It is a commonplace that the British remember the Second World War too much, and that this nourishes a myth of superiority. Some on both Right and Left take this view, the latter because of instinctive anti-nationalism, the former from a desire to ‘modernise’. I rather doubt the commonplace view is true.
No one, as far as I am aware, has ever tried to make a serious comparison between the prominence of the war in the cultures of the countries involved, but the British public are not greatly interested, except perhaps as a backdrop to costume drama. There is, certainly, a niche market for popular military history, but whether greater here than in the United States, Russia or France, for example, I could not say.
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There is, however, a particular element in British memory of the war, whatever the genre, that is rather unusual: far from being self-glorifying or triumphalist, it tends to be self-deprecating and pessimistic. The most popular theme is the crisis of 1940, as illustrated by acclaimed recent films (the first of their kind for decades) on Dunkirk and on Churchill.
Here the story is one of bare survival, starkly drawn. We have only to think of comparable Hollywood productions over the decades – The Longest Day, Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers – to see a difference. Their focus is on the march to victory, in which British participation, if it is represented at all, is minimised.
One strand of British popular memory assumes that after managing to survive 1940, Britain, exhausted and perhaps disheartened, stepped back and left the real effort to Russia and America. Following the apotheosis of the Battle of Britain, the often-told story is of a succession of humiliating defeats: Greece, Crete, Singapore. As one MP lamented at the time in his diary: “Why is it that we can never win any battle at all? A whisper is going around that our troops do not fight well.”
This is the real British myth of the Second World War. What is the reality? Britain, and of course the Empire, continued to make immense economic and military efforts throughout the war: an unparalleled level of civilian mobilization, as well as more than five million in the armed forces by 1945 serving from Denmark to China.
Recent research, especially that using German archives, has shown the impact. The RAF’s unrelenting bombing campaign from 1943 onwards had a devastating effect on German production and morale. Even more important, it forced the Nazi regime to concentrate its industrial and military efforts on home defence: in 1943, more than 40% of German war production went into aircraft, and only 6% into tanks; and 900,000 men were manning air defences. The Russian front was starved of resources, while the Red Army was supplied by its Allies: more than four million tons of war material was sent from Britain via the Arctic, requiring the protection of nearly 900 Royal Navy warships and 260,000 sailors.
Recent historical analysis asserts that the Second World War was fundamentally won in the air and at sea, where Britain played a leading, and perhaps predominant, role from 1939 to 1945.
This brings us to D-Day, whose anniversary is about to fall. Everyone, of course, knows D-Day, but how well? Pursuing the pessimistic theme I have indicated, the most recent major British film on this subject portrayed a frightened Churchill, fearing disaster, trying to stop the invasion.
Who would have guessed from such myth-making that D-Day was a predominantly British affair? Not only in the command and planning of the most complex and formidable military operation of all time, but in the manpower involved: the largest number of soldiers landed on the beaches were British, as were two-thirds of the sailors manning the warships and landing craft.
D-Day was an astounding success. The Germans, who had spent four years fortifying the whole coast from the Spanish border to the Arctic Circle (Hitler worried that the British might invade Norway), never realised where the attack was coming. They had been comprehensively deceived, and their illusions fed. In the expectation that the true target was Calais, German reserves were held back until the most dangerous moment – the landing itself – was over.
Except for part of the American sector, losses were relatively low, given the dangers of landing on a defended and fortified coast. The British 50th Division, landing on ‘Gold’ beach, suffered only 413 casualties, partly because they successfully deployed 96 amphibious tanks. Despite the stormy weather, supplies got through, including 500 train-loads of petrol.
For the Allied soldiers, especially the British, a greater ordeal awaited. Beyond the beach-heads, the Germans were able to dig into a landscape of bocage banks and sunken lanes that made every field a potential strongpoint. The British, with Canadian and Polish support, had to break though the main German force that had been ordered by Hitler to fight to the death – and many of them did. In two months, three-quarters of all the British infantry, over 60,000 men (equivalent in number to all those landed on D-Day), were dead or wounded. It was a battle of attrition comparable with the First World War. Some British infantry units suffered 100% casualties, and many suffered over 50%.
Eventually, under unrelenting ground and air attack, the Germans died or retreated, losing more men in a shorter time than ever before in a slaughter worse than Stalingrad. Though far more was to come – the taking of Antwerp, the battle of the Bulge, the crossing of the Rhine, the invasion of Germany itself – the result was now inevitable. The Germans fought on desperately, fearful of what might be done to them in retaliation for their treatment of the peoples of Europe.
There is no single monument to the more than 22,000 British troops who died in Normandy. There are many small and often moving regimental memorials and of course many cemeteries. But nothing compares with the American or Canadian monuments, or to the American museum overlooking Omaha beach. This is now going to be somewhat remedied, with the inauguration of the modest British Normandy Memorial this week.
It seems strange, nevertheless, that it has taken so long. Is it a sign that we under-rate the importance of the Normandy battle, or at least of the part played by British servicemen?
History has not been generous to them. It has even been suggested – following on from the pessimistic narrative of failure that I summarised earlier – that they did not fight very well or advance very quickly. Some have suggested that this reflected, or anticipated, British national decline. In contrast, popular historians have lavished praise on the Wehrmacht, the Red Army and the Americans.
What is the evidence? Comparisons of morale and motivation are difficult. German and especially Russian soldiers, after all, faced the firing squad if they faltered, which was one remedy for war-weariness. Recent research by Jonathan Fennell, in his monumental study Fighting the People’s War, shows that the morale of British soldiers, despite heavy casualties, was “thoroughly sound and the troops who have been in battle are quietly confident of their ability to meet and beat the enemy” … “there is determination and ability to fight on, even when very weary.”
The British army took on by far the strongest opposition in Normandy: their loss of life was twice that of the American army, whose subsequent rapid advance was facilitated by the decimation of the main German forces.
Even those who identify least with military virtues should be aware of the alternative scenarios, all too easily imaginable. Failure of the invasion and a bloodbath of Allied soldiers on the beaches would have been a stunning blow to British and American morale, and to the desperate hopes of people across occupied Europe, not least in Germany, including millions of forced labourers, concentration-camp prisoners and civilians in the bombed cities.
The new V weapons, which began falling on Britain a week after D-Day, would have stepped up. The Wehrmacht would have been able to reinforce the Eastern Front, and perhaps made Stalin contemplate (not for the first time) a separate peace, leaving the Nazis dominant in Europe. The Holocaust was still extending its merciless grip to the surviving Jewish populations of Hungary, France, Holland, and Italy. The world would have faced an indefinite prolongation of a global war in which thousands were dying daily. To end the agony, the first atom bombs would probably have been dropped on Germany.
The belated monument and statue is, therefore, small tribute to the quiet courage of those boys from Wessex, Northumbria, the Highlands and the Midlands, and to the meticulous preparations of the planners, whose unsparing efforts curtailed humanity’s nightmare.
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