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Fall guy and (not so) useful idiot?

It is a myth that will not die.  A war weary and reluctant Great Britain obliged, as a last resort and against its better nature, to engage in war in defence of a weaker neighbour.  Foreign Secretary Edward Grey articulated it in Parliament on 3 August 1914, taking Britain to war against the beastly Hun on behalf of plucky little Belgium.  Neville Chamberlin used it as the starting point for his broadcast to the nation on 3 September 1939, when he explained that Germany’s refusal to pull back from Poland had caused Britain to honour its guarantee and so declare war on Germany.  In every conflict since, Britain’s enemy has been cast in the role of the Hun while Britain remains the reluctant participant… Whether it be Nasser nationalising the Suez Canal, Galtieri invading the Falkland Islands, Saddam invading Kuwait, or Putin invading Ukraine, the template is the same.

The British version of the myth – no doubt reflecting its loss of power in the inter-war years – is of an ill-prepared nation doing the “right thing” despite being woefully unprepared, somehow avoiding defeat despite all odds, and ultimately triumphing over evil.  Margaret Thatcher’s unlikely victory in the Falklands War – which likely saved her from electoral defeat the following year – seemed to echo the myth of the Second World War, creating a schism between the historians and the public… again, the result of a country in terminal decline, and desperate to cling to imagined former glories. 

In 1940: Myth and Reality, Clive Ponting sets out the myth (before critiquing it):

“In the 1930s the British Empire was one of the strongest powers in the world, but through a misguided and craven policy of appeasement and failure to rearm it allowed the aggressor states (Germany, Italy and Japan) to expand until war became inevitable.  Britain and France missed a Golden opportunity to defeat Germany in the autumn of 1939 and then in April 1940 Chamberlain’s incompetent direction of the war let Hitler conquer Denmark and Norway.  Popular discontent with the government swept Churchill into the premiership as the war leader acclaimed by all.  The old policy of appeasement and British weakness disappeared under Churchill’s inspiring leadership.  Immediately on taking office he had to face the collapse of France caused by the numerically superior and highly mechanised German army using waves of tanks in a new style of blitzkrieg warfare.  The British army, let down by the French and betrayed by the Belgians, fought its way back to the coast, where it was evacuated by a fleet of small boats from the beaches of Dunkirk.  Left alone, the British government, refusing even to entertain the possibility of peace with Germany, decided to fight on to final victory.  Facing a determined threat to invade Britain, brilliant direction of the RAF defeated a German air force that held all the advantages in the Battle of Britain.  Morale in Britain remained high, as the country, united as never before and inspired by Churchill’s regular radio broadcasts, was guided by a benevolent government which had great faith in the strength and steadfastness of the British people.  The Blitz, one of the heaviest bombing campaigns ever mounted, began when Hitler started the policy of bombing major cities.  Well-prepared and efficiently organised emergency services ensured that there were few problems in dealing with the results of the Blitz.  Churchill, working closely with his friend President Roosevelt and taking advantage of the strong identity of interest between Britain and the United States, brought the Americans to the brink of entering the war.  By the end of 1940, Britain was still a great power and firmly established on the road to victory.

“When we examine the historical record, however, not one of these statements turns out to be true.”

It is also notable that the 1940 myth had no mention of the oppression of Europe’s Jews, despite the British being aware of Nazi persecution prior to the war.  Nor could there have been any consideration of the horrors of the holocaust which only began after the occupation of Poland, with the “Final Solution” only being mapped out at the Wannsee conference on 20 January 1942.  The sheer industrialised brutality of the Nazis – while known to governments for many years from information smuggled out of the camps – only entered western public consciousness following Allied Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower’s visit to Ohrdruf concentration camp – part of the Buchenwald complex, after which he told the press that:

“They say the American GI doesn’t know what he’s fighting for… at least now he knows what he’s fighting against.”

More practically, Eisenhower arranged for the full force of the western media to enter the camps and disseminate the films and images (which are now, ironically, censored by YouTube) to make the public aware of the full horror of what had taken place and to ward off any attempt at denial.

It was out of these horrors that the myth of the “good war” was born.  Indeed, much of the earlier British myth has been lost in the mists of time.  So that Prince – now King – Charles could tell a BBC radio audience in 2016 that:

“I was born in 1948 – just after the end of World War II in which my parents’ generation had fought, and died, in a battle against intolerance, monstrous extremism and an inhuman attempt to exterminate the Jewish population of Europe.”

It is likely that most people today – at least those who know that there was a war in the early 1940s – also believe that it was fought to save Europe’s Jews from a ghastly fate, even though not one of the allied states had this as a war aim and, indeed, several had carried out pogroms at least as severe as those in pre-war Germany.  Poland – the plucky little country we ostensibly went to war for – was highly antisemitic in the 1930s.  But in reality, Britain and France went to war in 1939 in a last-ditch effort to retain an imperial greatness that had been mortally wounded by a 1914-1918 war which had seen both empires mortgaged to the Wall Street bankers.

This leaves us with my favourite pair of questions (which should be applied to any event) “why this?” and “why now?”  That is, why Poland? And why September 1939?  After all, there had been plenty of previous opportunities to go to war with Germany at a time when that country was still rearming.  The 1936 occupation of the Rhineland, the 1938 Anschluss with Austria, the occupation of the Sudetenland, and the march on Prague not only provided an opportunity for war but offered war in more strategically advantageous positions.  In 1936, the British and French armies could have pushed the Germans back across the Rhine with relative ease.  With the aid of Mussolini’s Italy, Britain and France might have prevented Austria being incorporated into the Reich.  Czechoslovakia was a more difficult proposition – although that country was well-equipped with modern weapons.  But if, as it turned out, Britain and France could not save Czechoslovakia, by what insanity would the same governments believe they could be of any assistance to Poland?

In the received mythology, the supposedly weak, incompetent and deluded Neville Chamberlain experienced a kind of damascene conversion following the occupation of Prague in March 1939.  Where caution had reigned supreme, it was suddenly cast aside in favour of an entirely reckless and undeliverable pledge to protect Poland under any circumstances.  Perhaps, we are told, Chamberlain believed that Britain’s empty threat of war would deter Hitler from invading… but that ship had sailed in Munich the previous year.  In any case, the Polish guarantee was anything but, as witnessed by British and French inaction following the Russian invasion of Poland on 17 September 1939.

Far from seeking to deter a German invasion of Poland, the “guarantee” aimed to produce precisely that outcome.  Indeed, as Peter Hitchens points out in The Phoney Victory: The World War II Illusion:

“Yet it is clear that the British government of 1939, wrongly portrayed in so many versions as anxious for a way out of war, was actually worried that it would be cheated of a confrontation it had carefully sought for several months. For instance, Neville Chamberlain said he was uneasy ‘at the fact that our Ambassador in Warsaw could obtain no information as to the progress of the negotiations between Germany and Poland.  One possible, but very distasteful, explanation of this was that Polish negotiators were, in fact, giving way to Germany.’”

Hitchens’ argument is that far from wanting to avoid war, the British government had been determined to go to war with Germany at least since that country had begun to rearm in the early 1930s.  Appeasement in this sense was not a craven attempt at placating an implacable opponent, but rather a delaying tactic designed to delay war until Britain had rebuilt its navy and air force – the assumption being that the French army, secure behind a Maginot Line stretching from the Swiss alps to the Channel coast, could absorb any punishment the Germans might throw at it.  The aim was to repeat – in a condensed timeframe – the lesson of 1918… that Germany could be broken by a combination of attrition on the battlefield coupled to the hunger induced by naval blockade on the home front.

With the benefit of hindsight, we know this to be doomed to failure, and so reject the idea that a government may have been planning it.  But seen from the Prime Minister’s desk from the mid-1930s, it would have been plausible.  Spitfires and modern tanks were years in the future.  Italy was still friendly (and might have joined had they been offered a slice of Austria).  The Soviet Union was a smouldering and starving ruin still coming to terms with revolution and civil war.  America was an antagonistic neutral, more concern with Japanese expansion in Asia than events in Europe.  Moreover, British and French military planners were already warning of the serious threat to their respective empires if an alliance between Germany, Italy, and Japan were to emerge…  Fighting any one of these countries would be difficult, any combination a likely defeat, and the involvement of Germany would more or less guarantee the end of empire.

It seems reasonable that a defensive/blockade war against Germany before the Italian and Japanese threat grew, would at least have been planned even if a date for its commencement had not been set.  But if we accept this – and one “proof” is that the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force (or at least Fighter Command) did rearm prior to 1940 – it raises further questions about the role played by two Foreign Office officials, Ralph Wigram and Major Desmond Morton, in the years between 1935 and 1939.  Insofar as anyone remembers these two characters at all, they are portrayed as patriotic whistleblowers who broke the Official Secrets Act to leak information about German rearmament and British unpreparedness to the wider public.

There was though, always something uncomfortable about this characterisation – not least that government ministers seemed to be fully aware of who was behind the leaks and yet chose to do nothing about it.  Fishier though, is the choice of person who received the leaks… and again, this requires us to set aside what we think we know of events after 1939.  In the mid-1930s, Winston Spenser Churchill was widely regarded as a busted flush.  Having served as First Lord of the Admiralty in the pre-war Liberal government, he was obliged to resign in November 1915 after the disastrous invasion of the Gallipoli Peninsula, but returned in 1917 as Minister of Munitions.  Later, having switched to the Tories, Churchill had been Chancellor in the 1924 to 1929 Tory government.  Following the Labour victory in the 1929 general election though, Churchill left frontline politics and became something of a maverick backbencher, opposing his own party on issues such as Indian independence and the abdication of King Edward VIII.

During these “wilderness years,” we are asked to believe that Churchill was the only one who could see the Nazi menace for what it was, and that government ministers, who to begin with had much better information, were somehow blind to the danger.  But, of course, if Hitchens is correct, might it be that Churchill was an ideal “useful idiot” at a time when there was widespread public and parliamentary opposition to rearmament?

Certainly, Churchill’s warmongering tendencies were well established.  His escapades in South Africa during the Boer War are the stuff of schoolboy adventures.  In July 1914, he had jumped the gun by placing the Royal Navy on a war footing against Germany without waiting for Cabinet, still less parliamentary, approval.  And in the Inter-war years as Secretary of State for the Colonies, he tended to prefer to forcibly put down revolts.  Having already expressed concerns about the nature of the Nazi regime, he could surely be relied upon to bang the drum for rearmament.  And given his apparent taste for embarrassing government ministers, any “harmful” information about Britain’s lack of preparedness compared to Germany would surely be repeated in parliament, where the nation’s Press Corp would be all too happy to amplify it.

Wigram and Morton are relatively well known from their portrayal in several 1980s dramatizations such as Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years, aired in 1981, in which they go behind the government’s back to pass vital information to Churchill.  In reality, Churchill had several informants, each passing different types of information from under the noses of apparently incompetent ministers and civil service chiefs.  But this presupposes that Chamberlain – first as Chancellor and later Prime Minister – was the craven weakling of the received mythology.  If, in contrast, Chamberlain – and other senior figures – needed an external spur to rearmament in the face of an opposition which consistently voted it down, Churchill was surely it.  And whether figures like Wigram and Morton were in on it or whether they were merely being allowed to act as whistleblowers is immaterial.  The fact is that as a result of repeating the information in parliament, Churchill became a lightning rod for an opposition which turned 180 degrees to view appeasement as weakness and rearmament as a necessity.

Remember too that nobody in 1937, 1938 or even 1939 (when he once again became First Lord of the Admiralty) expected Churchill to go on to greater things.  Indeed, right up until August 1939, the plan for a passive, blockade war seemed to be on course.  Only Belgium’s refusal to allow the Maginot Line to extend to the coast added an element of weakness.  Nevertheless – as Ponting details – Britain and France fielded bigger armies, more tanks, and more fighter aircraft than a Germany whose navy was but a pinprick in comparison to the combined fleets of Britain and France… and as everyone had learned between 1914 and 1918, it is the defender who enjoys the advantage.

In an alternative timeline, an isolated Germany invades an economically-backward Poland which was only a staging point for the true war aim of securing the energy and mineral wealth of the Soviet Union.  This does little to improve Germany’s economic woes, but adds the high cost of occupation to the balance sheet.  Meanwhile an Anglo-French naval blockade sweeps German merchant shipping from the world’s oceans and seas, depriving that country of vital imports of food, energy and resources.  It is only a matter of time before Germany is forced to sue for peace.  At which point a triumphant Neville Chamberlain can proclaim a “victory without bloodshed” to the British people.  No longer having to worry about conflict with Germany, Great Britain can restore its imperial greatness across the wider world.

If that was the plan, as Hitchens maintains, then the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact – signed on 23 August 1939, just eight days before the panzers crossed the Polish border – pulled the rug out from under it.  Prior to that point, the widespread assumption had been that National Socialism and Soviet Bolshevism were so hostile to one another that no agreement could be reached between them.  However (and omitted from the myth) the Pact included provision for the Soviet Union to supply Germany with the food, oil, coal and mineral resources which Germany could not run past the British and French naval blockades.  The governments of Britain and France had blundered into the wrong war.  And while the defence line along France’s eastern border might still prevent a German victory, there was little prospect of a German defeat either… all that remained was Britain’s age-old maritime tactic of attempting to overstretch its opponent by launching invasions on the periphery – in this case in Norway, where the Anglo-French forces were quickly defeated by a simultaneous German invasion (whose saving grace was that German naval losses were greater, and removed any realistic prospect of an invasion of the British Isles).

This is the part of the myth that Hitchens is undoubtedly correct about – that there were, in fact, two wars.  The first, 1939 to 1941, saw the British and French roundly defeated by Germany, leaving France occupied and Britain isolated and with no way back onto continental Europe.  The second, 1941 to 1945, saw first the Soviet Union and then at the end of the year (thanks to a war declaration by Hitler on 10 December) the USA bring to bear the force required to defeat the German-Italian-Japanese axis.  When it came to an end, symbolically on the decks of the US battleship Missouri on 2 September 1945 (although peace negotiations continued into the 1970s) Britain and France were relegated to second order powers, charged only – and at American insistence – with the orderly dismemberment of their empires.

That Churchill came to occupy a central role in the proceedings is surely accidental.  He had, to some extent, won public favour in the early months of the war as head of the navy, since this was the only arm of Britain’s military in regular contact with the enemy – the much exaggerated “victory” in the Battle of the River Plate, for example, giving Churchill the appearance of a war leader (although his role in the invasion of Norway looked a little too similar to his Gallipoli adventure).  But insofar as Churchill was allowed to become Prime Minister following Chamberlain’s (who was in the advanced stages of cancer) resignation and Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax’s refusal to take the job, it was in the expectation that his role would be as a fall guy with no choice but to offer surrender terms to Germany and Italy (handing Malta to Italy and offering Britain’s African colonies to Germany were widely discussed at the time).

Not long after Ponting’s book was published, Tory minister and historian Alan Clark poured fuel on the fire (the myth was essential to British egos even then) by arguing that Churchill had been reckless in carrying on the war in the vain hope that the USA might become an ally, since there was no prospect in early 1941 that this was likely.  Nor, in the spring of that year, did anyone expect the invasion of Germany’s Soviet ally.  Rather, Britain had demonstrated that it could not be invaded, and its navy had brought an end to German merchant shipping (largely because the ships had been sent to neutral ports in September 1939).  Germany couldn’t beat Britain but nor could Britain defeat Germany.  Nor was much known at this point about the persecutions and murders being committed within Germany and its occupied territories.  Thus, some form of white peace was the best option (without the benefit of hindsight).

We now know that direct American aid did begin to arrive at the end of 1941 – although this came at the cost of Britain giving up its empire and undermining its economy – and that even Churchill’s worst assessment of Nazi brutality fell far short of the depravity of that regime revealed by the liberation of the concentration camps.  But we also know though, that Churchill was a menace to the war effort after 1940, as his regular interference and constant flip-flopping undermined British forces and caused American suspicion of the otherwise reasonable British strategy of pinning down as many German forces as possible far away from the Normandy beaches before the invasion was launched.  In any case, by 1945, Britain – and France – were only permitted to sit at the top table as minor inter pares while the USA and the USSR carved up Europe – and much of the wider world – between them.

Whether Britain arrived in this position through the duplicity or stupidity of its leaders will likely remain an academic question.  If there is a lesson for today, it is surely that an empire which is slowly dying should at all costs avoid getting embroiled in wars which its economy no longer has the means of sustaining – particularly when the potential forces arrayed against it have sufficient resources to sustain a war for far longer than that empire can avoid collapse.

As you made it to the end…

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