Tag Archives: World War II

Antony Beevor – The Second World War – Edinburgh Book Festival

This is the first of a number of rather belated posts on talks by military historians that I attended at the Edinburgh Book Festival in August 2012.

Antony Beevor talked about his recent book on The Second World War on 21 August 2012. He began by pointing out that every country has its own perspective on the war, as memories and experiences of different countries are so different. It was an agglomeration of many conflicts. The German and Japanese did not co-ordinate their strategies.

Beevor related a number of stories from his book. It follows his usual format of combining analysis of strategy with stories of the experience of ordinary soldiers and civilians.

He begins in January 1939 with the Khalkin Gol conflict between Japan and the USSR. It was small but influenced the war. The victory of the Red Army under Georgi Zhukov discouraged the Japanese from later attacking north.

As an example of the global nature of the conflict, Beevor described the story of a Korean called Yang Kyoungjong who was captured by US paratroopers in 1944. He had been conscripted by the Japanese at the age of 18 in 1938, captured by the Red Army in 1939, conscripted into the Red Army in 1941, captured by the Germans in 1943 and conscripted into Normandy as part of an Ost Battalion composed of men from the USSR. He lived out the rest of his life in Illinois in the USA, so had a better fate than many.

Beevor was surprised to see that a memorial to French Jews murdered in the Holocaust described them as having ‘Died for the Glory of France.’ A local explained to him that the French Jews had insisted that their memorial should have the same wording as that on other French war memorials.

The fighting on the Eastern Front was brutal. The Germans carried out mass killings and the Soviets retaliated. Soviet snipers shot starving children who were taking bread from Germans at Stalingrad. Zhukov was ruthless, even threatening to execute the families of PoWs. This measure, which was not implemented, would theoretically have included Josef Stalin, whose son was captured by the Germans.

In November 1942 the Red army launched two major operations; Operation Uranus to encircle the Axis forces attacking Stalingrad and Operation Mars near Moscow. Beevor disagrees with David Glantz’s opinion that Mars was the main operation.

Glantz argues that the Soviets subsequently claimed that Mars was only a diversion for Uranus because Uranus succeeded and Mars failed. Beevor points out that far more artillery was allocated to Uranus. He argues that an NKVD double agent betrayed Mars to the Germans as part of the Soviet plan to distract them from Uranus, which he believes to have been the main operation.

Much has been said about the differences between armies, especially comparing those of democracies with those of dictatorships. Much less has been said about the similarities of the majority of soldiers. Most men did little fighting. A few always fight, a few always run and most follow the majority.

In Asia the Japanese benefitted from the complacency of European colonists, who failed to learn from the Sino-Japanese War. It was also ignored by Adolf Hitler, who failed to recognise that an army could withdraw into the interior when faced by a superior but smaller opponent.

The war in Asia was vicious. Japanese society was militaristic. Soldiers feared disgracing their family and village. They were treated brutally by their officers, leading to them treating the enemy brutally.

The Japanese claimed to be liberators, but Beevor argues that their racial arrogance made the British colonial administration look like a model of liberal tolerance. Japanese officers not only condoned but actively encouraged cannibalism.

The US Marines were more aggressive and faster moving than the US Army in the Pacific. Hatred of the Japanese was reinforced by their suicidal resistance and brutal treatment of PoWs.

Beevor concluded his talk by stating that the Second World War defies generalisation, before taking questions. Some points that came out from these were that:

The pivotal moments were:
May 1940: Winston Churchill rejected Lord Halifax’s proposal to request peace terms from Germany via Italy.
June 1941: German invasion of the USSR.
December 1941: The geopolitical turning point. The Allies could no longer lose, but might have taken much longer than they actually did to win.
November 1942: The Axis lost the initiative.

The British were not good at prioritisation.

Hitler’s main weakness was pride. He would not retreat or give up capital cities.

The Press at army headquarters were not able to report military details so reported on the generals. Some, including Mark Clark, Bernard Montgomery and Douglas MacArthur, were obsessed with PR.

The best commanders were Erich von Manstein, who was not an admirable man, Bill Slim, who was the most admirable commander and Chester Nimitz. In the Pacific Nimitz’s island hopping strategy was superior to MacArthur’s plan to invade the Philippines. MacArthur was a political threat to President Franklin Roosevelt, making it hard to reject his ideas, and the USA had the resources to do both.

The Allied bombing campaign continued for too long, but a lot of effort was invested in it, making it hard to stop. It did have a military effect. The Germans had to withdraw fighters and anti-aircraft guns from the Eastern Front to the homeland, leaving them with no aerial reconnaissance on the Eastern Front. German bombing raids killed 500,000 Soviet civilians.

Dunkirk was appalling ground for tanks. Hitler was convinced by Hermann Göring that the Luftwaffe could prevent the Allied evacuation, but he underestimated the RAF. Hitler, who wanted to save the tanks for operations against the French, was unfairly criticised by the army.

Alan Brooke was an excellent Chief of the Imperial General Staff, but his strategic ideas were not original. He supported the move throught Italy to save Eastern Europe, which Beevor called ‘mad’ because of the mountains. He opposed the US landings in the south of France, which were an excellent idea.

He described the atomic bombs as being the ‘best thing that could happen to Japan’. Only the shock of the second one led to Emperor Hirohito insisting on surrender. The Japanese military proposed forcing civilians to fight to the last armed only with sharpened sticks.

Arnhem and the Allied failure to secure the Scheldt Estuary in 1944 were big Allied mistakes.

An excellent presentation about what seems to be an excellent book, but the market for single volume histories of the Second World War is quite crowded.

Later the same day Beevor chaired a presentation by Anna Reid on her book about the siege of Leningrad. See this blog entry on her talk at the Aye Write book festival in Glasgow in March 2012.

3 Comments

Filed under Reviews, War History

The Attack on Pearl Harbor by Alan Zimm

The Attack on Pearl Harbor: Strategy, Combat, Myths and Deceptions (Haverton, PA/Newbury: Casemate, 2011) by Alan D. Zimm analyses the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 by use of operation research techniques.

Casemate, the publisher, say that the book asks:

Questions never before asked or answered on the Japanese attack from an operational and tactical perspective.
The attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December, 1941, has been portrayed by historians as a dazzling success, “brilliantly conceived and meticulously planned”. With most historians concentrating on command errors and the story of participants’ experiences, this book presents a detailed evaluation of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on an operational and tactical level.
It examines such questions as: Was the strategy underlying the attack sound? Were there flaws in planning or execution? How did Japanese military culture influence the planning? How risky was the attack? What did the Japanese expect to achieve, balanced against what they did achieve? What might have been the results if the attack had not benefited from the mistakes of the American commanders? The book also addresses the body of folklore about the attack, supporting or challenging many contentious issues such as the skill level of the Japanese aircrew, whether midget submarines torpedoed Oklahoma and Arizona, as has been recently claimed, whether the Japanese ever really considered launching a third wave attack, and what the consequences might have been.
In addition, the analysis has detected for the first time a body of deceptions that a prominent Japanese participant in the attack placed into the historical record, most likely to conceal his blunders and enhance his reputation. The centrepiece of the book is an analysis using modern Operations Research methods and computer simulations, as well as combat models developed between 1922 and 1946 at the U.S. Naval War College. The analysis puts a new light on the strategy and tactics employed by Yamamoto to open the Pacific War, and a dramatically different appraisal of the effectiveness of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Zimm subjects the strategy behind the attack, the tactical plan and the actual attack to detailed analysis. He uses the assumptions made by the US Naval War College in its wargames and the outcome of other actions in the Pacific War to evaluate the likely outcomes of various options for both sides.

According to Zimm, Admiral Yamamoto Isoruku, commander of the Japanese Combined Fleet, wanted to sink at least one battleship as he believed that this would destroy the American will to fight. The battleships were therefore the main targets of the attack, but the carrier aviators who planned it regarded the aircraft carriers as the main threat, and allocated a significant number of aircraft against them.

The Japanese plan was inflexible. B5N Kate bombers that could carry either bombs or torpedoes were allocated to one or the other early on in the planning, and their crews were then trained for only one role, making future changes to the bomb/torpedo mix impossible.

The absence of the carriers from Pearl Harbor was known the day before, but no changes were made in the plan, resulting in a large number of torpedoes being wasted on the target ship USS Utah, an unarmed former battleship. Some authors have claimed that the Japanese mistook her for a carrier because her gun turrets had been removed, but Zimm quotes Japanese reports to show that she was attacked in the belief that she was an active battleship.

The attack was unco-ordinated. The bombs of the D3A Val dive bombers could not penetrate battleship armour. They should either have attacked the battleships in the first wave along with the torpedo bombers in order to suppress their AA fire or else bombed cruisers, which they could sink. Instead, the Vals of the second wave wasted many of their bombs on battleships that they could not sink.

The Kate level bombers, which destroyed the USS Arizona, and the attacks on airfields exceeded expectations. However, more ships would have been sunk if more Kates had carried torpedoes, and sinking cruisers was a better use of the Vals’ bombs than destroying aircraft. The Japanese aircrew were badly let down by a large number of dud bombs.

Yamamoto was willing to attack even without the benefit of surprise. Zimm convincingly shows that this would have resulted in very heavy Japanese casualties and much lower American ones.

Zimm characterises Yamamoto as a gambler, who was willing to take big risks. He included midget submarines in the attack. They achieved nothing and risked alerting the Americans. Zimm shows why the theory that a midget submarine torpedoed the Arizona is highly unlikely to be true.

The Americans ought to have had a warning system that would have given them 40 minutes’ warning. Ships would then have had their watertight doors and hatches closed and their AA guns manned, whilst the fighters would have been scrambled. Zimm therefore disagrees with those who try to exonerate General Walter Short and Admiral Husband Kimmel, the US Army and USN commanders.

The attack was a success. The target was to put at least four battleships out of action for a minimum of six months. Yamamoto wanted to destroy at least one battleship, and the Arizona and Oklahoma were lost permanently, but this did not have the psychological effect that he expected. The Nevada was out of service for over six months, and the California and West Virginia did not return to service until 1944, although this delay was partly because they were heavily modernised as well as being repaired. More US aircraft were destroyed than anticipated.

Zimm’s points are that huge risks were taken to achieve this and that a better plan could have inflicted even heavier casualties.

Zimm refutes three well known claims about the battle, which I had accepted until reading his book. The first is that the Japanese should have launched a third strike against shore facilities, including oil tanks. The Navy Yard  was too big to be seriously damaged by the force available. The oil tanks could have been destroyed, but they would have been repaired, and short-term supply shortages could have been met by a re-allocation of Allied tankers. Zimm points out that the Japanese paid little attention to logistics in their planning, so why would they consider disrupting enemy logistics?

He argues that the assertion that there was a heated discussion on whether or not to launch a third strike onboard the Japanese flagship Akagi is a fabrication of Commander Fuchida Mitsuo, the attack leader. Fuchida comes out poorly from this book. Previous research, including this paper by Jonathan Parshall, has doubted his account of the Battle of Midway and his claim to have present at the Japanese surrender in 1945.

The second claim is that it would have been better for the Japanese to meet the Americans at sea. Two of the four battleships that were sunk in the shallow waters of Pearl Harbor were subsequently raised and repaired. They would have been lost if they had suffered the same damage at sea.

Zimm points out that the Japanese would not have scored as many hits on ships that were free to manoeuvre at sea and had their AA guns fully manned. The hits would not have been as devastating on ships that had all their watertight doors and hatches closed.

Comparisons with the sinking of Force Z a couple of days later are invalid. The US ships had better AA systems than the British ones, the US force was larger and the British were attacked by more torpedo bombers than were at Pearl Harbor. At sea, the Japanese could have expected to sink only one US battleship, and then only if they had concentrated their attack on a single ship.

The final claim is that the Japanese aviators were exceptionally well trained and mostly combat veterans. In fact, two of the carriers, Shokaku and Zuikaku, were newly completed, and many of their aircrews were just out of training. Not many of the men on the other four carriers were combat veterans, as carrier aircrews had played relatively little part in the Sino-Japanese War.

The book includes an appendix in which Zimm imagines how the Japanese could have carried out a better attack. More torpedo bombers, better co-ordination and superior target selection result in higher US losses. There is no attempt to extrapolate this into a Japanese victory in the war. It is not one of the counter-factuals, popular on the internet, where one change in weapons production or tactics results in an Axis victory in the Battle of Britain/Stalingrad/Midway and thus the war.

This is an excellent military analysis. It is not a book for everyone. It is not one for anybody who does not know much about the battle or the causes of the Pacific War. It will not appeal to those who dislike acronyms, tables or lots of numbers. There are a number of extracts from memoirs, but these are intended to emphasis points in the analysis, rather than trying to show what it was like to be there.

For those who have some knowledge of the battle, but want a deeper analysis, it is highly recommended.

I read a Kindle copy. The text and quotations were clear, but I would advise e-book readers to switch to landscape format when studying the many maps and tables, which are too small to be legible in portrait format.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews, War History

The Fall of Singapore – The Great Betrayal – BBC2

BBC2 recently broadcast a documentary titled The Fall of Singapore – The Great Betrayal. The synopsis from the BBC’s website says that:

Pearl Harbor and the Fall of Singapore: 70 years ago these huge military disasters shook both Britain and America, but they conceal a secret so shocking it has remained hidden ever since. This landmark film by Paul Elston tells the incredible story of how it was the British who gave the Japanese the knowhow to take out Pearl Harbor and capture Singapore. For 19 years before the fall of Singapore to the Japanese, British officers were spying for Japan. Worse still, the Japanese had infiltrated the very heart of the British establishment – through a mole who was a peer of the realm known to Churchill himself.

The main contributors to the programme were Prof. Richard Aldrich of Warwick University, a leading historian of the British intelligence services, and Dr Antony Best of the LSE, an expert on Anglo-Japanese relations. Many of the assertions made were justified by reference to primary documents in the UK National Archives.

At the end of the First World War, the Royal Navy led the world in naval aviation. Japan, which was then allied to Britain, attempted to obtain details of Britain’s new aircraft carriers. Ten requests for information were rejected, but Japan was allowed to recruit a civilian mission.

It was composed of former members of the Royal Naval Air Service, which had merged with the Royal Flying Corps to form the Royal Air Force in April 1918. The mission was led by an experienced naval aviator, William Forbes-Sempill, the Master of Sempill and the son of a Scottish peer. It was in Japan during 1921-23.

The programme argued that the British mission allowed Japan to develop the naval aviation that enabled it to attack Pearl Harbor and to sink Force Z, composed of HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse, off Malaya in December 1941. This is perhaps going too far; Stephen Roskill contended in his history of the RN between the wars that the Japanese would have caught up with the RN and USN eventually, but that the Sempill mission speeded up the process.[1]

The programme suggested that the Japanese needed British help in order to develop naval aviation. They were behind Britain and the USA, but not by as much as the programme suggested. The first deck landing on an aircraft carrier was on HMS Furious on 3 August 1917, which then had a short flight deck forward of her superstructure.

The first carrier with a full length deck was HMS Argus, which was converted from an incomplete liner and completed in September 1918. Britain began construction of the HMS Hermes, the world’s first purpose built carrier, on 15 January 1918. She was launched on 11 September 1919 but not completed until February 1924.

Japan, meanwhile, laid down its first carrier, IMS Hosho, on 16 December 1919. She was launched on 13 November 1921 and completed on 27 December 1922. The first take off from and landing on her deck took place on 22 February 1923. The first landing on a carrier that was underway was on the USS Langley in November 1922. Conversion of the Langley, the USN’s first carrier, from a collier had been completed on 20 March 1922.

The claim made by the programme that the Japanese needed British help to build a carrier would seem to be an exaggeration, since the Hosho was under construction before the Sempill Mission arrived in Japan, but the mission clearly helped the Japanese to develop carrier aviation quicker than they could have managed if starting from scratch.

The second in command of the base from which the mission operated was Yamamoto Isoruku, in 1941 commander of the Japanese Combined Fleet and mastermind of the attack on Pearl Harbor. By 1941 the IJN was well ahead of the RN and at least equal to the USN in carrier aviation, so the Japanese had taken the initial lessons taught to them by the Sempill Mission and built on them by their own efforts. One of Britain’s problems was that most of its naval aviators transferred to the RAF in 1918, so it had few senior officers with air experience in 1939.

Another former RNAS pilot, Frederick Rutland, was recruited by the Mitsubishi company and taught the Japanese deck landing techniques. He was the son of a labourer and was promoted from the ranks. He was known as Rutland of Jutland because he carried out a reconnaissance mission at the Battle of Jutland.

At this stage, Sempill and Rutland had provided an ally with information as part of officially sanctioned missions. The Anglo-Japanese Alliance was ended by the treaties signed at the 1921-22 Washington Naval Conference and the two countries became potential foes. Despite this, Sempill continued to supply information to Japan. He had asecret job that seemed to make him an international arms salesman for Britain. This gave him access to secret information and brought him into contact with foreign navies and air forces, including those of Chile, Brazil and Greece.

MI5 became suspicious of Sempill’s links with Japan and tapped his phone and intercepted his mail. This provided evidence that he was supplying Japan with secret information. Britain had broken some Japanese codes and intercepted Japanese diplomatic cables relaying some of these from London to Tokyo.

In 1926, Sempill visited the Blackburn aircraft factory, ostensibly to inspect a new single-seater aircraft. He managed to obtain plans of the top secret Blackburn Iris flying boat. Soon after this, he was interviewed by the Deputy Chief of the Air Staff, the Director of Public Prosecutions and a senior MI5 officer.

A meeting chaired by Sir Austen Chamberlain, the Foreign Secretary, decided not to prosecute Sempill. His position in society would make this embarrassing, but there was also the perennial problem with espionage cases that it would be hard to convict without revealing secrets, including the fact that Britain had broken Japanese codes. The relevant files are now publicly available in the National Archives, but were kept secret for many years.

There are no MI5 files on Sempill from the 1930s in the National Archives. One from the 1940s states that he was a paid consultant for Mitsubishi in 1931. He needed the money as he was overdrawn by £13,000; nearly £750,00o in 2012 terms.

During the 1930s Sempill became President of the Royal Aeronautical Society and succeeded his father as Lord Sempill, sitting in the House of Lords as a Conservative. He was a member of The Link, an organisation established in 1937 to promote Anglo-German friendship, and The Right Club, which aimed to rid the Conservative Party of Jewish influence.

Whether or not Sempill was involved, Japanese espionage against Britain continued during the 1930s. In 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria. This raised fears of an Angl0-Japanese war, and Britain re-started work on a large naval base at Singapore. The programme suggested that construction began in 1931; in fact, building started in 1923 but was suspended more than once during the 1920s due to changes in government and budgetary constraints.

During the 1930s Japanese businessmen bought up large amounts of property in Malaya. The programme argued that many of them were spies. Japan bought the plans for the Singapore base from a British serviceman called Roberts.

The Singapore base was heavily defended against attack from the sea. The British thought that it would be impossible to invade Malaya and then attack Singapore by land. In 1937 Joe Vinden (spelling?), a British Army intelligence officer, reconnoitred the Malayan coast and concluded that an invasion of Malaya followed by a land attack on Singapore was feasible.

Vinden correctly forecast that the Japanese would land at Kota Bharu in north-east Malaya during the November-February monsoon season; others thought that an amphibious landing at that time of year was impossible. His recommendation that funds allocated to coastal artillery be instead spent on aircraft was ignored.

Japan also had spies in Hawaii, one of whom was Rutland. He later told interrogators that he was ordered to report on the attitude of the population to the possibility of war and on the dispositions of the US fleet. The FBI soon became suspicious of his activities.

Sempill was brought back to the Admiralty when Winston Churchill was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty, the cabinet minister responsible for the navy, on the outbreak of war in 1939. Sempill gave an assurance that he would not discuss service matters with the Japanese. However, in August 1941 he intervened to secure the release of Satoru Makahara, manager of Mitsubishi’s London office, who had been arrested on suspicion of espionage.

At the same time Churchill and US President Roosevelt held secret talks at Placentia Bay. Shortly afterwards the British code breakers at Bletchley Park intercepted and decoded a signal from the Japanese Embassy in London to Tokyo that gave precise details of the talks. A report that was sent to Churchill about the intercept remained secret for 60 years; he noted that the Japanese version was ‘pretty accurate stuff.’ It had to have come from somebody close to him.

Richard Aldrich said that the most important Japanese source with access to Churchill was Sempill. A few days later MI5 told Churchill that the Japanese had information about his inner circle. He demanded proof and a month long surveillance operation produced the names of Sempill and Commander McGrath, who had been with Sempill in Japan.

Churchill stated that Sempill could not remain at the Admiralty. When Sempill was asked to resign his commission, however, Churchill said that he only wanted Sempill to leave his current job, not the RN. Antony Best pointed Sempill was a Conservative peer who would have had friends in the Conservative Party. Richard Aldrich argued that interning Sempill would look very bad for the government, which had employed him even though he had been under MI5 surveillance since 1925.

Rutland was deported to Britain by the Americans and interned. He was released near the end of the war and later committed suicide. Sempill was given a choice of either resigning his commission or taking up a post in northern Scotland; the programme did not make it clear that which he chose. He died in 1965.

It was argued that Sempill was not charged under the Official Secrets Act or interned under Defence Regulation 18B because he was a well connected aristocrat and his arrest would embarrass the government. Other members of the upper classes were interned, including Sir Oswald Moseley, founder of the British Union of Fascists and his wife Diana, one of the Mitford sisters, Admiral Sir Barry Domvile and Archibald Maule Ramsay, the Conservative MP who founded The Right Club.

However, none of them had held any government position during the war, whilst Sempill was close to the Prime Minister. This would suggest that embarrassment to the government in general and Churchill in particular for appointing a man previously suspected of supplying secrets to Japan to a sensitive post was a stronger reason for not taking action against him than his social position.

Another reason might be that a trial could have revealed that the British had broken Japanese codes. The programme mentioned this when discussing why he was not charged in 1925, but did not repeat the point when discussing his lack of punishment in 1941.

This was a very interesting programme. It should be noted that it was not as new a revelation as the BBC claimed. The relevant documents were released to public view at the National Archives in 1998, and The Independent newspaper reported on them, quoting Richard Aldrich. Nevertheless, the programme was well made, justified its claims with reference to primary documents and brought the story to a wider audience.


[1] Stephen Roskill, Naval Policy Between the Wars, vol. i (London: Collin, 1968), p. 529.

15 Comments

Filed under Political History, Reviews, War History

In Darkness – Holocaust Film

In Darkness is a Polish film, directed by Agnieszka Holland,  which was nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film of 2011. The dialogue is a mixture of Polish, Yiddish, German and Ukrainian. The English subtitles were clear, helped by the background generally being very dark.

The film is set during the Holocaust in World War II. A number of Jews attempt to escape into the sewers of Lvov in Poland (now L’viv in Ukraine) when the Germans liquidate the Ghetto. Some of them are helped by Leopold Socha, a sewer inspector and former petty criminal.  He is excellently played by Robert Wieckiewicz.

In Darkness is very atmospheric, re-creating both the cramped, dark and unhealthy conditions in which the Jews have to live and the initial level of distrust between Socha and the Jews; at first he appears to aid them only because they pay him to do so, whilst some of them distrust Poles and/or look down on him because he is uneducated.  It shows that Socha risked the lives of himself, his wife Wanda and their daughter by helping the Jews, but that Poles were also executed in reprisal for acts of resistance that they had nothing to do with.

The film is based on a book by Robert Marshall called In the Sewers of Lvov: A Heroic Story of Survival from the Holocaust. One of the Jews, Krystyna Chiger, then a small child, wrote a memoir called The Girl in the Green Sweater: A Life in Holocaust’s Shadow.

SPOILER ALERT! The links in the next two paragraphs reveal more about the story than some may wish to know before seeing the film.

Socha was helped by Stefan Wroblewski, another sewer worker. Both men and their wives were later recognised by Yad Vashem as being amongst the Righteous of the Nations for their roles in saving Jews during the Holocaust. As with most films about true events, it claims to be ‘based on true events’ and has a degree of fictionalisation and character amalgamation.

This article from the Los Angeles Times is by David Lee Preston; his mother, Halina Wind, was saved by Socha but does not appear in the film. It mentions that Stefan Wroblewski’s fate was not as shown in the film, and that a third sewer worker, Jerzy Kowalow, also helped. There is a character in the film called Kovalov who helps Jews, but he was a factory owner/manager rather than a sewer worker.

A very good film, but one that has a limited release in the UK and, I suspect, the rest of the English-speaking world. There is some sex, nudity and violence, but none of it is gratuitous.

2 Comments

Filed under Reviews, War History

The Spanish Link in Cracking the Enigma Code

This morning, BBC Radio 4’s Today programme broadcast a short report by Gordon Corera on the presentation of two German Enigma code machines by the Spanish Army Museum in Toledo to GCHQ, the British signals intelligence agency. GCHQ will retain one of the machines and the other will go to the museum at Bletchley Park, Britain’s World War II code-breaking centre. The Spanish Army Museum received a later and more sophisticated machine in return. An NCO found several Enigma machines in the Spanish Defence Ministry a few years ago.

Germany and Italy both sent forces to support the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War. The Germans used Enigma machines to ensure that their communications were secure. Britain was aware of the Enigma machine and in 1927 bought a commercial version, which was less sophisticated than the military one. German military radio traffic could not be heard in Britain, but Britain could detect the radio signals of the Germans in Spain, enabling work to start work on decoding the Enigma.

The main benefit of these efforts were that they showed the British that the Enigma code was not unbreakable. The Poles, who could pick up German military radio signals, had made more progress in breaking the military Enigma code and shared these with Britain and France just before the start of the war.

The story of the successful efforts to break the Enigma code during World War II  is now well known, although the Polish contribution is sometimes underplayed. The manner in which the foundation to these attempts was laid during the Spanish Civil War was unknown until now.

Gordon Corera wrote an article on the story for the BBC’s website. It emphasises the importance of technology and co-operation between countries in intelligence and security. This link to the BBC website includes his report; not sure if it will work outside the UK. (Warning! It starts as soon as the page opens.) He interviewed GCHQ’s official historian, who was introduced as being called just Tony. Apparently, GCHQ is so secret that the surname of its historian cannot be revealed!

1 Comment

Filed under War History

Britain and Vichy France – Document – BBC Radio 4

Document is a BBC radio series, presented by Mike Thomson, that takes a document as the starting point into an investigation of historical events. The document dealt with in the most recent programme, broadcast on 19 March 2012, was found by Eric Grove, Professor of Naval History at Salford University in the UK National Archives. It revealed that discussions had taken place between the British Chiefs of Staff and representatives of the Vichy French Army in May 1942. British and Vichy French troops were then fighting each other on Madagascar. They had previously fought each other in Syria, and Britain bombarded the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir in 1940, provoking the French to bomb Gibraltar in retaliation.

Vichy France, so-called because Vichy was its capital, controlled southern France after the Franco-German armistice of July 1940 and had some authority in the occupied north. It was allowed an army of eight divisions. The Anglo-Vichy talks, which began in December 1941, centred on the idea that, if and when the Allies invaded France, Britain would equip Vichy’s army, which would re-enter the war on the Allied side.

I did not quite understand how this was going to work. Landings around La Rochelle or Bordeaux were suggested, but the Atlantic and English Channel coasts of France were German occupied. As Eric Grove said, the document is a starting point and further research is required.

The Germans invaded Vichy France in November 1942, after Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of French North Africa. The Vichy Government continued to exist, but its armed forces were disbanded, so did not exist on D-Day, 6 June 1944.

One interesting point was that Field Marshal Alan Brooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, minuted that Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, should not be told of the talks. It is not surprising that they were not informed of discussions that were taking place at a staff level, which they might need to deny knowledge of. It is strange that it was specifically minuted that they should not the told.

The format of the programme is that Mike Thomson starts with the document and the person who has found it, and then interviews others to find out more.  In this programme they included, as well as Eric Grove, Vichy historians Robert Paxton, Henry Rousso and Simon Kitson, eminent French historian Jean-Louis Cremieux-Brilhac, who was one of De Gaulle’s intelligence officers, and military historians Max Hastings and Colin Smith, as well as Gerald Bryan, who was badly injured fighting Vichy forces in Syria. It was suggested that the French archives might shed more light on the matter, since the document being discussed gives only the British side of the story.

Document is an interesting series, which I had not previously come across. This was the last of the current series but 37 editions are available via the BBC I-Player. These are free to UK listeners but not available outside the UK, although I have read suggestions that the BBC may introduce a pay version of the I-Player for overseas listeners (and viewers). It appears that radio programmes, unlike TV ones, remain on the I-Player long after their first broadcast.

3 Comments

Filed under Reviews, War History

Leningrad by Anna Reid – Aye Write Book Festival, Glasgow

I recently attended a talk by Anna Reid on her book Leningrad: Tragedy of a City Under Siege, 1941-44, held as part of Glasgow’s Aye Write book festival. The US edition of the book is called Leningrad: The Epic Siege of World War II, 1941-1944.

She described the Siege of Leningrad as being one of the great atrocities of World War II. Estimates of civilian casualties range from a quarter to a third of the population of 2.5 million; she says that the best estimate is that 750,000 civilians  died, most in the first winter of the siege, 1941-42. This excludes military casualties. The Germans tried to starve the population rather than assaulting the city. The Siege lasted from 8 September 1941 until 27 January 1941

The book covers military history, but it is mainly a social history about civilian life in the city. Internal government documents are now available, as are NKVD archives, including informers’ reports.  She mainly used diaries written at the time to learn the opinions of Leningraders, although she did conduct half a dozen interviews with survivors. She didn’t do any more because of the amount of information available in diaries. Diarists risked arrest if their diaries were found and contained criticism of the Soviet regime. Many therefore wrote in coded language and hid their diaries. They are still being handed in to museums and archives.

The differences between the traditional Soviet view of the siege and the truth is now being discovered:

  • A  significant minority of the population at first wanted a German victory as a price worth paying to get rid of the Bolsheviks. These attitudes mostly changed once the brutality of the Germans became apparent. Most people distinguished between the country and the regime and fought for their country rather than for Communism.
  • The dreadful military mistakes were not talked about in the USSR. There was criticism of Stalin by Khrushchev and subsequently, but specific actions such as the huge casualties caused by sending the militia, the Opolcheniye, into action with no training and poor equipment were not mentioned. Neither was a naval retreat from Tallinn that was ordered too late because the leadership were in denial over the situation. Half the ships were lost in what was like Dunkirk, but without air cover.
  • Stalin considered giving up the city, as it was more important to preserve the army.
  • Political repression continued during the siege. The NKVD archives contained a number of diaries whose authors had been arrested. They were harmless people, often denounced by neighbours.
  • Contrary to the view that everybody was in it together, there was inequality in the allocation of rations. They were skewed in favour of soldiers and manual workers and against women, infants and adolescents. Some institutions, such as the Hermitage and the radio station, were privileged and their employees did better. Those at the Party HQ did best of all. In the winter of 1941-42, people’s world narrowed and they became interested only in food. In the spring of 1942, some mothers were offered evacuation with their work places. They could generally take their children but not their elderly parents, who were often dependent on them. Some mothers even had to leave their children. Anna Reid told the harrowing story of one mother who was evacuated. Her daughter went with her, but her son was too weak to travel. The mother died, but the daughter survived and returned to Leningrad; she was unable to find out what happened to her brother.

Russian historians now discuss the truth about the Siege of Leningrad, but the general population still believe the Soviet myth. The view that, whilst Stalin was a murderous dictator before and after the war, he was a great war leader persists. Anna Reid employed several Russian researchers and translators who were shocked at what they learnt during the course of their work.

There is some self-censorship in discussion of the Siege because of consideration for the feelings of the survivors. Anna Reid finds their stories inspirational once the Soviet propaganda is stripped away.

Leningrad was the first city that Hitler tried and failed to take. Neither side had the strength to end the siege, resulting in static warfare. It differed from Stalingrad, where fighting took place in the city and most civilians were evacuated. Civilians could not leave Leningrad until the spring of 1942.

Even in the spring of 1942 evacuation was difficult. People not being evacuated with their work place had to bribe the drivers to get onto the trucks that were driving along the Ice Road across Lake Ladoga. The trucks were open so many died on the journey. The presence of feeding and medical stations is a myth, at least in the spring of 1942.. Even once across Lake Ladoga, you still had to get onto a train and find a town that would give you a residence permit and ration card.

The city’s normal death rate of 4-5,000 per month rose to 11,000 in November 1941, 50,000 in December and 100,000 in each of January, February and March 1942. There was a subsequent drive to clean up the city, grow more food and return to normal life.  a mass evacuation by barge in the summer of 1942 reduced the population to 600,000 by August, making life more normal in the winter of 1942-43, when things were better organised.

This was a very interesting talk, although my interests are more towards the military aspects of the Siege. The book took three years to research and a further two to write. It is available in hardback and as an e-book. Amazon are taking orders for the paperback, but do not give a publication date.

1 Comment

Filed under Reviews, War History

Bullets, Bombs and Bandages: How to Really Win at War: BBC4 TV

BBC4 has recently broadcast a very interesting three part series titled Bullets, Bombs and Bandages: How to Really Win at War. It was introduced by Saul David, Professor of War Studies at the University of Buckingham and explained the importance of planning, supply and logistics in war. Wars are won by the side with more supplies and better equipment, It has now finished, but is available, for UK viewers only, on the BBC I-Player until 28 February.

The first episode, ‘Staying Alive’, discussed the difficulties of keeping an army supplied with food. Archaeological evidence shows that the Romans shipped some foodstuffs from Spain to Hadrian’s Wall. Wellington’s army in Portugal and Spain during the Napoleonic Wars had to take a herd of cattle with it. An army of 80,000 men had to slaughter 300 animals per day. The invention of canned food eased supply problems, but early tin cans had to be opened with bayonets because the tin can was invented several years before the tin opener.

The second episode, ‘Stealing a March’, covered the difficulties of moving armies. In 1066, King Harold of England faced two threats. He quickly moved his army north to defeat Harald Hadrada’s Vikings at Stamford Bridge, but then had to return south to face William the Conqueror’s well prepared Normans. Harold’s army was depleted and exhausted, and he should have followed his mother’s advice and delayed giving battle. Instead he fought and lost.

Marlborough’s victory at Blenheim was one of logistics. His army used two-wheeled spring carts to transport its supplies. They were twice as fast as the farm carts used by his French and Bavarian opponents. In 1812, Napoleon expected to defeat Russia before winter. His army was equipped for summer, including the wrong type of horse shoes. A farrier explained that horses have to have different shoes in winter; Napoleon’s had summer shoes so could not grip the ice going up and down hills.

Railways enabled armies to be deployed more quickly and in greater numbers than previously. Helmuth von Moltke was one of the first to realise this, and his meticulous planning allowed the Prussians to mobilise more quickly than the French and to defeat them in the Franco-Prussian War. Railways allowed huge armies to be mobilised in World War I, but horses remained crucial in World War II because they were the fastest way of crossing rough ground until the invention of the jeep. The use of tanks and other motor vehicles made petrol supply vital; modern petrol cans are called jerry cans in the English-speaking world because they are based on a German design, which was more robust and practical than the British version.

Modern armies require huge amounts of supplies. The Allies required a port to keep their troops supplied after D-Day. Rather than capture one, they brought an artificial one, code-named Mulberry, with them. It was designed to last for nine weeks, but remained in use for nine months. Camp Bastion, Britain’s main supply base in Afghanistan, is a busier airport than Stansted. Despite all the modern equipment, losses of helicopters meant that British soldiers had to march to fight in the Falklands War.

See the BBC website for more on episode 2:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-16929522

The final episode, ‘Raising Arms’, dealt with the importance of having the best equipment and being able to afford enough of it. The Bank of England was founded in the 1690s after England ran out of money following wars with France and Spain. Sound finances enabled wars to be fought as equipment became more sophisticated and thus expensive. The increasing importance of artillery meant greater casualties, requiring more attention to medical facilities. Armies became more professional and technical, requiring better training.

In the late 19th century the increasing range of rifles meant that armies had to abandon colourful clothing, such as the British red coat, which was replaced by khaki. By 1908, British soldiers wore equipment that was designed from scratch for efficiency rather than adapting what had been used before. The British Lee-Enfield rifle had a shorter range than the German Mauser but was otherwise superior. Its magazine held 10 rather than 5 bullets and it had a bent bolt that enable the British soldier to keep his eye on the target whilst operating it, unlike the Mauser’s straight bolt.

In 1915 British machine guns and artillery were firing ammunition more quickly than it could be manufactured. A Ministry of Munitions was established and new factories built. Shortage of acetone, imported before the war, created problems with the manufacture of cordite. Chaim Weizmann, a chemistry lecturer at Manchester University, discovered a method of fermenting grain to produce acetone. In 1917 the British Empire produced over 50 million shells and a billion bullets and the Allies were out-producing the Germans. In 1917-18 the war cost £20 million per day in 2012 money.

Since World War I military power has been measured by the means of destruction rather than by numbers of men and horses. The Allies dropped 3.4 million tons of bombs in World War II. The USA dropped 7 million tons in the Vietnam War. Equipment is now stockpiled in peace, but this leads to risks of its own. An accident at an RAF munitions depot at Fauld in Staffordshire on 27 November 1944 caused one of  the largest ever non-nuclear explosions and killed more than 70 people.

The cost of military equipment continues to rise. The USA fired 800 Tomahawk cruise missiles in 48 hours during its Shock and Awe attack on Baghdad in 2003. Each costs $0.5 million. A Typhoon Eurofighter costs £50 million and the Joint Strike Fighter is likely to be twice as expensive. NATO’s opponents in Afghanistan are armed with little more than AK47s and home-made bombs, but this conflict has cost the UK £18bn. The question is knowing who the next enemy will be. The problem is that tipping points in military technology are not apparent until after the event.

See the BBC website for more on episode 3:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-17011607

5 Comments

Filed under Current affairs, Reviews, War History