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Seventy-Five Years Ago – The Second World War, East & West; November-December 1944 – The Battle of the Bulge & Roads to Berlin.   Leave a comment

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Undiplomatic ‘Moves’:

In the month following the Second Quebec Conference of 12th-16th September 1944, there was a storm of protest about the Morgenthau Plan, a repressive measure against Germany which Stalin craved. Although he was not present in person at Quebec, Stalin was informed about the nature and detail of the proposals. On 18 October, the Venona code-breakers had detected a message from an economist at the War Production Board to his Soviet spymasters that outlined the plan. This was that:

The Rühr should be wrested from Germany and handed over to the control of some international council. Chemical, metallurgical and electrical industries must be transported out of Germany.

The US Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, was appalled that Morgenthau had been allowed to trespass so blatantly on an area of policy that did not belong to him, and also that the proposed plan would, in his judgment, so clearly result in the Germans resisting more fiercely. With his health failing, Hull resigned in November 1944. The American press was just as antagonistic. Both the New York Times and Washington Post attacked the plan as playing into the hands of the Nazis. And in Germany, the proposals were a gift for Joseph Goebbels, who made a radio broadcast in which he announced:

In the last few days we have learned enough about the enemy’s plans, … The plan proposed by that Jew Morgenthau which would rob eighty million Germans of their industry and turn Germany into a simple potato field.

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Roosevelt was taken aback by the scale of the attack on the Morgenthau Plan, realizing that he had misjudged the mood of his own nation, a rarity for him, and allowed a Nazi propaganda triumph. The Plan for the complete eradication of German industrial production capacity in the Ruhr and the Saar was quietly dropped in the radical form in which it had originally been proposed at Quebec, although the punitive philosophy underpinning it later found expression in the Joint Chiefs of Staff directive 1067, which stated that occupation forces should take no steps looking toward the economic rehabilitation of Germany or designed to maintain or strengthen the German economy. At the same time, Roosevelt, comfortably re-elected on 7 November, confidently replied to Mikolajczyk, the Polish PM in exile, who had accused him of bad faith over the future of his country, that if a mutual agreement was reached on the borders of Poland, then his government would offer no objection. Privately, however, the US President considered the European questions so impossible that he wanted to stay out of them as far as practicable, except for the problems involving Germany. Reading between the lines, Mikolajczyk decided that he had heard and seen enough of the West’s unwillingness to face Stalin down. He resigned on 24 November. Just days after his resignation, Churchill confirmed his support for Roosevelt’s ‘line’. He told the Cabinet that:

No immediate threat of war lay ahead of us once the present war was over and we should be careful of assuming commitments consequent on the formation of a Western bloc that might impose a very heavy military burden on us.

Although his views about the stability of the post-war world were still capable of changing, Churchill felt that, on balance, the Soviet Union would prove a genuinely cooperative member of the international community and he returned from Moscow in an upbeat mood. He wrote to his wife Clementine that he had had …

… very nice talks with the old Bear … I like him the more I see him. Now they respect us and I am sure they wish to work with us.

Over the next few months, however, Stalin’s actions on the eastern front would shatter Churchill’s hopes. On 24 November, the Soviets had established a bridgehead over the Danube and a month later, on Christmas Eve, they were encircling Budapest. Defending Hungary accounted for seven of the eighteen Panzer divisions still available to Hitler on the Eastern Front, a massive but necessary commitment.  Dismantled factory equipment, cattle, and all things moveable were dragged away by the retreating German forces, now mainly interested in entrenching themselves along the western borders of Hungary, leaving it for Szálasi to win time for them. The Leader of the Nation announced total mobilisation, in principle extending to all men between the ages of fourteen and seventy. He rejected appeals from Hungarian ecclesiastical leaders to abandon Budapest after it had been surrounded by the Soviet forces by Christmas 1944. The senseless persistence of the Arrow-Cross and the Germans resulted in a siege of over one and a half months, with heavy bombardment and bitter street warfare, a ‘second Stalingrad’, as recalled in several German war memoirs. The long siege of Budapest and its fall, with an enormous loss of life, occupy an outstanding place in world military history. Only the sieges of Leningrad (St Petersburg), (Volgograd) and the Polish capital Warsaw, similarly reduced to rubble, are comparable to it.

‘Autumn Mist’ in the Ardennes:

Meanwhile, on the Western Front, Allied hopes that the war might be over in 1944, which had been surprisingly widespread earlier in the campaign, were comprehensively extinguished. By mid-November, Eisenhower’s forces found themselves fighting determined German counter-attacks in the Vosges, Moselle and the Scheldt and at Metz and Aachen. Hoping to cross the Rhine before the onset of winter, which in 1944/5 was abnormally cold, the American Allied commander-in-chief unleashed a massive assault on 16 November, supported by the heaviest aerial bombing of the whole war so far, with 2,807 planes dropping 10,097 bombs in ‘Operation Queen’. Even then, the US First and Ninth Armies managed to move forward only a few miles, up to but not across the Rühr river. Then, a month later, just before dawn on Saturday, 16 December 1944, Field Marshal von Rundstedt unleashed the greatest surprise attack of the war since Pearl Harbor. In Operation Herbstnebel (‘Autumn Mist’), seventeen divisions – five Panzer and twelve mechanized infantry – threw themselves forward in a desperate bid to reach first the River Meuse and then the Channel itself. Instead of soft autumnal mists, it was to be winter fog, snow, sleet and heavy rain that wrecked the Allies’ aerial observation, denying any advance warning of the attack. Similarly, Ultra was of little help in the early stages, since all German radio traffic had been strictly ‘verboten’ and orders were only passed to corps commanders by messenger a few days before the attack.

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Suddenly, on 16 December, no fewer than three German Armies comprising 200,000 men spewed forth from the mountains and forests of the Ardennes. Generals Rundstedt and Model had opposed the operation as too ambitious for the Wehrmacht’s resources at that stage, but Hitler believed that he could split the Allied armies north and south of the Ardennes, protect the Rühr, recapture Antwerp, reach the Channel and, he hoped, re-create the victory of 1940, and all from the same starting point. Rundstedt later recalled that:

The morale of the troops taking part was astonishingly high at the start of the offensive. They really believed victory was possible. Unlike the higher commanders, who knew the facts.

The German disagreements over the Ardennes offensive were three-fold and more complex than Rundstedt and others made out after the war. Guderian, who was charged with opposing the Red Army’s coming winter offensive in the east, did not want any offensive in the west, but rather the reinforcement of the Eastern Front, including Hungary. Rundstedt, Model, Manteuffel and other generals in the west wanted a limited Ardennes offensive that knocked the Allies off balance and gave the Germans the chance to rationalize the Western Front and protect the Rühr. Meanwhile, Hitler wanted to throw the remainder of Germany’s reserves into a desperate attempt to capture Antwerp and destroy Eisenhower’s force in the west. As usual, Hitler took the most extreme and thus riskiest path, and as always he got his way. He managed to scrape up a reserve of twenty-five divisions, which he committed to the offensive in the Ardennes. General Model was given charge of the operation and planned it well: when the attack went in against the Americans it was a complete surprise. Eisenhower, for his part, had left the semi-mountainous, heavily wooded Ardennes region of Belgium and Luxembourg relatively undermanned. He did this because he had been receiving reports from Bradley stating that a German attack was only a remote possibility and one from Montgomery on 15 December claiming that the enemy cannot stage major offensive operations. Even on 17 December, after the offensive had begun, Major-General Kenneth Strong, the Assistant Chief of Staff (Intelligence) at SHAEF, produced his Weekly Intelligence Summary No. 39 which offered the blithe assessment that:

The main result must be judged, not by the ground it gains, but by the number of Allied divisions it diverts from the vital sectors of the front.

For all the dédácle of 1940, the Ardennes seemed uninviting for armoured vehicles, and important engagements were being fought to the north and south. With Wehrmarcht movements restricted to night-time, and the Germans instituting elaborate deception plans, the element of surprise was complete. Although four captured German POWs spoke of a big pre-Christmas offensive, they were not believed by Allied intelligence. Only six American divisions of 83,000 men protected the sixty-mile line between Monschau in the north and Echternach in the south, most of them under Major-General Troy Middleton of VIII Corps. They comprised green units such as the 106th Infantry Division that had never seen combat before, and the 4th and 28th Infantry Divisions that had been badly mauled in recent fighting and were recuperating.

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The attack took place through knee-high snow, with searchlights bouncing beams off the clouds to provide illumination for the troops. Thirty-two English-speaking German soldiers under the Austrian Colonel Otto Skorzeny were dressed in American uniforms in order to create confusion behind the lines. Two of the best German generals, Dietrich and Monteuffel led the attacks in the north and centre respectively, with the Seventh Army providing flank protection to the south. As the panzers raced for the Meuse and the Allies desperately searched for the troops they needed to rebuild their line, both armies wondered if Hitler had managed to bring off a stunning ‘blitz’ yet again. Yet even the seventeen divisions were not enough to dislodge the vast numbers of Allied troops who had landed in north-west Europe since D-day. The Allies had the men and Hitler didn’t.  Manteuffel later complained of Hitler that:

He was incapable of realising that he no longer commanded the army which he had had in 1939 or 1940. 

Nevertheless, both the US 106th and 28th Divisions were wrecked by the German attack, some units breaking and running to the rear, but the US V Corps in the north and 4th Division in the south managed to hold their positions, squeezing the German thrust into a forty-mile-wide and fifty-five-mile-deep protuberance in the Allied line whose shape on the map gave the engagement its name: the Battle of the Bulge. The Sixth SS Panzer Army failed to make much progress against the 2nd and 99th Infantry Divisions of Gerow’s V Corps in the north and came close but never made it to a giant fuel dump near the town of Spa. They did, however, commit the war’s worst atrocity against American troops in the west when they machine-gunned eighty-six unarmed prisoners in a field near Malmédy, a day after executing sixteen others. The SS officer responsible, SS-General Wilhelm Mohnke, was never prosecuted for the crime, despite having also been involved in two other such massacres in cold blood earlier in the war.

In the centre, Manteuffel’s Fifth Panther Army surrounded the 106th Division in front of St Vith and forced its eight thousand men to surrender on 19 December, the largest capitulation of American troops since the Civil War. St Vith itself was defended by the 7th Armoured until 21 December, when it fell to Manteuffel. Although the Americans were thinly spread, and caught by surprise, isolated pockets of troops held out long enough to cause Herbstnehel to stumble, providing Eisenhower with enough time to organize a massive counter-attack. By midnight on the second day, sixty thousand men and eleven thousand vehicles were being sent as reinforcements.  Over the following eight days, a further 180,000 men were moved to contain the threat. As the 12th Army Group had been split geographically to the north and south of ‘the bulge’, on 20 December Eisenhower gave Bradley’s US First and Ninth Armies to Montgomery’s 21st Army Group, the latter until the Rhine had been crossed. It was a sensible move that nonetheless created lasting resentment. German loudspeakers blared out the following taunt to troops of the US 310th Infantry Regiment:

How would you like to die for Christmas?

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With Ultra starting to become available again after the assault, confirming the Meuse as the German target, the Supreme Commander could make his own dispositions accordingly, and prevent his front being split in two. Patton’s Third Army had the task of breaking through the German Seventh Army in the south. On 22 and 23 December, Patton had succeeded in turning his Army a full ninety degrees from driving eastwards towards the Saar to pushing northwards along a twenty-five-mile front over narrow, icy roads in mid-winter straight up the Bulge’s southern flank. Even Bradley had to admit in his memoirs that Patton’s ‘difficult manoeuvre’ had been one of the most brilliant performances by any commander on either side of World War II. Patton had told him, the Kraut’s stuck his head in a meat-grinder and this time I’ve got hold of the handle. Less brilliant was the laxity of Patton’s radio and telephone communications staff, which allowed Model to know of American intentions and objectives. But Patton seemed to think he had a direct line to God. In the chapel of the Fondation Pescatore in Luxembourg on 23 December, Patton prayed to the Almighty:

You have just got to make up Your mind  whose side You’re on. You must come to my assistance, so that I might dispatch the entire German Army as a birthday present to Your Prince of Peace.

Whether through divine intervention or human agency, the 101st Airborne Division had already arrived in the nick of time at the town of Bastogne, only hours before the Germans reached its vital crossroads. With eighteen thousand Americans completely surrounded there on 20 December, the commander of the 47th Panzer Corps, General Heinrich von Lüttwitz gave Brigadier-General McAuliffe, a veteran of Overlord and Market Garden, the acting commander of the division, the opportunity to surrender. He refused in characteristic style with the single word ‘nuts!’ Thus, Christmas Day began with a massed German assault on Bastogne, which had to hold out until the US Third Army could come to the rescue from the south. Patton joked that it was…

… a clear, cold Christmas, lovely weather for killing Germans … which is a bit queer, seeing whose birthday it is.

After surviving the spirited attack that broke through the defensive perimeter on Christmas Day, Bastogne was relieved by Patton’s 4th Armored Division on Boxing Day. By then Manteuffel’s Fifth Panzer Army was running short of fuel, and although its 2nd Panzer Division got to within five miles of the town of Dinant on the Meuse, Dietrich had not committed his mechanized infantry. reserves in support of his fellow general’s advance, because such a manoeuvre was not in Hitler’s orders and he had been instructed to obey his instructions to the letter. Contrary to Model’s advice, Hitler had insisted that Dietrich, ‘Hitler’s SS pet’ should deliver the decisive blow, even though he had only advanced a quarter of the distance covered by Manteuffel. The German commanders having wasted this opportunity, an improvement in the weather allowed the Allied planes to harry the Panzer columns with fifteen thousand sorties flown in the first four days after the skies had cleared. Later, when being debriefed by Allied interrogators, Rundstedt put the defeat down to three factors:

First, the unheard-of superiority of your air force, which made all movement in daytime impossible. Secondly, the lack of motor fuel – oil and gas – so that the Panzers and even the Luftwaffe were unable to move. Third, the systematic destruction of all railway communications so that it was impossible to bring one single railroad train across the Rhine. 

Hitler’s Offensive Folly:

By 8 January, the great offensive had petered out. The Allies resumed their advance and gradually forced their way towards the Rhine. After the war was over, Rundstedt strongly objected to this stupid operation in the Ardennes being referred to as ‘the Rundstedt Offensive’, saying that, instead, it should be called ‘the Hitler Offensive’ since it came to him as an order complete to the last detail. According to him, Hitler had even written on the plan in his own handwriting, Not to be Altered. The Führer had been warned by both Rundstedt and Model that the offensive would achieve only a drastic weakening of the Reich’s power to resist the Russians on the Eastern Front, without any concomitant advantage in the west. Nonetheless, he was willing to gamble all, as so often before.  The hopes that many Germans still had that the Red Army could be kept back were thus sacrificed on an offensive in the west, against an enemy far less vicious and rapacious than the one bearing down on their homeland from the east. As the military historian, Max Hastings has concluded:

Only Hitler’s personal folly maintained the Ardennes battle, encouraged by Jodl, who persuaded him that maintaining pressure in the west was dislocating the Anglo-Americans’ offensive plans.

This may well have been the case, at least temporarily, but the greater cost was born by Germany’s defensive plans, and Hitler was no longer able to undertake a major counter-offensive again. The battle of the Bulge cost the Germans 98,024 battlefield casualties, including over twelve thousand killed. They also lost seven hundred tanks and assault guns and sixteen hundred combat aircraft. There were eighty-one thousand Allied casualties, mainly American, including over ten thousand killed. They lost a slightly higher number of tanks and tank-destroyers than the Germans. The great difference was that whereas the Allies could make up their losses in matériel, the Germans no longer could. This had a powerful effect on Allied morale, as a British tank commander fought in the battle testified later:

The Germans were going to be defeated, and not only in their Ardennes adventure but in their whole mad attempt to dominate the world. 

Defeat in the Air and at Sea – The Allied Bombing Campaign:

They were also being defeated in the air. The Royal Air Force had continued with its general area bombing throughout 1944, with its chief of staff, Commander Harris, genuinely believing that this would bring victory soonest. Churchill, Brooke and Portal all complained privately about this, wanting to pursue precision bombing. They could have simply ordered ‘Bomber’ Harris to alter his targeting policy, to the point of sacking him if he refused, but they did not give the order and they didn’t sack him either. In fact, Bomber Command certainly did hit precision targets, most famously hitting the battleship Tirpitz on several occasions between September and November 1944, on the last occasion succeeding in sinking it.

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Above: The North Atlantic & Arctic Convoy System, showing the naval bases & the location of the battleship Tirpitz.

This final British attack on Tirpitz took place on 12 November. The ship again used her 38 cm guns against the bombers, which approached the battleship at 09:35; Tirpitzs main guns forced the bombers to disperse temporarily, but could not break up the attack. A force of 32 Lancasters from Nos. 9 and 617 Squadrons dropped 29 Tallboys on the ship, with two direct hits and one near miss. Several other bombs landed within the anti-torpedo net barrier and caused significant cratering of the seabed; this removed much of the sandbank that had been constructed to prevent the ship from capsizing. One bomb penetrated the ship’s deck between turrets Anton and Bruno but failed to explode. A second hit amidships between the aircraft catapult and the funnel and caused severe damage.

Black and white aerial photograph showing an overturned ship

A very large hole was blown in the ship’s side and bottom; the entire section of belt armour abreast of the bomb hit was completely destroyed. A third bomb may have struck the ship on the port side of turret Caesar. Operation Catechism was undertaken by 29 Royal Air Force heavy bombers that attacked the battleship at its anchorage near the Norwegian city of Tromsø. The ship capsized after being hit by at least two bombs and damaged by the explosions of others, killing between 940 and 1,204 members of the crew; the British suffered no casualties.

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Meanwhile, although the Nazi war machine was still producing as much throughout 1944 as it had the previous year, at the end of January 1945 Albert Speer found that in 1944 Allied bombing had meant that Germany produced thirty-five per cent fewer tanks than he had wanted to build and Germany required, as well as thirty-one per cent fewer aircraft and forty-two per cent fewer lorries. In a sense, these statistics justify the Allies’ CBO (Combined Bomber Offensive) as the Battle of the Bulge had demonstrated what the Wehrmacht and the Luftwaffe were capable of achieving in counter-attack when they had enough tanks and aircraft. The tragic reality was that area-, as well as precision-bombing, was necessary to halt Speer’s miracle, although by 1944 the RAF should perhaps have switched to concentrating more on factories, which could be targeted with greater accuracy than in 1940.

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The estimation that the entire CBO of 1944 reduced German gross industrial production by only ten per cent seems damning, in view of the sacrifices of Allied airmen, the loss of 21,000 bombers and the deaths by bombing of around 720,000 German, Italian and French civilians in the course of the entire war. Yet the entire campaign took up only seven per cent of Britain’s material war effort, and on those grounds could be justified militarily. Through the development of the Mustang to escort Allied bombers as far as Berlin and back, the British had produced an aircraft which could establish dominance over German skies, shooting down a large number of Messerschmitts flown by experienced Luftwaffe pilots, thereby allowing Allied bombers to destroy Luftwaffe factories, including those producing synthetic oil.

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After D-day, efforts had been made by the Americans, as large numbers of B-24 bombers joined the B-17s, to shift concentration towards attacking German synthetic-oil supplies. Harris had opposed this as well, yet by then the Luftwaffe was somehow surviving on ten thousand tons of high-octane fuel a month when 160,000 had once been required. Harris won, and between October 1944 and the end of the war more than forty per cent of the 344,000 tons of bombs dropped by the RAF on Germany hit cities rather than purely military targets, even though the Allies had already achieved complete aerial superiority and the RAF could bomb their targets in daylight once again. On his seventieth birthday on 30 November, Churchill interrupted Portal’s report to criticise the bombing of Holland: Eight to Nine Hundred German casualties against twenty thousand Dutch – awful thing to do that. This led to a row between Portal and Harris, with Harris spiritedly protecting his policy. Portal wanted Bomber Command to concentrate on oil and transportation targets, which Harris still considered mere ‘panacea targets’. Yet the debate was only ever about the efficacy of the bombing offensive, not its morality, over which neither man had any doubts.

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001Berliners greeted their deprived and dangerous Christmas of 1944 with black humour in the form of joke advice as to how to ‘be practical’ in their choice of presents by giving a coffin; a further piece was to enjoy the war while you can, the peace will be terrible. The constant Allied air raids were bad, but worse was the knowledge that a 6.7 million-strong Red Army was massing on the Reich’s borders from the Baltic to the Adriatic, with their city as the ultimate goal. This was significantly larger than the army with which Hitler had invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, a great achievement for sure, but one which was aided by the United States’ Lend-Lease Scheme, under which more than five thousand aircraft, seven thousand tanks, many thousands of lorries, fifteen million pairs of boots and prodigious quantities of food, supplies, arms, and ammunition were shipped to the Soviet Union. Valued at $10 billion in total, representing seven per cent of the USSR’s total output, this allowed the Soviets to concentrate production on areas where they were most efficient. So, when they wished each other Prosit Neujahr! for 1945, few Berliners clinked glasses. The irony was not lost on them that, before the war, their ‘liberal’ city had been the most anti-Nazi place in Germany, yet now it faced destruction because of its most prominent resident, who had returned from the Wolfschanze on 20 November.

By contrast, as the year ended in Moscow, it was hailed as ‘The Year of Ten Victories’ by the Soviets, who had an unbroken run of victories since the relief of Leningrad in January 1944. The Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania had been liberated from Hitler’s yoke by Christmas, only to fall beneath Soviet rule once more, and this time until 1990. Hitler continued to insist that the bridgehead between Memel and Kurland enclaves must be held by an entire army. Thus his forces were trapped in the Kurland pocket, which the Red Army came to regard as a gigantic POW camp maintained for them by the Wehrmacht, and so did not force it to surrender until the end of the war. Hitler’s refusal to countenance Guderian’s pleas to rescue Army Group Centre in East Prussia and Army Group North in Latvia put the German in dire ‘straits’ on the Baltic coastline. The much-vaunted new generation of U-boats, supposedly faster, indefinitely submersible and undetectable, did not come on stream in sufficient quantities to maintain the supplies of Swedish iron ore, or to maroon the Allies on the continent without their convoys’ supplies. As the Western Allies advanced slowly to the Rhine, the Soviets burst across the Vistula and then, after clearing Pomerania and Silesia, reached the Oder-Neisse line by the spring. Hitler continued to conduct all operations from a bomb-proof bunker deep beneath the Chancellery in Berlin. His orders were always the same: stand fast, hold on, shoot any waverers and sell your own lives as dearly as possible. The German army’s total losses in 1944 were already immense, adding up to the equivalent of more than a hundred divisions.

Statistical Appendix:

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Sources:

Andrew Roberts (2009), The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War. London: Penguin Books.

Laurence Rees (2008), World War Two: Behind Closed Doors.  London: BBC Books (Ebury Publishing).

Colin McEvedy (1982), The Penguin Atlas of Recent History. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Hermann Kinder & Werner Hilgemann, The Penguin Atlas of World History, vol. II. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Richard Overy (1996), The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Third Reich. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

September 1939 (II): All at Sea – Naval Developments & Diplomacy; Appendices – Documents and Debates.   Leave a comment

Political Reaction to the Polish War in Britain:

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Even at the very late hour of August 1939, there were some ministers who publicly argued for the continuation of the appeasement policy. War is not only not inevitable, said Sir Thomas Inskip, the Minister for Defence Co-ordination, seeking to reassure the British public, but it is unlikely. R A (Richard Austen) Butler, later responsible for the 1944 Education Act, then Under Secretary of State at the Foreign Office, praised Harold Nicolson’s Penguin Special book as a work of art and perfectly correct. As the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax sat in the Lords, Butler was the Government’s spokesman in the Commons, valiantly defending its policy. An enthusiastic Chamberlainite, he regarded Munich not as a means of buying time but as a way of settling differences with Hitler. An unrepentant appeaser down to the outbreak of war, Butler even opposed the Polish alliance signed on 25 August, claiming it would have a bad psychological effect on Hitler. Critics of Chamberlain’s post-Prague policy for ignoring the necessity of encirclement thus found common cause with the ardent appeasers, though Butler himself remained loyal to Chamberlain, even after his final fall from grace. He blamed the Prime Minister’s demise and ultimate disgrace on the growing influence of Sir Horace Wilson at this time, as, for different reasons, did Nicolson.

However, even the tiny window of ‘encirclement’ was soon shut and shuttered by the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. For those on the Left of British politics, both inside Parliament and out,  this represented an unthinkable nightmare and spelt the immediate decapitation of the idea of a Popular Front with communism against the Fascist threat. In particular, Nicolson’s argument for an alliance with the Soviet Union was suddenly invalidated. When he heard of it, Harold Nicolson was, like Drake at the time of the Spanish Armada, on Plymouth Sound. He rushed back to London, to hear Chamberlain’s statement to the House. The PM was like a coroner summing up a murder case, Harold suggested. Although sympathetic to Chamberlain’s hopeless plight, he agreed with the verdict of Lloyd George and Churchill that the PM was a hopeless old crow… personally to blame for this disaster. 

002As Hitler wasted no time in crossing the border into Poland at daybreak on 1 September, the moral and diplomatic disaster became a military reality. Later the same day, Churchill was asked to join a small War Cabinet, a sign to all that Chamberlain had finally accepted that reality and now meant business. When the PM addressed the House that evening, visibly under tremendous emotional stress, he read out the allied dispatch sent to Berlin. This contained the familiar words that unless Germany gave a firm pledge to suspend all military activities and to withdraw its troops from Poland, Britain would instantly honour its obligations. However, there was no time limit attached to the word ‘instantly’ at this stage, so the dispatch could not be read as anything more than a warning. It was not an ultimatum. Apparently, this was largely due to the procrastination of the French Government, which, even at this late hour, was hoping for another Munich Conference to be held within 48 hours.

When the House met again the next evening, Chamberlain’s statement was still loosely-phrased.  Was there to be another Munich? was the unspoken question in everyone’s mind, if not on their lips. When the opposition spokesman, Arthur Greenwood, rose to speak, there were shouts from the Tory benches urging him to Speak for Britain. Chamberlain turned around to his own backbenches as if stung. The House adjourned in indescribable confusion and the Cabinet reconvened in Downing Street on what, by all accounts, was literally a very stormy night. The Cabinet decided to present the ultimatum at nine in the morning in Berlin, to expire two hours later. Chamberlain ended the meeting with the words Right, gentlemen..this means war, quietly spoken, after which there was a deafening thunderclap.

As Chamberlain himself remarked soon afterwards, no German answer to the allied ultimatum was forthcoming before 11 a.m. on the third. Harold Nicolson attended a gathering of the Eden group. At 11.15 they heard Chamberlain’s announcement. For them, as for the masses of British people listening, it seemed like the present did not exist, only the future and the past. What could any of them, with all their grandness and wealth, do now? In a strained and disgusted voice, Chamberlain told a benumbed British people that, after all, they were now at war with Germany. As if a harbinger of the nine-month ‘phoney war’ which was to follow, the air-raid siren sounded the last of the Thirties’ false alarms. In the chamber of the House of Commons, an ill-looking Prime Minister made a ‘restrained speech’. As Nicolson drove out of London towards his home at Sissinghurst in Kent, a convoy of evacuees overtook them. From one of the trucks, an elderly lady accompanying the children leaned out, shook her fist, and shouted, it is all the fault of the rich.  There was a real sense in which both the war itself and its aftermath, became a class war in which the aristocratic control of politics which had helped to cause it, was jettisoned by the British people.

British diplomats were even less enthusiastic about the prospect of conflict with the Soviet Union than the politicians. In a secret telegram to the Foreign Office, the British ambassador to Moscow, Sir William Seeds, wrote:

I do not myself see what advantage war with the Soviet Union would be to us, though it would please me personally to declare it on M. Molotov. …the Soviet invasion of Poland is not without advantages to us in the long run, for it will entail the keeping of a large army on a war footing outside Russia consuming food and petrol and wearing out material and transport, thus reducing German hopes of military or food supplies.

In a public statement on 20 September, however, the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain spoke to the House of Commons about the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland:

For the unhappy victim of this cynical attack, the result has been a tragedy of the grimmest character. The world which has watched the vain struggle of the Polish nation against overwhelming odds with profound pity and sympathy admires their valour, which even now refuses to admit defeat. … There is no sacrifice from which we will not shrink, there is no operation we will not undertake provided our responsible advisers, our Allies, and we ourselves are convinced that it will make an appropriate contribution to victory. But what we will not do is to rush into adventures that offer little prospect of success and are calculated to impair our resources and to postpone ultimate victory.

Fine words, but not matched by action. After the signing of the German-Soviet border treaty in Moscow a week later, Sir William revised his opinion in a telegram of 30 September:

It must be borne in mind that if war continues any considerable time, the Soviet part of Poland will, at its close, have been purged of any non-Soviet population or classes whatever, and that it may well be consequently impossible, in practice, to separate it from the rest of Russia. …our war aims are not incompatible with reasonable settlement on ethnographic and cultural lines.

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On the face of it, this was an incredible suggestion. The Soviet Union had just invaded and was subjugating the eastern territories of a nation to which Britain had given its pledge of protection, yet a senior diplomat was privately suggesting that this aggression should be immediately rewarded. Back in London, another senior diplomat, Sir Ivone Kirkpatrick endorsed Seeds views in a report produced on 1 October to which he appended a sketch map of Poland, pointing out that the new Soviet-imposed border mostly followed the ‘Curzon Line’ proposed by the British Foreign Secretary in 1919, which had been rejected by both the Poles and Bolsheviks at the time.

The picture on the right shows German officers discussing with a Soviet officer (far left) the demarcation line between their various pieces of conquered territory after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact and the invasion of Poland from west and east. 

Nevertheless, there were many among the general population in Britain who were bemused as to why their country had not declared war on the Soviet Union. If the British treaty to protect Poland from aggression had resulted in war with the Germans, why hadn’t it also triggered a war with the USSR? What they were not aware of was that it was not only the Nazi-Soviet pact which had a secret clause, but also the 1939 Anglo-Polish treaty. That clause specifically limited the obligation to protect Poland from ‘aggression’ to that initiated by Germany.

The ‘Phoney War’ and the War at Sea:

The sixth-month hiatus between the end of the Polish campaign in October 1939 and Hitler’s sudden invasion of Denmark and Norway on 9 April 1940 is known as ‘the Phoney War’. With little going on in the West on land and in the skies, the British and French publics were lulled into thinking that the war was not truly a matter of life and death for them in the way it obviously was for the Poles, and their daily existence was carried on substantially as usual, in all its bureaucracy, inefficiency and occasional absurdity. The National Labour MP Harold Nicolson recorded in his war diaries that the Ministry of Information censors had refused to publish the wording of a leaflet, of which two million copies had been dropped over Germany, on the grounds that… We are not allowed to disclose information that might be of value to the enemy.

The map below shows the full details of the war at sea, 1939-45:

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There was nothing phoney about the war at sea, however. It was perfectly true that the British Air Minister Sir Kingsley Wood made the asinine remark that the RAF should not bomb munitions dumps in the Black Forest because so much of it was private property, but at sea, there were no such absurdities. As early as 19 August, U-boat captains were sent a coded signal about a submarine officers’ reunion which directed them to take up their positions around the British Isles in readiness for imminent action. Within nine hours of the declaration of war, the British liner SS Athenia was torpedoed on its way from Glasgow to Montreal, with 1,400 passengers on board, the captain of U-30 mistaking the ship for an armed merchant cruiser. Had they hit the radio mast, and the SOS signal not been transmitted, many more than the 112 passengers would have perished. A Czech survivor recalled:

There was a column of water near the ship and a black thing like a cigar shot over the sea towards us. There was a bang, and then I saw men on the submarine turn a gun and fire it.

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above: a poster recruiting for the German submarine service. Submarine attack was the main activity of the German Navy during the war, and it succeeded in reducing allied tonnage substantially. Submariners were often absent for up to eighteen months and returned weather-beaten and bearded. Casualties were very high. Some seventy per cent of all submariners were killed.

Neither side was prepared for sea warfare in 1939, but neither could ignore the lessons of the 1914-18 sea war: the German High Seas Fleet had remained largely inactive, while the U-boats had brought Britain perilously close to catastrophe. In the U-boat, Germany had deployed a potentially war-winning weapon, and there was no reason not to attempt to use it more decisively in a second war. For Britain, the Battle of the Atlantic was the longest and most critical of World War Two; defeat would have forced Britain out of the war and made US intervention in Europe impossible. Airpower was also crucial in the battle of the Atlantic. German spotter aircraft could locate convoys and guide U-boats to their targets, while land-based air patrols and fighters launched by catapult from convoy ships provided essential protection. While Germany had entered the war with a number of particularly capital ships, including three purpose-built ‘pocket battleship’ commerce raiders and two powerful modern battleships, there were always too few to challenge the Royal Navy directly. Instead, Germany was once again to use its limited naval resources to attack Britain’s sea communications. The capital ships were used as raiders against British commercial vessels. Nevertheless, tracking down and destroying these threats severely stretched British naval resources. The pocket battleship Graf Spee enjoyed considerable success at the beginning of the war.

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Just as in the previous war, however, it was the U-boat that was to provide the greatest danger to Britain’s supply lines, causing Churchill intense anxiety as First Lord of the Admiralty. Had Hitler given first priority in terms of funding to his U-boat fleet on coming to power in 1933, rather than to the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe, he might have built a force that would have strangled and starved Britain into surrender. As it was, the navy was the weakest of Germany’s armed services when war broke out. Against the twenty-two battleships and eighty-three cruisers of the French and British navies, Germany had only three small ‘pocket’ battleships and eight cruisers. Early in the war, the German Navy under Admiral Erich Raeder recognised that the submarine offered the only effective German action at sea. In 1939 there were only 57 U-boats available, and not all of these were suitable for the Atlantic.  They had limited underwater range and spent most of their time on the surface, where they were vulnerable to Coastal command bombers. However, under Admiral Karl Dönitz the submarine arm expanded rapidly and soon took a steady toll of Allied shipping. To Dönitz, as commander of the U-boat fleet, it was a simple question of arithmetic: Britain depended on supplies that were carried by a fleet of about three thousand ocean-going merchant ships, and these could carry about seventeen million tonnes. If he could keep sufficient U-boats at sea and sink enough of this tonnage, Britain would be forced to capitulate. He had devised tactics to overcome the convoys, based on the simple concept of overwhelming the escorts. Dönitz introduced a new tactic to undersea warfare, with the ‘wolf packs’ hunting at night linked by radio, often attacking on the surface and at close range. But Dönitz simply did not have enough boats to launch sufficient attacks in groups.

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above: Convoy with escorts, seen at sunset in the Atlantic in July 1942. The adoption of the convoy system was a key element in defeating the U-boat threat.

At the same time, the British had made very few preparations. The first of hundreds of Atlantic convoys left Halifax, Nova Scotia, on 15 September. Learning the doleful lessons of the Great War, the convoy system was adhered to rigidly by the British between 1939 and 1945, even for ships moving along the coastline between Glasgow and the Thames. Destroyers, frigates and corvettes used an echo-sounding device called ASDIC (named after the Allied Submarine Detection Investigation Committee) to try to track U-boats, while the convoys’ merchantmen sailed together within a protective cordon. But although it was initially seen as a complete solution to the U-boat threat, it proved less than perfect and was only really effective at ranges of two hundred to a thousand metres, when most U-boats were operating on the surface in any case. Britain’s escort fleet had been allowed to run down to such an extent that Churchill was prepared to trade valuable bases in the West Indies and Newfoundland in return for fifty obsolete American destroyers. Perhaps even more damaging was the misuse of resources: the Royal Navy insisted on largely futile attempts to hunt down U-boats instead of concentrating on escorting convoys.

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above: a depth charge explodes astern of a Royal Navy ship hunting for a submerged U-boat. Dropped from surface ships, depth charges could cause fatal damage to a submarine, but they had a limited effective range.

The convoys also adopted a zig-zagging route, the better to outfox their submerged foes. Overall the system was another success, but when a waiting U-boat ‘wolf-pack’ broke through, the losses among the huddled merchantmen could be correspondingly high, and on one occasion as many as half of the vessels were sent to the bottom. The Royal Navy started the war with only five aircraft carriers and so merchant shipping lacked essential air protection out at sea. RAF Coastal Command was left critically short of aircraft because of the priority given to Bomber Command, and the flying boats it received did not have enough range – there remained a gap in the central Atlantic where no air patrols were possible; the ‘Greenland gap’, where U-boats could congregate in relative safety. This was the period that the Germans referred to as the ‘happy time’ when their losses were slight and successes high. In a desperate attempt to extend the range of Britain’s air patrols, Churchill offered the Irish government unification with Northern Ireland in exchange for the use of bases in Lough Swilly, Cobb and Berehaven, but it insisted on maintaining its strict neutrality in the war.

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above: as in the First World War, German leaders gambled on knocking Britain out of the conflict by a submarine blockade. The map above shows the details of the first phase of this.

On 17 September the veteran HMS Courageous was sunk in the Western Approaches by two torpedoes by two torpedoes from U-29, which had already sunk three tankers. She slipped beneath the Hebridean waves in less than fifteen minutes, with only half of her thousand-strong crew being saved, some after an hour in the North Atlantic, where they kept up their morale by singing popular songs of the day such as ‘Roll out the Barrel’ and ‘Show Me the Way to Go Home’. One survivor recalled that the sea was so thick with oil we might have been swimming in treacle.

Why Britain was at War:

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After motoring home to Sissinghurst with Victor Cazalet on 3 September, Harold Nicolson found his sons waiting for him. Ben, aged twenty-five, thought the news ‘a tragedy’, an unwelcome interruption to his studies; Nigel, three years younger, who had just ‘come down’ from Oxford, ‘was immensely exhilarated’. Both were of an age to serve in the army; and both did, until final victory in the spring of 1945. In a symbolic act for what lay ahead, the flag flying above the Elizabethan Tower in the Sissinghurst garden was lowered. No sooner had the war started than Harold Nicolson was asked by Allen Lane, head of Penguin Books, to explain to the nation Why Britain is at War. He wrote the fifty-thousand-word Penguin Special in three weeks. Michael Sadleir, Harold’s regular publisher, called it ‘a masterpiece’. An instant success, it soon sold over a hundred thousand copies. Harold denied that the iniquities of the Versailles treaty had propelled Hitler to power, as so often presumed, claiming that by 1922 a majority of the German people had reconciled themselves to the treaty. By recklessly occupying the Ruhr in 1923, against British advice, French President Poincaré’s adventurism had galvanised German nationalist fervour, destroyed the German middle class and paved the way for the rise of Hitler. These arguments took little account of the first German economic miracle of the mid-twenties or the devastating effects of the world economic crisis of 1929. Nor was it prudent to reproach past leaders of Britain’s only ally in its war of survival against Nazi Germany, even if it was partly blameworthy.

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Harold was on firmer ground when he moved away from contemporary German history to justifying Britain’s motives for going to war. He wrote of a small island nation dependent for its survival not only on protecting the sea lanes to its imperial possessions but also on preserving the balance of power on the European mainland. Germany, then and now, threatened to violate these immutable principles. Britain’s reaction by going to war was prompted by a sound biological instinct … the instinct of self-preservation. By vividly contrasting the savage nature of the Nazi dictatorship, its ‘ruthless nihilism’, with the British conception of ‘decency and fairness’. Harold introduced a moral dimension to the conflict:

We entered this war to defend ourselves. We shall continue to, to its bitter end, in order to save humanity. … Only by imposing a just peace, one that does not outrage their pride or drive them to desperation can we guarantee thirty years to establish a new world order so powerful that even Germany will not dare to defy it.

But what kind of ‘new world order?’ It turned on rectifying the defects of the League of Nations, of organising its own armed forces and the need for its members to sacrifice a degree of national sovereignty. Harold looked forward optimistically to a ‘United States of Europe’, but whether Britain would play an active part in it remained a moot point. On one point, however, Harold was crystal clear: a social revolution was pending. Whatever the outcome of the war, we can be certain that the rich will lose … Their privileges and fortunes will go. His premonition that the war would generate ‘class warfare’, that the prerogatives of his class would be severely eroded, if not entirely swept away, haunted him throughout the war. Nicolson’s critique of Chamberlain’s diplomacy, and in particular the ruinous influence of Sir Horace Wilson may have found praise from R. A. Butler as wholly valid. But Butler remained loyal to Chamberlain, even after the PM’s downfall, describing Churchill as the greatest political adventurer of modern political history. Harold may have felt flattered, temporarily, by Butler’s words, but he would gain a more lasting satisfaction from knowing that his record of Britain’s misguided diplomacy had struck a sympathetic chord in hundreds of thousands of readers.

Harold wanted to find a wartime job commensurate with his talents. The Foreign Office, impressed by the success of Why Britain is at War, was keen that he should strengthen its Political Intelligence Department. Halifax was enthusiastic to make the appointment, but it was opposed by Horace Wilson, whom Nicolson had identified as a ‘chief sinner’ in the failure of British diplomacy. Nor did Harold make a significant impact in Parliament, where he had been elected as a National Labour MP in 1935. Apart from occasional questions about the activity of German propagandists in Britain, he remained silent. The Eden Group made up of Conservative dissidents, but with Harold in constant attendance, still functioned, usually over dinner at the Carlton Club. The general feeling of the company as autumn progressed was that Chamberlain had to be removed and replaced by Churchill. It remained an ineffectual group, however, which would only act when exceptional circumstances left it no option. Like many of his associates, Nicolson was in despair at Chamberlain’s lacklustre leadership. When urged to attack ‘these people at the helm’, he wavered, unwilling to disrupt national unity at that stage. Even so, no-one could deny that the war was going badly. Poland had fallen in less than a month, partitioned along the old Curzon line between Germany and the Soviet Union. In the west, the Allies were reluctant to take offensive action and Nicolson grew increasingly gloomy about the prospects of Britain, with France, emerging victorious from the conflict. However, even Harold could not help but be encouraged by immediate British successes at sea. He prematurely recorded that we have won the war at sea.

Appendices:

Historical Interpretation: Why was British resistance to Hitler left so late?

The historian Arthur Marwick emphasised the assumption, made by Chamberlain and others, that, regardless of their hateful ideologies and propaganda, Hitler and Mussolini were basically rational men who would keep their word, provided their main grievances were met. This assumption was not finally shaken until the occupation of Prague in March 1939. Borrowing a phrase from A J P Taylor’s Origins of the Second World War, he suggests that the Western statesmen believed that once the cloud of phrases which enveloped Fascist policy had been pushed aside there would be a foundation of goodwill on which a modus vivendi might be built. Both the dictators and the Western statesmen moved in the fog of their own beliefs and systems so that there was little fundamental understanding of each side’s position and precious little real communication. Sooner or later, therefore, a collision was almost inevitable. Arnold Toynbee, who had himself met Hitler, summed up this psychological gulf between the dictators and the Western statesmen:

An English observer who paid frequent visits to Germany during the span of six and three-quarter years that intervened between Hitler’s advent to power in Germany…and the outbreak of war…had the uncanny impression, as he made the short physical journey…that within these narrow limits of space and time, he was travelling between two worlds which were momentarily both in existence side by side, but which could not go on thus co-existing because they were morally so far apart as to be incompatible in the long run.

At the same time, the democracies were themselves divided between Left and Right just at the time when national unity was most needed in Britain and France. Although after the Prague coup the Pacifist tide was in sudden retreat, it is impossible to overestimate its significance prior to that event. The revulsion felt towards war was so strong that not even the series of German and Italian successes from 1935 onwards was enough to bring about the fundamental division in European opinions which manifested itself after the occupation of Prague. These divisions, especially in France, help to explain why there was no real attempt to resist Nazi Germany until 1939, and further encouraged Hitler in his belief that the Western powers were too weak to resist him. Added to this, the ideological conflict in Spain had served to distract attention from Hitler’s designs in central and eastern Europe in the previous three years.

Partly as a result of the Spanish conflict, a strategic alliance with the Soviet Union was not seen as a realistic possibility until after Hitler’s Prague coup of 14-15 March. Prior to this turning point, Soviet communism was still viewed as the greater of the two ideological evils. Hence Neville Chamberlain’s persistent attempts from May 1937 onwards to woo first Mussolini and then Hitler. Direct bilateral negotiations with the dictators seemed to be the only way to break the diplomatic deadlock. To resurrect the traditional alliance system, including Russia, would, it was argued, play into Hitler’s hands by allowing him to claim that Germany was being encircled again. However, it was this fear that actually played into his hands, because it enabled him to isolate and deal separately with his potential opponents. Moreover, it was the rumours of war which followed Prague, of impending German action against Poland and Romania, now entirely believable, which helped to reinforce the sea-change in mood which hardened and grew firmer throughout the summer of 1939.

It is also arguable whether, after the Munich Agreement, the rump Czechoslovak state was at all viable, never mind defensible. Relations between Czechs and Slovaks, who had never had more than the similarity of their languages in common, had reached a low point. The harsh reality was that the experimental state of Czechoslovakia, brought into being at Versailles out of the ruins of the Hapsburg Empire, had to be written off. The only consolation for Chamberlain was that he had been able to demonstrate to important non-European opinion, that he had gone to the limits of reasonableness in pursuing the course that they had wanted, that Europe should work out its own salvation without calling on them to intervene, either diplomatically or militarily. After the Prague coup, the attitude of the British Dominions also began to change from the detachment shown six months earlier. This was crucial, as Britain could not go to war with the rearmed Reich without its Empire, especially at sea.

Despite the evidence of his critics, after the Prague debácle, Chamberlain became more defiant and determined in public, and his Cabinet was less nervous at the prospect of war than they had been at the time of the Munich Crisis. The military and intelligence reports were more encouraging and the Anglo-French relationship was better and more active than it had been.  At the end of 1936, Lord Vantissart had written, privately, that it was the job of the Foreign Office to hold the ring until 1939. They now felt confident enough to give a guarantee to the Polish government. This was a remarkable reversal of an attitude to central Europe held by all previous British governments. Perhaps it was given because, unlike Czechoslovakia, the Polish corridor meant that Poland was not land-locked and was therefore of direct interest to the British Empire, over which it now gained a measure of influence. However, there was little more, in reality, that Britain could do to preserve the independence or integrity of Poland in the event of a German attack. Moreover, the guarantee was not given in order to preclude German-Polish negotiation, but as a general warning to Hitler that Britain intended to make a stand. This warning was still vague enough for Hitler to believe that when it came to a crisis, Britain would back down, just as it had done over the Sudetenland.

If Britain and France had not pursued appeasement so vigorously for so long, there might have been some chance of an Anglo-French-Soviet alliance, though the price demanded by the Russians might have been too high.  Nevertheless, one further step Chamberlain had authorised after Prague was the opening of negotiations with Moscow.  All his instincts had previously recoiled from this step, both because of his dislike for the Soviet state and a belief that ‘encirclement’ would be counter-productive. The Anglo-Soviet discussions were slow and protected over the summer. There were sticking points, among them the status of the three independent Baltic republics and Polish concerns about Moscow’s intentions. A greater sense of urgency might have brought success, but the effort came to a dramatic halt on 23 August with the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact in Moscow.

Until that point, Stalin and Molotov were still prepared to consider a treaty of mutual assistance with Britain and France. But there were problems from the very start, since – in contrast to the attitude of Ribbentrop – the Western Allies were perceived as dawdling through the process of negotiations. The Soviet Ambassador to London had asked whether British Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, would go to Moscow that summer to discuss matters directly with Molotov, but the British despatched a minor official and an obscure admiral instead who left England on a merchant ship at the beginning of August which took four days to arrive in Leningrad. Once the British delegation arrived in Moscow, the Soviets soon found evidence to confirm their London ambassador’s report that the delegates will not be able to make any decisions on the spot. … This does not promise any particular speed in the conduct of the negotiations. In fact, before he left for Moscow, Admiral Drax had been specifically told by Chamberlain and Halifax that in case of any difficulties with the Soviets he should try to string the negotiations out until October when winter conditions would make a Nazi invasion of Poland difficult. The British hoped that the mere threat of an alliance with the Soviet Union might act as a deterrent to the Germans.

Laurence Rees (2003) has suggested that it is not hard to see what caused the British to take their lackadaisical approach to negotiations with the Soviets. In the first place, British foreign policy had been predicated for years on the basis that a friendly relationship with Germany was of more value than an accommodation with the Soviet Union. Not only did many British loathe Stalin’s régime on ideological grounds, but there was also little confidence, in August 1939, in the power and utility of the Soviet armed forces. Moreover, the question of Poland was an obstacle in itself to the British reaching any kind of comprehensive agreement with the Soviet Union, as it was to in 1944. The British knew that for any military treaty to have meaning, the Soviets would have to be given permission to cross the Polish border to fight the Germans if, as looked likely, the Nazis decided to invade. But the Poles themselves were against any such idea. In the face of this impasse, the British delegation adopted the understandable, but ultimately self-defeating tactic of simply ignoring the subject whenever the question of Poland and its territorial integrity came up in discussion. When the Soviet Marshal Voroshilov asked directly on 14 August if the Red Army would be allowed to enter Poland in order to engage the Nazis, the Allied delegation made no reply.

However, Rees has also argued out that we must not run away with the idea that Stalin and the Soviet leadership were somehow driven into the hands of the Nazis by British and French misjudgment. Ultimately, the Western Allies had very little to offer the Soviets at the bargaining table. Stalin had no motivation for the Red Army being ‘drawn into conflict’ to help out other, unsympathetic régimes out of their self-created difficulties. He was just as much opposed to Britain and France, dominated by big business and oppressing the working people, as he was to Nazi Germany. On the other hand, the Nazis could offer something the Western Allies never could – the prospect of additional territory and material gain. So the meeting between Ribbentrop and Schulenberg for the Germans, and Stalin and Molotov for the Soviets whilst not a meeting of minds, was certainly a meeting of common interests. 

Through the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Germany succeeded in bringing the Soviet Union into the European conflict, thereby giving Hitler the assurance of Soviet neutrality in an attack on Poland. The Pact lifted an enormous burden from Hitler. He was free to attack Poland if he wished and British support was likely to be of little assistance to the Poles. There was some suspicion that Britain and France might decide, after all, not to go to war. However, the British hesitation in declaring war resulted more, in the event, from Chamberlain’s desire to act in concert with France than by any doubt about honouring its obligations. Chamberlain was forced by his Cabinet to declare the war he had consistently tried to avoid since 1937. Even after its outbreak, there was no anticipation of protracted conflict and he still hoped that there might be a place for negotiations, even if they must take place in the context of war.

That is not to suggest that Chamberlain’s psychological understanding and tactical methods were without blame. He did not understand either the nature and dynamics of the Nazi régime or the beliefs and practices of National Socialism. However, even Churchill displayed considerable naivety in this respect, describing Hitler as an old-fashioned patriot, determined to restore his country following its defeat. Lloyd George’s analysis of Hitler’s mind and intentions was no better.  Another set of men in power, or in power earlier, may have made some difference to the policies which were followed, but this would probably not have been vastly notable. Moreover, it was possible for many British people simultaneously to suffer anguish at the prospect of another war and to feel intense remorse at what they believed to be their leaders’ callous indifference to the plight of Czechoslovakia. However, Chamberlain and his colleagues, in common with the majority of British public opinion, supposed that it was quite reasonable to believe in a world in which there was an underlying harmony between nations. It was surely unbelievable that governments would set out deliberately to use force. After 1939, world politics evolved in a way that few observers could have predicted with confidence, even projecting from the events of 1938-1939.

Keith Robbins has argued that the policy of appeasement in Europe needs to be seen in the context of the decline of the British Empire in the thirties. However, the anxiety about the state of the Empire might have been excessive, in turn accelerating its decline. Certainly, Churchill saw signs of defeatism in government policies and believed that a display of resolution and self-confidence would bring its own reward. It is also possible that a greater willingness to threaten intervention might have deterred Hitler, at least in the short-term. In the longer term, however, Robbins concludes that it seems entirely likely that Hitler would have gone to war in circumstances which might have been as favourable as those of 1939.

In his diaries, at the beginning of November, Edmund Ironside reflected ironically on the military machine of command which was the War Cabinet. Men like Kingsley Wood and Belisha, together with Chamberlain, Halifax and Hoare had no military conception of any sort, even lacking ‘general knowledge of how to fight a campaign. Whilst the Army was under French command, the Air Force was not, and the Cabinet loved directing its operations, rather than allowing the Chief of Staff to do so. Later the same month, he admitted to being ‘perturbed’ at the lack of a plan in Cabinet. The ‘wait and see’ attitude to events in Europe, the lack of any plan for the Middle East, and the long and tedious discussions upon all and sundry, all added to the sense of inertia which stemmed from the leadership of the weary old man who dominated the ‘mediocrities’ around him who were supposed to bear the responsibilities of war government with him. Only Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, revealed any talent for the task, partly because he was managing the worse things that by then were happening at sea…

Documents:

A. Parliamentary Debates, House Of Commons (fifth series), vol 351 cols 293-4 (1939):

The Prime Minister’s Announcement of War:

‘…we decided to send our Ambassador in Berlin instructions which he was to hand at 9 o’clock this morning to the German Foreign Secretary and which read as follows:

‘Sir, In the communication which I had the honour to make to you on the 1st September, I informed you… that unless the German Government were prepared to give… satisfactory assurances that (it) … had suspended all aggressive action against Poland and were prepared promptly to withdraw their forces from Polish territory, His Majesty’s Government would, without hesitation, fulfil their obligations to Poland.

‘Although this communication was made more than twenty-four hours ago, no reply has been received but German attacks on Poland have continued and intensified. I have… to inform you that, unless not later than 11 a.m. British Summer Time today, 3rd September, satisfactory assurances… have been given… a state of war will exist between the two countries from that hour.’

‘This was the final note. No such undertaking was received by the time stipulated, and, consequently, this country is at war with Germany.’

B. Francis Marshall,  London West (1944) 

Recollections of the first days of the war:

Entering London from the Great North Road the day after war had been declared, was rather like entering a besieged city. Terrible air attacks had been expected and London was considered the most likely target.

The barrage balloons overhead emphasised the difference between London and the country; notice boards at Hendon and Mill Hill giving notice of air raids seemed to mark the entrance. The motor coaches filled with evacuated children and occasional cars filled with luggage, all going in the opposite direction, added to the impression of impending danger…

Air raid shelters, sandbags and barrage balloons were, of course, already familiar, but the War Rescue Police came as a surprise. They wore ordinary clothes, and a blue tin hat, armlet and service respirator was their only uniform. Everybody was busy doing little odd jobs, sticking brown paper tape on windows, collecting precious papers and valuables together with a first-aid kit, and some spare clothes in a suit-case, just in case… When they had finished work and made their simple preparations, they walked out in the brilliant sunshine that seemed to have accompanied the outbreak of war, and tried to realise that this was it. But however short a walk they took, the gas marks were inevitably with them, uncomfortable and a nuisance, but from Prime Minister to charwoman everybody carried one.

We expected air raids on the H G Wells’ scale after nerving ourselves to expect Apocalypse after dark, felt almost disappointed when day brought the usual round of milkmen, newspaper boys, and the ordinary routine…

I found myself circling a church at 4 a.m. in the dark, vainly trying to find the way in to relieve the warden on duty inside. When I got in, I found him in the crypt sitting on a coffin reading a thriller… 

C. René Cutforth, Later Than We Thought (1976)

A Journalist’s personal account of the final year of the thirties:

Oddly enough, this great tide of woes seemed to put a new spirit into the British people. The news was so bad that none of the old attitudes was relevant any more. Peace Pledge Unions and Popular Fronts were now beside the point, like a man on the scaffold deciding to mount a ‘No more Hanging’ movement. The illusions of the Thirties gradually melted away, and there had been many. In the new cold light, the ‘committed’ could be seen as the self-licensed liars and con-men so many of them had become, whether Left or Right, whether Hitler’s ‘new manliness’ had held them mesmerised or Stalin’s ‘workers’ paradise’.

The last to go were the illusions about the power of Britain in the world. We might survive, we now knew, and that was all. Conscription came in on 1 July. In August there was a trial blackout and, since the whole world had now gone mad, the Russians signed a non-aggression pact with Germany.  If you felt like being funny. it was a bit of a joke to listen to the Communists trying to find something nice to say about their new ally. 

The present seemed not to exist, we only had a past and a future. Works of art were being stored in the caves of Derbyshire and the mine shafts of Wales. From Canterbury, we evacuated the stained glass and from our great cities the children. We’d ‘bought it’ as the phrase then was, and at eleven o’ clock on 3 September, we heard Mr Chamberlain, speaking in a strained and disgusted voice, tell us that we were at war with Germany. We were surprised by how little we felt. A minute later, the air-raid siren sounded. It was the last of the Thirties’ false alarms.

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On 3 September, Chamberlain made his famous broadcast to tell the British nation that it was at war with Germany. An air-raid siren sounded in earnest for the first time, though it was a false alarm; a Royal Proclamation was issued calling up the Reserves and Churchill was at last brought in. (Picture: Radio Times Hulton Picture Library, published in Cutforth’s book).

D.  September 1, 1939, by W. H. Auden

A British poet reflects on a ‘low, dishonest decade’ from New York:

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Wystan Auden was the leader of a group of poets named after him, but all they had in common was a Marxist frame of mind which characterised the ‘new voice of the period’ (Cutforth). They launched the revolutionary movement which was to create the intellectual climate of the time, and from the start, Auden’s was the voice of the decade. They wanted to bring on the death of the old gang, the death of us. He always sounded as if ten thousand revolutionaries were fighting to snatch his words from the press as they appeared. In fact, their audience was so small that it often seemed that they were writing to each other. Auden’s line, It is later than you think, might have been the motto of the whole group. George Orwell criticised their slavish worship of the Soviet Union, and regarded them as divorced from humanity: they had never met anybody from outside their own social class, he said, and this annoyed them greatly because he was right. Auden himself had left Britain with Christopher Isherwood for China in 1938 (pictured above, with Auden on the right), and was in New York in September 1939 when he wrote his famous and often misused poem on the outbreak of war. It begins in despair:

I sit in one of the dives

On Fifty-Second Street

Uncertain and afraid

As the clever hopes expire

Of a low dishonest decade:

Waves of anger and fear

Circulate over the bright

And darkened lands of the earth,

Obsessing our private lives;

The unmentionable odour of death

Offends the September Night.

And ends in hope:

Defenceless under the night

Our world in stupor lies;

Yet, dotted everywhere,

Ironic points of light

Flash out wherever the Just

Exchange their messages:

May I, composed like them

Of Eros and of dust,

Beleaguered by the same

Negation and despair,

Show an affirming flame.

Sources:

René Cutforth (1976), Later Than We Thought. Newton Abbot: David & Charles.

Matthew Hollis & Paul Keegan (2003), 101 Poems Against War. London: Faber & Faber.

Richard Overy (1996), The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Third Reich. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Laurence Rees (2008), World War Two Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, the Nazis and the West. London: BBC Books (Ebury Publishing).

John Swift, Asa Briggs (ed.) (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books (chapter on ‘The Atlantic War, 1939-45’).

Michael Clark & Peter Teed (eds.) (1972), Portraits & Documents: Twentieth Century, 1906-1960. London: Hutchinson Educational.

Andrew Roberts (2010), The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War. London: Penguin Books.

Keith Robbins (1997), Appeasement (Historical Association Studies). Oxford: Blackwell Publishers

Norman Rose (2006), Harold Nicolson. London: Pimlico.

Posted September 8, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in anti-Communist, anti-Semitism, Axis Powers, Baltic States, BBC, Berlin, Britain, British history, Canada, Churchill, Communism, Compromise, Conquest, decolonisation, democracy, Economics, Education, Empire, Ethnic cleansing, Ethnicity, Eugenics, Europe, Family, Genocide, George VI, Germany, Great War, History, Holocaust, Imperialism, Italy, Jews, liberal democracy, manufacturing, Marxism, morality, Narrative, nationalism, Nationality, Navy, Oxford, Paris, Poland, Population, Poverty, Russia, Seasons, Second World War, Security, Spanish Civil War, Statehood, terror, tyranny, Versailles, War Crimes, Warfare, World War One, World War Two

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