Magazine article The Spectator

Teaching the Truth about the War

Magazine article The Spectator

Teaching the Truth about the War

Article excerpt

BECAUSE we revere the numerical neatness of the decimalisation system, it is most likely that the next commemorative orgy celebrating VE and VJ Days will be in 2045 -100 years after Germany's official surrender on 8 May 1945. Not only will no one who fought in the second world war be around to march about it, but precious few of even the children of those who gained those victories will be available to raise a cheer.

But between now and those centenary anniversaries there will be other significant dates which will excite and intrigue military historians. It was 57 years ago on 3 September 1939 that Neville Chamberlain told the House of Commons that Britain was at war with Germany. It was on the same date 56 years ago - 3 September 1940 - that Hitler issued an Order declaring that the invasion of England - Operation Sea Lion - would be launched on 21 September 1941. These were red-letter days in the story of mankind. The attack on Poland, culminating in the second world war, destroyed Hitler's ambition to dominate Europe. The subsequent decision to abandon Sea Lion, which took place on 12 October 1939, was one of the Fuhrer's major errors and ultimately robbed him of the victory he came so close to achieving. Last weekend, we passed the 56th anniversary of the date Hitler originally intended for the invasion: 20 September 1940.

Perhaps now, while the media has no decimalised anniversary to justify another spasm of triumphalism such as occurred during last year's 50th anniversary celebrations, is the time to remind ourselves of the historical knife-edge that separated this country from defeat. The myth of British invincibility crumples decisively when one recognises the elements of bad luck and ineptitude that enabled the Fuhrer to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Paradoxically, it was the ease with which Hitler achieved his early military successes - Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Norway, France - that laid the foundation for his later disasters. Against the advice of his most senior commanders, he plunged into political and military adventures that vindicated his strategic calculations and personal philosophy. After the fall of France, the German people believed Hitler was infallible. The military leaders who had advised caution had been proved wrong and deprived themselves of the power to object to any course of action he wished to pursue. All that was left for the Wehrmacht commanders was to sit by and watch Hitler make mistake after mistake after mistake.

Compounding the Fuhrer's flawed intuition was surprisingly incompetent military intelligence. Between them they marched millions of German troops to needless death and destruction. Hindsight enables us to see the four major mistakes that aborted Germany's ability to win the war. Had any one of them not been made, it could have been the Germans celebrating anniversaries of their victory rather than us.

It was in May 1940, with the British army trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk, that Hitler made his first significant blunder. He had at his mercy 325,000 British and Allied troops who were safely evacuated to southern England in an operation we have gratefully dubbed `the miracle of Dunkirk'.

The explanation of that 'miracle' was given to me by Field Marshal von Rundstedt, commander-in-chief of the boarding German forces. `Dunkirk was one of the great turning-points of the war,' said von Rundstedt. `If I had had my way, the English would not have got off so lightly. But my hands were tied by direct orders from Hitler himself. My five panzer divisions were forbidden to attack. …

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