Tag Archives: United Kingdom

The Day Europe Died

On 1 September, 80 years ago last month, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi legions invaded Poland to start World War II; a war that was to prove the deadliest and the most destructive war in human history. It marked the day when Europe finally committed suicide. Eighty years on, world leaders convened in Warsaw to mark and remember that terrible moment in history.

World War II lasted from 1939 to 1945 and involved 30 countries from every part of the globe. The war killed an estimated 70-80 million people, or 4 per cent of the world’s population. If war is about breaking things and hurting people, then World War II’s impact was horrific. Soldiers and civilians alike were slaughtered; huge tracts of Europe and western Russia were devastated, with whole cities razed; South East Asia was wracked by war; millions starved; Jews and undesirables were murdered on an industrial scale by the Nazis; and the use of atomic bombs on Japan signalled a new and deadly way of wiping out humanity.

The facts are terrifying. The Soviet Union suffered most, with over 20 million killed. Almost 3.5 million Soviet prisoners of war died in German slave labour camps. German soldiers were ordered to exterminate all Jews, communist leaders, as well as any Soviet civilians resisting the Aryan ‘Master Race’ in order to take their grain and livestock. During the two-year siege of Leningrad, more than 1 million residents starved to death.

Germany fared little better. It lost around 9 million people: 5.3 million soldiers; and 3.3 million civilians. The Nazis murdered 300,000 of their own citizens and the Allied bomber offensive killed 600,000, leaving Germany as a heap of rubble by 1945.

Poland lost 5 million people: 16 per cent of its total population. Of those, 2.7 million were Jews, and 240,000 were soldiers. Yugoslavia lost 1 million people including 445,000 soldiers. France lost 568,000 people, of which 218,000 were soldiers. The United Kingdom lost 60,000 civilians to German air raids and 384,000 military. The United States lost 405,000 soldiers.

Further afield, the war killed 30 million in the Pacific. China lost 20 million, 80 per cent of whom were civilians. In just one incident, the 1937 Nanking massacre, Japan killed around 300,000 Chinese.

Japan’s brutal Samurai Code (‘the way of the warrior’) led to 6 million deaths in China, Japan, Korea, Indochina and the Philippines. This included the slaughter of civilians in villages, slave labour in Korea and China, and the use of human experiments to develop biological weapons. In addition, up to 400,000 ‘comfort women’ were forced into sexual slavery; 90 per cent of these unfortunate females had died by the end of the war.

This lengthy litany of horrifying statistics is vital because they rub home the key point, all too easily forgotten as memory turns to history: Hitler’s war was nothing less than the biggest disaster in recorded history.

The irony is that the war should have come as no surprise. Hitler had, years before, spelled out in cold print his plans for a war to end wars.

As he held court in 1924 as a prisoner in Bavaria’s Landsberg Castle for leading an attempted coup in Munich, Hitler committed his plans to paper. In a turgid and badly written book called Mein Kampf (My Struggle, in English), Germany’s future Führer drafted his battle plan. Germany would rise again and seize by force lebensraum (‘living space’) and raw materials to the east. The malign megalomaniac who caused World War II openly warned the world what he intended to do.

The problem really started in 1914, when the great powers of Europe blundered into a cataclysmic European civil war, thanks to a system of unwise military alliances and epic diplomatic miscalculation. By 1918, exhausted and bankrupt, the old ‘Europe’ had fallen apart. Four empires lay in ruins: Germany; Austro-Hungary; Russia; and the Ottoman-Turks. Out of the ruins the Peace Treaty of Versailles made things worse.

Versailles imposed savage terms on Germany, holding Berlin responsible for the whole war and demanding unheard of sums as reparations. The German Weimar government printed money to meet its exorbitant payments, thus creating hyperinflation: a wheelbarrow full of millions of Reichsmarks was needed to buy a loaf of bread.

As Germans lost buying power, they looked for salvation. The harsh economic conditions made people turn to new leaders, principally the Communists and the Fascists. Adolf Hitler, a spellbinding orator and embittered veteran of the trenches played on ordinary Germans’ fears. Leading his National Socialist Party, he blamed the Jews for Germany’s defeat and promised a return to power, full employment and prosperity. A generation of Germans welcomed his policies and his promise to make Germany great again.

Once again, nationalism was on the rise. In Germany, Mussolini’s Italy and Japan’s warrior state, new leaders advocated militarism, re-armament and the use of naked force to overcome other nations and seize their natural resources.

In 1931 Japan struck. The island nation required oil and food imports to feed its growing population. In what many consider to be the true start of World War II, Japan invaded China, intent on grabbing the mineral riches of Manchuria. The powder train to a wider war was burning, because the global economy was in crisis; the Wall Street Crash of 1929-31 changed everything.

The Great Depression and economic crisis reduced global trade by 25 per cent. In Germany, unemployment reached 30 per cent. Communism began to look attractive to the millions of unemployed and broke. To quell rioting on the streets, Germany’s politicians and industrialists turned to Hitler and his Nazi Party as a bulwark against this growing ideological threat from the east.

On 30 January 1933 they appointed him Chancellor. It was a grave mistake.

Within months Hitler and his henchmen had seized full power. Following a disastrous fire at the Reichstag – almost certainly ignited by the NazisPresident Hindenburg published a decree on 28 February 1933 as an emergency response to what was widely believed to be a Communist Coup. It suspended many of the civil liberties of German citizens. It was swiftly followed by an ‘Enabling Act’ on 23 March 1933, as ‘A Law to Remedy the Distress of People and Reich’, an amendment to the Weimar Constitution. It gave the Chancellor power to enact laws without the involvement of the Reichstag.

Hitler was now the legal dictator of Germany. With all power in his hands his plan for a war of conquest was now possible.

The rest, as they say, is history. Hitler, now ‘Supreme Leader’ of the Germans, tore up the Versailles Treaty, re-armed Germany and began his long European land grab for the Rhineland, Austria, Czechoslovakia and then Poland.

Finally Hitler did two things in that final summer of 1939 to make sure that no one stood in his way.

On 23 July, to the amazement of the world, Ribbentrop and Molotov signed a formal ‘Non-Aggression Pact’ between the two sworn ideological enemies. Unbelievably, Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Communist USSR were now allies.

Hitler’s final step towards the war he had dreamed about and planned for in Landsberg fortress was a typical deceit. Rather than openly declare war, he resorted to trickery.

On the eve of that fateful day – 31 August 1939 – a handful of doomed concentration camp prisoners were given Polish uniforms, unloaded rifles and ordered to attack an isolated German frontier post on the Polish border. The Wehrmacht machine gunners at Gleiwitz were waiting. The wretched prisoners were slaughtered to a man. Journalists were later invited to view the bodies at the scene as Doctor Goebbels’ Nazi propaganda machine swung into action to denounce a Polish atrocity.

At dawn the next day – 1 September 1939 – Hitler’s Panzers and Stukas attacked Poland to seize lebensraum to the East. World War II had begun. It had all been predicted by the Mein Kampf blueprint.

Hitler’s war would complete what 1914-18 had begun: the destruction of Europe. From 1945 onwards, America, fat on Europe’s gold and self-immolation, took over the role of world leader.

Curiously, that outcome does not feature in Mein Kampf….

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August 1974 – Hubris, Nemesis and Lies

Everyone in Cyprus knows that the Turks intervened in Cyprus in July 1974. However, thanks to clever, well-funded and unremitting Greek propaganda, the world has been led to believe that this was nothing less than a brutal and uncalled-for invasion against the peace-loving Greeks – an Ottoman jackboot to seize Greek land and occupy Cyprus.

Nothing could be further from the truth – but for once the victors have not written the true story of events. Thanks to Turkish Cypriot laziness, incompetence and a refusal to see the PR importance of explaining what really happened, the Greek Cypriots’ mendacious version of events is finding its way into the history books.

The true story is simple. On 15 July 1974, the Greek army, in conjunction with fascist Greek-Cypriot gangs, mounted a coup to overthrow and murder the island’s president. A panic-stricken Archbishop Makarios III fled in his socks to be rescued by the British and flown to safety. An EOKA thug and admitted murderer called Nikos Sampson became the new ruler of Cyprus.

On 19 July 1974, President Makarios addressed the UN Security Council in New York and denounced a Greek invasion. The next day, the Turkish army intervened – quite legally – as a guarantor of the1960 Cyprus Constitution. The British forces on the island were ordered to sit tight and become mere spectators. In 1976, the UK House of Commons Select Committee found that Turkey had proposed joint Anglo-Turkish action under the Treaty of Guarantee. However the then Labour Government in Britain refused to help (see written evidence submitted on 30 September 2004 by former MP Michael Stephen to the House of Commons Select Committee on Foreign Affairs).

They argued that Britain was under no duty to act, even though Article II of the Treaty provided that Britain would guarantee the state of affairs established by the 1960 Constitution. The Parliamentary Committee concluded that ‘Britain had a legal right to intervene; she had a moral obligation to intervene. She did not intervene for reasons which the Government refuses to give.’ In other words, this was not Whitehall’s finest hour.

One of the other inexplicable mysteries of the affair is the extraordinary stupidity of the Greek military junta in Athens not to think through the inevitable consequences of their actions on Cyprus in 1974. A bloody civil war among the Greeks, together with attacks on Turkish Cypriots, gave Ankara the political excuse to move into Cyprus that Turkey had been seeking for years.

The Greek word hubris springs to mind, in its sense of human pride, arrogance and defiance of the Gods. However, hubris is inevitably followed by nemesis – retributive justice from vengeful Olympus  to squash over-ambitious mortals. Nemesis now struck the new Greek-Cypriot regime a fatal blow.

The Greek-Cypriot National Guard and their Greek allies made things worse by making a monumental strategic blunder. One of the principles of war is ‘concentration of force.’ The Greeks should have sealed off the Turkish beach head in the north and counter attacked. Instead, blinded by a determination to wipe out the hated Turkish minority once and for all, they spread their forces all over the island in a muddled attempt to crush the widespread Turkish-Cypriot armed enclaves. The notorious Akritas Plan, to get rid of all the Turks in Cyprus, became the Greeks’ ruinous priority.

This dispersal of effort failed. Turkish forces broke out of the beachhead, and parachute and helicopter infantry were flown in. Outgunned, outnumbered, out-manoeuvred and – critically  lacking air superiority, the Greeks fell back and (on 22 July 1974) the UN Security Council was able to broker a ceasefire that brought an uneasy end to the fighting by 24 July. Turkey had intervened, got her foothold on the island and protected her minority. By then the Turkish forces were in command of a wide land corridor between Kyrenia and Nicosia

Thus far, this part of Turkey’s ‘illegal invasion’ is common knowledge. What happened next is not so well known and is blurred in the history books, because there were two phases to the ‘Cyprus war’. After the July lull there were numerous breaches of the cease fire as both sides jockeyed for position and played for time. The UN ceasefire was more honoured in the breach than in the observance.

On 2 August 1974 Greek forces captured a Turkish armoured resupply column, including an M47 tank and an armoured personnel carrier. (The captured M47 later engaged a confused Turkish tank squadron near Skylloura on 15 August, hitting seven M47 tanks.) Also, on 6 August, Turkey’s 28 Division launched a surprise attack supported by 30 tanks and overran the Greek forward positions around Lapithos (Lapta) and Karavas (Alsanjak), west of the bridgehead to straighten out their line.

By 14 August the Geneva talks, aimed at a political solution, had broken down. Turkey’s demands for a bi-zonal federal state plus complete population transfer shocked Cyprus’ new acting President Glafcos Clerides, who begged for an adjournment in order to consult Athens and Greek-Cypriot politicians. The long shadow of the Machiavellian archbishop fell over the negotiating table, however. No one trusted Makarios, who was dissembling, lying and stalling to the last.

Turkey flatly refused any more delays and the Prime Minister ordered Phase 2 of Operation Attilla. Now with two divisions, an armoured brigade, 200 tanks (many of them the newer M48) and over 150 guns on the island, plus total air supremacy, the result was inevitable. The outnumbered Greeks could do little in the face of such overwhelming Turkish superiority.

The breakout to the West was spearheaded by 28 division and the Commando Brigade, heading for Morphou (Guzelyurt) and Kormakiti. The Greek defenders were pushed back to their final ‘Troodos Line’ to the south. To the east, 39 division’s tanks and armoured personnel carriers attacked along two axes: one raced east towards Famagusta and another to the south east towards Mia Milia (Haspolat), and on towards Larnaca. The 10 Greek battalions and 20 tanks defending the Eastern sector were overwhelmed.

In the centre of the island, a vicious battle developed on 16 August around the Greek national contingent (ELDYK) near the grammar school close to Nicosia International Airport. After the area had been softened up by bomb and napalm attacks, 2000 men of the reinforced ‘Turkish Cyprus Regiment’, supported by 17 M48 tanks, assaulted the regular Greek Army positions. Both sides fought hard. From somewhere near the Star Chinchilla Farm, an unknown Greek Forward Observation Officer (FOO) managed to call in artillery fire from widely dispersed batteries of different guns. This artillery tour de force separated the Turkish armour from the infantry, causing serious casualties until a napalm airstrike silenced the FOO for ever. The fighting went on all day. Four Turkish M48 tanks were knocked out and 100 Greeks died in the fighting before the survivors slipped away.

The final battle was at Pyroi (Gaziler), south east of Nicosia on 16/17 August. As the Turks advanced south, a single Greek infantry platoon with tank support attempted to repel a Turkish infantry battalion. In the fighting four T-34s were abandoned on the road as the defenders fled. The Turks followed, creating the ‘Lourajina Appendix’ in the ceasefire line, bringing Larnaca within range of their guns.

After three days of continuous advance and confused fighting it was all over. Cyprus was sliced in half. The two communities were ethnically separated. Thousands of refugees were displaced from their homes. The Greek Junta and their puppet Sampson went to jail. The UN’s temporary ceasefire still remains the legal position.

Who was responsible? Even the Greek Court of Appeal in Athens ruled in 1979 that the Turkish intervention was legal: ‘The real culprits… are the Greek officers who engineered and staged a coup and prepared the conditions for the invasion.’

Council of Europe agreed: in Resolution 573 it supported the legality of the first wave of the Turkish intervention of 20 July 1974, under the Guarantee Treaty of 1960.

The bitter truth is that Athens and the Greek Cypriots brought it on themselves. Arrogance, pride and stupidity had brought defeat and disaster.

The ancient Greeks were right: hubris invites nemesis…

The Slaughter of the Subalterns

Open letter to the Editor of Legion, the Royal British Legion magazine

Dear Sir,

I was dismayed to read the letter from Elisabeth Wooley in your September issue on officers in the First World War. It is a frequent misapprehension and demands the strongest rebuttal.

I speak from experience. Once, some years ago, I was compelled to intervene at Delville Wood Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in France, after hearing an earnest young schoolmistress holding forth to her gullible pupils that ‘the reason there were so few officers’ graves was because they all stayed in the trench, forcing their men to advance at pistol point or be executed for cowardice.’ My (somewhat forceful) interruption to point out that she was talking nonsense and there were only 30 officers in a battalion of 900 men (3 per cent), and the officers led from the front was met with incredulity ….

A century on, we do a grave disservice to the dead young officers of the Great War to allow this disgraceful lie to continue unchallenged. Historical facts and truth are more important than ignorant opinions and prejudice. The Legion has a national duty to set the record straight.

The real truth is that the casualty rates among the junior officers in the Great War were horrific. The title of John Lewis-Stempel’s book Six Weeks: The Short and Gallant Life of the British Officer in the First World War, describes the fate of most; the life expectancy of a lieutenant in the Western Front in the trenches was just 42 days: ‘The universal expectation of a subaltern was “a hospital bed or interment in the soil”. Many had come straight from the classroom to the most dangerous job in the world, yet nearly all stepped forward, unflinchingly, to do their duty.’

Attacking across No Man’s Land with nothing but a revolver and in a distinctive uniform, junior officers were obvious targets for German defenders; they dropped in their thousands. One in five of the officer-students drawn from Oxford and Cambridge Universities died.

In the UK around 6 million men were mobilised and, of those, just some 750,000 were killed. That’s around 12 per cent. In fact, as a British soldier, statistically you were more likely to die during the Crimean War (1853-6) than in World War I.

However, although numerically the great majority of casualties in World War I came from the working class, the social and political elite were hit disproportionately much harder by the global conflict. Their sons provided the junior officers, whose job it was to lead the way over the top and expose themselves to the greatest danger as an example to their men.

Some 17 per cent of the British army’s officers were killed, compared with 12 per cent of the rank-and-file soldiers killed during the war. Most of those were junior officers, although – contrary to popular belief – more British generals were killed in World War I than in any other major conflict (including three divisional commanders at Loos in 1915). Also, in 1914-18, most officers came from privileged backgrounds.

Casualty rates for regimental officers have always been proportionately higher than for other ranks.

The reason is simple. Young men as junior officers are needed to command infantry. The basic unit of foot soldiers was – and still is – the platoon under the command of the lowest commissioned officer rank. The official title of these junior officers is ‘subaltern’. A century ago in Britain, any educated young man over 18 and with a private school education was deemed officer material and, given a minimum of training, competent to lead his men into battle.

At the outbreak of war in 1914, these young men (many of whom were barely out of school) rushed to join the forces; many thought the war would be over in a few weeks, months at most, and they didn’t want to miss out on the glory and fun.

Overwhelmingly, these junior officer volunteers were educated in British public schools, which in the quaint way we British have with the language are actually private institutions open only to those who can afford the fees. In 1914, the student body came almost exclusively from the British upper and professional caste and filled the classrooms of 120 elite schools.

According to an article by Lewis-Stempel in The Express (9 February 2014), ‘They trained a whole generation of boys to be waiting in the wings of history as military leaders. The young gentlemen from Eton and the Edwardian public schools paid a terrible price for this duty … but there was one unassailable, and surprising, truth about it. The more exclusive your education, the more likely you were to die. Manliness, duty, love of Britain, and stiff upper-lip self-denial were the inescapable virtues. So, when Lord Kitchener asked public school boys to step forward to officer the expanded British Army in 1914, they did so in their thousands.’

These products of tough boarding schools had been educated in a regime of muscular Christianity: team games, cold showers, demonstrating ‘pluck’ at sports, and immersion in history and the classics. They read GA Henty and Rudyard Kipling and were brought up on the famous Henry Newbolt poem, ‘Play up, play up, and play the game!’

In a society defined by class and the accent with which a person spoke, public-school boys were taught it was their destiny to lead, above all to set an example, and to inspire others through their gallantry. Their soldiers deferred to their young leaders sharing the same hardship in the trenches and acknowledged their courage and devotion to duty.

They were rarely let down. The courage of these junior officers was by and large amazing. A common thread is in the letters of many of these well-educated young men; they seemed to fear to be seen ‘letting the side down’ or ‘not being brave enough’ in front of their men more than they feared death itself. They were schooled to set an example; and they did.

The subalterns – in all armies – were always the first ones over the top of the trench and the last ones to retreat. The idea was that through this display of careless bravado they would inspire their men to follow them into Hell. Lionel Sotheby was a product of Eton and a subaltern on the Western front. He wrote in his last letter home that ‘To die for one’s school is an honour.’ He fell in the Battle of Loos in September 1915. He was just 20 years old. His public school, Eton College, sent 3000 of its ex-pupils into the army of the First World War: 1157 (over 30 per cent of them) died on the battlefields.

Guy Chapman of the Royal Fusiliers recalled ‘I was not eager, or even resigned to self-sacrifice, and my heart gave back no answering throb to thoughts of England. In fact, I was very much afraid; and again, afraid of being afraid, most anxious lest I show it.’

Another tragic example was Rudyard Kipling’s son, John, educated at Wellington, keen to join the fight, but rejected because of his severe short-sightedness. His father pulled strings and wangled him a commission as a second lieutenant in the Irish Guards. In autumn 1915, he saw his first and last action in the Battle of Loos. Within minutes of going ‘over the top’ he was dead, crying from the pain of his wound, shot through the jaw but still – according to his platoon serjeant – gamely trying to carry on, only to be later blown to pieces by a shell, just six weeks after his 18th birthday.

John Ellis wrote in his 1989 book Eye-Deep in Hell: Trench Warfare in World War I that, among subalterns, ‘estimates for the mortality rates among platoon commanders in the attack range from 65 to 81 per cent. This was, at its lowest estimate, double the rate for enlisted men.’  The German and French casualties reflect even higher mortality rates for their officers, and lost over 50 percent of their young males aged 20–24 during the Great War.

Bloodshed on this scale prompted the British historian AJP Taylor to write ‘The slaughter of the subalterns in World War I destroyed the flower of the English gentry.’ The American novelist Gertrude Stein lived through the Great War and afterwards described the dead young officers as ‘The Lost Generation’.

Sandhurst’s proud motto is ‘Serve to Lead’. The British soldier expects nothing less from his officers – then and now. The dead young officers of the Great War prove that truth, as a visit to any CWGC cemetery on the Western Front shows.

John Hughes-Wilson
Past President, International Guild of Battlefield Guides
Author, A History of the First World War in 100 Objects (Imperial War Museum, 2014)