempt to extend the range of Britain’s air patrols, Churchill offered the Irish government unification with Northern Ireland in exchange for the use of bases in Lough Swilly, Cobb and Berehaven, but it insisted on maintaining its strict neutrality in the war.

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above: as in the First World War, German leaders gambled on knocking Britain out of the conflict by a submarine blockade. The map above shows the details of the first phase of this.

On 17 September the veteran HMS Courageous was sunk in the Western Approaches by two torpedoes by two torpedoes from U-29, which had already sunk three tankers. She slipped beneath the Hebridean waves in less than fifteen minutes, with only half of her thousand-strong crew being saved, some after an hour in the North Atlantic, where they kept up their morale by singing popular songs of the day such as ‘Roll out the Barrel’ and ‘Show Me the Way to Go Home’. One survivor recalled that the sea was so thick with oil we might have been swimming in treacle.

Why Britain was at War:

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After motoring home to Sissinghurst with Victor Cazalet on 3 September, Harold Nicolson found his sons waiting for him. Ben, aged twenty-five, thought the news ‘a tragedy’, an unwelcome interruption to his studies; Nigel, three years younger, who had just ‘come down’ from Oxford, ‘was immensely exhilarated’. Both were of an age to serve in the army; and both did, until final victory in the spring of 1945. In a symbolic act for what lay ahead, the flag flying above the Elizabethan Tower in the Sissinghurst garden was lowered. No sooner had the war started than Harold Nicolson was asked by Allen Lane, head of Penguin Books, to explain to the nation Why Britain is at War. He wrote the fifty-thousand-word Penguin Special in three weeks. Michael Sadleir, Harold’s regular publisher, called it ‘a masterpiece’. An instant success, it soon sold over a hundred thousand copies. Harold denied that the iniquities of the Versailles treaty had propelled Hitler to power, as so often presumed, claiming that by 1922 a majority of the German people had reconciled themselves to the treaty. By recklessly occupying the Ruhr in 1923, against British advice, French President Poincaré’s adventurism had galvanised German nationalist fervour, destroyed the German middle class and paved the way for the rise of Hitler. These arguments took little account of the first German economic miracle of the mid-twenties or the devastating effects of the world economic crisis of 1929. Nor was it prudent to reproach past leaders of Britain’s only ally in its war of survival against Nazi Germany, even if it was partly blameworthy.

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Harold was on firmer ground when he moved away from contemporary German history to justifying Britain’s motives for going to war. He wrote of a small island nation dependent for its survival not only on protecting the sea lanes to its imperial possessions but also on preserving the balance of power on the European mainland. Germany, then and now, threatened to violate these immutable principles. Britain’s reaction by going to war was prompted by a sound biological instinct … the instinct of self-preservation. By vividly contrasting the savage nature of the Nazi dictatorship, its ‘ruthless nihilism’, with the British conception of ‘decency and fairness’. Harold introduced a moral dimension to the conflict:

We entered this war to defend ourselves. We shall continue to, to its bitter end, in order to save humanity. … Only by imposing a just peace, one that does not outrage their pride or drive them to desperation can we guarantee thirty years to establish a new world order so powerful that even Germany will not dare to defy it.

But what kind of ‘new world order?’ It turned on rectifying the defects of the League of Nations, of organising its own armed forces and the need for its members to sacrifice a degree of national sovereignty. Harold looked forward optimistically to a ‘United States of Europe’, but whether Britain would play an active part in it remained a moot point. On one point, however, Harold was crystal clear: a social revolution was pending. Whatever the outcome of the war, we can be certain that the rich will lose … Their privileges and fortunes will go. His premonition that the war would generate ‘class warfare’, that the prerogatives of his class would be severely eroded, if not entirely swept away, haunted him throughout the war. Nicolson’s critique of Chamberlain’s diplomacy, and in particular the ruinous influence of Sir Horace Wilson may have found praise from R. A. Butler as wholly valid. But Butler remained loyal to Chamberlain, even after the PM’s downfall, describing Churchill as the greatest political adventurer of modern political history. Harold may have felt flattered, temporarily, by Butler’s words, but he would gain a more lasting satisfaction from knowing that his record of Britain’s misguided diplomacy had struck a sympathetic chord in hundreds of thousands of readers.

Harold wanted to find a wartime job commensurate with his talents. The Foreign Office, impressed by the success of Why Britain is at War, was keen that he should strengthen its Political Intelligence Department. Halifax was enthusiastic to make the appointment, but it was opposed by Horace Wilson, whom Nicolson had identified as a ‘chief sinner’ in the failure of British diplomacy. Nor did Harold make a significant impact in Parliament, where he had been elected as a National Labour MP in 1935. Apart from occasional questions about the activity of German propagandists in Britain, he remained silent. The Eden Group made up of Conservative dissidents, but with Harold in constant attendance, still functioned, usually over dinner at the Carlton Club. The general feeling of the company as autumn progressed was that Chamberlain had to be removed and replaced by Churchill. It remained an ineffectual group, however, which would only act when exceptional circumstances left it no option. Like many of his associates, Nicolson was in despair at Chamberlain’s lacklustre leadership. When urged to attack ‘these people at the helm’, he wavered, unwilling to disrupt national unity at that stage. Even so, no-one could deny that the war was going badly. Poland had fallen in less than a month, partitioned along the old Curzon line between Germany and the Soviet Union. In the west, the Allies were reluctant to take offensive action and Nicolson grew increasingly gloomy about the prospects of Britain, with France, emerging victorious from the conflict. However, even Harold could not help but be encouraged by immediate British successes at sea. He prematurely recorded that we have won the war at sea.

Appendices:

Historical Interpretation: Why was British resistance to Hitler left so late?

The historian Arthur Marwick emphasised the assumption, made by Chamberlain and others, that, regardless of their hateful ideologies and propaganda, Hitler and Mussolini were basically rational men who would keep their word, provided their main grievances were met. This assumption was not finally shaken until the occupation of Prague in March 1939. Borrowing a phrase from A J P Taylor’s Origins of the Second World War, he suggests that the Western statesmen believed that once the cloud of phrases which enveloped Fascist policy had been pushed aside there would be a foundation of goodwill on which a modus vivendi might be built. Both the dictators and the Western statesmen moved in the fog of their own beliefs and systems so that there was little fundamental understanding of each side’s position and precious little real communication. Sooner or later, therefore, a collision was almost inevitable. Arnold Toynbee, who had himself met Hitler, summed up this psychological gulf between the dictators and the Western statesmen:

An English observer who paid frequent visits to Germany during the span of six and three-quarter years that intervened between Hitler’s advent to power in Germany…and the outbreak of war…had the uncanny impression, as he made the short physical journey…that within these narrow limits of space and time, he was travelling between two worlds which were momentarily both in existence side by side, but which could not go on thus co-existing because they were morally so far apart as to be incompatible in the long run.

At the same time, the democracies were themselves divided between Left and Right just at the time when national unity was most needed in Britain and France. Although after the Prague coup the Pacifist tide was in sudden retreat, it is impossible to overestimate its significance prior to that event. The revulsion felt towards war was so strong that not even the series of German and Italian successes from 1935 onwards was enough to bring about the fundamental division in European opinions which manifested itself after the occupation of Prague. These divisions, especially in France, help to explain why there was no real attempt to resist Nazi Germany until 1939, and further encouraged Hitler in his belief that the Western powers were too weak to resist him. Added to this, the ideological conflict in Spain had served to distract attention from Hitler’s designs in central and eastern Europe in the previous three years.

Partly as a result of the Spanish conflict, a strategic alliance with the Soviet Union was not seen as a realistic possibility until after Hitler’s Prague coup of 14-15 March. Prior to this turning point, Soviet communism was still viewed as the greater of the two ideological evils. Hence Neville Chamberlain’s persistent attempts from May 1937 onwards to woo first Mussolini and then Hitler. Direct bilateral negotiations with the dictators seemed to be the only way to break the diplomatic deadlock. To resurrect the traditional alliance system, including Russia, would, it was argued, play into Hitler’s hands by allowing him to claim that Germany was being encircled again. However, it was this fear that actually played into his hands, because it enabled him to isolate and deal separately with his potential opponents. Moreover, it was the rumours of war which followed Prague, of impending German action against Poland and Romania, now entirely believable, which helped to reinforce the sea-change in mood which hardened and grew firmer throughout the summer of 1939.

It is also arguable whether, after the Munich Agreement, the rump Czechoslovak state was at all viable, never mind defensible. Relations between Czechs and Slovaks, who had never had more than the similarity of their languages in common, had reached a low point. The harsh reality was that the experimental state of Czechoslovakia, brought into being at Versailles out of the ruins of the Hapsburg Empire, had to be written off. The only consolation for Chamberlain was that he had been able to demonstrate to important non-European opinion, that he had gone to the limits of reasonableness in pursuing the course that they had wanted, that Europe should work out its own salvation without calling on them to intervene, either diplomatically or militarily. After the Prague coup, the attitude of the British Dominions also began to change from the detachment shown six months earlier. This was crucial, as Britain could not go to war with the rearmed Reich without its Empire, especially at sea.

Despite the evidence of his critics, after the Prague debácle, Chamberlain became more defiant and determined in public, and his Cabinet was less nervous at the prospect of war than they had been at the time of the Munich Crisis. The military and intelligence reports were more encouraging and the Anglo-French relationship was better and more active than it had been.  At the end of 1936, Lord Vantissart had written, privately, that it was the job of the Foreign Office to hold the ring until 1939. They now felt confident enough to give a guarantee to the Polish government. This was a remarkable reversal of an attitude to central Europe held by all previous British governments. Perhaps it was given because, unlike Czechoslovakia, the Polish corridor meant that Poland was not land-locked and was therefore of direct interest to the British Empire, over which it now gained a measure of influence. However, there was little more, in reality, that Britain could do to preserve the independence or integrity of Poland in the event of a German attack. Moreover, the guarantee was not given in order to preclude German-Polish negotiation, but as a general warning to Hitler that Britain intended to make a stand. This warning was still vague enough for Hitler to believe that when it came to a crisis, Britain would back down, just as it had done over the Sudetenland.

If Britain and France had not pursued appeasement so vigorously for so long, there might have been some chance of an Anglo-French-Soviet alliance, though the price demanded by the Russians might have been too high.  Nevertheless, one further step Chamberlain had authorised after Prague was the opening of negotiations with Moscow.  All his instincts had previously recoiled from this step, both because of his dislike for the Soviet state and a belief that ‘encirclement’ would be counter-productive. The Anglo-Soviet discussions were slow and protected over the summer. There were sticking points, among them the status of the three independent Baltic republics and Polish concerns about Moscow’s intentions. A greater sense of urgency might have brought success, but the effort came to a dramatic halt on 23 August with the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact in Moscow.

Until that point, Stalin and Molotov were still prepared to consider a treaty of mutual assistance with Britain and France. But there were problems from the very start, since – in contrast to the attitude of Ribbentrop – the Western Allies were perceived as dawdling through the process of negotiations. The Soviet Ambassador to London had asked whether British Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, would go to Moscow that summer to discuss matters directly with Molotov, but the British despatched a minor official and an obscure admiral instead who left England on a merchant ship at the beginning of August which took four days to arrive in Leningrad. Once the British delegation arrived in Moscow, the Soviets soon found evidence to confirm their London ambassador’s report that the delegates will not be able to make any decisions on the spot. … This does not promise any particular speed in the conduct of the negotiations. In fact, before he left for Moscow, Admiral Drax had been specifically told by Chamberlain and Halifax that in case of any difficulties with the Soviets he should try to string the negotiations out until October when winter conditions would make a Nazi invasion of Poland difficult. The British hoped that the mere threat of an alliance with the Soviet Union might act as a deterrent to the Germans.

Laurence Rees (2003) has suggested that it is not hard to see what caused the British to take their lackadaisical approach to negotiations with the Soviets. In the first place, British foreign policy had been predicated for years on the basis that a friendly relationship with Germany was of more value than an accommodation with the Soviet Union. Not only did many British loathe Stalin’s régime on ideological grounds, but there was also little confidence, in August 1939, in the power and utility of the Soviet armed forces. Moreover, the question of Poland was an obstacle in itself to the British reaching any kind of comprehensive agreement with the Soviet Union, as it was to in 1944. The British knew that for any military treaty to have meaning, the Soviets would have to be given permission to cross the Polish border to fight the Germans if, as looked likely, the Nazis decided to invade. But the Poles themselves were against any such idea. In the face of this impasse, the British delegation adopted the understandable, but ultimately self-defeating tactic of simply ignoring the subject whenever the question of Poland and its territorial integrity came up in discussion. When the Soviet Marshal Voroshilov asked directly on 14 August if the Red Army would be allowed to enter Poland in order to engage the Nazis, the Allied delegation made no reply.

However, Rees has also argued out that we must not run away with the idea that Stalin and the Soviet leadership were somehow driven into the hands of the Nazis by British and French misjudgment. Ultimately, the Western Allies had very little to offer the Soviets at the bargaining table. Stalin had no motivation for the Red Army being ‘drawn into conflict’ to help out other, unsympathetic régimes out of their self-created difficulties. He was just as much opposed to Britain and France, dominated by big business and oppressing the working people, as he was to Nazi Germany. On the other hand, the Nazis could offer something the Western Allies never could – the prospect of additional territory and material gain. So the meeting between Ribbentrop and Schulenberg for the Germans, and Stalin and Molotov for the Soviets whilst not a meeting of minds, was certainly a meeting of common interests. 

Through the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Germany succeeded in bringing the Soviet Union into the European conflict, thereby giving Hitler the assurance of Soviet neutrality in an attack on Poland. The Pact lifted an enormous burden from Hitler. He was free to attack Poland if he wished and British support was likely to be of little assistance to the Poles. There was some suspicion that Britain and France might decide, after all, not to go to war. However, the British hesitation in declaring war resulted more, in the event, from Chamberlain’s desire to act in concert with France than by any doubt about honouring its obligations. Chamberlain was forced by his Cabinet to declare the war he had consistently tried to avoid since 1937. Even after its outbreak, there was no anticipation of protracted conflict and he still hoped that there might be a place for negotiations, even if they must take place in the context of war.

That is not to suggest that Chamberlain’s psychological understanding and tactical methods were without blame. He did not understand either the nature and dynamics of the Nazi régime or the beliefs and practices of National Socialism. However, even Churchill displayed considerable naivety in this respect, describing Hitler as an old-fashioned patriot, determined to restore his country following its defeat. Lloyd George’s analysis of Hitler’s mind and intentions was no better.  Another set of men in power, or in power earlier, may have made some difference to the policies which were followed, but this would probably not have been vastly notable. Moreover, it was possible for many British people simultaneously to suffer anguish at the prospect of another war and to feel intense remorse at what they believed to be their leaders’ callous indifference to the plight of Czechoslovakia. However, Chamberlain and his colleagues, in common with the majority of British public opinion, supposed that it was quite reasonable to believe in a world in which there was an underlying harmony between nations. It was surely unbelievable that governments would set out deliberately to use force. After 1939, world politics evolved in a way that few observers could have predicted with confidence, even projecting from the events of 1938-1939.

Keith Robbins has argued that the policy of appeasement in Europe needs to be seen in the context of the decline of the British Empire in the thirties. However, the anxiety about the state of the Empire might have been excessive, in turn accelerating its decline. Certainly, Churchill saw signs of defeatism in government policies and believed that a display of resolution and self-confidence would bring its own reward. It is also possible that a greater willingness to threaten intervention might have deterred Hitler, at least in the short-term. In the longer term, however, Robbins concludes that it seems entirely likely that Hitler would have gone to war in circumstances which might have been as favourable as those of 1939.

In his diaries, at the beginning of November, Edmund Ironside reflected ironically on the military machine of command which was the War Cabinet. Men like Kingsley Wood and Belisha, together with Chamberlain, Halifax and Hoare had no military conception of any sort, even lacking ‘general knowledge of how to fight a campaign. Whilst the Army was under French command, the Air Force was not, and the Cabinet loved directing its operations, rather than allowing the Chief of Staff to do so. Later the same month, he admitted to being ‘perturbed’ at the lack of a plan in Cabinet. The ‘wait and see’ attitude to events in Europe, the lack of any plan for the Middle East, and the long and tedious discussions upon all and sundry, all added to the sense of inertia which stemmed from the leadership of the weary old man who dominated the ‘mediocrities’ around him who were supposed to bear the responsibilities of war government with him. Only Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, revealed any talent for the task, partly because he was managing the worse things that by then were happening at sea…

Documents:

A. Parliamentary Debates, House Of Commons (fifth series), vol 351 cols 293-4 (1939):

The Prime Minister’s Announcement of War:

‘…we decided to send our Ambassador in Berlin instructions which he was to hand at 9 o’clock this morning to the German Foreign Secretary and which read as follows:

‘Sir, In the communication which I had the honour to make to you on the 1st September, I informed you… that unless the German Government were prepared to give… satisfactory assurances that (it) … had suspended all aggressive action against Poland and were prepared promptly to withdraw their forces from Polish territory, His Majesty’s Government would, without hesitation, fulfil their obligations to Poland.

‘Although this communication was made more than twenty-four hours ago, no reply has been received but German attacks on Poland have continued and intensified. I have… to inform you that, unless not later than 11 a.m. British Summer Time today, 3rd September, satisfactory assurances… have been given… a state of war will exist between the two countries from that hour.’

‘This was the final note. No such undertaking was received by the time stipulated, and, consequently, this country is at war with Germany.’

B. Francis Marshall,  London West (1944) 

Recollections of the first days of the war:

Entering London from the Great North Road the day after war had been declared, was rather like entering a besieged city. Terrible air attacks had been expected and London was considered the most likely target.

The barrage balloons overhead emphasised the difference between London and the country; notice boards at Hendon and Mill Hill giving notice of air raids seemed to mark the entrance. The motor coaches filled with evacuated children and occasional cars filled with luggage, all going in the opposite direction, added to the impression of impending danger…

Air raid shelters, sandbags and barrage balloons were, of course, already familiar, but the War Rescue Police came as a surprise. They wore ordinary clothes, and a blue tin hat, armlet and service respirator was their only uniform. Everybody was busy doing little odd jobs, sticking brown paper tape on windows, collecting precious papers and valuables together with a first-aid kit, and some spare clothes in a suit-case, just in case… When they had finished work and made their simple preparations, they walked out in the brilliant sunshine that seemed to have accompanied the outbreak of war, and tried to realise that this was it. But however short a walk they took, the gas marks were inevitably with them, uncomfortable and a nuisance, but from Prime Minister to charwoman everybody carried one.

We expected air raids on the H G Wells’ scale after nerving ourselves to expect Apocalypse after dark, felt almost disappointed when day brought the usual round of milkmen, newspaper boys, and the ordinary routine…

I found myself circling a church at 4 a.m. in the dark, vainly trying to find the way in to relieve the warden on duty inside. When I got in, I found him in the crypt sitting on a coffin reading a thriller… 

C. René Cutforth, Later Than We Thought (1976)

A Journalist’s personal account of the final year of the thirties:

Oddly enough, this great tide of woes seemed to put a new spirit into the British people. The news was so bad that none of the old attitudes was relevant any more. Peace Pledge Unions and Popular Fronts were now beside the point, like a man on the scaffold deciding to mount a ‘No more Hanging’ movement. The illusions of the Thirties gradually melted away, and there had been many. In the new cold light, the ‘committed’ could be seen as the self-licensed liars and con-men so many of them had become, whether Left or Right, whether Hitler’s ‘new manliness’ had held them mesmerised or Stalin’s ‘workers’ paradise’.

The last to go were the illusions about the power of Britain in the world. We might survive, we now knew, and that was all. Conscription came in on 1 July. In August there was a trial blackout and, since the whole world had now gone mad, the Russians signed a non-aggression pact with Germany.  If you felt like being funny. it was a bit of a joke to listen to the Communists trying to find something nice to say about their new ally. 

The present seemed not to exist, we only had a past and a future. Works of art were being stored in the caves of Derbyshire and the mine shafts of Wales. From Canterbury, we evacuated the stained glass and from our great cities the children. We’d ‘bought it’ as the phrase then was, and at eleven o’ clock on 3 September, we heard Mr Chamberlain, speaking in a strained and disgusted voice, tell us that we were at war with Germany. We were surprised by how little we felt. A minute later, the air-raid siren sounded. It was the last of the Thirties’ false alarms.

003

On 3 September, Chamberlain made his famous broadcast to tell the British nation that it was at war with Germany. An air-raid siren sounded in earnest for the first time, though it was a false alarm; a Royal Proclamation was issued calling up the Reserves and Churchill was at last brought in. (Picture: Radio Times Hulton Picture Library, published in Cutforth’s book).

D.  September 1, 1939, by W. H. Auden

A British poet reflects on a ‘low, dishonest decade’ from New York:

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Wystan Auden was the leader of a group of poets named after him, but all they had in common was a Marxist frame of mind which characterised the ‘new voice of the period’ (Cutforth). They launched the revolutionary movement which was to create the intellectual climate of the time, and from the start, Auden’s was the voice of the decade. They wanted to bring on the death of the old gang, the death of us. He always sounded as if ten thousand revolutionaries were fighting to snatch his words from the press as they appeared. In fact, their audience was so small that it often seemed that they were writing to each other. Auden’s line, It is later than you think, might have been the motto of the whole group. George Orwell criticised their slavish worship of the Soviet Union, and regarded them as divorced from humanity: they had never met anybody from outside their own social class, he said, and this annoyed them greatly because he was right. Auden himself had left Britain with Christopher Isherwood for China in 1938 (pictured above, with Auden on the right), and was in New York in September 1939 when he wrote his famous and often misused poem on the outbreak of war. It begins in despair:

I sit in one of the dives

On Fifty-Second Street

Uncertain and afraid

As the clever hopes expire

Of a low dishonest decade:

Waves of anger and fear

Circulate over the bright

And darkened lands of the earth,

Obsessing our private lives;

The unmentionable odour of death

Offends the September Night.

And ends in hope:

Defenceless under the night

Our world in stupor lies;

Yet, dotted everywhere,

Ironic points of light

Flash out wherever the Just

Exchange their messages:

May I, composed like them

Of Eros and of dust,

Beleaguered by the same

Negation and despair,

Show an affirming flame.

Sources:

René Cutforth (1976), Later Than We Thought. Newton Abbot: David & Charles.

Matthew Hollis & Paul Keegan (2003), 101 Poems Against War. London: Faber & Faber.

Richard Overy (1996), The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Third Reich. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Laurence Rees (2008), World War Two Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, the Nazis and the West. London: BBC Books (Ebury Publishing).

John Swift, Asa Briggs (ed.) (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books (chapter on ‘The Atlantic War, 1939-45’).

Michael Clark & Peter Teed (eds.) (1972), Portraits & Documents: Twentieth Century, 1906-1960. London: Hutchinson Educational.

Andrew Roberts (2010), The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War. London: Penguin Books.

Keith Robbins (1997), Appeasement (Historical Association Studies). Oxford: Blackwell Publishers

Norman Rose (2006), Harold Nicolson. London: Pimlico.

Posted September 8, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in anti-Communist, anti-Semitism, Axis Powers, Baltic States, BBC, Berlin, Britain, British history, Canada, Churchill, Communism, Compromise, Conquest, decolonisation, democracy, Economics, Education, Empire, Ethnic cleansing, Ethnicity, Eugenics, Europe, Family, Genocide, George VI, Germany, Great War, History, Holocaust, Imperialism, Italy, Jews, liberal democracy, manufacturing, Marxism, morality, Narrative, nationalism, Nationality, Navy, Oxford, Paris, Poland, Population, Poverty, Russia, Seasons, Second World War, Security, Spanish Civil War, Statehood, terror, tyranny, Versailles, War Crimes, Warfare, World War One, World War Two

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