Things Are Not As We Have Been Led to Believe
We didn’t win the war! Like us all, Peter Hitchens grew up on stories of Britain’s heroic victory over Hitler… but now, without questioning the bravery of our troops, he’s written a book challenging all we think about WW2
By Peter Hitchens
In a chilly, high-ceilinged room in a Sussex preparatory school in the winter of 1959, I work intently on my model of the destroyer HMS Cossack. Such models come in lurid cardboard boxes illustrated with pictures of aircraft, tanks and warships, amid scenes of fiery melodrama, guns emitting orange streaks of flame, and the smoke of battle. With these and our imaginations, we seek to recreate the thrill of the war we have just missed, in which our fathers fought and our mothers endured privations.
This is a war just over the horizon of time in which we wish we had taken part, and which dominates our boyish minds above all things. Courage in pursuit of goodness, in the face of a terrible enemy, was what we most believed in. Even the Crucifixion grew pale and faint in the lurid light of air raids and great columns of burning oil at Dunkirk.
But the Second World War, like all events that have become myths, has become a dangerous subject. As a nation, we are enthralled by the belief that it was an unequivocally ‘Good War’, a belief that has grown with extraordinary speed. Yet I did not have to look far to see a rather different picture. My parents were brought together by the tempest of that war and were marked by it for the rest of their lives.
My father, Commander Eric Hitchens, who served in the Royal Navy for 30 years, was never wholly sure who had won. He neither felt he was living in a victorious country nor felt it had rewarded him justly. I remember well how, sometimes, late in the evening, he would look thoughtfully into the middle distance and say: ‘Ah, well, we won the war… or did we?’
My mother, too, who had served in the Women’s Royal Naval Service and endured the Blitz, experienced the peacetime of victory as a disappointment, into which the ghosts of a more inspiring past sometimes intruded quite a lot.
Enough time has surely passed for us to admit that the military and political conduct of the war by our leaders was not always as good as it should have been, that the ‘Good War’ was often incompetently fought, with outdated equipment, by a country in decline. Events of the war, often minimised or avoided in popular or school histories, reveal a country seeking to be more important, rich and powerful than it was, and failing in all cases.
The myth that it was all glorious, and that it saved the world, is a comforting old muffler keeping out the clammy draughts of economic failure and political weakness.
Even today, the self-flattering fantasy that we won it, and the nonsensical but common belief that we did so more or less alone, still leads to foolish economic and diplomatic policies based on a huge overestimate of our real significance as a country. One day, this dangerous fable of the glorious anti-fascist war against evil may destroy us simply because we have a government too vain and inexperienced to restrain itself. That is why it is so important to dispel it.
The myths go right back to the start of the war. The uncomfortable truth is that from the very beginning, it was Britain which sought a conflict with Germany, not Germany with Britain. Hitler’s real targets lay elsewhere, in Ukraine and Russia, and he was much less interested in us than we like to think.
Nor did we go to war, as many like to believe, to save or even help the endangered Jews of Europe. The veteran Labour MP Frank Field’s claim in his recent resignation letter that ‘Britain fought the Second World War to banish these [anti-Semitic] views from our politics’ is the most recent example of this common but mistaken belief.
Britain simply did not declare war in 1939 to save Europe’s Jews – indeed, our government was indifferent to their plight and blocked one of their main escape routes, to what was then British-ruled Palestine. We also did nothing to help Poland, for whose sake we supposedly declared war.
Forget, too, the ‘special relationship’ with the US: America was a jealous and resentful rival to whom we ceded our global status and naval supremacy. And Washington’s grudging backing came at a huge price – we were made to hand over the life savings of the Empire to stave off bankruptcy and surrender.
Even the threat of a German invasion was never a reality, more a convenient idea which suited the propaganda purposes of Hitler and Churchill. What began as a phoney war led in the end to a phoney victory, in which the real winners were Washington and Moscow, not us – and an unsatisfactory, uncomfortable and unhappy peace.
It led to a permanent decline in our status, and a much accelerated, violent and badly managed collapse of our Empire.
I recently obtained, long after his death, the medal my father should have received for his service on the Russian convoys while he was still alive. It came in a cheap plastic case, like a tourist trinket, emphasising our decline in the long years since. Beyond doubt there were many acts of noble courage by our people, civilians and servicemen and women during that war. It is absolutely not my purpose to diminish these acts, or to show disrespect to those who fought and endured.
But the sad truth is that this country deliberately sought a war in the vain hope of preserving a Great Power status our rulers knew in their hearts it had already lost. The resulting war turned us into a second-rate power.
MYTH 1: WE WERE FORCED INTO WAR BY THE GERMANS
Britain actively sought a war with Germany from the moment Hitler invaded Prague in March 1939. Even before then, there were powerful voices in the Foreign Office urging the need to assert ourselves as a Great Power.
Poland was a pretext for that war, not a reason – as was demonstrated by the fact that we did nothing to help Poland when Hitler invaded. It was an excuse for an essentially irrational, idealistic, nostalgic impulse, built largely on a need to assert Britain’s standing as a Great Power.
This goes against everything we’ve been taught to believe. But the behaviour of the Foreign Office between March 1939 – when Britain pledged to guarantee Polish independence in the Anglo-Polish alliance – and the declaration of war in September 1939 strongly backs this up. Lord Halifax’s Foreign Office, contrary to the myth that it was a nest of appeasement, had for some time been keen on a showdown with Germany, despite our grave military weakness. During this period, British officialdom descended into childish frenzies over baseless frights about non-existent German invasions of several countries in Europe. One such scare may have actually given Hitler the idea for threatening Czechoslovakia, until then not one of his major objectives. He then began, for the first time, to consider such a policy seriously.
As for Poland, Warsaw’s military government had, since 1934, had surprisingly good relations with Hitler. And many in Britain feared there was a real possibility Poland might make a deal with Germany, leaving Britain with no immediate reason to go to war in Europe.
At the end of March 1939, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was reported to be ‘uneasy’ that our Ambassador in Warsaw could obtain no information as to the progress of negotiations during this time between Germany and Poland. Simon Newman, in his book March 1939: The British Guarantee To Poland, records Chamberlain telling the Cabinet on March 30, 1939, of his fears Polish negotiators were giving way to Germany. The British government, so often portrayed as anxious for a way out of war, was worried it would be cheated out of a confrontation it wanted to have.
The British people, who had mostly supported the Munich climbdown in September 1938, and turned out in their thousands to cheer it, were now persuaded war was at least a tolerable policy. This was achieved by the dubious claim we must stand firm over Poland or lose all honour.
How strange, in retrospect, that the USA managed to remain aloof from all this and came out of the war stronger and richer rather than (as we did) weaker and poorer, and seldom, if ever, has it had its honour impugned for waiting till it was ready to fight. Might we, too, have done better to wait?
The Polish guarantee transformed Britain from a nervous spectator of central European diplomatic manoeuvres into an active participant, reluctantly but resolutely accepting the need for war.
MYTH 2: POLAND WAS A BASTION OF DEMOCRACY
From the outbreak of war to the surrender of Warsaw in 1939 and the disappearance soon afterwards of the entire Polish nation, we did nothing to help the Poles. Cabinet minutes ahead of the declaration of war reveal a refusal to discuss the fact that British forces were quite incapable of coming to Poland’s aid if it were attacked. Why? Because, although we wanted war, we never intended to fight.
Poland mattered hardly at all to the government. Britain had no major interests in Poland, which was not a particularly democratic or free country. Since a violent military putsch in May 1926, Poland had been an authoritarian state without true free elections. In 1939, it was not the martyred hero nation, champion of freedom, justice and democracy, of propaganda myth. It was deeply anti-Semitic in practice. Far from being ‘Plucky Little Poland’, Warsaw’s military junta selfishly joined in with the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia after Munich.
The truth is our over-confident and poorly informed government believed blockade and the economic and numerical superiority of France and Britain would teach Germany a lesson about the limits of power and force Hitler to negotiate. Yet our supposedly moral position involved knowingly giving a false promise to a country we did not much like or trust.
MYTH 3: WE FOUGHT TO PROTECT THE JEWS
The industrial mass murder of European Jews did not begin until after the war had started. It may even have been made easier by the night and fog of secrecy which war makes possible.
For years before the war, the persecution of Jews in German territory was obvious to the world and nobody doubted that the Nazi state was directly responsible. Yet we did not go to war or even break off diplomatic relations.
Even the complete unmasking of the Nazis’ murderous intentions towards Europe’s Jews during the Kristallnacht pogroms of November 9-10, 1938, does not feature anywhere in explanations of British, French or American changes of foreign policy towards Germany. Britain and other free countries took in very few fleeing Jews, even in the much celebrated Kindertransport programme. It had, in fact, severely restricted Jewish migration to Palestine following Arab and Muslim pressure, just when they most needed such a refuge.
Nobody could have known this would end in the extermination camps. Yet, when confronted with undoubted evidence of the Holocaust, later in the war, Britain and the US took no direct action to prevent it. The official view remained throughout that the best response to this horror would be to win the war, which was what the various governments involved were already seeking to do anyway.
MYTH 4: CHAMBERLAIN WAS NOTHING BUT AN APPEASER
The Left still like to think that it was their outrage at Hitler which finally drove the appeasers, including Chamberlain, into action.
But it was Chamberlain’s Tories who rearmed the country and manoeuvred Britain into its first People’s War. Despite the Munich Agreement of 1938, when Chamberlain returned to London to rapturous crowds following a negotiated peace with Hitler, he had already begun an ambitious programme of rearmament, including the development of radar capabilities.
By the summer of 1939, he was quietly certain of war because, heavily influenced by the other supposed pacific appeaser, Lord Halifax, he had decided to bring it about. To reassert Britain’s status as a Great Power, there must be war, or at least a declaration. No doubt he hoped and expected that it would be either brief, or static, confined to the high seas. Crucially, the rearming was not intended for a continental land war but for imperial and national defence. But without it, we would have been sunk.
Expenditure on the Navy increased from £56,626,000 in 1934-5 to £149,339,000 in 1939-40. The naval building programme from 1936 to 1939 included six capital ships, six aircraft carriers, 25 cruisers, 49 destroyers and 22 submarines.
Army spending rose from £39,604,000 in 1934-5 to £227,261,000 in 1939-40. RAF spending went up from £17,617,000 to £248,561,000 in the same period. All these figures are equivalent to many billions now. Labour opposed almost all this rearmament at the time, only later claiming the moral high ground.
MYTH 5: WE STOOD ALONE AGAINST THE NAZI MENACE
The whole edifice of modern British patriotism and pride is based upon the belief that Britain stood alone against the Nazi menace after the fall of France. But it is a romantic myth. Not only did French and Belgian troops (often wholly selflessly) help British troops to escape through Dunkirk, but Britain also had a large and loyal Empire behind it throughout the war. And the part we played after 1940 is far less than we would have liked. Just nine months after it had begun, Britain had lost the war it declared. It had been driven from continental Europe, penniless and stripped of most of its military hardware.
British troops would not be in contact with the main body of the principal enemy again for four whole years – in a six-year war. Our role on land, between 1940 and 1944 in colonial or sideshow wars on the fringes of the conflict and even after D-Day, was as an increasingly junior partner to the USA and the USSR.
The prospect of peace with Germany on humiliating terms would linger like a nasty smell until the Battle of Stalingrad and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor made eventual German defeat certain. In the end we were rescued by others, and remain rescued – perhaps more rescued than many of us would like.
MYTH 6: THE LOOMING SHADOW OF INVASION
The threat of German invasion was never a reality, but served as propaganda which suited both Hitler and Churchill at the time.
For Hitler it was a way of persuading a battered, unhappy British populace to press their leaders to give in. For Churchill, more successfully, it was a way to raise morale, production and military effectiveness by creating an atmosphere of tension and danger.
Despite their might on land, the Germans in 1940 did not possess a single landing craft, as we understand the term. Their small navy had been devastated by the Norwegian campaign, losing ten destroyers in two battles at Narvik. There had never been sufficient concentrations of German troops in France for such a huge operation. Hitler’s famous directive of July 16, 1940, sounds menacing because of its use of the deeply shocking phrase ‘to occupy [England] completely’. But it is subtly cautious, plainly intended to persuade Britain to ‘come to terms’.
Hitler was cool towards an invasion, and serious plans for a cross-Channel attack were sketchy. Major forces were never assembled or trained for such an enormous and risky operation. But appearances had to be maintained. In the post-Dunkirk months, Germany attacked coastal convoys, military industries and eventually centres of population.
British pilots, and allies of many nations, fought with extreme bravery in the air in 1940. But the belief it was an all-or-nothing struggle in which every sinew was strained is undermined by the fact that in September 1940, 30 Hurricanes, with their pilots, were ordered to Khartoum in the Sudan.
Tellingly, too, Churchill’s private secretary, Jock Colville, heard the premier refer to ‘the great invasion scare’ in conversation with Generals Paget and Auchinleck in July 1940, and imply that it was serving a useful purpose.
Later actions we took, especially the bombing of German civilians from 1942 to 1945, are often justified by the plea that our very existence was in peril, when by then it was not. Hitler’s real aim, especially after 1941, was the conquest of Ukraine and Russia.
MYTH 7: WE CAN THANK THE ‘SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP’
Hitler had well-founded suspicions that the USA, far from being a friend to this country, was hostile to and jealous of the British Empire. Indeed, the Anglo-American alliance refused to solidify as long as Britain still appeared to Americans as a selfish, mean and bullying Great Power quite capable of looking after itself. Attitudes began to change only when Britain, admitting it was running out of money, came to America’s doorstep as a penniless supplicant, offering America the chance to save the world.
The extraordinary (and all but unknown) transfer of Britain’s gold to the USA throughout 1939 and 1940 was the lasting proof that a deliberate, harsh British humiliation had to precede any real alliance. The stripping of Britain’s life savings was an enormous event.
Secret convoys of warships were hurrying across the Atlantic loaded down with Britain’s gold reserves and packed with stacks of negotiable paper securities, first to Canada and then to Fort Knox in Kentucky, where much of it still remains. It was not for safekeeping, but to pay for the war. Before Britain could become the USA’s pensioner, we had to prove we had nothing left to sell.
The ‘Lend-Lease’ system, which provided limited American material aid to Britain, was far from the act of selfless generosity Churchill proclaimed it to be. Even the Americans’ Bill had a gloating, anti-British tinge, given the number H.R. 1776 in reference to the year of the US Declaration of Independence.
The Destroyers for Bases Agreement, too, was quite grudging. It led to 50 decrepit American First World War destroyers being handed over in return for the USA obtaining bases in several British territories on the Western side of the Atlantic.
This shocking surrender of sovereignty indicates Britain was, piece by piece, handing naval and imperial supremacy to its former colony. It symbolises the true relationship between the USA and Britain in the post-Dunkirk months, as opposed to the sentimental fable still believed.
MYTH 8: BRITISH BOMBING OF GERMANY WAS JUSTIFIED
Many believe British bombing in the Second World War killed German civilians only by accident, in what would now be called ‘collateral damage’. But documents and recorded remarks reveal this was not so.
The policy of bombing German civilians, mostly working-class opponents of Hitler in dense, poor housing, was adopted after a confidential report showed the RAF simply could not bomb accurately by night. Bombing was not confined to such moments as the Hamburg and Dresden firestorms, but sustained and directed at almost every major German city.
None of the justifications for this policy stands up. It did surprisingly little damage to German war production. It was incredibly wasteful of the brave young aircrews, who had no choice in the matter, who died in appalling numbers night after night.
It did not save us from invasion. Systematic large-scale bombing did not really begin until March 1943, by which time Hitler was in retreat in the East and in no position to invade Britain.
While it did draw guns and planes from the Eastern Front, the same effect would have been achieved by attacks on military and industrial sites, which were highly effective when tried, and would have ended the war much more quickly.
It also removed vital aircraft from the Battle of the Atlantic, in which the Royal Navy grappled with German U-boats and came dangerously close to defeat. This is not hindsight. Powerful voices were raised against it at the time, some on moral grounds, some pointing out that it was militarily unjustified. But they were over-ruled and mocked.
MYTH 9: HEROIC BRITAIN WON THE WAR
Britain played a surprisingly small part in the overthrow of Hitler. It was not British troops who stormed Hitler’s bunker or planted their flag on the ruins of the Reichstag.
Chamberlain and Daladier, the French Prime Minister, started a war which Stalin and Roosevelt would later take over and finish. It destroyed the Third Reich and created a new order in Europe in which Britain and France would be second-rate powers.
It may be the only case in history of a second-hand war being taken over by other belligerents and used for their own purposes. Certainly Britain and France did not achieve their aim in declaring war. Both sought to stay in the club of Great Powers and found themselves being asked to leave.
The devastating cultural revolution of the past 50 years would not have happened in a country where the victorious governing classes were confident and assured. And our absorption into the EU – which is the continuation of Germany by other means – is not the fate of a dominant victor nation.
MYTH 10: WE WERE GLORIOUS IN VICTORY
The general impression is that the end of hostilities brought a new sunlit era of optimism in a ravaged continent. Yet victory led swiftly to an appeasement of Stalin at least as bad as our appeasement of Hitler in 1938, with nations handed over bound and gagged to the Kremlin’s secret police regime. And the following months and years brought death on a colossal scale, of which we nowadays know almost nothing.
Under the Potsdam Agreement, between 12 and 14 million ethnic Germans were driven from Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia. We shall never know how many died – estimates vary from 500,000 to 1.5 million. Most were women and children, defenceless civilians. In one incident, 265 Germans, including 120 women and 74 children, were killed by Czech troops. They were removed from a train, shot in the back of the neck and buried in a mass grave they had been forced to dig.
These disgusting slaughters were not the result of enraged citizens taking their revenge on former oppressors, but state-sponsored and centrally controlled. There are many more examples, but most of them, recorded in Professor R. M. Douglas’s harrowing and distressing book Orderly And Humane (the phrase comes from the Potsdam Agreement itself) are known, in this country at least, only to professional historians.
A whole page of horror in European history, from which we have much to learn, has been erased. And, as so often in these matters, those who raise these matters can expect to be falsely accused of minimising the crimes of the Nazis, as some in Germany have sought to do. But this is a stupid lie.
As Prof Douglas says: ‘Whatever occurred after the war cannot possibly be equated to the atrocities perpetrated by the Germans during it, and suggestions to the contrary are deeply offensive and historically illiterate.’ But the fact that a respectable academic has to make this point illustrates how very difficult it still is, nearly 80 years later, to look objectively at the Second World War.
Later still, as our diminished power and influence became clear in so many ways, the ghost of our 1940 defeat – and the necessary but reluctant compromises we had to make in order to survive it – still haunts our lives.
The most popular film in British cinemas of summer 2017 was Dunkirk. But it made no attempt to explain to a new generation why the entire British Army was standing up to its armpits in salt water, being strafed by the German air force, having wrecked, burned or dumped arms and equipment worth billions in today’s money.
Nobody wants to know. Perhaps it is time they did.