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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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Summer Storms Over Hungary (II): Child Witnesses of the Holocaust, May-August 1944.   Leave a comment

Surviving Auschwitz and the Budapest Ghettos:

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Susan (Zsuzsa) Pollock was deported as a child of fourteen to Auschwitz from the Hungarian countryside in 1944. Her story is available to read and download at https://www.hmd.org.uk/resource/susan-pollack/. Apart from those who survived Auschwitz, there were many children who escaped the death marches and Arrow Cross terror in Budapest, and survived, scarred by the experience of loss of family and friends. Here, I quote published and unpublished testimony from these children remembering that dreadful summer of 1944.

Tom’s Tale – Air Raids on Budapest:

15 October 1944

The German occupation and the collaboration of the Hungarian state in it meant that the previous agreement with the Allies not to bomb the country was negated. The bombardment of Hungary began in the summer of 1944. The warm summer of 1944 was a summer of allied (mainly RAF) airstrikes. Two-year-old Tom Leimdorfer (whom I first met in the UK in 1987) often played outside in their small but secluded front garden on the Pest side of Budapest. They had a radio and were generally the first to hear the air raid warnings. The bombers normally came from the south and the direction given over the airwaves was: ‘Baja, Bácska, Budapest’.

These were amongst Tom’s first words, acting as an air raid warning to people in the flats above us as he ran around naked in the garden shouting ‘Baja, Bácska, Budapest!’ They would then all go down to the cellar, which served as a very inadequate air raid shelter.

Tom's family 4

The RAF was bombing them and their lives were under threat from them, but they were not ‘the enemy’ as far as Tom’s family was concerned. Tom’s father was ‘missing’ on the Russian front (pictured above with his unit) and Russian troops were advancing towards Hungary with all the uncertainties and horrors of a siege of Budapest approaching, but they were not their ‘enemy’ either, but their hoped-for liberators. Yet Tom’s maternal grandparents were taken by Hungarian special forces on the orders of the Gestapo with no objection or resistance from their neighbours. Looking back, Tom wrote that the ‘enemy’ was war and inhumanity, hatred and anti-Semitism.

photo-in-magazine-1943

Tom’s ‘official’ baby picture.

May 1944

Tom Leimdorfer’s grandfather Aladár spent much of his time on his allotment just outside the small town of Szécsény, where he also kept bees, enjoying the simple life in retirement. Tom’s mother later told him that they last visited the elderly couple in early May 1944 (as shown in the picture of her with her mother, right), when Tom was 18 months old, just a few weeks before they were deported to Auschwitz. Tom is in no doubt that his grandparents would have been taken straight to the gas chambers on arrival. The story of the lively Jewish community in Szécsény was later told by the photographer Irén Ács in a moving account and photos of her friends and family. She also survived in Budapest, but nearly all her friends and family perished.

The Long Shadow of Auschwitz from Szécsény to Pest:

Early in May, the Jews of Szécsény were ordered to leave their homes and belongings apart from a small case with a change of clothes and essentials. They were restricted to a ghetto of a few houses near the school. On the 10 June 1944, they were taken under special forces’ escort to the county town of Balassagyarmat, some 20 km away. There were no Germans in Szécsény, the whole operation being carried out by Hungarian special forces. In Balassagyarmat, the Germans supervised the loading of the wagons from the whole region with ruthless efficiency. By nightfall, the long train of cattle wagons carrying over 2,500 men, women and children were on their way to Auschwitz. The memorial in the Jewish cemetery of Szécsény has 303 names of those killed in the Holocaust from that town of around 6,000 people. A similar fate befell villages across Hungary, where there was no time for any reaction, let alone organised resistance, by the Jewish families or their Christian neighbours.

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Another ‘Jewish’ child in Budapest in 1944 was Marianna (‘Daisy’) Birnbaum (née László), who wrote up her family and friends’ stories in her 2016 volume, 1944: A Year Without Goodbyes. In her introduction to this, she wrote:

1944 was the most important year of my life. My childhood ended in 1944 and what I experienced during that time determined the decades that were to follow. Ever since the age of ten, I see the world as I then saw it. In the battle between God and Satan. Satan won, but we have not been told. By now, I know that the perpetrator can be a victim at the same time. However, this awareness does not help me to give up that hopelessly ‘Manichaean’ view of the world that the year 1944 had created in me.

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Due to luck and the bravery of my father, my parents… survived, but many of my relatives became the victims of German and Hungarian Nazism. … I also want to report on those who by some miracle had survived those terrible times, because their lives too had irrevocably changed.

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In the summer of 1944, she and her mother rushed to her Uncle Lajos Benke (formerly Blau, pictured below) for advice when her father was taken by the Gestapo. For a while, having an ‘Aryan’ spouse exempted Jews from racial legislation. Although her Aunt Juliska was non-Jewish, Uncle Lajos was registered as a Jew. They lived in an elegant apartment in Buda. He could give them no advice, but would not allow his sister and niece to return to Pest due to the allied bombing. They spent three days there, but Daisy’s mother grew nervous and worried that they would cause trouble for their hosts. In order to take up residence, even temporarily, they should have registered with the local police, but Jews were not permitted to change residence and so it was safer for them to leave. Daisy became six that summer, so she had to wear a yellow star. By then, her father, who had paid a large bribe to a Gestapo officer, was temporarily free.

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He also arranged Swiss protection for Uncle Lajos, who came to live with them in the apartment they shared with about twenty other people. In order to be with her husband, Aunt Juliska appeared daily in the house, despite exposing herself to the constant danger of air raids through these visits to the Jewish neighbourhood. Martial law was put into effect: Jews could only leave their so-called ‘protected houses’ for only two hours per day. In any case, she was never allowed to leave the house alone, though she sometimes rushed out in secret when she could no longer bear such a large number of people packed into the house, the permanent loud yelling and various other noises. Once outside, she walked down one of the main streets until stopping in front of the local patisserie. What happened next was one of those peculiar small acts of human compassion which randomly punctuated life during wartime:

… swallowing hard, I watched the children inside, sitting in the booths, licking their ice creams. Jews were banned from there, too, and I had not had ice cream since the summer before, because … by the time spring came, I was no longer permitted to enter such places.

Suddenly a shadow was cast upon the shop window and when I turned around, I saw a German soldier standing next to me. He must have been an officer because there were stars on his uniform. “Was magst du? Willst du ein buntes?” he asked. … Frightened, my response was barely audible. He took my hand and walked me with the yellow star on my dress into the patisserie and ordered two scoops of mixed ice cream for me. Of course, it was he who was being served but I believe that the people sitting inside understood what had happened.

The officer pressed the cone in my hand, paid and moved toward the exit. I followed him, the ice cream in one hand, the other that the soldier no longer held, hanging awkwardly, as if next me. I murmured my thanks as he hurried away without a backward glance. He was the one and only German soldier I had met during the war. Should I draw from this meeting a conclusion regarding the relationship between the German Nazi army and the Jews? 

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The map shows the ghettos and zones set out in the deportation schedule. Places referred to in the text: Szécsény, Balassagyarmat, Szolnok, Komárom, Cinkota, Csepel, Kispest.

Daisy’s Relatives & Friends in Szolnok & Komárom:

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Daisy’s father’s family lived in Szolnok, and her mother’s relatives were in Komárom, which was returned to Hungary through its Axis alliance. Of these two families, sixty-four perished in the various extermination camps, comprising men, women and children. Her father’s brother, her Uncle Bálint (above), was arrested on the German occupation of Szolnok, together with several of the wealthier Jews. They were beaten and tortured, first in the jail in the town and later in Budapest. Meanwhile, their families were deported from the town. Trains, made up of cattle cars, were already in the station when the gendarmes took Aunt Ilonka back to their home leaving Pista, aged twelve, on his own with a rucksack on his back, waiting for her in front of the wagons. She returned to the platform just as the huge doors were about to be slammed shut and locked. The gendarmes had been searching her home for hidden money and jewellery and had she not handed everything over, she would quite possibly have been beaten to death then and there. In the best case, she and Pista would have been put on the next train.

They did not know it at the time, but the first train was directed via Austria whereas the following one went directly to Auschwitz. Their catching the first meant the difference between possible survival and immediate death. They were eventually reunited with Bálint on an Austrian farm he had been deported to but found themselves separated again when taken to work at the Anker bakery in Vienna. They then survived an air raid and by the time they were transferred to Terezin concentration camp, there were no longer any trains being directed to Auschwitz. When they eventually all returned to Szolnok, they were able to begin a new life with the help of other jewels which Bálint had hidden in a different spot that he had shown only to Pista.

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Bálint and Ilonka also had an elder son, who was twenty-three in 1944. He was known as ‘Sanyika’ (pictured above). Barred from university because he was Jewish, he was put to work in the extended family’s iron and metal plant, though at heart he was a poet. Drafted into the forced labour corps in the army in 1940-41, he was dispatched to the Carpathians. After his parents were deported, his poems (stored in the attic of the Szolnok house) were thrown about by neighbours who ransacked the place, searching for anything of value. Many years later, Pista met one of Sanyika’s friends in Budapest and two others in Israel. They told him that Sanyika had become desperate after he had learned of the deportations of his parents. He stopped caring about his own fate, clashed with the guards who beat him severely. When his three friends tried to escape, he refused to join them. It was a cruel twist of fate that those whom he believed to have died survived, whereas he disappeared without a trace and was thought to have perished.

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Daisy’s mother’s family lived in Komárom and the neighbouring settlements. In early June 1944, Hungarian gendarmes put her grandparents into a freight train and sent them off to Auschwitz. Two letters from them have survived. The first was written to her around Christmas 1938, and the second came into her hands in 1995 when she found it among her mother’s papers. Her grandparents wrote it together, a day before they were deported from the Komáron ghetto. She realised that her mother must have carried the devastating message in her own clothing until after the liberation of Hungary and then when they escaped Hungary in 1956 and went to live in California. She reflected on how, when …

… soon after the war’s end I saw my parents – who were then in their thirties – having a good time (they even danced!), I was very angry at them for “forgetting so fast.” It took a long time of maturing until I understood that they forgot nothing: Just here and there they searched for a moment of joy in order to survive what had been barely survivable.

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Her mother’s younger brother, József Blau, sent two postcards to family members in July 1944, one of which encouraged his cousin to send a postcard to deported relatives, which was limited to thirty words in German, placed in an envelope and given to the Jewish Council in Budapest from where it would be forwarded. We know now that, in order to avoid panic among the newly-arrived deportees at Auschwitz, the Nazis made them send postcards to their families from Waldsee. The cards could be picked up in the office of the Jewish Council at Budapest, Sip utca 12 on the basis of published lists. Characteristic of the Nazis’ infinite cynicism, there was no need to put stamps on the cards sent in response, because the cards were destroyed, either in the Council or at the next step, since the addressees were no longer alive. Daisy’s mother also had a cousin in Komárom, Aunt Manci, whose daughter, ‘Évike’, was of a similar age to Daisy so that they became inseparable friends (pictured below). Uncle Miki, Aunt Manci’s husband, had been called up to serve in a forced labour camp at the beginning of the war and after a short time he was declared ‘missing’. They never found out what had happened to him. Aunt Manci and Évike remained alone until, in the early summer of 1944, together with Marianna’s grandparents, Aunt Manci’s family was deported and Évike was also taken to Auschwitz. Daisy wrote that she often wondered: Who held her hand on the ramp as they stood in front of Mengele?

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Another little friend in Komárom was Ági. She was also deported to Auschwitz with her mother where they were immediately gassed. Her father was in a labour camp at the time, but somehow survived and returned to Komárom in 1945. Jenő found no-one alive from his family and lived alone for months in their old house until he met Rózsi, a former acquaintance. She too had been sent to Auschwitz with her mother and her own daughter. The child clung to her grandmother which resulted in the two of them being sent immediately to the gas chamber. Rózsi, therefore, found herself in the other line of those who had survived the first selection. She was transferred from Auschwitz and worked in an ammunition factory. Broken, the lone survivor from her family, she also returned to Komárom and after a short time, she and Jenő decided to marry. However, soon after four or five young women who had spent some time recuperating after surviving the camps, also returned to Komárom. They recognised Rózsi as the “dreaded capo”, a prisoner assigned by the Nazis to supervise the rest of the prisoners in the camps. They visited Jenő and claimed that she had beaten and tortured them both in Auschwitz and later in the ammunition factory where they too had been transferred. Allegedly, he then pounced on her and almost strangled her. With a great effort, the neighbours succeeded in pulling him off Rózsi, taking her onto the grass outside to revive her. He then went into the house, left with a bag and disappeared from Komárom, reportedly for Palestine.

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It was, again, a twist of fate which meant that Daisy was not sent to Auschwitz with her grandparents. When the Germans occupied Budapest in March 1944, her grandfather had demanded that her parents should send her to Komárom right away, accompanied by her friend Mariska, and they both set out for the Western Station soon after. However, when they arrived at the station, there were police and soldiers everywhere, demanding to see documents. When Mariska admitted that whereas she was a Christian, her companion was Jewish, they were barred from boarding the train. However, had she been allowed to board, she would almost certainly have been deported with her grandparents, ending her life in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. In early June, her grandparents, along with the rest of the Jewish community of Komárom, were first moved to the ghetto and then, a few days later, they were all herded into cattle cars to be deported. Gazsi, their shop assistant and factotum, helped the Bau family, although the gendarmes threatened to put him on the train too. Daisy’s dog, Foxy, who had been cared for by Gazsi for the previous few weeks, began barking at this struggle, and one of the gendarmes shot him dead. Gazsi then ran to the post office from where he mailed the Bau’s last letter, adding the last details about Foxy. The letter arrived on 13 June, Daisy’s mother’s birthday, the letter which eventually came into their granddaughter’s possession over fifty years later. Daisy recalled its immediate effects:

Neither before, nor after, have I seen anything like this. With the letter in her hand, my mother ran through the apartment in circles, screaming and tearing out her hair (literally). I was merely told that my grandparents, in the company of many relatives, were ‘taken away’; no-one knew where. … I was around fifteen when I found out that (Foxy) had been shot… Since then, I have been mourning him as another Holocaust victim from my family.

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Scarred Schoolfriends from Budapest:

In the capital itself, rumours had been circulating claiming that those who converted would not be deported so that many Jewish families tried to save themselves by seeking Protestant pastors who would help them by providing certificates of baptism without studying or preparation. In one of Uncle Józsi’s postcards, sent just before he was shot dead while being deported to Austria, he mentioned that some members of their larger family were visiting a parish priest. Tom Leimdorfer’s mother had already converted to Calvinism. Daisy’s father gained the assistance of the pastor of the Fóti út Evangelical Congregation and decided that both she and her mother should convert. Her mother, however, refused, and would not let her daughter attend either. Her father, therefore, got his ex-secretary to stand in for his wife, but he could not get a Christian child to stand in for Daisy, so she remained Jewish.

A number of Daisy’s friends and classmates also survived the year 1944 as children and grew up to be wounded people. Instead of losing their relatives to illness or old age, to traffic accidents or even random bombing, their family members were victims of a well-prepared genocide. ‘Tomi’ was born in Budapest in 1931. His father owned a large factory that produced light fixtures; his mother was a concert pianist. The entirely assimilated family, living on the first floor of a Rózsadomb villa, decided to take the final step and converted to Catholicism, mainly to avoid the increasing restrictions on Jews. Nonetheless, in June 1944, they had to leave their home, as Tomi, his mother and his older sister Edit were moved to a ‘Jewish house’. By then, his father was also in a forced labour camp. In October, all three of them had to report to the brick factory of Óbuda, from where they were supposed to be deported. Tomi’s father was able to provide them with Swiss protection documents and, therefore, three days later, they were moved to the overcrowded ghetto. There, Tomi shared a room with six children but he succeeded in smuggling them all out because he had two copies of the document proving that he was a Roman Catholic. Following his plan, two boys left the ghetto (one at each exit) with the documents, met outside, one returning with both copies so that the exeat could be repeated until all seven of them were outside the walls.

Ágnes, born in Budapest in December 1933, lived with her parents in an apartment which became crowded when her mother’s sister Irén, her husband Retső and their two sons moved in with them from the small town of Cinkota, near the capital, during the spring of 1944. Her father was soon drafted into the army, but as he was forty-six years old, he narrowly avoided being sent to the Russian front. Instead, he was directed into forced labour from where he was allowed to send a postcard to his family each week so that they were not too worried about him. Teaching at Ági’s elementary school was discontinued after 30 April and she had to wear a yellow star, a humiliating sign that had to be sewn on to each and every piece of outside clothing. The family was also forced to move to a house marked with a yellow star. Ági slept with her mother on a couch in the hallway. Jews were allowed to shop only after 10 a.m. by which time everything had gone from the shelves. Ági went to the local bakery and queued for bread, so at least they had fresh bread to eat. She did not remember whether they had ration cards, which were legally valid for Christians only. She did remember her Aunt Irén poking the worms out of a piece of meat and cooked it, but Ági refused to eat it. During the warm summer, the children played out on the flat roof, or on the staircase, as they were no longer permitted to go to the park. On 3 July, Ági’s Uncle Ernő and his sixteen-year-old son Péter went out to Csepel, the industrial island in the Danube, to look for work in order to avoid deportation. They were never seen again. The family later heard that they had been rounded up in a raid and later perished in Auschwitz, the father committing suicide by running into the electrified fence.

Before the spring of 1944, Marianna’s Jewish friends in Budapest led a very active outdoor life, getting ‘Brownie’ cameras and bicycles for their birthdays. As late as the winter of 1943-44, they went skying at Normafa, a popular skiing slope in the Buda Hills. However, outdoor life soon came to an abrupt end as Jewish families no longer dared to show themselves at places of leisure, even if not yet officially banned. They feared to call attention to themselves during the frequently conducted parasite roundups aimed primarily at Jews by Hungarian fascists. Following the Nazi occupation, they suddenly found themselves excluded from most public places and during the worst times the families lost contact with each other because they were ordered to live in different ‘Protected houses’. They didn’t meet again until 1945 when Marianna learnt that her best friend in Budapest, Marika, hidden in a nunnery, remained the sole survivor of her family. Her parents and her brother Andris were taken from their ‘protected house’ by the Arrow Cross paramilitaries and were shot into the Danube. Andris, Marianna’s first boyfriend, was just thirteen.

Ágota, or ‘Ágika’, was a silent little girl who loved her father more than she loved anyone. Whenever her father was at home from his forced labour service, Ágika always sat very close to him, but during the spring of 1944, she was at home alone with her mother, Ilus. When her husband was away, Ilus found it difficult to cope with the new world that seemed ready to destroy her and her family at any moment. She continually expected to be arrested by the Gestapo, a fear not quite unreasonable since Ágika’s father owned a rubber and tire factory which was now under the control of the Hungarian state, but could have been too useful a source for the Germans to allow to remain in the hands of the state. There were still a number of similarly wealthy Jewish families living in the same building. Once a green Mercedes stopped at the park entrance of the house, and a few minutes later, when the soldiers left, they took one of the tenants along. A few days later, when Ilus saw the distinctive Mercedes again from the window of the fifth-floor apartment, she assumed the worst when three soldiers got out and started towards the gate. As she heard the elevator approaching the upper floors, she grabbed her daughter and dragged her towards the balcony door, with the aim of throwing themselves off the balcony. Ágika struggled with her mother, preventing her from opening the door by biting her wrist before screaming at her:

You are not going to kill me, you murderer, I am going to wait for my Daddy!

While they continued to fight quite bitterly, the noise from the elevator shaft stopped, and the sound of boots could be heard from the floor below. Mother and daughter sat on the floor for some minutes, gasping for air, before bursting into tears. They were later hidden by a Christian family who, though well remunerated for doing so, were  risking their lives, as the ubiquitous posters chillingly proclaimed:

Whosoever hides Jews will be hacked to pieces.

Thanks to Ágika, the three of them survived the horrors of 1944. So did Gyuri, Ágika’s cousin, who moved in with them. His mother was the elder sister of Aunt Ilus and one of the many ‘who did not return’. His parents had divorced when Gyuri was little, so he lived with his mother, brother and maternal grandmother. His father was ‘reported missing’ earlier in the war, so Gyuri became a ‘half-orphan’ at the age of ten. In 1944, they lived in wretched misery with many others in a ‘Jewish house’ waiting to be deported. He later recalled the hostility of their ‘Christian’ neighbours:

We were gathering in the courtyard when the passers-by stopped in the street, cursing us and spitting at us over the iron fence. Watched by, and at the pleasure of the bastille crowd, we were taken in a long procession along Rákóczi út to the synagogue in Dohány utca.

Apparently, a German soldier filmed the entire action by the Hungarian gendarmes which can be viewed in the permanent collection of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. The plan was to move the several hundred Jews to the railway station, but the manoeuvre was suddenly halted and all were marched back to the ‘Jewish house’, after being forced to hand over their watches, jewellery and the cash they had on them. With the help of relatives, Gyuri’s family then received Swedish protective papers and, together with twenty others, they were moved into the abandoned apartment of Aunt Ilus, which had become a Swedish ‘protected house’.

Kati was also born in Budapest in 1934. Her father owned a paper factory that he managed with his father and the family lived on the Pest side of the capital, in a house where one of the apartments on the upper floor belonged to them, while her grandparents’ apartment and the shop were on the ground floor. Although Kati’s father was conscripted to forced labour even before the war, they lived comfortably, without worries… until, at age nine and a half, the world changed around them. One of Kati’s most painful memories was that she had to go to school each day with the yellow star on her dress. Because their house was declared a ‘Jewish house’, they did not have to move. Instead, dozens of people were forcibly moved in with them. Kati took care of the younger children, among whom some were under six. She took them down to the air-raid shelter and played with them to distract them during the raids. One time, bombs were dropped very close by, but only shattered the windows and damaged a few pieces of furniture.

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Then one day, while on his way to join his company, Hungarian soldiers removed Kati’s father from a train at Nagyvárad and, suddenly, he went missing without a trace. Kati’s mother was able to procure copies of the ‘protection documents’ Wallenberg had been handing out, but it was too late because the Germans occupied their house and transported both sets of grandparents to the ghetto. Kati was sent to live with distant relatives and one of her father’s employees got hold of false papers for her, with a new name, Aranka Sztinnyán. Although she was with relatives, she felt terribly alone. Although I looked Aryan, I was not permitted out on the street, she recalled. A few weeks later, Kati’s mother, who had escaped from the Óbuda brick factory, came to fetch her. Together with ten other relatives, Kati and her mother hid in the coal cellar of an apartment block where, from time to time, they received food from unknown benefactors who were not permitted to see them. Kati does not remember being hungry, neither was she scared, except for the bombs. Her mother saved her from sensing the daily danger that surrounded them. When they returned to their home following the ‘liberation’, they discovered that, except for her father, everybody had survived. Eventually, he too returned from Terezin at the end of the war, having survived ten different concentration camps.

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Misi ‘Gyarmat’ was born into a ‘Jewish gentry’ family in Balassagyarmat, which had been the family’s home since the eighteenth century. His maternal grandfather, Ármin, was a well-to-do, well-respected local landowner. Although Misi’s parents lived in Budapest, ‘Gyarmat’ was the paradise where he, his mother and his younger sister Jutka spent their summers, immersing themselves in the pleasures of country life which offered unlimited freedom. His father, Dr László Gy. held the rank of lieutenant, working as a physician among the mountain rangers during World War I. In Apatin in Serbia, which was awarded to Hungary in 1941, László took over the medical practice of a young Christian doctor who was drafted to serve with the Second Hungarian Army on the Russian Front. He lived there between 1942 and 1944 when he went to live with his family in the ghetto in Budapest. When Misi’s maternal grandfather died in 1943, the family council decided that since both uncles were serving in forced labour camps, Misi’s mother would take over the management of the estate, and she and the children would not return to Budapest and Misi transferred to the Balassgyarmat Jewish school. Following the German occupation, the estate was immediately confiscated, and the family’s mobility was increasingly curtailed. The local Jews were moved into a hastily assembled ghetto and all those deemed ‘temporary lodgers’ were ordered to return immediately to their permanent places of residence. For Misi and his mother, this meant a return to Budapest, so his mother pleaded to be allowed to stay in Balassagyarmat in order to take care of her recently widowed mother. Her brother, home on leave, went to see the local police chief, but the captain denied the request, saying:

I am doing this in the interest of your sister, her children and for the memory of your father.

The meaning of this sentence became clear later, making it clear that the police chief knew exactly what would happen with the deportees. As in other villages throughout rural Hungary, he did nothing to rescue any of the local Jews but instead rendered fast and effective police work to accomplish their deportation. Next day, Misi, his sister and his mother left for Budapest. Two weeks later, those of their family who remained at Gyarmat, together with the rest of the Jewish community, were all crammed into cattle cars and sent to Auschwitz. One survivor later told them that, in the wagons, they had to travel standing, all packed in like sardines. One of the gendarmes stabbed the leg of an old woman who, due to her varicose veins, could not walk fast enough. Blood was spurting from her leg as she was pushed into the car. A dying man was shoved into another wagon and his body was not removed until six hours after his death, though the train did not leave until after those hours. Misi lost his grandmother in Auschwitz and all his childhood friends from Gyarmat.

Hoping to avoid deportation later that summer, Misi and his family converted to Catholicism. Whereas none of the churches stood up openly for the persecuted, during the worst period, both children were saved by members of the Catholic orders. Misi found refuge in the Collegium Josephinum on Andrássy Boulevard. Zsuzsa Van, the Prioress of the nunnery was later awarded the title Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, on the memorial honouring those Christians who risked their lives to save Jews. Misi’s sister was saved by the Carmelite nuns in Kőbánya. Their paternal grandmother remained in the family apartment in Budapest, never sewed the yellow star on her own garments, yet somehow survived, along with both their paternal uncles. Thirty-five years later, Misi returned to his once-beloved Balassgyarmat for his first visit since those awful events.

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Most of the children of Budapest of 1944 were just one generation away from country life and many, like Ágnes had been born in the countryside and still had relatives there. She had been born in Endrőd, a town in eastern Hungary, but by the time she was in the first form, her family had moved to Budapest and she became another of Daisy’s classmates at the Jewish elementary school on Hollán Street. Until 1944, Ágnes’s happiest moments were spent at her grandmother’s house at Zalaegerszeg in western Hungary. Her father, György, was a journalist and newspaper editor, politically aware and active. He took his little girl seriously, talking to her about politics and other grown-up topics. His sudden disappearance, therefore, created a void that has accompanied her throughout her life. In November 1943, unable to bear their confinement any longer, he left his hiding place, a loft, said goodbye as if he were just leaving for the forced labour camp, and was never seen again. She also lost her maternal grandmother that same year, from blood poisoning, Her only son died of starvation at Kőszeg. Her paternal grandparents were deported together with their daughter, György’s sister. They were sent to a farm in Austria where Ágnes’s grandfather, a rabbi in Hungary, drove a tractor. All three of them survived, saddened and scarred by their son’s disappearance. Ágnes always remembers the gigantic capital Zs (for ‘Zsidó’, ‘Jew’ in Hungarian) in her father’s military record book. Her poem to him stands for the unfathomable sense of loss many of these children have grown up with:

...

I feel, you are off. Stepping out,

a well-dressed vagrant,

you never really leave; you are just stepping out,

looking back, laughing, at age thirty-eight,

I’ll soon be back, you nod and wave.

Your birthday would have been the following day.

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The Last Days of the War in the East:

It is a remarkable testimony to the dedication of the Nazis to complete their ‘final solution’ to ‘the Jewish Problem’ that their programme of deportations continued well into July. The huge Russian summer ground offensive, timed for the moment when attention in the Reich would be most concentrated on events in Normandy, was launched on 22 June 1944, the third anniversary of Operation Barbarossa. The counter-offensive, Operation Bagration (codenamed by Stalin after the great Georgian Marshal of the 1812 campaign). The attack was supported by four hundred guns per mile along a 350-mile front connecting Smolensk, Minsk and Warsaw. Bagration was intended to destroy the German Army Group Centre, opening the way to Berlin itself. The Red Army had almost total air cover, much of the Luftwaffe having been flown off westwards to try to deal with the Normandy offensive and the Combined Bomber Offensive. Much of the Third Panzer Army was destroyed in a few days and the hole created in the wildly overstretched German line was soon no less than 250 miles wide and a hundred miles deep, allowing major cities such as Vitebsk and Minsk to be recaptured on 25 June and 3 July respectively. By the latter date, the Russians had moved forward two hundred miles from their original lines. They encircled and captured 300,000 Germans at Minsk. Army Group Centre had effectively ceased to exist, leaving a vast gap between Army Group South and Army Group North. Bagration has been described by historians as being, from a German perspective, …

… one of the most sudden and complete military disasters in history. even in the months following the Allied invasion of Normandy, German casualties in Russia continued to average four times the number in the West.

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I have written about the tactical errors made by the German High Command, including Hitler himself, in my previous article. The movement of senior personnel on both the Eastern Front and, to a lesser extent, on Western Front, resembled a merry-go-round. Having been appointed commander-in-chief west in 1942, General Rundstedt was removed from command on 6 July 1944 after trying to persuade Hitler to adopt a more mobile defence strategy rather than fighting for every town and village in France. He was reappointed to his old post on the Eastern Front in command of Army Group South. By 10 July, twenty-five of the thirty-three divisions of Army Group Centre were trapped, with only a small number of troops able to extricate themselves. In the course of the sixty-eight days of this vast Kesselschladt (cauldron battle), the Red Army regained Belorussia and opened the way to attack East Prussia and the Baltic States. The year 1944 is thus seen as an annus mirabilis in today’s Russia. For all that is made of the British-American victory in the Falaise pocket, the successful Bagration offensive was ten times the size, yet it is hardly known of in the West.

On 14 July 1944, the Russians attacked south of the Pripet Marshes, capturing Lwow on the 27th. As a result, the Germans had been forced back to their Barbarossa start lines of three years earlier. Further south, Marshal Tolbukhin’s 3rd Ukrainian Front prepared to march on Belgrade, aided by Marshal Tito’s Yugoslav partisans. It was extraordinary, therefore, considering that the war’s outcome was in no doubt by the end of July 1944, that the Wehrmacht continued to operate as an efficient, disciplined fighting force well into the spring of 1945. The ‘Battle of Budapest’ played a major role in this. On 20 August, Marshal Vasilevsky began his drive to clear the Germans out of the Balkans, which saw spectacular successes as the 2nd and 3rd Ukrainian Fronts crossed the River Prut and attacked Army Group South in Romania. With Hitler desperate to retain control of the Romanian oilfields, without which his planes and tanks would be forced to rely on failing synthetic fuel production within the Reich, he could not withdraw the Sixth Army, twenty divisions of which were therefore trapped between the Dnieper and the Prut by 23 August. On that same day, Romania surrendered, and soon afterwards changed sides and declared war on Germany: a hundred thousand German prisoners and much matérial were taken.

At the end of August, after the success of the D-day landings in Normandy had been secured, Horthy recovered his mental strength and replaced Sztójáy with one of his loyal Generals, Géza Lakatos. By then the war aims of the Horthy régime, the restoration of Hungary to its pre-Trianon status, were in tatters. The First and Second Awards and the acquisitions by force of arms would mean nothing after the defeat which now seemed inevitable. The fate of Transylvania was still in the balance in the summer of 1944, with everything depending on who would liberate the contested territories from the Germans. When Royal Romania succeeded in pulling out, the Soviet and Romanian forces combined forces began a joint attack and the weakened Hungarian Army was unable to contain them. By 31 August, the Red Army was in Bucharest, but despite having advanced 250 miles in ten days, it then actually speeded up, crossing two hundred miles to the Yugoslav border in the following six days.

Sources:

Marianna D. Birnbaum (2016), 1944: A Year Without Goodbyes. Budapest: Corvina.

Anna Porter (2007), Kasztner’s Train: The True Story of an Unknown Hero of the Holocaust. London: Constable.

Zsolt Zágoni (ed.)(2012), From Budapest to Bergen-Belsen: A Notebook from 1944. Published by the editor.

Szabolcs Szita (2012), The Power of Humanity: Raoul Wallenberg and his Aides in Budapest. Budapest: Corvina.

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

Gyula Kodolányi & Nóra Szekér (2013), Domokos Szent-Iványi: The Hungarian Independence Movement, 1939-1946. Budapest: Hungarian Review Books.

László Kontler (2009), A History of Hungary. Budapest: Atlantisz Publishing House.

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

Berlin 1948: Spring Crises, Midsummer Madness, Blockades & Airlifts.   Leave a comment

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By the spring of 1948, the ideological division of Europe into two rival camps was almost complete, except in Germany and the two capital cities of Vienna and Berlin, where Britain, France, the USSR and the USA each governed a separate sector. Agreements had been formalised in the autumn of 1945, guaranteeing the Western Allies free access to Berlin. The former capital of Germany was a special case in the four-power joint occupation and control of the country, a hundred miles inside the Soviet zone, and therefore a key strategic point for the Soviets to apply pressure on the Western Allies. Road and rail lines were designated for the supply of those areas of the city occupied by them. Air corridors across the Soviet zone between Berlin and the western sectors of Germany had also been agreed, and for three years there was free movement along the accepted routes of access to the city. Britain, America and France relied on the road, rail and canal links into the city, but in the spring of 1948, the Soviet authorities decided to make use of this vulnerability by making access from the west more difficult.

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Added to these issues, Berlin had been subjected to an around-the-clock air bombardment in the war and the city had also endured a heavy artillery bombardment by the Red Army during the final battle. The destruction was almost total: whole districts had been flattened; entire apartment blocks had been demolished and almost every building in the city bore signs of damage. Food was perpetually in short supply and the official currency, the Reichsmark, had gradually become worthless. The black market was flourishing, and the cigarette had become the form of currency. The citizens had, literally, to dig into the rubble to find something with which they could barter in order to scratch out a living. They were joined by refugees arriving in the city, who faced an even more desperate struggle for food, warmth and light.

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In January 1948 the British cabinet had discussed the situation in Germany. In the previous year, the three Western Allies had joined their zones of occupation together into one Western zone. Stalin had watched these events with mistrust. The British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin had presented a paper to his government that argued for slow movement towards a West German government, and for action on currency reform to undercut the rampant black market. Bevin thought of Britain as an intermediary between the French, who were still fearful of German recovery, and the Americans, who were increasingly frustrated by what they saw as French obstructionism. The French were haunted by an ancient rivalry with Germany and bitter memories of recent defeat and occupation. On 23rd February representatives from the UK, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, along with the United States, met in London to plan for the new West German entity, and for the participation of Germany in the Marshall Plan. News of the Communist takeover in Czechoslovakia added impetus to the urgency for creating the new state. On 12th March, the Soviet leadership was advised by its spies in the Foreign Office in London that the Western powers are transforming Germany into their strongpoint and incorporating it into a military-political bloc aimed at the Soviet Union. Molotov accused the Allies of violating the agreements of Potsdam and announced that decisions made at the London conference were invalid.

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007 (2)Worse was to follow on 20th March 1948, at a routine Allied Council meeting, when Marshal Vassily Sokolovsky, the Soviet military governor in Germany pressed his US and British counterparts for information about the secret London conference, already knowing, of course, exactly what had happened. When General Lucius D. Clay, the US military governor told him that they were not going to discuss the London meetings, Sokolovsky demanded to know what the point was of having a ‘Control Council’ at all. The Soviets then got up and walked out of the meeting, effectively ending joint control of Germany.

As a result, around Berlin, the Soviet authorities began applying a range of petty bureaucratic obstacles to the free movement of people and supplies in and out of the city.

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Restrictions were placed on the use of the ‘autobahn’ between Berlin and the British sector to the west. The bridge over the Elbe at Hohenwarte, the only other road-crossing point, was closed for “maintenance.” The British offered to send engineers to build another to build another bridge, but Sokolovsky turned down the offer. The Soviets announced that they would search military passengers and their cargo on the rail lines, and stated that no freight shipments between Berlin and the western zones could be made without Soviet permission. On 1st April the Soviets halted two American and two British trains after their commanders refused access to Soviet inspectors. All this amounted to what was later called the “mini-blockade.” General Clay ordered a “baby airlift” to fly into Berlin enough supplies for forty-five days.

 

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On 5th April a Vickers Viking of British European Airways took from an airfield in West Germany on a scheduled flight into RAF Gatow, one of the Allied air bases in West Berlin. As it came into Berlin, in one of the agreed twenty-mile-wide air corridors, the Viking was buzzed by a Soviet Yak-3 fighter plane. It was not the first time this had happened. For a few days, Soviet fighters had been carrying out mock attacks on Allied planes flying into Berlin. But this time, as the British transport plane took evasive action, it collided with the Yak fighter. Both planes crashed to the ground, killing all ten people on board the BEA plane and the pilot of the Soviet fighter. The Soviets blamed the British for the collision, and the British blamed the Soviet pilot. A joint investigation of the accident broke down when the Soviets refused to allow German witnesses to testify. The British and Soviets separately concluded that the mid-air collision was an accident, but thereafter both sides were more nervous that such accidents could bring open conflict.

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008With the situation in Berlin now alarmingly tense, the confrontation between the Soviets and the West spilt over into Berlin’s internal politics. The Berlin City Council was the scene of a fierce power struggle between the East German Communists and their political foes, led by Ernst Reuter, a powerful orator, and his Social Democrats. Reuter had been forced to leave Germany by the Nazis but had returned in 1946. hoping to rebuild the country as a democratic state. His election in 1948 as Mayor of Berlin (the whole city) was vetoed by the Soviets and the East German Communists, whose agents operated in both East and West Berlin, using a combination of intimidation, blackmail and kidnapping to get their way.

As far as the Soviets were concerned, East Germany was Stalin’s by right of conquest; for the West Berliners it was, and remained (until 1972), the Soviet occupation zone, SBZ. The old pre-war Kommunist Partei Deutschlands, boosted by sizeable numbers of Soviet-German agents who had spent the war in Moscow and had been sent back to Berlin as early as May 1945, merged forcibly with the socialists and created a new party, Socialist Unity, led by Walter Ulbricht. It took over the main offices of state and reduced the civil service and the other political parties which remained to the status of mere figureheads. Its constitution made it clear that all fundamental human rights were subject to the concrete conditions under which the proletarian revolution must triumph (Article 19). 

Although, by 1948, the Soviets had forced the Eastern ‘zone’ of Germany to accept Communism, in the Western zone elections they never gained more than eight per cent support for the Communists, and despite the level of intimidation, the Communists had failed to gain control of Berlin.  Around Berlin, tensions had worsened. Soviet military authorities threatened to close down the rail traffic with the West. By 15th June canal boats and freight trains were the only means left of supplying the city. In this explosive situation, the Western Allies decided to introduce their new currency, which was announced on 18th June. Sokolovsky immediately issued a proclamation denouncing their action as being…

against the wishes and interests of the German people and in the interests of the American, British and French monopolists … The separate currency reform completes the splitting of Germany. It is a breach of the Potsdam decisions.

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Sokolovsky also prohibited the introduction of the Western Deutschmark (above left) into the Soviet zone and into Berlin. On 22nd June, the Soviets announced that they would be introducing their own currency, the Ostmark (right) for the Eastern zone and, they hoped, the whole of Berlin. The Western military commanders declared the Soviet order null and void for West Berlin and introduced the B-mark, a special Deutschmark overprinted with the letter ‘B’, for the Western sectors of Berlin. General Clay, who made the decision without consulting Washington, insisted it was a technical, non-political measure. But Sokolovsky announced that the Western mark would not be permitted to circulate in Berlin, which lies in the Soviet zone of Germany and economically forms part of the Soviet zone. General Clay assured his staff that he was not concerned by these developments:

If they had put in a currency reform and we didn’t, it would have been (our) first move.   

007Over the next twelve hours, Berlin endured an extraordinary spate of ‘midsummer madness’. On the evening of 23rd June, at a meeting of the Berlin City Council, which was located in the Soviet sector of the city, Reuter tried to persuade the Assembly to approve the circulation of both the Deutschmark and the Ostmark. As thugs beat up non-Communists to intimidate them from supporting Reuter’s proposal, Soviet officials and Communist-controlled police stood by and watched. Nevertheless, the Berlin Assembly voted to accept the Deutschmark in the Western sectors and the Ostmark in the Soviet sector.

Sokolovsky rang Molotov to ask what he should do; should he surround Berlin with tanks? Molotov told him not to, as this might provoke the Western powers into doing the same, and then the only way out of such an impasse would be through military confrontation. They decided instead to impose an immediate blockade around Berlin, and at 6:00 a.m. on 24th June, the barriers were lowered on all road, rail and canal routes linking Berlin with West Germany. The reason given was “technical difficulties.” That same morning, electricity from power stations in the Soviet sector was cut off to factories and offices in West Berlin. The official reason given was “coal shortages.” So the blockade of Berlin began. The Soviets’ purpose was clear; either the Western Allies must change their policies or be forced out of Berlin altogether. General Clay clearly identified this purpose:

When Berlin falls, Western Germany will be next. If we withdraw our position in Berlin, Europe is threatened … Communism will run rampant.

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Berlin was effectively cut off from the West, with only enough food and fuel to last six weeks. In both London and Washington, there was a clear determination that the Western powers would hold on to West Berlin. President Truman vowed; We are going to stay, period and British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin announced that the abandonment of Berlin would mean the loss of Western Europe. It was easy to make such statements, but much more difficult to decide what to do next. West Berlin did indeed have a symbolic status as an outpost of the democratic West inside the Communist East, but by an agreement made at the time of Potsdam, the Soviet authorities were not obliged to supply the British, American and French sectors of the city. So 2.3 million Berliners, and the Allied military garrison there were now cut off. The Western part of the city relied upon the arrival of twelve thousand tons of supplies each day. At the time, there was only enough food for thirty-six days, and enough coal for forty-five. The key to keeping a Western presence in Berlin clearly lay in finding a way to supply the citizens with their bare necessities. With rail, road and canal routes blocked, the only way to get supplies in was by air. However, the American C-47 transport, the military ‘workhorse’ of the day, could only deliver a payload of three tons. Initially, the prospect for an airlift to Berlin appeared to be bleak.

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On 24 June, the West had introduced a counter-blockade, stopping all raid traffic into eastern Germany from the British and US zones. Over the following months, this counter-blockade was to have a damaging effect on the East, as the drying up of coal and steel shipments seriously hindered industrial development in the Soviet zone. On that same day, General Clay rang General Curtis LeMay of the US Air Force in Wiesbaden and asked him to put on standby his fleet of C-47s and any other aircraft that could be utilised. The RAF had come forward with an ambitious plan to supply Berlin by air, but Clay was sceptical. He favoured sending a convoy of US military engineers down the autobahn to force their way through the Soviet blockade, with instructions to fire back if they were fired upon. But in Washington, Truman’s advisers urged caution and restraint. The president was backed into a corner as it was an election year; the American people would never support going to war with the Soviet Union just to defend Berlin, the capital of a country they had been at war with only three years earlier. At the same time, Truman had to be seen championing a firm line with the Soviets, so he made no final decision that day, but Clay was told by telephone that the president did not want any action taken in Berlin which might lead to possible armed conflict.

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Although both the British and Americans had experience with major air supply operations, neither had ever attempted anything on this scale. Clay warned Reuter that to begin with there would be severe shortages and hardships; initially, he did not believe that the Allies could fly in more than five hundred tons a day. Reuter assured him that the Allies could count on the West Berliners to grin and bear it. Then, without consulting Washington, Clay authorised the start of the airlift. On 26th June, the first American transport planes flew into Berlin from air bases in West Germany, following three narrow air corridors through the Soviet zone. The first flight brought in eighty tons of milk, flour and medicine. The Americans code-named the airlift Operation Vittles; to the British, it was Operation Plainfare. To begin with, about eighty C-47s flew two daily round trips into RAF Gatow and Tempelhof, air bases in the British and American sectors of Berlin. Soon the Americans were bringing fifty C-54 Skymasters, four-engined transports each containing nine tons, three times the payload of the C-47s. The Allies organised willing gangs of workers to unload the aircraft and turn them around quickly. Over time these workers learned to empty each plane in just seven minutes. The citizens of Berlin became increasingly confident that the Allies would be able to save their city. They had had few problems delivering bombs, they reminded each other, so why wouldn’t be able to deliver potatoes?

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The Royal Air Force had fewer service aircraft available for the operation, and spare planes of any type were soon pressed into the airlift. British business executive Freddie Laker had begun to buy and sell aircraft parts after the war, and by 1948 he owned twelve converted Halifax bombers. He was asked to make them available for supplying Berlin and provided a team of pilots and engineers as well. As the operation grew over succeeding months, it grew into a ‘crusade for freedom’, with the pilots determined to keep Berlin alive, despite the hazards of flying old, rickety aircraft, often buzzed by Soviet fighters and frequently at risk when flying heavy loads in bad weather. Bevin set up a crisis-management team in London to supervise the effort, and early expectations were soon exceeded, as roughly a thousand tons per day were flown into the besieged city. The irony was not lost on many of the veteran fliers involved; instead of destroying Berlin, they were now keeping it alive.

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In July, General Clay returned to Washington for talks with President Truman. He still favoured a military a military convoy to break the blockade, for he believed that the Soviets would back down rather than confronting the West. However, Truman did not want to chance it. If they chose not to let the convoy through, there would be war. Instead, Truman guaranteed more C-54s, and the two men talked of doubling the airlift to two thousand tons daily. The American intelligence community, knowing that the Soviets still had two and a half million men at arms, was convinced that in a conventional military confrontation the Red Army would walk right over the US forces. At the same time, they were equally confident that the Kremlin would not sanction direct military conflict with the Western powers, which might provoke the Americans to use nuclear weapons, as they had in Japan. To stop the airlift, the USSR would have had to shoot down British and American planes. Stalin was frightened by the USA’s nuclear capability, since, as yet, the Soviet Union had not developed its own capacity. Perhaps because of this overall military superiority, General Clay remained convinced that the Soviets would not risk a military confrontation:

The chances of war are 1 in 10. The Russians know they would be licked. If they cut our air route, they know it is an act of war.

Besides, the Soviet Union was not yet secure within its own accepted sphere of influence. Yugoslavia split away from the Eastern camp, a defection that made the Kremlin even more nervous about its support among its satellites, especially after events in Czechoslovakia in February and March of the same year. On 28th June, only four days after launching the blockade against Berlin, Moscow expelled Yugoslavia from the Cominform and called on other Communist parties to isolate Marshal Tito, its charismatic partisan leader who had taken power after the war without Stalin’s help or support. An economic blockade was organised against Yugoslavia that caused great hardship, but Belgrade stood firm. Rejected by the Eastern ‘bloc’, Tito turned, albeit slowly and a little reluctantly, towards the West. Although not technically a member of the Marshall Plan, Yugoslavia went on to receive $150 million in aid from the United States. Threatened with invasion by Stalin, Yugoslavia remained the only independent state in Europe throughout the Cold War and a ‘thorn in the side’ of the USSR. Any attempt of an Eastern bloc country to establish its independence from Moscow was labelled ‘Titoism’, a heresy to be rooted out and purged.

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Back in the ‘Berlin Crisis’ during July, attempts were made through diplomatic channels to bring about a settlement. On 2nd August, the British, American, and French ambassadors had a private meeting with Stalin to test his willingness to find a peaceful solution. Stalin made it clear that from the Soviet point of view the currency question was crucial, together with the London agreement to create a united West Germany. He argued that if there were now two German states then Berlin was no longer the capital, making the Western presence in the city no longer relevant. Stalin stated that the USSR was not seeking conflict with the West and would lift the blockade as soon as the West withdrew the B-mark from circulation and agreed to reinstate joint four-power rule over Germany. In point of fact, there was little that the Soviets could do in the face of the West’s superiority in the air and its determination to keep up the airlift. What became clear to the Western ambassadors was that the Soviet blockade had only one principal purpose: to prevent the creation of a West German state.

Pictured Above: On 19th August, A C-47 Dakota comes in for a landing while a huge C-74 Globemaster from Frankfurt unloads 23 tons of flour for the people of Berlin. With some difficulty, the enormous plane landed on a new runway at Gatow in the British zone. Below: Inside the Globemaster.

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Throughout the summer of 1948, the British and American governments constantly reviewed their options. Military thinking concluded that the airlift could hardly continue through the winter; that October was to be the cut-off point. The British chiefs of staff prepared a contingency plan to withdraw their troops to the Rhine in case of an emergency. In Washington, the air force commanders were convinced that the airlift was doomed to fail and concluded that there was a high likelihood of war with the Soviets over Berlin. The question which arose from this for the administration was whether the United States would be willing to use nuclear weapons in the developing crisis, for there was still no clear policy emanating from the White House. Truman argued with his Pentagon chiefs that because they were so terribly destructive, atomic weapons could not be treated as conventional weaponry. He urged the military leaders…

to understand that this isn’t a military weapon. It is used to wipe out women and children and unarmed people.

In September, the US National Security Council produced a secret report designated as NSC-30: United States Policy on Atomic Welfare. This required the military to be ready to utilize promptly a and effectively all appropriate means available, including atomic weapons, in the interests of national security and to plan accordingly.  However, any decision about the use of nuclear weapons would be made by the president, when he considers such decisions to be required. Truman endorsed NC-30. In a briefing with his chief air force commanders, he…

prayed he would never have to make such a decision, but … if it became necessary, no one need have misgiving but he would do so.

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In a dramatic gesture that summer, a fleet of sixty B-29 ‘Superfortress’ bombers was flown into the United Kingdom. These were the latest American heavy bombers, designed to carry atomic weapons. The deployment of the B-29s established the US Strategic Air Command in the UK, and the arrival of “the atomic bombers” was widely publicised. The threat of nuclear retaliation was now made explicit. After a brief debate, at the height of the Berlin crisis, the British Government had formally invited Washington to station the bombers in Britain. The invitation neatly fudged the issue as to who would have his finger on the nuclear trigger; the US Air Force bombers would respond to orders from the United States, but their bases would be technically under the command of the RAF.

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This theoretical ambivalence lasted for more than forty years. I remember going on a CND march to RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk to demonstrate against the presence of the US bombers, and their bombs, in 1976. But in practice the real decision, if it ever came to that, would always be made as NSC-30 directed, by the president of the United States. The planes, in fact, carried no atomic weapons, but this was a closely guarded secret. There were not enough atomic warheads in existence to equip the B-29s in Britain. Their arrival was mainly a signal to Moscow that the West meant business over Berlin, and Washington took advantage of the crisis to get congressional approval for permanent overseas bases.  The British Government knew that the B-29s carried no atomic weapons, and through spies at the London Foreign Office, Moscow also, almost certainly knew too. The British, German and Russian people, of course, did not.

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Meanwhile, the Berlin airlift was proving more successful than anyone ever expected. Tens of thousands of Berliners helped build a new airport at Tegel to reduce congestion at the other two airfields. With capacity for more flights, the Americans added another sixty C-54s to their fleet. Clay now spoke of bringing in 4,500 tons each day. By September, aircraft were landing in Berlin every three minutes, day and night. On 18th September, 861 British and American flights delivered a record seven thousand tons in a single day. By this date roughly two hundred thousand tons of supplies had been delivered, the ‘split’ between the USAF and the RAF being about sixty-forty in percentage terms. Coal, flour, drums of petrol, potatoes, medical supplies were all brought in by air. It began to look as if the airlift would be able to supply the city through the winter, after all. But West Berliners were still fearful that the West might not continue the airlift. On 6th September, another meeting of the City Council in East Berlin had been broken up by Communist agitators with violence and intimidation. The Western representatives decided that the Council was no longer functional, so they left and agreed to meet separately in West Berlin. Three days later, a huge gathering of three hundred thousand Berliners, mostly from the western zones, collected outside the ruins of the Reichstag (below). Standing on a pile of rubble, Reuter addressed the huge crowds, calling upon the Western governments not to abandon Berlin.

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By October, many West Berliners were getting desperate. They were allowed only small amounts of fat, spam (tinned meat), potatoes, cereal and bread. Berlin’s people needed four thousand tons of supplies a day to survive. People had got used to the rationing, and even to feeling cold, since electricity was only available four hours a day. But the blockade was not, in any case, absolute, so a minority of West Berliners were able to register for food rations with the Soviet authorities, and about one in ten of them were, therefore, able to draw food and coal from the East. As there was no restriction on travel within the city, so many West Berliners regularly visited the eastern part of the city, where there were well-lit and heated dance halls.

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The airlift became almost a way of life. Although expensive, its cost represented only a fraction of the total cost of American aid to Europe. Despite bad weather and constant harassment by Soviet fighters, the transports continued to bring their cargoes into West Berlin. By December, the goal of 4,500 tons flown in each day was reached. At Gatow and Tempelhof flights landed every ninety seconds. Enough coal was freighted in to keep West Berliners from freezing. The gamble had paid off. Production in the city picked up and output grew rapidly. The feared economic collapse did not materialise.

Below (left): A German child’s drawing commemorates the airlift: “We thank the pilots for their work and effort.” Right: A new game, “Airlift.”

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By the spring of 1949, the weather improved considerably. Food supplies in Berlin could be built up and fuel stocks maintained at a sufficient level. The airlift ensured that eight thousand tons were being flown in each day. In one twenty-four hour period, on Easter Sunday, April 1949, a record number of 1,398 flights came into  Berlin, carrying a total of thirteen thousand tons of supplies. In all, two million tons of supplies had been flown in since the airlift began. As the counter-blockade of eastern Germany hurt more and more, the Soviets took the only course left open to them and tried to end the whole Berlin debacle. The Kremlin indicated that it would consider ending its blockade with minimal conditions imposed: The counter-blockade would have to be lifted and the Council of Foreign Ministers reconvened. The bellicose General Clay quietly returned to Washington, ceasing to be military governor and claiming that, in any case, after the tensions of the preceding year he needed a break. On 12th May 1949, the blockade was finally lifted, and the Western military authorities reciprocated by lifting their counter-blockade. Both sides claimed victory and Berliners were jubilant; many thought this would be the end of the conflict between the Great Powers. In reality, the blockades had resulted in the end of the war-time alliance and in the formation of two Berlins: West and East. Added to that, as the heavy transports continued to fly their daily missions, the constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany was being drafted. Stalin’s attempt to prevent the division of Germany had failed. President Truman commented:

When we refused to be forced out of Berlin, we demonstrated to Europe that we would act when freedom was threatened. This action was a Russian plan to probe the soft spots in the Western Allies’ positions.

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Above: RIAS, Radio in the American Sector, American-financed, with a mix of popular music and upbeat news, kept up Berliners’ morale. Presenter and entertainer Christina Ohlsen became a celebrity.

The West did, indeed, secure a major propaganda victory through the airlift. It was a reminder to the Soviet Union, and the whole international community, of Western technological superiority, especially in the air. Conversely, the Berlin crisis showed the Soviets in a poor light: they seemed to be willing to threaten 2.3 million people with starvation. The Soviet view of the events was, not surprisingly, quite different:

The crisis was planned in Washington, behind a smoke-screen of anti-Soviet propaganda. In 1948 there was the danger of war. The conduct of the Western powers risked bloody incidents. The self-blockade of the Western powers hit the West Berlin population with harshness. The people were freezing and starving. In the spring of 1949 the USA was forced to yield … their war plans had come to nothing, because of the conduct of the Soviet Union.

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The Soviets, operating outside the framework of American loan credits and facing the Western alliance, saw themselves to be increasingly threatened. We now know that Stalin privately felt far weaker than was known at the time, but in 1948 many in the West genuinely believed that Stalin planned to dominate the entire European continent. The US policy of ‘containment’ meant confronting Communism at all agreed critical points, and Berlin was one of these. Old wartime loyalties to Russia were being replaced by fear of Soviet ambitions; a “them and us” syndrome had emerged. As US Secretary of State, George C Marshall observed,…

There has been a definite crystallization of American public and Congressional opinion over the Berlin issue. … The country is more unified in its determination not to weaken in the face of pressure of an illegal blockade than on any other issue we can recall in time of peace.  

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The Berlin blockade made clear to most Americans that the new enemy was definitely the Soviet Union. The Blockade and Airlift was the first open struggle between East and West. The tactics were designed not to start a war, but to threaten to go to war if necessary. This set the pattern for future Cold War conflicts, including further tensions over Berlin. 

Source:

Jeremy Isaacs & Taylor Downing (1998), Cold War. London: Bantam Press (Transworld Publishers).                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                

 

A Hundred Years Ago – The Great War: Spring into Summer, 1918.   Leave a comment

‘Aces High’ downed – Red Baron & Prancing Horse:

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The Royal Air Force, formed on 1st April, celebrated by shooting down German ace Manfred von Richthofen three weeks later. He was the ‘ace of aces’, the fighter pilot who brought down the most enemy aircraft. He had begun the war as a cavalry officer before transferring to the German air force. He led a fighter wing known as the ‘Flying Circus’ because of their brightly painted aircraft.  Von Richthofen’s own personal machines were painted bright red, giving rise to his nickname, the Red Baron. Between September 1916 and April 1918 he brought down eighty allied aircraft before he was finally brought down. One RAF fighter pilot, Mick Mannock, refused to toast von Richthofen on his demise, saying “I hope the bastard roasted on the way down.” Later, in the summer, British novelist D H Lawrence was married to Frieda von Richthofen, a distant cousin of Manfred.

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In June, Italy’s highest-scoring fighter ace, Francesco Baracca, was killed. His aircraft featured a prancing horse symbol painted on the side. Years later Francesco’s mother suggested to a young racing driver called Enzo Ferrari that he adopt the symbol for his racing cars.

The Australian Corps go fishing:

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Above: An Australian Imperial Guard keeps watch.

The renowned Australian Corps came under the command of the British Army’s General Rawlinson early in 1918. He was pleased with the men and wrote in his diary about their unusual pastimes in the trenches:

They are certainly original fighters and up to all sorts of dodges, some of which would shock a strict disciplinarian. Some of the German shells were falling short into the pools of the Somme river and exploded under water. Two Australians spent the day in a boat rowing about and watching for a shell to explode and then picked up the stunned fish. They wore their gas masks to prevent recognition!

Third Battle of the Aisne, 27th May – 9th June:

Aiming to tie the Allies down to allow a main attack in the north, the Germans launched their third large-scale attack at Chemin des Dames and the River Aisne with a new storm breaking on the Aisne heights, a ferocious artillery barrage that shattered French units massed on the front line. It was estimated that two million shells were fired in the four-and-a-half-hour-long preliminary bombardment. By the evening, the French gains in the three great actions had vanished like smoke, and the Germans had crossed the river, advancing fourteen miles on the first day, an unprecedented success on the Western Front. Operation Blücher-Yorck was a great success for the German commander, Erich Ludendorff. On the second day, he was beyond the Vesle, and on the third, his vanguard was looking down from the heights of the Tardenois on the waters of the Marne. It was the swiftest advance made in the West since the beginning of trench warfare.

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Pleased with his success, Ludendorff then changed his plans and took forces reserved for a northern attack to support a drive westwards to Paris. The message painted on Germans trucks read, On to Paris! But the advance ran out of supplies and momentum as American troops, fighting their first engagement of the war at Cantigny, together with French forces, stood in the way. Captain Lloyd Williams of the US Marines in Belleau Wood summed up the Americans’ mood; Retreat? Hell, we only just got here! Williams was killed in the ensuing battle that followed on 6th June. The Marines began a counter-attack to take the wood. On the first day, they lost 1,087 men, more than had been lost in the whole of the Marines’ history to that date. Nevertheless, after three weeks of brutal fighting, they eventually took the wood. Meanwhile, on 9th June, Ludendorff had tried to cut off the Allied salient between the two great dents he had made but failed again. His position was hopeless; he was the victim of his own early successes.

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Above: New British troops arrive at a port in France.

Battle of Matz, 9th – 13th June; Advent of the Americans:

Operation Gneisenau, a further German attack, was intended to straighten their forward line. Despite inadequate planning, they pushed the French back, gaining six miles of territory and inflicting heavier casualties than they suffered. However, the offensive floundered and French counter-attacks forced the Germans to halt proceedings after only a few days. In the course of this Spring Offensive, as it became known, they had lost 963,000 men. By this time their surviving soldiers had become so disheartened and disillusioned by their failure to break through the Allied defences that they began shouting abuse at their own reinforcements, calling them, War prolongers! At the same time, ten thousand Americans were arriving each day in France. By the summer of 1918 half a million ‘doughboys’ were on the front line. The British Army was also reinforced, having suffered a 36% casualty rate during the Spring Offensive, with 540,000 new recruits being sent to the Front between March and August. But the Germans facing them still had 207 divisions in all, compared with 203 Allied divisions. Britain also employed manual workers from several nationalities to work in France:

Chinese               96,000

Indians                48,000

South Africans     21,000

Egyptians            15,000

West Indians        8,000

On 19 July, Honduras became the last country to join the war, declaring war on Germany.

Heroines at Home and at the Front:

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Above: Women filling shells.

Back in ‘Blighty’, after an explosion at the Chilwell National Shell Filling Factory in Nottingham killed 134 employees, it was suggested that the Victoria Cross be awarded to staff for their subsequent bravery in going about their own work. Sadly this was not done, as the medal could only be given to individuals in uniform. The number of women in non-domestic employment in April 1918 had risen to 4,808,000, 1.5 million more than four years earlier.

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At the Front, two British women who had earned themselves the nickname from Belgian troops, the two Madonnas of Pervyse, Mairi Chisholm and Elsie Knocker, were injured in a gas attack in 1918. They had travelled to Ypres in 1914, setting up an independent first aid station. They were awarded seventeen medals for bravery.

The Second Battle of the Marne, 15 July – 5 August:

The May and June attacks by the Germans had driven the French back from the Aisne to the Marne. There are two explanations for the surprising extent of the German advance, shown on the map below. First, instead of attacking in ‘waves’ of men, they advanced in small groups pressing forward where the opposition was weak and keeping their reserves close at hand to exploit any gap created. Secondly, the British Fifth Army was unusually weak: the line recently taken over from the French had not been put into a proper state of defence; Haig had massed his reserves in the north, where he expected an attack; and after Passchendaele, Lloyd George had retained many reserves in England to prevent unprofitable squandering of life. However, by early July, the German successes had failed to bring outright victory.

The advances had so exceeded Ludendorff’s expectations that he was unprepared to exploit them. The British troops offered magnificent resistance in response to Haig’s famous order, With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause, each one of us must fight on to the end. Finally, the arrival of Allied reserves, in fresh condition from Palestine and Italy, turned the tide.

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Ludendorff still hoped to create a diversion that would allow a decisive attack in Flanders. His last offensive began on 15th July, east and west of Rheims. Divisions drove forwards, crossing the River Marne in several places, but then they were held. The advance achieved nothing and instead the Germans had fallen into the Allied trap. Hitherto Foch had stood patiently on the defensive, hoarding his assets. He had tried almost too highly the fortitude of the British soldier. Now he had got his reserve, and Haig, to augment it, had dangerously thinned his own front in the north, to the consternation of the War Cabinet. The moment had come to use it. On 18th July Foch counter-attacked on the right flank of the new German salient and drove it in. This attack was led by masses of light tanks which forced the Germans to retire. It was not a great counterstroke, but it forced Ludendorff to pause and consider. He halted and then began to withdraw from the Marne pocket.

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Foch now had freedom of movement, for with him, at last, was the full American army. By July, there were already a million Americans in France. The German command had long been aware of how great this menace was, but the German press had told the people that it was only a force in buckram. Even up to July this newspaper belittlement continued. But at Chateau-Thierry in June an American contingent had fought with furious gallantry, and on 15th July in the same area, one American division and elements from another had rolled back the German assault. These were the troops who, according to the German press, would not land in Europe unless they could swim like fishes or fly like birds. They had proved their worth in pushing the Germans back to their March starting positions.

Preparations for the Peace Offensive:

But the true counter-attack was not to come until August, at Amiens. In July, the Allied attacks showed the effectiveness of ‘all-arms’ battle tactics, with troops and tanks advancing behind an artillery ‘creeping barrage’ while ground-attack aircraft swept overhead. At Amiens, these were to be put into operation to great effect. The plan for the Peace Offensive, which aimed at compelling a German surrender, was wholly British. Haig had now come to the height of his powers and was a different man from the cautious, orthodox soldier of the earlier days of the war. He had not always been happy with his French colleagues; in some ways, he had been too similar to Pétain, and in every other way too dissimilar to Foch, to be quite at ease with either of them. But now his mind and Foch’s seemed to be on the same ‘wavelength’. The Chief of Allied forces was now elevated enough to take advice, and from Haig, he drew not only his chief weapon – the tank – but also many of his tactics, as well as certain key points in his strategy. The British Army had suffered far more than the French in terms of casualties, but they were still ready to take the chief role, one which they retained until the last day of the war. This was a measure of the reverence in which Foch held his ally. The British ‘Tommy’ was, by now, well-disciplined, as the following notice, pasted into their pay-books, suggests:

Keep your mouths shut! The success of any operation we carry out depends chiefly on surprise. Do not talk – when you know that your unit is making preparations for an attack, don’t talk about them to men in other units, or to stangers, and keep your mouth shut, especially in public places.

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British troops at Verneuil, 19 May 1918.

This secrecy was essential to success at Amiens since many previous battles had shown the Germans fully aware of Allied plans. The tables were now turned, with British intelligence also far more effective than it had been previously. Detailed preparations could be made on the basis of information obtained which identified 95% of German artillery positions. Ernest James RollingsIn particular, Lt Ernest Rollings MC of the 17th Armoured Car Battalion (pictured left) went ‘behind enemy lines’ to recover detailed plans of the Hindenberg Line. On his return, he commented that it was by far the best fighting day I have ever had. In 1931, a newspaper report described the Welshman as ‘The Man Who Ended the War’. Perhaps the journalist who wrote of it thought that he deserved a ‘niche in the pantheon’ alongside that other iconic Welshman, and PM, David Lloyd George (below), the Man who won the War.

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Above: David Lloyd George at the height of his power.

The Temper and Temperature of Britain:

For now, however, the temper of Britain through the spring and summer was heavy and apathetic, but it revealed by little spurts of violence how near men and women were living to the outer edges of their nerves. The crisis of March and April had produced a new resolution, but it was a resolution which had no exhilaration in it and little hope. People had begun to doubt if the War would ever end. The night was still so black that they had forgotten that the darkest hour might presage the dawn. But as the months of ‘darkness’ dragged on, and the word from the battle-fields was only of still further retreats and losses, the popular mood sank again into a dull listlessness. To make matters worse, in June there was an outbreak of ‘Spanish ‘flu’. Thirty people died in Lancashire, but no one had any idea how many millions more it was about to kill.

For Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, the soldier-poets, the satire they wrote was partly the product of the feeling that they belonged to a different race from the civilians they found themselves among while convalescing at Craiglockart Hospital near Edinburgh. Sassoon published his satirical poems in Counter-Attack (1918). Many of them were protest poems indignantly implying that the war was being needlessly prolonged by politicians and generals who could have stopped it. While Owen was on invalid leave in England, if he met civilians who talked too glibly about the war, he would thrust in front of their eyes photographs of horribly mutilated soldiers. But he, together with Sassoon and Osbert Sitwell, reserved his satirical condemnation for the rich, old men who were making a profit out of the war and did not share the soldiers’ terrible discomforts and dangers, yet concealed their selfishness behind a front of self-righteous flag-waving and jingoism. In his poem, The Parable of the Old Men and the Young, Owen envisages Abraham killing Isaac despite God’s command to sacrifice a ram instead:

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,

And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

This indignant mood that led these soldier-poets to satirise civilians is revealed in a letter which Owen wrote to his mother from Scarborough in July 1918:

This morning at 8.20 we heard a boat torpedoed in the bay, about a mile out. I wish the Boche would have the pluck to come right in and make a clean sweep of the pleasure boats, and the promenaders on the Spa, and all the stinking Leeds and Bradford war-profiteers now reading ‘John Bull’ on Scarborough Sands.

The Return of the War Horse & the Fall of the Virgin:

The morale of the soldiers at the Front throughout the spring and early summer matched the cynical protests of people and poets on the home front, for the war to be brought to an end. It was perhaps best summed up in the following song:   

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Meanwhile, preparations for the offensive continued throughout the summer. Fifteen thousand cavalry horses prepared for action. Cavalrymen had operated as unmounted infantry for most of the war since there were few opportunities for horse-mounted soldiers to fight effectively on the typical Western Front battlefield. As the fighting became more open again, cavalry began to be utilised once more.

Earlier in the war, in the town of Albert, near to the Somme, a statue of the Virgin Mary outside a church was hit. It didn’t fall completely and remained, leaning over. It was reckoned that when it finally fell the war would end. At the beginning of August, the statue toppled. Trench warfare on both sides was certainly coming to an end, thanks to the tanks. But as the Germans left their trenches in the summer of 1918, they left notices for the British to warn them that the war was far from won and lost:

Dear Tommy,

You are quite welcome to what we are leaving. When we stop we shall stop, and stop you in a manner you won’t appreciate.

Fritz 

Sources:

Norman Ferguson (2014), The First World War: A Miscellany. Chichester: Summersdale.

Fiona Waters (2007), A Corner of a Foreign Field: The Illustrated Poetry of the First World War. Croxley Green: Transatlantic Press.

John Buchan (1935), The King’s Grace, 1910-35. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Irene Richards, J. B. Goodson & J. A. Morris (1938), A Sketch-Map of the Great War and After, 1914-1935. London: Harrap.

E. L. Black (1970), 1914-18 in Poetry. London: University of London Press.

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.

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