The Great World War 1914–1945: 1. Lightning Strikes Twice
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First published in Great Britain by HarperCollinsPublishers 2000
Copyright © Dr Peter Liddle, Dr John Bourne and Dr Ian Whitehead 2000
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Source ISBN: 9780007116171
Ebook Edition © SEPTEMBER 2014 ISBN: 9780007598182
To the generations who experienced the lightning strikes 1914–1945
J. M. Bourne
John Baynes and Cliff Pettit
Benjamin Ziemann and Klaus Latzel
Peter H. Liddle and S. P. McKenzie
Nick Bosanquet and Ian Whitehead
M. R. D. Foot
George H. Cassar
Frank E. Vandiver
G. D. Sheffield
Dennis E. Showalter
Gary W. Shanafelt and G. T. Waddington
Anita J. Prazmowska
Guy S. Goodwin-Gill
A part from debates about the international ramifications of the Treaty of Versailles, historians have tended to study the two world wars in isolation. This has been justified by the assumption that the two conflicts were qualitatively and quantitatively different. The First World War has more often than not been regarded as a ‘bad’ war resulting from failures in diplomacy, and a war characterised by the ‘futile’ sacrifices of trench warfare on the Western Front; standing in stark contrast to the justifiable and necessary struggle, between 1939 and 1945, against Nazi tyranny and aggressive Japanese militarism. In the First World War the civilian populations of the belligerent powers played an increasingly vital part in the war effort. But it is the Second World War, with its indiscriminate bombing of cities placing civilians in the front line, and technology taking man’s destructive powers to new heights, that is more usually seen as the first truly ‘total’ war. To treat the wars separately in this fashion, however, is to ignore a significant historical reality – all those who were over forty years of age in 1940 would have had their adult lives in some sense defined by their participation, or non-participation, in these two global conflicts. It is this continuum of human experience that firmly unites the world wars, and which is the focus both of this book and its successor volume.
The aim throughout is to demonstrate the diversity of personal experience in the two world wars. This volume examines uniformed service and such aspects of civilian experience as occupation, displacement and genocide. It discusses the exercise of political and military leadership and details the difficulties of prosecuting coalition warfare. The later volume deals with the national experiences of both belligerent and neutral states and considers the role of civilians in war. There are also sections dealing with moral and cultural issues.
The comparative approach that underpins the book reveals striking parallels between the two global conflicts of the twentieth century. It is clear that in many respects lightning did indeed strike twice – when considering the development of modern warfare, its challenges and its impact, there is much that unites the two conflicts. Indeed, it is tempting to conclude that, in relation to human experience, there was nothing fundamentally new in the Second World War. There were, however, important differences, none more significant than the ideological basis of the struggle between Nazi Germany and her opponents. The First World War was, in part at least, the product of ancient Balkan savageries and the fate of the Armenians gave warning of the human capacity for organised atrocity on the scale of genocide, a word not yet then coined. But a new register is required to measure the consequences of ideological warfare in the Second World War. German and Japanese conduct of the Second World War was driven by racism and political dogma. This and the response it provoked from the Soviets on the Eastern Front, the Americans in the Pacific and the British and Americans in the skies above Germany and occupied Europe ensured that the Second World War extended the frontiers of human degradation and misery well beyond the boundaries ‘achieved’ in the earlier struggle.
J. M. Bourne
Dates resonate in history, and in life. Few dates in 20th-century history resonate more than ’14-’18 and ’39-’45. They are not only instantly evocative and significant in themselves, but they also give meaning to other dates.
‘Would you mind telling me when you were born?’ I asked an elderly Lancastrian while taking part in an oral history project 25 years ago.
‘1903,’ he replied. This was followed by an infinitesimal but palpable pause, a silence that has followed me down the years. ‘A grand year, 1903,’ he added.
‘Why is that?’ I enquired.
‘Too young for the first war and too old for the second,’ he explained with a chuckle.
I was born in 1949, too young for both wars; too young even for conscription. Old enough for the welfare state, antibiotics, mass working-class prosperity, the coming of television and the expansion of higher education. Like the vast majority of professional historians of my generation, my experience of war is entirely second-hand. It is, nevertheless, real.
No British child born in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War could possibly escape its influence. Samuel Hynes’s felicitous description of the Second World War as ‘Everybody’s War’ is certainly true in my experience.1 Everybody appeared to have taken part in it. Not only fathers and uncles, but also mothers and aunts. I was taught by veterans of the war. My eccentric and charismatic English teacher, J. E. ‘Boris’ Simnett, landed in Normandy on D+3, carrying a wireless set that he promptly (and accidentally) broke, for which hamfistedness he was threatened with court-martial. My equally eccentric physics teacher, E. W. ‘Daddy’ Knight, enlivened lessons with tales of his time in bomb disposal.
As an undergraduate I sat at the feet of the Rev J. McManners, who fought in the Western Desert as adjutant of the 1st Battalion Royal Northumberland Fusiliers and later with the Greek resistance, and R. H. Evans, who spent much of the war with 7th Armoured Division and actually witnessed the German surrender to Field-Marshal Montgomery on Luneburg Heath. When I entered the world of work, as a civil servant, most of the middle managers were veterans. ‘I slept next to my tank all the way from Normandy to the liberation of Belsen and never got a cold,’ one wistfully recalled. ‘Now if I go out without a hat, I risk pneumonia.’2 The undoubted nostalgia that many seemed to feel for the war is apparent in the last remark. ‘No one in this country comes alive until you mention the war,’ observed a young American on his first visit to Britain in the early 1960s.3
Nostalgia was not confined to those who fought the war. Many in my generation grew up believing that they had missed something that was not only really important but also really exciting. This was due not only to the influence of adults but also to the new, powerful medium of television, especially perhaps to the long-running series All Our Yesterdays, which showed – almost nightly, it seemed – extracts from British newsreels from the same week 25 years earlier. In this way it was possible to live through the descent into war and the war years vicariously. And I did. Few major figures of the war adapted better to the new medium than Field-Marshal Montgomery. More even than Churchill, he was, for me, the great British hero of the Second World War. I cried the day he died. Churchill was a remote figure who appeared in newsreels and waved at the cameras from the steps of aircraft or the decks of Aristotle Onassis’s yacht. Montgomery gave interviews. And what interviews. ‘Now, I’ll call you Cliff and you call me Monty,’ he declared to the television journalist Cliff Michelmore, himself a veteran of the war. It was captivating stuff.
What television failed to achieve was completed by the cinema. War films were a staple of the British film industry throughout the 1950s and 1960s: They Were Not Divided (1950); Albert RN (1953); The Cruel Sea (1953); The Colditz Story (1954); The Dam Busters (1954); Cockleshell Heroes (1955); Reach for the Sky (1956); Ill Met by Moonlight (1956); Battle of the River Plate (1956); The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957); Dunkirk (1958); Sink the Bismarck (1960); The Battle of Britain (1969); and many more. Television repeated films made during the war itself: The Foreman Went to France (1941); In Which We Serve (1942); Went the Day Well? (1942); The Bells Go Down (1943); San Demetrio London (1943); Desert Victory (1943); Western Approaches (1944); and Olivier’s Henry V (1944). Feature films tended to portray what were, to the British, key moments of the war. By the time I was ten I could recite the litany: the Graf Spee; Dunkirk; the Home Guard; ‘the Few’; the Blitz; Coventry; the Bismarck; Tobruk; El Alamein; Singapore; the Prince of Wales and the Repulse; the death railway; Burma and the ‘Forgotten Fourteenth’; Anzio; the Dambusters; D-Day; Arnhem; Doodlebugs and the V2; Belsen.
Samuel Hynes and Gary Sheffield have shown that young men who grew up in the 1930s and went to war in the 1940s did so with a war already in their heads.4 That war was, of course, the First World War, or at least the First World War depicted in the ‘anti-war’ memoirs of a small number of middle-class veterans. By the time I reached my teens the war I had in my head was the Second World War. David Lodge’s novel Small World has a hero who is writing a PhD thesis about the influence of T. S. Eliot on Shakespeare. There is an important sense in which it is possible to talk about the influence of the Second World War on the First. When, eventually, I came to read and think about the First World War, it was difficult to rid my mind of images of the Second. Doubtless, these distorted my view but they also illuminated it.
The Second World War in my head had several distinguishing features. First and foremost, it was clearly glorious. This is now a deeply unfashionable thing to say. Many would regard the statement as wicked. It would be meaningless to my mother-in-law, a Pole, to whom the war brought nothing but suffering, loss and displacement. But most people in my childhood seemed to feel it. ‘No English soldier who rode with the tanks into liberated Belgium or saw the German murder camps at Dachau or Buchenwald could doubt that the war had been a noble crusade,’ wrote A. J. P. Taylor in the elegiac final paragraph of his volume in the Oxford History of England.5
Second, the noble crusade had been a quintessentially British victory. ‘We’ had won the war. This was the source of much national pride. Although the Second World War was a global conflict, fought by armies numbered in millions across four continents, the British always seemed to be at the heart of it and to be playing the key role. Persons who questioned this often got short shrift. The British were very proprietorial about their victory. During the 1960s an American television series about a US unit operating behind enemy lines in the Desert War had to be taken off by the BBC after a couple of episodes following howls of outrage from British Eighth Army veterans. Early attempts at revising the heroic ‘myth’ of 1940, by Len Deighton in Fighter (1977), also brought odium upon its author. Foreigners had only walk-on parts in this drama. Germans were efficient and brave in a bad cause. Italians were useless soldiers, worthy only of contempt. ‘I’ve got no time for Italians,’ one British veteran recalled. ‘When we put them into the POW cages in Algeria they just sat around in their own shit. Not like Jerry.’6 ‘Japs’ were cruel and unfathomable. One decent, humane, well-read, liberal-minded provincial Englishman recently observed to me that he still found it almost impossible to be civil to Japanese, whom he characterised as ‘vicious little bastards’.7
Allies, except perhaps for the brave and exotic Poles, fared no better. The French (and the Belgians) had ‘let us down’. The Yanks prevailed because they had lots of ‘kit’, not because they could fight. Eisenhower was no more than a glorified clerk, whose failure to submit to the military genius of Montgomery had handed half of Europe over to Communism; Patton was a madman who slapped shell-shocked soldiers. The war on the Eastern Front was vaguely recognised as bloody and important, but the war there had been won by a country that was now our mortal enemy, whose nuclear missiles were pointed at our shores. Wartime admiration for the achievements of the Red Army soon evaporated. Now, in middle age, I recoil with horror at the parochialism, narrow-mindedness and bigotry of these views, but they were commonplace in my childhood and many still share them.8
Third, the war was well-managed. After initial setbacks, mostly attributed to the malign influence of the ‘Men of Munich’, the British eventually got their act together. Churchill provided not only effective but also inspirational leadership at the political level. Montgomery and Slim emerged as ‘great commanders’, with an almost unbroken record of success. Both had learned from the mistakes of the First World War. They were prudent with men’s lives. They left nothing to chance. They understood technology. They had the common touch. If, in Montgomery’s case, it was that of a shameless vulgarian, no one seemed to care. But Slim was what would now be called ‘cool’. He exemplified the ironic mode of late-20th Century heroism. Most of all, however, they had, in the words of Slim’s own account, turned defeat into victory at a price that seemed worth the paying.9 Casualties lie at the heart of British perceptions of the two World Wars. British casualties in the First World War were unprecedented in the national experience. British military casualties in the Second World War were hardly small (c305,000) but they were considerably less than half of those of the First. The superior nature of British military leadership and technology in the Second World War is still generally given credit for this by popular opinion.
Fourth, the Second World War was not only a war of national heroism but also a war of individual heroism. There was something almost bijou about Britain’s war, a war of commando raids and operations behind enemy lines, small scale, human scale, dramatic, filmable and easy to follow. It was a war in which individuals and small groups seemed to make a difference: Douglas Bader; Guy Gibson; Orde Wingate; Vian of the Cossack10; ‘Dickie’ Mountbatten and the Kelly, the ‘little ships’ and their crews at Dunkirk; the Chindits; the Long Range Desert Group. When, in later years, I learned in the pages of Professor Fussell that the First World War had changed for ever the nature of heroism, it was the cause of some consternation.11 The heroes of the Second World War seemed then, and seem now, to sit easily with those of the past: Grenville, Drake, Wolfe, Nelson.
Finally, the Second World War represented the triumph of brains. It was a war of the ‘boffin’ and the ‘gadget’. Few books are better designed to lift the spirits of the Briton than R. V. Jones’s Most Secret War: British Scientific Intelligence 1939–194512, in which a motley collection of mathematicians, linguists, classicists, engineers, chemists and physicists, even the odd historian, often eccentric and unwarlike individualists in horn-rimmed spectacles and decaying sports jackets, conspired to destroy the Nazi war machine. The centrepiece of this was, of course, the development of radar. Though the name of its originator, Robert Watson Watt, was well known, his personality was not. The iconic figure of the boffins’ war became, instead, Dr Barnes Wallis, inventor of the ‘bouncing bomb’, a concept so bizarre that it must have been the work of a genius. Only later, however, did history offer up the pi?ce de resistance of the British war effort, Enigma. Revelations about the code-breakers’ war at Bletchley Park, which appeared in the early 1970s13, merely confirmed the importance of British brain power and discovered a new hero, the mathematician, cryptanalyst and computer pioneer, Alan Turing, who was not only a genius but also a tortured gay, very much a hero for the late 20th century.
During my childhood, the First World War struggled for visibility in the glare of attention paid to the Second. There was no one to reminisce with me about the Great War. Both my grandfathers died before I was born, one as the result of war service. My maternal grandmother died when I was three. My paternal grandmother was not a woman who invited questions. My first, dim, awareness of the First World War came through the powerful injunction never to wear a poppy. This stemmed from my maternal grandmother, Louisa Sheldon, a formidable personality who never forgave the war for killing her husband and leaving her in poverty to bring up a family of five, including four girls. She regarded poppies as a means of extorting money out of gullible people who could ill afford it for the enrichment of those who had done well out of the war.
Beyond the family, the First World War seemed to exist only as a guilty secret. My loud, childish enquiries about why some men had only one arm or one leg was met with a whispered, ‘He lost it in the first war.’ My native North Staffordshire was no stranger to respiratory disease: white lung for potters, black lung for colliers. During the early 1960s I began to notice coroners’ reports in the Staffordshire Evening Sentinel in which the cause of death was given as ‘pneumoconiosis, with gassing in the First World War as a contributory factor’. Gassing. The Second World War had gas masks, but no gas. The First World War evoked no nostalgia. Politicians did not summon the nation to show the ‘spirit of the Somme’ as they routinely did the ‘spirit of Dunkirk’ or the ‘spirit of the Blitz’. It seemed to be a war of victims, not of heroes. It was, in short, a very different kind of war.
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