Saturday 21 March 2015

History Corner: Sang Froid and Confidence in 1940

Going through my late father's papers I came across the 6 September 1940 issue of The War Illustrated magazine - the 'First Year of World's Greatest War Reviewed' edition.  So the Battle of Britain was in full swing, the Battle of France having been recently, comprehensively lost.  Neither Barbarossa nor Pearl Harbour had taken place: it was us against the Germans and Italy, with Russia in compact with the bad guys.  Although the mighty disaster of Singapore was yet to befall us, it's fair to say things were pretty bleak: grim, even.

At least, that's how you'd tend to assess the September 1940 situation nowadays.  So what did the review of year one have to say?  The editor, Sir John Hammerton, led the first page with the following opinion:
Looking back over the last twelve months, I have every reason to be confirmed in an opinion to which I have often given expression ... that small neutral states interlarded among the great states of Europe are a constant source of danger to peace ... the small peoples whose right to "self-determination" was accepted in theory at the founding of the League of nations, and didn't mean a thing at its foundering, will be no better than material for crushing between the upper and nether millstones".  
So it's all Belgium's fault?!  Not much hint of panic in that voice, anyway.

The main article is The First Year of the War Seen in Retrospect, by one Major General Sir Charles Gwynn, KCB, DSO, 'Miltary Critic' of the Telegraph.  After four pages of dense narrative, maps with arrows and of course some illustrative photos, Gen Gwynn calmly concludes:
Hitler, after a year of victories, is faced by a new strategic problem, more difficult and involving greater risks than those which confronted him when he could use the whole strength of his army for the destruction of France.  His army is halted by the sea.  To send even part of it across involves tremendous difficulties and dangers.  He must depend almost entirely on his air force to achieve the quick victory he needs ... Can Hitler's General Staff find a solution to his problem before the stranglehold of Britain's Navy and the offensive attacks of her Air Force paralyse Nazi power?
And so his retrospective ends.  A knotty one for Hitler, then.

Let's put to one side any views on whether Gwynn's assessment of the capabilities of the RN and RAF in 1940 was realistic;  it's his tone I'm interested in.  It's the insouciance, the disinterested and measured analysis.  (Was he writing from the safety of a bolt-hole in Canada?, one is half-inclined to wonder: but probably not.)  The War Illustrated was not a government publication, so not obliged to be tub-thumpingly patriotic or exhortatory: but even so, one might expect a note of stiff upper-lip resolution (as would be found in many a mass circulation newspaper editorial then as now), and/or a hint of mighty travails to yet come.  

But 'can Hitler solve his awkward problems?' is something else and, I think, an important corrective to the views we tend to form based around iconic images of St Pauls in the blitz and recordings of Churchill's speeches.  Clearly, a significant portion of intelligent Britain could manage something a lot less bombastic.

It is of a piece with two other early-war snippets that I recall.  The first is a cartoon (sadly I can't find a copy of it) published immediately after Dunkirk.  Two lazy infantryman are lounging, unconcerned, on a summer's day sentry duty overlooking the Channel.  One says: So, it's just us now?  The other replies: Yes, just the 600 million of us.  Confidence in the Empire (and the Channel and the Navy) was obviously a heartening factor - even if this was a line the cartoonist or his editor was trying to push for reason of boosting morale: and put like that, the numbers game probably seemed to favour the good guys handsomely.  (Raw numbers meant a lot to folk in those days: you find writers in early 1940 taking great heart  from the fact that the Belgium army had 22 divisions.  Which goes to show how empty raw numbers can be: but that's not the point.)

The second was a comment made by an American officer on secondment to the War Office, who reported that among the officers of the (British) General Staff, he never once heard anyone express any doubt as to the eventual British victory.  I'm guessing that was not just because it would have been treason to state any concerns; nor that these officers had privileged and compelling factual justification for their confidence; nor yet that only gung-ho maniacs were selected for the Staff.  It seems more likely that this confidence was - rightly or wrongly - fairly widely shared, just as a matter of general British opinion.

Widely enough that Gen Wynne could calmly publish commiserations with Hitler over his strategic difficulties in September 1940, and not be taken for an idiot, or a traitor - or (presumably) a satirist.  Whistling in the dark ?  No, I don't think so: just keeping calm and carrying on.  Any lessons for today?



Suffragent said...

An insightful piece as usual Bill. Thanks for the history lesson.
On a not unconnected topic about professionalism, belief in oneself and the others around you to do their bit and sheer dogged determinism, I’d like to thank all the teams that took part in the six nations and made it a nail biting spectacle up to the final seconds of the final game.
Congratulations to the Irish deserving winners and commiserations to the Welsh and English (there was certainly no losers yesterday). Each team turned up with a job to do and set about their business. First Wales, then Ireland and finally England who took it to the wire in the final game but came up short. I’d even like to thank the French for turning up to play and making it a game I will never forget. Truly awesome!!!!!
This should be our national game because it shows the strength of character and what it means to be British.
A recording of this game should be shown to those spoilt little boys, before they turn up and don the three lions, in the round ball, international, cheating fest. This is how Grownups do sport.
Truly made my day, Brilliant

Sebastian Weetabix said...

The British ruling classes have this ineffable quality, this sense of innate superiority, that often comes across as arrogance. The then US Chief of Staff, Marshall, said exasperatedly in 1944 "the British idea of co-operation is persuading someone else to do what they want." Combine those qualities with a gift for diplomacy and alliance building (which the FO seems to have lost lately) and it makes us very hard to beat.

We lose battles, not wars.

Nick Drew said...

Suff - you are so right abt Saturday's games (possible exception of, errr, Scotland): and the French really playing the game, right to the death

from an English perspective, we now know what the linup needs to be for the WC:

- enviable range of choices in the pack (but what does it take to keep Haskell on the straight and narrow?)
- Ford stays, Cipriani as back-up
- no place for Farrell at all, petulant & one-dimensional
- nor Burrell, he's had a very full run (replaced by Elliot Daly, for my money)
- Watson only a second-string wing, if he's lucky: we need to revisit some of the other proven finishers (which doesn't include May)
- interesting issues if Tuilagi ever gets fit again ...

(PS, mine not BQ's this time)

dearieme said...

"the round ball, international, cheating fest": don't forget the dimwitted Englishman who was sin-binned for a trip.

dearieme said...

"We lose battles, not wars." In my lifetime it's been quite the opposite for the USA.

Suffragent said...

Deepest Apologies Nick (in that case the piece was rubbish :-))
Maybe the Scots didn’t shower themselves in Glory but what I meant when I said there were no losers, as far as bread and circuses go, that was a Maximus Decimus Meridius rodgering two tigers spectacular.
Agreed, “you silly muppet” (I think those were the words I used when screaming at the TV). But still it was a stupid, split second, error of judgement. The injured party didn’t go into a triple salchow, with pike and then roll on the ground for the next 10 minutes (only to have a miraculous recovery 3 seconds later) and muppet boy left the field without discussion. I particularly liked it later in the game when Robshaw (as the captain and only person allowed to speak to the ref) tried to highlight a continual French infringement. The ref just said “Christopher!” and the man mountain just nodded and returned to his line.

Oh and a message to the Nanny state. Between the games, probably a couple of hundred thousand unsegregated fans drinking alcohol and cheering together, without the need of a police presence. On second thoughts let’s keep football number one and keep Rugby our little secret.

Bill Quango MP said...

Might have been written a day early Nick.

The first large London raid came on the 7th September. Catching the RAF by surprise it did much damage and killed 400 odd people.

The authorities were completely wrong about the number of casualties such raids would bring. Estimates of 20,000 dead after each attack were common.

But the number of houses damaged was about right. For every death, 35 homes were damaged.
By 18th September parts of the East End were at breaking point.

the mood would not have been quite so optimistic once it became obvious that the new 'Spanish Armada' was coming by air, not by sea. And the comfort of 1000 years of Island safety might count for little if the enemy could bomb us all flat.

The least optimistic accounts I can remember reading come much later though. After the Greece fiasco. Two years of fighting with little to show for it. And the Germans still unbeatable on land, no matter who they were fighting.

Sackerson said...

My late mother-in-law, a Birmingham woman who worked in casualty stations and an arms factory, told me several times that thanks to Churchill, no-one had any doubt that we would win the war.

Nick Drew said...

The authorities were completely wrong about the number of casualties such raids would bring

indeed, BQ: there were debates early in the war as to whether the quarter-million (sic) anticipated bodies should be buried in the gravel pits around Heathrow, or dropped into the Thames Estuary at high tide

the authorities had (prudently) extrapolated from casualties in (a) Zeppelin + Gotha raids, and (b) bombing in the Spanish Civil War

but they hadn't given due credit to the effectiveness of their own WW2 Air Raid Precautions, which were excellent

of course, there had been nothing of the sort on a proper scale in WW1

dearieme - yes, idiot-boy Haskell, see note above: and yet his deeds against Wales were prodigious and exemplary

Anonymous said...

@ Any lessons for today?

I read that Miliband is calmly confident of victory too.

Jer said...

Lessons for today?

1) Don't invade Russia

2) We can't rely on the USA.

Both valuable lessons, neither learned.

Mark Wadsworth said...


If you had to re-write history from the point of view of how people were supposed to have seen it back then*, that is pretty much how you'd write it.

Best of all is the British sense of fair play.

Are you sure it's real?

* As Churchill almost certainly said, the only thing to really worry about was the German submarines. Final military victory was never in doubt, what they overlooked was that we would lose the Empire and end up far worse off than when we started.

Nick Drew said...

Are you sure it's real?

Yes I am! It's crumbling, yellowing paper and I have it in my hand! I've given you a scan of a bit of it, what more evidence of its reality would you like, Mark? Weekly serialisation?

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