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The Portsmouth Blitz: 70 years on

70 years ago today the people of Portsmouth were coming to terms with the aftermath of the most devastating bombing raid on the city during the Second World War. The anniversary was marked yesterday by a service at the city’s Anglican Cathederal, a ceremony in the Guildhall Square, and the unveiling of a placque to victims in Old Portsmouth.

Even before the Second World War the Luftwaffe had identified Portsmouth as an important target. Luftwaffe target maps in Portsmouth Central Library show that aircrew were shown the location of the dockyard (including the various buildings and docks), the railway stations, the power station, Gosport, local barracks, Vospers Shipbuilders in the Camber, and also the Airspeed Factory at the Airport.

171 people were killed on the night of 10 and 11 January 1941. Portsmouth was chosen as a target that night as the rest of Britain was covered by thick cloud, and Portsmouth – on the coast – was the only readily identifiable target. German records show that 153 Bombers targeted Portsmouth. This compares drastically with the ’1,000 Bomber’ raids launched by Bomber Command on Germany later in the war.

Many victims were unidentified due to their terrible injuries, and im some cases virtually nothing remained of their bodies. Hundreds of victims were buried in a mass funeral in Kingston Cemetery in the city. A memorial stands near to the site of their mass grave. Over 1,000 people died in Portsmouth as a result of Bombing during the Second World War. Many records state that 930 civilians were killed, but a number of servicemen were also killed whilst on leave or while on duty in the city. Just under 10% of the cities 63,000 houses were destroyed, and a similar number seriously damaged.

German records state that 40,000 4lb incendiary bombs were dropped on the city on that one night alone, as well as 140 tons of High Explosive. Many bombs did land in the sea – the Solent, and Portsmouth and Langstone Harbours. In 1940 Bombing from the air was not an exact science. The Bombers followed radio beams that interescted over Southsea Common. The incendicaries caused over 2,314 fires – far too many for beleagured emergency services to deal with at any one time, especially given that 60 water mains had been destroyed. The tide was also low, which prevented the Fire Brigade from pumping water from the sea.

47 people were died when an air raid shelter at Arundel Street School suffered a direct hit. The power station was hit, and the main shopping centres at Commercial Road, Palmerston Road and Kings Road were all decimated. Also damaged were the Ear, Nose and Throat Hospital, the Hippodrome, Clarence Pier, three cinemas, the dockyard school, the Royal Sailors Rest Home, the Salvation Army Citadel, the Central Hotel and the Connaught Drill Hall. The FA Cup – won by Pompey in 1939 – was dug out of a Bank in Commercial Road, where it had been placed for safekeeping.

The most visible and symbolic material loss was the destruction of the Guildhall. ARP and emergency services battled fires in the building all night, but one 4lb incendiary bomb fell down a ventilation shaft and lodged itself in an inacessible place, proving impossible to extinguish. The Guildhall burnt all night and into the next day, the melting copper from the ornate dome dripping down to the ground. When the fires finally subsided only the outer walls remained. When the basement was dug out however the Lord Mayor’s chain and civic plate were found to be intact.

I’ve always found it a mystery why the Luftwaffe didn’t target Portsmouth more during the War. Situated on the coast and with the Isle of Wight to the south harbours to either side it should have been relatively easy to locate from the air, certainly easier than many of the inland cities that were targeted. Granted, most of the large naval ships didn’t use Portsmouth during the war for fear of air attack, but there was still a sizeable dockyard and a plethora of naval training establishments. Portsmouth was strongly defended by Anti-Aircraft Guns however - on Hayling Island, along the crest of Portsdown Hill, and on Southsea Common, where there were also rocket batteries. There were also many barrage balloons. Naval ships in harbour would also open up their AA guns. ARP precautions in Portsmouth were also advanced, as the authorities expected the city to be heavily targeted.

The ‘myth of the blitz’ that I have written about previously has also pervaded over Portsmouth’s experience. There were incidents of looting, recorded in the local court records. Many people also left the city each night and ‘trekked’ out of the city, over Portsdown Hill. They were criticised for leaving their homes vulnerable to incendiary bombs. But on the whole morale held surprisingly well. The Lord Mayor of Portsmouth Denis Daley (no relation) wrote:

“We are bruised but we are not daunted, and we are still as determined as ever to stand side by side with other cities who have felt the blast of the enemy, and we shall, with them, persevere with an unflagging spirit towards a conclusive and decisive victory”

Whilst Portsmouth and many other cities in Britain were hit extremely hard during the war, it is important that we keep the impact of strategic bombing in context. More people were killed in one night in Dresden in 1945 than were killed in the whole of Britain during the war years. Cities such as Hamburg, Cologne and Berlin were also devastated. Further afield Tokyo was virtually obliterated. This is not to belittle the suffering of people in Portsmouth, but only to say that other cities in the world suffered even more. Colleagues of mine have in the past come in for a lot of criticism for stating that Portsmouth got off quite lightly compared to Hamburg and Dresden.

The Blitz also hardened the attitudes of many. Later in the war hundreds of young men from Portsmouth were killed bombing cities in the Third Reich and occupied Europe. A number of them died on missions to bomb Duisburg in the Ruhr, which would later become Portsmouth’s twin city. In the famous words of ‘Bomber’ Harris ‘The Germans entered this war with the rather childish delusion that they were going to bomb everyone else, and that nobody was going to bomb them. They sowed the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind’. Such an attitude is probably indicative of public opinion on the home front during the war. People who had endured the blitz were unlikely to be too concerned about the fate of German cities when their turn came.

My Grandad can remember a lot from the time of the Blitz. One night he saw a Heinkel fly over so low he could see the pilots blonde hair. On another occasion, he and his sister decided to go the Park instead of the cinema. The cinema was destroyed by a bomb that afternoon. He can also remember having to cut short his paper round as the cemetery had been bombed, and also collecting shrapnel from ack-ack guns. And my favourite memory of his, has to be when a barrage balloon got tangled round the school’s belltower, pulling it down!

It was only really in the 1970′s that Portsmouth was fully reconstructed after the war. It was not even until the 1950′s that the Guildhall was rebuilt. During the war grand plans were made to redesign Portsmouth – in terms of urban planning, roads and whole neighbourhoods – but these had to be curtailed in the Austerity that marked post-war Britain. Never the less, many people were re-homed from the shattered inner-city areas to new estates at Paulsgrove and Leigh Park, or new high rise blocks in Somers Town, Buckland, Portsea and Landport.

I have been disappointed with the media coverage of the anniversary. BBC1′s Inside Out gave a measly 10 minutes to the subject (mind you if it had been about Southampton we could have expected an hour long special). Inside Out even featured a local ‘historian’ I’ve never heard of – Portsmouth isn’t a massive place, and there arent too many historians here!

For more information about the Portsmouth Blitz, have a look at John Stedman’s excellent Portsmouth Paper ‘Portsmouth Reborn: Destruction and Reconstruction 1941-1974′, Andrew Whitmarsh’s ‘Portsmouth at War’, and also ‘City at War’ by Nigel Peake. ‘Smitten City’ by the Portsmouth News is also a fantastic publication full of images of Portsmouth during the war.

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Could the Allies have bombed Auschwitz?

Photo of the Nazi extermination camp at Auschw...

An aerial photograph of Auschwitz-Birkenau, taken by the US Air Force (Image via Wikipedia)

Somebody asked me recently what I think about the debates about whether the Allies could have bombed Auschwitz, in order to prevent the mass murder of millions of people during the Second World War. Theres always been a very heated debate about the subject, quite understandably given the massive number of victims, and the tragedy that we now know the Holocaust to be.

Historical Debates tend to align into two points of view. Firstly, the ‘Abandonment of the Jews’ – that the Allies knew what was going on, that they could have bombed the death camps, but for whatever reason they chose not to. On the other hand, many historians feel that the Allies only had patchy intelligence about the exterminations; that wartime propaganda made it difficult to know what was true and what was embellished; and that the long range and the risk of killing the prisoners in particular made it impossible to do anything.

The strategic situation in 1943-4

Whilst draconian measures against the Jews in German occupied Europe had begun as soon as the Nazis came to power in 1933 (the 1934 Nuremberg laws, Reichkristallnacht in 1938, the ghettos in the East), it was in 1943 and 1944 that the ‘Final Solution‘ – the extermination of the Jews – was put into action. In particular, 1944 saw the extermination of the large population of Jews from Hungary.

By 1943 and 1944, the Western Allies had received enough intelligence to know that mass murder was taking place in occupied Europe. Reports had reached Britain and the US from prisoners who had escaped from Auschwitz, particularly the Vrba-Wetzler report which surfaced in 1944. Earlier in the war Britain had received intelligence from Polish sources, and later in the war Auachwitz was inadvertantly photographed by the US Air Force, although analysts failed to realise the sites significance. There was no doubt that seriously unpleasant events were taking place in eastern Poland, the only arguments seem to have been focussed on the number of victims, where they were taking place, and what if anything could be done about them.

The Death Camps

One problem with our understanding of the Holocaust is that for many people, Auschwitz IS the Holocaust. Over a million people are estimated to have been killed there, but millions of people died in other extermination camps elsewhere in Poland – Sobibor, Chelmno, Madjanek, Belzec and Treblinka for example. But in the debate about Bombing Auschwitz, these camps are always overlooked. The Holocaust was taking place on such a wide scale, with a thorough administration, stretching back to the SS and the Reich Main Security Office in Berlin, and with people such as Heydrich, Eichmann and Kaltenbrunner involved. Simply bombing one camp would not have ended the whole programme of murder: persecution of the Jews was a fundamental tenet of Hitler and the Nazi party, it would have been akin to chopping one tentacle off a squid. Given the lengths the Nazis were willing to go to, and the complexity of the mass murder machine, the only way the Holocaust could be totally stopped would be to defeat Nazi Germany once and for all.

The problem of precision Bombing at long range

We also need to bear in mind the problems of bombing such a precise target. We assume that the RAF would have been able to drop bombs on a sixpence, neatly destroying the administration block, the gas chambers, and the railways lines, without harming any of the inmates. Cruise missiles with GPS and laser guiding might be able to achieve that level of accuracy, but in 1943 and 1944, the picture was somewhat different. The RAF and USAAF were bombing Germany by night and day throughout 1943 and 1944, but suffering huge losses in aircraft and crews in the process. Even with advances such as GEE, Oboe, H2S, and pathfinding tactics, the only way that the Air Forces could seriously damage targets was to area bomb them – to drop huge amounts of explosives and incendiaries over a wide area. This was clearly a tactic that could not be used against Auschwitz or any other camps, as it would have resulted in the deaths of thousands of prisoners, and might not have been sure to succeed in any case. Some precision bombing raids did take place in the war – the Dambusters raid on the Ruhr Dams, for example. However this involved a Squadron spending much time and resources working on a specficially designed bomb, with countless hours of scientific research and special navigational aids. And although the raid succeeded, it suffered high losses.

If it was not possible to bomb the camp itself, might it have been possible to bomb the railway lines going into the camp? Railways lines were a very difficult target to hit – being extremely narrow, even more so from 10,000 feet up. It would have taken an awful lot of planes, dropping many bombs, to give a good chance of destroying the railway lines. But even then, railways lines were relatively easy to repair – they consist pretty much of aggregate stone, sleepers and the track itself. Even if the line was hit and cratered, it would take little time for the Germans to make slave labourers fill in the craters and re-lay the lines.

Auschwitz was at the very extreme limit of the range of Bombers such as the Lancaster and the Flying Fortress, flying from Britain. The bombers were not able to fly from anywhere in liberated Europe until virtually the end of the war, although some bases in southern Italy were available, these were at about the same range. Whilst it would have been possible to fly Bombing missions of that range - the US Air Force did carry out a few small raids on industrial targets in Southern Poland - it was at the very extreme range of what was possible. Flying to Bomb Auschwitz would have entailed an extremely long flight across Germany itself, and – in all likelihood – massive losses from flak and nightfighters. The distance might have limited the bombload that could have been carried. And we should not underestimate the challenge of bombing accurately after such a long flight.

The long range might have not been such a problem, had British and American aircraft been able to land in Soviet occupied territory to refuel. However, the Soviet authorities were not keen to allow the western allies to do so. When the British and Americans wanted to land planes in soviet-held territory in order to drop supplies to the Polish Resistance during the uprising in August 1944, Stalin refused to help until it was too late.

There have also been suggestions that Britain and the US could have dropped the 1st Polish Parachute Brigade on the camp. This would have entailed a flight of the same distances of a bombing raid, in C-47 Dakota’s with less range, which were also unarmed and unarmoured. The lightly armed Polish Paras would have been hundreds of miles behind enemy lines, and would have had to fight a well prepared SS Guard, who probably numbered the same as them, with the ability to call in reinforcements quickly. They might even have liquidated the prisoners more quickly. In any case, even if the Polish Parachute Brigade had landed and liberated the camp, what then? Auschwitz was almost certainly going to be liberated by the Red Army, who were not happy for the British-supported Parachute Brigade to be used anywhere in their sphere of influence.

The Soviets

Whilst the British and Americans might be seen to have had the means to take action over Auschwitz, the Soviet Union was fighting on the Eastern Front, and was much closer to liberating Auschwitz. In February 1945, it was soldiers of the Red Army who discovered the camp, it having been abandoned by its SS Guards. They also liberated the other extermination camps in the East. But the Russians possessed a negligible Air Force compared to Britain and the United States.

Although Bombing might be able to impact upon the enemy, the only way to completely end the atrocities of the Holocaust was to defeat the Nazis, liberate occupied Europe and Germany itself – only by doing so could the mass-murders really be stopped. Anything else could only have a short-term effect, and as we have seen, even as the Third Reich was collapsing, the Nazis were still determined to exterminate the Jews.

Neither should we forget that the Soviet Union under Stalin was capable of committing some terrible crimes. With the Great Purges, the liquidation of the Kukaks and the massacre of Polish Officers at Katyn, it has been argued by some historians that Stalin is ultimately responsible for more crimes than Hitler was. This is an important point to consider. Whilst some might feel that the western allies did not do enough, all the evidence suggests that Stalin and his subordinates, if they knew about the Holocaust, in all probability did not see it as a priority to stop it. Such was the disregard for human life that Stalin had. Indeed, when photographs appeared of what the Red Army had found, many refused to believe it, seeing it as Communist anti-Nazi propaganda.

Final Thoughts

This is such an emotive, and, difficult subject to write about. No matter what conclusion you come to, you are bound to upset somebody. But on the balance of history and evidence, for that is what we must deal with, I do not think the Western Allies could have done much to prevent the Holocaust by bombing the camps. I feel that the possiblity was looked into, but rightly the planners concluded that it was just not possible to enact. Winston Churchill, a long-time supporter of Jewish groups, even at one time ordered the RAF to look into launching a bombing raid, offering his own personal influence if others tried to prevent it. But Churchill himself accepted the problems that his officers had come up against. I believe that any historian would want the allies to have been able to do something, and would want them to have done it. But it just could not be done. Of course, now it would be impossible, with high-tech sattelite observation, for such genocide to take place on such a scale unhindred, and with precisiom bombing and advanced special forces, we have more options for prevention.

I don’t think the myth of an allied abandonment of the Jews holds water. The Jewish lobby had great influence in both Britain and the US before, during and after the war. Britain had been the main instigator, via the Balfour decleration, of the call for a Jewish homeland. British forces liberated Belsen, and US forces liberated Dachau, and both camps saw considerable disaster relief efforts. If the western allies were guilty of anything regarding the holocaust, it is of not doing enough when they had the chance, prior to 1939 when all the signs were there that the persecution of the Jews was not going to stop and was likely to get worse. More effort to help Jews escape mainland Europe would have lessened the number who ended up in the death camps. Or, better still, standing up to Hitler in the first place might have prevented him having the opportinity to commit mass murder.

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The blitz re-examined

Burned-out buildings in Hamburg - picture poss...

Burned-out buildings in Hamburg (Image via Wikipedia)

As its recently passed the 70th anniversary of the start of the Blitz, there has been plenty in the news recently about people’s memories of the start of the bombing.

We hear about victors justice – about how the victors in any war are able to pronounce on rights and wrongs, and to dispense justice accordingly. It could be argued too that victors also have a near monopoly on the judgement of history. The outcome of any long process is bound to frame people’s perceptions when looking back. This can increase over time, especially when concerning something so emotive as a war, and even more so with a war where so much was at stake.

We hear plenty about ‘Blitz spirit’, in a similar fashion to ‘Dunkirk spirit‘. And indeed there is a certain stoicism in the British psyche. Look at Wellington’s thin red line at Waterloo, or the South Wales Borderers at Rorke’s Drift. Gandalf’s ‘you shall not pass’ could have been inspired by British military history. And, indeed, the British people did show a remarkable fortitude in some very testing circumstances in 1940 and 1941, when the Bombing was at its height. But one cannot help but feel that over the years the Blitz has been built up into part of the national spirit, out of all proportion to the actual historical events that took place 70 years ago. Britain is by no means the only country to build an event up out of all recognition (ie, the Alamo). But I feel that by embellising something as remarkable as the Blitz, you are taking away from what was already quite some story in its own right. The average person with a passing interest in the social history of wartime Britain is more than likely to buy into the myths than the reality, which is a pity.

I’m also baffled as to why the Blitz is remembered almost solely as a London event. Other parts of the country were hit too. London did receive a large number of raids and a high tonnage of bombs, but as the country’s capital and an important port in its own right, it was always going to be a target. But in 1940 it was still a huge city, and the attacks were concentrated largely in the centre. London was the home of the Government, and the high commands of the armed forces. Yet although it was an important port and a centre of large population, its importance was more symbolic than anything else. Whereas if we look at other cities, the danger was more stark – Coventry with its motor works and Sheffield and her steel works, for example.

The example of Portsmouth during the Blitz is useful to consider. Geographically a very small island city, being on the coast it was much easier for the Luftwaffe to locate and target. Population density was also very high, which no doubt reflected in casualty rates. A Bomb dropped over Portsmouth was almost certainly more likely to cause heavy casualties, as it had more chance of hitting a built up area than in a more spread-out city. Of course the Naval Dockyard was a prime target, and large housing areas such as Portsea, Buckland and Landport were virtually next door to the Dockyard’s walls. If the Luftwaffe had been targetting the Dockyard they were seriously at risk. According to Andrew Whitmarsh’s ‘Portsmouth At War’, however, the Knickebein radar beams intersected over Southsea Common, which would suggest, with the low level of accuracy that the Luftwaffe was capable of early in the war, that they were content to area bomb the city with a mix of high explosive and incendiary bombs.

John Stedman’s Portsmouth Paper ‘Destruction and Reconstruction’ charts Portsmouth’s experience during the bombing of the war years, and in particular its effect on the people and the fabric of the city. Between July 1940 (the first raid) and July 1944 (the last V1rocket) 1,320 high explosive bombs, 38 parachute mines and 38,000 incendiaries were dropped on Portsmouth. Two V1′s also fell on Pompey. 930 civilians were killed, 1,216 were injured enough to be admitted to hospital, and 1,621 were injured less seriously. 6,625 properties were destroyed, and 80,000 damaged. This in a city of 200,000 people and 70,000 properties. Therefore some properties must have been damaged more than once. The damage was therefore more against property than person, although morale seems to have held up reasonably well. The most destructive individual raid came on 10 January 1941, when 300 planes dropped 25,000 incendiaries.  172 people were killed, and 430 injured.

No doubt these experiences were harrowing for the people of Portsmouth – in particular in a close-knit city. Yet to put these into perspective, when the Allied Air Forces began bombing Germany in earnest later in the war, Bomber Harris launched a number of 1,000 bomber raids. And Allied four-engine bombers, much larger than any planes the Luftwaffe had, could drop a much higher payload. With developments in navigation, and the use of pathfinders, raids generally hit the cities they were targetting. Lets take the example of Duisburg, Portsmouth’s twin city in Germany. The Duisburgers suffered 229 bombing raids. The first serious raid came on 12 May when 577 RAF bombers dropped 1,559 tons of bombs. The old town was destoyed and 96,000 people were made homeless. The during Operation Hurricane in 19 October 1944 967 bombers dropped 3,574 tons of high explosive and 820 tons of incendiaries. Then in a raid later the same night a further 4,040 tons of HE were dropped, and 500 tons of incendiaries. Although there are no statistics for Duisburg Casualties, it is estimated that up to 80% of the city was destroyed.

And it wasn’t just Duisburg. The Battle of Berlin between November 1943 and March 1944 killed 4,000 Berliners, injured 10,000 and made 450,000 homeless. The operation Gomorrah raids on Hamburg in July 1943 used successive waves of over 700 heavy Bombers, dropping over 9,000 tons of Bombs. In the huge firestorm an estimated 50,000 people were killed. And the most infamous raid on Germany, that on Dresden in February 1945, saw 1,300 bombers drop 3,900 tons. The casualty rate is disputed, but it is estimated that somewhere between 22,000 and 25,000 people perished.

The most infamous raid on Britain hit Coventry on 14 November 1940. 515 German Bombers dropped 500 tons of high explosive, and 36,000 incendiary bombs. Around 600 people were killed, and more than 1,000 injured. 4,000 homes were destroyed, and three quarters of the city’s industry. As harrowing as Coventry must have been for those who were caught up in it, the later raids on Hamburg, the Ruhr, Berlin and Dresden took on a whole new level of destruction and intensity. That is by no way to belittle the suffering of those who experience the blitz – much as hearing that someone else has lost two legs does not make you losing only one better, the knowledge that others had it worse was probably not as much comfort as hindsight would have us believe.

But in the modern day, when we have the benefit of numerous studies, statistics, and case studies looking at the various raids and cities, the popular media really should know better than to promulgate the myth of the blitz. Especially when the real picture is still pretty inspiring in its own right. While the good old-east end version of the Blitz would have us believe that everyone stood in the street defiantly shaking their fists at the Luftwaffe, the more realistic version of civilians calmly and quietly seeing the nights out in shelters and trying to go about their business is, to me, distinctly more British than the ‘knees up mother brown’ and jellied eels school of history.

Morale did not crack under sustained bombing, either in Britain or in Germany. Considering the onslaught that the Germans received, its incredible how their civilians kept on living. But then again, living under a brutal dictatorship might have had something to do with it. But for me, the key is, do German’s nowadays have their own version of the ‘blitz spirit’? I’ve never heard of it. And thats in a lot of studying of the Second World War, the bombing campaign, plenty of visits to Germany, including talking to elderly Germans who must have lived through it. The German experience of the Second World War means that their ordeal under bombing has been quietly left alone, whereas our eventual victory has shaped our history of the Blitz.

Is it an ironic coincidence that the 70th anniversary of the start of the blitz came during the same week that Peggy Mitchell left Eastenders?

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Myths of the Blitz

Firefighters putting out a blaze in London aft...

Image via Wikipedia

Theres an interesting piece from historian Correlli Barnett in the Independent on Sunday Today, commemorating the 70th anniversary of the start of the Blitz. I can’t say I’ve always agreed with Barnett – particularly over his opinion on Montgomery – and sadly from such a prominent Historian, I find his writing pretty disappointing.

Over the past 70 years something of a myth has grown up around the Blitz. True, we did go on to win the war, but did this fact, in retrospect, shape perceptions of the blitz? I think so. If we had lost the war, it might have been a different argument altogether. There is evidence that civilian behaviour and morale did not hold up quite as well as popular belief thinks. There were very serious concerns in national and local Government that mass panic would ensue. Initially people were banned from going into Tube stations during air raids, for fear that they would never come up again and would evolve into a race of ‘underground people’. There were also cases of looting, but these were largely hushed up at the time – Portsmouth magistrate records during the war record a large number of people who appeared in court, but with no crime entered – we strongly suspect that they were charged with looting, but that this was kept quiet so as not to harm morale. The blackout was also a great cover for crime, as Juliet Gardner has recently written in the Guardian.

The other issue is the perception of the Blitz as a distinctly London phenomenon. The Independent on Sunday‘s pullout is very much a case of ‘…and other cities’, which I feel not only does injustice to other cities which suffered heavy punishment, it is also inaccurate. True, London was the most bombed city in terms of the number of raids, and the amount of ordnance dropped. Yet, even in 1940 London was a sprawling Metropolis of millions of people. It was also the captial, so of course it was always going to be a target. Yet smaller cities such as Coventry, Birmingham, Sheffield, Plymouth, Portsmouth and Liverpool were heavily bombed too. And when we consider the size of these cities, and that in some cases most of the damage came in a handful of raids, they underwent what was in many ways a heavier ordeal. Yet the Blitz has become an overhwelmingly London phenomenon, filed somewhere between Barbara Windsor and Jellied Eels.

Barnett writes that morale did not collapse in Britain during the Blitz, and neither did it during the Allied Air Forces strategic bombing assault on Germany later in the war. This, Barnett argues, is a lesson for modern warmakers who think that shock and awe undermines the enemy’s resolve to resist. Yet this is a poor argument – societies have changed immeasurably, sense of community and togetherness is not quite what it was. And the waging of war, and the munitions that can be used, have changed too. Strategic Bombing was imprecise and indiscriminate. Yet Cruise Missile strikes send the message ‘we can target you, anywhere, anytime’ – something that can hardly make one feel like putting up a fight. Morale in the Ruhr and Berlin may have ‘held’ in 1943 and 1944, butt holding on is not the same as thriving. Albert Speer, the Nazi Armaments Minister, was quite clear in his opinion that allied bombing severely hampered the German industries. What more evidence do we need than that?

I would not think of myself as a revisionist when it comes to the Blitz, far from it. It’s amazing to think the kind of ordeal that our ancestors – including my Grandparents – went through in those dark days. But at the same time I am also very cautious about buying into myths that have more to do with drama and popular culture than with reality.

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Skorzeny: the most dangerous man in Europe by Charles Whiting

I had always been under the impression that Nazi Germany didn’t really ‘do’ special forces – much like Napoleon, Hitler didn’t seem to see the value of irregular warfare, and moreover there was not room for special operations in Blitzkrieg; the short, sharp war. The Germans had nothing to compare with the plethora of special forces that sprang up in Britain – the SAS, the SBS, the Commandos, the Paras, the Long Range Desert Group and Popski’s Private Army to name but a few.

Yet this book by Charles Whiting suggests that this is a slighty simplistic view. Otto Skorzeny performed some daring and almost improbable acts during the war – rescuing Mussolini from captivity, kidnapping the son of the Hungarian Regent, and an infamous role in the Battle of the Bulge. What is even more fascinating, is that Skorzeny was not a career soldier, and largely developed his own theories, which the Nazi High Command only showed interest in once the war turned against them. He gained unique access to Hitler and other Nazi grandees, and for a relatively junior officer had quite a privileged place in the Nazi war machine.

There are some interesting lessons for military enthusiasts. Principally, how special forces operations seemed in the main to only occur to both belligerents when they were forced onto the defensive – Britain in 1940, and Germany after Stalingrad and Alamein. But, whereas after 1940 Britain kept on developing special forces capability which came in use when the tide turned, Germany was continually on the back foot until defeat in 1945. Also, the fact that Skorzeny was outwardly an unpromising, amateur soldier shows how military hierarchies – particularly one as stiff as the ‘prussian’ officer class, are not always adept at embracing unconventional tactics.

The impact of Skorzeny’s operations in the Ardennes are perhaps his best known legacy. Heading up a special unit of men dressed in US uniforms, and who broke through the front line to cause havoc behind the American lines. Rumours spread that Skorzeny was going to go all the way to Paris to assasinate Eisenhower. Although slightly ridiculous, these rumours caused panic and meant Eisenhower was a virtual prisoner in his headquarters during a critical phase of the battle (this incident led to his ‘most dangerous man in Europe’ tag). Thus Skorzeny and his men had exerted an influence out of all proportion to their size, merely by the suggestion of what they might do. Such is the strategic impact of special forces.

One of the most prolific military historians ever, Whiting based this book on interviews with Skorzeny, while the former was lying seriously ill in Germany towards the end of his life. Whiting does not merely tell us about Skorzeny’s wartime career – there are also startling tales about his involvement in Peronist Argentina (including an affair with Eva Peron), and a shady role in Nasser’s Egypt. These are stories that may well be new to the eyes of many, me includuded, and they all go towards painting a picture of an extraordinary man.

Skorzeny: the most dangerous man in Europe is published by Pen and Sword

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The Third Reich 1919-1939: The Nazis Rise to Power by Andrew Rawson

At first glance the title of this book might appear to be a glaring mistake – didn’t Hitler and the Nazi party really come to power in 1933? So shouldn’t that be the true start of the Third Reich? What Andrew Rawson does here, however, is show that the Nazi Germany that went to war in 1939 was a product of developments in Germany since 1919.

Many military historians – myself included – often ignore broader social aspects. Does a battle really begin when the plan is first hatched, or when the first shot is fired? By limiting our analysis of any war to when it is declared, are we not completey ignoring years of developments that took us up to that point? The SS Panzer Divisions that fought at Arnhem in 1944 did not miraculously turn up on the battlefield from nowhere – the SS was founded in the 1920′s and its members were the product of years of Nazi youth organisations and indoctrination – no wonder they fought so fanatically.

Where this book is also useful is trying to get a handle on the numerous departments and organisations in the Third Reich. In terms of police alone, there were the Orpo, the Kripo, the Sipo, and the Gestapo – all with different functions! Confusing? Ever so slightly! It does seem that totalitarian regimes such as Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany bred incredibly complex state structures, particularly for the purpose of controlling the people.

The numerous short biographies also show how thin the line was between prospering and failing in Nazi Germany. Given that Hitler seems to have had a policy of playing rival subordinates off against each other, its not surprising that ambitious and scheming men such as Himmler and Goebels floated to the top of the pile.

The sheer number of departments, officials and conflicting intersts in the Government of Nazi Germany suggests not only how chaotic the party and the state were, but also, paradoxically, how ruthless the lower level administrators were at running the country. The more and more I read about Nazi Germany, the more of an impression I have that it was run on the whims of Hitler and a small number of leaders, backed up by a vast an remarkable administration machine.

I found this a very interesting read – full of facts and information, and well illustrated with some good photographs. It would be an ideal purchase for the military historian wanting to learn more about German Society and the development of the Nazi state, or indeed for any student studying Germany between the wars.

The Third Reich 1919-1939 is published by The History Press

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The Hitler Youth in Britain before the war

It might sound slightly farcical – almost like something from Dad’s Army in fact -but recently released files from the Security Services show that there was serious concern about the activities of members of the Hitler Youth in Britain prior to the Second World War.

In November 1937 a visit of German officials aimed to build links with the Boy Scout movement in Britain. During the visit a meeting was held with Lord Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scout Movement. A lengthy report on the visit details speeches made by the German representatives, and mentions that visits were made to Eton School and the Army Gymnastics School at Aldershot. The writer of the report felt that one of the delegates, Herr Lauterbacher, seemed keen to make a good impression and was most pleasant. Fascinatingly, one War Office official stated that ‘…their party smoked and drank double whiskies and I wondered whether they did this when with the Hitler Youth’.

That the representatives were so amenable is not surprising. Officials were under no illusions that such visits were part of a campaign to promote the Hitler Youth in a positive light by building links with the Boy Scouts. A report by Baden-Powell after the visit in question sheds fasinating light on the incident. He reports that Herr Benneman spoke very little English. Baden-Powell was also invited to to Germany to meet Hitler, in what would have been a considerable publicity coup.

The File, in the National Archives, also contains much intercepted correspondence. One address in Catford in London was found to be sending and receiving an unsual amount of mail to and from Germany. Most of them are in German, and concern proposed visits to Britain. The Metropolitan Police were also asked to report on whether Hitler Youth groups wore uniform on visits and at events. On 6 November 1937 a party of Hitler Youth, in full uniform, took part in a ceremony where their new standard was dedicated at Dalston Church. A song sang at the ceremony included mentions of the Munich Beer Ball Putsch, the Feldhernhalle where he putsch failed, Hitler’s Mission, martyrdom and the Greater German Reich.

The authorities seem to have been particularly concerned that parties of Hitler Youth officials and members were using visit to Britain as cover for carrying out espionage. As a result, the Home Office kept an increasingly close watch on Germans entering Britain who were known to have links with the Hitler Youth. For example, files records that Kurt Petter, 28 years old, arrived at Harwich from the Hook of Holland and spent 4 days visiting public schools. Ingeborg Schwerdtfeger, a former paid official in the sport section of the Hitler Youth, and had ran a Town organisation. She originally came to Britain to work as an au pair, but later studied to become a secretary. In November 1937 MI5 were asked for their opinion on whether a known Hitler Youth Member should be allowed to work at a German Orphanage in Britain. It was felt at the time that membership of the Hitler Youth alone was not enough grounds to refuse entry, but that his activities would have to be closely monitored.

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