The great misconceptions of the Second World War
Some of the leading historians of the Second World War debunk nine widely held assumptions about the global conflagration
There was a single, decisive reason for the Allied victory
Wrong, says Max Hastings
One of the most important things Churchill said during the war was when he sent a 1941 memo to Charles Portal, chief of the Air Staff, who had pleaded for 4,000 heavy bombers so that the RAF could win the war on their own. Churchill replied, near enough: “I deplore placing unlimited confidence in any one means of winning the war… All things are always on the move at once.” I first read that quote when I was working on my book Bomber Command in 1978 and I thought at the time that it was a very, very important statement about what wars are all about.
One of the commonest mistakes some readers and lots of Hollywood producers and historians make about the Second World War is to look for single reasons as to why things happened as they did. All sorts of things mattered and if we want to understand the war then we have to factor in the whole range – whether it was the decrypters at Bletchley Park, the Red Army on the eastern front or the stupendous contribution of American industry.
Although Harry Hinsley was a terrific historian, I’m sure he overstated it when he said that the decrypters at Bletchley Park shortened the war by up to four years. You just can’t say things like that. You can argue that they made a wonderful contribution but you can’t simplify things to that degree. In the same way we can certainly say that it’s much more difficult to see how the war would have panned out if the Japanese had not attacked the Americans at Pearl Harbor, but again you can’t overstate it. You can’t say that Britain would have lost the war if it hadn’t been for Pearl Harbor.
We all like quick solutions to things. We would like to believe that, for example, if it hadn’t been for Operation Mincemeat dropping a corpse off the coast of Spain to deceive the Germans, that the Allied landings in Sicily might not have worked. However, while Mincemeat helped a little bit, it probably made only a 3 or 4 per cent contribution to the success of the landings. But of course Hollywood and the sensationalists would have loved it to be this one coup, this one great romantic story that changed the course of events.
In the end, it’s important to understand that almost all major events have multiple causes and multiple consequences and so it really is kids’ stuff to look for single causes as to why things turned out in a certain way.
Sir Max Hastings is the author of All Hell Let Loose: The World at War 1939–1945 (HarperPress, 2011)
Germany boasted a highly mechanised fighting force
Wrong, says James Holland
There’s a general view that Germany was a heavily mechanised force in the war, but that simply wasn’t the case. It was one of the least automotive of all developed countries: in 1939 there were 48 people per motor vehicle in Germany, compared to four people in the US.
Yes, they had autobahns, but an advanced motor industry is needed for a highly mechanised army: factories, skilled labour, and enough people who know how to drive. Without it, the mechanisation the Germans projected, and needed, was little short of fantasy. Indeed, the last newly commissioned German troop-carrying vehicle came in 1941 and was a pneumatic-tyre horse-drawn cart. I rest my case.
The Germans were a bit smug about capturing a vast number of enemy vehicles, and went into the Soviet Union in June 1941 using everything from Citroen vans to Morris Commercials. This was fine until they started to break down and the troops discovered that they had neither the spare parts nor the know-how to repair them. Over half of the vehicles lost by the Germans in the war were due to mechanical failure.
So where has this misconception come from? Firstly, the incredible Blitzkrieg of 1940, achieved using a blistering combination of air and land forces. Of 135 divisions used, only 16 were mechanised – the rest dependent on feet and horses. Brilliant though the Blitzkrieg was, considerable French failings exaggerated German genius.
The second factor is Nazi propaganda, which fooled almost everyone at the start of the war. The Nazis invested much on radio and film and made sure that any footage showed columns of tanks, trucks and dive-bombing Stukas. Even Hitler started to believe his own and German military genius.
Not only were the Germans under-equipped, the equipment that they did have was often hopelessly over-engineered. Teutonic inefficiency, not efficiency, marked much of the way Germany conducted the war, from the gas-guzzling three-gearboxed Tiger tank to the simple gas mask canister.
James Holland is the author of Dam Busters: The Race to Smash the Dams, 1943 (Corgi, 2013)
D-Day was bound to succeed
Wrong, says Antony Beevor
The Axis could have won the war
Wrong, says Joe Maiolo
Joe Maiolo is the author of Cry Havoc: The Arms Race and the Second World War, 1931–41 (John Murray, 2010)
Everyone was ‘in it together’
Wrong, says Juliet Gardiner
The word ‘Russia’ can be used as shorthand for the ‘Soviet Union’
Wrong, says Roger Moorhouse
Roger Moorhouse is a British historian, and author of Berlin at War (Bodley Head, 2010)
Britain’s war economy was hugely efficient
Wrong, says Norman Stone
Norman Stone is the author of World War Two: A Short History (Allen Lane, 2013)
Churchill was never in favour of appeasement
Wrong, says Laurence Rees
Britain stood alone in 1940
Wrong, says Andrew Roberts
With the Indian army of King George VI remaining the largest volunteer force in the history of mankind, we clearly need to drop the concept of Britain standing alone in 1940.