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
This article was first published in the May 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine
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.
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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
Hindsight is a curse of history and this is an excellent example of that. There is an assumption that because of the Allies’ overwhelming air and materiel superiority by June 1944, the cross-Channel invasion was bound to succeed. But that is totally wrong. You need to put yourself back in the boots of the people of the time and understand why they were worried. Eisenhower prepared a statement in advance, which he kept in his wallet, accepting full responsibility for the failure of D-Day, and it was only after the critical moment had passed that he handed it over to his naval aide.D-Day was well thought out and prepared but it remains one of the most ambitious operations in history. It was a massive invasion across a large width of water, and they had no idea to what degree U-boats had managed to get into the Channel.
The Germans hadn’t anticipated a gap in the weather at that point. This meant that they hadn’t sent any Kriegsmarine patrols into the Channel. It also meant that Rommel had gone home to see his wife, and that a number of generals were away at a map exercise in Rennes. Yet the weather forecast was not certain and Eisenhower took a brave decision to go ahead. Had he waited a couple of weeks, however, the landing craft would have arrived in the middle of one of the worst storms the Channel had seen in over 40 years. You can imagine what the effect would have been.
The Allies did have massive air superiority but that didn’t mean that the Germans could not defend themselves. In fact airpower played a very small role on D-Day, as the bombing to suppress shore batteries and defensive positions along the coast was a failure. That is why, in particular at Omaha Beach, the German defences were more or less untouched.One thing that helped the Allies enormously was the Operation Fortitude deception, which kept the German 15th Army stuck in the Pas de Calais during this critical time. Had these panzer divisions moved to Normandy more rapidly, then the Allies might have been pushed back.
All this goes on to emphasise that those who argue that D-Day could have been launched in 1943 are completely wrong. It wasn’t until the end of that year that the U-boat menace had been more or less contained and even more importantly the Luftwaffe had yet to be mortally wounded. From that point of view a 1943 invasion wouldn’t have stood a chance.
Antony Beevor is the author of The Second World War (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2012)
The Axis could have won the war
Wrong, says Joe Maiolo
I can’t construct a scenario where the Axis could have won the Second World War. In fact, the ‘Axis’ is itself a misnomer because it contained a failed Italian Fascist state, which became a German auxiliary, and the Japanese who were fighting their own war and had no interest in co-ordinating grand strategy. So really we’re talking about Germany, and Germany simply did not have the industrial depth to wage a protracted war against the coalition that was likely to be ranged against it.
Those who think that Germany could have triumphed usually argue about how they invented Blitzkrieg, had better tanks and aircraft and better conceptions of war. Even if these were all true, they are short-term operational advantages, not strategic advantages. True, Germany achieved a flukey victory over France but that really didn’t change the bigger picture.
There is a myth that Germany was on the cusp of defeating the Soviet Union, but every attempt to turn the war in the east into a close-run thing is just not plausible. In key weapons systems such as tanks, artillery and general munitions the Soviets were out-producing Germany throughout the war, despite the huge losses at the beginning. The German generals knew that if you couldn’t defeat the Soviet Union quickly then you couldn’t defeat it at all, and even by the third week of August 1941, General Halder was writing: “Uh-oh, they’re still coming.”
War is not simply about battles. Both the world wars were decided by the balance of industrial resources and manpower – that is why victory went to the Entente powers in 1918 and the Allies in 1945. Debates about the Second World War should focus not on how the Allies managed to win, but on how they won as quickly as they did.
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
When we look at the home front during the Second World War, it is usually with the perception that shared experiences and the necessity of presenting a united front against Hitler overcame class differences, and that the war was, in fact, a tremendous equaliser.
While I wouldn’t want to suggest that Britain was bitterly divided during the Second World War, tensions persisted, and class divides did not disappear as propaganda has had us believe. Wealth was still unequal; there was the legacy of high unemployment in the prewar years; and industrial relations in certain key industries were appalling.
One of the most popular stories is that Londoners, rich and poor, gathered together in the city’s tube stations, class divides forgotten with the threat of aerial bombing. Not true. Only around 70,000 people took shelter in London’s tube network during the Blitz, and these tended to be those of a working-class background who did not have the same shelter provision that the better-off did.
The docks were a frequent target as were factories, which were often surrounded by housing for the workers, and these suffered devastating ‘collateral damage’ in air raids. The East End of London was constantly under attack , as were Merseyside, Glasgow, Hull, Belfast, Bristol, Plymouth and other places. Of course, well-off areas were bombed as well, but if you had money and resources, you were more likely to be able to send your children away to safety, staying with friends or family in the country or overseas. Rationing, supposedly the great equaliser, did ensure fair basic provisions for all, but again, the wealthier could get round it. Those with the means could buy expensive, non-rationed provisions, or could afford to eat out in classy restaurants. Some working-class people couldn’t afford to buy all the rations they were entitled to under the scheme.
Crime also rose during the war and it’s fair to say that while volunteer ARP wardens and other civil defence services showed amazing courage, not everybody rallied when there was an air raid: bombed houses were frequently looted of possessions, while rationing scams, fraud and counterfeit ration books were all prevalent.
I’m not suggesting that there was a revolutionary spirit among Britain’s working classes. It was more of a grumbling spirit – a feeling that not everyone was pulling their weight equally all the time. Labour strikes in the coal mining and engineering industries were particularly prevalent, and for many the feeling that Britain was an unequal society persisted.
However, the British government was aware that the war could be lost on the home front as much as it could on the battlefield and that morale would be a vital component of victory. The narrative had to be that everyone was together in their efforts, sacrifices and suffering: that Britain was a nation united in its efforts to defeat Germany – which, of course, it did.
Juliet Gardiner is author of Wartime: Britain 1939–1945 (Headline, 2004) and The Blitz: The British Under Attack (HarperPress, 2010)
The word ‘Russia’ can be used as shorthand for the ‘Soviet Union’
Wrong, says Roger Moorhouse
One of the most common, and misleading, misconceptions I come across when reading about the Second World War is the consistent use of the word ‘Russia’ to describe the Soviet Union. The two were never the same thing. The Soviet Union, initially consisting of four separate republics, was formed in 1922, with Russia making up the largest constituent part, but dissolved into 15 post-Soviet states in 1991.
The misconception is more than just pedantry. Referring to the Soviet Union as Russia is misleading and effectively airbrushes out the two Soviet republics that saw the majority of the fighting on the eastern front in the Second World War: Ukraine and Byelorussia. Some 25 per cent of the population of Byelorussia died in the Second World War, yet many historians still talk about Russia in that conflict as if Ukraine and Byelorussia didn’t exist.
The mistake isn’t a modern one, either. Even Churchill got it wrong. In his famous speech of 1 October 1939 he states: “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”Churchill, though, grew up in the era of imperial Russia, so would have been accustomed to calling that entity Russia. Today’s historians have no such excuse.
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
One of the most interesting things about Britain in the Second World War is the idea that the wartime economy was hugely efficient and should therefore act as a model for what followed after the conflict had ended. There was a general air of ‘mateyness’, of trade unions and governments operating together, when in some ways the country was actually less efficient than it had been in the First World War.
The reality was that there was much, much more labour trouble during the Second World War than people commonly think. For instance, there were more labour strikes in 1942 than there had been in 1917. Some of this trouble was in the mines, which I think can be seen as a response to conscripting young men to work in them. After their experiences before the war, by this point in history British miners had become what you could term rather bloody-minded.Ernest Bevin, who was after all a trade union organiser (and a very good one) had some idea of what was happening, and knew how to deal with the ‘wild men’ of the unions. As a result, the unions were handed responsibility for a whole range of new things in the hope that it would persuade them to more fully contribute to the war effort.
To some extent, this did happen, as can be seen with the huge influx of labour going into the aircraft factories – and particularly in the large number of women who were employed in them. In general, wage levels and the standard of living rose for the working classes, yet taxation also ensured that the rest of the country sank to a similar level – as AJP Taylor put it, to that of the “skilled artisan”.
Following the war there was an air of a quiet kind of triumphalism: an idea, almost, that we’d defeated the Germans as a national sport and that the ‘man in Whitehall’ had done it by implementing rationing. This, in turn, led to the idea that a similar kind of government control with enforced planning would be an opportunity for the future.
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
Winston Churchill is well known for having been opposed to the appeasement of dictators, famously stating “an appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last”. But while Churchill may have been a driving force against the appeasement of the Nazi regime, I would argue that he did, in fact, knowingly appease another dictator: Josef Stalin.
The 1939 German-Soviet Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which stipulated a 10-year period of non-aggression between the two countries, also saw an agreement between Stalin and Hitler that meant that the former could essentially take half of Poland. The Soviet Red Army subsequently invaded Poland from the east on 17 September 1939, just over two weeks after the Nazis, and the two nations formed an alliance in all but name.
But it wasn’t until after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, which saw Stalin become an ally of Britain against Nazi Germany, that Churchill’s staunch anti-appeasement beliefs were challenged, and, in fact, reversed.In December 1941, at a meeting in Moscow with the British foreign secretary, Stalin made it clear that he had no intention of relinquishing his claim to eastern Poland once the war was over. Churchill was appalled when he heard this, writing in a confidential memo that Stalin had only acquired this territory in the first place “by acts of aggression in shameful collusion with Hitler” and that the British government should adhere to “principles of freedom and democracy”.
But less than two years later, at the Tehran Conference in late 1943, Churchill reversed his policy and decided to appease Stalin. He agreed that the Soviet dictator could keep eastern Poland and suggested moving Poland’s borders left into Germany to compensate the Poles. Poland, said Churchill, would move westwards, like “soldiers taking two steps close”.
Churchill was proposing one of the biggest demographic shifts in the history of Europe – without the people affected, the Poles, even present at the meeting. And all to appease Stalin, one of the worst criminals of the century.Churchill clearly felt forced by political necessity to appease Stalin. Some 27 million Soviet citizens would die during the conflict and Stalin was about to occupy Poland with his Red Army. All that is true. But it is also equally certain that the idea that Churchill ‘never’ appeased dictators is one of the great myths of the war.
And if you look at the map of Europe today, then the borders of Poland are essentially those Churchill agreed with Stalin – in order to allow the Soviet dictator to keep the land he had first gained “by acts of aggression in shameful collusion with Hitler”.
Laurence Rees is an acclaimed historian and filmmaker. His latest BBC TV series and book is The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler (Ebury Press, 2012)
Britain stood alone in 1940
Wrong, says Andrew Roberts
The idea that Britain stood alone in the Second World War in 1940 is mistaken. It’s vitally important to stress the contributions of, and losses suffered by, other countries that then formed part of the British empire. Although, at the time, the terms ‘Britain’ and ‘the British empire’ may have been used interchangeably to mean the same thing, they obviously have very different connotations when applied in hindsight.
As David Dilks recounts in his excellent book Churchill and Company: Allies and Rivals in War and Peace (IB Taurus, 2012), at the time of the conflict the combined populations of the dominions in Britain’s empire amounted to little more than 30 million people – 7 million in Australia, for instance, 11.5 million in Canada and 1.5 million in New Zealand. Yet the contribution of each of these nations was massive: Canada’s armed forces consisted of an estimated 10,000 personnel in 1939, whereas by 1945 more than 1 million men had served. India’s contribution, as Dilks notes, was broadly equivalent to the rest of the overseas empire and Commonwealth put together.
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.
Andrew Roberts is author of The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War (Penguin, 2010)
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