This isn’t a very serious entry, but at the same time it sort of is. Since I’m a history/military fanatic, I’ve read more books on this subject than I’ve had hot meals, but I’d never consider myself an expert. I’m confident there are still many things I’ve yet to learn about this terrible conflict, and there are far more learned men than I who have written, lectured, or made documentaries about it over the last seventy years.
It fascinates me. The worst event in human history, yet mankind still fails to appreciate all the lessons it should have taught us. But the reason I’m writing about it here is because of the many differences of opinion I’ve encountered during my travels, the viewpoints of people the world over. Some I believe to be wrong, others more in line with my own beliefs (and therefore right).
The worst ones are unfortunately quite prevalent. The British believe the Americans and Soviets were little more than cannon fodder, the Americans think they had to win the war for the good guys (again), and the former Soviets are of the opinion they could have done it single-handedly, anyway. As evidence, the Limeys will point to America’s late-entry into the war, the British-dominated African and Burmese fronts, and the air superiority of the RAF in Western Europe after the Battle of Britain (the Luftwaffe having largely been relocated to the Eastern Front). The Americans will bring up their economic assistance to the Allies and the influx of countless US forces in Europe, as well as the Pacific campaign against the Empire of Japan mostly having been orchestrated by the United States Navy and Marine Corps. The former Soviet states will claim that they truly won the war, since they were in it from the first (not quite true due to their initial agreement with Germany) and suffered the heaviest casualties. I’ve heard all the arguments and fights over it, and who’s got the right of it?
To an extent, they all have a point.
Could the British have won the war without the Americans and Soviets? Of course not. Even with the force of the Empire behind them, early British engagements against German forces were disastrous. It took a long time and many hard-earned lessons for things to become more even. But during that time, much experience was gained which put British and Imperial troops ahead of their American counterparts.
But British industry was ineffective, not only due to German bombing. Small arms and vehicle production was generally of low quality and cheap to produce, as the war effort demanded. Though the Lee Enfield rifle was a fine weapon, other small arms and vehicles produced in Britain were of awful quality. For example the Sten gun, the standard British submachine gun, was badly designed and cheap, making it liable to break or jam, and not at all to be compared with the American Thompson. Small wonder so many British troops used these American weapons. Also, while the North African campaign typically conjures up images of pitched tank battles, it is often forgotten is that the great victories of the British Empire were often won with tanks of American manufacture. Furthermore, the war would never have been won without the intervention of the United States in Europe and the Pacific.
The Eastern Front will forever be associated with the appalling conditions and almost inhuman violence of both the Soviets and the Nazis. Since the numbers involved on this front are greater than those of Western Europe or the Pacific, one can see why members of former Soviet countries will claim that they bore the brunt of the German onslaught, and why people I’ve met consider the North African, European and Pacific fronts as little more than minor skirmishes. The fact of the matter is, had the Eastern front not been fought, one can only speculate at the fate of the North African, Italian and Normandy campaigns with the presence of so many additional highly-trained German troops stationed there. Equally true, however, is the reverse; had the British Empire and the United States not entered the war, the troops defending Hitler’s western conquests would doubtless have been relocated to the Soviet front. Despite what Georgian or Russian people might claim, the German soldier was worth ten Soviet counterparts. Put simply, it is no coincidence that after so many devastating Nazi victories against the Soviet Union, the USSR only managed to begin to claw its way to victory about the same time as increased land operations were launched in North Africa.
I don’t want this to be a history lesson. Instead, I’d like to divulge a few weird and insane opinions I’ve heard about the war all over the world. Make of them what you will.
I’ll start with the Georgians. At a dinner party last year, several Georgian men told me that the Soviet Union won World War Two. Not only that, but Stalin himself won the war. And, since Stalin was Georgian, Georgia won the Second World War.
Now, to an extent, I don’t mind people from different countries claiming their nation had the biggest and most difficult role. Usually, we’ll agree to disagree. When it comes to individual heroes, I’m not surprised when the Brit picks David Stirling, the Yank John Basilone or the former Soviet Vasily Zaitsev. But Stalin? I also find it very strange that Georgians would support him in this way; asides from all the evil things Stalin did, he was very quick to renounce the Georgian (and other Soviet) people, instead making a speech at the end of the war in which he gave highest praise to the Russians.
I don’t want to take anything away from anyone from any country, or any service. The bravery which saw the US Marines take Iwo Jima is the same as that of the inexperienced, outnumbered and outgunned RAF pilots over the English Channel, or the Soviets fighting in ruined Stalingrad, or even the Germans defending Berlin to the last man. But I cannot understand how anybody anywhere would, or could, claim that Stalin won the war. These weren’t uneducated people, either. One worked for the Ministry of Justice (which is wonderfully and worryingly ironic) and the other had been educated at the University of Reading, in my native land.
I wouldn’t mind so much if they wanted to say that they felt the Soviet troops were the bravest. I might point them in the direction of the British Pathfinders or the US Rangers, but I’d tolerate it. But they smiled and shook their heads as I asked them to consider the toil in North Africa, the horrible conditions endured by British and Indian troops in Burma, the enormity of the Normandy landings, or the ferocity of the Japanese defending tiny scraps of island against the Americans.
I also didn’t understand how they could be so ignorant to the conditions of their own troops. They described the Soviet troops as being so brave, they just walked towards enemy machine gun fire without flinching. There’s an element of truth to that, since Soviet troops who tried to retreat or take cover were liable to be shot by their own officers, but it’s not a humane or militarily effective way to soldier, and certainly nothing to be proud of. Oh, the men who were in those places deserve the utmost respect, but it must be understood that they weren’t the same as the men on Soviet propaganda posters, stern-faced and iron willed, unafraid of death for the greater glory of the Soviet Union. No, they were men like anyone else, they felt fear the same as their Allied counterparts, but these poor people had to worry about being shot from behind as well as in front. Good old Stalin, eh?
I don’t think I’ll ever be able to bring myself to accredit a politician for winning a war. Oh, for starting them, sure enough, but it wasn’t Churchill, or Roosevelt or Stalin who earned the victory. They weren’t there with the blood on their hands and mud on their boots. Also, since Stalin is universally known as such an evil bastard…they didn’t really want to hear about that, either, but I pointed them in the direction of any history book ever written in any part of the world.
A common British view is that all Americans are loud, intolerant, ignorant and stupid. I’ve met many who have proved the point, but rather more who suggest that stereotype is utter bollocks. Nevertheless, it prevails, and while many British people can be brought to admit that we did need the Americans during the war, they will mostly subscribe to the belief that what the Americans added to the effort was numbers, equipment and money, while the expertise and experience was mostly in British hands.
That couldn’t be further from the truth. Bad decisions were made by American generals, no doubt about it, but British commanders were hardly unanimously better. Why, look at Montgomery, one of our most celebrated battlefield commanders. El Alamein was a success, one of the first major land victories in the war, but according to revisionist historian Anthony Beevor, by the time Monty was in command of the Eighth Army, the majority of the fighting had already been conducted by his predecessors and his cautious campaign of attrition was hardly deserving of the ‘lightning victory’ status with which it has been treated. Monty, you might also know, was the architect of Operation Market Garden, which ended in disaster (though his opinions of American conduct in Vietnam years later were spot on). Also, look at Signapore. Thousands upon thousands of British troops who were prepared to put up a spirited defence were forced to surrender by their commanding officers, and were condemned to slavery as Japanese prisoners for the duration of the war.
Then again, I hate the American belief that they won the war for us. It’s a fairly common way of thinking as far as I can tell, and in some ways its easy to see why they’d think that; after all, besides Pearl Harbour, no American soil came under direct attack, but plenty US troops were killed fighting far away from home. This belief is also plastered all over their pop culture, and I point here to the fact that modern American war films rarely feature other Allied troops, and when they do, they’re typically useless.
Take the British in Band of Brothers, for example. My countrymen make two appearances in the series, the first time not listening to the Americans and getting everyone killed, and the second being stranded and having to be rescued by US soldiers. They have stereotypical posh accents, words like ‘bloody’ and ‘chaps’ constituting for roughly 50% of every sentence they say, and just seem so bad at soldiering you’d be forgiven for thinking that they only put their uniforms on the previous week. Easy Company, however, despite never having been in combat before 1944, are an almost unstoppable force in the series; the point is, you’d never guess that the British and German forces were mostly combat veterans of five years from the way they get gunned down or make fatal blunders.
I read Stephen Ambrose’s book on which the television series is based, and personally I didn’t rate him very highly as an historian (for those of you who think me biased, I wasn’t very impressed by his Pegasus Bridge project either, which is about British soldiers). I understand that as he was interviewing the men of Easy Company so extensively it must have been very difficult to remain emotionally unattached after hearing so many deeply moving stories, but if one was completely ignorant of World War Two and read Ambrose’s book, you’d have thought that Easy Company damn near won the war single-handedly. If any readers doubt my words, Ambrose himself was called into question over the accuracy of his books over the years.
I like the old war films the best, ones like The Longest Day, which shows the entirety of the Normandy Landings from everyone’s point of view; British, Americans, Imperial, French, even the Germans…the whole lot, giving everyone credit for what they did. I can appreciate that the lack of other Allied troops besides Americans wasn’t so inappropriate in a film like Saving Private Ryan, since it dealt solely with American areas of attack, but nonetheless…why not make a new TV series or film based around a new topic entirely? They don’t call the British troops in Burma ‘The Forgotten Army’ for nothing, and George MacDonald’s autobiography of his time in that theatre (Quartered Safe Out Here) is a book I think everyone should read, and would make an excellent Band of Brothers-style series. Or better yet, what about the first American heroes of the war, the Eagle Squadrons? I’m surprised these guys aren’t publicised more in the USA. Long before America entered the war, these Americans (several of whom were pilots in the US Army) left their jobs, homes and families to enlist in the Royal Air Force and fight the Germans. I don’t think it gets anymore self-sacrificing than that. A TV series about these guys would be awesome.
I know I haven’t mentioned the Chinese here very much, and since I’m asking for everyone to receive credit, I should mention the suffering of the Chinese people due to the awful campaign of conquest waged in China by the Japanese. Significant amounts of Chinese troops also worked closely with the British, Indian, Gurkha and African forces in the Burma campaign, as well as on their front, defending their own lands.
So there you have it. I think I’ve said all I wanted to, but there’s probably a shed load of things I’ve forgotten and will rant about in a later post. Oh well. Enjoy.
End of broadcast…