Tag Archives: World War II

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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The Guns of August

August has always been a good month to start a war. The reasons are simple: the harvest is ripening; the men are fit and ready; the long days are perfect for campaigning without worrying about the weather; and the summer heat seems to encourage rash decisions. In the Foreign Legion they call it le cafard – the depression or madness brought on by a hot summer.

We don’t have to look far for examples. Hitler decided to unleash his legions against Poland in August 1939; Putin invaded Georgia in August 2008; on 14 August 1974, Turkey launched its ‘Second Peace Operation’, which resulted eventually in the Turkish occupation of Northern Cyprus; and, most notorious of all, what started out as a European conflict went global in August 1914 when Britain declared war.

Well might Britain’s then Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, muse as he watched the lights going out on 4 August: ‘the lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.’

If ever there was a war that changed the world it was World War I. Many of our international problems today stem from that disastrous August of 1914 and the conflict it spawned: Communism, Stalin, the USSR, Hitler and his Nazis, Israel, Palestine, Iraq, Iran, Islamic fundamentalism were all offspring of World War I. Most damaging of all were World War II and the long Cold War that followed. All have their origins in what was nothing more than a ruinous four-year civil war in Europe.

The irony is that it all went wrong from the start and could have been avoided with a little adroit diplomacy. If there is a villain of the story in 1914 it was the German General Staff, who had been planning for years how to deal with a war on two fronts. Under the eye of a workaholic general (he even went to work on Christmas day, according to his family), Generaloberst Alfred von Schlieffen devised a plan. Blackadder would probably have it called it ‘a plan so cunning you could stick a tail on it and call it a weasel.’

Unfortunately it wasn’t. The great Schlieffen plan was a deadly political and diplomatic trap. Even some Germans realised it at the time.

Late in the afternoon of 1 August 1914, Colonel General Helmuth von Möltke was driving back to the Army HQ in the Königsplatz when his car was stopped and he was commanded to return to the Royal Palace immediately. Back at the Berliner Schloss, a jubilant Kaiser told the head of the German armies that he had received a telegram from London assuring him that Britain would guarantee that, if Germany refrained from going to war with France, then London would ask the French not to attack Germany.

The Kaiser was ecstatic and ordered champagne; ‘Now we need only wage war against Russia! So we simply advance with the whole army in the east.’

Von Möltke was appalled. ‘But it is too late, Highness. All the planning, the stores and the armies are already moving west. The 16th infantry division is even now securing the railway junctions at Trier and in Luxembourg. It has been planned for years… we will just have a disorganised rabble without supplies. It cannot be done.’

A shocked Kaiser responded coldly, ‘Your uncle would have given me a different answer.’ Thrown out by a balked Kaiser, von Möltke went back to his office and wept.

He might have cried some more if he realised that the great Schlieffen plan was not just a rigid diplomatic and political cage: it had some serious flaws. Any decent general staff planner can spot them immediately. First, it relied on invading Belgium to outflank the French from the north. That would almost certainly drag the British into any war, as they were a guarantor of Belgian neutrality. Not a clever political move?

Second, it relied on Russia taking weeks to mobilise, thereby allowing the Germans to knock the French out of the war before Russia could attack in the east.

Unfortunately the German planners had forgotten their own rule: ‘No plan survives contact with the enemy.’ The Russians were disobliging enough to mobilise quickly and invade East Prussia and Poland, which caused something like panic in Berlin. Stories of sad German refugees streaming west from the marauding Cossack hordes forced the Kaiser to send his priceless reinforcements to the east, not to France.

Third, and most damaging of all, the much vaunted brains of the German General Staff just hadn’t done their sums. To march through Belgium, then south through France to Paris or the Marne is about 240 miles (380 km). But the German troop trains stopped in Belgium. From then on it was ‘Shank’s pony’, as the increasingly hot and exhausted Ländser pursued the retreating French and British Expeditionary Force south.

This is where the general staff got it so badly wrong; like a piece of elastic the German supply line was stretched a little further every day. In those pre-lorry days, every round of ammunition, every bale of hay for the horses, every bit of food for the weary troops, even horseshoes and new boots for the footsore soldiers, had to find its way forward on an ever-lengthening supply chain to the advancing armies, which were getting further and further away from their logistic bases.

After two weeks the supply chain was stretched so far that hay intended for the front-line horses was being consumed by the horses trying to bring it forward. At the front horses were dying from lack of food or falling sick from eating green unripe corn. The great advance faltered and slowed in the sweltering heat. The German generals then took a fateful decision. Realising that they couldn’t surround Paris – it was now too far and would take too long – they ordered the advance to swing south, to the east of Paris. By doing so they presented a flank to the army in Paris, who promptly attacked and stopped the Germans on the river Marne. The German advance was over; they fell back in September to dig trenches and go on the defensive.

That was the moment the Germans found themselves fighting a war on two fronts. That was the moment Germany lost the Great War .

The four bloody years that followed merely reinforced the outcome of that August. But from that war, the world changed out of all recognition. The effect and consequences of World War I were dramatic. In 1914 Europe controlled most of the world, effectively. For five hundred years Europeans had sailed the globe, seizing land and dominating what Kipling called ‘lesser breeds without the law.’ The 15th-century European voyages of Henry the Navigator – resulting in discoveries and maritime expansion into Africa and Asia – set up the Portuguese Empire. A century later Spain dominated the Americas, to be followed on the high seas by the Dutch, the French, the English and the Americans, all projecting their trade and power across the world. By the 19th century, Europe, and European ideas and values, ruled the world in one form or another. The ‘Guns of August’ put a stop to that. By 1922, the Russian, German, Austrian Ottoman empires were no more. France and Britain were bankrupted and enfeebled and new countries after Versailles were hostages to future problems, from the Balkans to the Middle East.

The Great War opened a Pandora’s box of problems that has haunted us ever since.

Once again we are in the danger zone this month for armed conflict somewhere. So, yes, beware the month of August. Statistically speaking, this tends to be the favoured season for wars to start.

Looking around at our troubled world, it is worrying that there are far too many conflicts waiting to explode.

Why D-Day Matters

The invasion of Normandy by Allied forces on 6 June 1944, was the Western Allies’ most critical operation of World War II.

By 1942 German armies had overrun most of Europe, North Africa and the western Soviet Union. They set up murderous police states and imprisoned million of people in the pursuit of implementing a policy of breeding a Germanic master race. With gas chambers and firing squads, Nazi Germany killed millions of Jews, Poles, Russians, homosexuals, gypsies, disabled people and others undesirable to the Nazi regime. If the attack, nicknamed ‘Operation Overlord’, had failed – and Hitler’s Wehrmacht had succeeded in pushing the invaders back into the sea – then world history would have been altered. ‘It’s hard to imagine what the consequences would have been had the Allies lost,’ says Timothy Rives, of the Eisenhower Presidential Library. ‘You could make the argument that they saved the world.’

Failure on D-Day would have freed Hitler to redeploy 20 more divisions, including eight Panzers, to meet the Red Army’s summer 1944 onslaught on the Eastern Front. The German generals would never have risked their 20 July bomb plot against a now victorious Führer and Germany’s V-weapons programme would have had the critical extra time it needed to produce thousands more new rockets and jet fighters. Many people forget that, even with D-Day and the Allied bombing offensive, German industrial production peaked in September 1944.

Also, as Andrew Roberts points out, if the Russians had overwhelmed the German armies in the East, nothing could have prevented the whole of Western Europe – perhaps even as far as Paris – falling to Joseph Stalin’s USSR.

The 50 miles of Normandy coastline is therefore one of the most important battlefields of World War II. Today’s golden tourist beaches witnessed the start of one the most ambitious and historically important campaigns in human history. In its strategy and scope – and with its enormous stakes for the future of the free world – it was among the greatest military achievements ever. The Western Allies’ goal was simple and clear cut: to put an end to the Germany military machine and topple Adolf Hitler’s barbarous Nazi regime.

For the very old men of the surviving British, American and Canadian troops who spearheaded that assault at dawn on what one commentator called ‘the longest day’, this year’s anniversary was special. It will be their last big celebration of their victory, 75 years ago in the summer of 1944. Amid the beautiful French holiday countryside, one of the most critical struggles of the twentieth century took place. It was a struggle that would eventually end at the gates of Hitler’s Chancellery in Berlin on the last day of April 1945, as a demented and broken Hitler poisoned his dog and his mistress, before finally blowing his own brains out.

But D-Day nearly didn’t happen. The whole enterprise was delayed for 24 hours by bad weather and heavy seas. Having taken the momentous decision, on the night before the invasion Eisenhower drafted an ‘In case of failure’ note, to be published if necessary: ‘If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone,’ he wrote. Like all professional soldiers, he knew that in the final analysis – assuming that his soldiers had weapons and would fight – only two factors are of paramount importance in war: intelligence and logistics.

On both counts the Allies triumphed. One of the biggest and most successful deception operations ever fed the German General Staff a brilliantly conceived and executed stream of false intelligence. From a phantom ‘4th Army’ in Scotland, preparing to invade Norway, to Patton’s massive ‘1st US Army Group’ in Kent, with its thousands of rubber tanks, fake landing craft and a mock oil depot across from the Pas de Calais at Dover, the Germans were completely fooled. In reality the busiest warriors were a few hundred Allied radio operators busy transmitting phoney signals to simulate non-existent armies’ radio traffic.

What is also often forgotten also is the staggering scale of the logistic back-up effort put in to ensure that the amphibious assault went well.

The statistics of all the materiel the Allies piled up on the beaches of southern England to support the invasion are mind blowing – not just in scale, but in attention to detail. All over southern England massive new ammo and supply dumps mushroomed. Millions of tons of stores, 100,000 vehicles and 250,000 men piled into the Channel coast bases in the spring of 1944. One of those supply units alone piled up 3 500 tons of soap, which Eisenhower insisted went to France so that his soldiers could take baths.

‘Ike’ had 3 million troops under his command; what they all devoured in just one day was stupendous. According to historian Rick Atkinson, US commanders had ‘calculated daily combat consumption, from fuel to bullets to chewing gum, at 41,298 pounds per soldier. Sixty million K-rations, enough to feed the invaders for a month, were packed in 500-ton bales.’

With his experiences of the Somme and Gallipoli, Churchill was deeply pessimistic about casualties. There is ample evidence that he harboured grave misgivings about the whole enterprise. The US Chiefs of Staff were having none of it. They insisted that casualty evacuation was given particular attention. Many of the ships headed across the channel for France, had no soldiers on board. Instead, they carried some 30,000 stretchers, 96,000 blankets and tons of supplies – blood, dressings, splints, plasma, beds, to name a few – for the assault troops that would land at Normandy.

Once ashore, a sophisticated and well-organised system of field hospitals swung into action. Medics on the beach applied basic first aid as they sorted the casualties. The ‘transportable wounded’ were embarked on to the very ships that had carried the blankets that now covered them. Across the channel they were loaded on to trains for the 150 American-built hospitals across southern England. This was the medical staffs’ vital contribution: to save lives, none more so than the forward Casualty Clearing Stations and mobile Field Hospitals as the battle plunged further into France. ‘Doctors and nurses, often working 14-hour-long shifts, consider this time as their actual battle participation,’ one medical official wrote.

Except for the difficulties on Omaha Beach – when the Americans launched their swimming tanks too far out, where they were swamped by the waves – casualties were surprisingly light, considering the perils of any frontal assault. Although German machine-gunners hit Allied soldiers hard as they came ashore from their landing craft, the Montgomery’s attack plan (in his role as Land Forces Commander) overwhelmed them, as 160,000 assault troops, 12,000 aircraft and 200,000 sailors manning 7000 vessels first blasted the defenders, then stormed the beaches.

The eight assault divisions suffered 12,000 killed, wounded and missing. The Americans lost 8230, with 2400 casualties at Omaha alone. On the other beaches casualties were surprisingly light; at Utah, the US lost only 197 men. Thanks to the firepower of their swimming tanks and other ‘funnies’ the British and Canadians had only 3000 casualties. Although no major French units took part in the invasion, many French civilians were killed, mostly by Allied bombs or shell fire. Some injured citizens were reduced to disinfecting their wounds with calvados, the local apple brandy.

By dawn on 7 June the Allies were safely ashore, dug in and there to stay. German counter attacks had been repulsed. Supplies and fresh reinforcements were flooding in and the bridgehead was expanding. As the Allied soldiers marched inland from the beaches, the delighted French cheered, many of them giving flowers to the soldiers. The success of D-Day changed the course of history for ever.

That is why President Johnson’s tart reply to de Gaulle in 1966, when the arrogant French leader demanded that all US troops leave France immediately, still hits home: ‘What? Including all the ones in your cemeteries?’