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Second World War: A Short History

Battle of Britain Memorial, Capel le Ferne in Kent


Adolf Hitler was born in Austria in 1889. He had a completely undistinguished early career and seemed destined for quiet work in the civil service, like his father. After serving in the army and trying to make it as an artist, Hitler drifted into low level military intelligence work. Then he joined one of many small political parties which existed in Germany following World War One. At first this "party" consisted of no more than half a dozen individuals. They argued about politics, and generally had a programme based on hating politicians, provincialism, Jews, and the Treaty Of Versailles, which had put limits on Germany following World War One. Somehow this crazy little group gained a power base in Bavaria. In 1923 Hitler's group tried to take over Bavaria's government in the so-called Beer House Putsch. Hitler was arrested and served nine months in jail, where he wrote his Mein Kampf, or "My Struggle".



The Great Depression of the 1930s had a terrible effect on Germany. Desperate people started listening to a group of fanatics who said they had answers. They had answers in the sense that they had someone to blame. They blamed government, Jewish people, and the Western powers. They also thought that German people were better than everybody else. Half baked "Darwinian" ideas about the survival of the fittest were dragged in to support Nazi ideology. Ironically it was Darwin who more than anyone else showed the absurdity of Nazi ideas. Darwin suggested that various life forms have developed from one common origin, as opposed to the old religious view of species created as distinct entities. When life is considered in a Darwinian fashion it gets much harder to talk of master races and inferior races, since every race is related. Thomas Hardy who read the first edition of The Origin Of Species in 1859 felt that if all life derived from a common origin, then it all deserved the same respect. Compare this with the ludicrous racial and nationalistic ideas of the Nazis, where notions of racial "purity" had German officials tying themselves up in knots. It was laughable, if the consequences weren't so tragic. Lines of T.S. Eliot come to mind: "Bin gar keine Russin, stamm aus' Litauen, echt deutsch." This means "I am not Russian at all; I come from Lithuania. I am a real German." This reflects life's untidy reality.


Hitler might have harped on about racial and national purity, but Hitler's Germany grew out of a baffling range of people. Germany before the First World War, had combined Prussia in the north and Austria in the south. Austria had a long and bewildering history as the centre of an empire founded in 1272 by Austrian nobleman Rudolf Hapsburg. By the nineteenth century "Austria-Hungary" was a complicated ethnic mixture. In 1866 Bismarck, the Prussian Prime Minister, attacked Austria and pulled Germany together under the domination of northern Prussian provinces: but if you thought that Austrians considered themselves the same people as the Prussians, with whom they fought wars, then you'd be wrong. Following World War One, Germany was split away from Austria, which itself split away from a country now called Hungary. Confused? Well you might be. It was this confusion of identity which Hitler was determined to suppress. Hitler's vision of a recreated Germany was not the making whole of what had been broken. It was just a cobbling together of a country where any illusions of racial purity were simply ridiculous. But these illusions had a powerful resonance in the nationalistic twentieth century. The first act on the road to war was a take over of Austria, the Anschluss of early 1938. This involved Austria's Nazi party taking over Vienna's government, followed by the entry of a German army into Austria. A month later, following systematic intimidation of possible opposition, a plebiscite was held where the Nazi's apparently received 99.73% of the vote. Then continuing to play on the idea of German nationality, Hitler claimed that people of German origin in countries surrounding Germany needed his protection. So he planned to take over those countries and "protect" German people living in them.


Chamberlain at Heston airfield, with the Munich agreement which he hoped would bring peace. This image is copyright free

Czechoslovakia was next. The Czechs had once been part of the old Hapsburg Empire centred on Austria. Out of a population of fifteen million there were substantial ethnic minorities, particularly people of Germanic origin in the Sudentenland area of Czechoslovakia. Inspite of this ethnic complexity Czechoslovakia was a stable, prosperous country, well able to look after itself, with an army larger than Germany's. So Hitler and his minister of propaganda started to spread tales of Czech oppression of the Germanic minority. Sudentenland was destabilised, real riots followed fictional tales of riots. Hitler laid a claim to Sudentenland, and told his tales of wanting to protect German people there. This was nonsense, and a number of senior German generals suddenly seemed to realise the sort of man they were dealing with. James L. Stokesbury in A Short History of World War Two suggests rebel generals contacted British prime minister Neville Chamberlain and told him that the Allies must stand firm behind Czechoslovakia. As soon as Hitler ordered an invasion of Sudentenland they would have Hitler removed. Unfortunately Chamberlain and the Allies did not stand firm. Much was made of this afterwards, though looking at things in terms of the circumstances of the time, it is difficult to see how exactly a firm stand could be made. It should be remembered that there was no general mood for an aggressive policy. Christopher Cook quotes a Mass Observation study - an early form of opinion poll - which showed that in September 1938, 70% of a sample of British people questioned were in favour of Chamberlain's policy of trying to negotiate a settlement with Germany (see The Prime Ministers Vol 2 P294). The memory of the First World War was still fresh, and people did not want war. A policy to seek some kind of settlement was accepted wisdom. Czechoslovakia, fearing internal strife, as well as invasion, handed over Sudentenland to Germany. Germany invaded the part of Czechoslovakia that he had not won by treaty. There was little resistance.




View of the entrance to Dover Harbour from Admiralty Casement

On 1st September 1939 Germany invaded Poland. Once again it was all to do with recreating a pure Germany. When Poland had been reestablished after World War One, it had been granted access to the sea with a strip of territory around the city of Danzig. This had isolated the once German province of East Prussia. So Hitler wanted his German province back. Once Germany invaded Poland, Britain declared war, and World War Two had begun. On May 10th 1940 Germany invaded France. By late May and early June the British Expeditionary Force was being evacuated from Dunkirk. The Allies managed to lift 335,000 men off Dunkirk's beaches, a triumph and a disaster, as recognised by Winston Churchill, who had now taken over from Chamberlain as Prime Minister. The operation to evacuate Dunkirk was coordinated from Admiralty Casement at Dover Castle, which can still be visited. The smallest boat to take part in the Dunkirk evacuation, a little sailing dinghy called Tamzine is preserved at the Imperial War Museum London.








A Hurricane at the Battle of Britain Memorial, Capel le Ferne

By 25th of June 1940 France had surrendered. Britain decided to fight on, spurred on by a leader who refused to accept defeat. It is interesting to speculate how much of a role Churchill had in this resolution to fight. In popular myth it was all down to Churchill and his speeches that Britain continued its resistance. Whether this is actually true is a curious point. The liberal politician Jo Grimmond has written: "Some people seem to believe that we should have surrendered in the last war had it not been for Churchill. To me it is inconceivable that Britain would have folded up without a fight in 1940 whoever led us" (The Prime Ministers Vol2 P206). As Tolstoy said in War and Peace a leader often becomes successful not because they change the direction of history, but because they catch the tide of the way history is going anyway. But whether Churchill led, or reflected what had to happen, or a bit of both, Britain decided to fight.


Fortunately Britain had aircraft with which to fight. Inspite of the myth that Britain fought against "vastly superior numbers" (see The Battle of Britain by James Holland for example), and that Churchill's predecessors had neglected armament spending, Chamberlain had spent his term as prime minister concentrating on a defensive rather than offensive policy, which meant that Britain had plenty of fighter aircraft available (see Christopher Cook on Chamberlain in The Prime Ministers). It was also fortunate that Churchill had been talked out of sending the RAF to its destruction in the battle for France by commander of Fighter Command, Hugh Dowding. Without Dowding's stubborn courage in standing up to a raging Churchill, there would not have been enough aircraft to fight what became the Battle of Britain. Thanks in no small part to Chamberlain and Dowding the Battle of Britain began, with a Luftwaffe campaign to win air superiority over south east England. This was the first time a nation had tried to defeat another from the air. The battle rose to a crescendo in late August 1940. At this point Fighter Command was on the verge of defeat, its airfields bombed so constantly that recovery was almost impossible. Then a stray German bomber dropped its load by mistake over London, on the night of August 25th. Britain responded with a small raid on Berlin. From mid September the German effort was then switched to London, which allowed Fighter Command to recover. It soon became clear that the Luftwaffe could not achieve air superiority, which was vital for an invasion.

The Battle of Britain Memorial to pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain now sits on the cliffs at Capel le Ferne near Folkestone in Kent. It is also possible to visit the Orford Ness testing ground in Suffolk where radar was developed. Radar allowed early warning of German attacks and provided a vital advantage in the Battle of Britain. A wide range of Second World War aircraft can be seen at the former aircraft factory at Brooklands, Weybridge in Surrey, and the Imperial War Museum Duxford.




HMS Belfast

Following on from the London Blitz, Hitler then turned to bombing other British towns and cities, and to a submarine campaign against merchant shipping, known as the Battle of the Atlantic. The idea was to simply starve Britain by blocking its imports, and thus force surrender. Intelligence gathering was crucial in this battle, and the code breaking centre at Bletchley Park near Milton Keynes played a major role in defeating the U boats. Bletchley Park now has a museum dedicated to its wartime intelligence work. Battles also took place between surface vessels, with battleships such as Bismarck and Scharnhorst being used as surface raiders. The cruiser HMS Belfast which was involved in Scharnhorst's sinking in December 1943 can now be seen in the Pool of London as part of the Imperial War Museum.










Entrance to underground Cabinet War Rooms, Whitehall, London

Into 1941 Britain continued to struggle, in the Atlantic, and also in a north African campaign, which hoped to attack Hitler's Europe from the south. Then on June 22nd 1941 Hitler invaded Russia, and made frightening progress towards Moscow. But tactical errors resulting from Hitler interfering with his generals' decisions led to a delay in the advance to Moscow. German soldiers also alienated many millions of people who had no love for Russia. The Germans thought they were the master race and treated conquered peoples of eastern Europe appallingly. Any chance of help for their offensive quickly vanished. Delays meant that the Germans were not in a position to threaten Moscow until December. In early December winter began, with temperatures plummeting almost overnight to around minus forty degrees centigrade.The German army had assumed they would have won by now and had not prepared for cold weather. There were no warm clothes for soldiers, and no cold weather fuel for vehicles and tanks. The advance froze to a halt on 5th December. The Russians counter attacked on the 6th, and the 7th saw Japan attacking the United States' Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii. The Japanese had been waging war in China for a number of years and were looking to expand into the south Pacific. They knew they would eventually run into conflict with the United States in doing this, and decided to strike first. After Pearl Harbour, as America sat outraged and shocked, Churchill's feelings were different. On hearing news of the raid Churchill's first thought was "we have won the war". That night, ironic as it sounds, he slept what he described as "the sleep of the saved and the thankful".


Churchill was correct in his judgment. December 1941 was a turning point, even though it did not seem that way for a while. Japan had initial success in the Pacific, while the Germans continued to fight in Russia. Nevertheless the war started to go against Germany and its allies. While Russia started to push German forces back, the Pacific war turned against Japan, following a crucial American victory at Midway in June 1942. The British also made progress in north Africa. At this point there was another poignant illustration of the true complexity of human relations, against which the illusion of Hitler's national purity sat. Following victory at the Battle of El Alamein in October 1943 it was decided that there should be a British and American invasion of French North Africa. At this point French servicemen in these provinces found themselves in a dilemma. They were being instructed by their German dominated government in Vichy to defend French territory, but they were doing so against soldiers who had fought with them against the Germans. Were France's best interests served by listening to their government, or by siding with the Allies? There was confusion, some fighting, and the scuttling of French ships in Toulon. As a result the French government operating from Vichy had its authority suspended, and France was taken completely under German administration.



Slapton Sands - a model for Utah Beach

Into 1944 the war swung decisively in the Allies favour. Allied soldiers fighting in Italy took Rome on 4th June 1944. On 6th June the invasion of northern Europe began with Operation Overlord. This massive invasion took place in Normandy, and involved the building of portable harbours off the invasion beaches to support armies going ashore. A breakwater from one of these "Mulberry" harbours can still be seen floating in Portland Harbour in Dorset. Two fifteen inch naval guns, from HMS Ramilles and HMS Roberts, which shelled the French coast on D-Day can be seen outside the Imperial War Museum London. Slapton Sands in Devon provides a poignant memorial to D-Day in being a model for Utah Beach. It was here during disastrous rehearsals for D-Day in April 1944 that four times as many men were killed as died at the real Utah Beach.


Inspite of setbacks, such as the ill-fated attempt to capture the Rhine bridge at Arnhem in October 1944, and a German counterattack in the Ardennes in December 1944, the Allies made progress across Europe. On March 7th 1945 a bridge over the Rhine was finally captured at Remagen and the Allies entered German heartlands. It has sometimes been suggested that German defenders of Remagen bridge left it intact to allow an Allied advance at the expense of the Russians. Whether this is true or not, and it probably isn't, there were certainly a number of senior German commanders who wanted the western front to be allowed to collapse, since they felt Allied occupation would be preferable to Russian occupation. The Germans were now in the same situation as those poor French soldiers in French North Africa. Perhaps working against their country was the best way to work for it. An attempt on Hitler's life by a group of senior officials had already been made soon after the Normandy landings.

Meanwhile in the Pacific, the Battle of the Philippine Sea in June 1944 destroyed most of what remained of Japan's fleet. The Japanese seemed to feel that national interest came before everything. Surrender was unthinkable, and young men crashed their aircraft into American ships in a desperate attempt to hold them back. Because surrender was unthinkable, Allied prisoners of war were treated terribly. Churchill may have said "we will never surrender" in 1940, but surrender by enemy troops was seen as an acceptable thing to do; and when Churchill was defeated in the General Election of 1945 he accepted his defeat. Both the Japanese and Hitler would not accept surrender under almost any circumstances. In the summer of 1945 it was only blasts from two atomic bombs at Hiroshima on August 6th and Nagasaki on August 7th that persuaded Japan to capitulate. In the end the totalitarian way of doing things which rigidly separated winner from loser, race from race, alienated more people than it held together. In Europe the catastrophic attempt to liquidate all European Jews derived from this same fanaticism. Fanatical national allegiance was eventually defeated by democracies where every few years people would decide if they wanted the government to stay or not. A democracy, in a formalised way, could surrender every four years, turn on itself and create itself anew.

All this might be true, but it is forgetting the contribution that Russia made to the defeat of Germany. Millions of Russian soldiers died in the east European struggle, and it would be hard to see how Hitler could have been defeated without them. Russia was another totalitarian state, and if totalitarian Germany and Russia had got together, the outcome of World War Two could have been very different. But Germany and Russia did not get together. Totalitarian states are not suited to cooperation, or showing tolerance of other people in a huge international effort. Communist Russia, after the Cold War, was also to suffer a defeat, by western democracies which built surrender into the every day processes of their government. This is what helped make them at least more likely to embrace tolerance. Societies that somehow accepted surrender eventually prevailed. Victory came about by accepting defeat. In the words of Kipling, those two imposters should be treated just the same. As Darwin says in The Origin of Species, nature is not designed around the idea of one organism winning all the time. One form of life has to balance another.

The Imperial War Museum North in Manchester has been built with clever chaotic buildings to suggest the disorientation of war. In fact the Second World War seems to show that the real trouble comes when people try to make clear lines out of life. Peaceful life is vague, one race merges into another, defeat and victory are difficult to disentangle.
















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