Monday, September 6, 2010

The Mythology of British Weakness in the Second World War

I have just finished reviewing a book by Augustine Meaher IV, called The Road to Singapore: the Myth of British Betrayal. It is an excellent analysis of how Australian political, social, industrial, and military elites, spend the entire interwar period failing to prepare Australia for what was to come in the Second World War. Its fundamental premise is that nobody should get away with shortchanging their own defences for 20 years, and then claiming that a resulting crisis is somebody else’s fault.

Imperial defence, from as early as 1863, was founded on the idea that Britain would coordinate a central response to any threat, but that each Dominion and associated territory was responsible for their own local defences. Throughout the interwar period Australia, like all other Dominions, had been repeatedly told that Imperial defence required adequate local defences to hold off raids until relief could arrive. The defence strategy of the British Empire and Commonwealth was to hold the mobile military forces, such as the main fleets and expeditionary armies (both of which had been voluntarily reduced due to League of Nations and Washington Naval Treaty commitments), at central nodes from which there dispatched to any area under threat. This could take several months. At a minimum this would be six weeks, and as worldwide threats rose when the Second World War commenced, it was raised to six months. Australia never prepared adequate defences to withstand raids for even six weeks.

The screams of betrayal from the Australian Labor Party in 1942 were an extremely good cover for their own resistance to all military expenditure for the preceding 20 years. Disarmament, pacifism, and appeasement had been the catch cries of all ALP policy right through the 1930s. Realistically the Curtin government had the choice of coming clean on their betrayal of their own people, or of pretending it was possible to blame somebody else.

Ever since poor historians have used selective readings of the source materials to pretend that the idea that the British Empire could defend itself in the Far East was always a fantasy. (Morris, J. Farewell the Trumpets; Bell, Roger. Unequal Allies; Thornton, AP. Imperialism in the 20th Century; Neidpath, J. The Singapore Naval Base in the Defence of Britain’s East Empire; Robertson, J. Australia at War 1939-1945; Johnston, W. Great Britain Great Empire.) In fact some historians went so far as to argue that Britain did not possess the power to hold her colonial territories even if she had not been involved in fighting a major war in Europe. (Beloff M. Wars and Welfare; Bell, Coral. Dependent Ally: Day, David. The Great Betrayal; Kennedy, P. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers; Ansprenger, F. The Dissolution of the Colonial Empires; Barnett, Corelli. Engage the Enemy More Closely.) It is necessary to play quite fast and loose with the source materials to achieve such results.

At the time of the Japanese attack on Malaya, the Philippines and Pearl Harbor, Britain and her Empire and Commonwealth were engaged in an unparalleled feat of worldwide power projection. Already facing the combined efforts of the entire German and Italian Navy’s, most of the German and Italian air forces, and all of the Italian army - with substantial part of the most modern and powerful elements of the Wehrmacht including crack paratrooper and armoured forces: Britain also had to prepare a large army to defend Turkey and the northern 'Persian' frontiers against a potential German attack if the Soviet Union failed. A further cost was in fighting through a vast quantity of supplies to keep the Soviet Union in the war. (A single months worth of the aircraft and tanks sent to Russia would have saved the entire eastern position.) Aside from those minor details, Britain had to deploy large enough naval, army, and air forces to deter a Japanese attempt to take advantage of such an opportunity. Nonetheless, the forces being lined up for the Far East was staggeringly impressive, if only they could arrive in time.

By April 1942 Britain would have deployed six divisions to Malay, supported by 16 squadrons of aircraft, nine battleships and three aircraft carriers. This was in response to the early 1941 analysis that what was needed was three divisions, 22 squadrons of aircraft, seven battleships and two aircraft carriers (more aircraft equals less troops). Unfortunately the Japanese struck too soon, and there were only 3 ½ divisions, 16 half strength squadrons, four battleships and one aircraft carrier in the eastern forces. (Most textbooks do not even mention that the main British Eastern Fleet was to assemble at Ceylon, and that capital units were already there when the ill-fated Force Z took the gamble of trying to interfere with Japanese invasion fleet’s while the main Japanese fleet was clearly occupied at Pearl Harbor.)

In fact by the time Singapore fell in late January 1942, the reinforcements that had arrived - the British 18th division, another Indian and Australian Brigade, and hundreds of more modern aircraft - would almost certainly have been enough to have made the position secure if they had been there at the start. (Japanese descriptions of the campaign repeatedly emphasise their shoestring logistics and how close they came to failure.)

The British were still conscious that they were fighting a world war. Even as Singapore surrendered, and the Japanese launched an attack into Burma, the Indian Army was sending twice as many troops to face a far more dangerous prospect of a German attack into Persia. Frankly, from the perspective of a world war, the loss of a minor peninsula and naval base was a small price to pay. (Again unnoticed by most history books, is that despite fighting one of the greatest combinations of power in the history of the world until that time, total British territorial losses in World War II amounted to the tiny Channel Isles, and Malaysia and Burma - Australia also lost New Guinea. Territorially, this amounted to a few percent of the territory and population of the Empire.)

The records of the Combined Chiefs of Staff outline what was actually happening. By June 30, 1942, Britain would have 15 divisions in India, Burma, Ceylon, rising to 22 by December; and 17 divisions in the Middle East, rising to 26 by December. This is of course apart from the dozen divisions in Australia, 45 in Britain itself, and eight in the other parts of Africa. Adding in the divisions in Canada and New Zealand, this means that the British Empire was deploying more than 100 divisions in 1942. (Note that the United States reached its maximum of only 88 divisions in 1945.)

The next most ignored the fact by most of these revisionist historians, is that despite everything else that was going on, Britain kept her promise to deploy the main fleet to the Far East within six months of conflict commencing. (Even though this meant temporarily shutting down most operations in the Mediterranean to several months. The side effect of this was Rommel’s last successful attack as far as el-Alamein.) When the Japanese launched another spoiling attack in April 1942, the British Eastern Fleet had already assembled 5 battleships, 3 aircraft carriers, 7 cruises, 16 destroyers, and 7 submarines. Additional forces already en route included another 2 battleships and another aircraft carrier plus additional lighter units. In response to the Japanese raid, a further 2 battleships and an aircraft carrier were ordered to the area, with another 2 battleships being suggested as further reinforcements. It is necessary to note here that the original force was already the largest Allied fleet anywhere in the world in 1942. Lifting it to 9 battleships and 5 aircraft carriers would have made it a bigger capital ship force than the entire surviving United States Navy, despite the requirements of the Home fleet, the Atlantic (particularly the dangerous convoys to northern Russia) and the Mediterranean. This is how weak the British Empire was.

The Japanese raid was an attempt to defeat part of this fleet before it could assemble, and simultaneously to affect public opinion, particularly pro-independence agitation in India (which was hosting the Stafford Cripps Mission to discuss postwar settlement). Frankly the Japanese had only one chance to solve the problem of a two-ocean war. The Americans were temporarily in chaos, with their remaining battleships withdrawn to the US west coast, and only three aircraft carriers available to mount minor raids in the Pacific. The situation would not last, and the Japanese needed to break British naval power before American pressures would prevent them from responding to British counter attacks.

There is a suprising agreement amongst many historians, that the British Eastern Fleet was very lucky not to meet the Japanese raiders. The general consensus, is that the superior air power of the five aircraft carrier and four battlecruiser Japanese fleet would give it an immeasurable advantage over the British, who only had two modern aircraft carriers (the third little anti-submarine carrier Hermes hardly counting), and five slower battleships. There is particular concern about the four old Revenge class battleships, which were slow and had a relatively light anti-aircraft armament. Again, this is possibly an oversimplification of the source material.

The Japanese, and Americans, at this stage in the war needed to launch large numbers of aircraft to even find their targets, let alone to get successful attacks. Anybody who studies the Coral Sea or Midway battles, cannot help but be struck by how many aircraft on both sides got lost, attacked the wrong target, or ran out of fuel and crashed. On several occasions, Japanese and American fleets patrolled within a few hundred miles of each other, but failed to connect. By contrast, the British had three years of combat experience with radar, and radar equipped aircraft. The Albacore torpedo bombers on their carriers - which were still biplane models - were strong sturdy reliable aircraft, but not ones suitable to use against enemy fighter opposition in daytime. But they were perfect night strike aircraft, particularly when directed by radar. (Their Swordfish predecessors had achieved spectacular results when only a couple of dozen of them attacked the main Italian fleet base at Taranto night and during wartime. Contrast this with the relatively unsophisticated total effects achieved by a much larger numbers of Japanese planes operating at Pearl Harbor in the day time, when attacking a nation still at peace! The Japs may have sunk twice as many battleships, but the British took out the vital oil tanks and the seaplane base as well.)

Admiral Somerville, whose command of the Ark Royal and other carriers in Force H for the preceding two years made him by far the most experienced fast carrier task force commander at this stage of the war, planned to manoeuvre his fleet to strike the Japanese at night, and to be out of range during the day. His successful experiences using his radar equipped forces in the narrow Mediterranean made him fairly confident that this tactic could be used even more successfully in the vast spaces of the Indian Ocean. Excellent intelligence - as at Midway – meant that his incomplete fleet was waiting in ambush for the Japanese on April 1, 1942. Unfortunately, after a few days manoeuvring, they returned to base, assuming their intelligence had been incorrect. The Japanese arrived on April 5.

The two fleets manoeuvred over the next several days, both trying to achieve their preferred advantage. Neither got within range. Again, the implication by many historians is that even if Somerville had managed a night airstrike that damaged or destroyed some Japanese ships, he would then have been within range for a Japanese airstrike the next day. This assumes of course that Japanese damage control would be considerably better than at Midway. Or that the Japanese would be able to direct their attacks more efficiently than at Coral Sea or Midway. That they would be more efficient at taking on a concentrated fleet’s massed anti-aircraft firepower, than the Luftwaffe was in the Mediterranean. It assumes that the limited numbers of British fighters available would not have been able to be just as effective at breaking up attacks as they had been in the Mediterranean. (Note that the British carriers were using Sea Hurricane and Martlett – the US called them Wildcat - fighters, instead of the appalling Buffalo fighters that had been used at Pearl Harbour and Singapore and would still be used in numbers at Midway.) It assumes that the British practice of radar vectoring fighters out of the sun to attack from the best possible angle would be no more efficient than the American and Japanese approach of attacking the head on. (In 1945 off Japan the British would still need far smaller numbers of combat air patrol to achieve the same results as the Americans.) It assumed that the heavily armoured British carriers that survived every hit by both Luftwaffe and Kamikaze during the entire war, would sink as easily as Japanese or American carriers did in the Pacific. For some writers, it is even suggested that be lightly armoured Japanese Kongo class battle cruisers would have an advantage in attack over the slower British battle line on the defence (though there is no recorded example anywhere at anytime of a battlecruiser surviving a stand-up fight against a battleship).

In effect, it is assumed that everything the far more experienced and battle hardened British had done right in the Mediterranean previously would go wrong here, and everything that went wrong for the still learning Japanese in the Pacific over the next two years would go right here. Dubious.

The raid was a tactical success, and a strategic failure. Much like the battle of Jutland, the attackers went home crowing about how much damage they have done, but failed in their main operational goal. In both cases the British lost more ships, but in both cases they failed to suffer the strategic losses that the attackers needed to achieve to allow themselves a future freedom of action. The British lost two cruisers, and the ancient anti-submarine aircraft carrier Hermes (which did not even have any aircraft on board). The Japanese lost more of their aircraft and skilled pilots - a steadily wasting resource - then they cared to admit. The British fleet retired to await the rest of its reinforcements. (The faster aircraft carrier squadron to Bombay, and the slower defensive battleship squadron to the east coast of Africa, where it could cover the vital Middle East and Indian transport routes.) The Japanese fleet rushed back to try and maintain some momentum in the Pacific. Within months the cumulative effects of tiredness and steady attrition amongst their pilots and carriers would contribute to significant losses at Coral Sea and Midway. No major Japanese force would ever again attempt to push into the Indian Ocean.

The collapse of the Japanese offensive potential over these few months was vital. Their early successes against peace-time fleets, or small squadrons scattered around vast areas, were not repeated when they finally started to come up against larger or better prepared Allied forces. The Indian Ocean raid got good headlines, but failed its strategic goals. They may have claimed Coral Sea as a tactical victory, but the ongoing wastage of planes and pilots and ships at Ceylon and Coral Sea left them greatly weakened at Midway. They had rampaged for four months on a shoestring, and even the raids on the Ceylon ports themselves saw them taking significantly greater casualties, for significantly less effect, that had been achieved in the early months of the war. (RAF counter-attacks at Ceylon were the first time Japanese sailors saw bombs falling towards their carriers. None hit, but it was a sign of things to come.)

None of these exercises demonstrate British weakness. The British Eastern Fleet was quickly diverted to the amphibious invasion of Madagascar to secure lines of communication, and soon after that large elements were sent back to the Mediterranean to knock Italy out of the war. There would be no great need for a large fleet in the Indian Ocean until the time came for major offensives in 1945. Churchill had guaranteed to come to Australia’s defence if it was ever seriously invaded. British troop convoys sailing around the Cape of Good Hope to the Middle East, always had contingency plans to head towards Australia if necessary. One of the armoured divisions that later served in Eighth Army, was listed for diversion to Australia until the events at Coral Sea and Midway made it clear that the threat of invasion was passed. As it turns out, despite the best efforts of the ALP and other Australian politicians, Australia was too strong for Japan to ever seriously consider invading.

The key thing that most of these historians seem to fail to recognize, is that Britain’s issue was not so much military power as shipping and transport. Britain had planes and tanks (many Canadian or American made), but lacked the ships to supply them to Russia, the Middle East and the Far East simultaneously. Britain did not need 40+ divisions at home, but lacked the troop-lift to be able to toss half a dozen to Singapore or Australia at whim. (Interestingly, the American entry to the war initially made this position far worse. Not only was Britain, for the third year running, trying to prop up a blitzkrieged ally - France, then Russia, then the United States - but the incapacity of the U.S. Navy to provide any convoy protection on its east coast almost lost the allies the Battle of the Atlantic. Even after the British hastily deployed 60 escort vessels to cover the US coast, shipping losses climbed to a level that undermined British ability to feed themselves, keep the Russians in the war, keep the reinforcements flowing to the Middle East and Asia, and pander to a panicked Australian government.)

For most of 1942 the British Empire and Commonwealth held the line, kept back the combined efforts of Germany and Italy and Japan (with fairly minimal imput from the United States compared to her potential power), and kept the Atlantic and Indian oceans open and suppliers flowing to the vital armies in the Middle East and Asia, and to the Soviets. No other empire in the history of the world has been capable of such a sustained multi-continent and multi-ocean operation. (There were financial costs to all this that I will discuss in another post.) Given that the British and Commonwealth taxpayers spent most of the interwar period trying to avoid just such an obligation, and greatly weakened their militaries in the process, this situation is less reflective of weakness than of the vast untapped inherent strength of the organization.

It would be nice if some historians could let their political preconceptions about how they think the world should work at least be susceptible to analyzing the actual evidence.


  1. Interesting, but how does this explain how you Frenched your way to defeat in Malay and Singapore, and were barely a presence in the Pacific until the US destroyed the Japanese Navy and air force?

  2. 'Frenched' is not a familiar term, but I can take a guess. (And I like a challenge.)

    In early 1942 the British Empire and Commonwealth was fighting a three continent, 4 ocean campaign, against three major powers (and incidentally trying to keep the Russians supplied and in the war, providing thousands of tanks and aircraft that would have saved Singapore... but I digress).

    Nonetheless the total British losses of territory and people were - one third of the territory the Soviets lost, and one half of the people the Americans lost (Philippines), even though those nations were fighting only on one front and only against one of the three powers.

    For the next two years the British Commonwealth and Empire had far more ground troops in action against the Japanese than the Americans (and again the British were supposed to maintain sea control over the North and South Atlantic's, the Mediterranean and Indian Oceans - and provided aircraft carriers and cruisers to help in the Pacific - while the Americans concentrated on just one of those powers).

    You might enjoy the new article on Statistics of who fought how long and consider your own preconceptions.

    1. Nigel, there were 89 US Army divisions and 6 US Marine Divisions in 1945 for a rough total of 8,900,000 troops. UK forces only totaled 4,906,000. The UK may have had 11 more divisions but that's easy to have when they only have half as many troops in them.

  3. What is your reference for these reinforcements (6 Divisions, 16 squadrons and 3 aircraft carriers) due in Singapore by April 1942?
    It's not mentioned by Woodburn Kirby in either of his accounts, nor others that I've read.
    The reinforcements that were sent hurriedly in January 1942 were not ready. Hurricanes were diverted from Iraq and north Africa, without ground staff and then configured for desert operations (not tropics). They did badly in Singapore and later in Sumatra and Java. Australian soldiers sent as reinforcements were untrained, and Indian and British troops had no jungle training in any case. You don't mention tanks. The Fleet Air Arm was largely an ineffective force throughout WW2, the worst performing of any of Britain's forces due to poor equipment (aircraft).
    But underlying that of course, Britain's tragedy in Singapore was its leadership. No fixed defences for Singapore, a poor plan for Malaya, and the list goes on. So what good any reinforcements?

  4. The specific details yo want come from The Despatch on the Far East by Sir Robert Brooke Popham (Principal War Telegrams (DD). 1.

    Optimum forces were 26 battalions IF there were 22 Sqns, 7 battleships and 2 aircraft carriers. In lieu of that, 48 battalions If there were only 11 squadrons (plus 7 battleships and 1 carrier). Available forces Dec 8 '41 were 31 battalions, 16 (half strength) squadrons, 4 battleships and 1 carrier (yes there were more capitol ships at Ceylon the history books mainly fail to mention). Planned deployments by April were 55 battalions, 16 (full strength) squadrons, 9 battleships and 3 aircraft carriers.

    Better detail is available, but most of the detail I quote comes form the microfilm archives of the Records of the Combined Chiefs of Staff, which I accessed at the Australian Defence Forces Academy when I was doing research work in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at ANU 20 years ago. This was of course still classified stuff when Woodburn-Kirby was writing.

    I have tried to find on line reference for you, but it appears these documents might still only be on microfilm.

    A lot of it is in the strategic summaries presented to the British cabinet each week - Principal War Telegrams and Memorandum, and Weekly Political Intelligence Summaries -, but you have to go digging to find it there. Most textbooks are so excited by the battles of the 8th and 14th armies that they don't even mention the much larger 9th and 10th armies facing the Germans in Syria and Persia expecting to fight in Turkey and South Russia after the inevitable collapse of Stalingrad.

    If you look far enough beyond the front line troop listings, you find the details of troops waiting 'in case' in the much more critical places like the oil fields, and your perspective gets enlarged.

  5. an unconvincing post
    If anyone was aware of reinforcements planned to Malaya/Singapore, it would have been Wavell and Percival. Neither mention them in their despatches nor in their post operation summaries and books.
    Indeed, Wavell is quite clear in his despatch summary of ABDA operations (Dec 41 to Feb 42) that there was no capacity to handle more aircraft. The ground support and infrastructure (airfields and associated works) to handle more squadrons simply did not exist. What reinforcements did arrive (Hurricanes) were simply replacing wastage. He does mention US planned reinforcements as 1,000 aircraft, but this fantasy never eventuated. What few fighters the US did send to the NEI were sunk at sea, or arrived too late and were destroyed to avoid capture. The 1,000 figure is mentioned several times by Brett and Brereton in 1942, did never eventuate, and appears a fantasy figure dreamt up by US industry.
    To exemplify Britain's commitment to Australia and the South West Pacific, you should consider the promised Spitfires. Churchill promised them in early 1942, and eventually (after 12 and more months) did send three squadrons, but two of the three were Australian squadrons anyway, on loan to the RAF! Just as he tried to divert the AIF 7 Div to Rangoon without consultation, held the AIF 6 Div in Ceylon and the 9Div in the Middle East. Australia's agreement to the latter was linked to the provision of aircraft for an expanding RAAF, but Britain never fulfilled that bargain.
    I raise the AIF divisions simply to highlight that there weren't spare divisions squirreled away near some oil fields, waiting 'in case'. Read the dispatches, readily available on line, and you will see that Divisions, squadrons and ships, let alone their equipment, were in very short supply throughout 1942 and 1943.

  6. It is always good to read the original sources, but you should be careful about whether they provide the full information. Many of the reports and even official histories lack details that have only been released under 30 or 50 year rules. More importantly, in a world-wide war, it is vital to note how theatres interact. Resources moving in one direction often finished up going in another direction when threat axis changed.

    American promises to China for instance were never fullfilled, because eventually even the Americans worked out that China was largely a waste of effort. Similarly several of the American divisions promised to Australia when it looked like invasion might be a possibility finished up being deployed to battlefields further away... Guadalcanal, New Guinea, New Georgia, Vella Lavella, Kolombangara, Treasury Islands, New Britain, etc, when Coral Sea and other battles changed the strategic landscape.

    (An invasion of Australia was always considered unlikely by the Combined Chiefs Of Staff, but they had lined up several divisions - American infantry and British armour - in the supply chain that COULD change direction to Australia should that be necessary. Final destinations for British units heading around the Cape of Good Hope towards the Middle East or India or Australia was never decided until they hit the Indian Ocean. Ditto for American divisions.)

    The CCOS figures must be considered the most useful, as they were specifically a worldwide overview, and they specifically stated first expected destinations of units, then strategic changes, then final destinations. Their 'Deployment Outlines1942', are most revealing. In March/April they suggest the expected flow of reinforcements over the next few months, but naturally these figures were very different before Allied victories at Coral Sea, Midway, New Guinea, Alemein, French North Africa, and particularly Stalingrad, than after.

    I will do actual figures for divisions and aircraft on a separate post.

  7. you should use your own reference in that post; the Despatch submitted to the British Chiefs of Staff by ACM Brooke-Popham on Operations in the Far East.
    You can view it on-line at the London Gazette. The page number to search for is 535 in Gazette Issue 38183 published on the 20 January 1948.
    His report does not align with your claims!

  8. An excellent article Nigel, and one I totally agree with. However I do feel I have to point out that while the British Empire stood alone, Churchill made it his number one priority to get America in the war. Part of his efforts here was having to accept a back seat in dealing with Japan. So while the British gradually reinforced Singapore/Malaya, with a timetable that would have arguably delived a defensive force by mid 42, Roosevelt pushed the Japanese with embargos and the redeployment of the US fleet to Pearl Harbor. Perhaps a future post on why Roosevelt pushed so hard, when even his own forcess were so unprepared would be good. Was this engineering war to overcome the US public adversion to joining the war, naivety, a complete misreading of the Japanese or what!

    Fatboy Coxy

  9. Nigel,

    In your Socratic prompting on Britain's war effort, you state:

    (1) "The British were still conscious that they were fighting a world war", and

    (2) "Frankly, from the perspective of a world war, the loss of a minor peninsula and naval base was a small price to pay. (Again unnoticed by most history books, is that despite fighting one of the greatest combinations of power in the history of the world until that time, total British territorial losses in World War II amounted to the tiny Channel Isles, and Malaysia and Burma - Australia also lost New Guinea. Territorially, this amounted to a few percent of the territory and population of the Empire.)"

    To deal with point (2) first:

    You seem to treat the matter as one of global pink patches of Empire real estate and Britishness when, in practice, imperialism doesn't operate with much regard for territorial sovereignty at all. In the C19th, for example, China and Afghanistan became perhaps the main targets of British Empire aggression and, for profits China perhaps the greatest of its ambitious targets to that time. But those areas hardly ever fell under the pink scourge of empire's actual mapping. Likewise India had become the main steady source of British imperial plunder long before the change after the 1857 "Mutiny", whereby the Raj officially subordinated the subcontinent to Great Britain through Whitehall and the Crown.

    Moreover, later on during WW2 British imperial commitments extended far beyond those officially "British" claims of real estate in your comment. Much of France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Abyssinia, Libya, Tunisia, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Egypt, Greece, even areas like Tibet-Nepal, and Indonesia and Vietnam by 1945, all caught far greater operational attention and commitment than many parts of the official Empire itself. At some point nearly all of those lands saw British losses, sometimes in the form of total military and/or political disasters

    Then there were also those key places of Empire terrain which you missed entirely. Those crucial strategic choke points: "tiny" Hong Kong and Egypt, both of which did in fact see serious British Empire defeats and lost territory. As mere acreage Hong Kong, like Singapore, did not amount to much of a statistic in land mass, but its imperialistic value was disproportionately immense. Like Singapore, historians should never underestimate too those losses' deep effect on local nationalist and anti-imperialist sentiment and confidence.

    Therefore, on the extent of actual British losses we can see that their strategic overreach and incompetence really went much farther than your article suggests. If considering their wider implications, the British leadership's poor planning, decisions, and executions were yet more disastrous for the world. What if the world had been spared the 2 years of torment following the pointless Greece-Crete debacles which short-circuited the previous crushing North African victories into futility? What if the farcical Mountbatten-Monty blueprint for Dieppe had not massacred so many allied troops (especially Canadians), but instead left them much stronger for the later invasion and liberation? What if second Alamein never happened and the British instead coordinated with Torch in order to actually rout Rommel before his inevitable effort to rush back towards Tunisia? Or Monty (again) had been refused his demand for the huge supply priority which led to his Arnhem fiasco? There are many more cases of saddening questions about just what waste could have been prevented if certain "victories" had not been "won" by such exalted losers, accountable only to themselves and their own privileged, non-competitive class of people who never really had to go out and get a job.

  10. On point (1) - "The British were still conscious that they were fighting a world war".

    That is also a very arguable assertion. The British Empire's rulers were obviously conscious that they were fighting an imperialist war, for an empire's worldwide interests, and it was not necessarily a struggle to defend other nations or peoples at all. If there's any lingering doubt about that, then ask yourself just why the British re-armed Japanese troops in Indonesia and Vietnam in 1945. In Europe the implications of such strategic priorities were potentially worse still. Churchill's variously bizarre efforts to divert allied energies in Second Front deliberations, and in the actual British decisions and protests over Second Front strategy after Overlord, all proved how utterly inept and dangerous British imperial interests were in the rest of the allied world's fight against those other, newer brands of imperialism, who either admired the British example or strove to outdo it.

    Matt D.

  11. Hi Matt,

    most of those points are reasonably well made, and I like some of the comparisons you draw.

    I think you should consider the effects of democracy on great power politics before you talk about incompetence or failures. Almost all the issues that caused problems in the Second World War, including the idealism of disarmament treaties and the stupidity that was the League of Nations, were caused by the stupidity of the voters and therefore politicians in British and American and other democracies.

    As an aside, I will note that the generals who are foolish enough to hang around in the maltreated and underpaid services of a democracy in peacetime may in fact not be the brightest men - who have a tendency to move on to pastures green and challenges new - which might explain why democracies get so many second rate generals.

    Your classism is also a bit out of date. Montgomery and Slim for instance had exactly the same middle class backgrounds as Eisenhower and Bradley, while Patton and MacArthur had exactly the same aristocratic backgrounds as Alexander or Gort (look at Patton's Polo career). Success or failure had little to do with class.

    So for instance your complaint about Dieppe being stupid is correct. But the political reason for Dieppe was to prove to the Americans that a second front too early would be suicidal. (And to bow to Canadian pressure to 'blood' Canadian troops.) So we can chalk that up to the stupidity of Roosevelt and Marshall and Mackenzie-King, not the poor bunnies told to make an impossible job work. Myself, I have little time for Mountbatten as a tactician, but he was a minor player in the political reasoning behind the exercise.

    What I would note is that Dieppe taught the Allies many useful, perhaps vital, lessons for later invasions. It may have been a necessary, if costly, test to ensure later success.

    I also take issue with the idea that Arnhem was a fiasco. It was certainly too late, and the weather didn't help, but it came close enough to being a success that even in hindsight it was worth the risk. War involves taking risks. Some succeed, some fail, but not taking them is failure in itself. If you want to pick on Montgomery, his failure to tightly supervise Bradley and Patton at Falaise, or his Canadian army at the Scheldt will give you a better argument.

  12. In fact I lose the thread of what you are trying to say when you get to the second front. Churchill and Brooke always argued that it could not be successful until 1) the Allies had air superiority, 2) the Allies had at least ground parity, and 3) the Germans were adequately weakened so they could not move reinforcements from other fronts easily. Dieppe was their proof. The necessary conditions happened in 1944, and no earlier, largely due to the dreadful losses the Germans took to fighters in the Allied bombing campaign, to infantry in Russia, and to Elite forces like Para's and Armour in Poland and Italy.

    Once the second front happened, Brooke and Montgomery (and Patton) were all for a narrow front, and Marshall and Eisenhower all for a broad front. You can debate which was correct as much as you like, but the concept that 'inept and dangerous' is the way to describe Brooke and Montgomery and Patton's preferred approach needs a bit of evidence. Particularly when everyone, including Eisenhower and Bradley, thought they could win by Christmas 1944.

    I tend to agree with Brooke and Montgomery and Patton... once you have created conditions for a blitzkreig, you should do it, not potter around giving the enemy months to recover. In this I am using the opinion of Rommel, Guderian, Zhukov... in fact any of the great generals of the war (regardless of class), who actually broke and enemy and delivered a successful Blitzkreig. I do not think any of them were inept.

    By contrast I do think that Churchill's frantic attempts to do a deal with Stalin to get something, anything... was far more sensible than Roosevelt's wilful blindness. (I will never forgive his suggestion that Stalin do what he like with Poland, but please not until after the American elections because he needed the Polish American vote.) The Cold War was largely Roosevelt's fault, and the loss of Czechoslaovakia and other places to Soviet control for decades was Eisenhowers contribution. I wish a bit of Churchill's old fashioned balance of power negotiations had not been undermined by them.

    Finally, I think you need to consider what imperialism is, and what it is for. American, Russian or German continental conquest imperialism does look and feel different (and nastier) to British sea based trade imperialism, but the issues remain the same. The outcome being sought is some sort of security. For settlers, for traders, from raiders, from other great powers. Imperialism is the default cover for progress - both economic and political - in world history. Do not imagine that the British being reluctantly stuck with a mandate in Palestine after World War One is any different to what the Americans are doing in Afghanistan today. If you want to consider imperialism evil, please define what parts of it you don't like, and why, and then offer a useful alternative.

  13. Nigel,

    I won't reply to all your points just yet – we seem to have a couple of books' worth of debate here. I'll dodge some of your points entirely e.g., “democracy”, “Cold War Roosevelt's fault” as too far from the original topics, and maybe just more of your “Socratic prompting”, and not clearly enough posed in the good faith of a sincere debate.

    However, it seems to me that your article "The Mythology of British Weakness in the Second World War" actually proved inadvertently some of my own points. Your focus on the physical realities of actual British Empire military and economic strength all hints to just why the world later perceived a weak British system i.e., inadequate leadership, bad management and misguided strategy, and NOT severe material or territorial deficiency. On my last point about misguided strategy, I allude to the problem of “imperialism” because that was the guiding principle which distracted and distorted British planning throughout the war and its aftermath.
    Much of an appalled world perceived these British deficiencies as having an imperialistic source in the British ruling elite's twisted mindset and ambitions. Perceptions of that imperialistic malaise arose not around any serious British material deficiencies, offset as they were anyway by Commonwealth / dominion, and increasingly American, support. Rather, British mismanagement of such resources was an increasingly obvious impediment to victory.
    “Second Front” deliberations made such impediments clear. Roosevelt and Marshall had to drag Britain kicking and screaming into Overlord. It is well documented that Churchill persisted with his “soft underbelly” nonsense long after even embarrassed British command and staff dismissed his mooted schemes for invasions of the Caucasus, the Greek Islands, and the Balkans mainland, or a priority on the Italian Peninsula. Recall that the same genius behind the Dardanelles atrocity wanted to repeat such folly in 1944, invading and driving through choice pieces of mountainous hell. Indeed, much of Eisenhower's compulsion to launch the “Dragoon/Anvil” landings came from his refusal to leave any US or French forces available for Churchill's expansionist, costly and hare-brained designs.

  14. On class: My "classism" is not out of date (perhaps you mean that my view there is “out of fashion”?). The English class system itself is out of date, and has been for some time, including in that period when the Americans got up close and personal with it again in WW2 after having kicked most of it out of their own country by the late 18th century.
    Monty was a privileged product of just that class system. Montgomery's family grew up on a Donegal estate inherited from a senior knighted official of the Indian administration. As his official biographer Hamilton went to such effort to make clear, Monty's very name came with the pedigree of a broad and deep Norman domination of Britain and of the English language itself, as the hereditary sub-ethnic pinnacle of the English class system. Monty's father's status as an Anglican bishop in Tasmania consolidated Monty himself within that upper strata of British Empire society, flitting over, and at the expense of, subjugated areas of empire like India, Ireland, and Australia.
    Monty's own knighthood and viscountcy later all ensconced him further within that system, and all after he had perpetrated a long series of military blunders starting with various lies around Alam Halfa and second Alamein. His brilliant career actually ran as if he amounted to some secret weapon of the Wehrmacht.
    But that's how such a class system works, by reasserting itself continually despite its demonstration of poor performance; it is meant to deter and discourage challenges from below.
    Recall too that Monty sacked Dick O'Connor immediately after O'Connor refused to make a bad performance appraisal of an American brigade commander, and some time after Monty directed O'Connor with VIII Corps into a tightly restricted and plainly visible form-up and advance towards Caen. It is hardly controversial to assert that O'Connor was the most efficient and highest-performing British senior commander of the war (vide my previous post's reference to the abortive Greece campaign which stopped O'Connor's run of thumping victories).

    On Dieppe: you seem to blame anyone but the planners for that raid's hopeless plan and execution. Recall that Mountbatten and Montgomery drafted the plan; there were only minor amendments a few weeks after Monty left it for his next fateful appointment sitting in on Auchinleck's deployments and plans for Egypt. FDR and Marshall had no part in the Dieppe plan, and certainly made no demand or even request for the absurd operation.
    As for “the political reason” supposedly justifying Dieppe: why launch a disaster, knowing it will be a disaster, merely in order to pre-empt your allies from planning and launching a success? Such motives as those behind Dieppe prove my point about the British Empire's ruling elite being little more than “exalted losers”: they fought from such negative motives whereby their own “victory” could come only by accident or default, and never anytime soon. The fact that they meant to pre-empt and forestall any early American-led Second Front proves just their petulant and self-destructive imperialistic mien. Of course, to such exalted types they were not being “self destructive” because the people destroyed were overwhelmingly not of their own class or even nationality.
    There were no useful lessons from Dieppe apart from the main one: do not allow the British Empire to dictate on how to liberate occupied countries, or on whether it is feasible to attempt such liberation. Besides, any amphibious operation, however small, with Churchill's proximity and backing would have been ruled out by any meritocratic ruling elite with a conscientious awareness of history.

  15. As “lessons for Overlord”, Dieppe made no sense either. Fire support, an element of surprise, air superiority, avoidance of frontal assault were all principles that competent commanders already knew well, even by 1918 on most of those points. As for the inadequacy of re-embarkation craft in a hit-and-run raid: that was not a “lesson” meant for Overlord at all, and hardly one taken up.
    So just what was the real motive for the Dieppe raid? Obviously to discredit and demoralize the American command and staff in advance, with an operation meant to fail, yet involving no meaningful amount of American participation or direction. To support that quite logical conclusion there is also the matter of detailed and timely German foreknowledge of the raid, about which much direct witness evidence attests in stark contradiction to the overwhelmingly excellent record of cross-channel information security and deception.

    On Arnhem: you seem to accept the Monty delusion of "90% success" in Market-Garden, merely from a count of acreage. Such assessment does not work, unless we also count Sixth Army's push to the Volga as "95% success" cut short by that "setback" at Stalingrad. An army's mission statement in its own orders sets the parameters of success and failure, and Market-Garden was a shameful failure by that explicit measure.

    On “Second Front strategy after Overlord”, you misintrepeted my point. That's perhaps understandable, because I did not elaborate on my point beyond the issue of “British decisions and protests over Second Front strategy after Overlord”. Suffice to say here that Monty's and Alanbrooke's own demands were all but discredited by the time of Market-Garden and the delayed, daunting struggles to clear the Scheldt with little more than the severely depleted Canadian 3rd. By the time of Monty's late, but elaborate and expensive, 1945 Rhine crossings, several earlier American crossings rendered Monty as a military joke in American (and other) messes. As I'm sure you can recall, Monty was meant to be the first to cross, based supply priorities and rational consideration of terrain factors around the (normally) fast-moving and open North German Plain in Monty's axis of advance.
    As I'm sure you're also aware, Eisenhower's “broad front” was a diplomatic compromise meant to keep an alliance functioning, and not a definitive choice among purely military proposals. Sadly, Ike's pessimistic compromise was vindicated, even though a healthy and balanced alliance would have seen Patton smash the Siegfried Line before the Germans even had a chance to clear away its moss and cobwebs.

    Matt Davies

  16. Dear Matt,

    I am very glad you have been stimulated. I even find dome of your points well thought out and well presented. But that makes the hysterical tone of some comments stand out, and I find myself back marking first year essays and cautioning people against repeating dogma without analysis.

    You do not think your classism is a problem, because you think British class from pre 1776 was still a problem in World War Two. An interesting but doubtful point. Britain had Labour governments or coalition governments for much of the two world wars and the interwar period, and British Labour was genuinely a socialist movement in a way that the American Democrats have never dreamed. (In fact the success of the socialist movement in Europe is why Europe is in such dire financial straights right now).

    Certainly there was some old aristocracy still in the coalition government, but Britain did not, in the 20th century, have the ruling families - the Roosevelt's, Kennedy's, Bush's, etc that were so evident in America's theoretically classless system.

    I think you will have to move a bit from that interpretation of the world to get far with analysis.

    Montgomery is a particularly bad example here. Tasmania in the period of his childhood was more like a Wild West settlement than the pleasant English country house set up that you seem to imagine. Monty's upbringing was very impoverished middle class in English circles, and certainly no where near the lifestyle of someone like Patton. If you want to talk about generals with ruling class backgrounds, Alexander or Patton would be much better examples.

    Phrases like 'British ruling elite's twisted mindset and ambition' may play well for some (and admittedly would have got you high marks from the marxist lunatics that ran history in one of my old universities), but even using it in the context of what 'many people thought' makes me think of the Moscow based Progress Press books of the Cold War.

    Seriously, Britain had what we would now call 'imperial overstretch' from feeling it necessary to pre-empt nations like Germany in the 'scramble for Africa', and by 1900 very clearly did not want more responsibility. The need to take over places like Palestine after the Great War was recognised as a huge problem by the British government/ruling class, but they felt it couldn't be avoided. The fact that the taxpayers wouldn't pay for this interwar was recognised by all. They did not want more responsibility post WWII either, and the closest thing to imperialism that they were up for (considering that half a dozen Dominions or Colonies had already been granted independence and another half dozen were due for it in the next few years), was free and safe trade amongst friendly nations.

  17. Leaving that aside, I will move on to the more interesting points, and the ones worthy of serious debate.

    You think Churchill and Brooke were against the invasion of France. Read Brooke's diaries. They were against it before it would succeed. Brooke's expectation had been to lead it, and he was doing everything possible to prepare the ground for it. (I would also argue that he clearly would have done a better job of it than Eisenhower, but that brings up a whole new debate.)

    You think that nothing valuable was gained from Dieppe in military terms, but then exalt how much better preparations and security were two years later. You also suggest that a need for evacuation craft clearly wasn't important in 1944. Read Eisenhower's draft of a press notice saying "I am solely responsible for the failure.."

    Never make the mistake of assuming inevitability from hindsight. The 1940 Blitzkreig was as much luck as inevitability, as was Midway, as was Overlord. Any of them could have gone the other way.

    You also think that the 'soft underbelly' was nonsense. Geographically of course it was. The Med is full of mountains. But Churchill meant that it was soft politically, which was easily demonstrated when Italy folded and surrendered so easily, and when such widespread resistance movements achieved so much with so little support.

    You think the Dardenelles campaign in World War One failed because Churchill was an idiot to try it. Here you would be on better ground to claim that he was an idiot to trust the commanders in the field, and from there you could have a go at old fashioned class generals and admirals with impunity. In fact of course it was execution not strategy that was the issue, and the German navy commander wrote a few days after the invasion that, if it worked (which was still in the balance), the Allies would win the war quickly.

    Again, don't imagine failure is an inevitability any more than success is. Far more is down to luck and execution (and the success or failure of the opposition to respond quickly) than that.

    I also have to point out that Churchill's insistence on at least saving Greece from falling behind the Iron Curtain certainly paid off. Pity that Eisenhower didn't listen to him about Czechoslovakia when it was open to the allies. Montgomery's rush to prevent Denmark falling into the Russian bag might also be considered an act of Churchillian paranoia by anyone who has not lived through the following half century.

    Now non of this is to pretend that the British, or Churchill were without fault. Many huge mistakes were made (and again I will make the cynical point that democracies get the politicians and generals they deserve).

    But while I encourage people to debate the meaning of those failures, I discourage them from declaring some sort of 'inevitable' effect, some inaccurate interpretation of figures, or any old fashioned marxist dogma, as explaining the whole thing.

    By all means challenge interpretations. But please analyse your pre-conceptions first.

  18. Hi again Nigel,
    Disappointing that your latest smacks more of hemlock than gadfly, and with serious errors too. You mistake my logical conclusions for “assumptions of inevitability”. You also make several confusing self-contradictions e.g., you admonish with “Never make the mistake of assuming inevitability from hindsight” but follow up immediately by doing just that in “The 1940 Blitzkreig [sic] was as much luck as inevitability”. How to divine that conflicting recipe of fate, and what use is such ponderous ballast to history anyway? It seems more suited to theological speculation about the interplay of free will and predestination.
    You denounce “preconceptions”, but then you unnecessarily distract from our debate by wandering into some preconceptions of your own i.e., UK Labour-as-socialist-Democratic Party dream; a “notionally classless US”; “Englishman's burden in saving Africa from the Hun” c. 1900, and; “free and safe trade” (Globalization cap-doffing to Adam Smith and the old East India firm). If only Mountbatten and Monty had had so much smoke at their disposal for Dieppe. On second thoughts, they probably would have left it out of the raid's plan as with earlier-suggested shore bombardment...
    Strange too that you allege "Marxist dogma" in my simple descriptions of the English class system and Monty's title, pedigree, inheritance, rank, etc., essential facts of which you do not dispute. Do we need to further highlight the more conspicuous Mountbatten in that class context? Or perhaps we should examine the “military careers” of senior officer Charles “Tampon” Windsor (the one who chats to pot plants) or Edward “Mavis” Windsor who wasted many useless months with the Royal Marine Commandos before falling out into kids' pantomime. Criticism of that English class system excites a far greater proportion of your response than for more direct military- historical issues, so I gather I touched some raw nerve there. Maybe further explanation can heal that apparent open sore. The injury is understandable, because all of us subjected to such insidious, unjust, irrational and barbaric hierarchy suffer its damage, from Quebec to Transvaal, Punjab to Connaught, and in Melbourne too.
    After assuming (or “pre-conceiving?) “Marxist dogmatism” from my critical points, you then apply base economic-determinist/dialectical-materialist criteria (money, “lifestyle”, “English country house set-up”) to comparisons between British and American generals. So your own purported analysis on class is actually the stuff of simplistic dogma, indeed Marxist or, at least Marxian, dogma. I never implied Americans and their generals have no class issues and yes, we (probably) all know that George Smith Patton Jr.'s family background and upbringing made him - as close as the US Constitution could allow – a near-replica of a Prussian Junker. Patton's key difference from British cases? It was not Patton's inheritance or connections that sustained his career and got his promotions; it was his intelligence, ability and zest for learning, sheer commitment, leadership energy and example, and overall outstanding performance. It might be fair, though speculative, to consider also Patton's intensely devout religiosity.
    Patton exposed Montgomery's mediocrity early in the “Race to Messina”. Patton seized the initiative before Alexander formally acceded to it in orders, then US troops took the final objective ahead of Monty despite US units covering between three to five times the distance of their British counterparts, and a far greater proportion of enemy terrain. In just weeks Patton demolished condescending British claims to seniority and sneers about green, untested Yanks being out of their depth. The highly mobile, aggressive US Army was clearly better suited to lead the alliance: they had a more efficient system, and were far likelier to promote their soldiers on merit.
    Yet the British rulers did not sack or even sideline Monty for his mediocrity and under-

  19. performance in Sicily, let alone for his Dieppe outrage or timid bungling from Egypt to Tunisia. Monty's grooming continued, this time into the nominally senior operational command for Overlord. Patton, by contrast, was passed over for subordinate Bradley after bad publicity from the “slapping incident”. A self-critical US system stalled Patton's career over indiscretions, however temporarily, despite his glowing operational success. But the British not only tolerated Monty's mediocrity, they rewarded it. If Americans had done the same, Lloyd Fredendall would have directed (probably from a distant frigate) a dull US “shield” beside Monty's blunt “sword” in Sicily. A match made in hell, or Valhalla?
    The British Army's socio-cultural incompetence had direct, practical military implications. If Patton had had precedence in Sicily, Hans-Valentin “der Mensch” Hube would have had much greater trouble arranging the Axis withdrawal to the Italian mainland. That's not preconception or assumption, but simply logical appraisal of performance. In the event, faced with a sclerotic and non-responsive Monty and an overtaxed Patton, Hube's coolly competent rearguard salvaged almost all remaining Axis combat strength for the Italian and other campaigns, including even for later action in Poland.
    As many appalled Americans found (and still find in British war historiography), the English class system has a perversely spurious tactic to prevent exposure of its ineptitude: by lauding the German enemy as superhuman. Churchill even did so for Rommel in the UK parliament, and was followed by countless tomes about “The Desert Fox” who foiled Monty's desert pursuit as if by some other-worldly genius and instinct. London still turns out a dyspeptic diet of such skewed pseudohistory and faux chivalry, even lionizing thug Sepp Dietrich and his “super-elite” SS colleagues like Wittmann. Behold the vast British genre and its core contention that those glamorized super-troopers/latterday knights – with all their special “genetic” inheritance, of course - were the real reason Monty failed to achieve his own set objectives in the more open country around Caen. According to that persistent mythology, much of it Monty's creation, the US Cobra breakout and envelopment was only possible because Monty selflessly took on the harder job of the Normandy fighting and German, especially SS, armour (check Carlo D'Este's thorough explosions of the Caumont/Villers-Bocage debacle and Monty's outright fabrications on Goodwood, for example).
    In fact, the Americans had the harder terrain in Normandy; a scientific and logistical case of routine HQ mapping and planning. Many British historians especially, like Monty, avoid that subject of the American sector's preponderance of barely passable bocage/hedgerow against Monty's much more open country. But before Bradley's and Patton's Operation Cobra, the US Army overcame the bocage through fast learning of combined arms tactics, and other improvisation from junior ranks crafting “rhino” hedge-cutters for tanks. Such conduct was incompatible with the English class system, where common soldiers must “know their place”, while procedural and technical change must come slowly, deliberately, and from senior hierarchy, like Percy Hobart and his “funnies”, whose utility went little past 6 June 1944. British histories typically depict such bizarreness as amusing boffin-dom, all reaffirming a backward and rigid cultural identity, as if just another case of “charming English eccentricity”, a la Monty's silly slouch hat with its dozens of badges.
    Your other factual points need correction too. Churchill's “soft underbelly” was nonsense precisely because he tried to force his imperialistic political priorities into Allied military decisions. On these matters your understanding of facts lets you down. Italy did not “fold and surrender so easily” as you say: German (and some Italian fascist) resistance in Italy was the last of all fronts to

    1. “like Percy Hobart and his “funnies”, whose utility went little past 6 June 1944.”

      Interesting point. So why was the Churchill Crocodile regiments constantly being farmed out to US army division to support them if it had very little use beyond D-Day. In particular they were use by the US 9th army at Brest and latter at Le Havre. The Sherman Crab was use throughout the war and is still in use today although in another form. No self respecting armoured brigade would be without its bridge layers. I can't think of a MBT today that does not also have a bridge layer variant, Russian, USA, Germany, France or the UK. So not much use beyond D-Day then.

      AVRE still in use today although again in a more dedicated role. The Cent AVRE which took over from the Churchill AVRE was last used in the 1st gulf war to clear obstacles very similar to what it was used for on D-Day. Another would be fascine which are still in use today by armoured infantry regiments. The bobbin also still in use today. See what happens to a river bank once a squadron of tanks has crossed a bridge and you will quickly understand why having a solid exit is very useful.

      The only Funnies not to have much life after the end of WW2 was the crocodile and this was due to treaty requirements and not its usefulness.

      You seem to be blinded by that bloody great chip on your shoulder.

    2. Thanks for pointing that out. Yeah, I should've phrased it more precisely a la:

      "like Percy Hobart and his “funnies”, whose overall utility contributed little compared to the effort, expense and publicity invested in them".

      And the Churchill flamethrowers at Brest, Havre, etc.: probably just as well they passed them as some compensation to the Yanks, or they could have got a huge US invoice for the overall costs from having left Antwerp's entrance to the enemy for so long, and against express direction from both Ike and the RN itself.

  20. surrender formally, while Italy's terrain was so costly for the Allies (proportionally one of the highest butcher's bills of the war) that their advances could not cover all Italy even by May 1945. How did Salerno, Anzio, Cassino, etc., justify as part of Italy's “folding”? In combat ratios for its mountainous terrain, where attackers need a much higher relative strength than in flatter Normandy, the Italian campaign could not be justified as keeping German forces away from Normandy, despite what some historians still claim. And if Italy was “soft politically” as you state, what of Vichy and the Occupied Zones, which Churchill wanted to keep postponing and relegate below his Mediterranean schemes? Your defence of Churchill runs against what we take for granted as the overriding mission in just war i.e., end it as fast as possible and save lives.
    Again on terrain in operational planning and your allegation of “historical inevitability” in my analyses, your treatment of military history strays into a kind of mysticism, or at least mystification. Luck? How was luck going to sustain Churchill's Dardanelles misadventure and the landed forces' steep tactical nightmare? The invasion itself compelled intense Central Powers' pressure on the Balkans, which eventually realized Bulgarian support. The longer the campaign dragged the more likely such westward consolidation with Turkey would become. Note that Churchill and Kitchener urged to stick it out regardless: the disaster would then have been far greater still once Central artillery and ammunition reached Turkey. Luck could offer only very temporary and isolated reprieve there.
    On Denmark, your written record here contains the most obvious historical errors. Check R. Weigley, Eisenhower's Lieutenants, pp.1045—50, for the vivid, shocking detail of how Ike tried repeatedly, even by recourse to Alanbrooke, to get Monty moving with the specific aim of preventing Soviet incursion into Denmark. Zaloga too makes less detailed record of such fact, for example. As for Ike's corresponding effort to cede Czechoslovakia, what else was he to do? Provoke more war, as if amends for 1938? Ike's halting of Patton there was consistent with his “Broad Front” compromise, and its overriding concern to stabilize the liberation and occupation of Europe, and bring peace. Fitting that Churchill and his acolytes expressed some of their most strident anti-American gripes on those points: they felt no compelling need for peace, just as they sought no fast end to the war. Again, why re-arm Japanese troops in Indonesia and Vietnam and inflame local independence patriots? I notice you still avoid those other Mountbatten-led decisions, as with the cases of O'Connor and Auchinleck, both very able officers sacked (again) under Mountbatten for not conforming to the destructive imperial agenda in the postwar subcontinent.
    So despite your red-herring allegations, we can confirm that I claim no historical inevitability at all in regard to the English class system and its imperialist export, a system created by people of their own will, however deluded, unhealthy and anti-social their application of that free will. As people learn more about that system and its long record of regressive sabotage they can take action to overcome it and put a final stop to it. But to deny those effects and even avoid the diagnosis is to help sustain a dangerous anachronism, a Jurassic Park of codified and legislated arrogance and inefficiency, guarding undeserved privilege and often denigrating and stigmatizing people on little more than their ancestry and even accent. In peacetime such injustice is bad enough; in war it can get many more innocent people killed, maimed and oppressed.
    Matt Davies

  21. I paste here a brief description by UMASS's Brian R Train of the background to Dieppe.
    “In the Spring of 1942...the US high command...wanted action, threatening to switch American efforts to the Pacific if something wasn't done to jump-start a major Allied offensive.
    In early April 1942 an American delegation presented to the Combined Chiefs of Staff Committee (CCS), the highest British military decision-making body, an outline plan for Allied action in northwest Europe. Its major component was Operation Roundup, an invasion of the French coast between Le Havre and Boulogne, projected for April or May 1943 with up to 48 divisions (30 American, 18 British) and 5,800 aircraft.
    An alternative proposal, in the event of a catastrophic military failure or morale collapse on the part of either Germany or the Soviet Union, was Operation Sledgehammer. This was a plan to seize Cherbourg and the Cotentin peninsula in September-October 1942 with six British divisions (by that time the Americans expected to have only two or three divisions deployed to Britain).
    The common historical interpretation of the [Dieppe] raid is that it had been a necessary dress rehearsal for the eventual opening of the second front. That interpretation has been maintained simply by repetition; however, repetition doesn't necessarily describe reality. An analysis of the planning and execution of the raid displays a catalogue of negative lessons - in short, a demonstration of of how not to carry out amphibious operations. What positive lessons remain provide reinforcement of the principles of command, control, and the use of force that were already well known.”
    Reference: Brian R Train, 'How Not to do it: Dieppe, 1942', in Strategy & Tactics #265, Nov-Dec 2010.
    Matt Davies

  22. Nigel,
    Before I forget, your previous admonishments to me are actually quite revealing in that sensitive Dieppe context which your reply chose to avoid. To reiterate by quotes:
    N.D.: “Don't imagine failure is an inevitability any more than success is”
    N.D.: “Never make the mistake of assuming inevitability from hindsight.”
    Before handing me those parking tickets, as it were, you stated:
    N.D.: "So for instance your complaint about Dieppe being stupid is correct. But the political reason for Dieppe was to prove to the Americans that a second front too early would be suicidal".
    Let's explore that: a stupid operation (Dieppe) to prove that something (1943 Second Front) would be suicidal. But this is where that Dieppe rationale becomes circular. In other words, a suicidal operation to prove a certain “suicidality”, or inevitability of failure; so inevitable a failure as to be suicidal.
    That means your first admonishment to me “don't imagine failure is inevitable” cannot apply to Churchill, Mountbatten and Montgomery (and almost certainly his mentor Alanbrooke, in an even more discrete capacity) over Dieppe. After all, you justify implicitly the political rationale for that suicide operation i.e., “to prove to the Americans” that a 1943 Second Front would be "suicidal”. Therefore, the British high command are indeed justified, in your view, in not only imagining Dieppe's failure as inevitable, but even planning on it. For an operation so “inevitably suicidal”, any pre-raid leaking of operational detail to the Abwehr would be all but inevitable too, would it not? I mean, just to emphasize the inevitably suicidal quality of Dieppe and associated (1943 Second Front) operations?
    More disturbing for our debate, you could have lost your licence if somebody applied your own “road rules” to your own comments about Dieppe. After all, you stated, in regard to Dieppe's political rationale and purpose as a demonstration raid that “second front too early would be suicidal”. Therefore, you imagine the failure of 1943 Second Front as an inevitability. Worse, you not only assume the inevitability of Dieppe's failure from hindsight; you express support for the demonstration of such inevitable failure as a preconception in strategic planning.
    That's very messy for a debate, and devastating for the rules you meant to set for such debate.
    Your view permits both the 1942 British high command and yourself to regard “inevitability” both a priori and post facto. Whereas your other view prohibits myself from any such dealings with said “inevitability/ies”.
    They're some pretty high double standards. I hope you're not applying some primitive, silly class system to me here. Imperialism anyone?
    Matt Davies

  23. Missed this previously. So a belated comment.

    Any well planned operation with adequate resources may succeed. Correct.

    But that is not the same as saying any operation might succeed.

    The military term for trying an operation which you think has no real chance is a 'Forlorn Hope'.

    Forlorn hopes have sometimes been known to succeed... short term... but if inadequately resourced, they usually fail to get any long term results.

    Dieppe was a good chance to test new techniques, with no intention of staying to face the consequences. It was a test, not a serious military operation. as there was no intention of it being a real invasion. It was not a Forlorn Hope. (Though note that even as a test of new techniques it failed well enough to reveal real weaknesses in Allied assumptions.)

    The side benefit was to conclusively demonstrate what any sensible person already knew: that an assault on France in 1943 was beyond the capacity of Allied resources at the time. Such an attack would have been a Forlorn Hope. Indeed early invasion was described in Allied planning as something only to be tried if the Germans unexpectedly collapsed. without that pre-condition invasion in 1943 would have failed. Definitely, absolutely, no question.

    Someone somewhere else on this blog has fought hard to hold the illusion of a 1943 invasion as a sensible possibility alive. They even claim that not attempting it was a sort of war crime.

    They seem to have missed the fact that the German military in 1944 - even after the huge land and air losses of the previous year - almost succeeded in beating the invasion. The idea that a much stronger German military could not have defeated a much weaker invasion a year earlier (when Italy was still active in the war, and when Germany was still assembling new armoured divisions for Kursk!) is virtually inconceivable.

    If that sort of distinction is double standards, then I happily agree to be considered guilty as charged.

  24. So which is it?

    To recall, in order, your considered judgements above...

    Dieppe was:
    1. Stupid, a la "your complaint about Dieppe being stupid is correct"
    2. A demonstration raid "to prove to the Americans that a second front too early would be suicidal"
    3. A political sop to Canada "to bow to Canadian pressure to 'blood' Canadian troops"
    4. "a good chance to test new techniques"
    5. "a test, not a serious military operation"

    Or maybe mashed together: "a stupid division-group amphibious fighting recon - but not a serious op - to spill Canadian blood and scare the Americans into delaying their planned invasion of occupied France, while simultaneously trying out things".

    I think your first response ("stupid") was probably the most insightful; the points after that just seem to reinforce that first one.

  25. N.D. - "Indeed early invasion was described in Allied planning as something only to be tried if the Germans unexpectedly collapsed. without that pre-condition invasion in 1943 would have failed".

    Wrong on three counts:
    1. For the "collapse contingency" you mention, it was US conception, sponsorship and planning under Marshall and Ike, not "Allied planning" i.e., for Op SLEDGEHAMMER. British comd & staff did not draft or submit the original plan at all, and quickly mounted opposition to SLEDGEHAMMER in particular, with only avowed and very temporary support expressed for Op ROUNDUP in 1943.
    2. The "early invasion" i.e., SLEDGEHAMMER was a contingency not only "if the Germans unexpectedly collapsed", but also, most disastrously as a worst-case prospect, if the Soviet Union collapsed instead.
    3. As I quoted above from the neat summary by UMASS' Brian Train, Op SLEDGEHAMMER was a contingency for as early as 1942, not the much larger planned 1943 invasion (ROUNDUP).

    These are simple facts in primary sources, and any secondary sources which care to consider them.

    On many details you give the consistent impression that you merely enjoy obfuscating history. Especially on such large strategic decisions, from someone claiming to be a professional historian, such obfuscation risks bringing disrepute to the study of history in general.

  26. I get the impression that you have a burr in your saddle or twist in your knickers about personal perceived British WW2 weakness. I don't consider British effort in WW2 as weak, and I'm sure that sentiment is shared by most Americans.

    A couple of comments per the Pacific War (Indian Ocean engagements) would have the reader believe that the British Navy defeated the IJN single handed, and the Yanks get too much credit.

    For reference, you might want to refer to the first few pages of this US Navy history link:

  27. Well yes, I have spent most of a misspent academic career fighting against dreadful British Commonwealth historians with Marxist training arguing that the 'poor pathetic us' approach gives them another reason to campaign that all Western culture is fundamentally evil... You nay have noticed some similar cultural cringes in more recent US academia?

    ON Japanese losses, you are absolutely correct. British, Australian and Dutch submarines based in Ceylon and Western Australia were specifically excluded from operating East of Malaya, so spent the whole war picking off the scarce Japanese shipping in the Indian Ocean. Even when the British Pacific Fleet was operating off Japan, the orders were specifically that they had to leave naval targets to the Americans, and concentrate on airfields instead.

    Don't know where you get the idea that the Japanese could have been defeated in the Indian Ocean without action in the Pacific. That is as stupid as suggesting the war against the Japanes was won in the Pacific only, and nothing done in China, Burma, New Guinea or the Indian Ocean really contributed very much. Both would be incredibly stupid statements don't you think?

  28. So. Enemy losses are always enormous, our losses hidden. That's one of the rules of military history. And Stalin was not only following that pattern.

  29. My gosh, this is a great essay. Thank you for looking at the facts themselves. I am an American from the South who appreciates what Australia, New Zealand, Britain and the entire Commonwealth did in making such major contribution to victory in World War II.
    Mark Caraway
    Jackson, Mississippi

  30. 3 of the kongo class battlecruisers were rebuilt in the 1930s as high speed battleships.

    1. Dear Anonymous,
      When the British rebuilt the Renown, they left her maximum 9" belt, and continued to call her a battlecruiser. (In fact the admiralty, given its experience with under-armoured battlecruisers blowing up in WWI, suggested she not face full battleships if possible.)
      When the Japanes rebuilt the Kongo's, they left the maximum 8" belt, but called them 'fast battleships'.
      Calling a pigs ear a silk purse doesn't make it one.
      I note that Hiei was put out of action by cruisers and destroyers at Gaudalcanal.

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