Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Historians trapped by their Preconceptions.

It is of course, impossible to completely detach yourself from the study of history. Endless books of theory have discussed how many preconceptions even the most pure minded bring to their examination of any historical problem. (See E. H. Carr's 'What s History') Nonetheless, many historians like to believe that they can identify their own preconceptions, and the least flag the warning signs to their readers.

This concept was bought forcefully to mind few days ago, when I picked up a copy of John Keegan’s book “Six armies in Normandy”. This is a very good book, and one of the early attempts to investigate the battlefield from the perspective of the individual soldiers who are fighting on it. Most importantly though, Keegan stresses in his introduction, it is the intention is to demonstrate that the soldiers from six armies (American, English, Scottish, Polish, German, French) were pre-conditioned by their own societies as to how they would handle battlefield conditions.

This exploration went well beyond the media commentators who repeatedly statemed that German soldiers are unusually flexible at counter-attacking, or British soldiers dour in defence. These had been heightened in the Second World War, by the concept that a militaristic society such as the Nazis or the Japanese had an advantage in the aggressive indoctrination of the men who became troops, over those of soldiers from more laissez-faire democracies.

The book is well worth reading for its own sake, but for me the most interesting thing is Keegan’s losing battle with his own preconceptions.

Keegan begins his introduction by talking about his childhood war years, and his automatic assumption of their invincibility of the British Empire, which he later had to rethink. Unfortunately he then does a big speel about how much he was impressed by the American troops who turned up, and blown away by American power.

I read the rest of the book with interest, to see where he would realize that his secondary childhood perspective was as inaccurate as his first, but came away with a firm impression that he based the rest of his writings on his secondary indoctrination. Which made me consider how the world looked form the perspective of that child.

The initial perspectives are fair enough. Keegan was stuck in a backwater where he rarely saw anyone but Home Guard – second line ones at that – to compare with the arriving waves of newly trained and equipped American troops. He had rarely seen first line British equipment or troops, and had no idea how American equipment behaved in combat (by comparison with how it looked shiny and new in a field).

It made me think for a minute about how wartime propaganda clips focus on the best looking stuff, regardless of how useful it is. There are some very cute photo’s from the Sitzkreig period showing British troops proudly displaying the pretty 25mm anti-tank guns they had bought from the French. These guns proved to be totally useless. But then I thought that one through a bit further. By comparison the American troops who arrived in Britain in 1942 were equipped with 37mm anti-tank guns… which were completely useless by that stage in the war. Later they were re-equipped with nice 57mm anti-tank gun (copies of the British 6 pdr), which were quite good when they first arrived for the British in 1942 (not really until 1944 for most American units), but fairly un-useful by the time the Americans got to the front line in Normandy. By that time the British had long since been using 17 pdr’s for as many as possible of their tanks and anti-tank units, (guns which the Americans felt they could do without at the time… until events proved them wrong). In the particular case of anti-tank guns then, the Americans relied on British equipment, and were constantly years behind the British in their use.

I then thought for a few minutes about what Keegan wasn’t seeing. He presumably didn’t get pictures of the badly equipped American troops in the Phillipines, who would have made his local second rank Home Guard look pretty good by comparison. He presumably didn’t get pictures of the Marine troops on Guadalcanal, in their British style helmets, lacking any modern armoured vehicles or landing craft: and generally less well equipped than the British units in Malaya.

Most commentaries are scornful about the British using the hopeless American Brewster Buffalo fighter in Malaya. (The Buffalo had been sent to Malaya because it was not remotely capable of fighting in the European campaign.) The Brewster Buffalo remained the Americans front line fighter at home, in the Phillipines, and throughout the Pacific right up until the Midway battles and beyond. It was being replaced by the P39 Airocobra for the American forces in Europe – a plane also not suited for high level European combat, and which the Russians felt was best used for low level fighting and ground attack. It was also starting to be replaced by the P40 in the Pacific and Middle East – a plane still felt to be so far behind German or Japanese standards that the joke amongst the Commonwealth forces was that only Australians would be stupid enough to fly it. Apart from the P38 Lighting (which was still having significant engine problems at this stage), the Americans would not get a proper front rank fighter until well into 1943. (March ’43 for the first P47 Thunderbolts, and November ’43 for the first effective P51 Mustangs upgraded with the British Merlin engine.)

I then considered what he was ‘hearing’ about, but not seeing. There are lots of radio reports in the early months of the war about what American cruisers are up to, but not many visuals. Have a look at the front line cruisers the American’s are discussing in these reports from the Phillipines, or Java, or Guadalcanal. The Omaha Class (much referred to at the start of the war) were constructed in the 1920’s. If you want to compare them with British or Japanese vessels, then you should try and find samples of their vessels built before the First World War. (Actually the Japanese had similar designs at the battle of Tsushima in 1905.) None of the British, or Japanese, or Italian, WW1 vessels in operation were as obsolete as this. In fact the most archaic vessel in the fleets of the British Commonwealth (the old HMAS Adelaide in the Australian navy, which the Australians were trying to keep well away from front line operations) looks, and is, positively modern compared to this interwar design.

I paused for a minute here. All right, there are endless examples of how bad American equipment was in 1942 and for much of 1943. (Their front line destroyers were still predominantly the old WW1 ‘four stackers’ until 1943 - the sort of ships which the British immediately converted to ‘long range escorts’ because they felt them completely unsuitable for front line operations. Any American escort carriers passed to Britain even in 1944 and 1945 were immediately put into dockyards for 6 week to be lifted to British standards of safety and fire control.) But an impressionable boy could not be expected to know that. Surely what he saw when the American ground troops which turned up in early 1944, was an army exceptionally well equipped for action?

Well no. Certainly they had lots of shiny new vehicles, and some very useful new ones like bulldozers. But as for the rest? Much of their equipment looked pretty, but was not up to battling the Germans. I have mentioned their anti-tank weapons. Their main semi-automatic rifles had a nasty habit of loudly ejecting the clip and announcing ‘I am out of ammunition’ to their opponents. Their main squad support weapon was the dreadful BAR. Their Armoured Personnel M3 half-tracks – which had worked well in the desert – were now inadequate for Normandy (the British had to convert battle tanks into ‘Kangaroo’ carriers at this stage). The main battle tank was the Sherman, which had looked efficient for a few months in 1942 - until it met the first Tiger’s, but was woefully under-gunned and under-armoured by 1944. (The British had up-gunned a Sherman with a 17 pdr, and offered the Americans equal numbers, but the Americans felt they didn’t need it. Even the Firefly was not a good tank – like the rest of the Sherman designs the German’s called it a ‘Tommy Cooker’ and the British a ‘Ronson’… lights first time every time.)

Don’t get me wrong, none of the Allied tanks were up to taking on the Germans at this stage, but for very good reasons to do with governmental response times. The key problem for the British seems to be that once the new Panzer IV demonstrated that the British needed to react the way the Germans had responded to the Matilda, they moved to a 6 pdr tank. Unfortunately someone decided that a 6 pdr tank would do it to see out the war. (The crucial memo apparently came from Eighth Army, though Montgomery denied ever seeing it.) So when the German responses to the T34 turned up, it took as long for the British to respond as it had taken the Germans to respond to the T34. (The Challenger and Sherman bodge jobs arrived in early 1944, the Comet improvement in late 1944 , and the Centurion in 1945.) The Americans were in the same boat. The Sherman seemed successful when it first arrived, so someone decided it would see out the war. Up-guns or replacements were started to late (the 90mm Sherman bodge up in late 1944, the new Pershing in early 1945). The Wehrmacht repeatedly had this problem with Hitler themselves.

Now none of this is to say that a boy of Keegan’s age should have known this at the time. But most of it suggests that Keegan the man is incapable of applying the dispassion to his second childhood fantasy that he believes he applied to his first. From my perspective it makes it probable that the ‘dispassion’ he claims he applied to his first misconception was more bitterness and dismissal than real insight. Likewise the perspective of his ‘rebound relationship’ is highly suspect.

This reinforces a suspicion that I have had about many writings to do with World War Two (or other conflicts). Emotional enthusiasm outweighs a dispassionate review of the facts. Self justifying claims – or whinges – lead to an inaccurate interpretation of reality. Despair - or relief - lead to overblown responses. You get an entire generation of historians whose interpretation of the evidence has to be carefully assessed. Maybe it is just not possible to be dispassionate about events you have lived through? Perhaps it is less that studying history influences what you study, and more that the studiers personal history influences their interpretation?

I love Keegan’s work - and those of many other people of his generation - for the vivid and informed reporting. But I have strong reservations about the emotional contents of many of their conclusions. The more analysis I do of the evidence, the more carefully I have to rethink the value of most of the trite statements that many books reel off, about how the world worked.


  1. One of the most interesting examples of teh relativity of military equipment is the Brewster Buffalo fighter. Ridiculed by most aviation historians as the worlds worst fighter of WW2, it was shot down in great numbers by the Japanese pilots in early 1942. On the other hand, it was the best fighter in the world in the capable hands of Finish fighter pilots on the Eastern Front in 1941 - 1942 and even later in the war with a kill ratio of 67 - 1!
    That leads to the question, was the Buffalo a good or bad fighter? The answer lies in the conditions: against a badly led, badly equipped and barely trained opponent as the Red Airforce the Brewster (and being of a different configuration than the ones used by the RAF and the Dutch East Indian Airforce in 1941), the Buffalo could achieve great results. Had the Brits and Dutch had good radar fighter control, even against the excellent Japanese pilots of early 1942, they would have scored better results.

  2. Dear Baska,

    I agree with most of your points. Certainly the results the RAF Hurricane's and American Flying Tigers P40's (both outdated by European standards) got when directed by radar from Rangoon, compared to the results they stopped getting once that was not available, make it clear that there is more going on than just quality of aircraft.

    But I do note that aircraft like the Buffalo (or the later Fairey Barracuda Torpedo/Dive Bomber) which performed very well in Scandinavia, were unable to cope with the hot and humid conditions in Asia, and performed very badly there (both needing to be replaced.)

    Using the right plane for the right conditions is actually fairly significant. One of the reasons the ancient Fairey Swordfish (the Stringbag) was still being used at the end of the war, was that it could still fly on and off escort carriers in Arctic conditions, whereas more modern aircraft like the Barracuda or the Avenger were incapable of doing so. Removing the Swordfish from the inventory because of obsolescence would have been pretty stupid at a time when there was no other aircraft that could do the same job.