10 things you (probably) didn’t know about the Second World War
When it comes to the Second World War, most people will be able to tell you the important dates and historical facts. But did you know that Britain actually had the least rationing in Europe? Or that Germany had a unique way of treating its flying ‘aces’? Here, historian James Holland reveals several lesser-known details about the conflict
France had more tanks, guns and men than Germany in 1940
It is always assumed that during the Second World War the Germans bludgeoned their way to victory with a highly modern and mechanised army and Air Force that was superior to anything the Allies could muster in May 1940. The reality of WW2 was very different.
On 10 May 1940, when the Germans attacked, only 16 of their 135 divisions were mechanised – that is, equipped with motorised transport. The rest depended on horses and cart or feet. France alone had 117 divisions.
France also had more guns: Germany had 7,378 artillery pieces and France 10,700. It didn't stop there: the Germans could muster 2,439 tanks while the French had 3,254, most of which were bigger, better armed and armoured than the German panzers.
The priority for manpower in the UK is surprising
Britain had decided before the war began that it would make air and naval power the focus of its fighting capability, and it was only after the fall of France that British powers realised that the Army would have to grow substantially too.
More like this
However, right up until the spring of 1944, the priority for manpower in the UK was not the navy, RAF, army, or even the merchant navy, but the Ministry of Aircraft Production. In the war, Britain alone built 132,500 aircraft, a staggering achievement – especially when considering that Fighter Command in the Battle of Britain never had more than 750 fighters.
Allied merchant shipping losses were just 1 per cent
Allied shipping losses in the Second World War in the North Atlantic, Arctic and Home Waters were just 1.48 per cent. Overall, there were 323,090 individual sailings, of which 4,786 were sunk. Of these, 2,562 were British, but on average, there were around 2,000 British ships sailing somewhere around the world on any given day.
Convoys, for the most part, were pretty safe, even though a few suffered terribly. Independent sailings and stragglers from convoys suffered the worst, but faster independent sailings were needed to cut down on unloading time and congestion, which was the drawback of the convoy system.
The Japanese had Kamikaze rockets
It was not only the Germans who put rocket-power aircraft into the air in the Second World War. After their initial victories, the Japanese struggled to pace with US and British technology, but they did develop the Ohka – or ‘Cherry Blossom’, a rocket-power human-guided anti-shipping missile, which was used at the end of the war as a kamikaze weapon.
It had to be carried by a ‘mother’ plane to get within range, then once released would glide towards the target – usually a ship – before the pilot would fire the rockets and hurtle in at up to 600 mph. Ohka pilots were called Jinrai Butai – ‘thunder gods’ – but only managed to sink three Allied ships. It was a lot of effort and sacrifice for not very much.
- Listen | Mariko Oi discusses her experiences of interviewing some of the last survivors of the notorious Japanese raids in World War Two
Britain had the least rationing in Europe
France and Britain began the war without rationing and, while it was modestly introduced in Britain in January 1940, France had still resisted by the time they were defeated in June 1940. Germany, on the other hand, introduced rationing before the war and struggled to feed its armed forces and the wider population from start to finish.
The country’s demand for food from occupied territories led to a lot of hunger for a lot of people, including the urban French. British people never had to go hungry and, although a number of foods were rationed, there were lots that were not. Certainly, by 1945, Britain had it very easy compared with the rest of Europe.
Field Marshal Alexander was the most experienced battlefield commander of the war
Field Marshal Alexander was known to every Britain in the country by the war's end, but he is less well known today. He had an extraordinary career, and was the only officer of the war to lead front-line troops at every rank.
After rising to acting Brigadier in the First World War, he led the Nowshera Brigade on the Northwest Frontier in the 1930s, the First Division in France in 1940, and British forces in Burma in 1942. He commanded Middle East Forces and two army groups before finally becoming Supreme Allied Commander in the Mediterranean.
He was also unique in the British Army for having commanded German troops in Latvia in 1919-20 during the war against Russia.
There was a difference between Allied & German fighter aces
The Luftwaffe had an entirely different approach to their 'aces.' Not only were pilots expected to fly on operations longer without breaks, they also actively helped their leading shots get big scores with lesser mortals protecting them while the 'experten' did the shooting.
On the Eastern Front they came up against badly armed and trained Soviet aircraft and soon the leading pilots began amassing huge scores. Bibi Hartmann was the leading ace of all time with 352 'kills'. The leading Allied ace of the entire war was RAF ace, James 'Johnnie' Johnson with 38 kills.
The missing Luftwaffe fighter plane
At the same time as Messerschmitt was developing the Bf109, rival firm Heinkel were also putting forward a new all-metal monoplane fighter, the He112. Early prototypes of each were pretty evenly matched in terms of speed and rate of climb and both the Me109E, as Messerschmitt’s fighter became, and the He112E had speeds of more than 350mph.
The latter could climb to 20,000 feet in 10 minutes. More importantly, it had a very sturdy inwardly-retracting undercarriage that made it easy to land for newly trained pilots, and a phenomenal range of some 715 miles, which was better even than the twin-engine Messerschmitt 110.
The He112 would have been the ideal partner to the Me109 – and its range was an advantage in the battle of Britain and elsewhere. However, while Willy Messerchmitt was a good party man and Göring had a special (and irrational) fondness for the Me110, Heinkel had a whiff of Jewish blood – so the Heinkel fighter was dropped.
The American Parsons Jacket was designed with comfort in mind
The standard and most widely worn US Army field tunic of the war was the M41, better known as the Parsons Jacket. This was introduced in 1941 following trials by the US 5th Division in exercises in the Midwest and Alaska in the summer and autumn of 1940, and was given its name after Major-General Parsons, the divisional commander.
The design, however, was based on a pre-war civilian windcheater: the rapidly expanding US Army recognised that most of its recruits were conscripts and that comfort, durability and practicality were more important than slick military bearing. With a zip and button front, it was a simple, lightweight and warm short jacket that required little tailoring and wasted no material, and which was designed in consultation with Esquire magazine’s fashion desk.
Germany’s motor transport was minimal
German wartime propaganda that the Third Reich had a highly mechanised and modern army is still widely believed, but actually, in 1939, Germany was one of the least automotive societies in the western world, despite the autobahns and Grand Prix victories of Mercedes.
On the outbreak of war, there were 47 people for every motor vehicle in Germany. In Britain, that figure was 14, in France it was eight, and in the USA it was four. This meant the German army was largely dependent on railways, horses and carts and the feet of its soldiers to get around; there were only 16 mechanised divisions in the army in May 1940.
More importantly, however, such comparatively low numbers of motor vehicles meant there were fewer factories, fewer workshops, fewer petrol pumps and fewer people who knew how to drive. In other words, it was a shortage that could not be easily rectified.
James Holland is an award-winning historian, writer and broadcaster and author of Normandy ‘44: D-Day and the Battle for France (Bantam Press, May 2019). He is a fellow of the Royal Historical Society and a research fellow at Swansea University, and he hosts a weekly podcast with Comedian Al Murray about the Second World War, ‘We Have Ways of Making You Talk’. You can follow James on Twitter @James1940.
This article was originally published by History Extra in September 2014
Subscribe to BBC History Magazine and receive a signed copy of 2023 edition Windrush: 75 years of modern Britain by Mike Phillips and Trevor Philips
As a print subscriber you will also get FREE access to HistoryExtra.com worth £34.99