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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.

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This final British attack on Tirpitz (right) 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 1989. 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 History 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.

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75 Years on: Memories of the Blitz on Coventry, November 14-15 1940 and after.   1 comment

This coming weekend, Coventry remembers the trauma it suffered on the night of 14-15 November 1940, when the Luftwaffe destroyed the Medieval centre of the city, including its old Cathedral in its ‘Moonlight Sonata’ raid of three major waves of aerial bombardment which gave a new word to both the German and English languages for this form of blanket bombing, Coventration.

My mother, then nine years old, Daphne Gulliver, had vivid memories of this night, but also the previous significant air-raids on Coventry, and the first use of the communal shelter at Walsgrave-on-Sowe school. The Anderson shelters that people had put up in their gardens by the summer of 1940 had become flooded so they had to go to the shelter at the school, which had been put there for the school children. However, as there were no day-time raids, it had not been used, and was still locked. The schoolmaster, Gaffer Mann, refused to open it, however. A pick axe had to be sent for to break the lock, and all the residents of School House Lane went in.

Though Walsgrave itself was of no military importance, Capability Brown’s huge landscaped pool at nearby Coombe Abbey was in the German map books and was used as a landmark by the German bomber crews. The Rolls Royce Engine Factory at Ansty was less than a mile from this, manufacturing aircraft engines. There was also an aerodrome there, built before the war, and the then Rootes assembly plant at Ryton was only a few miles away on the same side of the city, with its shadow factory producing aircraft and military vehicles. Built after 1938, these factories did not appear on the Luftwaffe’s maps, hence the importance of incendiary bombs dropped around the outlying areas of the City, as well as on the city itself. The Germans were searching for the shadow factories on the ground, using the Coombe Pool as a focal point. Later in the war, the order was given for it to be drained. Most of the locals on the estate thought that this was, by then, totally unnecessary, and it became something of a joke since, they argued, the measure had been taken at a point when the enemy bombers were equipped with electronic guidance systems and no longer needed landmarks to locate potential targets. Other forms of defence were brought onto the estate, with a barrage balloon and an Ack-Ack station being positioned in the field adjacent to the old Gas Cottages.

However, during one enemy raid, a stick of bombs fell on the western end of Coombe Pool. Later inspection, following the all-clear, revealed that little damage had been done. A short time later, however, a panic-stricken farmer drew the attention to of several nearby residents to a whirring sound coming from within the estate out-building where he had garaged his Humber car for safe-keeping. Fearing that it might be coming from an unexploded bomb, great caution was exercised while an investigation took place. It turned out that the noise was being made by the horn of the car, which had malfunctioned due to the vibration from nearby explosions. Huge craters were left on the landscape between Walsgrave-on-Sowe and the Coombe Estate for many decades afterwards. Seymour described his arrest, as an ARP Warden, of a German pilot who had bailed out over Coombe Park, landing in the farm lane and breaking both his legs. Seymour had to use his bicycle to get the airman the mile or so to the village police station.

School records for 1940 show that a total of six hours and ten minutes was spent in the school shelter, with one visit lasting over two hours. Of course, nearly all the raids took place during night-time. The first raid affecting Walsgrave was on 2 August, mentioned in the School Log Book as taking place at 3 a.m., affecting the morning attendance. Bombs fell regularly on the village over the next few months, one landing on the allotments on the Henley Road,  and another near the old Craven Colliery in the same area. A third landed near the village centre, close to the Working Men’s Club. There were a great string of incendiary bombs that landed in the back fields, making huge craters. The villagers formed a fire watch, someone from each house taking a turn to do the watching. Walsgrave was not itself of any military importance, but the nearby Ansty aerodrome was raided, where there were part-time RAF lads. The first major raid on the city itself was recorded on 18 August, when fourteen bombs fell on the other side of the city from Walsgrave. The first raid in which people were killed took place ten days later when thirteen bombs were dropped in the Hillfields district, just north of the city centre. Sixteen people were killed and three hundred houses were damaged. Between 18 August and 12 November, Coventry was attacked on twenty-four occasions. Few parts of the city escaped some damage and a total of a hundred and eighty-nine people were killed, with two hundred and sixty seriously injured.

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Nevertheless, the raid of the 14th/15th November was not detected until after 3 p.m., the end of the school day. On that night, Coventry was subjected to an eleven-hour sustained blanket-bombing, giving the German dictionary the word Coventration as a synonym for this type of raid, which was entirely different from the previous Blitzkrieg lightning raids, which had been the strategy in attacking London and other regional ports and cities, as well as in the previous attacks on Coventry itself. Though the sirens went off earlier than usual that evening, most people recall being at home having had tea or supper when the bombing started. The 449 bombers raided the City for almost eleven hours. Many of those rescued in the areas around the city centre were still under rubble until about 7 a.m., having been trapped for more than twelve hours in some cases. Five hundred and sixty-eight people were killed and eight hundred and sixty-three were seriously wounded. Two-thirds of the medieval city centre was either completely destroyed or badly damaged. St Michael’s Cathedral, Owen Owen’s iconic department store, the Empire Theatre and the Market Hall were among the more important buildings destroyed. One hundred and eleven out of the one hundred and eighty factories sustained some damage, the worst hit being the Daimler Factory at Radford, the GEC in Whitefriars’ Street and British Thomson Houston in Alma Street.   Even more damaging, electricity, gas, telephone, transport and water services were all severely disrupted. About twelve per cent of the city’s houses were rendered uninhabitable or destroyed.

The bombing had ended in sufficient time for Walsgrave School to open on time the next morning. Nine years old at the time, Daphne Gulliver recalled vividly, through a child’s eyes, the effect of the bombing of the city centre. She said that the heat, light and sparks gave a feeling of bonfire night, only with the huge bonfire burning three miles away, and the firework explosions going off everywhere around, as they ran for the shelter:

We put up the cushions from off the furniture and put them on our heads and went running up the shelter. It was a bright moonlit night and tracer bullets were flying around everywhere and the whole city was on fire. Everything was lit up like it was daylight; it was a most awesome sight and of course, for days afterwards, the burnt paper was coming down.

 The School Log for 15 November echoes this description of destruction:

School reassembled – about only 130 were present – this is due to the results of a terrific 11 hour raid on Coventry and immediate neighbourhood. The Church Hut used for 70 to 80 infants had to be used as a home for the people who were bombed out of the city.

Seymour Gulliver was on air-raid duty that night and recalled the effect of one bomb that had fallen in what was known as The Hollow, just past The Mount Pleasant. He said that the old, cruck-beamed cottage was quite badly damaged as the patrol went towards it, and he was sure there would be at least one person dead inside. But when they went inside they found that the main beam had fallen across the fireplace and the family were all protected by it, around the fireplace. Miraculously, no-one was hurt. The village had escaped lightly compared with the mass destruction of the city centre and the older factory areas in the suburbs, though it might have been a different story had the Luftwaffe been able to locate the Ansty and Ryton factories. Many in the village realised this vulnerability, and though not forced to, sent their children away to safer rural areas, if they could. Daphne was sent away to relatives near Bridgwater in Somerset for a while.

There were eighteen more raids to come of which two were particularly serious and approached the destruction of 14/15 November 1940. They took place within forty-eight hours of each other in April 1941. On the night of 8/9 April two hundred and eighty-nine people were killed and five hundred and seventy seriously injured while on the following night a further one hundred and seventy were killed and one hundred and fifty-three were seriously hurt. The first raid lasted for over five hours, and the second for almost four and a half. These raids saw the destruction of Coventry and Warwickshire Hospital, St Mary’s Hall (a medieval guildhall) and King Henry’s School. There were also direct hits on the Council House, the Central Police Station and the London, Midland and Scottish Railway’s Goods Office, in addition to forty-two factories, of which four were seriously damaged. Thirty thousand houses were also damaged and public services again seriously curtailed.

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Following the November 1940 raid, lack of electricity, gas and water supplies was largely responsible for around twelve thousand workers being made unemployed on the morning of 15 November, but within two weeks eighty per cent of them were back at work. Similarly, after the April raids 108 factories were deprived of their normal gas supplies, but half of them had had them restored within ten days and the rest in just under another week. One factor that aided industrial recovery was that damage to buildings was greater than damage to the machinery inside them. Coventry showed that even the most intense bombing would not, of itself, bring about permanent damage to a city’s economic life.

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The map above shows the German dispositions for the raid of the 14/15 November on Coventry. There is still a great deal of controversy about whether the attack could have been mitigated, with some believing that the City was deliberately sacrificed by government officials, perhaps sanctioned by Churchill himself. Was Coventry sacrificed to keep the Enigma secret? During the 1970s a story developed about the November Raid, following the publication of a series of accounts of how Allied cryptographers had, early in the war, broken many of the German military codes. The essence of this new theory was that the impact of the raid could have been limited by countermeasures because it was known in advance that Coventry was to be the target on 14 November. The reason that nothing was done and nobody was warned before the first sirens sounded at 3 p.m., was that the Government did not want to do anything which might suggest to the Germans that their codes had been breached. As the centre of British aircraft production, Coventry had already attracted the attention of the Luftwaffe, the previous attack coming just two nights before, and would clearly do so again, but it was the scale and length of the bombing which surprised its citizens, plus the deliberate and concentrated targeting of its medieval centre with incendiary bombs, obviously designed, not just to demoralise them, but to help the bombers find their main targets, the factories.

Coventry’s defences had been strengthened earlier in the month, and on 11 November Air Intelligence had learned, via Enigma, that the German Air Force was about to launch a large-scale night raid led by the Pathfinder Squadron (K. Gr. 100, based at Vannes) using target-finding radio beams. The operation was code-named Moonlight Sonata, suggesting a three-stage raid, since the Beethoven composition had three movements rather than four, beginning with its well-known adagio (slow movement). The name also suggested that the raid would take place at or near the time of the full moon. A captured German airman had also mentioned the raid and had named the target as either Coventry or Birmingham. His evidence was ignored because the captured map pointed to targets around London. Also filed away was some further Enigma information, collected between 12 to 14 November, which gave the radio beam bearings for three targets; Birmingham, Coventry and Wolverhampton. It was thought that these were part of experimental German transmissions which had been going on for some months unaccompanied by actual raids. London was still thought to be the target for Moonlight Sonata, although the air ministry told Churchill that if further intelligence came in, they hoped to get instructions out in time. At 1 p.m. the Luftwaffe beam tunings clearly showed that the raid was to begin two hours later and that the beams intersected over Coventry. However, attempts to jam the beams failed and the fighters who went up to take on the Germans failed to find them. The anti-aircraft batteries also performed poorly. Although historians have concluded that there was no conspiracy, but rather a series of operational failures, it is clear that a Civil Defence warning could have been given to the City well before the raid began, as well as to the central government agencies operating there, especially the Ministry of Home Security.

Some contemporaries, and later historians, claimed that the big raid of November 1940 created mass panic, with thousands fleeing the city. However, most survivors said that while there was shock and horror at the extent of the damage, which affected the whole city, there was no panicked flight. Once the initial impact had been absorbed, most people got on with the job, they said. Leaving the city after work to sleep in towns and villages nearby was common during the air-raids of 1940-41 in many provincial towns.  It’s not clear exactly when it began in Coventry, though we know that many immigrant workers were living in makeshift accommodation anyway and that the shadow factories in which many of them worked were on the outskirts of the city, close to its boundaries. Sleeping out was certainly taking place before the heavy raid of November, and adverts were appearing for accommodation as far as twenty miles away, in the local Coventry newspapers. Many people marked SO on their front gates to indicate that they were away from home. According to one Walsgrave resident, there were a number of city people sleeping at her home:

Different people who were living in the town, ’cause they weren’t getting any sleep, they came out to these houses out here to sleep. There were about eight I think, come out to my parents – sleeping all over the place, under the stairs in what we called the Glory Hole and there were that many of us at the November Blitz.

In early October 1941, the Friends’ (Quaker) Ambulance Unit carried out an enquiry on the nightly exodus from Coventry, producing an eight-page report. The Coventry police estimated that as many as a hundred thousand people, more than half the registered population, were sleeping out during the main raids. The Deputy ARP thought that the number was about seventy thousand earlier in the year, but that it was still of the order of fifty thousand that October. The local Medical Officer agreed with these latter estimates, although another ARP officer thought the number had fallen to about twenty-four thousand. The Midland Red bus company said that they were carrying about five thousand more passengers into the Corporation’s area than they had been doing before the Blitz. The report concluded that the numbers leaving the city at the time of the raids was between seventy and a hundred thousand and that this had fallen to fifteen to twenty thousand at the time the report was compiled. Of course, much depended on the geopolitical definition of the city, since the area controlled by the City Council had grown to incorporate villages like Walsgrave-on-Sowe, three miles from the centre, but still, in 1940-41, almost surrounded by farmland, though far from being entirely safe from bombing itself.   However, many adult munition workers might have felt it a safe enough distance for them, even if the villagers themselves had evacuated their own children to family and friends outside the Midlands.

Whatever the true scale and nature of sleeping out, the figures of those leaving their homes before nightfall was certainly large and would have grown to fifty thousand if bombing had returned during the winter of 1941/42. Certainly, the earlier, more minor raids of 1940 had made people nervous, and many must have been severely traumatised by the events of 14/15 November, especially the children, but there common sense reasons for a nightly evacuation. If you were hard at work in a munitions factory all day you needed your sleep at night. It is also interesting that of 2,200 workers appearing before the local Labour Supply Committee asking for a transfer after the November raid, two thousand were persuaded to stay. There was, understandably, some nervousness about restarting the night-shifts in some factories. After the April 1941 raids, the Deputy Regional Commissioner went out of his way to praise the morale of Coventry people, declaring that there was no panic and nothing in the nature of a general trek from the city. Nor is it true, as some suggested after the war, that the workers who had settled in Coventry from the depressed areas fled the city as soon as they could catch trains on 15 November 1940. Their names and birthplaces, in the civic Roll of the Fallen, show that they suffered in equal proportion to those born in Coventry and Warwickshire.

Coventry was the first provincial town to receive such intensive treatment in a bombing raid. Unlike the rambling East End of London, and despite its recent growth, Coventry was still a relatively small, nucleated and walled medieval city, with mushrooming suburbs along its arterial roads into the surrounding Warwickshire countryside. The destruction of its centre was, therefore, all the more terrifyingly impressive, with the charred and ruined Cathedral becoming an important symbol almost immediately with its cross of beams and cross of nails. This gripped the imagination of the whole world and in the fight against fascism the Coventry Blitz occupied a prominent position, not just in British, but later in allied propaganda. As the Mayor told the City Council on 3 December,

For some days after the raid, most of us were cut off from the ordinary sources of news and hence we did not realise how famous Coventry had suddenly become. It was, I think on the Monday that telegrams and messages from all over the country, and indeed, the world, began to pour in, and we learned what a deep impression had been produced by the manner in which Coventry had stood up to its ordeal.

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Within a short time, and before the second major raid of April 1941, Sir John Reith, Herbert Morrison, Wendell Wilkie, Robert Menzies and above all King George VI and Queen Elizabeth all came to see for themselves the destruction and to aid the Coventrians in their recovery and, of course, to help nurture the mythology of the Blitz which became so emblematic of the spirit of British endurance around the world in the second half of the last century. Yet in the hectic days of 1940, as Henry Pelling wrote in 1970, it was quite common for people to suppose that the war was effecting a social revolution in Britain. Many of the wealthy thought this and lamented that they had lived to go through such an experience. Pelling went on:

Undoubtedly the war brought into existence for a time a stronger sense of community throughout the country… Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain and the Blitz produced a ’backs-to-the-wall’ solidarity that transcended class barriers and brought together all sorts of people in the Home Guard, Civil Defence, the air raid shelters and… to some extent the factories… the increased mobility of the population… tended to break down parochialism.

The Modern Elizabethans: The Life and Times of Queen Elizabeth II, 1926-2001   4 comments

The Princess who would not be Queen

On April 21st, 1926, King George V’s first grandchild was born and was christened

Elizabeth Alexandra Mary’ at Buckingham Palace in May.

Her parents were then the Duke and Duchess of York, and, after her uncle, the Prince of Wales, and her father, Elizabeth was third in line to the throne. She had blue eyes and weighed a little under average. All through the christening she cried loudly, but at six months she was a good-tempered child, always smiling.

People said she took after her father in appearance, but was more like her mother in personality. Two years later, on 21st August 1930, her sister, Princess Margaret Rose, was born in Scotland, at Glamis Castle.
She also had blue eyes, but had darker hair than Elizabeth, and weighed more at birth.

The two princesses appeared in public together on the balcony of Buckingham Palace in November 1934, after the marriage of King George V’s youngest son, Prince George, to the Greek Princess Marina at Westminster Abbey. Elizabeth was a bridesmaid to the couple, who were made Duke and Duchess of Kent by the King.

The following May, hundreds of thousands of people came out on the streets of London to celebrate the Silver Jubilee (25th Anniversary) of his reign over nearly five hundred million subjects throughout the world in what was known as ‘the British Empire’.

‘Long live the King’ cried the ‘Heralds’ on 22nd January 1936, following the death of King George. They were proclaiming the ‘accession’ to the throne of King Edward VIII, who had been, as ‘heir’, the Prince of Wales.

He was unmarried, but in August he was seen on holiday with a 39-year-old American woman who already had a husband, Edward Simpson, whom she had married after divorcing her first husband.

The Simpsons had moved to London where they met the Prince of Wales, and by 1934 the Prince and Mrs Simpson had become good friends. At first, this friendship was not reported in the British newspapers, and the photographs of them on the ‘cruise-ship’ were not published. Later that year, however, Wallis Simpson…

Mrs Simpson was granted a divorce from her second husband by the court, so King Edward could now marry her, but he was not just king, but also the ‘Governor’ of the Church of England. Under the Church’s strict rules at the time, she could not become Queen, because she had been divorced.

So, on December 10th, Edward gave up the throne by ‘abdicating’, rather than give up his his proposed marriage. George, Duke of York, and his two other brothers, the Duke of Kent and Duke of Gloucester, signed the ‘Abdication’ paper and Elizabeth’s father therefore became King George VI and she became the next in line to the throne at the age of ten.

As her father was already well into middle-age, it was unlikely that he would have another child, a son to succeed him, so, from this point, Princess Elizabeth must have known that she would one day become Queen. Her relatively ‘normal’ childhood was now, suddenly and unexpectedly, at an end. Everything she did from that day on was a step towards the day of her accession to the throne as a young woman of 26 in 1952. On 12th May, 1937, the Princesses once more appeared together on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, following her father’s coronation. It was the most expensive coronation on record, and the preparations for it took six months. That night he became the first newly crowned king to broadcast to the Empire on the radio, talking to his peoples in their own homes. 

The following month, Elizabeth’s uncle, now the ‘Duke of Windsor’, married Mrs Simpson at Château de Condé near Tours in France, with no member of the royal family among the guests. After the honeymoon they went on holiday to Austria, where they met Adolf Hitler at his mountain villa at Berchtesgaden, near Germany’s border with Hitler’s homeland, which his soldiers occupied a year later.

Hitler wanted more and more land. When he took control of Austria and Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic and Slovakia), the British did nothing. But it became clear that he was a danger to all Europeans. There were stories that he was sending large numbers of German Jews to prison for no reason. When he invaded Poland in 1939, the Second World War began. George VI once more broadcast to the British people and Empire on the radio. To do so, he had overcome a bad stammer, with the help of his speech therapist. The story of this was recently made into a film, The King’s Speech.

His words helped to inspire his peoples at home and overseas.

 

The Spirit of Dunkerque and Coventry:

At first the war went badly for Britain. British soldiers went to France, but they were soon pushed out again by the powerful German Army. They had to be rescued from the beaches near Dunkerque, with the help of all kinds of small fishing and sailing boats which crossed the English channel. The stories of their bravery, and that of the trapped soldiers, led to ‘the Dunkerque Spirit’ which the British Prime Minister spoke about, saying that the British would ‘never surrender’. By the summer of 1940, most of France, Belgium and the Netherlands were under Hitler’s control.

He now made plans to invade Britain, which was on its own in western Europe as a free country, but first he had to win control of the skies over the Channel and the south coast of England. The Battle of Britain was the first real air battle in history. German and British planes fought for three months, but the German Air Force, the Luftwaffe, couldn’t defeat the pilots of the Royal Air Force (RAF) in their Spitfires and Hurricanes. Eventually, he decided to bomb London and the cities where the planes were being made. He began a series of night-time raids which became known as ‘the Blitz’.

On the night of the 14/15th  November, 1940, Coventry, a city in the English Midlands  was the target for a bombing raid by the German Luftwaffe. The city had been bombed 24 times before, between August and November. But this raid gave its name to a new word in both the English and German dictionaries,‘Coventration’, which meant a concentrated bombing of an urban area. For almost eleven hours on that night, 449 bomber aircraft raided the city, killing 568 people and seriously injuring 863. Two thirds of the medieval centre was either completely destroyed or badly damaged, including the cathedral, the market hall and the main theatre.

However, the main targets were the factories, where a large number of the British Armed Forces land vehicles and aircraft were made. Of the 189 factories in the city, 111 were hit, the Daimler factory being the most damaged. Even more damaging was that electricity, gas, telephone, transport and water services were all severely disrupted. Almost 12% of the city’s houses were either destroyed or were so badly damaged that no-one could live in them anymore. The operation was called ‘Moonlight Sonata’ by the Luftwaffe, which meant there would be a raid in three stages by the light of a full moon. However, the new Enigma de-coding system could not get the message that Coventry was to be hit out in time for a warning to be given to the city’s people.

The survivors did not take long to get back on their feet. One of them wrote that, ‘out of the rubble began to grow local pride…no one had ever suffered more. It was a wonder to have endured at all’. Although London had been badly hit in the ‘Blitz’ which followed the Battle of Britain, earlier that autumn, this was not a ‘lightning’ raid, which was what ‘blitzkrieg’ had meant at first, and Coventry was the first town or city outside the capital to suffer such an intense attack. Unlike ‘Greater London’, which was really a collection of villages, Coventry was a relatively small city with a distinct, largely timber-framed medieval centre and a series of modern housing estates growing up around it. This made the destruction of its centre even more impressive.

The destruction of the cathedral became a very important symbol in the fight against fascism, which gripped the imagination of the world. The way in which the people of Coventry stood up to their ordeal made a very deep impression. Telegrams and messages arrived from all over the world, together with donations of money. Many famous people visited the city in the next weeks. The Coventry Standard of the 7th December, out of action for two weeks for the first time since 1741, reported the visit of the King and Queen Elizabeth. Buckingham Palace had also been hit by a bomb at the time of the bombing of ‘the East End’, with the King and Queen, though not the fourteen-year-old Princess Elizabeth, at home. Coventry soon became a name which was known and respected throughout the world, closely linked to the resistance of the British people, which became known as ‘the Spirit of the Blitz’.

Finally, in 1941, Hitler gave up his plans to invade Britain, and chose to invade Russia instead. Like Napoleon before him, he failed to capture Moscow, and was eventually defeated at Stalingrad. The Russians then began pushing the Germans out of the Soviet Union, and the USA joined the British and other ‘Allied’ troops in landing in France and pushing the German Armies back into Germany. This took a year, but by May 1945 the Russians and the other Allied troops met at the River Elbe, Hitler killed himself, and the German Armies surrendered.

The war continued in the Far East, where Japan had joined Germany in 1941, attacked the USA and took control of many lands under the control of the British Empire. A quarter of a million British and American people, not just soldiers, sailors and airmen, were made prisoners by the Japanese. The British pushed them out of India and Burma, while the Americans defeated them in the Pacific Ocean. In August, following the dropping of atom bombs on two Japanese cities, the Japanese Emperor surrendered.

After the Second World War, Britain couldn’t keep control of its empire. India and Pakistan became independent in 1947, and most of the other countries in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean soon followed. However, many of them joined ‘the Commonwealth’, a group of states from around the world that work together on many important matters. The British monarch still remains the head of the Commonwealth, and is still the Head of State in some countries, like Australia.

‘The Family of Nations’ and ‘The Royal Family’ at Home:

By the time Princess Elizabeth became Queen of the United Kingdom in 1952, while visiting Kenya, the British Empire was coming to an end. However, as a result of its spreading of the English language throughout the world, it has continued to work closely with the USA and other English-speaking countries over the past sixty years, as well as, more recently, within the European Community and Union.

When George VI died on 6th February 1952, his 26 year-old daughter became monarch (‘Accession’). She was crowned (‘Coronation’) the following year in Westminster Abbey. Her official birthday, the second Saturday in June, is marked by the Trooping of the Colour, a ceremony during which regiments of the Guards Division and the Household Cavalry parade (or ‘troop’) the regimental flag (‘the colour’) before her, as ‘sovereign’. She receives an income from the ‘civil list’ (an annual allowance voted by Parliament, which is divided among the members of the Royal Family for the expenses involved in doing their public duties). Among her many duties are the regular visits to foreign countries, especially those in the Commonwealth, whose interests and welfare are very important to her.

Elizabeth had already been married for five years when she became Queen, and her husband, Prince Philip, is known as her ‘Consort’. He is five years older than her, and also has the title, ‘Duke of Edinburgh’, which was given to him after their wedding. He has always taken a great interest in the achievements of young people and in 1956 he founded the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme. The ‘awards’ are given to young people between the ages of 14 and 21 for enterprise, initiative and achievement.

Charles is the Queen’s eldest son, born in 1948 and ‘heir-apparent’ (next in line) to the throne. He was given the title, ‘Prince of Wales’ at an ‘investiture’ ceremony in Caernarfon Castle in north Wales, in 1969. This title is traditionally given by the British sovereign to the eldest son, who until now has always inherited the throne before any elder sisters. This is being changed by Parliament so that the eldest child, male or female, can inherit. Although not Welsh, the Prince attended Aberystwyth University in the 1970’s and later became Chancellor of the University of Wales, which includes all the major universities in ‘the Principality’. Not everyone in Wales was happy with him holding these positions, however. One man, an officer in the British Army, John Jenkins, tried to plant a bomb near the castle on the night before the investiture ceremony. He was caught and sent to prison for ten years. The Welsh student leaders refused to meet him for some time, but in 1980 a meeting was held at Lampeter, and the Prince took their demands on Welsh Language education and support for Commonwealth students very seriously. Soon after this meeting, education through the ‘medium’ of Welsh was improved in all the universities, and John Jenkins became a student at one of them. Wales now has its own government in Cardiff, with its own Minister for Education.

The Prince has become well-known as a keen promoter of British causes abroad, especially in the Commonwealth, and of the interests of all the British people at home, whatever their first language, religion, ethnic or economic background. He set up the Prince’s Trust in 1976 to provide work opportunities and recreation facilities for young people from deprived backgrounds. He married Lady Diana Spencer in 1981, and she became Princess of Wales. They had two children, William and Harry, two of the Queen’s eight grandchildren.

The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh have responded to the interest of people throughout the world in the life of ‘the Royal Family’, even allowing TV cameras to film them on holiday at Balmoral, the castle in Scotland which is their ‘summer retreat’.

It has sometimes proved difficult for people marrying into the family to deal with the loss of privacy and the public pressures which have resulted from this decision.

Three of the four first marriages of ‘the Royal Children’ ended in separation or divorce, and the tragic death of Princess Diana in a Paris subway car accident in 1997 was partly caused by photo-journalists trying to take pictures of her. The British public was deeply affected by her death, and both the monarchy and the media were forced to change some of their ways of doing things.

Above: Her Majesty at seventy-five, 2001

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