The first in a series responding to Andrew Roberts’ and Zewditu Gebreyohanes’ paper, ‘The Racial Consequences of Mr Churchill: A Review’
Roberts and Gebreyohanes make several claims about the British contribution during the Second World War in their paper. They write that Britain ‘played a central role’ in the defeat of the Nazis (p21), that Britain ‘played a crucial and indispensable role in ensuring the victory’, and that ‘to deny this role betrays a palpable ignorance of the basic facts of the Second World War and of modern world history’ (p10). There is no doubt that Britain played a role in the defeat of the Nazis in the Second World War. But to prove that this role was ‘central’ or ‘crucial and indispensable’ (especially when compared with the contributions of the Soviet Union and United States), rather strong evidence is required. Roberts’ and Gebreyohanes’ claims are simply not justified by the historical record.
Though there can be reasonable debate about the ultimate significance of what was a relatively minor contribution, it is misleading to inflate Britain’s role without mentioning its relatively small part in ensuring the Nazi defeat.
The Dominant Role of the Soviet Union in Defeating the Nazis
It is a fact that the Soviet Union played the key part in destroying the German army. Churchill, who is praised abundantly throughout the paper, acknowledged this on two occasions in the Commons in 1944. In the first case (August 1944) he referred to ‘the obvious, essential fact’ that ‘the Russian Armies (…) have done the main work in tearing the guts out of the German army’. Indeed, ‘there was no force in the world which could have been called into being, except after several more years, that would have been able to maul and break the German army unless it had been subjected to the terrible slaughter and manhandling that has fallen to it through the strength of the Russian Soviet Armies.’ Churchill made a statement to the same effect in October. It is remarkable that these quotations are not cited anywhere by Roberts and Gebreyohanes as they assess the claim that the Soviet Union played the dominant role in defeating the Nazis.
Churchill was correct when he said that the Soviet Union did the ‘main work’ of defeating the German army. In June 1941, 134 German divisions were deployed to attack the Soviet Union – 98% of German active strength according to some scholars (C. Ponting, Churchill). At the same time the British army was fighting two German divisions in North Africa. From June 1941 the majority of German forces were involved in operations on the eastern front, their numbers never falling below two-thirds of German strength (R. Evans, Stalingrad and Beyond 1942-43). It is a testament to the Soviet role that ‘[o]f the 13.6 million German soldiers who were killed, wounded or captured during the Second World War, 10 million ended their military careers on the eastern front.’ (R. Vinen, A History in Fragments: Europe in the Twentieth Century). The dominant Soviet contribution to the defeat of the Nazis is therefore a matter of historical record.
Roberts and Gebreyohanes raise some objections to Dr Mukerjee’s correct claim that ‘the Soviet Union … defeated the Nazis’. The first objection they raise is that the Soviet Union was allied to the Nazis between August 1939 and June 1941 through the Nazi-Soviet Pact. The Soviet Union continued to trade with Nazi Germany during that time and the Soviet leadership was evidently engaged in unprincipled calculations to defend its conception of Soviet interests. However, this in no way falsifies the claim that the Soviet Union played the dominant role in defeating the German army. Furthermore, Roberts and Gebreyohanes omit the fact that the Soviet Union made considerable efforts in April 1939 to negotiate a tripartite military alliance with France and Britain to defend against possible aggression (M. Carley, ‘Fiasco: The Anglo-Franco-Soviet Alliance That Never Was’). These proposals were ignored by the governments of Britain and France, though a majority of the British public supported the idea of an alliance with the USSR (ibid.). It is surely significant that the Nazi-Soviet Pact was signed after Soviet attempts at diplomacy with Britain and France failed. The second objection raised in the paper is that the Soviet Union benefitted considerably from American assistance during the war. This is true. However, neither of these objections support the claim that Britain played a ‘central’ or ‘crucial and indispensable’ role in the war effort, nor does American assistance to the Soviet Union prove that the Soviets did not play the dominant role in the defeat of Nazi Germany. It simply means that the Soviet Union benefitted a great deal from the support of the United States while it carried out what Churchill called the ‘main work’ of ‘tearing the guts out of the German army.’
An Assessment of the British Role
Having established the key Soviet part in defeating Nazi Germany, a more detailed consideration of the British role is necessary. Was Britain really a crucial player in the German defeat? The answer is not a matter of emotion or national mythology. It is a matter of historical record. Without diminishing the bravery of Britain’s armed forces in contributing to the fight against fascist totalitarianism, the British public today should be capable of acknowledging that, in the grand scheme of things, the British role in the war effort was relatively minor in comparison to its allies.
Much of Britain’s limited role was a function of its continued decline as an imperial power. In the 1930s Britain controlled a quarter of the world but was lagging economically and struggling with overextension. Thus in 1937 the chiefs of staff warned: ‘We cannot foresee the time when our defences will be strong enough to safeguard our territory, trade and vital interests against Germany, Italy and Japan simultaneously.’ (Quoted in C. Ponting, 1940: Myth and Reality) As a consequence of Britain’s limited capabilities, the government rapidly became reliant on American support in order to continue the war effort. A report by the chiefs of staff in 1940 stated that the United States had to be ‘willing to give us full economic and financial support, without which we do not think we could continue the war with any chance of success [italics in original].’ (Quoted in ibid.) It was also clear that Britain would require American support for its empire. The chiefs of staff informed the war cabinet in May 1940 that ‘[w]e must rely on the United States of America to safeguard our interests in the Far East.’ (Ibid.) Given the assessment of British military experts, Britain does not appear to have been capable of taking a ‘central’ or ‘crucial and indispensable’ role in defeating Germany, as Roberts and Gebreyohanes claim. The government was reliant on American assistance and struggling to maintain its imperial commitments from very early on. This situation continued throughout the war. The United States was supplying 77% of Britain’s escort vessels, 68% of its light bombers, 88% of its landing craft and 60% of its tanks by 1943 (Ponting, Churchill).
Britain’s strategy in conducting the war was demonstrative of its inadequate capabilities. The senior American war planner General Albert Wedemeyer summed up British thinking in his memoirs. Churchill, he wrote, ‘was constantly looking for places to deploy his limited forces in some wonderful periphery-pecking operation which he imagined would weaken the enemy without calling upon Britain to go all out for a decisive blow’ (A. Wedemeyer, Wedemeyer Reports). In 1983, General Wedemeyer was asked about his opinion of the British strategy in an interview. On the 1942 invasion of North Africa, his response was clear – he said ‘it was a diversionary move into a non-decisive theatre’. It led to ‘further operations in the Mediterranean’ with ‘[r]esources that should have been sequestered in the British Isles for the main blow’ being ‘diverted to indecisive operations’ (Wedemeyer, interview with Keith Eiler). Wedemeyer retained his description of the British strategy as “periphery pecking.” He also expressed his view that a cross-channel invasion in 1943 ‘would have succeeded, (…) would have shortened the war in Europe, and (…) would have reduced total Allied casualties and material costs.’ Churchill successfully pushed to delay such an operation until 1944. The implications of Wedemeyer’s argument, particularly considering that he was a military expert, are important. He is not merely suggesting the British strategy was ineffective, but that in his view it was actively detrimental to a swift Allied victory.
Even Roberts and Gebreyohanes are forced to concede that British operations against German forces were rather limited – they write that about 70% of the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe were directed against the Soviet Union (p9), but offer the consolation that it was not 100% because of the Western Allies’ bombing of Germany and their operations in North Africa and Italy from 1942 onwards. It is worth noting that in 1942 Rommel still controlled a very small force of four German divisions in North Africa (Vinen). A number of American military experts took a dim view of Allied campaigns in these theatres, particularly as the Soviets repeatedly called for the creation of a second front in Western Europe. General Marshall, for example, was sceptical of the continued Mediterranean strategy, and wished ‘to avoid the creation in Italy of a vacuum into which the resources of the cross-channel operation would be dissipated.’ (Quoted in D.L. Jensen, ‘Allied Strategy in World War II: The Churchill Era, 1942-1943). General Eisenhower called 22 July 1942 ‘the blackest day in history’, because of the decision to abandon a cross-channel invasion in 1943 at the behest of British strategists.
What about the bombing campaign? In 1941, ‘although two-thirds of crews thought they had found the target in fact only a fifth of the bombers got within five miles of the target and two-thirds of the bombs dropped fell on open ground or decoys’ (Ponting, Churchill). Attacks on the heavily industrial Ruhr region saw ‘only one crew in ten’ get within five miles of their target. In 1942, ‘less than a third of the bombers were attacking the target, let alone hitting it.’ (Ibid.) Careful assessments of the bombing campaign after the war were negative. The Allies’ survey found that Germany, after a campaign where the RAF suffered 50,000 dead and lost 8,000 aircraft, had less than four per cent of its productive capacity destroyed by the bomber offensive (ibid.). Even the official history of the bombing campaign by Frankland and Webster argued that ‘[a]rea attacks against German cities could not have been responsible for more than a very small part of the fall which had occurred in German production by the spring of 1945, and (…) in terms of bombing effort, they were also a very costly way of achieving the results they did achieve.’ (Quoted in Ponting, 1940)
By now it should be clear that it is misleading to portray the British role in the Nazi defeat as ‘central’ and ‘crucial’, without important caveats.
The D-Day invasion, after years of what a number of military experts regarded as “periphery pecking” might still be cited as evidence for Britain’s central importance in the Second World War, but it should be recalled that a British official as senior as Churchill considered six weeks before the operation was to be launched that ‘[t]his battle has been forced upon us by the Russians and the United States military authorities.’ (Ponting, Churchill). Furthermore, throughout the Allied invasion of France the majority of German forces continued to be engaged on the eastern front. What the Allied landing forces faced was ‘a single, understrength German corps’ with ‘a mere three divisions’, consisting of ‘two low-grade static formations and a single infantry division – with no navy or air force.’ (R. Citino, ‘The Reception: The Germans on D-Day’).
In the whole of France and the Low Countries there were 59 German divisions, with a number of divisions being under strength – 2 panzer divisions had no tanks (C. Ponting, Armageddon). The Allies were considerably numerically superior, most German forces were still on the eastern front, and British officials as senior as Churchill continued to dislike the idea of opening a second front to assist their Soviet allies. The 1944 invasion of Europe cannot be used to show the importance of the British role after years of a military strategy that deliberately avoided a direct attack on German forces in Europe. (Roberts and Gebreyohanes do not cite D-Day as an example of Britain’s ‘indispensable’ contribution, but it is worth discussing as part of the wider context).
The key players in the defeat of Nazi Germany were the Soviet Union and the United States. The Soviet Union did the majority of the work in defeating the German army, but certainly benefitted immensely from American supplies and assistance.
Yet in a 2018 poll of the British public by YouGov, 50% of those surveyed said Britain played the most important role in defeating the Nazis during WW2, with just 13% crediting Russia and 9% crediting the United States. This is the result of the sort of nationalist mythologies that are being propagated at the expense of historical fact by the likes of Roberts and Gebreyohanes. It is significant that those who lived through the war took a different view. In a 1945 survey of the French public by IFOP, 57% said the USSR made the greatest contribution to the Nazi defeat, compared to 20% who said it was the USA and 12% who credited the UK.
The factual record is clear. Britain’s contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany was relatively minor.
A. Roberts and Z. Gebreyohanes, ‘The Racial Consequences of Mr Churchill: A Review’
C. Ponting, Churchill
R. Citino, ‘The Reception: the Germans on D-Day’
A. Wedemeyer, Wedemeyer Reports
K. Eiler, interview with Albert Wedemeyer
C. Ponting, Armageddon
R. Evans, ‘Stalingrad and Beyond 1942-3’
M. Carley, ‘Fiasco: The Anglo-Franco-Soviet Alliance That Never Was’
C. Ponting, 1940: Myth and Reality
R. Vinen, A History in Fragments: Europe in the Twentieth Century
D.L. Jensen, ‘Allied Strategy in World War II: The Churchill Era, 1942-1943′