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1940-1942: THE FULCRUM OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY? ‘Halfway Out of National Danger’: Chiang, Stalin and the Chinese Reaction to Barbarossa

This is the fifth in a series of posts connected to the King’s College Second World War Research Group’s ‘1940-1942: Fulcrum of the Twentieth Century Conference’, held at the JSCSC on June 1st. 

PETER HARMSEN

Traditionally Chiang Kai-shek has been treated in western historiography as a failure: the man who presided over the epic loss of China. In recent years, however, he has been the subject of more balanced assessments, and nuances have appeared, leaving space for remarks such as this: “Sometimes, Chiang Kai-shek was more farsighted than either Roosevelt or Churchill.” The words belong to his American advisor Owen Lattimore. Are they an exaggeration? A look at Chiang’s reaction to Operation Barbarossa, Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, may help the reader decide for themselves.

China had precise advance information about the German plans for an attack. In the spring of 1941, Vasilii Chuikov, a Soviet advisor to the Chinese Army, was warned by General Zhang Chong, the head of Chinese intelligence, that a German assault could be expected in June of that year, or July at the latest. As the date of the German offensive approached, Chiang Kai-shek exhibited almost uncanny premonition. When he was informed of the conclusion of the German-Turkish Non-Aggression Treaty of June 18, 1941, he guessed rightly what Germany was doing. “It will be just a few days before Germany attacks the Soviet Union,” he wrote in his diary the following day.

When Barbarossa did indeed happen, Chiang’s immediate reaction was one of rekindled hope for the future. “Japan can no longer concentrate on defeating China, nor can it any longer assume that by beating China it will reach its objective of dominating East Asia,” he wrote in his diary on June 24. “The combined forces of the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union are now containing Japan… This means that China is already halfway out of its national danger”.

The new situation was only of any real advantage to Chiang if the Soviet Union agreed to go to war with Germany’s Axis partner Japan. However, persuading Stalin to do so was a formidable task at a time when the Soviet dictator found himself in a life-and-death struggle with Germany, and could rest reasonably assured that Japan would refrain from attacking from the east, since Moscow and Tokyo had signed a non-aggression treaty in April of that year.

Even so, Chiang tried his best. On July 2, for example, he informed Lauchlin Currie, the chief US representative in Chongqing, of reliable intelligence that Japan had decided to abrogate the non-aggression treaty and shortly afterwards declare war on the Soviet Union. The intention was probably for the United States to pass on the information to the Soviet Union and that in the best-case scenario it would launch a pre-emptive attack against Japan.

The sources suggest that Chiang himself had no expectations of an imminent Japanese assault on the Soviet Union. According to Lattimore, his American advisor, the Chinese leader “was convinced, even in the first week of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, that as the Soviets would eventually defeat the Germans, the Japanese would not honor the Berlin-Tokyo axis and attack Siberia from the east to help the Germans in the west.”

Chiang was exactly right. Only a minority of decision makers in Japan supported the idea of accommodating the German ally by attacking the Soviet Union from the east. Chiang had an advantage few if any of the other Allied leaders had in World War Two. He understood his primary enemy intimately, speaking the Japanese language and having attended military academy in Japan

While the sources suggest that Chiang considered a Japanese attack on the Soviet Union unlikely, they do not say what he thought about the likelihood of a Soviet attack on Japan, but he ought to have known that it was probably not going to happen. After all, every previous attempt at dragging the Soviet Union into the war had failed, even under circumstances that were vastly more advantageous to the Soviet side.

In the fall and winter of 1937, China had tried repeatedly to pull the Soviet Union into the war with Japan, but had been rebuffed every single time, as Stalin had argued intervention would be counterproductive by rallying Japanese society behind the war effort and putting the Soviet Union in the role of the aggressor. In fact, in 1937 the Soviet Union welcomed Japan’s Chinese quagmire, understanding that it weakened the danger Japan posed to its eastern border.

Even though Chiang must have considered a Soviet-Japanese war improbable in 1941, he undertook steps which later historians have interpreted as designed to lure Stalin into action.

His government, located in the wartime capital of Chongqing in China’s interior, decided on July 2 to cut off ties with Germany and Italy. This has been described by historians as aimed a speedily realigning ties with the Soviet Union, while only “ostensibly” being in retaliation for a decision by Berlin and Rome to establish formal ties with the rival pro-Japanese regime in Nanjing, led by Wang Jingwei.

The significance of this move has probably been somewhat overstated in the literature so far. Finland and Denmark are the only two other instances in 1941 of countries that opened formal ties with the Nanjing regime despite existing ties with the Chongqing government. In both Nordic cases, Chiang reacted by severing ties. In other words, this was the normal way of reacting to this type of development.

Moreover, the actual implications of cutting ties with Japan’s European Allies were limited. In the 1930s, Germany had been China’s primary source of foreign weaponry, and German advisors had been deeply involved in attempts to modernize the Chinese Army. As Germany had gradually shifted its sympathies in favor of Japan, the utility of maintaining formal ties with Berlin had been radically diminished, and by the summer of 1941 there was no advantage left in the partnership as far as China was concerned.

At the same time, the German recognition of the rival regime in Nanjing was a direct existential challenge to Chiang. The Japanese-backed government in Nanjing was set up as the legitimate government of all China, and its leaders depicted themselves as the rightful heirs to the Nationalist revolution that had ushered in a modern republic. It was impossible for Chiang’s regime to allow Germany to maintain ties with both Chinas. Breaking off diplomatic relations had little to do with making the Soviet Union happy, and everything to do with maintaining legitimacy.

After the futile appeals for Soviet participation in the war against Japan in 1941 the issue was put on the backburner until the fall of 1943, when Soviet victory over Germany was assured. On the surface, therefore, the appeals to the Soviet Union seemed to be a diplomatic failure. But if one is allowed to speculate a little, Chiang may not have been aiming only for a short-term gain, but also for a longer-term Soviet commitment.

There were other instances where Chiang attempted to exert long-term pressure on potential future Allies. He fought long and tenaciously in Shanghai in 1937, some might say too long, and one theory is he wished to garner sympathy with the American and British public and decision-making elites. In the words of his biographer Jay Taylor, he was “building sympathy for the future”.

So the question is: if appealing to Stalin did not work in the short run, did it work in the long run? While the struggle at Shanghai may have been effective with parts of the political establishment in the United States, the pressure Chiang exerted on the Soviet Union to enter the war against Japan made no visible difference to the Soviets. When the Soviet Union finally attacked in August 1945, the Kremlin was motivated by narrow self-interest, not by the accumulated effect of Chiang’s rhetoric over the preceding years.

One can also ask if it was a wise policy to keep bombarding Stalin with requests for intervention in the war. Some Chinese historians tend to think that Chiang’s continued appeals to the Soviet Union to go to war with Japan showed little appreciation of the desperate Soviet struggle with its German enemy and that it caused ties between Chongqing and Moscow to deteriorate.

But to complete the picture, failure must also be measured against the cost one has incurred. And specifically in this case the cost paid by Chiang in the summer of 1941 was limited. His expenditures were in the form of rhetorical support, a fair amount of misinformation, and one concrete move: the end of formal diplomatic ties with Germany. It seems that Chiang’s tactic was to take maximum advantage of the new situation, at a minimum of cost.

How does Chiang emerge from this? We see the outlines of leader who had a clear idea of where the strategic situation was headed, also clearer than most of his compatriots or allies in other countries. From the moment Barbarossa was unleashed, he understood that the end result would be German defeat, and he also predicted rightly that Japan would remain passive rather than launch an assault across the Soviet Union’s eastern borders.

If he had one shortcoming, it was a failure to see the collateral costs of too insistent diplomacy. By repeatedly urging the Russians to intervene against Japan, even at a time when they were fighting for their lives, he came across as being self-centered and insensitive. It’s a mixed picture. Perhaps he should be described as a leader with high IQ but moderate EQ.

Image: Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, Mr Roosevelt and Mr Churchill in the grounds of Roosevelt’s villa in Cairo, November 1943, via the Imperial War Museum.

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1940-1942: THE FULCRUM OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY? Missing in History: Britain’s offer of Irish unity in 1940

This is the fourth in a series of posts connected to the King’s College Second World War Research Group’s ‘1940-1942: Fulcrum of the Twentieth Century Conference’, held at the JSCSC on June 1st. 

DR KEVIN MATTHEWS

Sifting through the voluminous histories of Britain’s 1940 stand against Nazi Germany, it is remarkable that, with a few notable exceptions, one story often is left untold: the secret Anglo-Irish negotiations to reunify Ireland and bring the south, or Éire as it was then known, into the war. This oversight may be explained in part by the fact that few of the main actors come out of this episode looking very good. Their biographers have tended to downplay or to ignore the negotiations; in one official biography, a wholly inaccurate, not to say misleading summary dismisses this story in less than a page.

Unlike all of the other self-governing Dominions, Éire refused to join Britain when the latter declared on Germany in 1939. Southern Ireland’s neutrality had been made possible by a decision taken less than a year earlier. In an attempt to smooth relations between London and Dublin, Neville Chamberlain returned three military installations that had been retained by the British in the Treaty granting Ireland’s independence in 1921. Chamberlain believed he had an assurance from his counterpart, Eamon de Valera, that the Irish would allow British forces access to these ‘Treaty ports’ during any future conflict. According to Robert Fisk’s In Time of War, use of the bases could have extended the protective cover to Allied convoys across 500 miles of the Atlantic Ocean. But, crucially, the assurance Chamberlain relied on was never put in writing. When war came, de Valera, by denying the British access to the bases, was able to maneuver his country away from taking part in the conflict.

Crucial as the Treaty ports were, they were only one of several reasons for believing that Ireland would be targeted by Adolf Hitler after the fall of France. Even before then, Fisk claims that from May 1940 ‘the security of Ireland . . . began to dominate proceedings at Downing Street’. Yet, these discussions are wholly missing from accounts such as Five Days in London: May 1940, by John Lukacs. Archival documents in London, Dublin, and Belfast tell a different story. All three governments were convinced the Nazis had a network of spies throughout Ireland which was working closely with the outlawed Irish Republican Army. Other reports indicated that German U-boats were being supplied by villagers on Ireland’s west coast. Most worrying was the prospect that the Germans might stage a landing in southern Ireland to mount a backdoor invasion of mainland Britain. Taken together, these concerns prompted the British government, now led by Winston Churchill, to broach the idea of creating a framework for Irish unity in return for an Irish declaration of war. What is perhaps most surprising is that the driving force behind this proposal was not the new prime minister, but his predecessor – Chamberlain.

Chamberlain’s willingness to guarantee Irish unity in return for an Irish alliance is evident in the letters he wrote to his two sisters, Hilda and Ida, during the remaining months of his life. So, too, is his frustration with de Valera. Despite repeated warnings that having British forces in Ireland was necessary to ward off the expected German invasion, the Irish prime minister refused even to consider the idea. ‘I am still at him’, Chamberlain confided in one letter, ‘but fear he wont [sic] be moved till the Germans are in Dublin’. Robert Self, the editor of Chamberlain’s four-volume Diary Letters, followed up this massive work with a biography of the controversial British leader. Unfortunately, he deals with what might be called Chamberlain’s last major foreign policy battle in an epilogue, and then only briefly. It is also is wholly absent from Graham Stewart’s account of the Churchill-Chamberlain rivalry, Burying Caesar.

One of Chamberlain’s unlikely allies in this cause was Labour’s Ernest Bevin, another member of Churchill’s War Cabinet. According to Paul Canning’s comprehensive British Policy Towards Ireland, Bevin’s ‘first-hand knowledge of Ireland exceeded that of any other man in the Government’. The problem that neither Bevin, Chamberlain, nor any of their colleagues could ignore was that de Valera’s stance on neutrality was not the main hurdle blocking an Anglo-Irish front against the Nazis. As Chamberlain plainly stated at one War Cabinet meeting, ‘the main, and perhaps the sole, obstacle to such collaboration was the partition question’.

While the Ulster dimension of this story is ably told by both Canning and Fisk, it is given surprisingly short shrift elsewhere. There are tantalizing hints that at least two leading members of Northern Ireland’s Cabinet were prepared to accept an accommodation with the southern Irish if the latter were willing to join the Allied cause. ‘[L]oyalty to King and empire and the defeat of the Axis powers’, the historian Brian Barton has written, ‘transcended their commitment to the maintenance of the Union’. But in his chapter for The Northern Ireland Question in British Politics, edited by Peter Catterall and Sean McDougall, Barton did not pursue this angle. In any case, when it came to setting policy in Northern Ireland, only one man’s opinion really counted: its prime minister, James Craig.

Even with the course of the war hanging in the balance, Craig was as stubborn in his dealings with the British as was de Valera. By ruling out tripartite talks between the London, Dublin, and Belfast governments unless the southern Irish, first, joined the Allied cause and, second, dropped their goal of reunification, he foreclosed any chance of wartime cooperation. After the war, his official biographer, St John Ervine wrote that ‘Ulster was the bribe’ used in the attempt to win over de Valera and that responsibility for this treachery rested on one man’s shoulders: Chamberlain, who by then conveniently was dead. It is true that Chamberlain was prepared to force the Ulster Unionists to make concessions, while Churchill drew the line at persuasion.

Thanks to his own memoir of the war, Churchill’s part in this story largely has been obscured. According to David Reynolds, when Churchill wrote his multi-volume Second World War the Foreign Office advised that some wartime diplomatic issues ‘were still sensitive’; Ireland was one of them. This explains why Churchill did not even mention the Cabinet’s discussions about partition in his drafts of Their Finest Hour although, Reynolds points out, a reference to the issue is buried deep in a letter to Franklin Roosevelt quoted in the volume. Harder to explain is Martin Gilbert’s treatment of this story in Churchill’s official biography. Inexplicably, Gilbert suggests that Bevin alone was responsible for suggesting that partition be abandoned in exchange for the south’s declaration of war on Germany.

De Valera’s refusal to consider the British offer to end partition has been the subject of intense debate among historians. Characteristically, his authorized biographers are sympathetic to de Valera’s claim that abandoning neutrality would have sparked a second Irish civil war in the south. Others, notably John Bowman, Tim Pat Coogan, and T. Ryle Dwyer, are harsher when assessing de Valera’s motives. ‘Staying out of the war’, Dwyer writes, was ‘more important to de Valera than ending partition’. All three agree that in the summer of 1940, the Irish prime minister was sure that Britain was defeated. If that were so, why not wait to make terms with the winner in Berlin?

On the night of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Churchill was in touch with the leaders of only two other governments. The first, unsurprisingly, was Franklin Roosevelt. The other was de Valera. ‘Now is your chance’, his telegram to the Irish prime minister began. ‘Now or never. A Nation once again.’ Yet even America’s imminent entry into the war was not enough to entice de Valera to join the Allies. Earlier that same year, Churchill predicted that if de Valera persisted with neutrality to the end of the war ‘a gulf will have opened between Northern and Southern Ireland, which it will be impossible to bridge in this generation’. Churchill, not for the last time, was better at predicting the future than de Valera.

Image: Vickers machine-gun team of 2/8th Battalion, Middlesex Regiment, man their weapon on a clifftop in Northern Ireland, 15 July 1941, via the Imperial War Museum.

 

 

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1940-1942: The Fulcrum of the Twentieth Century? The Will to Win: British Strategy, Propaganda and Public Opinion 1940-1942

This is the third in a series of posts connected to the King’s College Second World War Research Group’s ‘1940-1942: Fulcrum of the Twentieth Century Conference’, held at the JSCSC on June 1st. 

PROF STEPHEN BADSEY

Stephen Badsey PhD MA (Cantab.) FRHistS is Professor of Conflict Studies in the Department of History, Politics and War Studies at the University of Wolverhampton. He was educated at Cambridge University, made a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society in 1995, and joined the University of Wolverhampton in 2007. Prof Badsey is an internationally acknowledged specialist on military-media issues since the middle 19th Century, including the uses of propaganda. His other research interests include land and air-land warfare since the start of the 19th Century, military thought since the middle 18th Century, the British Army since the middle 19th Century, and the wars of the British Empire and its successors including counterinsurgency. He has published over 100 books and articles on military and media subjects, including counterfactual history and the portrayal of warfare by films and television. He appears frequently on television and in other media as a historian and commentator.

From the Fall of France to the Second Battle of Alamein, it was apparent to Churchill and the British leadership that both immediate British survival and eventual victory would depend on the political and popular will to continue the war in a period when military victories would be scarce, of which the motivation of British troops in battle was only a part. Between June 1940 and May 1941 a cross-Channel invasion was still possible, and the Blitz was in progress. Thereafter, the British faced a severe crisis in the Battle of the Atlantic; the Japanese threat in the Far East became real with the fall of Singapore; and their sole means of attacking Germany directly, the night bomber offensive, was shown to be largely ineffective. The Royal Navy’s domination of the Mediterranean was severely challenged by Axis airpower, including the debacle on Crete and the siege of Malta, while in the Western Desert, after December 1940 the British Army was dogged by a pattern of unsuccessful attacks and repeated defeats. This was also the first British war in which the concerns of a civilian population about loved ones among the troops sent overseas were reciprocated on a large scale by anxieties among the troops over enemy bombing and submarine attacks on civilians.

It is a neglected aspect of the most radical inter-war British military theories that they were based on an assumption of the extreme vulnerability of the mass of the urban working-class to psychological as much as to physical attack. These theories were the central tenet of air warfare in the form of strategic bombing theories, and in land warfare were extended to include a belief that the morale of a mass conscript army would be fragile when compared to a smaller but professionalised and mechanised military elite, and that a country’s civilian morale could be undermined by propaganda as a preliminary to a military invasion. This military lack of faith in the mass of the people was only one aspect of a larger mistrust held by political and social elites in democracy. The experience of mass propaganda in the First World War, the inter-war rise of the demagogues, the radio as a new form of influencing public opinion, and the growth of commercial advertising, all suggested a mass population, whether in uniform or not, that was vulnerable to propaganda and psychological manipulation. For the British, all these beliefs found their apparent final proof in the almost inexplicable collapse of France in 1940.

The Chamberlain government had at first emphasised security, secrecy, and the concealment of bad news, and its principal concern about the BEF in France was that its morale would be undermined before it got a chance to fight. Despite lacking any surviving First World War records, British propagandists in 1940 had personal experience of being propagandised when younger, and the expansion of the franchise in 1918 and 1928 had given ministers and civil servants a better feel for a mass electorate. The BBC had since 1922 developed a relationship with its radio listeners which gave it a realistic sense of public attitudes. Also, the establishment of Mass Observation in 1937 had shown the value of opinion polling techniques and population sampling.

The British government was also determined to avoid the highly triumphalist style of propaganda used by the Germans. British methods of propaganda rapidly became very close to those of the First World War: the government controlled and censored the content of news, while leaving packaging, commentary and opinion to the existing media outlets: chiefly radio, newspapers, and newsreel films. Measurable public debates did take place during the war on major changes in British strategy, most notably the progressive switch 1940-1943 to night-time city bombing. But these debates took place after the policy had been introduced, and the consequences had been reported and made public. British propaganda campaigns around the Empire were largely bilateral: some Dominion reporters and cameramen worked for their own forces, others as part of an international or imperial fraternity. As in the First World War, the principal British overseas target was the neutrality of the United States. Through a series of Neutrality Acts passed in the late 1930s, the United States had made it illegal for belligerents to conduct propaganda on America soil. The British response to this was a propaganda campaign to influence American opinion that was so sophisticated as to be almost invisible, including the propaganda presentation of the Battle of Britain and the subsequent Blitz.

The chief concern remained British civilian morale. From June 1941 onwards the Minister of Information, Brendan Bracken, presented to the War Cabinet a monthly report, based on assessments which consistently placed British public morale in the lower half of a 20-point scale, other than for three brief peaks: in summer 1941 when the Blitz ended and the Soviet Union entered the war; at the end of the year with the relief of Tobruk and the entry of the United States; and again in May 1942 at the start of the Gazala battles. In early 1942 these figures were sufficiently worrying for the Ministry of Information to adopt briefly a style of deliberate exhortation. Most British public discontent reflected political and public frustration at a failure to prosecute the war more effectively. The British public were generally more bellicose than their government, providing a mandate for future escalation. This also led the Ministry of Information to conclude that emphasising German war crimes or atrocities as a propaganda motif was unnecessary, so promoting the myth of the early part of the Second World War as a ‘clean war’ for the British.

After the Fall of France the British propaganda approach to victories was usually cautious, prompted by a strong sense that with repeated defeats the British people were not only more bellicose than their government, but also more cynical. However, the progressive shift in the grand strategic balance during early 1942 led to the perceived need for a decisive British victory on land in political and propaganda as well as military terms. The symbolism of the Second Battle of Alamein, very important at the time, was as the last great land battle in the West of the British Empire. But the public response remained cynical and cautious, as Bracken told that War Cabinet, ‘now as suspicious as the ancient Greeks of any exultation that seems to challenge fate’. Nevertheless, after November 1942, Bracken discontinued his monthly reports on public morale, seeing them as no longer needed. Over the next three months public morale and support for the government rose to above 70 per cent, and stayed in that region for the rest of the war.

Image: A War Savings posters around the base of Nelson’s Column, Trafalgar Square. The lions at the base of the Column can also be seen, as can a flock of pigeons, flying overhead. The poster tells citizens ‘It’s up to ‘U’ to buy War Savings’, via the Imperial War Museum.

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1940-42 The Fulcrum of the Twentieth Century: “THE BARTHOLOMEW COMMITTEE: AN OPPORTUNITY LOST?”

This is the second in a series of posts connected to the King’s College Second World War Research Group’s ‘1940-1942: Fulcrum of the Twentieth Century Conference’, held at the JSCSC on June 1st. 

PHIL McCARTY

After the conclusion of Operation Dynamo on 3 June 1940, the War Office reacted quickly to form a committee to look into the reasons for the defeat in France and any changes which could be made quickly in the face of the threat of invasion.   Although expectations had been exceeded in terms of the number of men rescued from the Continent, losses of heavy equipment necessary to defend the British mainland had been particularly severe. The forming of the Committee took place in the knowledge that 150,000 British troops remained in France, south of the Somme. Sir Alan Brooke, returned to France only a few days after escaping with orders to co-ordinate a defence. He quickly realised that this was a lost cause and urged a second evacuation – meaning he would be unavailable to testify.

Sir George Bartholomew, recently retired as General Officer Commanding Northern Command, was appointed to chair the committee.   On paper his credentials were good; a former Commandant of the Imperial Defence College, Chief of the General Staff (India) and Director of Military Intelligence – some considered him one of the best minds on the General Staff. Others were less convinced, thinking of him as a typical conservative with a profound dislike of the Royal Air Force.   Three other senior members of the Committee had served in France.   Thirty seven officers gave evidence while the committee was in session, a mixture of senior BEF personnel down to battalion commanders – and a sole representative of the RAF.   The Committee sat for six days, taking evidence only on four.  An initial draft was ready in early July; after a General Staff conference in late July and discussion by the Army Council in September,   its findings were eventually published in October, belying the initial haste spurred by fear of invasion.

The committee made a number of recommendations for urgent change in the Army, including increased mechanisation of artillery, reconnaissance and liaison elements, improved artillery provision and co-ordination of air support. It also proposed making the operational “building block” of the Army the Brigade, or independent Brigade Group. However, many of its findings were gradually watered down as the draft passed through the bureaucracy; Sir John Dill, the CIGS, also gave Lord Gort, the former CinC of the BEF (who did not give evidence) a categorical reassurance that the report would not result in fundamental change in the structure of the Army.

Some of the recommendations were impeded by loss of equipment in France. In particular for purposes of defence against invasion, anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns were in short supply thus making proposals for increased and reorganised provision of them at Division and Brigade level somewhat moot. This also meant that weapons that were obsolescent or which had underperformed were kept in production both to make up losses and to postpone the disruption to supply and training which would be caused by retooling and issue to the Army at a time of high threat.

Although the British soldier was held to be the equal of the German, the report criticised steadfastness in defence, tactical shortcomings and issues of discipline. Command and communications were considered extremely rigid. Despite the 1935 Field Service Regulations stating that orders should not be excessively prescriptive and should not prevent subordinate commanders from carrying out their mission in the face of better local knowledge or on their own initiative, experience in France showed that some senior commanders still insisted on the following of written orders, despite the fast pace of operations outstripping the ability to transmit them. There are many examples in the literature of orders to hold positions when they had fallen, or been surrendered long since. Command rigidity was criticised by senior witnesses. The report highlighted shortcomings in discipline and “fighting spirit”; however, rather than propose innovative solutions it concluded that these problems could be solved by more close order drill and time on the range.

One of the successes of the campaign was the use of “carriers” – small, fast tracked vehicles.   Until the battle of France these had been viewed predominantly as tractors or logistic vehicles; the report recommended their wider use across the Army, and their fitting with anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons as standard. Although this latter point was not completely adopted, the wider use of such vehicles – which had impressed the Germans – was one of the successful recommendations from the report.

The other primary recommendation was the operational building block of the Army should now be the Brigade, and the independent Brigade Group, rather than the Division. Reorganisation of divisional assets to allow Brigades to have organic artillery, anti-tank, anti-aircraft and reconnaissance support was proposed, but equipment shortages and the delay in introducing better weapons led to these ideals being diluted. Experience in home exercises in 1941-42 highlighted flaws in the concept where equipment was inadequate either in numbers or performance and the Division returned to prominence; however early success of the concept in the Western Desert against inferior opposition led to later failures against the Germans.

The need for quick and achievable change driven by the threat of invasion makes some of the curtailing of the Bartholomew report’s proposals excusable to some extent. However, the opportunity genuinely to innovate in other areas was lost due to equipment shortages and a lack of willingness to review concepts of command. Change would come eventually, but more gradually than may have been the case had senior officers not watered down the committee’s recommendations as it passed through the War Office bureaucracy.

Image: British anti-aircraft guns lie abandoned at Dunkirk in 1940, via wikimedia commons.

 

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Conference Report: 1940-1942: The Fulcrum of the Twentieth Century?

DR RICHARD HAMMOND

On 1 June, the Second World War Research Group held a highly successful day-long event hosted by the Defence Studies Department at the JSCSC. It was inspired in a broad sense by the desire to examine the largest war the world has ever seen and to place it within its broader context. More directly, the conference theme drew from concepts advanced by several senior modern historians about the place the war occupies in terms of the century as a whole. In a 1990 article, David Reynolds termed the fall of France in 1940 as the ‘fulcrum of the twentieth century’. Taking a similar yet subtly different view, John Darwin has claimed that the events of 1940-1942 represented the ‘great crisis of empire’ specifically for Britain, and exposed its vulnerabilities in such a manner that it was never able to recover fully after the war. For Darwin, such events thus caused a fundamental change in the international system.

The event was designed to bring together scholars to critically examine these ideas, as well as to focus in on more specialised areas of the war to assess whether or not such ‘fulcrums’, ‘turning points’ or similar concepts can legitimately be identified. We were extremely fortunate to receive a fantastic set of highly stimulating papers in this regard. Themes that were covered included tactical and operational failures by the BEF in France 1940, case studies in resistance and irregular warfare, propaganda, morale in and relations between the British and Commonwealth armies, and the Chinese response to the German invasion of the USSR, among others. Delegates were also treated to a keynote address from Niall Barr, examining Anglo-American alliance warfare during the conflict, and placing it within the broader context of twentieth century relations between the two states. The day closed with an engaging roundtable discussion on the subject of whether the retrospective identification of a ‘fulcrum’ is a legitimate exercise for historians, or if it simply represents the instrumentalisation of history to fit a desired theory.

Several presenters from the conference have graciously agreed to write posts for this blog based on their papers, and these will be published over the coming weeks. Podcasts of many of the papers from the event will also soon be made available on the Group website. This event was the second such one held by the Group, as part of its aim to bring together scholars in annual events focused on aspects of the war and its legacy. It also holds regular research seminars from individual speakers. If you would like to be involved in the Group in some manner, please use the contact form on the website, and also follow it on twitter (@SWWresearch). In the meantime, enjoy the coming posts!

Image: Stocks of rubber, held by a factory on a rubber plantation in Malaya, are burnt during the British retreat to Singapore, via the Imperial War Museum.