The untold Second World War

If you think there's nothing more to learn about the greatest war in history, then think again. So says Max Hastings, whose latest book focuses on aspects of the conflict on which new things still need to be said...

English soldiers in the ruins of Palmyre in charge of taking over the Syrian Territory occupied by Vichy’s France. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

When I first explored the Second World War in Bomber Command, published in 1979, I never guessed that the period would retain its extraordinary grip on popular imagination into the 21st century. There seems to be three reasons: it was the greatest event in human experience; most people see it as that rare thing, a conflict in which good was pitted against indisputable evil; and, finally, there appears inexhaustible scope for saying new things.

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Even after countless books, films and TV documentaries, it is easy to surprise people with facts familiar to historians but little-recognised by a wider public. I mentioned to a former head of the British army that I had written a new study of the war. “What on earth can you tell us that we don’t know?” he demanded sceptically. I responded by asking him to guess what proportion of Germany’s military dead were killed by the Russians. He suggested 60 per cent. I told him that the true figure is 90 per cent. I asked him what percentage of Allied military casualties were British or American. He said: “Maybe 20 per cent each.” In reality, just 2 per cent were British, and 2 per cent American. The Russians suffered 65 per cent, the Chinese 23 per cent, the Yugoslavs 3 per cent.

Even in the 21st century, new evidence about the war provokes fierce controversy. For instance, some modern Chinese historians claim that as many as 50 million of their people may have perished, instead of the widely accepted guesstimate of 15 million. Estimates of deaths in the 1945 bombing of Dresden have been drastically reduced by recent research, from a figure of 150,000 much-cited a generation ago, to 20,000 or even fewer – far less than perished in the 1943 Hamburg raids or the March 1945 Tokyo firestorm.

Some nations are stunningly ignorant, or wilfully misinformed, about the war. A few years ago writer Kazutoshi Hando, who lived through the war, lectured to a Japanese women’s college. He told me: “I asked 50 students to list countries which have not fought Japan in modern times; 11 included America.

Because the Soviet Union ended the war in the Allied camp, not only most Russians but also many westerners fail to recognise that, between 1939 and June 1941, Stalin was Hitler’s partner in aggression, rapist of Finland, Poland and eastern Romania. Soviet oil fuelled the Luftwaffe planes bombing Britain in 1940. At least 350,000 Poles died as victims of Soviet rather than Nazi oppression.

Yet the Soviet Union later joined Britain and America in a supposed ‘crusade for freedom’. Confusing, isn’t it? Many westerners’ view of the war is still dominated by nationalistic perspectives, cherished myths and legends. Everyone knows about the gallant fighters of the French resistance, supported by the British Special Operations Executive. Fewer people appreciate how fiercely French troops fought against the British in Syria in 1941, and in Madagascar and briefly north Africa the following year. The fighter pilot Pierre Le Gloan was a French ace who shot down seven RAF aircraft over Syria in 1941. The writer Roald Dahl, who flew a Hurricane in that campaign, wrote later: “I for one have never forgiven the Vichy French for the unnecessary slaughter they caused.”

Between June 1940 and May 1945, more Frenchmen carried arms for Vichy security forces or the Germans than ever fought for the resistance or the Allied armies. The great majority of the French troops evacuated from Dunkirk to Britain chose repatriation to their German-occupied homeland over serving with General de Gaulle’s ‘Free French’.

We are so accustomed to taking it for granted that our parents and grandparents fought for ‘the good guys’ that it is easy to forget that many people around the world rooted for the Axis, often because they hated the British empire. Winston Churchill stretched a delicate point by telling the House of Commons on 8 December 1941: “We have at least four-fifths of the population of the globe on our side.” It would have been more accurate to say that the Allies had four-fifths of the world’s inhabitants under their control, or recoiling from Axis occupation.

Propaganda created an idea of common purpose among ‘free’ nations (with Stalin’s bloody tyranny having to be given honorary membership of this group) in defeating the totalitarian powers. Yet in almost every country there were nuances of attitude, and in some places stark divisions.

The mercenaries of Britain’s Indian Army remained generally loyal, although some PoWs joined the Japanese. But most of India’s 400 million people saw little advantage in Allied victory if they remained subject to imperial rule. For much of the war, Britain was obliged to use more troops to sustain its internal control of India in the face of militant nationalists than were deployed against the Japanese.

Nehru, later the first and greatest prime minister of independent India, wrote in his British prison cell on the day after Pearl Harbor: “If I were asked with whom my sympathies lay in this war, I would unhesitatingly say with Russia, China, America and England.” But there was a qualification – Churchill refused to grant independence to India, so Nehru asserted: “There is no question of my giving help to Britain. How can I fight for a thing, freedom, which is denied to me? British policy in India appears to be to terrify the people, so that in anxiety we may seek British protection.”

Most Egyptians strongly supported the Axis, believing that its victory would free them from imperial subjection. During riots in 1942, crowds thronged Cairo streets shouting enthusiastically, “Rommel! Rommel!” Anwar Sadat, an army officer who later became Egypt’s president, spent much of the war in a British jail for aiding German agents.

None of this should suggest that I doubt the virtue of the Allied cause: it is simply to show that Churchill and Roosevelt did not have all the best tunes. It does us no harm to be reminded of such blemishes on the Allied escutcheon as the 1943 Bengal famine. At least a million people, and perhaps as many as three million, perished under British rule. Thousands died on the streets of Calcutta, while in the city’s clubs white sahibs enjoyed unlimited eggs and bacon.

Counterfactuals – might-have-beens – must always be treated with caution, but some are fascinating. For instance, I suggest that Hitler might have done far more to persuade the British to surrender in 1940 by not sending the Luftwaffe to bomb them than by doing so. Before the war, many feared an annihilatory air attack which would destroy British society.

The unfulfilled threat of such an assault might have been much more potent than the reality, which turned out to be nowhere near as bad as had been feared. If Britain had been left to stew while Hitler seized Malta and drove the British out of the Middle East, Churchill might have found it very hard to retain the premiership. The old Tory appeasers could have gained traction for a peace negotiation with Germany.

Human experience

Much of my book, however, is about human experience rather than grand strategy. Individuals from scores of nations struggled for words to convey what happened to them between 1939 and 1945, transcending anything they had known before. Many resorted to a cliché: ‘All hell broke loose’.

Because the phrase is commonplace in eyewitness accounts of battles, air raids, massacres and ship-sinkings, later generations are tempted to shrug at its banality. Yet I have chosen it as my title because the words capture what the struggle meant to hundreds of millions of people plucked from peaceful, ordered existences to face ordeals that in many cases lasted for years and which, for at least 60 million, were ended by death.

British and American infantrymen were appalled by their experiences in the 11 months of the 1944–45 north-west Europe campaign. But Russians and Germans fought each other continuously for almost four years in far worse conditions, and with vastly heavier casualties.

Between 1941 and 1944, British and American sailors and airmen served and sometimes perished at sea and in the sky, but relatively small numbers of western Allied ground troops engaged the Axis in north Africa, Italy, Asia and the Pacific. In July 1943, when almost four million Axis and Soviet troops were locked in bloody combat at Kursk and Orel, just eight Anglo-American divisions were fighting in Sicily, scene of the principal western effort against the Nazis.

Many people, soldiers and civilians alike, witnessed spectacles comparable with Renaissance painters’ conception of the inferno to which the damned were consigned: human beings torn to fragments of flesh and bone; cities blasted into rubble; ordered communities sundered into dispersed human particles. Almost everything that civilised peoples take for granted in time of peace was swept aside, above all the expectation of being protected from violence.

So widespread is a modern western perception that the war was fought about Jews that it deserves to be emphasised this was not the case. Though Hitler and his followers blamed the Jews for the troubles of Europe and grievances of the Third Reich, Germany’s struggle with the Allies was about power and hemispheric dominance.

The plight of Jewish people under Nazi occupation loomed relatively small in the wartime minds of Churchill, Roosevelt and, less surprisingly, in that of Stalin. About one-seventh of Nazism’s fatal victims were Jews, and almost one-tenth of all wartime dead. But at the time the Allies saw their persecution as just one fragment of Hitler’s collateral damage – as indeed Russians still see the Holocaust today.

An important truth about the war, and about all human affairs, is that people can interpret what happens to them only in the context of their own circumstances. The fact that, objectively and statistically, the sufferings of some were less terrible than those of others elsewhere was meaningless to those concerned. It would have seemed monstrous to a British or American soldier facing a mortar barrage, with his comrades dying around him, to be told that Soviet casualties were many times greater. It would have been insulting to invite a hungry Frenchman, or even an English housewife weary of the monotony of rations, to consider that in besieged Leningrad starving people were eating each other, while in West Bengal they were selling their daughters.

Some aspects of wartime experience were almost universal: fear, grief, and the conscription of young men and women obliged to endure new existences utterly remote from those of their choice, often under arms, at worst as slaves. A boom in prostitution was a global phenomenon that deserves a book of its own. The conflict provoked many mass migrations. Some of these were orderly: half the population of Britain moved home during the war, and many Americans took new jobs in unfamiliar places. Elsewhere, however, millions were wrenched from their communities in dreadful circumstances and faced ordeals which often killed them. “These are strange times,” wrote an anonymous Berlin woman on 22 April 1945 in one of the great war diaries, “history experienced first hand, the stuff of tales yet untold and songs unsung. But seen close up, history is much more troublesome – nothing but burdens and fears. Tomorrow I’ll go and look for nettles and get some coal.”

Experiences varied

The nature of battlefield experience varied among nations and services. Within armies, riflemen experienced far higher levels of risk and hardship than support troops. The death rate in the US armed forces was just five per thousand men enlisted; the vast majority of those serving faced perils no greater than those of ordinary civilian life. While 17,000 American combat casualties lost limbs, 100,000 workers at home became amputees as a result of industrial accidents.

Only a few national leaders and commanders knew much about anything beyond their immediate line of sight. Civilians lived in a fog of propaganda and uncertainty, hardly less dense in Britain and the US than in Germany or the Soviet Union. Frontline combatants assessed their side’s success or failure chiefly by counting casualties and noticing whether they were moving forwards or backwards. But such indicators were sometimes inadequate: Private First Class Eric Diller’s battalion was cut off from the main American army for 17 days of the Leyte campaign in the Philippines, but he realised the seriousness of his unit’s predicament only when it was explained to him by his company commander after the war.

Even those with privileged access to secrets had only fragments of knowledge in a vast jigsaw puzzle. For instance Roy Jenkins, later a British statesman, decrypted German signals at Bletchley Park. He and his colleagues knew the importance and urgency of their work but, contrary to the impression given in sensational films about Bletchley, they were told nothing about the impact of their contributions.

I have tried to make this the story of ‘everyman’s war’, a bottom-up account. I have focused on experiences of such people as British land girl Muriel Green, elderly Hamburg housewife Mathilde Wolff-Monckeburg, ordinary Soviet soldiers, American sailors and British aircrew, rather than on the big men: Stalin, Churchill, Roosevelt, Hitler. I have focused on events for which there seem new things to be said, at the expense of battles like Normandy and Arnhem, already exhaustively explored by hundreds of writers and indeed in my own earlier books.

Under fire, most focused on immediacies and loyalties to each other. Hopes and fears became elemental, as described by British lieutenant Norman Craig in the desert: “Life was so free of all its complexities. What a clarity and a simplicity it really had! To stay alive, to lead once more a normal existence, to know again warmth, comfort and safety – what else could one conceivably demand? I would never chide circumstance again, never question fate, never feel bored, unhappy or dissatisfied. To be allowed to continue to live – nothing else mattered.”

The likelihood of achieving this simple aim varied immensely from country to country: about 8 per cent of Germans died, compared with 14 per cent of Soviet citizens, 2 per cent of Chinese, 3.44 per cent of the Dutch, 6.67 per cent of Yugoslavs, 4 per cent of Greeks, 1.35 per cent of French, 3.78 per cent of Japanese, 0.94 per cent of British and 0.32 per cent of Americans.

Some 24.2 per cent of Japanese soldiers were killed, and 19.7 per cent of naval personnel. One Soviet soldier in four died, against one in 20 British Commonwealth combatants and one in 34 American servicemen.

There are still a host of untold stories out there about what happened to men, women and children of many nations. Writing All Hell Let Loose, I found myself learning – as I always do – all manner of things that astonished me, even after 35 years studying the war.

Max Hastings is a journalist, historian, author and former editor of The Daily Telegraph and Evening Standard. His latest book, All Hell Let Loose, was published by HarperPress in September 2011.

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This article was first published in the November 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine