World War II
After the dust had settled on the First World War , with 800,000 British soldiers failing to come home to their families, the country was understandably worried about the continued and accelerated militarisation of Central Europe.
Britain had no appetite for another war as Adolf Hitlerís rearmament of Germany threatened stability throughout the continent, reversing the principals of the post-war 1919 Treaty Of Versailles as the Third Reichís land and power hungry manifesto sought to replace the disastrous Weimar Republic with a new Germany, powerful, militaristic and defined on Nazi ideals of race and culture. German society had been redefined by the Third Reichís ascent to power. During the 1930s, the continued persecution of the Naziís political rivals had created a corrupt, singularly dominant fascist state, where culture and policy was engineered on the grounds of race.
Far from looking towards an era of lasting peace, Europe, post-Versailles, was surveying an inevitable future of warfare. Portents of aerial bombardments on the citadels of Europe were found in the bitter internecine civil war in Spain, a war which heralded which way the wind was blowing in Europe. Europe was being pulled apart from a variety of political dynamics. To the east, the Soviet Union and its communist government under Joseph Stalin built a society on collectivism, mercilessly enforced purges were made on the intelligentsia and political opponents vanished by the state. Spain under Franco, Italy under Benito Mussolini and Germany under Hitler all espoused fascism.
Neville Chamberlain ís government policy of appeasement, in the desperate struggle to halt a slide to war, opened fissures in his cabinet. On 29th February 1938, British foreign secretary Anthony Eden resigned after Italyís excursion into Ethiopia was recognised by the British government. It wasnít just the government; the fourth estate also supported a policy of appeasement. A number of propaganda coups for the Third Reich helped polarise opinion amongst Britons; the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games offered them a worldwide platform, visits from former British prime minister David Lloyd George and the Duke Of Windsor were all interwoven in this blanket of appeasement. Diplomatically speaking, the line had yet to be drawn in the sand.
Both Hitler and Mussolini enjoyed a relatively easy time of it from the Daily Mail in the preamble to the Second Word War, with the Mailís owner Lord Rothermere taking the paperís ultra-conservative stance to the brink of supporting fascism Ė he even supported Hitlerís march into Czechoslovakia, a pro-German act of aggression by the National Socialist regime that sought to claim the Sudetenland region for its ethnic German population.
Between the years of 1935 and 1938, the principles of the Treaty Of Versailles were being reversed as the Third Reich sought a restoration of a German Empire, and the policy of rearmament. The treaty had limited the German Army to 100,000 soldiers. France accepted German rearmament in 1935. A year later, Germany reoccupied the Rhineland. The Anschluss, Germanyís union with Austria, was completed on 12th March 1938. All this, and the Sudetenland conundrum, pointed to an irreversible slide towards confrontation.
Poland looked increasingly isolated between an expansionist Germany, motivated by the dual goals of racial purity and the creation of a greater Germany, and Soviet Russia. By the late summer of 1939, Czechoslovakia was annexed. The Germans entered into the Nazi-Soviet non-aggressive pact of 23rd August 1939. Hitler feared Stalinís ground troops and wanted to guarantee that any invasion of Poland would not be looked upon as an act of aggression from Soviet eyes, while Western Europeís alliance with the Poles saw an opportunity for the vilified Stalin to watch his enemies engage in a debilitating war amongst themselves, leaving the Soviets at a strategic advantage. Of course, any agreement between the Germans and Soviets could never last; the Soviets eventually joining the Allies.
The gravity of the situation in Central Europe was not lost on the British government. On 28th August 1939, just days before the German offensive was launched on Poland, Chamberlainís government drew up a 104 emergency regulations for the protection of Great Britain. It came hot on the heels of the Emergency Powers Defence Act and sought protection in three distinct areas.
Firstly, the security of the state was of primary concern. Britain was entering the most perilous period in its history; espionage, vandalism of essential services, impersonating police officers, radio communications, photographic equipment and even homing pigeons were all covered by the provisions of the act. Public safety was of chief concern. There was a real and present threat that the German air-force (the Luftwaffe) would bring bombing raids to Britain. This would be the first war where victory was dependent on aerial supremacy as would later be proved in the Battle Of Britain . Bomb shelters were constructed. Compulsory evacuation orders were readied in the event of an air raid. Street and house lights had to be turned off at night. Finally, the Admiralty were to take control of the merchant fleet and the requisition of resources.
Evacuation drills took place throughout the country in days preceding the war. 900 schools in London alone took part. It was more than prescient; in the early hours of 1st September 1939, the Schleswig-Holstein opened fire on Westerplatte Fort, Danzig, and German forces invaded Poland. Hitlerís rationale was cavalier in the extreme. His thoughts were that with a lightning strike, or Blitzkrieg as it was known, he could subdue Poland in double quick time and challenge the fortitude of France and Britainís guarantees to protect Polandís sovereignty in light of an invasion. In some respects, Hitler was right. Poland fell quickly. A combination of ground assaults, spearheaded by his Panzer Division driving their tanks through the Polish defences, backed up by the aerial bombardment of the Luftwaffe, decimated the Polish resistance. But he was wrong if he thought the alliesí opposition would evaporate.
Polish refugees, soldiers and civilian alike, fled to Romania and allied territories to the West. Entering from Slovakia in the south and Prussia to the north the German troops had divided Poland within a week. The French could only afford to maintain a defensive position from their position at Maginot. Just a fortnight into the invasion and Hitler had Warsaw surrounded. He needed to have a quick war, for Germanyís rearmament was not complete. The crippling economic depression and the Versailles straightjacket meant that the push to rearm the country was limited both in time and resources. Iron and steel were at a premium in Nazi Germany as construction was stringently licensed. Iron gates were melted down to help with the war effort. Soon, however, the resource greedy fundamentals of protracted warfare would hit home in Britain.
On 27th September 1939, Warsaw fell to the Germans and Britain had little choice but to reluctantly take up arms and head east for the second time in a century that was not even half-way through. Chamberlain was under immediate pressure. He was a man whose name was associated with appeasement and when the early stages of the war ended in crushing strategic defeat for the allies, with Hitler taking Denmark and Norway, thus securing his supply route for Scandinavian raw materials, Chamberlain resigned on 10th May 1940. King George VI asked former first lord of the admiralty Winston Churchill , to lead an all-party government. With sabre rattling rhetoric, a commanding orator, Churchill would become known as one of Britainís greatest war time leaders. It mattered not that Churchill seemed to hedge his bets over the rise of fascism in Europe as he viewed Stalinís communist Russia with equal disdain, Britain needed a totemistic figurehead.
Outside of the cabinet, British society was about to gird itself for another gruelling period of war, beginning with the ration books and ending with night time bombing raids and a rising death toll at home and abroad. The Third Reichís blitzkrieg was too quick for France and the Low Countries. Belgium, the Netherlands and France all fell in a matter of weeks. The Battle Of France was one sided as the Germans converged on Franceís defensive line. For the first time in the conflict, British and French forces were well and truly scrambling for safety.
One of the first iconic scenes of allied heroism was on the beaches of Dunkirk . From the 26th May to 4th June, 1940, some 226,000 British soldiers and 110,000 French soldiers were hoisted from the French shoreline on any craft available, from naval vessels to fishing boats. They had been under seige. The Third Reich were relentless; the British Army shed tons of equipment, vehicles and munitions in its retreat. Getting their men off the short strip of before the Panzer Division advanced further was Operation Dynamoís all-consuming goal. In doing so, the Allies had scored a huge moral victory. The horror of the beaches of northern France was now expunged and replaced by the Dunkirk Spirit, the by-word for indomitable British spirit in the face of the harshest adversity. But, territorially, the Third Reichís progress was still unchecked. After taking Poland, Denmark and Norway, Germany now occupied France and the Low Countries. Britain was next.
Hitlerís plans to invade Britain were dependent on the supremacy of the Luftwaffe over the Royal Air Force. After France had fallen, Churchill himself sired the premise of a Battle Of Britain, a war fought in the skies. Hitlerís designs on Britain depended on softening up the British by air, neutralising the RAF in preparation for an amphibious assault. But there were several factors which made his strategic choices more fraught, not least of being the Royal Navyís supreme advantage over the German Navy. As the Third Reichís campaign progressed the temptation to open a new front to the east became ever more irresistible. Either way, Britainís stout aerial defence of the country and the failure of the Luftwaffe to deliver a strategic bombing raid that crippled Britain, forcing it into a peace agreement, ensured that victory was the Third Reichís first significant reversal since hostilities began. Britainís victory could not be overplayed.
As ever, the speed of the German attacks were crucial, the Third Reichís rush to rearm itself had left them vulnerable to prolonged conflict. In the Battle Of Britain, the Luftwaffeís role was more isolated. Rather than the coordinated blitzkrieg Ďlightning warí that brought France, Holland and Belgium under the yoke of the Nazis, the Luftwaffe were spearheading the campaign alone, pitting their German Messerschmitt Bf 109E and Bf 110Cs fighters against the RAFís Spitfire and Hurricanes.
The opening exchanges were tentative and played out against the sky above the English Channel. The Luftwaffe suffered throughout the war from a lack of detailed intelligence, a position which would later cause them problems during their bombing raids on Britainís industrial heartlands. They soon progressed to targeting RAF airfields, attacking en masse in August 1940, peaking in the middle of the month as they endeavoured to disable Britainís radar defence system. With heavy losses on both sides, the RAF would not yield. Daytime bombing raids had been switched to the night. Under the cloak of darkness, the Luftwaffe proceeded with a prolonged bombing campaign that would kill around 43,000 people, 20,000 in London alone; the Blitz would test the nationís resolve.
The story of the Blitz reveals many things about wartime Britain, and indeed about the resilience of the people. But it often gives the impression that heavy and sustained bombing campaigns on London, Coventry , Glasgow , Clydebank , Greenock , Belfast , Plymouth , Portsmouth , Southampton , Bristol , Birmingham , Hull and Liverpool could be disregarded as inconveniences, the bomb shelter a de facto community centre as the nation pulled together. Of course, there was a robust sense of community gluing Britons together, but the weeks of bombings, the death toll, the destroyed homes, chewed away at the countryís morale. Churchill was booed when he visited Scotland. There was discontent over the nature of the bomb shelters; they were cold and damp. London endured 57 consecutive days of bombing. The Luftwaffe dropped incendiary bombs and flares to light a path before dropping tons of high explosives which reduced tenement flats to rubble.
After months of bombing it was Hitler whose resolve broke first. The majority of his bombers headed east in the Third Reichís assault on Russia. Relief for Britons who could at last be guaranteed some more sleep. Of course, the bombing didnít stop, but it was more sporadic. The war had gone global. Churchillís solid relations with the hitherto neutral Americans had helped secure much needed resources. America entered the war. The surprise attack at Pearl Harbour by the Japanese on 7th December 1941 invited them to the party. Churchill addressed US Congress on the 26th December to rally the Americans behind the Allied push. At home, the good people of Britain were beginning to forget what a banana looked like, what tea tasted like with a spoonful of sugar, and if their father, brother, son or husband would come home alive.
Britainís merchant fleet were taking a pounding. The war, like the Great Depression that preceded it, was taking its toll on the people. The horrors of the Holocaust saw six million European Jews murdered by the Nazi regime in concentration camps, like that of Auschwitz. The worldís future was being fought over in a theatre of war which encompassed the Pacific Rim, North Africa and Europe. But the Allies were now beginning to hold the upper hand. Montgomery ís victory at El Alamein was hugely significant. It closed the North African front to Field Marshall Rommel, Britainís control of the Suez Canal was safe. After securing North Africa, the Allies could turn their attention to the Mediterranean.
As Hitlerís army were waylaid at Stalingrad, exhausted by gruelling fighting with Soviet troops, there was a sense the war was turning in favour of the Allies. At home, the people remained buoyed by propaganda, just as they had throughout the Blitz. In the summer of 1943, Mussolini was toppled by an Allied raid on Sicily. By the turn of the year, the Nazis were expelled from Leningrad. D-Day was just months away.
Operation Overlord was fought against the backdrop of Romeís liberation. Huge territorial gains had been made against the Axis Powers and there was hope that this would be the denouement of the European campaign. On 6th June 1944 , D-Day had arrived. Storming the beaches at Normandy was a brutal and intense manouevre. The Allies had the air supremacy. Up to 12,000 aircraft were at their disposal. On five Normandy beaches Ė code-named Gold, Juno, Omaha Sword and Utah Ė 130,000 allied troops would put their boots on the sand and marched onto the German positions. The goal was to liberate France and keep on forging east.
Though the Allies suffered heavy casualties, the Germans were caught unawares and powerless to counter with no support from the air. Paris was liberated on 25th August 1944. To the East, the Soviets were making gains on Warsaw, Budapest and Estonia. Hitlerís last stand against the Allies was made at Ardennes in December. But within the first few months of 1945 they were overrun. On 7th May 1945 they surrendered. V-E Day dawned the next morning as the world woke up to the jubilant news of an Allied victory in Europe. On 15th August 1945, Japan had surrendered too. The Second World War had killed an estimated 60 million people, 40 million of which were civilians. These statistics alone tell the story.
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