Archive for the ‘U-boats’ Tag

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.

 

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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.

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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.

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The Conquest of Normandy & The Red Army’s Advance to Warsaw, June-July 1944.   1 comment

After D-Day – The Battle for Normandy:

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The landings of 6th June were, of course, ‘just’ the beginning of the campaign to liberate Western Europe from the occupation of the Third Reich. Having got into the fields behind the beaches, the Americans, in particular, were dismayed to find themselves among the bocage, the thick, high and wide hedgerows that provided ideal cover for defence. From the German perspective, General Blumentritt wrote to a correspondent in 1965, saying that the German soldier had bled to death through wrong politics and dilettante leadership of Hitler. In particular, Normandy had been lost, he claimed, because Hitler ordered a rigid defence of the coasts. That was not possible over two thousand kilometres, especially when considering the Allied mastery of the air, the Allied masses of ‘matérial’, and the weakened German potential after five years of war. General Rundstedt wanted to give up the whole of France south of the Loire in order to  concentrate on fighting a fast-moving tank battle around Paris instead, but he was prevented from doing this by Hitler and Rommel who intended to carry out the defence with all forces on the beach and to use all tank-corps right in front, at the coast.

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Timetables were vital to the Germans, and in reinforcing Normandy as quickly as possible they were severely hampered by the destruction of road and rail routes by the bombing campaigns and by heroic acts of resistance by the French Maquis, who attacked the Germans and destroyed bridges and railways in the path of the Panzers. This led to horrific reprisals, the best known of which were carried out by the fifteen-thousand-strong 2nd SS Das Reich Panzer Division, frustrated by losses and delays as it attempted to drive from Montauban in southern France to repel the invader in Normandy. The 450-mile journey lasted three weeks after they had set out on 8 June, as opposed to the few days it would have taken had they been left unharried. In retaliation for the killing of forty German soldiers in one incident, Das Reich exacted widespread reprisals in the town of Tulle in the Corréze. One woman recalled how…

I came home from shopping on 9 June 1944 to find my husband and son hanging from the balcony of our house. They were just two of a hundred men seized at random and killed in cold blood by the SS. The children and wives were forced to watch while they strung them up to the lamp-posts and balconies outside their own homes. What is there for me to say?

Yet worse was to come the following morning, 10 June, at the small village of Oradour-Sur-Glane, where Major Adolf Dickmann’s unit murdered 642 people, including 190 schoolchildren; the men were shot, the women and children were burnt alive in the church and the village was razed. The village can be visited today, left deserted and destroyed as a memorial and a stark reminder of man’s inhumanity to man. This was featured in a special episode of ITV’s ground-breaking documentary series, The World at War in the 1970s. Yet, as Max Hastings has pointed out…

It is important to remember that if Oradour was an exceptionally dreadful occurrence during the war in the West, it was a trifling sample of what the German Army had been doing on a national scale in the East, since 1941. 

It was, however, a stark reminder, if one were needed, of exactly what the Allied troops were fighting both for and against if one were needed. It also showed the lengths and depths the Nazis were prepared to go in resisting the Allied advance. Hardly surprising then that German resistance around Carentan on 13 June and Caen on 18 June prevented Montgomery from taking either town, although the US VII Corps under Major-General J. Lawton Collins took Cherbourg on 27 June after five days of heavy fighting and the destruction of the harbour by the Germans, which the Allies could not then use until 7 August. The Germans in Caen, which Montgomery called the ‘crucible’ of the battle, held out until 9 July, and the town was little more than rubble when it finally fell. Despite this fierce fighting continuing until more than a month after the initial landings, the London Evening News was not prevented from claiming its capture on the day after D-Day, perhaps an example of how ‘fake news’ was already part of war-time propaganda campaigns. Basil Liddell Hart was proved right in his description of Overlord as having gone according to the plan, but not according to the timetable.

The Coup Attempt Against Hitler:

Years after the war, Dönitz stated that it was the defeat of the German U-Boat which had enabled the success of the Anglo-American invasion of Normandy in July 1944. That was the point at which the German High Command knew they had no chance of winning the war. Some in that High Command, though not the ultra-loyal Dönitz, decided that they had to try to assassinate Hitler. Far from acting out of any kind of democratic conscience, the vast majority of the plotters were simply determined to remove, as they secretly saw him, an incompetent upstart corporal who had by then become the major obstacle to a negotiated peace which was the only objective alternative to accepting, sooner or later, a Soviet occupation of Germany.

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So it was that on Thursday 20 July a two-pound bomb planted by the Swabian aristocratic war hero Colonel Count Claus von Stauffenberg ripped through one of the conference huts at ‘Wolf’s Lair’ in East Prussia (now Poland), only six feet from where Hitler was studying an air-reconnaissance report through his magnifying glass. Despite extensive minor injuries, he survived. Churchill described the July Plotters as the bravest of the best, but in reality, they were extreme German nationalists, if not Nazis, and very far from the idealist democrats depicted by Hollywood.

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The hope of the Plotters that they could make peace with Britain and America was flawed since the war was now being fought by an Anglo-Russian-American coalition so that it was unthinkable that Britain could enter into negotiations with Germany and/or its axis allies behind her allies’ backs. As one of the senior officials in the German Department of the Foreign Office, Frank Roberts, put it in his autobiography:

If Stalin got the impression we were in contact with the German generals, whose main aim was to protect Germany against Russia, he might well have been tempted to see whether he could not again come to terms with Hitler.

Re-balancing the Record – The Russian Contribution:

Following the collapse of the ‘Eastern Bloc’, historians such as Laurence Rees have been able to re-balance our understanding of the final year of the Second World War. When he was taught the history of the War in the early 1970s, his teachers got around the moral and political complexities of the Soviet Union’s part in the war by the simple expedient of largely ignoring it. My teachers taught us nothing at all about the Second World War; nor even very much about the First World War. At the time, in the depths of the Cold War, that was how most people dealt with the awkward legacy of the West’s relationship with Stalin. The focus was on the heroism of the Western Allies – on Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain and D-Day. None of this, of course, is forgotten, and neither should it be. But it is not the whole story. Before the fall of Communism, the role of the Soviet Union in the Second World War was, to a large extent, denied a proper place in our culture because it was easier than facing up to a variety of unpalatable truths. The D-Day commemorations we have just been through, important as they were for both the veterans who took part and for the western leaders, reverted to a self-conscious western triumphalism, failing to involve contemporary Russian leaders and almost completely ignoring the ‘Russian’ contribution, however controversial it may remain. Neither has there (yet) been any reference to the role of Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe in resisting and ultimately defeating the Reich.

Képtalálat a következőre: „quebec conference 1943”The Western Allies had agreed to launch Operation Overlord, the long-awaited ‘second front’ in the spring of 1944, following the first Anglo-American Conference in Quebec in August 1943 (pictured right). But because of the slow progress of the Italian Campaign, Churchill had wanted to revisit the whole schedule in October 1943. He had on several previous occasions announced that despite agreeing with the second front in principle, in practice there was always one more operation that needed to take precedence; the Americans had at last run out of patience with him. It was a matter that Roosevelt and the American military leadership, including Eisenhower, did not want to reopen.

Képtalálat a következőre: „quebec conference 1943”Besides which, there were precious few landing craft in Europe that were not already committed for D-Day. At a meeting on 24 November in Cairo, Churchill had finally seized his opportunity to plead with Roosevelt and the American generals for more resources for the Mediterranean. But, predictably, the Americans would not countenance a delay to Overlord.

Towards the end of the meeting, Roosevelt had reminded Churchill of the relative troop numbers now committed to the overall conflict: very soon more Americans would be involved in the war than troops under British command. On 26 November, Roosevelt and Churchill left for Tehran. In the plane, Churchill had gloomily confided to his doctor, Charles Wilson, that the campaign in Italy had been put ‘in jeopardy’ by the US President’s desire to invade France on the schedule drawn up in Quebec. Wilson (later Lord Moran) had a revealing conversation just before the conference in which Roosevelt’s close advisor, Harry Hopkins, told him that…

The President is convinced that even if he cannot convert Stalin into a good democrat he will be able to come to a working arrangement with him. After all, he had spent his life managing men. And Stalin at bottom could not be so very different from other people. Anyway, he has come to Tehran determined… to come to terms with Stalin, and he is not going to allow anything to interfere with that purpose.

Képtalálat a következőre: „quebec conference 1943”

Above: The three Allies at the Tehran Conference.

On the Eastern Front – Operation Bagration:

As the soldiers of the Western Allies battled to establish a foothold in Normandy, the Red Army prepared to launch a massive attack on German Army Group Centre in an attempt to recapture Minsk and push the Wehrmacht back out of the Soviet Union. This operation, which had been agreed at Tehran, dwarfed D-Day in scale. The Germans had thirty divisions in the West to face the Allied onslaught following D-Day but concentrated 165 divisions against the Red Army in the East. Over two million Red Army soldiers took part in their June offensive, codenamed Operation Bagration after the Georgian military hero who had fought against Napoleon. Veniamin Fyodorov, a (then) twenty-year-old soldier with the Soviet 77th Guards infantry regiment recalled his experiences in this assault on 22 June, as he watched the initial bombardment from his own side:

For Bagration we were preparing very carefully. Whatever resources the Soviet Union had were concentrated in this direction. Big numbers of artillery, tanks and ammunition. And big numbers of infantry. … When you look ahead, you see bits of earth flying up into the air and you see explosions. As if you light a match. Flashes, flashes. One flash, another flash. And bits of land are thrown up in the air. After the bombardment, planes came, flying low. We felt more cheerful because we had a lot of military equipment. 

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For the Germans, by contrast, the Operation marked the lowest point in their military fortunes on the Eastern Front to date – lower even than Stalingrad in terms of military losses. Seventeen divisions were completely destroyed, with another fifty enduring losses of fifty per cent. And it was Hitler who was largely to blame for this defeat since he no longer trusted his generals to take the initiative on the battlefield as he had done during the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. He now gave direct tactical orders to the commanders of the 9th Army who faced Operation Bagration, orders which were increasingly disconnected from the realities of the modern battlefield. On the eve of Bagration, General Jordan, commander of the 9th Army, wrote these words:

… The Army believes that even under the present conditions, it would be possible to stop the enemy offensive, but not under the present directives which require an absolutely rigid defence. … The Army considers the orders establishing “Feste Platze” (Fortified Places) particularly dangerous. The army looks ahead to the coming battle with bitterness, knowing that it is bound by order to tactical measures which it cannot in good conscience accept as correct and which in our earlier victorious campaigns were the cause of enemy defeats.

This sense that the Germans were contributing to their own defeat now pervaded even the most junior ranks. A twenty-two-year-old private with the 9th Army, Heinz Fielder, recalled the demoralising effects of these nonsensical orders received from the division or the army corps:

I remember once that one position had definitely to be taken back again, and the young second lieutenant had refused to attack again because more than half his men had already died and they were all just sacrificed. They attacked again and again until the very last one died and that of course makes you wonder. But those were the men of the General Staff. They had their little flags and they put them on the map and then they say, this absolutely has to be restored, no what the sacrifices are.

Fielder was one of the Germans ordered to defend the Feste Platz of Bobruisk in the wake of the Red Army attack. He recalled:

Everywhere dead bodies are lying. Dead bodies, wounded people, people screaming, medical orderlies, and then there were those who were completely covered, who were not taken out at all, who were buried there straight away by the bunkers and trenches that collapsed. You don’t have any feeling any more for warmth or coldness or light or darkness or thirst or hunger. You don’t need to go to the loo. I can’t explain it. It’s such a tension you’re under … Everything was simply shit. Everything was shit.

Only after the Feste Platz was completely encircled and had been subjected to continuous bombardment was Fielder’s unit, at last, told it could try to escape.

And then the last command arrived. Destroy vehicles, shoot horses, take as much hand ammunition and rations with you as you can carry. Every man for himself. Well, now go on and rescue yourself.

Fielder joined a group of other German soldiers who were trying to fight their way through the Red Army troops ahead of them and reach the retreating German line. He headed West – towards the setting sun, and saw sites which continued to haunt him sixty years later:

There was a private, a young boy, who sat at a very big birch tree … from his tummy his intestines were streaming  and he was crying, “Shoot me! Shoot me!” and everybody just ran past him. I had to stop – but I could not shoot him. And then a young lieutenant from the sappers came. He took off his headgear and gave him the ‘coup de gráce with a 7.65 into the temple. And that’s when I had to cry bitterly. I thought if his mother knew how her boy ended, and instead she gets a letter from the squadron saying, “Your son fell on the field for great Germany”.

In July 1944, the German Army on the Eastern Front lost nearly two hundred thousand men killed or wounded; in August it was nearly three hundred thousand.  In total, German losses as a result of Operation Bagration would be calculated at around 1.5 million. This was an unprecedented defeat for Hitler and his generals and was unparalleled by anything occurring in the same period on the Western Front. By comparison with the Western Allies, the Red Army had made rapid progress against the Wehrmacht, retaking Minsk, capital of Belarus, on 3 July. Fyodor Bubenchikov, a twenty-eight-year-old Red Army officer, remembered that…

… gradually the Germans were losing morale and losing their belief in victory; Germans no longer cried “Heil Hitler!” On the contrary, they were surrendering. They were crying: “Hitler kaputt!”

That summer, Bubenchikov said he felt as if he were “flying”, as did all the Red Army units engaged in the action, from the ordinary soldier to the commander. Operation Bagration, still not known as well in the West as it should be, marked the end of a transformation in the fortunes of the Red Army. The Soviets had managed to increase their manufacture of military equipment and were now out-performing the Germans. In both 1943 and 1944, they produced more tanks and self-propelled guns than their enemy. Added to the increased Soviet output, of course, were the benefits of aid from the Western Allies, the bulk of which came from the USA. Although this remained only a small percentage of the total equipment of the Red Army, it was important because of the superior technology it contributed. For example, the Studebaker US6 truck was used by the Red Army for launching of Katyusha rockets.

The Polish Dimension & Dilemma:

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But elsewhere in Eastern Europe, as the Red Army moved forward at speed, some of the people whose lives had been changed for the worse by this reoccupation of ‘Soviet territory’ were just beginning their new and bitter existence under an army which, for them at least, was far from being one of liberation. In the wake of the attack on German Army Group Centre in Operation Bagration, the Red Army moved forward into eastern Poland and mounted the Lwów-Sandomierz assault. This powerful thrust involved over a million Soviet soldiers of the first Ukranian front under Michael Konev. In July 1944, the Red Army approached Lwów, a city they had first seized in September 1939 in agreement with the Nazis. Anna Levitska, then a teenager living in the city recalled:

In 1944, when the Red Army came for a second time, it was, of course, worse, because we already had an idea of what the consequences might be, because of all the arrests there had been in 1939 and 1940. … So of course it was terrifying.

Anna also recalled one old man coming up to her and her family in 1944 saying, this is the second time. It was better the first time. When they asked him why, he replied: Because the first time, they came and they went. But this time when they come, there is no way they will be leaving. Vyacheslav Yablonsky was part of the great Soviet assault on Lwów that summer. But he was in no sense an ordinary soldier: as a member of an élite NKVD squad, he had a very specific role. Together with two dozen other members of the secret police, and a squad of Red Army soldiers, he entered Lwów just before the Germans retreated from the city. Travelling in American Studebaker trucks they plotted a route via the back streets of the city to the Gestapo headquarters. The location was familiar to them since the German Secret police had simply replaced the NKVD in the building, which had been used previously by the Austro-Hungarian intelligence agency.

The task facing Yablonsky and his comrades was straightforward but considered vital. They had to capture the headquarters before the Germans left, and steal intelligence information that their superiors hoped would reveal just who had been collaborating with the Nazis. They arrived just as the Nazis were packing their files into trucks. The Soviet force scaled the wall surrounding the Gestapo HQ, shot the German guards and prevented the trucks from leaving. Hurrying into the building, they made straight for the cellars, where they knew the intelligence files were stored. While the remaining Germans, panic-stricken, sought to escape, the NKVD swiftly made the building secure and started examining the files they had found. They then immediately sought out anyone whom the German documents had named as an informer. Yablonsky also relied on pro-Soviet informers to tell him who had been collaborating with the Germans or was simply ‘anti-Soviet’. Once arrested for making comments against the Soviet occupation, like that of the old man above, the ‘normal’ sentence was fifteen years hard labour. Looking back over sixty years later, he commented:

Now I think it was cruel, but at that time, when I was young, … twenty-three years old, I didn’t. … Now I understand that it’s cruel because I’m older. I don’t think it was a very democratic time. Now you can say anything, but at that time you couldn’t. At that time most things were censored and nobody could say anything bad about the Soviet Union and I’m proud I was part of it and brave enough to go through the war and not let my country down.

Soldiers like Yablonsky believed they were reclaiming Lwów as a part of Soviet territory, which should never be surrendered again. It was members of the underground Polish Home Army who were some of the first to comprehend this dispiriting truth. These were the volunteer soldiers who had remained hidden under the Nazi occupation, waiting for the moment to strike back, and they played an important part in the battle for Lwów. Around three thousand soldiers led by Colonel Wladyslaw Filipowski had supported the Red Army during the fierce fighting that had lasted from 23 to 27 July. But once the battle was won the Soviets arrested the officers and forced the ordinary soldiers to join units of the Red Army. In parallel with the elimination of the underground Polish Home Army, the Soviet authorities immediately sought to re-establish the institutions of control that they had created during their first occupation. Anna Levitska remembered how…

They organised schools according to their own system. It was obligatory that every student belonged to the Young Communists. And, of course, there were no religious classes. Just those lectures on atheism. And studying the history of the Communist Party was obligatory. The fundamentals of Marxism-Leninism – those were the main subjects. We felt betrayed because we had hoped that the West would react differently. … We were even hoping that England and France (would help us), but that didn’t happen.

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On 26 July 1944, while the battle for Lwów still raged, at Perugia in Italy Lieutenant General Anders (above) was presented to King George VI. Wladyslaw Anders was the commander of the Polish II Corps in the British Army. He had successfully negotiated the release of thousands of his fellow Polish soldiers from the Soviet Union. The British monarch had flown to Italy under the pseudonym, ‘General Collingwood’ in order to congratulate Allied forces on their progress there. During dinner, he listened to the regimental band of the II Polish Army Corps and remarked that he found one song particularly attractive. He was told that the song was called, And if I ever have to be born again, then let it happen only in Lwów. But two days later, on 28 July, the Soviets transferred to Chem in Poland a collection of little-known Polish politicians from exile in the Soviet Union. They were to form a puppet government in western Poland, a territory that he had never claimed as belonging to the Soviet Union. This group of collaborators, officially called the Polish Committee of National Liberation, later known as the Lublin Poles after the city they moved to in early August 1945, had declared in a ‘manifesto’ issued in Moscow on 2 July that they were in favour of leftist policies such as nationalisation, as well as a ‘fair’ border with the Soviet Union, which actually meant the ‘Curzon Line’. As far as they, and their Soviet masters were concerned, they were now the ‘de facto’ government of ‘liberated’ Poland. Nikolai Bulganin, a leading member of the Soviet State Committee of Defence, was sent from Moscow to be Stalin’s representative to the puppet Polish government, which effectively reported to him.

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Of course, the imposition on Poland of a régime controlled by Stalin was not something that either the Western Allies or the official Polish government in exile could accept. The situation was further complicated by the presence of four hundred thousand members of the Polish underground, the Armia Krajowa (Home Army) who, though disarmed by the Red Army, owed their allegiance to the government in exile in London. Also that July, the Home Army units that had helped the Soviets to capture Vilnius were disbanded, the officers arrested and the men sent off to join collaborating Polish units within the Red Army. It was against this background that the focus of all the various competing parties turned to the fate of the capital, Warsaw, which rose up against the German occupiers in the summer and early autumn of 1944, exposing to the world the tensions and conflicts within the Allied ‘camp’ which Churchill, Roosevelt and their respective propaganda machines tried so hard to hide.

As Andrew Roberts has written, the war had to be won by the Allies, of course, but it also needed to be lost, as it was, comprehensively and personally, by Hitler himself, both in the West and the East. It is doubtful, however, if the death of Hitler in the summer of 1944, would have shortened the war. Before June 1944, Germany had wreaked far more damage on the Allies than they had inflicted on Germany. If Himmler had taken over and not made the many strategic blunders perpetrated by Hitler in the final months, Germany might even have fought on for longer. A negotiated peace would have let the German people off the hook, although it would have saved millions of lives in Europe, including those who fell victim to the Nazis ‘Final Solution’ conducted by Hitler and Eichmann right up to the very final months of the war, drawing vital troops and resources away from the front lines. Besides, to have concluded an armistice on the demonstrable fallacy that the war was begun and carried on by one man’s will, rather than through the wholehearted support and enthusiasm of the German people, would hardly have produced the most durable and profound period of peace Europe has ever known.

The Race Against the Rockets & Operation Cobra:

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Above: The Liberation of Europe, January 1944-March 1945.

On 24 July 1944, Churchill had warned his War Cabinet that Rockets may start any minute, referring to the Germans’ wonder-weapon, the supersonic V-2 missile. Its sister-weapon, the V-1 flying bomb, had been terrorising southern England for six weeks, even though fifty-eight of the ninety-two V-1 launching sites had been damaged. After receiving an encouraging report on the Normandy campaign, Churchill also reported on his trip to Cherbourg, Arromanches and Caen during the previous three days, saying that he…

Saw great many troops – never seen such a happy army – magnificent looking army – only want good weather. Had long talks with M (Montgomery) … frightful bombing of Caen … remarkable clearing of mines in Cherbourg harbour. 

Admiral Cunningham wrote in his diary that Churchill was full of his visit to France and was more inclined to talk than to listen. But, in contrast with Hitler, the British PM was capable of listening to, and even asking for, news and advice which was unpalatable. After the Bomb Plot, Hitler became highly suspicious of the veracity of what his generals told him, suspecting that many more had actually been involved than those discovered, and than in fact had been. By 24 July, the Allies had lost 112,000 men killed, wounded or captured in France, to the Germans’ losses of 114,000, including forty-one thousand taken prisoner. The more competent and aggressive General Günther von Kluge, who had recovered from injuries sustained in Russia, took over from Rundstedt and Rommel on 17 July.

‘Overlord’ having ended, the next phase of the invasion was known as Operation Cobra and was intended to break out from the linked beach-heads and strike south and east into central France. The ‘hinge’ was to be the British Second and Canadian First Armies in the area east of Caen, which kept the main weight of the German Army occupied while bold thrusts were made cross-country by Omar Bradley’s US First Army and General Patton’s US Third Army. The Allied offensive began with the carpet bombing of Saint-Ló and areas to the west of it in which 4,200 tons of high explosive were dropped by Spaatz’s heavy bombers. Despite Hitler giving Kluge some of the Fifteenth Army’s divisions on 27 July, the Americans poured forward through gaps in the German defences created by the bombing, and by the end of the month, Collins’ VII Corps had taken Avranches. This allowed US forces to attack westwards into Brittany and eastwards towards Le Mans, proving the value of Patton’s eve-of-battle observation to his Third Army that flanks are something for the enemy to worry about, not us.

The Warsaw Conundrum:

Of all the myths that would grow up around the Warsaw Uprising, the most prevalent was that the Poles had been lured into insurrection by direct blandishments and promises of assistance from the Soviets. But although it’s certainly true that radio broadcasts were made at the end of July under Soviet auspices that encouraged the people of Warsaw to believe that liberation was near, it is not true that this was a direct attempt by the Soviet military to agree on a joint attack on the Polish capital with the Home Army. The appeals were much less specific. On 29 July, for instance, Radio Moscow announced that, for Warsaw…

… the hour of action has already arrived… those who have never bowed their heads to the Hitlerite power will again, as in 1939, join the struggle against the Germans, this time for a decisive action.

In addition, a broadcast from a Soviet-authorised radio station the following day announced that Soviet forces were approaching and were coming ‘to bring you freedom’. But this fell far short of a direct instruction to the Home Army to rise up in Warsaw in a coordinated way in order to link up with the advancing Red Army. So far, it was all just encouraging rhetoric. The Home Army in Warsaw, together with the Polish government in exile in London, faced a difficult political dilemma. They knew that if they did nothing, and the Red Army liberated Warsaw before they could rise up, then the Soviets would be in a far stronger position to dictate the terms of a post-war settlement. On the other hand, if the Home Army rose up long before the Soviets arrived, then they would be annihilated by the Germans. The timing of any rising was therefore crucial. Obviously, it was critically important to try to coordinate any rising with the imminent arrival of the Red Army. But the distrust between the two sides was so great that this was the one thing that the Polish government in exile did not feel able to do. On 26 July, the leader of the Poles in London, Prime Minister Stanislaw Mikolajczyk, authorised the Home Army in Warsaw to pronounce the Rising at a time to be determined by you. But this was an instruction which went directly against the advice of the Polish commander-in-chief in London who had argued that:

Insurrection without a fair understanding with the USSR and honest and real cooperation with the Red Army would be politically unjustified and militarily nothing more than an act of despair.

Mikolajczyk knew better than most that the Warsaw Uprising could not succeed without the practical assistance of the Allies, but he decided that it was best to approve the insurrection first and then, effectively as a ‘fait accompli’, to push for cooperation. He ought to have known beforehand that this was a strategy which was doomed to failure with Stalin. Mikolajczyk was only forty-three, though he had been active in the Polish Peasants’ Party since the 1920s. He travelled to Moscow to meet Stalin after authorising the uprising on 30 July before it had been launched. Nonetheless, the commander of the Home Army in Warsaw had already ordered ‘W’ hour, the launch of the uprising, to take place (without notifying the Soviets beforehand) at 5 p.m. on 1 August. He was aware that not only were the Red Army closing on Warsaw but that on 27 July the Germans had called for a hundred thousand Polish civilians to surrender themselves to help build the capital’s defences. The Home Army was, quite naturally, suspicious of this German order and urged people not to come forward. It thus made sense to the leaders of the Polish resistance to start the uprising at this moment. It was a huge gamble, of course. In Moscow, Mikolajczyk urgently needed to obtain an agreement from Stalin that the Red Army would help the insurgents in Warsaw. Unfortunately, both for him personally and the Home Army generally, Stalin did not see it that way. Besides the fact that he did not recognise the government-in-exile, his commanders were trying to break the power of the Home Army in the sections of Poland that the Red Army had ‘liberated’ so far.

Although the Marshal realised that it would be seen as offensive by his Allies for him to refuse to meet the London Poles, he also knew that he was under no obligation to be accommodating when he did meet them. They were treated with great rudeness from the moment of their arrival, snubbed at the airport, and then told that Stalin was ‘too busy’ to see them. Meanwhile, Churchill was giving a relatively upbeat assessment of the situation in the House of Commons. He talked of having done ‘our best’ to get Stalin to receive the Polish PM, pointing out that the Russian Armies… bring the liberation of Poland in their hands while we have several gallant Polish divisions fighting the Germans in our Armies. Now, he said, Let them come together. But a necessary precondition of this togetherness, he went on to say, was the old proviso that there should be a Poland friendly to Russia. Given the gulf between the Polish government in exile, who regarded the Lublin Poles as Stalin’s stooges, and Stalin himself, who had asserted that the London Poles were Nazi collaborators, Churchill’s Commons statement was wishful thinking to say the very least. When Molotov met the London Poles on 31 July he simply asked, Why have you come? He suggested that they should meet with the Lublin Poles instead. They didn’t manage to get an audience with the Soviet leader until the evening of 3 August, by which time, of course, the rising was already in progress and lightly armed Poles were dying on the streets of Warsaw, desperately in need of help.

(to be continued… )

Sources:

Andrew Roberts (2009), The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War. London: Penguin Books.

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

Posted June 9, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in Agriculture, American History & Politics, Anglo-Saxons, anti-Communist, Austria-Hungary, BBC, Belgium, Berlin, Britain, British history, Canada, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Churchill, Cold War, Commemoration, Communism, Conquest, Conservative Party, democracy, Ethnicity, Europe, France, George VI, Germany, History, Holocaust, Italy, Jews, liberal democracy, manufacturing, Marxism, Monarchy, Mythology, Narrative, nationalism, Nationality, Paris, Population, Remembrance, Second World War, Technology, terror, tyranny, United Kingdom, USA, USSR, World War Two

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Commemorating the Centenary of the End of The Great War: Part Two – Poetry, Remembrance & History.   Leave a comment

The Trauma of the War in the Twenties and Thirties:

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The traumatic effects of loss were also clearly visible on many inter-war politicians like Neville Chamberlain (seen here, on the right, in 1923, as the new Minister of Health and Local Government) and Anthony Eden, who on one occasion, had once sorted through a heap of dead bodies to identify them.

Like Chamberlain, Prime Minister in 1936-40, most Britons feared a repetition of the First World War, so the psychological trauma resulting from the sacrifices that it eventually involved was of a different order and type, including the fear of aerial bombing. As Arthur Marwick wrote on the fiftieth anniversary of the Armistice, all war is…

… a matter of loss and gain: loss of life and limb and capital; gain of territory, indemnities and trade concessions. War is the supreme challenge to, and test of, a country’s military institutions, and, in a war of any size, a challenge to its social, political and economic institutions as well. War needs someone to do the fighting, and someone to furnish the weapons and food: those who participate in the war effort have to be rewarded. … War is one of the most intense emotional experiences… in which human beings as members of a community can be involved.

Arthur Marwick referred to a cluster of ‘sociological factors’ among the causes of the First World War, and historians have identified a similar set of causes of the Second World War, resulting from the effects of the First. What they had in mind were the psychological effects of the First World War, firstly the universal detestation and horror of war, and secondly the breakdown of accepted liberal values, a process which J. M. Roberts described as the shaking of liberal society.  In western Europe in the 1920s, this was a very real and painful process, working itself out into identifiable social, cultural and political effects. T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) was a lament on the decadence of Western civilisation in which society had become ‘a heap of broken images’, a stained-glass window shattered into countless pieces that his poem attempted to put back together. The powerful wave of patriotism which had propelled Britain and France into the War had gone, and there was nothing to replace it.

C. E. Montague, a noted leader writer and critic for the Manchester Guardian was forty-seven when he enlisted in 1914, dying his grey hair to persuade the recruiting sergeant. After his return to England, he became disillusioned with the war and, in 1922, published Disenchantment, which prefigured much later critical writing about the war. He wrote of how, on 7 December 1918, two British privates of 1914, now captains attached to the staff, crossed the cathedral square in Cologne and gained their first sight of the Rhine, which had been the physical goal of effort, the term of endurance, the symbol of attainment and rest. Although the cease-fire order on Armistice Day had forbidden all fraternising…

… any man who has fought with a sword, or its equivalent, knows more about that than the man who blows the trumpet. To men who for years have lived like foxes or badgers, dodging their way from each day of being alive to the next, there comes back more easily, after a war, a tacit league that must, in mere decency, bind all those who cling precariously to life … Not everybody, not even every non-combatant in the dress of a soldier, had caught that shabby epidemic of spite. But it was rife. 

At the end of the 1920s, there was a spate of publications on the First World War. For example, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That (1929) and Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War (1929) had an important impact, and it was perhaps only in this 1929-35 period that the experience of the war was for the first time fully realised and digested. Allied to this growing ‘pacifism’ was a deep dislike for the old pre-1914 balance of power and alliance system, which many believed had brought about the war in 1914. The resulting loss of identity left the two Western democracies extremely vulnerable to attacks from the extreme right and extreme left at home and abroad. Just as in the approach to 1914, the ‘will to war’, so well exemplified in the literature of the time, helped to mould a climate of opinion in favour of war, so in the 1920s and 1930s a ‘will to peace’ developed which marked opinion in Britain, France and the United States which prevented an effective response to the threats posed by Italy, Germany and Japan.

In the 1930s, too, the writer Arthur Mee identified thirty-two villages in England and Wales that had not lost a man in the First World War. They were known as the “Thankful Villages”. In every other parish, there were widows, orphans and grieving parents; it is not an exaggeration to say that every family in the British Isles was affected, if not by the loss of a husband, son or brother, then by the death, wounds or gassing of someone near to them. And most of this slaughter had taken place in Europe, the birthplace of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and, in recent centuries at least, the world’s leading continent in science, medicine and philosophy. Something was still missing in the thirties, along with the lost generation of young men, who by then would have been husbands and fathers. Just as it took families years to assimilate their traumatic losses, so the nation took decades to do the same, as has been shown by America’s more recent struggle to come to terms with the Vietnam War. Then, at a moment when Europe might finally have comprehended the events of 1914-18, it found itself at war again.

The breakdown of accepted liberal values left Britain and France in a defensive, introspective state, ill-equipped to respond to the challenge of Fascism. But when the Nazis tried to bully and intimidate Europe into submission, it made people look at the war of 1914-18 in a new light. Somehow Hitler’s actions made the motives of the Germany of 1914 seem clearer and the First World War seem more justifiable. It also made the death of all those young men in the earlier war seem all the more tragic, since the Allied politicians of 1918-39 had thrown away what little the soldiers had gained. But the revulsion from war was so strong that although public opinion in Britain and France was changing after 1936, it took a series of German and Italian successes to bring about the fundamental shift in opinion which manifested itself after Hitler’s Prague coup on 14 March 1939.  Even then, the Manchester Guardian reported on 2 August that year, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War,  that a Nazi party newspaper had compared the economic situation then with the 1 August 1914, arriving at the conclusion that the western powers were not in as good a position as they had been twenty-five years previously.

Herbert Read (1893-1968) expressed some of these confused feelings in his poem, To a conscript of 1940, which he wrote soon after the beginning of the Second World War, as the title suggests. In an unusual mood he argues that the bravest soldier is the one who does not really expect to achieve anything:

TO A CONSCRIPT OF 1940

“Qui n’a pas une fois désepéré de l’honneur, ne sera jamais un heros” – Georges Bernanos (“He who has never once given up hope will never be a hero”).

 

A soldier passed me in the freshly-fallen snow,

His footsteps muffled, his face unearthly grey;

And my heart gave a sudden leap

As I gazed on a ghost of five-and-twenty years ago.

 

I shouted Halt! and my voice had the old accustomed ring

And he obeyed it as it was obeyed

In the shrouded days when I too was one

Of an army of young men marching

 

Into the unknown. He turned towards me and I said:

‘I am one of those who went before you

Five-and-twenty years ago: one of the many who never returned,

Of the many who returned and yet were dead.

 

We went where you are going, into the rain and mud;

We fought as you will fight

With death and darkness and despair;

We gave what you will give -our brains and our blood. 

 

We think we gave in vain. The world was not renewed.

There was hope in the homestead and anger in the streets

But the old world was restored and we returned

To the dreary field and workshop, and the immemorial feud

 

Of rich and poor. Our victory was our defeat.

Power was retained where powerhad been misused

And youth was left to sweep away

The ashes that the fires had strewn beneath our feet.

 

But one thing we learned: there is no glory in the deed

Until the soldier wears a badge of tarnish’d braid;

There are heroes who have heard the rally and have seen

The glitter of a garland round their head.

 

Theirs is the hollow victory. They are deceived. 

But you, my brother and my ghost. If you can go

Knowing that there is no reward, no certain use

In all your sacrifice, then honour is reprieved.

 

To fight without hope is to fight with grace,

The self reconstructed, the false heart repaired.’

Then I turned with a smile, and he answered my salute

As he stood against the fretted hedge, which was like white lace. 

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A column from the East Yorkshire Regiment marches into battle.

Read was born at Kirbymoorside, in the remote eastern hills of the North Riding of Yorkshire in 1893. He earned his living for some years as a bank clerk in Leeds, before becoming a student of law at Leeds University. He joined the Yorkshire Regiment, the Green Howards, from the University Officers’ Training Corps. He fought in France for three years with the regiment and won the MC and the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). He wrote many important books on prose style, art appreciation and other cultural topics. As a poet, he was a consistent admirer of the Imagists, who revolted against what they saw as the unreal poetic language of the Georgians, making use of precise, vital images. He wrote most of his poetry in the 1930s by which time the Imagists had achieved wide acceptance.

In Memorium – Unknown & ‘Missing’ Warriors:

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At the end of the war, the Empire’s death-roll had reached 900,000. More than two million were wounded. And it was only in January 1919 that another man died as the result of a bullet wound received in France in 1918, perhaps the last of the war dead. On Armistice Day, 1920, George V unveiled the Cenotaph, the “empty tomb”. It took the place of the temporary memorial that had been erected for the Peace celebrations in July 1919 (pictured above); Sir Edward Lutyens, who designed it, deliberately omitted any religious symbol because the men it commemorated were of all creeds and none. The concept of ‘ The Unknown Warrior’ was first suggested by J. B. Wilson, the News Editor of the Daily Express in the issue of 16 September 1919. He wrote:

Shall an unnamed British hero be brought from a battlefield in France and buried beneath the Cenotaph in Whitehall?  

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The suggestion was adopted, but Westminster Abbey, not Whitehall, was chosen as the resting place. Early in November 1920, the bodies of six unknown men, killed in action at each of the four battles of Aisne, the Somme, Arras and Ypres were brought to a hut at St. Pol, near Arras. The Unknown Warrior who was to receive an Empire’s homage was chosen by an officer who, with closed eyes, rested his hand on one of the six coffins. This was the coffin which was brought to England and taken to Westminster Abbey where it was placed in the tomb of the Unknown Warrior on 11 November, in a service following the unveiling of the Cenotaph by King George V (shown above). The tomb was built as a permanent tribute to those soldiers who have no named gravestone. France, the USA and Italy also created similar memorials.

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Just before midday on 10 November, HMS Verdun, with an escort of six destroyers, left Boulogne with the Unknown Warrior. The destroyer Vendetta met them half-way with its White Ensign astern at half-mast.

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A Hundred sandbags filled with earth from France were sent over for the grave of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey. The porters pictured below (left) reloaded the earth at Victoria Station. George V placed a wreath on the coffin (pictured right below), which rested on the gun carriage that took it from the Cenotaph to Westminster Abbey.

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Each evening at 8 p.m. traffic is stopped at the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres for a ceremony where the Last Post is played. This bugle call was played at the end of each ‘normal’ day in the British Army but has taken on a deeper significance at remembrance services as a final farewell to the dead. The commemoration has taken place every evening (apart from during the Second World War) since 1928. The Memorial displays the names of 54,415 Commonwealth soldiers who died at Ypres and have no known grave. In 2018, a bugle found among the possessions of Wilfred Owen went on display at the Imperial War Museum. He removed it from the body of one of the men in his battalion who was killed in action before he was in 1918. British and South African soldiers numbering 72,203 who died at the Somme with no known grave are commemorated at the Thiepval Memorial within the site of the battlefield. A programme of building memorials and cemeteries had begun straight after the war, and there were soon over fifty-four thousand of them throughout the United Kingdom. Every sizeable village and town possesses one, at which wreaths of poppies are laid every Remembrance Sunday. The Newburgh War Memorial in Fife bears the names of seventy-six men from this small Scottish town who were killed. Their names are listed below:

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Because of the way men were recruited in 1914, in “pals’ battalions” drawn from particular towns and villages, some of these lost almost their entire population of young men. In these places, there was also almost an entire generation of women of widows and ‘spinsters of this parish’ who never married.

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The events of 1939-45 were commemorated more vigorously and immediately – in cinema and Boys’ Own narrative and, over a longer period and to a different end, by the persistence of Jewish community leaders and historians.

By the 1960s, a new generation began to look at the First World War in a new way. It was not the living memory of the First World War that had gone missing (there were, after all, plenty of not-very-old men alive to talk about it – as many did, to the BBC for its series in 1964); it was more that there did not seem to be a way of thinking clearly about it. The poetry of Ted Hughes expressed the spirit that also made books and plays and television programmes about the First World War fashionable in 1964. Hughes found in its soldiers’ admirable qualities a positive vitality and a violent power that he found lacking in modern urban life. At the same time, he believed in the essential goodness of our powerful instinctive impulses. It was in that sense that he found the war exciting, too different from the tragedies of nuclear warfare to be recognizable as the same thing. He once said that what excited his imagination was the war between vitality and death.

In the fifty years that had elapsed since Wilfred Owen’s death, his poems and those of Sassoon appealed to a smaller public than those of Brooke, but they did retain a degree of popularity. Then, in the sixties, their literary reputation grew steadily in the eyes of critics and scholars alongside their increasing popularity with the common reader. There were two reasons for this: firstly, in 1964 the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of war in 1914 triggered off a series of books, television programmes and stage shows that made the First World War a fashionable topic; secondly, the war in Vietnam seemed to repeat some of the features of the earlier war, such as its lack of military movement, and its static horrors for the private soldier.

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The first performance of Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop production of Oh! What a Lovely War took place just before the fiftieth anniversary, at The Theatre Royal, Stratford East, on 19 March 1963, and then transferred to Wyndham’s Theatre, London in June of that year. In 1964 it transferred to Broadway. The original idea for the musical came from Gerry Raffles, Littlewood’s partner. He had heard a BBC radio programme about the songs of the First World War and thought it would be a good idea to bring these songs to the stage to show the post-World War Two generation that war was not the thing of glory that it was being presented as, at that time. Over a period of time, four writers were commissioned to write a script, but Raffles and Littlewood were unhappy with all of them and decided to give the acting company the task of researching into aspects of the War and then working these into improvised sketches that referenced the findings of that research. Joan Littlewood’s original production was designed to resemble an ‘end of pier’ show,  the sort of seaside variety in the style of music hall entertainment which was popular in late Victorian and Edwardian times. To this end, all her cast members wore Pierrot costumes and none wore ‘khaki’ because, as Littlewood herself put it, war is only for clowns. She was an exponent of ‘agitprop’, a method of spreading political propaganda through popular media such as literature, plays and films.

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A world war was not something that most of Littlewood’s younger audiences had experienced directly, except perhaps as very young children, though many were familiar with it through the experiences and stories of parents and grandparents, and would also have heard many of the songs used in the show. The ‘music hall’ or ‘variety show’ format was still familiar to many through the new medium of television, and the play was designed to emphasise that the war was about ordinary individuals who chose to wear the emblems of their country and make the ultimate sacrifice for it. From a historical standpoint, however, the play tended to recycle popular preconceptions and myths which all effective propaganda is based on. As a satirical ‘knees-up’ it seemed to acknowledge that the remembrance of the First World War had reached a cultural cul-de-sac. As a play which is designed to reflect the impact of the horror of modern warfare on the everyday life of the private soldier, it has its strengths as well as its limitations.

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Joan Littlewood, one of the most radical voices in British theatre in the sixties.

The villains of the piece are, clearly, the non-combatant officer classes, including the generals and the myth of ‘lions led by donkeys’ is one of the key themes of the play, but this has now been widely debunked by historians. Nevertheless, the First World War was, for the most part, a war of attrition in which huge numbers of men had to pay the ultimate price for military mistakes and minimal gains. In this sense, the play still does a useful job in encouraging audiences to consider for themselves the human cost of war and its impact on individuals. In 1969, Richard Attenborough marked his debut as a film director with his version of the play and, although most of the songs and two scenes from the play remain, the film version bears very little resemblance to the original concept. Despite its stellar cast, many see the film as a travesty of the stage show.

The Last Casualty on the Western Front:

On 11 August 1998, almost eighty years after the armistice, Lieutenant Corporal Mike Watkins of the Royal Logistics Corps was killed when a tunnel he was investigating at Vimy Ridge collapsed.  Watkins had been a bomb disposal expert in Northern Ireland and the Falklands and had carried out work left under First World War battle sites. As far as we know, he was the last casualty of that great conflict.

The Verdict of Historians – Finding a Language of Understanding and Remembrance:

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After a hundred years of commemorating the Great War, it may be that, belatedly, we have found a language and a way of understanding, or at least remembering in an informed and enlightened way, the real and diverse experiences of those lost legions. This has emerged from a dispute about what exactly, a hundred years on, we should actually be commemorating. The silence of the mid-twentieth century meant that, in the popular imagination, the witness of the poets loomed larger than some historians thought it warranted. One of Wilfred Owen’s best poems, by critical acclaim, was entitled Futility, but its use as a by-word for the First World War in popular culture has irked ‘revisionist’ historians. To put the debate at its simplest: on the one hand, there is a vein of literary writing that began with Owen and presents the experience of the War as so terrible, so unprecedented and so depressing that it stands outside the normal considerations of history. Professional historians disagree with this, and narratives influenced by this belief, including recent novels such as Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy and Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, are viewed by some historians as having failed to do justice to the average soldier’s devotion to what he believed, wrongly or rightly, to be a just cause.

As Britain began to gear itself up for the centenary commemorations in about 2012, a group of historians, including Margaret MacMillan, Max Hastings, Gary Sheffield and Hew Strachan, who disagree on many points, agreed on one purpose: that Britain should be weaned from its dependence on the “poets’ view”. They argued that the fact is that the majority of the British public supported the war and that Wilfred Owen went to his grave a week before the armistice with an MC for conspicuous bravery in pursuit of the justice of the cause he signed up for. The historians of the First World War also argued that idea that great powers “sleepwalked” into war is a misinterpretation: German militarism and expansionism needed to be curbed, and a war between Britain and Germany over the control of the seas became inevitable after the German invasion of Belgium and its threat to the Channel ports.

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Writing in the Sunday Times on 11 November 2018, Niall Ferguson (pictured above) seems to take issue with this view. He pointed out that to his generation (also mine) the First World War was ‘not quite history’. His grandfather, John Ferguson had joined up at the age of seventeen and fought on the western front as a private in the Seaforth Highlanders. He was one of the lucky ones who survived and returned, though not unscarred. He was shot through the shoulder by a German sniper. He also survived a gas attack, though his lungs suffered permanent damage. His most vivid recollection was of a German attack. As the enemy advanced towards them, he and his comrades were preparing for the order to go over the top, fixing bayonets, when at the last moment the command was given to another regiment instead. So heavy were that regiment’s casualties, that John Ferguson felt sure that he would have been killed if it had been the Seaforth’s turn. A fact that never fails to startle his grandson was that of the 722,785 men from the United Kingdom who did not come back alive, just under half were aged between sixteen and twenty-four.

Niall Ferguson has argued that the current generation of seventeen-year-olds is exposed to a different sort of enemy – ‘dangerous nonsense’ about the First World War. In the run-up to the Centenary Commemorations, he encountered four examples of this. The first of these he summarises as the view that… despite the enormous sacrifices of life … the war was worth fighting. Ferguson argues that an unprepared Britain would have been better off staying out or at least delaying its intervention. He counters with ten points that he would like all his children to understand in terms of what happened to their great-grandfather’s generation. First of all, the war was not “for civilisation”, as claimed on John Ferguson’s Victory Medal. It was a war for predominance between the six great European empires – the British, the French and the Russian against the German, the Austrian and the Ottoman. It broke out because all the leaders miscalculated that the costs of inaction would exceed the costs of war.

It was also a myth, he claims, that the war was fought mainly by infantrymen going ‘over the top’. It was fought mainly by artillery, shellfire causing 75% of casualties. The war-winning weapons were not poison gas or tanks so much as the improvements in artillery tactics, especially the ‘creeping barrage’ in the final offensive. Neither were the Germans doomed to lose. By mid-1917 the French were finished as an attacking force and German U-boats were sinking frightening numbers of the ships supplying Britain. With Russia consumed by Revolution, a German victory seemed possible as late as the spring of 1918. Certainly, their allies in the Triple Alliance were weak: Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria. Their excessive use of submarine welfare in the Atlantic made American intervention likely. Fifthly, the Germans were at a massive disadvantage in economic terms. The Entente empires were bigger, the powers had bigger economies and budgets, and greater access to credit. However, the Germans were superior in killing or capturing their opponents. Overall, the Central Powers killed 35% more men than they lost, and their average cost of killing an enemy soldier was roughly a third of the other side’s.

According to Ferguson, the Germans ultimately lost because the British Army proved more resilient than theirs. Men such as John Ferguson simply would not give up, despite all the hardships they had to endure. Both patriotism and propaganda played a part in this, as did military discipline, but it also mattered that British officers were generally competent; that the average Tommy’s lot was made bearable by plentiful “plonk” and “fags”; that, despite high casualties, the bonds between “pals’ and “mates” endured. An eighth point he cites is that the German Army eventually fell apart during the summer and autumn of 1918 when it became clear that the resilience of Entente forces, bolstered by the arrival of the US troops made a German victory impossible. Beginning with the Battle of Amiens (8-11 August), the Germans lost the will to fight on and began to surrender in droves. Finally, the pandemonium with which the war ended with a series of revolutions and rebellions also brought about the disintegration of the great multi-ethnic empires, with only the Saxe-Coburgs surviving from among the royal dynasties of Europe. Communism seemed as unstoppable as the influenza pandemic which killed four times as many people as the war had.

In an article printed on the same day, Daniel Johnson echoes earlier historians in arguing that the Great War marked the moment when the nations of Europe first grasped the true meaning of total war. Every man, woman and child felt its effects. Johnson’s grandfather, an artist and teacher, never fully recovered from his service on the western front, where he was wounded three times and gassed twice. Most British families, he points out, had terrible stories to tell from the Great War. It afflicted not only those who fought and died, but also those who returned and those who remained behind. No-one who survived the slaughter could ever abide empty jingoistic slogans again. Conscription meant that one in four British men served in the forces, a far higher proportion than ever before. Almost everyone else was involved in the war effort in some way, and of the twenty million who died on both sides, there were as many civilians as soldiers. Women played a huge role everywhere, with the war finally settling the debate about women’s suffrage, although the vote was only granted to those with their own property, aged thirty and over.

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Australian troops at the Battle of Passchendaele, 1917

Sebastian Faulks first visited the Somme battlefield some thirty years ago. He was walking in a wood on Thiepval Ridge when he came across a shell casing. This thing is still alive, he thought, if you care to look. He went over to the huge Lutyens stone memorial and looked at the names of the lost – not the dead, who are buried in the nearby cemeteries, but of the British and Empire men of whom no trace was ever found, their names reeling up overhead, like footnotes on the sky. He wondered what it had felt like to be a nineteen-year-old in a volunteer battalion on 30 June 1916, waiting and trusting that the seven-day artillery bombardment had cut the German wire; not knowing you were about to walk into a wall of machine gun fire, with almost sixty thousand casualties on 1 July alone. He wondered if one day the experience of these youngsters might be better understood and valued.

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Gary Sheffield, Professor of War Studies at Wolverhampton University, believes that the Second World War was not an inevitable result of the ‘futile’ failures of the First. Rather, he thinks the two wars should be viewed as instalments of the same battle against German militarism, and that that struggle, in turn, should be seen in the longer perspective of European bloodshed going back through the Napoleonic campaigns to the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-48. The ‘poet’s view’ was epitomised by Henry James, who wrote that to see the static carnage of the Western Front as what the long years of European civilisation had all along been leading up to was “too sad for any words”. By contrast, the revisionist historian’s view is that the 1914-18 war was just another if egregious episode in Europe’s long-established and incurable bloodlust.

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But the public appetite for commemoration has been spectacular, and diverse over the past four years, in non-poetic ways. The Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) has awarded a hundred million to more than two thousand local community projects in which more than 9.4 million people have taken part. In addition, the efforts of 14-18 Now, which has commissioned work by contemporary artists during the four-year period, has led to the popular installations of the nationwide poppies tour, Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red by Paul Cummins and Tom Piper, among other initiatives. Meanwhile, Philip Dolling, head of BBC events, reported that 82% of adult Britons had watched or heard some BBC Great War centenary programme, of whom 83% claimed to have learnt something. His colleague, Jane Ellison, thought the BBC’s greatest success had been with young audiences, helping them to see that the soldiers were not sepia figures from ‘history’, but young people just like them.

In researching for Birdsong, Faulks read thousands of letters, diaries and documents in the reading room of the Imperial War Museum. He remembered a buff file that came up from the basement, containing the papers of a private soldier on the Somme in June 1916. “There is going to be a big push,” one letter began, “and we are all excited. Don’t worry about me. Thumbs up and trusting to the best of luck.” Like most such letters, it was chiefly concerned with reassuring the people at home. But towards the end, the writer faltered.  “Please give my best love to Ma, Tom and the babies. You have been the best of brothers to me.” Then he gathered himself: “Here’s hoping it is au revoir and not goodbye!” But he had obviously not been able to let it go, and had written a PS diagonally across the bottom, “Don’t worry about me, I’ll be OK!” There was nothing after it in the file except a telegram of condolence from the king.

Ordinary men had been given a voice by the Education Act of 1870, providing them with an elementary schooling to the age of thirteen. Their witness was literate, poignant, but not ‘poetic’. It was authentic, unprecedented and, until recently, largely overlooked. But over the last forty years, they have been heard. Scholars of all kinds, editors, journalists and publishers have read, shared and reprinted their accounts; and the local activities funded through the HLF have uncovered innumerable different stories. They had not been missing; they were there all along, waiting to be discovered by ‘people’s remembrancers’. Faulks writes convincingly about their contribution:

The experience of the First World War was most valuably recorded not by historians or commanders, but by the butcher, the baker and candlestick maker. In what you can now discover in archives or online, there is no party line or school of thought. It was difficult to know how to value all this material, because what had been experienced for the first time by civilian-soldiers was not just any war… but the greatest bloodbath the world had ever seen. It was simply indigestible.

You cannot travel far in the history of war, especially 1914-18, before you stray into anthropology. What kind of creature could do these things? During the past hundred years, it is perhaps not only the events of 1914-18 but the nature of warfare and the human animal itself with which we have to grapple. That is the buried legacy of Kitchener’s citizen army.

Perhaps that is not just an anthropological question either, but a theological one, which is where the poets still make a valuable contribution. They also wrote letters, like those of Wilfred Owen as well as Roland Leighton and Vera Brittain, in which they questioned their hitherto-held beliefs in fundamental human goodness. Therefore the poets’ view is reconcilable with that of the ‘revisionist’ historians. Interestingly, in his ‘afterword’ to a recent new collection of war poetry in 2003, on the eve of the Iraq War, Andrew Motion wrote that Wilfred Owen had shown how it was still possible for war poets to celebrate individual acts of courage and to commemorate losses, but not to glorify conflict as such. Owen’s maxim, true poets must be truthful, Motion maintained, had held firm through the years, even in wars which are generally considered ‘just’, such as the Second World War. It also applied even more in the case of Holocaust commemoration poems and to Vietnam, or the Gulf War of 1990, or, we might add, to the wars in former Yugoslavia. ‘Pity’ and ‘truthfulness’ remain the crucial ingredients even – or especially – when the realities of war are blurred by euphemisms, such as ‘friendly fire’ or ‘collateral damage’. The best war poets, he argued…

… react to their experience of war, rather than simply acting in response to its pressures. They are mindful of the larger peace-time context even when dwelling on particular horrors; they engage with civilian as well as military life; they impose order and personality as these things are threatened; they insist on performing acts of the imagination when faced with barbarism. In this respect, and in spite of its variety, their work makes a common plea for humanity.   

The varied commemorations of the past five years have also made it substantially easier for young people, in particular, to form their own ideas of what happened and what its implications for their lives may be. But historians are not simply ‘people’s remembrancers’, as Niall Ferguson has pointed out. Reconciling historians’ expectations of the centenary and the feelings of the general public has been challenging. It has been suggesting that with the passing of the centenary of the armistice, it is time to review the way we remember the Great War. First of all, Faulks argues, there must always be a sense of grief. The War killed ten million men for reasons that are still disputed, and it was the first great trauma in the European century of genocide and the Holocaust.

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According to the Sandhurst military historian John Keegan, the Battle of the Somme marked the end of an age of vital optimism in British life that has never been recovered. Professional historians have their eyes trained on the long view, but they can be drawn back to the moment and to the texture of authentic experience of the nineteen-year-old volunteer in Kitchener’s army. But historians do not have a monopoly of memorial acts (I always hated the assumption that history teachers like me should, automatically, be responsible for these ceremonies). Peter Jackson’s new film, They Shall Not Grow Old is the director’s attempt to stop the First World War from fading into history, placing interviews with servicemen who fought over footage from the Imperial War Museum’s archive. The colourised footage is remarkable, immediately bringing a new dimension to images of the living and the dead; combined with the emotional testimony of the veterans it is an immersive experience and a powerful new act of remembrance that keeps the conflict’s human face in sharp focus.

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Sources:

The Sunday Times, 11 November 2018 (articles by Niall Ferguson, Sebastian Faulks & Daniel Johnson)

Alan Bishop & Mark Bostridge (1998), Letters from a Lost Generation. London: Little Brown (extracts published in The Sunday Times, November 1998 & The Guardian, November 2008).

The Guardian/ The Observer (2008), First World War: Day Seven – The Aftermath. (introductory article by Michael Burleigh; extract from C E Montague (1922), Disenchantment. London: Chatto & Windus).

E L Black (ed.) (1970), 1914-18 in Poetry. London: University of London Press.

Fiona Waters (ed.) (2010), A Corner of a Foreign Field: The Illustrated Poetry of the First World War. Croxley Green (Herts): Transatlantic Press.

Norman Ferguson (2014), The First World War: A Miscellany. Chichester (West Sussex): Summersdale.

John Buchan (1935), The King’s Grace, 1910-1935. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

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

Arthur Marwick (1970), Britain in the Century of Total War. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Arthur Marwick & Anthony Adamthwaite (1973), Between Two Wars. Bletchley: The Open University.

Vera Brittain (1933), Testament of Youth. London: Gollancz (Virago-Fontana edn., 1970).

 

Posted December 2, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in American History & Politics, Australia, Balkan Crises, Britain, British history, Britons, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Civilization, East Anglia, Education, Elementary School, Empire, Europe, Falklands, Family, First World War, Flanders, France, General Douglas Haig, Genocide, George V, Germany, Great War, Gulf War, History, Holocaust, Humanitarianism, Imperialism, Iraq, Italy, Japan, Jews, liberal democracy, Literature, Memorial, morality, Mythology, Narrative, nationalism, Nationality, Navy, Ottoman Empire, Population, populism, Reconciliation, Remembrance, Russia, Scotland, Second World War, Technology, terror, theology, USA, USSR, Warfare, Women at War, Women's History, World War One, World War Two, Yugoslavia

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A Hundred Years Ago: The Great War, 1917 – Autumn into Winter   Leave a comment

This year’s Armistice Day (Saturday 11 November) also marks the end of the Battle of Passchendaele (Third Ypres), which ended on the 10th November, following the fall of the village of Passchendaele to Canadian troops on 6 November. It was claimed the offensive succeeded in stopping German forces from taking advantage of French weaknesses, but if this were true, it was only at a cost of 275,000 British casualties in return for just five miles of territory.

While British troops were dying in the Flanders bogs, the usual autumnal sacrifice of an ally was all but consummated. Twelve Battles of the Isonzo were fought on the Italian Front between June 1915 and November 1917. The Italians had little success after joining the war on the Allied side and suffered heavy losses in defeats by the Austro-Hungarian forces. Machine-gunners were heard to shout to Italian troops to stop and go back, promising to stop shooting. Italian commander Luigi Cadorna punished his underperforming units by shooting every tenth man, in a throwback to the Roman system of decimation. 

In 1917, the Battles on the Isonzo continued between June and November. On 24 October 1917 on the middle Isonzo, an army of nine Austrian divisions and six German burst in the misty morning through the Italian front, and in a fortnight’s fighting forced it back from river line to river line with a loss of 600,000 men. The German and Austro-Hungarian allies then advanced to positions just fifteen miles from Venice following their overwhelming victory at Caporetto in October and November, after which 260,000 Italian soldiers surrendered. The Italians eventually found standing ground on the River Piave, where they stopped their seventy-mile retreat, covering Venice, though only just. Britain and France sent reinforcements, and their generals helped to reconstitute the broken Italian forces.

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Back on the Western Front on 20th November, British forces, at last, achieved a breakthrough by deploying 476 Mark IV tanks at Cambrai. For a moment, they almost brought back the warfare of manoeuvre. Although first used at Flers-Courcelette, Cambrai was where tanks first showed their true potential. Additionally, the battle incorporated new tactics from the air as well as on the ground. Ground-attack aircraft and coordinated artillery fire ensured the advancing troops were able to move forward in a way which had hitherto been impossible or, at least, uncommon, along the front. The surprise was achieved across a broad section of it, and troops broke through the Hindenburg Line, in places gaining five miles of territory. Church bells were rung in celebration, somewhat prematurely, as it turned out.

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Yet Passchendaele had so drained and depleted British reserves that they were unable to develop their initial victory into an outright one at Cambrai or to prevent a determined German counter-attack ten days later. The reach of British forces had exceeded their grasp. The German counter-attacks reversed the successes. Casualties amounted to 45,000 on each side, but the battle at least, and at last, gave hope to the Allies that new tactics could succeed where the war of attrition had failed. Cambrai remains one of the key actions of the War, for it offered them a means of release from the bondage of sieges. For the first time the British, in particular, were able to learn the true value of a weapon of which they were the exponents.

At Cambrai, the British forces were pioneers in new tactics which their enemy did not grasp the full meaning of. But the Germans had also been innovative in their tactics. All former offensives had, sooner or later, come to a halt for the same reason – wearied troops were met by fresh reserves. The attackers continued hammering at an unbreakable front because they had ‘set the stage’ for action in that one area, and could not easily shift their batteries and communications. In a word, all offensives lacked mobility. Germany’s first business, therefore, was to make the battle mobile and introduce the element of surprise.

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Above: An ammunition column at the Battle of Cambrai, 21 November 1917.

Yet their plan was not a breakthrough in the older sense of puncturing the line in one spot, but a general crumbling of the line. It was based on the highly specialised training of certain units, and the absence of any preliminary massing of near the point of attack. There was no longer to be any prolonged bombardment to alarm the enemy. The advance was made by selected troops in small clusters, carrying light trench-mortars and many machine-guns, with the field batteries close behind them in support. The actual mode of attack, which the French called infiltration, was like a hand with steel finger-tips being pushed through a yielding substance, like loose earth. The élite troops at the fingertips made gaps through which those behind them passed, till each section of the defending line found itself outflanked and encircled. Rather than an isolated stroke, the offensive was like a creeping sickness which could demoralise a hundred of miles of front.

In fact, the Germans had first used these tactics at the capture of Riga in September, but the true test had come in October at Caporetto. The Allied Staffs had been slow to grasp the significance of the new method for the Western Front. Caporetto was explained by a breakdown in Italian nerve, hence their ill-preparedness for the counter-attack at Cambrai. There the attack on the British left, carried out using the old tactics, signally failed, while the assault on their right, deploying the new ones, was an obvious success. Yet the Allied Staffs blamed their defeat on defective local intelligence. As a consequence, four months later, their armies read the true lessons of Cambrai in letters of fire.

After Passchendaele and Caporetto some inquisition into military methods was inevitable. The first changes were at British Headquarters. The Prime Minister was in favour of a change in the chief command, but Haig could not easily be forced from his place. He made a bold bid for more unity in command, securing some lesser resignations in order to improve the efficiency of his staff. After Caporetto it was decided that a War Council should sit at Versailles, consisting of the Prime Minister and one other statesman from each of the Allies. The soldiers naturally objected to being mere advisers without executive power, so in January 1918 a revised machinery was framed – a military committee with Foch as president, empowered to create a general reserve by contributions from all the Allied armies. The committee soon failed, however, since it is one of the first principles of war that the same authority which controls general operations must also control reserves, and a committee cannot, therefore, command an army. Added to this, Haig refused to allocate British divisions to the general reserve since he believed that he had no divisions to give since they were all already deployed at the front.

If at the beginning of 1918, Haig and Sir William Robertson, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, had proposed Foch as their overall Commander, they would have carried the day, but in November 1917 Lloyd George was more interested in a great offensive in Palestine and determined to make the Versailles machinery work. He had complained, perhaps unfairly, that he did not get sufficient help from his official military advisers. Nevertheless, as John Buchan pointed out in 1935,

In a democracy relations between soldiers and statesmen must always be delicate, but they were notably less strained in Britain than in France or Italy.

At the close of 1917, British public opinion could no longer see a clear outline of the war. Russia had fallen out of that line, and new and unknown quantities had entered the conundrum. It had been a depressing year which, beginning with the promise of a decision, had closed for the Allies in a deep uncertainty. They had taken Baghdad and Jerusalem, indisputable successes, but ones which affected only Turkey, and even there weakening her extremities rather than striking at her heart.

Discomfort was growing in every British home since lights were darkened and rations were reduced, and there was the unvarying tale of losses to rend the heart. One such tale was that of Mrs Amy Beechey, who had eight sons, all of whom served in the armed forces. Five were killed: Barnard at Loos in September 1915; Frank on the Somme in November 1916; Harold at Arras in April 1917; Charles in Tanzania in October 1917 and Leonard, who died in December 1917 after being wounded at Cambrai. When the King and Queen met Mrs Beechey, she told the Queen:

I did not give them willingly.

Of her three other sons, Chris suffered severe injuries after being hit by a sniper at Gallipoli, Samuel served in France at the very end of the war, and Eric became a dentist in the Royal Army Medical Corps. In addition to these bereavements, women were also being killed in the munitions factories at home. In 1916-17 ninety-six died from poisoning caused by working in TNT. Women munitions workers became known as ‘canaries’ due to the toxicity affecting the liver and causing jaundice, turning their skins yellow.  The economic cost of war was also taking its toll, with seventy percent of Britain’s Gross National Product being spent on it in 1917.

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Above: Women making shells

Peace, Bread and Land were what the Bolsheviks promised the Russian people in the October Revolution (which took place in November in the western, Gregorian calendar). Protests had led to the end of the tsar’s rule in March, after which the Provisional Government had kept Russia in the war. The minister of war, Alexander Kerensky, advocated a fresh attack but the lacklustre Kerensky Offensive in June, although initially successful, saw the Russian Army disintegrate as the Germans overwhelmed their opponents, reaching Riga in September.  The First Women’s Battalion of Death was set up to shame male Russian soldiers into fighting, though they were also antagonistic towards those seeking to prolong the war.  In total, several hundred Russian women took part in the war.

Kornilov, the one fighting General left, wasted his in futile quarrels; a weary people turned to whatever offered leadership; and in October the Bolshevik revolution, inspired by Vladimir Lenin and organised by Leon Trotsky, marched swiftly to power. On 7 November (in the west) its triumph was complete, the triumph of a handful of determined men. When Lenin and Trotsky established the Bolsheviks as the dominant group in December, he was then in a position to take Russia out of the war. An armistice soon followed, on 16 December, with Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey, thus ending Russia’s involvement in the war. At Brest Litovsk before the close of the year, the new Russian rulers accepted from Germany a degrading peace. The victory of the Bolsheviks and the defeat of Russia meant Germany would no longer be fighting on two fronts, and so troops were released to take part in the Spring Offensive – Germany’s last chance to win the war.

In Britain, the Russian Revolution, followed by the Stockholm Conference, let loose a flood of theorising; there were incessant Labour disputes. John Buchan observed that the British people were…

… war-weary, puzzled, suspicious, and poisoned to some extent by false propaganda. All zest and daylight had gone out of the struggle. The cause for which the British people had entered it was now half-forgotten, for men’s minds had grown numb. Civilians at home, as well as soldiers in the field, felt themselves in the grip of an inexorable machine.

He remarked that it was a dangerous mood;

… dangerous to the enemy, for it meant that grim shutting of the teeth which with Britain is a formidable thing. But it was also dangerous also to ourselves, for it might have resulted in a coarsening of fibre and a blindness to the longer view and the greater issues.

But Buchan believed that Britain had an effective antidote to this mood in the stoical form of George V:

That this was not its consequence was in large part due to the King, who by his visits to every industrial centre kept before dazed and weary minds the greatness of the national purpose and the unity of the people. Wherever he went he seemed to unseal the founts of human sympathy. 

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He visited the shipbuilders on the Clyde and the Tyne, as well as most of the major munitions works. To the disquiet of the War Cabinet, he also went to Lancashire during a strike, where he was warmly welcomed. Lloyd George paid the following tribute to his role:

The loyalty of the people was heartened and encouraged… by the presence of their Sovereign in their midst, and by the warm personal interest he showed in their work and their anxieties. In estimating the value of the different factors which conduced to the maintenance of our home front in 1917, a very high place must be given to the affection inspired by the King, and the unremitting diligence with which he set himself in those dark days to discharge the functions of his high office.

The Autumn and early Winter of 1917 were indeed the darkest days of the war for Britain, but exactly how dark was only realised by the Government and the Admiralty. Lloyd George himself also rose to the crisis. The loss of British shipping to the U-boats in the early part of the year had left the country with only six weeks of corn supplies. It was impossible to lay a mine-field close to the German bases or to attack them because the Battle of Jutland had left the Royal Navy without full command of the North Sea. Much was done by rationing, by increasing home production and through the expansion of shipbuilding, but the real remedy, which, before the summer had gone had relieved the situation, was a new plan of defence. The convoy system was pressed upon an unwilling Admiralty at a time before Britain had even the promise of a multitude of American destroyers. With the help of some of the younger naval officers, it was finally accepted and put into force. It had an immediate effect, as the losses to convoyed ships amounted to only one percent, compared to the one in four being lost in April. By September, the monthly tonnage lost was under two hundred thousand, compared with the 875,000 lost in April, at the peak of the losses. When peace came, eighty-eight thousand merchant vessels had been convoyed, with a loss of only 436. At the same time, the advent of better depth charges led to the destruction of more than half of the U-boats by the Royal Navy before the end of the War.

Despite this improving picture at sea, by the end of 1917, the initiative in the war on the land had passed once again to the Central Powers. Russia’s collapse enabled the Germans to redeploy large forces from the Eastern to the Western Front which meant that they could muster more men on the latter than the Allies, who had resigned themselves to a defensive campaign until the Americans could send their armies. Germany had one last chance to beat the Allies before that happened. The U-boat campaign had failed and the German people were weak with privations and their hope was failing, having suffered so many military disappointments. A decisive Spring Offensive was all that stood between them and ignominious defeat in the year to come.

 

Sources:

Norman Ferguson (2014), The First World War: A Miscellany. Chichester: Summersdale.

John Buchan (1935), The King’s Grace. London: Hodder and Stoughton.

 

A Hundred Years Ago: The Great War in the winter of 1916-17.   Leave a comment

It is impossible for us to go on with the war if losses like this continue.

First Sea Lord John Jellicoe,  April 1917

Germany is finished.

German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, on the decision made by the Kaiser and the military chiefs allowing unrestricted U-boat warfare.

The U-boat Menace:

Although they had been used in warfare since the eighteenth century, it was during the First World War that the submarine, especially the German U-boat (Unterseeboot), came to play a crucial role. But this did not develop until 1916-17. In 1914 to 15 the number of Allied ships lost to U-boat raids increased from just three to almost four hundred, and this number had increased to 964 in 1916. Debate raged in Germany over whether their submarines should attack civilian ships without warning or conform to prize rules and warn the ship’s crew first. Some amongst the German high command thought that unrestricted submarine war could antagonise America to enter the war; others reasoned it would finish the war early. Those who reasoned the latter were justified by the increase of allied ships lost to 2,439 in 1917, and even in 1918 over a thousand were lost. Even more costly was the loss of British merchant ship tonnage, which reached its peak of 545,282 in April 1917. Before the introduction of the convoy system, the rate of British shipping loss was at a rate of twenty-five per cent, dropping to just one per cent afterwards.

In February 1917 Germany opted to allow unrestricted U-boat warfare. In the next three months they sank over five hundred ships. This action had a major effect on the transportation to Britain of supplies, leading even to the banning of rice being thrown at weddings. New tactical and technical methods were brought in, such as the use of convoys, Q-ships (disguised armed merchant ships) and depth charges, which could sink  U-boats while still submerged, or force it to the surface where it could be fired upon, so that by the end of 1917 the Atlantic was safe enough to allow huge numbers of American troops to be transported to Europe. One of the Austro-Hungarian submarine commanders, Georg Ludwig von Trapp, became an Austrian national hero for sinking thirteen ships. His later marriage to his children’s tutor and their escape from the Nazis after the Anschluss of 1938 provided the inspiration for the 1960s musical, The Sound of Music.

Heaven grant us its peace, but not the King of Hungary’s!

In Germany itself, the Royal Navy’s blockade of its ports was starting to ‘bite’ by the winter of 1916-17, with a scarcity of home-grown potatoes leading to turnips and other foods being turned into sustenance. Up to this point the War had been fought by traditional methods, by combatants whose national integration was still intact. But with the coming of the New Year of 1917 a change came over the scene. Ancient constitutions began to crack, old faiths were questioned, and potent, undreamed of historical forces began to be released. Everywhere in the world the sound of the old order beginning to crack was heard but, as yet, it was drowned out by the noise of war.

Nevertheless, in half-conscious anticipation of these permanent fractures, a fumbling movement towards peace began across the continent. The wiser heads in every country were coming to fear that their nations might crumble through sheer weariness, and that absolute victory, even if it were won, might only mean chaos. The first sign of movement came from Germany, but its peace offer of December 1916 was framed in the arrogant terms of one who felt that they had the winning cards. The main German motive was prudential. The Somme had shown them that their military machine was being strained to breaking-point; if it broke all would be over, and at any cost that catastrophe must be averted. If the belligerents consented to come to terms, however, the Germans believed that they would have certain advantages at any peace conference. They had much to lose which they might have difficulty holding on to by fighting on, whereas their renunciation of the war might help them win things considered by them, at least, to be vital to Germany’s future.

Moreover, once Germany’s opponents were entangled in discussion, there was a chance of breaking up their unity and shifting the argument to minor issues. For the German government, it was a matter of life and death that a rift should appear among the Entente powers before they suffered any irremediable disaster. They also had an eye on neutral states, especially the USA, which was interested in promoting negotiations. Finally, there was a tactical motive, since the Kaiser and the high command were contemplating their new and anarchic methods of naval warfare. To justify an all-out war at sea, Germany had to appear as an angel of peace, rudely repulsed in its efforts to secure a truce. Action proceeding from so many mixed motives was likely to result in blunders, and the Allies saw through this strategy. On 30 December, they rejected the German overtures, and the German Chancellor agreed to the policy of unrestricted submarine warfare which very nearly led to Britain’s defeat in the short-term, but ultimately helped to secure its victory. Writing in April 1935, John Buchan put the German strategy of the winter of 1916-17 into a broader contemporary context:

The effects of the War were so catastrophic and terrible that the historian, looking back, is not inclined to be contemptuous of any effort to end it. But it is clear that the German offer was impossible. There was more hope in the overtures of Austria, whose new Emperor Charles , through the medium of his brother-in-law, Prince Sixtus of Bourbon, made secret proposals for a separate peace. They shipwrecked principally upon the opposition of Italy and France, whose reply was that of Lucio’s comrade in ‘Measure for Measure’ – “Heaven grant us its peace, but not the King of Hungary’s!”

President Wilson’s re-election as a peace President also strengthened the case for an agreement to end the war and led to his offer of mediation at the end of 1916. He saw the clouds thickening ahead, and knew he would have to justify himself to the American people were he to be forced into a less pacific, more pragmatic, reality. He asked for a definition of war aims,

… that soundings be taken in order that we may learn, the neutral nations with the belligerents, how near the haven of peace may be for which all mankind longs.

The Allied governments, in spite of certain of a certain irritation among their peoples, had the wit to see Mr Wilson’s purpose. In a remarkable document the American diplomats set out, calmly and clearly, not a set of war aims as such, but a general purpose, which was wholly consistent with the ideals of the USA. More than two years before the Treaty of Versailles, what came to be known as Wilson’s Fourteen Points stated almost all the principles on which the Paris peace settlement was founded.

Lloyd George’s rarer gift: A sense of political atmosphere…

Alone among the Allies, Britain had now attained a certain unity in the political direction of the war, with a Prime Minister who could draw together and maximise all the powers of the nation as a whole. His pre-War record had revealed his unsurpassed talents as a demagogue, but his Premiership was also beginning to demonstrate his sense of political atmosphere. He might make mistakes in his ultimate judgments, but rarely did so in his initial intuitions; his quick sense of reality made him at heart an opportunist, so that, as Buchan found of him…

This elasticity, combined with his high political courage, had made him even in his bitterest campaigns not wholly repugnant to his opponents, for he was always human and had none of the dogmatic rigidity, the lean spiritual pride of the elder Liberalism.

Lloyd George had now found his proper task, Buchan felt, and was emerging as one of the most formidable figures in the world. Lord Milner, with a strong sense of historical perspective, considered him the greatest War Minister since Chatham. His social, legal and then political campaigning had shown that he was ‘in his element’ when leading in times of strife, including war. He was more than a democrat, a representative of democracy, he was a personification of it, both in its strengths and weaknesses. For his critics who often accused him of inconsistency, Buchan cautioned…

… for a tyrant or an oligarchy may be consistent, but not a free people. He had a democracy’s short memory, and its brittle personal loyalties. Perhaps his supreme merit as a popular leader was his comprehensibility. No mystery surrounded his character or his talents. The qualities and the defects were evident to all, and the plain man found in them something which he could not himself assess – positive merits, positive weaknesses, so that he could give or withhold his confidence as if he were dealing with a familiar. This power of diffusing a personality, of producing a sense of intimacy among millions who have never seen his face or heard his voice, is the greatest of assets for a democratic statesman, and Mr Lloyd George had it not only for Britain but for all the world…

Lacking the normal education of British public servants, he had large gaps in his mental furniture, and consequently was without that traditional sense of proportion which often gives an air of wisdom to mediocrities. He had a unique power of assimilating knowledge, but not an equal power of retaining it. Hence his mental processes were somewhat lacking in continuity; all was atomic and episodic, rather than a steady light. His mind had in it little of the scientific, it was insensitive to guiding principles, and there was no even diffusion of its power through many channels…

The fact that his mind was not a ‘continuum’,… but a thing discrete and perpetually re-made, kept him from lassitude and staleness… His loose hold on principles kept him from formalism, and opportunism is often the right attitude in a crisis… Many of his endowments, such as his parliamentary  tact, his subtlety in the management of colleagues, his debating skill, … however invaluable to a statesman in in normal times, were of less account in war. But that one gift he had which is so rare and inexplicable that it may rightly be called genius… He could not be defeated, because his spirit and buoyancy and zeal was insatiable… and that spirit he communicated to the nation.

The machine which he fashioned, the War Cabinet, worked with a synchronised vigour, on the whole, though not always with great precision. Its secretary, Sir Maurice Hankey, showed an uncanny foresight and a supreme competence. The special executive duties fell to General Smuts, who was often charged with almost impossible diplomatic missions, and to Lord Milner, who was the ablest living British administrator, with a powerful intellect and devoted to public service. Milner cared little for personal popularity, and possessed none of Lloyd George’s oratorical gifts, which made him a natural ‘foil’ for his Prime Minister. The presence of these two men underlined that the War Cabinet was actually an Imperial Council, especially as it also contained representatives from India and the Dominions. The Prime Minister of Canada pointed out at the time that the establishment of the cabinet turned a new page in the history of the Empire. There was a war purpose in this step, since the whole Empire was in arms. Under the pressure of war, the old individualism of industry was breaking down as the state enlarged its sphere of interest and duty, and on some there broke the vision of a new and wiser world coming to birth while the old world was dying.

Women at War: The Rise of the ‘Business Girl’.

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Woman working on a cartridge machine during the First World War

One of the signs of an old world dying and a new one dawning was the impact of the imposition of universal conscription in the previous year on the growth of women’s employment. It determined that the changes involved would go far beyond a limited expansion and upgrading of industrial labour. In July 1914 there had been 212,000 women employed in the various metal and engineering industries that were to become the ones most directly connected with war production. The figure for July 1915 was 256,000, a relatively small increase; but by July 1916 this had more than doubled 520,000 and by July 1917 the figure had reached 819,000. In industry as a whole 800,000 more women were in employment in 1918 than in 1914.

By February 1917 the total number of bus conductresses had jumped to around 2,500, and transport in general showed the biggest proportionate increase in women’s employment – from 18,000 in 1914 to 117,000 in 1918. There were also big proportionate increases in clerical, commercial, administrative and educational activities. In banking and finances there was a fantastic rate of growth, from a mere 9,500 in 1914 to 63,700 in 1917. In these statistics we can discern what Arthur Marwick referred to as a central phenomenon in the sociology of women’s employment in the twentieth century, the rise of the business girl. By creating simultaneously a proliferation of Government Committees and departments and a shortage of male labour (all men aged 18 to 41 were eligible for call-up from May 1916, except ministers of religion those engaged in the ‘reserved occupations’ of munitions, mining and farming), the war had brought a sudden and irreversible advance in the economic and social power of a category of women employees. They worked as lamplighters and window cleaners as well as doing heavy work in gasworks and foundries, carrying bags of coke and working among the furnaces. A simple remedy for when women succumbed to these arduous conditions was, afterwards, well-remembered:

Many is the time the girls would be affected by the gas, the remedy being to walk them up and down in the fresh air, and then (get them to) drink a bottle of Guinness.

Despite repeated government-initiated attempts to recruit women workers for the land, these had not been conspicuously successful. In fact, in July 1915 there were actually 20,000 fewer permanent female workers on the land than there had been twelve months earlier. As was the case with domestic service, the war provided a blessed release for women who had had very little alternative employment, if any, available to them beforehand. However, as Marwick has pointed out, we must be careful to see the question of changes in women’s roles and rights in the broader context of social relationships and political change. Many men also preferred a move into the army or reserved occupations to poorly-paid work on the land or in service, and many women found it impossible to hold on to factory jobs once the able-bodied men returned. Nevertheless, the war did bring a new self-confidence to many women, dissipating apathy and silencing the female anti-suffragists. Undoubtedly, the replacement of militant suffragette activity by determined patriotic endeavour also played its part.

More than this, by 1917 the all-out, total war was generating a tremendous mood favourable to change and democratic innovation. Whatever might or might not have happened to the roles of women in British society had there been no war, and therefore no ‘home front’, only that concentrated experience, as Marwick put it, showed up the absurdities of the many preconceptions about what they were capable of. Millicent Garrett Fawcett, speaking in January 1918, was already claiming victory in the long campaign for women’s rights:

The great searchlight of war showed things in their true light, and they gave us enfranchisement with open hands. 

Sources:

Norman Ferguson (2014), The First World War: A Miscellany. Chichester: Summersdale.

John Buchan (1935), The King’s Grace, 1910-35. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

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

Arthur Marwick (1977), Women at War, 1914-18. London: Croom Helm.

This Week in the First World War: The Battle of Jutland, 31 May-1 June 1916   Leave a comment

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The Battle of Jutland happened exactly a hundred years ago, and was the only major naval engagement of the First World War. Both sides claimed victory, with the Imperial German Navy attempting to break through the Royal Navy’s lines in the North Sea, but despite some successes, this attempt was not decisive. British losses were greater, including the sinking of HMS Indefatigable and HMS Queen Mary by German shells. After being hit, both ships exploded and sank quickly. From Indefatigable, there were only two survivors from a crew of 1,119. Vice-Admiral David Beatty, after hearing this news, remarked:

There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today.

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From  A Sketch-map History of the Great War and After, 1914-1935 (London: Harrap, 1938).

In 1914, the German navy was more powerful than the combined French and Russian fleets, but the entry of Great Britain into the war had given the Allies a greater preponderance of sea-power.

Instant Readiness…

…has always been an essential part of the Royal Naval tradition, and at the beginning of August 1914 this meant that the Fleet went straight from its annual exercises to its war stations six days before hostilities began. By a fortunate chance the British navy was assembled at Portland for a practice mobilization in July 1914. When war became imminent it was ordered not to disperse and was therefore prepared to exercise its superiority as soon as hostilities began. The surprise lay in what followed: instead of the expected Trafalgar against the German High Seas Fleet, the Grand Fleet found its enemies locked in their harbours, behind their impregnable coastal defences where (except for occasional sorties) they would remain for nearly two years. This meant that German overseas trade had to be abandoned immediately, but is also resulted in the Grand Fleet itself very much being anchored to its base, Scapa Flow, a bleak, uninviting anchorage almost devoid on amenities on shore. One sailor remarked:

Scapa left its mark on all who served there. To go to Scapa was to join a club whose membership you could never quite disown… There were times when men spat the name out like a four-letter word…

(Brown and Meehan, Scapa Flow, 1968.)

A virtual blockade of the North Sea was instituted and all ships were stopped by search-parties from British warships. Germany had to rely on foreign supplies reaching her circuitously via neutral countries. By contrast, Allied shipping was hardly interrupted. There were a few German warships on the high seas when war broke out, and these attacked the principal trade-routes. The damage they did, however, was relatively slight, and the German raiders were practically all destroyed by 8 December 1914. After that the Allies were free to transport men and munitions to every theatre of war and to draw freely upon foreign food-supplies. Moreover, this freedom of movement was denied to the Central Powers, which was ultimately why, suffering such shortages of vital raw materials and food, they were unable to continue the war in 1918.

The situation on the seas was so favourable to the Allies that Admiral Jellicoe adopted a policy of extreme caution, refusing to risk losing these advantages even for a probable naval victory. Any defeat of the British navy would have reversed the tables, for Britain could be starved out within a few weeks by a blockade. Jellicoe therefore abandoned the Nelsonian tradition of seeking out the enemy and forcing him to give battle.  Admiral Beatty won a small victory in the Heligoland Bight, which confirmed the Germans in their decision to remain on the defensive. Three British cruisers were sunk by the submarine U9 off the Dutch coast, the first indication of the future role that these craft were later to play in the two world wars. Scarborough, Hartlepool and Yarmouth were bombarded by German cruisers, but a repeat attempt at this was thwarted by Beatty in the Battle of Dogger Bank early in 1915 and the Germans abandoned coastal raids thereafter, and with them discarded any thought of landing any troops on British shores.  At the beginning of 1916, Jellicoe was quite firm in his rejection of any attempt to draw the German Imperial Fleet into battle on the open seas:

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Jellicoe knew that Churchill was correct in his assessment that he was the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon. He would have liked to have fought another Trafalgar, but was well aware of the recent advances in mines, torpedoes and submarines, to which even the most modern Dreadnoughts were vulnerable. The German Admiral Scheer, on the other hand, was determined to hazard a fleet-engagement, since the pressure of the sea blockade made it necessary to take some risks. He planned to destroy Beatty’s cruiser-squadron by engaging it with the whole of the German High Seas Fleet. The battle which resulted took place off Jutland, the northern part of Denmark (see maps above and below). The course of the engagement was very confused, although we do have some eye-witness accounts from officers on board surviving British ships.

It was late afternoon on 31 May, at about 3.50 p.m. that the Navigating Officer of the New Zealand reported the action as having begun, almost simultaneously, on both sides. A few minutes later, the Admiral’s Secretary came across to where the Torpedo Officer was stationed in the conning tower and drew his attention to the Indefatigable. He crossed at once to the starboard side and laid his glasses on her:

She had been hit aft, apparently by the mainmast, and a good deal of smoke was coming from her superstructure aft, but there were no flames visible. He thought it was only her boom boats burning. We were altering course to port at the time, and apparently her steering gear was damaged, as she did not follow round in our wake, but held on until she was almost about 500 yards on our starboard quarter, in full view of the conning tower.

Whilst he was still looking at her through his glasses she was hit by two shells, one on the fo’c’sle and on the fore turret. Both shells appeared to explode on impact. Then there was an interval of about thirty seconds, during which time there was absolutely no sign of fire or flame or smoke, except the little actually formed  by the burst of the two shells. At the end of the thirty seconds the ship completely blew up, commencing apparently from for’ard. The main explosion started with sheets of flame, followed immediately afterwards by a dense, dark smoke, which obscured the ship from view. All sorts of stuff was blown high into the air, a fifty-foot steam picket boat, for example, being blown up about two hundred feet, apparently intact though upside down. 

The second report comes from the Commanding Officer of HMS Ardent, one of the destroyers lost during the action:

A terrible scene of destruction and desolation was revealed to me as I walked aft (with some difficulty). All boats were in pieces. The funnels looked more like nutmeg graters. The rafts were blown to bits, and in the ship’s side and deck were holes innumerable. In the very still atmosphere, the steam and smoke poured out from holes in the deck perfectly straight up into the air. Several of my best men came up and tried to console me and all were delighted that we had  at length been in action and done our share. But many were already killed and lay around their guns and places of duty. Most of the engine-room and stokehold brigade must have been killed outright.

The Ardent gave a big lurch, and I bethought myself of my ‘Grieve’ waistcoat. Another lurch, and the ship keeled right over, and threw me to the ship’s side. I could feel she was going, so I flopped over into the sea, grabbing a lifebuoy that was providentially  at hand. The ‘Ardent’s’ stern kept up a few moments, then she slowly sank from view. As the smoke and steam cleared off I could see many heads in the water – about forty or fifty I should think. There was no support beyond life-belts, lifebuoys and floating waistcoats, so I was afraid that few of us could possibly survive, especially  as I realised that all the destroyers had gone on, and that no big ship would dare to stop, even if they saw us in the water.

I spoke to my men, and saw most of them die one by one. Not a man of them showed any fear of death, and there was not a murmur, complaint, or cry for help from a single soul. Their joy was, and they talked about it to the end, that they and the ‘Ardent’ had ‘done their bit’, as they put it.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Source:  H W Fawcett & G W W Hooper, The Fighting at Jutland (1921)                                         

The significance of the battle:

  • The British fleet was prepared; the Grand Fleet was ordered to sea, and the German attempt to isolate and destroy part of it was frustrated.

  • British caution and the fear of submarine ambush permitted the German fleet to make good its escape when it might have been cut off and destroyed.

  • German tactics, ship-construction and gunnery proved in many ways superior to those of the British, who suffered more serious losses.

  • The German fleet was once more driven off the seas.

  • Most important of all, the battle gave the Germans no alternative but to renew and intensify their submarine campaign. This had momentous results in 1917.

Altogether 250 ships were involved in the battle, 25 of which were destroyed, fourteen British and eleven German. The RN suffered 6,094 fatalities, with 510 wounded. The Imperial Fleet suffered 2,551 fatalities, with 507 wounded. In addition to the ships already mentioned, a third battlecruiser, Invincible was also lost to the British, as well as three armoured cruisers (Black Prince, Defence and Warrior), and eight destroyers. The Germans lost one battlecruiser, Lützow, a battleship, Pommern, four light cruisers and five heavy torpedo boats.

RIP.

Despite their losses,  the Royal Navy was able to continue its operations, and the German High Seas Fleet mostly remained in port for the rest of the war. Admiral Jellicoe was, somewhat unfairly, heavily criticised if not scapegoated for the British losses, but the overall result was that the German Fleet was kept ‘at bay’ for the rest of the war, as this captioned map shows:

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Above: Map from The Penguin Atlas of British and Irish History, Harmondsworth: 2001

 

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