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Finest Hour, Last Gasp – or both?

The Duel
John Lukacs
Ticknor & Fields, New York 1994

Five Days in London: May 1940
John Lukacs
Yale Univ. Press 1999

We buried Winston Churchill forty years ago. Sixty five years ago, come May, he faced, for us, the greatest crisis of our history. BBC’s Radio 4 commemorated his death with a fine, hour-long recall of his funeral and the crisis of 1940 with a gripping drama, Playing for Time – Three Days in May 1940. I do not know whether the author of the play, Robin Glendinning, owed anything to the books noticed here, but to me they seem to autheticate it. Another Radio 4 programme, Churchill’s Roar, very perceptively analysed the voice that spoke the words that still move us.

The World’s Debt to Britain

To put it no higher, the world is fortunate that, for a whole year, from June 1940 to June 1941, Britain had a government that did not capitulate to or compromise with Hitler. The situation during that year looked barely a stalemate. The Axis Powers now completely dominated Europe. Italy was an ally, Spain was friendly and the USSR no threat (the only person Stalin ever trusted was Hitler). Germany had absorbed Austria and occupied Czechoslovakia in 1938, then in less than a year’s war had overrun and partitioned Poland, occupied Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium and Luxemburg, and completed her conquest of Western Europe by knocking out France. The Balkans represented no problem.

Although it may have been the result of miscalculation and misfortune that for a year Britain “stood alone”, it turned out to be the right thing to do. And more than calculation stood behind the decision: it felt the right thing to do. But what could Britain hope for? The Dominions (except for Southern Ireland, still officially one of them, whose government played its ignoble role, excused by its history, until the very end) were loyal and contributed men and arms. The United States was sympathetic but strongly isolationist: to win the Presidential Election in 1940, Roosevelt felt he had to promise to keep out of the war. There was little Britain could do but protect herself and trounce Hitler’s jackal-ally Italy in Ethiopia, Somaliland and North Africa – and hope that Hitler would make some mistake.

The Inevitable Parallel: Napoleon and Hitler

The parallel between Britain’s struggle against Napoleon and that against Hitler hardly needs to be drawn, but if there is any lesson in history, surely it is here. Napoleon retains his high reputation, gained from victory in a dozen battles; Hitler never commanded in the field, yet subjugated Europe more thoroughly. Both underestimated Britain in both her power and persistence, Hitler the more excusably. Napoleon abandoned the attempt to invade, and did not in person try to eject Britain from Spain and Portugal; in combination, a fatal error. Hitler postponed his invasion attempt, half-hoping the fruit would drop into his hand, also a fatal error. Hitler’s Priority – and his Four Mistakes

We can see now that the priority for Hitler was the elimination of Britain. Any move that Hitler made that did not have this purpose was bound to be a mistake. From June 1940 until April 1941 he had no other enemy; a better opportunity to attack her was never to recur. That he failed to concentrate on this was his first mistake. Then he made his next; he attacked Jugoslavia and Greece, wasting energy merely to enter the irrelevant theatre of the Mediterranean by a more difficult route than one he already had, through Italy – Rommel was already causing us trouble in North Africa. The third error, the colossal blunder of invading the USSR, followed in June; from then on Germans were to be killed on a large scale, though at terrible cost to the Russians because of the stupidity of Stalin and the wastefulness of his generals. Even so, the first German offensive would almost certainly have captured Moscow, Leningrad and European Russia, including the Ukraine, had Hitler’s resources not been depleted by his Balkan adventure and the need to keep watch on Britain. We on our part, began to send arms to Russia. Hitler’s fourth mistake was the inexplicable stupidity of declaring war on the USA. This sealed his fate by rendering Britain impregnable and providing inexhaustible armaments to anyone willing to fight him.

That the US military alliance was vital, no one can deny. Churchill, in May 1940, our darkest hour, confessed to his son that his only hope was somehow to get the United States into the war. The rapport that Churchill and Roosevelt developed was an extraordinary bonus, not something that could have been taken for granted. Although it can be confidently asserted that Churchill took the initiative and that necessity drove him, yet the bond formed was firm and lasting. When Roosevelt died in January 1945 Churchill wept copiously at his Memorial Service; reciprocally, Roosevelt had confided to a colleague that Churchill was “the greatest man alive”.

Why Britain’s Survival in 1940 was Essential to Win the War

The survival of Britain as a fighting power after June 1940 was thus essential to victory. Without it, the US would would almost certainly never have come to Europe, where the political scene, whether dominated by a Nazi Germany or, much less likely, a Communist USSR would be at best depressing, at worst horrific. While both ideologies might mellow or collapse over time, that time would undoubtedly have had its fill of horrors and humiliation. It would certainly have been most of the last 65 years and of the lifetimes of those born since 1940, the year we are now so reluctant to see as our Annus Mirabilis.

…and Why We Should Have Fought On

There have been suggestions that Britain, in 1940-41, might have reached a modus vivendi with Hitler, similar to the Peace of Amiens in 1802 with Napoleon. Logically, Hitler should have offered to withdraw to 1939 boundaries (which still included Austria and Czechoslovakia), but this would have been for Hitler, a political and psychological impossibility. He made no offer anything like it. For Britain to have accepted anything less, on the other hand, would have been unwise, leaving her vulnerable, both materially and psychologically, to a second round. And Britain in 1940 was not Britain in 1802. In 1802 her foreign policy was run by a handful of aristocrats with a managed Parliament, who took their country in and out of wars and alliances with little need to consult public, or even informed opinion. In 1940, by contrast, a government that stopped the country fighting would have had difficulty in starting it again.

Churchill as Inspirer (or Mouthpiece?)

The resolution of the government, in 1940 as in 1802, remained all-important, and accounts of Cabinet meetings and less formal discussions leave one in no doubt that this resolution would have wavered, had it not been for Churchill. Well might he have said, in the words uttered (without bombast, one feels sure) by Wellington after Waterloo: “By God! I don’t think it would have done if I had not been there!” In fact, Churchill’s assessment of his own part was humble: “Had I faltered at all in the leading of the nation I should have been hurled out of office.” Yet when Churchill inspired, first his cabinet, then the nation, while France crumbled and the BEF was being evacuated from Dunkirk, he had been Prime Minister for less than a month.

Since any terms offered by Hitler would have been equivalent to surrender, Churchill refused to condone any negotiating, which would merely admit weakness. Both RAF and Royal Navy chiefs thought they could prevent an invasion, but emphasised the importance of national morale. Churchill probably overestimated the nation’s courage and determination, but in thinking he was only its mouthpiece, he inspired it into believing itself what he thought it was. “It fell to me,” he wrote later, “to express their sentiments on suitable occasions. This I was able to do because they were mine also. There was a white glow, overpowering, sublime, which ran through our island from end to end.” With the Battle of Britain won and the Blitz endured, Britain was saved. and, ultimately, the war was won. If any one man was responsible for this achievement, it was Churchill.

If Britain Had Been Beaten…

Allow me to reiterate the logic of this claim. If Hitler could have subjugated Britain, he could then, by concentrating all his resources, and in his own time, have occupied or neutralized all of Europe west of the Black Sea, dominated the Mediterranean, and still have surprised the USSR and annihilated her armies. The USA could only have acquiesced in this state of affairs. It might ultimately have collided with Japan, but yet have taken no action while that power absorbed the Far Eastern possessions of the Dutch, French and British and turned China into a helpless puppet. India could have experienced a spurious liberation, either by the Germans or the Japanese – how can anyone know what might have happened to her?

The laws of Physics determine that however long and strong a lever may be, without a fulcrum it cannot be used. It is almost impossible to believe that Germany could have been beaten without either Soviet or US participation, but in the event, neither could it have happened without Britain’s survival through the year 1940-1 when she stood alone. We do not know whether or for how long we could have survived a determined German attack, but we do know that Churchill’s role in Britain’s defiance was paramount. The VE Day crowds in 1945 did not doubt it. When he told them “This is your victory” they roared back “No – it is yours”.

…or negotiated

By the end of October 1940 the British Government knew that German invasion plans had been cancelled. It is presumably during the next five months, until the German invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece, which was started at the beginning and completed by the end of April, that some modern historians see a “window of opportunity” for a negotiated peace. Whether or not this seems reasonable in retrospect, it is difficult to see how it could possibly ever have happened. Churchill was now at the zenith of his power and prestige and had no intention of discussing peace. There was no politician of any standing whom a peace party could form around; Chamberlain was dead, Halifax (as a lord, anyway more or less disqualified) had been sent as Ambassador to Washington and Cripps to Moscow; Butler had been sidetracked into the unwarlike Ministry of Education.

Which Would Hitler Invade First – Britain or the USSR?

Be that as it may and granted that Churchill had the bit between his teeth (we can surely dismiss personal ambition) we still have to decide whether peace was a reasonable option and on what terms. The question boils down to this: if Hitler had spent the better part of a year preparing to invade Britain, would he have succeeded? For this his best strategy would be a massive aircraft and U-Boat building programme. The Army was certainly adequate as it was. But here a large factor looms – the USSR. With hindsight, we know that Hitler always intended to subjugate it. From captured documents the British government knew that in July 1940 Hitler had initiated the planning to do so. So for Britain, the question must have been not “If?” but “When?” As we have seen, Hitler’s best strategy would have been to neutralize Britain first; as soon as Britain knew the attack on Russia was fixed for June 1941, there would be no reason to seek peace. The British Government would not be justified in making, or in considering, peace overtures if the evidence showed that Germany was either not making a serious attempt to dominate the Channel, or that such an attempt would fail. After the Battle of Britain, which we won, evidence for both became overwhelming.

So confident was Churchill and the government of this that the the British felt able to send troops to Egypt and campaign, in a morale-raising way, to throw the Italians out of North Africa. Hitler refused Rommel reinforcements which may, at the time, have revealed that he needed the men elsewhere – Russia.

The Academic Debate: The Price We Paid – Unnecessary or Inevitable?

Despite the facts in the analysis above, it has been claimed that this interlude, irrespective of Hitler’s choice between the two alternatives, would have been a good time to negotiate. Large numbers of Britons (200,000+?) would have stayed alive, large numbers of houses and factories would not have been destroyed, our empire, including its oil-rich territories, would have remained intact, and its resources diverted to counter any threat from the Japanese. The morality of such a policy could be brushed aside and with some reason; Nazi atrocities were largely in the future, were dwarfed to date by Communist ones and, it has to be said, did not affect military strategy when they were known.

Lives Lost…

None of these reasons is really valid. What of the 200,000+ putative lives to be saved? Spread over the whole country, this would be a one chance in 275 of being killed, about twice the likelihood of anyone today being killed in a road accident during their entire lives. In human history, warfare has ranged from being regarded as a somewhat dangerous sport, through all the various stages of high-risk activity to kamikaze and suicide bomber. In short, it is difficult not to believe that most people in this country would have accepted a 100 to 200 to 1 chance of being killed in preference to the risk of trusting Hitler. Admittedly, in the armed forces, the risk would be higher!

Material Resources…

The other reasons can be dealt with more straightforwardly. The actual aftermath of the war has shown how rapidly material resources can be regenerated. The undeniable fact that the two defeated nations subsequently outstripped the victors economically even suggests that a thorough demolition of obsolescent structures, physical and psychological, can be even beneficial.

…and The Empire

As for the survival of Britain’s empire; this had been held together by moral force; selfconfidence in the rulers, acquiescence by the ruled. It would have been amazing if it could have survived a perceived British defeat any better than it did the ultimate British victory, especially in the case of India. The Japanese, had they taken care not to become embroiled with the US, could have over-run Malaya and Burma just as effectively as they did in 1942. To them, the difference between a compromise peace and an outright British defeat might not have seemed sufficient for them not to take the risk.

The Surprising “Moral Dimension”

Coming, lastly, to the moral dimension, it may surprise cynics, blase to British claims to hold the higher moral ground, to find how crucial this was. If the Germans had treated the inhabitants of White Russia (Belorus) and the Ukraine humanely or as allies against Bolshevism, as most of them wished to be, the Soviet Union might well have fallen to pieces nearly 50 years before it did. Hitler was even advised to do so but opted for their enslavement, largely because he regarded them as inferior human beings. With a parallel idiocy, both sides ill-treated their prisoners, instead of wooing them.

But Back to 1940 – 41: The Actual Situation…

During the months October 1940 to March 1941 Churchill waited to see whether Germany was going to move against Britain or the Soviet Union first. Given his complete dominance over the Cabinet, Parliament and the nation, there was, because of his refusal to consider them, no chance of peace negotiations coming about and the discussion of their desirability is literally an academic exercise. The academic exercise conducted in the paragraphs above suggests that he was right. At Nuremburg, the German Foreign Minister Ribbentrop (if one can believe him) claimed that Hitler himself, baffled as to what to do about Britain, even turned in desperation to Japan – to initiate an alliance that was to make his ruin ultimately complete.

Britain’s “Compromise Option” – To Be Eaten Last

There was, of course, an enormous risk that Hitler would succeed in completely defeating the Soviet Union, disintegrating its armies, killing or capturing Stalin or after occupying Moscow and Leningrad, turning him into a completely discredited, hunted man. But this risk would be much increased if Britain was neutral and our position would become desperate when the last power independent of Germany in the whole of Eurasia disappeared. Consequently it was not in our interest to agree with Hitler to give him a free hand to deal with the Soviet Union; that would be merely to accept the privilege accorded by the Cyclops to Odysseus – to be eaten last.

Because the United States, due to Hitler’s folly, became involved in the European war, Britain never had to confront either single power, Germany or the Soviet Union, dominant on the continent. However, whichever it had turned out to be, we should have been best to do so fully armed, with our resources mobilised in a fashion that only actual belligerance can ensure.

In The Duel, practically a day by day account of 80 days, May 10th to 31st July 1940 Lukacs explains how Churchill put the backbone into the British policy of defiance, a policy justifiable at the time only because the alternatives would be worse, but ultimately vindicated. Its most obvious feature is Churchill’s determination and will power, compared with the pessimism, if not actual defeatism, of, in particular, Halifax and Butler. Against their wish to explore Hitler’s terms was Churchill’s awareness of the “slippery slope” down which any interest in them might lead. It was another matter to carefully place “false feelers” to confuse and delay German reactions.

But there are other points well worth taking into account. The magnanimity of both Chamberlain and Churchill emerge; Churchill in his loyalty until his time comes and his kindness thereafter; Chamberlain’s acceptance of his replacement (he surely realised how much more adequate Churchill was to the task) and his pressure on his own supporters to rally behind Churchill. The number of Conservative MPs who began the period hostile to Churchill was large (large enough in the Commons Chamber to cheer Chamberlain rather than Churchill after the changeover). I rather wish that Lloyd George (Petain in waiting?) had been followed up.

The famous “calling off” by Hitler of Rundstedt’s advance on Dunkirk remains (to me) unexplained. The book finishes just as the Battle of Britain begins. Not perhaps argued strongly enough by the author is his suggestion that airborne or paratroop landings by the Germans might have led to the defeat of Britain immediately after, perhaps during, the Dunkirk evacuation. But were such airborne facilities yet developed sufficiently?

As an American, Lukacs is aware of the dependence of Churchill upon hopes of US help and knows the personalities in US politics; the various ways and means may have been simplified here. The weakness of a democratic system, especially of the US constitutional type, shows up in the difficulties Roosevelt had in aiding Britain, e.g., for his political support he had to keep the defeatist Joseph Kennedy as Ambassador to Britain. He also characterises John Foster Dulles as an isolationist in 1940 – and John F. Kennedy following his father in his defeatist attitude. It seems amazingly fortunate that the Republican candidate in 1940 was Wendell Wilkie, who also favoured intervention short of war.

In his Five Days in London: May 1940, Lukacs, in 1999, followed The Duel with a more detailed examination of the most critical period of 1940. I am not sure if I can say that he has added much to the subject, though doubtless the detail is greater. Perhaps there is more about the precariousness of Churchill’s position, but even so, this seems to have ended before the Dunkirk evacuation when far more men had been rescued that had been thought possible by anyone at its start. He may have thought the book was necessary after the publications of such revisionist historians as Charmley or Lawler, while he cites fairly often Roberts’ biography of Halifax, The Holy Fox (1991) and Eminent Churchillians (1994), often to correct and contradict. The book has the merit of greater brevity, concentration and force than The Duel.

The aftermath

Britain emerged from the War exhausted and bankrupt, unable and unwilling to be any longer a Great Power. The Americans had come to liberate us all from the Germans; they remained to protect us from the Russians. Increasingly content, like the rest of Western Europe, to shelter under the American umbrella, and increasingly powerless, we could all cavort beneath it in a parody of independence, indulged by our benign protector, whom we treat in the normal, expected way – with ingratitude.

70 comments to Finest Hour, Last Gasp – or both?

  • Doug Collins

    Your summary is excellent. It is now one of my bookmarks. If Lukac’s books are half as good I expect to enjoy them immensely.

    Two comments-

    -Danial Yergin’s “The Prize” did a persuasive job of explaining nazi war strategy as a pincers going through North Africa and Russia with the Black Sea and Persian Gulf oil reserves as the objective. Without them, the Axis was woefully short of fuel. Churchill, as both the man who converted the British Fleet from coal to oil and the man who thought up tank warfare in the first place, must have appreciated this situation. In making his decision to keep fighting and wait for the Germans to falter, this must have been one of his considerations.

    -In discussing Dunkirk -as an American- I have always been struck by the British tendency not to mention Calais. To my mind, the defense there is one of the most glorious and moving episodes in your history. Sure, it was a defeat – but so were Thermopylae and the Alamo. When a man has fought to the death, he has done all that he can do. There is no shame -only glory- in that. Before all the memories of that defense (there must still be some French and German ones) have flickered out in death and senility, I hope some historian will write the tale.

  • lucklucky

    Hitler never tought seriously to invade Britain. He didnt prepared navy or marine forces enough for that.

    I think the most idiotic thing Hitler made was to declare war against USA. We must remember that USA supplied to USSR thousands of tons of raw materials sometimes aproaching 80% of Soviet capabilities.

    Britain stood well, but the Mediterranean campaign was a disaster in men and material.

  • anonymous coward

    A very interesting piece on the negotiations question. But please bear in mind:

    1) The USSR was hardly “no threat;” Stalin supplied the fuel for the Luftwaffe to fight the Battle of Britain.

    2) Hitler’s Balkan “mistake” was his having to go to the support of Mussolini’s unilateral decision to start a war down there.

    3) Hitler *did* command in the field toward the end of the war; his generals later used his micromanagement as their excuse for losing.

    The world’s debt to Churchill and to the Britain he led is so great as to be an embarrassment to the rest of us.

  • veryretired


    Churchill was one of the most rare of men—he could confront the unspeakable and not lose heart. He rightly saw that to accede to Nazism in any way would lead to a new “dark age” from which humanity might not be able to recover.

    Similarly, when much of the West’s intelligentsia was besotted with Marxist/Stalinist hero worship, Churchill spoke out directly against the threat this ideology posed to the very foundations of our civilization. He didn’t use the words “evil empire”, but he didn’t pull any punches.

    I still get a chill when I hear a recording of the “Iron Curtain” speech. Courage of that depth and power is invigorating. It reminds those of us who see it and marvel that, like the Polish electrician or the Czech writer, we know not the day or the hour when the call might come to us to stand up for something real and meaningful.

    Of course, a hockey banquet or a PTA meeing where some bozo starts arguing for higher taxes or a national health care plan isn’t quite the same as a parliament reeling from the onslaught of
    blitzkrieg, but every little battle engaged is one less surrender to regret later.

  • Matra

    If Lukac’s books are half as good I expect to enjoy them immensely.

    I don’t always agree with Lukacs but he’s my favourite historian. The two titles mentioned are probably his most famous but he’s written many great books including The End of the Twentieth Century and the End of the Modern Age. an excellent summary of the last century. But should any of you seek to purchase his The Hitler of History, an examination of the historiography of Hitler look for the American edition. The British edition had many of his criticisms of David Irving excised due to some threatened legal action by Irving. Libel law is very different in the UK than in the US.

    I think the most idiotic thing Hitler made was to declare war against USA

    Wasn’t he tricked into it by FDR? The latter leaked the Rainbow Five “war plans” to the Chicago Tribune that said the US was planning to go to war with Germany but wouldn’t be ready for a while. Convinced of their authenticity Hitler figured he might as well go to war with the US before they had a chance to prepare and while they were also going to be fighting Japan in the east. If I’m way out blame Thomas Fleming, author of The New Dealers’ War.

  • zmollusc

    My 0.02 Euro’s worth, Hitler didn’t need to invade Britain if he could stop her supplies getting across the atlantic. The U-boats were defeated by a combination of cryptography (thank you, Poland) and technological (radar) advances that were not forseen.

  • Chris Josephson

    “The world’s debt to Churchill and to the Britain he led is so great as to be an embarrassment to the rest of us.”

    When I was old enough to understand WWII I recall being very ashamed that the US would allow Britain to stand alone. I can’t understand what the people here were thinking would happen if Britain had fallen.

    I can’t ever get enough of reading about Churchill and how he encouraged Britain to stand and fight when they didn’t have much to fight with. Incredible men and women who wouldn’t give up.

    I have a collection of various recordings from that time.
    Churchill has to be one of the great orators of all time.
    I can’t think of anyone I’d rank above him.

    These books sound very good, btw.

  • Euan Gray

    There was little Britain could do but protect herself and trounce Hitler’s jackal-ally Italy in Ethiopia, Somaliland and North Africa – and hope that Hitler would make some mistake.

    And Hitler did make mistakes, which is essentially why he managed to lose the war:

    failure to capture the BEF at Dunkirk, despite having it surrounded and defenceless;

    failure to pursue the battle against the RAF, despite the fact German tactics were working and the RAF was a matter of days from defeat;

    failure to treat the people of the USSR as human beings;

    fatally, decision to declare war on the US.

    Avoiding the first two would, unquestionably, have knocked the already bankrupt Britain out of the war before the end of 1940, Churchill or not. Avoiding the third would almost certainly have resulted in Soviet surrender and confinement behind the Urals by the end of 1942. Avoiding the last would have given the US no particular cause to interfere in Europe, since it would have been occupied with its own problems in the Pacific.


  • Anointiata Delenda Est

    Superb writing Findlay.

    What comes through to me in what you have written is the importance of ‘soft’ power, the ability to influence decisions subliminally and en masse, the ability to get people to like what they now have, and to like what they see as they look to the future.

    Watching the news from Beirut tonight , horrific as it was, there were more (US) baseball caps than turbans. Let’s hope this is the middle east’s darkest hour.


  • The Last Toryboy

    Hugh Dowding never actually committed more than 50% of the RAF to battle in 1940, despite what the movie may imply.

    I know it is high drama to say that it was such a close run thing, but I don’t really think it was. And given the gross incompetence of the Luftwaffe commanders compared to the skill of Dowding and Park, seems pretty clearcut to me.

  • Euan Gray

    I know it is high drama to say that it was such a close run thing, but I don’t really think it was

    I’d disagree. Although it’s true to say that British aircraft production kept up with losses, planes are useless without people to fly them and this was the real problem. The switch away from attacking fighter command bases and instead bombing cities was a major strategic error by the German high command, specifically Hitler and Goering, and pretty much gave the RAF the opportunity to regroup and strengthen itself which it otherwise simply would not have had.

    It is generally understood now that the RAF could not have withstood more than about 2 to 3 weeks of further attacks before being forced to withdraw north. This would have given Germany air superiority over the Channel and south coast, a necessary precondition for successful invasion. Given the relative qualities of the German and British armies, there is little real doubt Germany would have prevailed in such circumstances, PROVIDED they managed to avoid the strategic idiocy of Hitler.


  • D Anghelone

    Had the US not entered the European war but had concentrated all but a watchdog force on the Pacific then WWII might have had the same antagonists clashing on different battlegrounds. How long could Japan have kept its possessions, including on the Asian mainland, against an all-out US effort?

  • Euan Gray

    How long could Japan have kept its possessions, including on the Asian mainland, against an all-out US effort?

    Longer than it did, but not indefinitely.

    On the other hand, one of the primary causes of the Pacific war was the denial of oil to Japan, principally by the US. Had Japan elected to attack only the colonies of already defeated European powers, which had enough oil for their needs, it is not certain that America would have done much about it. Eventually, no doubt, Japan and America would have clashed, but there is no reason to suppose it need necessarily have been as early as it was.


  • The Last Toryboy

    Sadly the German intelligence was so bad they tended to bomb bomber bases and Coastal Command airstrips even more often than Fighter Command strips. And they had no real idea of how much damage they were actually inflicting.

    It is possible that they could have crippled Fighter Command very easily by bombing the sector airfields intensively, ie the airfields where the controllers were directing the battle. A bit like current US doctrine of going for the C&C. But their intelligence and their tactics were not up to the task.

    It’s easy to “what if” and come up with scenarios in which they could easily win, but the Luftwaffe of 1940 simply was not up to that task.
    They were casting around for targets in a desperate attempt to win with no real coherent strategy behind them. Bombing airfields was just a random attempt, along with bombing radar stations and bombing London, as Goering attempted to find something that worked.

  • Steve LaBonne

    “The world’s debt to Churchill and to the Britain he led is so great as to be an embarrassment to the rest of us.” It should especially embarrass Americans. I consider the willingness of most Americans in 1940 to allow Britain to face Hitler alone, to be one of the more shameful episodes in our history.

  • Euan Gray

    Bombing airfields was just a random attempt, along with bombing radar stations and bombing London, as Goering attempted to find something that worked

    You’re correct in your assessment that German intelligence was poor, but I think you misunderstand some of the tactical moves.

    Bombing radar stations was a planned attempt to thwart early warning, although it was not pursued with sufficient assiduity – the Luftwaffe did not know just how much of an effect they were having, and political tensions between Goering, Kesselring and others did not help this. The bombing of London was in reprisal for the bombing of Berlin, which was in itself a warning following the entirely accidental bombing of London a little while earlier. It’s not quite fair to say it was casting around for something that worked. There were plenty of sober professionals within the Luftwaffe, who did urge the continuation of the planned effort against fighter command – another fortnight and they would have been vindicated.

    Germany came VERY close to defeating Britain in WW2, let down only by incompetent supreme leadership and empire-building rivalries within the services. It is perhaps fortunate for us that they did not know just how close they were to victory.

    Irrespective of the fighting spirit of Churchill or the British people, basically two simple strategic errors on the part of Germany were all that saved Britain from defeat before the end of 1940. After that time, Britain was bankrupt and dependent on American dole for survival, and can to an extent be seen as no more than an American proxy. Britain may have supplied the inspirational leadership and fighting spirit, but America paid the bills and exacted its price.

    I consider the willingness of most Americans in 1940 to allow Britain to face Hitler alone, to be one of the more shameful episodes in our history.

    American interests were not really at stake, so it’s no great surprise that US support for Germany’s enemies was lukewarm at the start. It’s one thing to pay cash to support someone (in return for territory, be it noted), quite another to actually join in.


  • The Last Toryboy

    I am aware that the bombing of radar stations was a planned attempt to thwart early warning, the problem was they were hitting the wrong targets. The radar masts were just pylons, open gridwork, and thus pretty much impervious to blast damage. The huts on the other hand were vulnerable, but they didnt bomb them consistently, because, again, they didn’t truly know what the target should be.

    They did manage to knock the Ventnor radar station off the air for some time but the British put a mobile radar emitter there so they thought it was still operating – and then pretty much after that they gave up and started bombing other things.

    They lost the Battle of Britain because they were decisively beaten at the level of intelligence and overall strategy, thats not really a “marginal” thing. They had a powerful air force and didnt know how to use it, and as a result, they lost. Hugh Dowding knew what he was doing, Hermann Goering had not a clue, and so I reckon it was pretty much clear cut, though with the benefit of hindsight.

    Britain only recently paid off it’s WW2 debts to the USA, so it was hardly “on the dole”, the only generosity shown before 1942 was getting any credit at all given Joe Kennedy thought we were done for.
    Every Sherman tank and every bullet and shell obtained has been since been paid for, with interest.

  • The Last Toryboy

    …I’m not attempting to doubt the bravery of the British here needless to say, just pointing out that the nazi reputation for lethal efficiency and nous is often so much hokum.

    I think it would be rare to see a more ragingly incompetent government than that of the Third Reich. If a Nazi official was involved in something, chances are it was bungled. The real geniuses like Guderian were not political placemen like, say, Goering, who was so detrimental to the German war effort he may as well have been an Allied plant. 😉

  • Euan Gray

    Britain only recently paid off it’s WW2 debts to the USA, so it was hardly “on the dole”

    Britain became bankrupt by the end of 1940. For the rest of the war, and for some time after that, the country depended on American dole and “generosity.” Britain simply could not have functioned any longer as a belligerent nation without American handouts. America profited mightily from this, acquiring substantial British foreign investments and in some cases territory (esp. in the Caribbean) as a condition of support. Later, American support was predicated on British dismantling of the Empire. Had America never entered the war, no doubt more and more conditions and demands would have been made.

    After the war, Britain was given substantial Marshall Aid, but blew it on welfare and shortly had to go back, cap in hand, for a loan – it is that later (and ungenerous) loan that Britain has recently finished paying off, by the way. Naturally, this money was pretty much wasted too. Britain cannot realistically maintain a credible nuclear deterrent without American consent and assistance (unlike the French, for example). We are, to a considerable extent, an American dependency, and have been since the winter of 1940.

    I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, but I think it’s necessary to be realistic about it.


  • Matra

    I consider the willingness of most Americans in 1940 to allow Britain to face Hitler alone, to be one of the more shameful episodes in our history.

    If that is a common attitude then it is no wonder Americans have spent a century fighting foreign wars that were of little relevance to US security. I still find it hard to believe they were so easily conned into overthrowing the mostly harmless Saddam. Perhaps you need to study the Founding Fathers and the constitution. Then WW1 and its aftermath. After that take a look at FDR’s leftist policies. In retrospect entering WW2 marked the end of the Republic. Many Americans such as John T Flynn realised that at the time and so their resistance to FDR’s revolution was understandable.

  • VoiceOver

    I consider the willingness of most Americans in 1940 to allow Britain to face Hitler alone, to be one of the more shameful episodes in our history.

    To “allow” ????? “Allow” ???? Shame on us for “allowing” Britain to make a commitment to defend Poland. Shame on us for “allowing” Britain to rightly defend itself.

    Hitler was a fucking nut, no doubt, but he was no threat to the US. Any ‘Mercan who boasts “If it wasn’t for us entering the war, we’d all be speaking German now” – is full of it. Germany couldn’t make it the 20(?) miles across the Channel, let alone the thousands across the Atlantic. Hitler defeated France, after all. Is that so hard?

    What it the US didn’t enter the war in Europe? – Russia defeats Hitler, the entire continent stays Socialist for 45 years, festering in it’s own filth, corruption, and incompetence, only to realize the futulity of Statism and revert to a freer market anyways. Is that the worst thing that could happen?

  • David Wildgoose

    It’s too easy to suggest that the Nazis were ill-educated oafs who were bound to lose in the long run.

    I suggest people look at how Germany very cleverly “bought” much of the Balkan states prior to WW2 starting. They deliberately turned away from their traditional markets and instead paid top prices for pretty much the entire oil and grain output of countries like Romania. But the prices they paid were in Reichsmarks and credits that had to be spent in Germany. So the top price they paid was partially illusory. It was a trap, and most of the Balkan countries fell for it. (But not Serbia if I recall).

    That kind of cleverness should remind people that Nazi Germany also included a large number of very clever people even if there were a handful of evil idiots at the top.

  • Steve LaBonne

    How well Matra and VoiceOver would have fit in with Hitler’s many other useful idiots in the Anglo-American world, back in the day…

  • The Wobbly Guy

    If Germany hadn’t needed to fight on the opened Western Front as a result of D-Day, Stalin would have soon sued for peace anyway. That was part of the rationale for D-Day.

    And the result would be unified Europe(sans USSR) under the Nazi regime, and a Holocaust that would be beyond the stuff of nightmares.

    And if the rest of the Pacific War went on as expected, ending with the nuking of Japan, how soon did you think Hitler would have gotten Heisenberg and gang to show real results for their atomic research? Graft that technology to German rocketry. And once Hitler had it, you can be sure the USSR would be nuked into oblivion.

    And so, instead of getting the still relatively more sane Commies, we get the insane Hitler playing MAD with the US.

    The basis for modern liberal capitalist democratic society is based on two important premises: a person’s natural right to life and natural right to property. It also behooves societies adhering to the above to impose these premises onto those who would reject them, because those who reject these premises are almost always wackos.


  • The Last Toryboy

    If you think stopping Hitler was a mistake, I think you are almost certainly morally blind.

    As for EG : interesting stuff. The true shame of what the early Labour Party got up to when in power is not something I know a great deal about unfortunately.

  • Gary Gunnels

    I’ve read in a number of places that those countries which got the most Marshall Plan aid recovered the least quickly from WWII.


    By the time of D-Day Hitler’s forces were on the run in Eastern Europe; after all, this was post-Stalingrad and post-Kursk.

    David Wildgoose,

    The Nazis tended also to play on the nationalist dreams of its Eastern European allies such as Hungary, which (to its eternal discredit I think) ponied up willingly with the Nazis to regain territories “lost” after WWI.

  • Gary Gunnels

    The difference between Napoleon and Hitler is that Napoleon’s regime was largely imbued with much of the positive elements that came out of the Enlightenment. Sure they were both empire-builders, but the nature of their empires was radically different.

    Napoleon retains his high reputation, gained from victory in a dozen battles…

    Well, there is that and his codification of civil and criminal law in France (a major improvement over France’s legal system under the Monarchy), his efforts to spread many of positive aspects of the Enlightenment to areas that his armies conquered, his probably inadvertant role in creating modern Polish nationalism, etc. Napoleon’s efforts spread the Enlightenment in Europe as much or more than the Republic of Letters.*

    *Note that I am not arguing that weren’t negatives results that arose from his efforts.

  • Eric Sivula

    failure to treat the people of the USSR as human beings;

    fatally, decision to declare war on the US.

    Euan Gray, had Hitler *not* made those mistakes, he would not have been Hitler. Both of those decisions come from core beliefs that sociopathic little bastard had. Those beliefs being:

    1) Slavs, like Jews and the Rom, were subhumans, who lived on the glorious, fertile lands of the Ukraine and Eastern Europe, depriving the superior Ayrans of their rightful breeding space. Plus these untermensch had betrayed the Germans in World War I and would be a threat to the Reich’s security as long as they lived.

    2) The United States was a mongrel state, too distant and too gutless to fight. As such they would either be of no consequence in the war, or would be beaten easily by the Nazis.

    The first belief is clear in mein Kampf, the second in his Hitler’s unpublished second manuscript.

    If Hitler had been sane enough to understand why those decisions were bad, and boy were they, he would have been too sane to risk a general war over Poland.

  • veryretired

    I’m sitting here watching “Dr Zhivago” on the late movie and reading through these comments and, I must say, it is like falling into a painting by Dali—surreallism so tangible it is almost a physical sensation.

    Of course, many of the comments are very reasonable discussions of various points about WW2, and the original post is a good example of the better level of discourse I have come to expect here. But, honestly, do the comments denigrating the Allied effort against Hitler and the Axis actually represent widely held viewpoints, or are they merely trolling?

    Does anyone actually believe that the US could have sat behind the Atlantic ocean after 1941 and ignored the European theater? Remained neutral? That Nazism posed no threat, when Hitler’s staff had already begun planning for operations against North America in 1946?

    Conversely, the statement is made that the US should be ashamed it didn’t declare war before 1941. That we should have joined Britain sooner as a full fledged ally.

    With what? An army that didn’t exist? With forces that had to practice shooting wooden guns at trucks with signs on the side that said “tank” because there were so few of the real thing?

    Franklin Roosevelt. for all his faults, and they were legion, was one of the most finely tuned political animals in history. Even he couldn’t lead the American people someplace they had no interest in going—that is the whole point of maintaining a constitutional republic. The leaders have to pay attention to the led.

    Beset by depression, and none to anxious to repeat the experiences of WW1, the reluctance of ordinary citizens to jump into another “European war” was not shameful, but prudent. The galvanizing effect of Pearl Harbor was so overwhelming, it may not be possible for those used to the partisan bickering and backstabbing of the Vietnam era syndrome to appreciate what level of unity that attack forged. What ferocity was generated in response.

    Yamamoto did. Hitler, beset by the small mindedness typical of Europeans, like Napoleon, did not.

    But enough indignation over the likes of mothra and the other. The 20th century will be studied for generations to come as an example of the worst that’s possible, and the greatness that can be achieved by free men and women.

  • Gary Gunnels


    I don’t believe Napoleon was particularly small minded (or that Europeans as a rule are small minded either). After all, he predicted that the Louisiana Purchase would galvanize America into a great power that would challenge Britain’s rule of the seas (which is what happened) when many Americans saw it as a boondoggle. Nor were his efforts to create one, unified, tariffless market for all of Europe particularly small-minded either. His outlook was anything but narrow (which is the definition of small-mindedness after all); indeed, it was rather grand in proportions. Thus, to describe Napoleon as “small minded” indicates a lack of knowledge of the man.


    Honestly, I don’t get the rabid anti-Europeanism that goes on here on this blog; its as loathesome as anti-Americanism and about as useful too.

  • The Wobbly Guy

    Gary: I keep thinking of how much logistical support the US provided the USSR during the entire war. It’s more than a bit likely, I think, that deprived of US machinery and supplies, the Soviets might not have fared as well for Stalingrad and Kursk.

    Looking up the net, I also found that Allied bombing efforts, particularly by the US, in 1943-1944 had a huge effect on German munitions and war manufacturing.

    This link has quite a bit of info. I have no idea of its accuracy, but I think it’s on the level.

    In conclusion, the lack of material support, fuel, bombing to injure German industries, and other associated factors due to no US entry into the war could have been a huge difference maker on the Eastern front.

    Enough to have reversed the results of the Eastern front? Maybe. Certainly, Russian successes would have been much more limited, and losses much heavier. In our reality, the Soviets lost 27 million people. Throw out the US factor and we could very well see 40 million casualties instead, and Stalin suing for a truce while Hitler solidifies his hold on Europe.

    A sobering thought.


  • Gary Gunnels


    Those factors certainly were important (indeed, I think the issue of bombing is probably far more significant).

    As I recall, by 1943 the Soviets had matched and overtaken the Germans as far as wartime munitions, aircraft, vehicular, etc. production was concerned (this was in part due to the “small-batch” mindset of German manufacturers). They were able to seriously crank up their wartime economy and produce a tremendous amount of material by that time of the war (not that it didn’t come with a tremendous cost to the Soviet population).

    My questions would be: How much of a factor was the U.S. in 1941 (probably small I would suspect) and 1942 (much larger I would expect)? Which year was most critical to the Soviet’s efforts to defeat the Germans? How critical was Allied bombing in relation to the Soviet victory at Kursk (which historians now view as a far closer affair than they did a couple of decades ago) – Kursk being the “real” turning point of the war on the Eastern front?


    Anyway, I think it can be safely said that the entry of the USSR and the USA into the war were what the historian Keegan might call fortune shifting events – where one side’s position is significantly enhanced by the entry of a new belligerant.


    BTW, I’ve been enjoying Island At War; give my thanks to the BBC.

  • Effra

    Britain and France ostensibly went to war in 1939 to save Poland from the Nazis. We did not attack on the western front, despite having bigger combined forces than Germany, so Hitler and Stalin had a free hand in Poland and it subsequently spent over 40 years as a communist puppet state. We also missed the chance to forestall Germany’s persecutions in the East.

    Hitler had no serious intention of occupying Britain. The Royal Navy would have mauled an amphibious invader beyond salvaging. Hitler did want to degrade the RAF– hence the Battle of Britain– but he was eager to make peace with and guarantee the British Empire so he could get on with his real objective: conquest in the East, which he thought would take 20-30 years. He allowed the remnant of the BEF to escape as a token of good faith. Chruchill suspected as early as May 1940 that “Sealion” was a diversion, but he wanted the British to stay on their toes while he rearmed, so he cultivated the Finest Hour myth which has inflamed Anglo-American sentimentality ever since.

    America complicated the picture by supplying Britain with “all aid short of war” (at a steep price) and after June 1941 it began to supply Stalin too. So Hitler’s declaration of war on the USA after Pearl Harbor was provoked, but he gambled on finishing off the USSR before America could get a decent-sized army into the fray. Most Americans did not want GIs to fight on the continent, so the Fuhrer hoped he could do a deal after a fait accompli.

    Meanwhile America and Japan were conducting an essentially separate struggle in the Pacific over the future of China and the Far East, where Roosevelt had had hegemonic ambitions since his days as an assustant secretary of the Navy.

    The outcome of WW2 was pyrrhic for Britain (bankrupt, had to liquidate its empire), France (ditto) and the Soviet Union (committed to overstretch and an arms race with the USA, since it was terrified of a third invasion from the west).

    The winners were the USA, Germany and Japan. The latter two were cured of the delusion that prosperity can be secured by war, and went on to carve out economic spheres of influence not unlike what Hitler and Hirohito intended, but by hard work and commercial enterprise.

    For the USA the long-term consequences of WW2 have been lamentable. Tainted by the guilt of having risked little and used nuclear weapons, it has adopted a silly, dishonest, self-defensive rhetoric of “liberation” which has eventually rendered it financially embarrassed and as widely hated around the world as at any time since Jefferson and Washington warned it not to get entangled in foreign quarrels.

  • Findlay Dunachie

    Hey! Some of the comments are getting a little ill-tempered, not so say irrelevant. I’ve noticed when I intervene, though, all comments cease (stunned by boredom?) and it rather appears I’ve wound up the discussion. So perhaps now.

    It’s been very interesting. But we are dealing with those few days in May, when things looked very very bad for us. It wasn’t “Did Hitler really mean to do this, or would he never do that?” but “Shall we give in or go on?” I’ve said it in my review and I say it again now – Hitler’s first, and his biggest, mistake was not to concentrate on us until we were finished.

    America’s detached attitude to Europe is and was so very understandable. Then (1940) Isolationism was a feature of the right; now it seems a characteristic of the left. And, as I have pointed out (as does Effra just above) it receives no gratutude when it emerges from it to do what has to be done. Do West Germans thank the US for not having to live like East Germans for 45 years? Do South Koreans thank them for not having to live like North Koreans for 55 years? Do the Taiwanese . . .? Well, maybe they do. Perhaps the Israelis are also conscious they owe their very lives to the US. Would the Afghans like the Taliban back? Would most Iraqis really prefer their prewar situation?

    Anti-American is basically an emotional luxury, indulged in by people to whom America has done no harm, are unable to say what harm it has done, apart from what was inevitably involved in doing what it had to do, and are unwilling to do anything themselves.

    Americans have no need to feel guilt at their late participation in WWII. Their Pacific casualties were horrendous; their naval battles there (e.g. Midway) heroic. The same goes for their behaviour on D-Day. Only fools blame them for using their atomic bombs, which in the end saved countless lives and killed no more than did “conventional” 1,000 bomber raids.

    Someone said “For evil to flourish, it is sufficient for good men to do nothing.” There is plenty of evil without asking for more nothing.

  • veryretired

    Gary—look at a map. That big thing to the right of the little part that is Europe is Russia. If you remember, both Nappy and Adolph went marching in there thinking they would win a few battles and everything would be peachy. It didn’t turn out that way.

    The moral of the story is—when you come from a postage stamp, don’t try to overrun a soccer field.

    As to not understanding where any anti-European feelings could come from—I assume that was a joke, right?

    Effra—The US spent most of the last century opposing(as in the Spanish, Hapsburg, and Hohenzollern) European imperial autocracies, or cleaning up the messes left behind when they collapsed and were replaced by new contenders (as in Fascism, Nazism, Marxism, and their derivatives, Japanese militarism, Maoism , and, currently, Islamic fascism) who were determined to fill the vacuum.

    Personally, I sympathize with the isolationist feeling that these things were none of our business, but the madness and poisonous lethality of European political designs, with their collectivist, racist, and genocidal elements, made inaction on our part impossible.

    As to being hated, that stems directly from our opposition to socialism and its variant theories of colectivism, and our commitment to individualism and capitalism. Its been commented on in studies and novels for most of the last century, and is not some recent phenomenon.

    The intelligentsia of Europe constantly critcized and undermined our position during the Cold War. Fortunately, we pretty much ignored you then, as we do now.

    As a long time science fiction fan, I only wish there was an alternate universe in whose history we had stayed home and let the rest of you experience the joys of your creations for a nice long time. Perhaps several decades under the marxists and nazis would have broadened your understanding of what those “dismal” fools from the US had done.

    I guess the 50+ year break from the continuous civil war that Europe had been engaged in for millenia was just too too boring. Well, the way you’re headed, you will be back at it soon enough. Good luck. I doubt we’ll be coming around any more. The future lies in Asia. Europe is in the past.

  • Gary Gunnels


    Gary—look at a map. That big thing to the right of the little part that is Europe is Russia. If you remember, both Nappy and Adolph went marching in there thinking they would win a few battles and everything would be peachy. It didn’t turn out that way.

    Napoleon (of course) did not have the hindsight that Hitler had. Now, perhaps Napoleon should have been more cognizant of the Swedish experience that preceded his, however, the factual predicates of those two efforts differed: France was far more populous and could field a far larger army than Sweden did in the Great Northern War; France was more advanced technologically than Russia at the time, whereas Russia and Sweden had largely been evenly matched; Napoleon was on a run of victories over Europe’s great land powers, whereas Sweden’s fortunes were always rather mixed throughout that war (until its disasterous conclusion); etc.

    And again, invading Russia is hardly an example of “small mindedness.” Accordingly, your comments – whatever else can be said about them – don’t support the original claim that I contested; they are in fact inapposite.

    The moral of the story is—when you come from a postage stamp, don’t try to overrun a soccer field.

    Worked for the British in India; worked for the Germans in WWI (remember they actually defeated the Russians); worked for the Mongols in China; worked for Alexander’s army against the Persians, etc.; etc. History is replete with examples of small powers defeating very larger powers. I have to say, you really need to brush up on your world history if you’re going to have discussions on these matters. 🙂

    As to not understanding where any anti-European feelings could come from—I assume that was a joke, right?

    Calling Europeans as a rule “small-minded” is about as anti-European as it gets. For example, imagine if I were to write that the typical American is ghoulish or greedy? I think that could be fairly (and rightly) be characterized as anti-American.

  • Gary Gunnels

    Findlay Dunachie,

    Its something of a myth that America had a detached attitude towards Europe or towards Nazi Germany (indeed, the re-match between Louis and Schmeling in 1938 illustrates the antipathy even “racist” Americans had towards the Nazis). After the fall of France many many Americans literally cried in the streets over the matter (keep in mind that France was much beloved by many Americans) and many people began to scoul when they heard Lindbergh’s isolationist commentary. Roosevelt’s ability to get Lend-Lease going was based in part on these sorts concerns.

    What America lacked was a desire to fight for what it believed in; Pearl Harbor imbued the U.S. with that desire.

  • Gary Gunnels


    You write that “Europe” set loose some particular pathologies, but wasn’t it really Germany and Russia that let loose these particular pathologies? After all, blaming the Danes or the Swedes or the Greeks or the Czechs for what Germans and Russians did seems slightly bizarre. I think your comments suffer from the fallacy of an overinclusive definition.

  • veryretired

    Just like shooting fish in a Dali barrel.

    Gary—you guys killed 20+ million people over a few provinces in Herzogovina, for crying out loud. Provincial is an kind description of that kind of mentality.

    I’m glad to be done with this now. Apparently there is an alternate universe for the Garys, and the Kodiaks.

  • Gary Gunnels


    What “guys” am I part of, pray reveal? I don’t ever recall my country (the USA) invading Herzogovina* after all. The only person dealing with an “alternate universe” here is you; an alternate universe where you get to pick and choose at whim the nationalities of posters here. Strange that this universe doesn’t jive with reality. 🙂

    Anyway, I can see why you would want to take your toys and go home, given the spanking I’ve just put you through. 🙂

  • Gary Gunnels


    Now, regarding the issue Herzogovina, I assume that you are referring to WWI. Note that neither the French nor the British were fighting over that piece of territory, nor were the Germans for that matter (maybe you ought to read some books in WWI).

    The French were fighting because Germany invaded their sovereign territory (the same was true of Belgium) and declared war on them. If that’s a “small minded” attitude, well so be it; I consider national survival to be something of a broad minded attitude.

    The British were fighting because of their duty – via treaty – to defend the neutrality of Belgium and their fear (which was the whole point of the treaty) of a great and unfriendly power dominating the continental side of the channel. These aren’t narrow concerns.

    The Germans started the war due to their paranoia over their place in European society and their fears of other powers (particularly Russia) and how those other powers might eventually overtake them. That’s not a narrow concern either.

    The Austro-Hungarians were concerned with more than a piece of land of course; they were concerned about Serbian nationalism and its effects on their multi-ethnic society. They wanted to crush Serbian nationalism in the bud so as to alleviate their empire of a threat of ethnic dissolution. This wasn’t a small-minded concern either.

    Now Italy’s presence in the war after 1915 was more likely based on the more narrow concern of grabbing some land, though that was connected to a larger notion of national triumphalism.

    Russia wanted to protect its slavic allies in Eastern Europe, to check the reverses it had undergone since the Crimean war, and to prove a faithful ally to France at a time when Russia could not stand alone.

    Anyway, I must say that your rather dim and reductionist stance doesn’t serve you very well and it only more fully illustrates your ignorance of the historical record.

  • The Wobbly Guy

    The american aid in 1941/1942 seems rather important. They supplied the Soviets with fuel and steel, plus logictical items such as jeeps and trucks which are critical to the USSR’s own relocation and rearmament program. Food for the troops, because they were running short.

    I read on the discussion on the link that the US supplied the USSR with enough steel for 70,000 T-34s. Imagine if they hadn’t. There might not even be a battle of Kursk when the Soviets don’t have the factories to build the tanks, the steel to form the chassis, the fuel to drive them, and the food to feed the crews. The radios to coordinate their movements, the chemicals for their guns, all the myriad minutae that goes into a war.

    They say experts study logistics, but I’m beginning to realize high-order strategy is actually more about logistics than anything else.


  • Very, very good, but it’d be nice if Australia, NZ and Canada got a mention.

  • The Last Toryboy

    I dunno what Effra is on about, but

    a) Hitler did not let the BEF get away as a matter of good faith, he hauled Guderian over the coals due to the BEFs escape.

    b) France did attack Germany during the “phoney war”, but it was more than a bit halfhearted. The Saar Offensive I think it was called.

    …as for c) I don’t get much of a hint that the US is too bothered about nuking Japan at all, and rightly so IMHO.

  • Effra

    Last Toryboy:

    (a) See Hitler’s mysterious ‘stop order’. His subsequent berating of generals was to cover his stratagem. He knew that the remains of the BEF posed no offensive threat. Dunkirk was by kind permission of the Wehrmacht.

    b) The Maginot Line predisposed the French to a war of attrition, letting the Germans strike first but believing they wouldn’t bother. All the Germans wanted was Poland, and nobody was stopping them after Stalin was cut in on the carve-up. WW2’s original casus belli was as phoney as the reasons Bush gave for attacking Iraq. The relatively token BEF deployment between the Maginot Line and the Channel was belligerent only in dropping propaganda leaflets in the Ruhr– plans to use incendiaries to set fire to the Black Forest were vetoed by Chamberlain. The Franco-British alliance hoped to bring Hitler to terms (or parley with the generals it still dreamed would arrest him) by an economic blockade, but the Nazi-Soviet Pact gave him alternative sources of materials for war.

    (c) Every time America waxes pious about WMDs, the governments of the Third World say “well, they should know– Hiroshima, Nagasaki”. The first use of A-bombs rendered subsequent employment morally impossible, hence the “no first strike” doctrine which the likes of Herman Kahn and Henry Kissinger fought unavailingly to overturn.

  • The Last Toryboy

    a) I think the Dunkirk thing is a big “what if”. Guderian pulled the panzers -back- because he thought they were overstretching their support. Maybe he knew what he was doing. Maybe not.
    I wouldnt argue that Dunkirk only was a success because of German error (most major military victories are a success because the other side screwed up), but I wouldn’t go further and say Hitler and his minions made that error deliberately.

    b) There was a relatively token BEF in WW1 as well, so that doesn’t really prove anything. The British have never wanted to be slaughtered to defend the French. Besides, Britain was always the naval power and France the land power.
    As for the leaflet raids, even Churchill didnt bomb German cities until Jerry accidentally bombed London. Terror bombing was the “nuke” of the 30s and 40s, thanks to that chap Douhet.
    I don’t think you can read any ulterior motives into the lack of indiscriminate bombing from day 1 of WW2.

    c) The use of A-bombs on Japan was entirely justifiable, and not even much different than sending over 1000 Lancasters with old school high explosive month after month.
    I think what makes A-bomb use morally impossible as a first strike weapon has nothing to do with guilt for Hiroshima, but more to do with the fact that they really are devastating weapons and you don’t expect democracies to want to unleash something quite so horrific as a nuclear exchange.

    Similarly, I’ve never seen a Brit yet who was guilty over Dresden, more like “they deserved it”, and yet I don’t think carpet bombing is morally acceptable these days. Guilt has nothing to do with it, I would argue. We like to think we are better than the barbarian, I dont think thats guilt.

  • Gary Gunnels

    The last Toryboy,

    While the majority of the manpower on the Western front was provided by the French, the British did provide a sizeable land force for the war. Even when the BEF was in rapid decline in the latter part of the war (its size shrank considerably between mid-1917 to November 1918), it still fielded an army of between 500-750k men.

  • Gary Gunnels

    The Last Toryboy,

    Re: Hiroshima & Nagasaki:

    The debate over their use seems to be charged with the (proper) modern disdain and fear of nuclear weapons. Yet, the U.S. firebombing of Japan is probably far more morally troubling than the atomic bomb attacks.

  • Gary Gunnels

    The Last Toryboy,

    BTW, the following article goes into some detail about the internal debate in the U.S. military and political circles concerning the firebombing of Japan.


  • The Last Toryboy

    The BEF as in “Kitcheners Army” was huge.

    The BEF as in the guys that were wiped out at the Marne in 1914 was tiny, and it is that BEF which I am thinknig is equivalent to the one led by Lord Gort.

    The only reason the British fielded such a vast army in WW1 (in WW2 the British did not) was because the French would have buckled if they didnt. Thats my point. The same would have happened in WW2 probably, but the French folded to the blitzkrieg in 1940 in a way in which they did not in 1914 – and WW1 is generally considered a disaster by the British so presumably they werent up for a rematch on those terms any more than the French were.

    I agree, Gary, re. Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I don’t think guilt for it in WW2 has anything to do with it, but fear of nuclear winter and Apocalypse probably has everything to do with it – and is even justified.

    Not read the article yet – but I shall. 😀

  • Gary Gunnels

    The only reason the British fielded such a vast army in WW1 (in WW2 the British did not) was because the French would have buckled if they didnt.

    They didn’t “buckle” during the First Battle of the Marne; indeed, it took I believe Foch a personal visit to French’s HQ (the BEF commander) to keep him from buckling and heading to the Channel ports at a time when the French army was manuevring between the gap the Germans had allowed to open up between their armies by doing what they always stupidly did on their Western front offensives – following the path of least resistance instead sticking to their designated offensive targets.

    And of course the point is that the French army was the bulk of the fighting force on the Western front throughout the war.

    Maybe you ought to read Keegan’s book on WWI; he makes it perfectly clear that the French sacrificed beyond what most nations would tolerate and then some in WWI. Don’t conflate the performance of the French politicial, military, etc. leadership in WWI, in other words, with that in WWII.

  • Gary Gunnels

    The Last Toryboy,

    …and WW1 is generally considered a disaster by the British so presumably they werent up for a rematch on those terms any more than the French were.

    The Germans were able to do what they couldn’t do in WWI due to technical and leadership defiencies; fight a war of manuevrebility where they “rolled up” and swallowed the opposition with “crack” troops via massive flanking manuevres.

  • The Last Toryboy

    I know the French sacrificed more than anybody else in WW1, thats not in dispute.

    I merely point out that the BEF was tiny in 1914, just the same way it was in 1940. The French almost came apart in WW1. They almost came apart at Verdun, which is why the Somme Offensive was rushed. I don’t think the British would have mobilised so many men if they could get away with it.

    My comment on “not up for it” is about how the French and British sure didnt want a replay of 1914-1918. That was the whole basis of the policy of appeasement, Anything but WW1 Again.

  • Gary Gunnels

    The Last Toryboy,

    I believe I better understand your statements now.

    I think what is interesting to note (as Keegan does in his book) is that every army (except the AEF*) in WWI faced a significant, war-losing type of crisis in WWI – the French, British, Germans, Italians, Russians, etc. Here is how he breaks them down:

    French – took six months or so to recover from the April 1917 mutiny; the poorly thought out offensive of that spring nearly broke the army (luckily the German army was in not much better shape at the time)

    British – Michael offensive in 1918 led to the near collapse of the one of the British Armies (the 1st I think); French and British units bucked them to a point where they recovered in a few weeks

    Germans – post-Verdun their Western armies never recovered their offensive nerve; only the introduction of fresh troops after Brest-Litovsk allowed for the 1918 offensives; once the latter petered out and the demoralizing knowledge of the addition of three million U.S. soldiers was widely disseminated, talk of suing for peace broke out in the ranks (Germany simply had no new class of recruits to draw upon easily like the French and Americans did); total collapse punctuated by civil disorder at home

    Italians – near total collapse in 1917; they never recovered and depended on British and French military aid and soldiers to defend against Austria

    Russians – total collapse

    *They just weren’t in it long enough to face such a crisis.

  • Gary Gunnels

    The Last Toryboy,

    I don’t know (whether I was British, French or American) if I could have been a fire eater in the 1930s given the costs of the first war.

  • The Last Toryboy

    Well, in the 30s it was only a little over 10 years ago, wasnt it. You’d have to be a pretty devoted warmonger to be in favour of war at that point in time.

    Makes you wonder what Winston Churchill was really like, doesnt it. 😉

  • Gary Gunnels

    The Last Toryboy,

    If you are interested in a great war movie (meaning a movie that doesn’t treat war as a glorious parade) you should rent Tae Guk Gi.


  • The Last Toryboy

    Always up for good war movies. I’m trying to get a hold of Talvisota/The Winter War at the moment.

  • D Anghelone

    If you are interested in a great war movie (meaning a movie that doesn’t treat war as a glorious parade) you should rent Tae Guk Gi.

    The story’s a bit sappy but the battle scenes are excellent.

  • D Anghelone

    No Man’s Land is also good but in a different vein. Sod off, Kofi!

  • Gary Gunnels

    D Anghelone,

    What? A melodramatic war movie? I do have to admit that movie sort of falls apart at the end; still I enjoyed it immensely. Plus there is the advantage of seeing the war through Korean eyes.

    The extras DVD has a number of interviews with South Korean soldiers concerning their experiences during the war.

    Yeah, No Man’s Land was a great movie. Very much in the spirit of the great German movies Das Boot and Stalingrad. I can never get out of my mind those poor bastard German grunts freezing to death in the snow.

  • Gary Gunnels

    D Anghelone,

    There’s a movie about the “The Death Railway” the Japanese built in Burma-Thailand I’ve noticed at the video store lately titled To End All Wars. Have you seen it?

    I remember watching a documentary a few years ago where one of the Japanese engineers on that project was interviewed (indeed he toured areas where the railway stood or still exists) and the level of denial the man was in was astounding to watch.

  • I’m very late to this. Sorry.

    > The famous “calling off” by Hitler of Rundstedt’s advance on Dunkirk remains (to me) unexplained.

    A few years ago, a book turned up in an old second-hand bookshop that shed some new light on that. It was a German soldier’s map, printed in Berlin, that had probably been taken as a souvenir by some British soldier and sat around in an attic for half a century. What it showed, bizarrely enough, was rather a lot of swamp where we know there is none, in the approach to Dunkirk. Since the map was produced by the German military, it is entirely possible that Hitler had the same erroneous information, and stopped the advance to prevent the tanks getting boged down in a swamp that wasn’t there.

    Quite why the Germans would have a map that was so spectacularly wrong regarding an area of the world that wasn’t exactly “Here be dragons territory”, I have no idea. I’d like to think it was MI6 at work, but that would be pure speculation.

    My dad always says that the British have never forgiven the Americans for helping us to win two world wars.

  • D Anghelone


    Haven’t seen To End All Wars but will look for it.

    Couldn’t recall the name before but September Tapes is another good one. Extra credit for the sheer balls of going to Afghanistan and, like Tae Guk Gi, good effects on a shoestring budget.

  • D Anghelone

    What? A melodramatic war movie? I do have to admit that movie sort of falls apart at the end; still I enjoyed it immensely. Plus there is the advantage of seeing the war through Korean eyes.

    I saw one other some time ago that could have been US flik from the ’80s. Korean Vietnam war vet wrecked by the experience. Nothing, IMO, to commend it other than it being Korean.

    Yeah, No Man’s Land was a great movie. Very much in the spirit of the great German movies Das Boot and Stalingrad. I can never get out of my mind those poor bastard German grunts freezing to death in the snow.

    No Man’s Land was supposed to be comedic or satirical or somesuch and did have some moments. The French officer asking the German EOD if he spoke French and getting a “Nein.” The French Sergeant then giving a resigned, “English, of course.” and getting an affirmative. Says a lot.

    I remember watching a documentary a few years ago where one of the Japanese engineers on that project was interviewed (indeed he toured areas where the railway stood or still exists) and the level of denial the man was in was astounding to watch.

    Yeah. We eventually own up to everything we should and everything we shouldn’t.

  • Findlay Dunachie

    Squander Two:

    How absolutely fascinating – I’ve never heard anything of it. And thanks for bringing us back on topic!

    Doug Collins (first of all the messages):

    Did you get my message to you that Airey Neave wrote “The Flames of Calais”?

  • Mark Buehner

    Family is allowed to be ungrateful. Moreover Britain pays us back with honor at every turn. I cant overstate the feeling of kinship and support i felt when Tony Blair came to Bush’s speech to the joint session of congress after 911. Im not ashamed to admit my eyes were not dry.

  • Gary Gunnels: Yet, the U.S. firebombing of Japan is probably far more morally troubling than the atomic bomb attacks.

    All too true. It would be far less morally troublesome if your kin had been slaughtered trying to get a foothold on the beaches of Honshu.

  • Findlay Dunachie: The USA could only have acquiesced in this state of affairs. It might ultimately have collided with Japan, but yet have taken no action while that power absorbed the Far Eastern possessions of the Dutch, French and British and turned China into a helpless puppet.

    The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, not on a lark, but because they understood that Uncle Sam would not stand aside as the overseas possessions of the defeated European powers fell into unfriendly hands. The United States was leery of getting involved in European wars, but was very cognizant of its interests in the Far East, having financed and supplied an entire Air Force to the Chinese military during the Sino-Japanese war. The war with Japan ended later than the war with Germany mainly because 3/4 of the American war effort was devoted to fighting Hitler. Without a European war effort to support, Japan would have been on its knees far earlier, and victories over Japanese forces would have been crushing ones, perhaps involving American forces on the Chinese mainland, thus stifling in its crib the eventual emergence of viable Communist forces in several parts of East Asia.

  • I was not permitted to watch television as a child. My parents knew it would rot my mind, and they were right. But of course I wanted to, every other American child did and it was forbidden fruit.

    I will never forget the day when they got me out of bed and sat me down in front of it and made me watch for four hours. It was the first time I had ever been permitted, and this was a COMMAND.

    It was Churchill’s funeral. They told me that this was the funeral of the greatest man that they ever knew, ant though I did not understand now, I would someday.

    I was 7.