Category Archives: world war 2

The longest five days…Operation Compass, 9th December 1940

When we think of the early months of the Second World War we often focus on the setbacks suffered by the Allies in Europe including the disastrous fall of France and the heroic rescue of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk. We also think of the losses we suffered in North Africa against Rommel and his Afrika Korps; but what is often forgotten is that our first adversary in Africa was not the Germans but the Italians and, for a time, things there were very different.

Both Britain and Italy were intent on protecting their colonies in Africa. There were skirmished between the two sides but the Italian commander, Graziani, was doubtful that his largely un-mechanized force would be capable of defeating the smaller but motorised forces of the British. The first major movement of troops began on 13th September 1940 when the Italian 10th Army advanced into Egypt and the British retreated before them to shorten their long supply lines from Alexandria, finally setting up defensive positions east of Mersa Matruh. The Italians had advanced 60 miles in 3 days before facing similar supply problems and halting at Maktila where they set up 5 fortified camps whilst they waited for supplies and reinforcements (one reason that supplies were running short for the Italians was that vital supplies had been diverted from North Africa for the invasion of Yugoslavia). In their initial push into Egypt the Italians lost almost 3,000 men with another 700 taken prisoner as well as 150 vehicles being destroyed, resources which the Italians could ill afford to lose so reconsolidation was vital if they were to defeat the British.

Mersa Matruh
Mersah Matruh

General Wavell was in command of the British troops and ordered a limited operation to push the Italians back. This push was planned to last for five days although he insisted that Lieutenant-General Maitland Wilson should be ready to exploit any advantage that Operation Compass might give saying, ‘I do not entertain extravagant hopes of this operation but I do wish to make certain that if a big opportunity occurs we are prepared morally, mentally and administratively to use it to the fullest.’

map

Wavell’s plan was to take Sidi Barrani on the Mediterranean coast, but the Italians had not been idle during their 3 months setting up camps – they had an estimated 75,000 men in the area with around 120 tanks and 200 big guns. In opposition the British had around 25,000 men and 275 light tanks. The plan was for part of the British troops to take advantage of a 20 mile wide gap in the Italian ring of fortified camps and move west where they would then be able to turn north and south to outflank the enemy. The attacking troops rehearsed these moves on 25th – 26th November 1940 although they didn’t know that the ‘training grounds’ marked out in the desert were exact replicas of their targets at Nibeiwa and Tummar. Orders came for a second exercise and it wasn’t until the troops arrived at the proposed site that they found this was no exercise but the jumping off point for a major Operation. On the night of 7th December the Western Desert Force advanced 70 miles west to their designated start line whilst the RAF attacked Italian airfields and dummy tanks were set up at strategic points to confuse the enemy.

aroured cars
Armoured cars in North Africa

The attack proper began at 5am on 9th December with British artillery firing on the Italian camp at Nibeiwa. By 8.30am the camp had fallen with over 800 Italian and Libyan soldiers dead, 1,300 wounded and 2,000 captured as well as large quantities of supplies being taken by the British forces who only had 56 casualties. With spirits high British troops moved on from Nibeiwa towards the camps at East and West Tummar. A huge sandstorm during the day slowed the British advance but as the weather cleared Indian and New Zealand forces pushed on with the attack just before 2pm. By 4pm most of the camp at Tummar West was in British hands with East Tummar falling by dark. As the Allies continued to push west enemy positions continued to fall like dominoes. The 2nd Libyan Division lost 26 officers and 1,327 men killed, 32 officers and 804 men wounded and all survivors being taken prisoner.

At Maktila the enemy were forced into sand dunes where they were overrun by British Cruiser tanks. The remaining Italians regrouped at Sidi Barrani where the British attacked in the late afternoon of 10th with the position falling by nightfall. Wavell’s forces continued to push west causing mass surrenders of the defending troops, so much so that the number of prisoners began to slow the advance of the British who were totally unprepared for such high numbers.

matildas
British ‘Matilda’ tanks

The shocked Italian army was in full retreat with the British harrying them every step of the way. By the time the Italians had been pushed out of Egypt on 15th December (less than a week into Operation Compass) 38,300 of their men had been taken prisoner and huge amounts of equipment had been abandoned including 237 pieces of artillery and 73 tanks while the British losses consisted of 133 killed, 387 wounded and 8 missing. The British halted for a time to bring up supplies and await Australian reinforcements before attacking the enemy at Bardia (on the Egyptian coast about half way between Sid Barrini and Tobruk) which was garrisoned by 45,000 men and over 400 guns and tanks; Bardia was also surrounded by 18 miles of double barbed wire fencing with a four foot anti-tank ditch, minefields and machine gun positions. Whilst forces were amassing the British continued to attack in other sectors – Sidi Omar was taken on 16th December in a battle which lasted just 10 minutes leaving 50 Italians dead and 900 taken prisoner!

Italian_soldiers_taken_prisoner_during_Operation_Compass
Italian and Libyan Prisoners Of War

With new supplies and a new year the British resumed the attack again on 3rd January 1941 after a night of heavy bombing and bombardment of Bardia. The 6th Australian Division had air and naval support as they began the attack, blowing gaps in the barbed wire and filling in the anti-tank ditches by hand. Once they had breached the outer defences other Australian forces pushed through the gap, broke through the secondary defences and cut the city in two. Bardia finally fell after 3 days of fighting. The Italian forces were in such disarray that the commander of one British tank found himself in charge of 1,500 Italian prisoners! In all more than 25,000 Italians were captured whilst the Australians lost 130 killed and 326 wounded. The disheartened Italians regrouped at Tobruk with its vital harbour and garrison of over 25,000 within the two rings of defences (the inner 19 miles long, the outer 30 miles). The British halted their push to bring up supplies and carry out maintenance on the tanks which had covered too many miles without any repair or replacement of tracks.

australian tanks
Australian tanks

The attack on Tobruk began at 5.40am on 21st January 1941 with the British advancing an impressive 1 mile during the first hour. The Italians put up a fierce fight but by early evening the British had taken half of the port with the help of air support from the RAF. Sensing inevitable defeat the Italians began to destroy the port before finally surrendering the following morning. Within 36 hours of the initial attack the British had taken 27,000 prisoners, 230 guns and 200 vehicles with the loss of only 400 men, 355 of whom were Australians. Although they had destroyed many stores the Italians had not had enough time to destroy all of the port facilities and the British were soon able to use it for their own re-supply. Two captured water distilleries also helped to reduce the problems of supply for the attacking army which continued to push steadily westward.

Australian troops at Tobruk
Men of the Australian 2nd/11th Battalion, 6th Division pictured during the Battle of Tobruk, 22 January 1941.

The Italian reserve forces were not ready for battle but feared that they might be surrounded by the British and so began a counter-attack on 23rd January. Their push was initially successful before they were caught against the skyline on the top of a ridge and their tanks destroyed. The Italians were now desperate and slowed the British advance with mines, booby-traps and ambushes, but the British still took Derna on 29th January before pursuing the enemy along the coast road as well as moving through the mountains in order to cut of their retreat from behind. The encircling forces arrived just 30 minutes before the fleeing Italians on the 5th February. The Italians attacked the next day and fought for over 24 hours, but with more British troops arriving to surround them they surrendered on 7th February with 25,000 taken prisoner and the loss of 107 tanks and 93 guns.

This surrender of the fleeing Italians marked the end of Operation Compass, a holding exercise originally planned to last for just five days but in which two Divisions (one new to the dessert and one short on tanks) decimated an army more than 10 times its size. Wavell was able to garrison Tobruk with the aim of continuing to push the Italians westwards and out of North Africa for good. Operation Compass was a massive victory for the British and it looked as though the whole of North Africa would soon be in their hands.

The British had yet to hear of Erwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps.

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Czech pilots of the RAF

In my last article I explained how the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, reached an agreement with Hitler in September 1938, an agreement which resulted in Germany annexing the Sudetenland and eventually taking over the whole of Czechoslovakia. There were many brave Czechs who wanted to fight against the Nazis but could not do so once their country had fallen; this article explains what happened to some of them.

In the weeks after Germany occupied Czechoslovakia thousands of soldiers and airmen managed to escape the county and joined the French Foreign Legion until the Second World War finally began in September 1939. Czech airmen then transferred to the Armée de l’Air and fought in the Battle of France. After the German Blitzkrieg and the rapid defeat of France around 4,000 Czech military personnel sailed to Britain and offered their services to the besieged island kingdom.

Blitzkrieg

On 2nd July 1940 Benes, the Czech Prime Minister in exile, asked the British Government to allow Czech airmen to help defend Britain; within a month a Czech fighter squadron and a Czech bomber squadron had been formed. The Czech pilots were an asset as they already had combat experience and nurtured a deep hatred of the Germans, whilst the British needed every pilot they could get to fight off the expected invasion by Hitler. By the end of August a second Czech fighter squadron was operating in the skies above south-east England. Many people are unaware that almost 20% of the pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain were not British. The foreign forces consisted of 147 Poles, 101 New Zealanders, 94 Canadians, 88 Czechoslovaks, 29 Belgians, 14 French, 10 Irish, 7 Americans, and 1 Palestinian. The Czech pilots soon gained a reputation for aggressive combat, no doubt fuelled by the loss of their homeland. One of these – Jacob Frantisek – was the third most successful pilot during the Battle of Britain with 17 ‘kills’, and was one of just a few ‘Triple Ace’ pilots (to qualify as an Ace you must have brought down 5 enemy planes). It is interesting to note that out of the top ten fighter pilots during the Battle of Britain (all whom shot down at least 14 enemy planes) 50% were not British and included one Czech, one Polish, one Australian and two New Zealanders.

The foreign squadrons had an impressive record against the Luftwaffe and Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, head of RAF Fighter Command, said that he was not sure that Britain would have won the aerial battle without them. In recognition of their contribution the foreign pilots were visited at their base by King George VI, whilst the Polish and Czech airmen and their exploits were a common feature in the media. One of these pilots was the aforementioned Josef Frantisek who has been credited with shooting down 17 enemy aircraft in September 1940 alone, and is considered to be one of the top ‘scorers’ of the entire war even though his career as a fighter pilot was short.

Jossef Frantisek

Frantisek was born just before the outbreak of the First World War with a spirit of adventure which led to him joining the Czechoslovak Air Force, and which made it hard for him to obey orders when the armed forces were told not to resist the German invasion in 1939. He fled to Poland and served with the air force there, flying low to drop hand grenades on the attacking Germans. When Poland was defeated three weeks later Josef fled to Romania where he was interned before escaping; he travelled through the Balkans until he eventually reached Syria where he embarked for France. Once there he flew against the Germans until France was defeated and he made his way to Britain where he joined the RAF, his fourth air force in little more than a year.

Frantisek was a bit of a ‘Lone Wolf’ who would break away from the rest of his squadron to fight alone, often flying incredibly close to the enemy before opening fire or pursuing them back across the English Channel, and this is what ensured his high number of kills. Many British pilots thought that he was reckless, but it may simply have been that Josef Frantisek felt that he had nothing to lose, he had watched the German war machine roll over Europe and believed that winning the battle in the skies over Britain was the last hope of defeating Hitler. In one of his own reports Frantisek described how swarms of Messerschmitt 109s attacked so he played hide and seek with them in the clouds, during the engagement he almost collided with a German bomber and then shot down two enemy planes in a few minutes before he was hit, he ended the sortie in a cabbage field north of Brighton where he said he ‘made an excellent landing’. Josef’s short but highly successful career with the RAF ended on 8th October 1940, the day after his 27th birthday, when he crash-landed in a field in Surrey; his plane flipped over and he died instantly. No one is quite sure what happened – whether it was a lack of fuel or perhaps just sheer exhaustion – but the Allies lost a truly great pilot that day. Not long after Frantisek’s death Hitler felt that his Luftwaffe could not gain control of the skies above Britain and his invasion was postponed.

Karel Kuttelwascher

With the Battle of Britain won the foreign pilots continued to fly with the RAF against the Germans. Another Czech hero was Karel Kuttelwascher who joined the Czechoslovak Air Force when he was 18 and had already done 2,200 flying hours before the Germans occupied Czechoslovakia. Three months after the invasion he escaped to Poland hidden in a coal train, then to France where he helped the fight against the Germans before escaping to Morocco where he got a ship to England and joined the RAF. He flew for two years with No. 1 Squadron in which time he shot down enemy planes and took part in attacks against the German battle cruisers ‘Scharnhorst’ and ‘Gneisenau’. From mid-1942 Kuttelwascher flew night intrusion missions in which he flew a long-range Hurricane over enemy bases to take out German bombers as they were taking off or landing, a time when they were low and slow so vulnerable to his cannon. His ‘Night Reaper’ plane was very successful as he destroyed 15 bombers and badly damaged 5 more in just three months. On one memorable sortie he shot down three Heinkel bombers in just four minutes; Kuttelwascher was so successful that he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross twice in just 42 days. The media idolised successful pilots like Kuttelwascher and they began to call him ‘The Czech Night Hawk’; with18 kills he was the top-scoring Czech pilot of the Second World War.

Josef Koukal

Czechoslovak airmen did not only serve as pilots, they were also involved in Transport Command, Ferry Command, photo reconnaissance, air-sea rescue, and in dropping agents into enemy territory, including their homeland. 480 Czechs paid the ultimate price and did not live to see the peace – 273 of these deaths came from the bomber crews of 311 Squadron which suffered incredible losses. There were 1,500 Czechs still serving in the RAF at the end of the war, but these heroes did not receive the welcome they deserved when they returned home.

The Communists took control of Czechoslovakia in February 1948, and it was the belief of the new authorities that anyone who had fought for the western allies was suspect, probably a traitor; many of the former pilots were arrested, and Karel Janoušek, who had been head of the RAF Czech Inspectorate during the war, was imprisoned for 15 years. Many other airmen were dismissed from the forces and all of them were victimised, their wartime heroics forgotten. One example of how these Czech heroes were treated is Josef Koukal who, like Frantisek and Kuttelwascher, had made his way to the RAF via the air forces of Czechoslovakia, Poland, and France. In September 1940 he was shot down over the Isle of Sheppey, and although he was thrown clear of his plane in an explosion his clothes caught fire and he suffered burns to 72% of his body. Over the next two years Koukal underwent 22 operations at ‘The Guinea Pig Club’, the specialist burns unit at The Queen Victoria Hospital. Despite his extensive burns and two pieces of shrapnel in his right eye (which remained there for the rest of his life) Koukal was determined to fly again, his doctors could not dissuade him and he resumed operational flying in May 1943. Koukal returned to his homeland after the war, but after the Communist takeover in 1948 he was persecuted by the State Security Police. Koukal refused to be provoked so they could not arrest him but he, his wife, and their two sons were restricted to living in a single room without running water or a toilet for the next 14 years. Koukal died of a heart attack in 1980 and it was not until November 1989, after the Czech ‘Velvet Revolution’, that he finally received recognition from his homeland for the part he played in fighting to free Czechoslovakia from Nazi German control. Koukal was ‘politically and morally rehabilitated’ by the new non-Communist regime and posthumously promoted to the rank of Colonel in the Czechoslovak Air Force; at the same time the other men who had flown with the RAF were finally officially recognised. Many had already died but those who still survived and were now in their 70’s and 80’s were overnight celebrities who were finally able to show their uniforms and medals with pride, and spent as much time as possible visiting schools and clubs so that their story could finally be told.

You can find out more about these brave Czech pilots on the Free Czechoslovak Air Force webpage

Josef Koukal

‘Peace for our time’ – the Munich Agreement and the road to war.

80 years ago today Britain, France, Germany, and Italy signed the Munich Agreement allowing Germany to annex the Sudetenland. History records this as a great act of appeasement by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, and many people feel that if Chamberlain had stood up to Hitler he could possible have prevented the Second World War. But is this true?

The Sudetenland was part of the country of Czechoslovakia which had only been created 20 years earlier with the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of the First World War. The new independent Czechoslovakia was recognised in the Treaty of Versailles, but the world powers who dictated the treaty failed to realise that there would be problems arising out of three million German speaking people – 24% of the population – being included within the new country. Most Czech Germans lived in an area called the Sudetenland which bordered Austria and Germany, and they resented the fact that they had not been consulted about whether or not they wanted to be a part of Czechoslovakia. The constitution of the new country guaranteed equality for all citizens but, in reality, the Germans did not have fair representation in either the government or the army, and felt that their needs were being ignored. In an attempt to address the concerns of Sudeten Germans Konrad Henlein founded the Sudeten German Party (SdP) in 1933. While Czech and Slovak citizens voted for a variety of parties Sudeten Germans put all of their focus on the one party which enabled the SdP to become the second largest party in the country by 1935. Even so, life for the Sudeten Germans was becoming increasingly  difficult as the Sudetenland was more industrialised than the rest of Czechoslovakia and relied heavily on exports which resulted in a higher impact on the region from the Great Depression. Although only 24% of people in Czechoslovakia were German they made up 60% of the unemployed in 1936.

sudetenland

Henlein met with Hitler in Berlin on 28th March 1938 to discuss how to improve the situation for the Sudetenland. The Chancellor ordered that Henlein should make impossible demands on Edvard Benes, the President of Czechoslovakia, in order to provoke a ‘crisis’. Hitler had begun the re-armament of Germany in breach of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, reoccupied the Rhineland in 1936, and annexed Austria in 1938; the taking of Czechoslovakia was to be the next step in his plan to create a ‘Greater German.’ On Hitler’s orders, one of Henlein’s demands was that autonomy should be granted to Sudeten Germans; the Czech government tried to be placatory and said that they would provide more rights for minorities but they would not grant autonomy, which is just what Hitler had hoped for. He used this as an opportunity to support the demands of Germans living in the Sudeten region.

The Czechoslovak government felt under pressure from their belligerent neighbour and hoped that Britain and France would assist them if Germany were to invade, they were therefore disappointed to find that Prime Minister Chamberlain was willing to compromise with Hitler. Chamberlain took this position in part because he felt that many of the Sudeten German grievances were justified, but he also wanted to avoid another war at all costs and so advised the Czech government to give in to Hitler’s demands. Benes, the Czech President, could not agree to this and so on 19th May 1938 he ordered a partial mobilisation to oppose any possible threat of a German invasion.

Bundesarchiv Bild 121-0008, Sudetenland, Besuch Wilhelm Frick
Henlein

Hitler had already drafted a plan for the invasion of Czechoslovakia, codenamed Operation Green, as well as ordering that U-boat construction should be speeded up, and the completion dates for the battleships Bismarck and Tirpitz brought forward in the hope that these preparations for war would deter Britain and France from intervening on behalf of Czechoslovakia. He wanted to move against Czechoslovakia as quickly as possible because the country’s defences were still being improved and so left the Czechs vulnerable; he also felt that British rearmament was behind that of Germany and so Chamberlain would be less likely to intervene on behalf of the Czechs than if Hitler waited until Germany was fully prepared for an extended European war.

To ensure support at home and put pressure on western powers to intercede on his behalf Hitler turned to his propaganda machine. August 1938 saw the German press full of stories of Czech atrocities against Sudeten Germans, whilst at the same time 750,000 German troops were sent on ‘manoeuvres’ to the Czechoslovakian border. Early in September President Benes offered to grant almost all that Henlein had asked for; but Hitler instructed the SdP not to compromise, instead they held demonstrations and provoked the police into arresting two of their members of parliament. This was the perfect excuse for the SdP to make other false allegations of atrocities and call off negotiations. Hitler continued to demand that Sudeten Germans should be re-united with their homeland, and made inflammatory speeches against the Czechoslovakian government, accusing them of violating international law, branding Germans as traitors and forcing them from their homes, and conspiring with France against Germany. War seemed almost inevitable.

Things came to a head on the 12th – 13th September when Hitler encouraged Henlein to rebel against the Czech government and demand that the Sudetenland be reunified with Germany. When Benes refused and declared martial law Hitler threatened to go to war. Chamberlain asked for a personal meeting with Hitler to try to defuse the situation and flew into Germany on 15th September for a meeting at Berchtesgaden. The German leader insisted that Sudeten Germans must be allowed to exercise their right of self-determination and join with Germany. To avoid a possible European war Chamberlain agreed, in principle, that Hitler could claim all parts of Czechoslovakia where Germans made up more than 50% of the population and Britain would not interfere. On his return home Chamberlain persuaded the French (who were allies of Czechoslovakia) to agree to this on condition that Britain and France would guarantee the independence of Czechoslovakia. No one consulted the Czechoslovakians who rejected the proposal.

On 16th September the Czechoslovak government dissolved the Ordnersgruppe (which was an organization of ethnic Germans living in the country) because of its link with a number of terrorist attacks. The next day Hitler set up a paramilitary group called the Sudetendeutsches Freikorps to take over from the Ordnersgruppe. The new organization was equipped and trained by German authorities and conducted cross-border raids into Czechoslovak territory provoking yet more unrest.

Bad Godesberg, Münchener Abkommen, Vorbereitung
Bad Godesberg

On 22nd September Chamberlain flew to Germany to present the joint British-French proposal to Hitler at Bad Godesberg. He received a great welcome from the German people who felt that the agreement to allow Germany to annex the Sudetenland would ensure peace. Hitler himself, though, was irritated that Chamberlain should think that Germany needed the approval of Britain to further his plans. Hitler put his foot down and told Chamberlain that he wanted Czechoslovakia to be completely broken up with her lands divided between Germany, Poland, and Hungary. Chamberlain was stunned, but Hitler said that it was all because of the atrocities committed by the Czechs since his last meeting with the British Prime Minister. To support this one of Hitler’s aides came into the room (a pre-arranged event) to say that more Germans were being killed in Czechoslovakia. Hitler flew into a rage and vowed to avenge the deaths by destroying Czechoslovakia. For a time it looked like the meeting would fail, but later that day Hitler told Chamberlain that he would accept annexing only the Sudetenland as long as Czechoslovakia began the evacuation of ethnic Czechs from German majority territories by 8am on 1st October; if this happened Germany would have no more claims on Czechoslovak territory and would enter into an agreement to guarantee the border between Germany and Czechoslovakia.

The Czechoslovaks saw this as a provocation and excuse to provoke war, and so ordered a general mobilisation on the 23rd with one million men joining up to defend their country in the first 24 hours. The French also ordered a partial mobilisation on the 24th, whilst on the same day Hitler issued the Godesberg Memorandum saying that Czechoslovakia must give up the Sudetenland by the 28th or Germany would take it by force. Many people in Britain felt that Hitler’s demands had gone too far and they wanted to stand up to him, even if that meant going to war. On the other side of Europe the Soviet Union said that they would come to the assistance of Czechoslovakia if they could cross Polish and Romanian territory to do so, but both countries refused to allow it.

Czechoslovakia could see that things were looking hopeless and so, on the 25th September, they agreed to Hitler’s demands for the Sudetenland. Instead of accepting this victory however, Hitler now insisted that the demands of ethnic Germans in Hungary and Poland should also be met at the same time. On the 28th, with Germany’s deadline running out, Chamberlain invited Mussolini to join the negotiations in an attempt to get Hitler to delay the implementation of his ultimatum. Mussolini agreed and persuaded Hitler to accept a 24 hour delay (he also promised, in private, that whatever happened he would support Hitler!)

Münchener Abkommen, Chamberlain, Mussolini, Ciano
Chamberlain and Mussolini

To try to prevent war breaking out Chamberlain, Daladier (the French Prime Minister), and Mussolini flew to Munich to meet Hitler on the 29th September. No Czech or Russian representative was invited to the conference, and although Chamberlain asked the Czech ambassador to Berlin to come to Munich as an adviser he was not allowed in the same room as Hitler. The Czechs were presented with a stark choice – to accept the loss of the Sudetenland or face Germany alone. They chose to accept.

Signing the Agreement - Chamberlain, Daladier, Hitler, Mussolini
Signing the Agreement – Chamberlain, Daladier, Hitler, Mussolini

On the 30th September Hitler, Chamberlain, Daladier and Mussolini signed the Munich Agreement stating that Germany would complete the occupation of the Sudetenland by the 10th October whilst an international commission would be set up to decide what would happen to other disputed areas. Chamberlain had a separate pact drawn up, based on the Munich Agreement, which would guarantee peace between Germany and Britain, it was signed by the two leaders on the 30th. When Chamberlain arrived back in Britain later that day he waved the paper in his hand, declaring that it guaranteed ‘peace for our time’. At the same time, German troops were marching into the Sudetenland where they were welcomed as heroes.

Chamberlain returns to Britain with 'The Pact'
Chamberlain returns to Britain with ‘The Pact’

Chamberlain was greeted by ecstatic crowds whom he told that he had achieved “…peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time.”  Winston Churchill immediately criticised Chamberlain by declaring that “You were given the choice between war and dishonour. You chose dishonour and you will have war.”

The following months seemed to prove Churchill right. Elections in Reichsgau Sudetenland in December 1938 resulted in over 97% of the population voting for the NSDAP. Around 500,000 Sudeten Germans joined the Nazi Party making it the most pro-Nazi region in the Third Reich (17.34% of Sudeten Germans joined the party whilst the average in Germany was 7.85%). Then, in March 1939, Slovakia seceded from Czechoslovakia to become a separate state which was highly supportive of the Nazi Party; Hitler sent his troops into the remainder of Czechoslovakia and occupied it as a protectorate of the Third Reich. Poland was now surrounded by German possessions and people in Britain began to fear that this country would be the next target for Hitler, to prevent this an Anglo-Polish military alliance was signed. Chamberlain felt betrayed by Hitler’s occupation of Czechoslovakia. His policy of appeasement had obviously not worked so he now began to mobilise British forces. France did the same. Italy felt threatened by the mobilisations and invaded Albania in April 1939. The final nail in the coffin of ‘peace for our time’ came with Hitler’s invasion of Poland on the 1st September 1939. Chamberlain declared war on Germany two days later.

Since 1939 the Munich Agreement has been seen as a classic example of the futility of trying to appease totalitarian states who are set on expansion. Yet was it as simple as all that? Did Chamberlain sacrifice Czechoslovakia on the altar of appeasement, or did he see it as a necessary evil? It is true that after the horrific losses of the First world War he would have done almost anything to avoid the same thing happening again. But is it also possible that he knew that war was inevitable but that Britain was not yet ready to face the rapidly growing German military machine? Could it be that the Munich Agreement and Pact were his attempt to buy time to rearm and prepare for the conflict ahead? Perhaps we will never know.

Blitzkrieg – the ‘lightning war’

On 10th May 1940 Hitler launched an attack into Belgium and France. What no one could have imagined on that day was that just six weeks later Marshall Pétain would sue for peace, signing an armistice which ceded three-fifths of French territory to the Germans. To add insult to injury, Hitler insisted that the armistice was signed in the same railway carriage in which Germany had been forced to admit defeat at the end of the First World War. So what had gone wrong for the Allies?

Signing the Armistice 1940

World War 1 had been a long-protracted conflict in which the opposing armies were static for the majority of the time, dug-in in extensive trench systems across northern Europe. Between the wars the Allies had assumed that if there were to be another war it would also be trench based and so they had planned accordingly. The French had used their huge defence budget to build a line of super-trenches with fortifications, tunnels, and underground bunkers on the German border (the Maginot Line), whilst the BEF supported French troops on the Belgian border. Therefore, when the British Expeditionary Force arrived in France at the outbreak of the Second World War they were ready for the prospect of a static defensive war. What the Allies were not prepared for, however, was Hitler’s intention to fight a swift, offensive war.

The Maginot Line

At dawn on 10th May 1940 29 German divisions began an invasion of the Netherlands and Belgium; in response the Allied commanders positioned the bulk of their forces defensively inside Belgium, playing into the hands of the enemy. What they were initially unaware of was that this attack was a feint and a further 45 divisions were thrusting forwards through the Ardennes. The French had believed this forested area to be impassable by enemy troops and so had left it woefully undefended. This second German force swiftly breached the Allied right flank, pushing them back towards the English Channel. With the fall of France and the disastrous retreat of the BEF from Dunkirk blame was placed on an innovative German tactic of blitzkrieg in which the enemy used the new technology of tanks and dive-bombers to force a swift victory. In German blitzkrieg means lightning war, a term which seemed apt for surprise attacks which made lightning fast advances into enemy territory, and in which air power supported ground troops to overwhelm the defenders. But blitzkrieg was not, in fact, a completely new idea.

Blitzkrieg – German attack through the Ardennes forest

The key elements of blitzkrieg are speed, surprise and superior firepower, and as such the concept can be traced back to Prussian military tactics in the early 19th century where limited resources meant that the only route to victory for the Prussians was through swift, powerful attack. Carl von Clausewitz, who made a detailed study of generals from Alexander the Great to Frederick II of Prussia, argued in his 1832 book ‘On War’ that all military force should be focussed in a single action against the enemy’s ‘centre of gravity’, its Schwerpunkt. Once this vulnerable point has been identified a frontal attack combined with a double flanking movement should crush the enemy, even if attacking troops had to be withdrawn from other areas and risks taken to achieve this objective.

Carl von Clausewitz

The German Alfred von Schlieffen developed a plan for a swift attack against his country’s old enemy, France, and this plan was put into action at the beginning of the First World War. Developing the ideas of von Clausewitz, Schlieffen’s aim was to achieve a swift victory by using 90% of the German army to move through Belgium and northern France to take Paris in a quick and decisive campaign. The plan was good in principle, but the attacking forces were slowed when they met with unexpected Belgian resistance, and this in turn gave the British time to prepare a defence at Mons. Although the Schlieffen Plan had failed it was believed to have a solid basis and so the idea of a lightning fast attack was used again in the spring offensive of 1918 when German armies reached within 75 miles of Paris before their advance was halted.

Heinz Guderian

Between the wars the theory of blitzkrieg was further developed by Heinz Guderian who advocated the integration of light tanks and dive-bombers to improve the manoeuvrability of the German army, insisting that every tank should have a radio to give them an added advantage. Hitler had fought in the trenches during World War 1 and wanted to avoid further trench warfare if at all possible, so when he saw Guderian’s plan he was very taken with the idea of victory through speed and movement. The German High Command were derisive of Guderian’s plan, telling Hitler that his claim that he could reach the French coast in a matter of weeks was idle boasting, but Guderian insisted that if they could break through the enemy frontline the panic and confusion caused amongst the civilian population would hamper any defending army’s movements to the front and so make success even more assured. Despite the misgivings of his senior officers Hitler was prepared to take the gamble. Germany tested its modern blitzkrieg tactic with a combination of both air and land action in the Spanish Civil war in 1938 and in Poland in 1939, with promising results.

When Germany pushed into the Ardennes in 1940 stukas were sent in just ahead of the armour to soften up the target and destroy rail links and communication centres. The German tanks, supported by infantry in half-track vehicles, began their advance at the same time with the bombing only stopping at the last minute, leaving the Allies no time to re-group. Once the first objective was taken the attacking army moved on leaving civilian refugees to clog the roads needed by the defending army, and also attacking the fleeing civilians to add to the fear and panic. The use of FM radio communication gave yet another advantage to the attacking army, enabling quick decisions to be made based on reliable evidence rather than waiting for orders from HQ. It was left to units following this initial attack to secure the gains made, thus freeing the panzer units to move on to the next Schwerpunkt.

French refugees, 1940

Blitzkrieg was so successful in the initial phase of the war that Germany went on to use the tactic on the Easter Front against the Russians during Operation Barbarossa, and in the North Africa campaign (Rommel, who commanded the German Afrika Korps, had been involved in the May 1940 attacks which forced the surrender of France). The Allies also adopted the ‘lightning war’ tactic in the Western Desert, on the Eastern Front, and after the D Day landings, relying on firepower to establish breakthroughs by fast-moving armoured units. Germany last used the blitzkrieg tactic during the Battle of the Bulge, yet the Allies continued to push forward and by the end of the war Hitler’s Third Reich was defeated by the very tactic which had brought it such success in 1940.

Fall of Berlin

Bibliography:

  • The Roots of Blitzkrieg by James Corum
  • Panzer, a Revolution in Warfare: 1939–1945 by Roger Edwards
  • The Blitzkrieg Legend: The 1940 Campaign in the West by Karl Heinz Frieser
  • To Lose a Battle: France 1940 by Alistair Horne.
  • History of the Second World War by B H Liddell Hart
  • A History of Blitzkrieg by Bryan Perrett

The Windsors at War – Part 3 Edward VIII, the Duke of Windsor

This is my third and final article about the British royal family during the Second World War. My pieces about King George VI and Princess Elizabeth (now Queen Elizabeth II) showed two individuals with a keen sense of duty who, despite their privileged position, tried to understand what it was like for the ordinary British citizen – staying in London during the Blitz, living on the same rations as everyone else, serving in the ATS etc. – but for the Duke of Windsor, formerly King Edward VIII, the role he played before and during the conflict is a more controversial issue altogether.

Edward VIII as a boy cadet

Prince Edward had trained in the Royal Navy from the age of 13, but at the outbreak of the First World War he was commissioned and served as a staff officer in the Grenadier Guards. After the war he toured many parts of the British Empire and took an interest in national affairs; his support for the unemployed made him incredibly popular with the working classes. But as the years progressed Edward appeared to develop a dislike for the official world he was forced to live in and began to cultivate friends from ‘high society’ rather than the aristocracy. 1930 proved to be a pivotal year for the future king as that is when he met and fell in love with Wallis Simpson, a married American. When George V died in 1936 and Edward became king his affair with Simpson was the subject of much speculation in the foreign press, but pressure was put on British newspapers to keep it quiet as Edward VIII was Head of the Church of England and, as such, would not be able to marry a divorcee. Under pressure to choose between the throne or the woman he loved Edward chose Wallis and abdicated saying ‘I have found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love.’ After his abdication Edward moved to France and the couple were married when Wallis was finally divorced in 1937. The new king, George VI, created his brother Duke of Windsor but refused to allow the new Duchess the rank of ‘Royal Highness’, something which the Duke and his new wife both resented. There were also conflicts within the royal family as to the financial worth of Edward who had hidden some of his wealth from his brother when the abdication settlement was worked out, relations were therefore frosty between the former king and his family. And so the scene was set for the role that Edward and Wallis would play during the war.

(You can listen to the Abdication Speech here)

During 1937 and 1938 the Duke and Duchess lived in France although they spent a lot of time traveling around Europe, including a visit to Germany where they met with Hitler, a visit which was well publicised in the German media. The Duchess, who always felt slighted by the British royal family and government, was treated like royalty during the visit with German aristocrats bowing and curtsying to her; Edward was inordinately pleased that the Germans treated her with the status and dignity which he felt she was due as his wife and yet was withheld from her by his own people.

According to Albert Speer Hitler believed that Edward was friendly towards Germany so the fact that he was no longer king had a negative effect on the Fuhrer’s plans for Europe, as Hitler is reported to have said – ‘I am certain through him permanent friendly relations could have been achieved. If he had stayed, everything would have been different. His abdication was a severe loss for us.’ The Windsor’s visit to Germany went against the advice of the British government who felt that their opposition was vindicated when the Duke was seen to give a full Nazi salute on a number of occasions whilst in Germany.

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor visit Hitler

Some historians have defended Edward’s links with Hitler by saying that he saw fascist Germany as a barrier between western democracy and communism and that having seen the horrors of the battlefields of the Great War he was willing to appease Hitler to prevent such wholesale slaughter happening again. In May 1939 Edward gave a radio broadcast for NBC in which he appealed for peace. The recording took place on the First World War battlefields of Verdun where he said ‘I am deeply conscious of the presence of the great company of the dead, and I am convinced that could they make their voices heard they would be with me in what I am about to say. I speak simply as a soldier of the Last War whose most earnest prayer it is that such cruel and destructive madness shall never again overtake mankind. There is no land whose people want war.’ The speech was broadcast around the world but although many British newspapers published the transcript in full the BBC refused to air it as it seemed to be supporting appeasement.

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor

It is difficult to assess just how much the Duke supported fascism and Nazi Germany although many believe that his words in 1940 were quite revealing when he said that ‘In the past 10 years Germany has totally reorganized the order of its society… Countries which were unwilling to accept such a reorganization of society and its concomitant sacrifices should direct their policies accordingly.’

When war broke out Edward hoped to be reconciled with his brother but George VI was still angry that his brother had abdicated. Rather than being given a royal role to play Edward was given a position as liaison with the French. Years later, in February 1949 Count von Zech-Burkersoda, who was the German Minister in the Hague at the outbreak of the war, said that the Duke had passed the Allied plans for the defence of Belgium to Germany which had helped the swift invasion of France and, consequently, led to the disaster at Dunkirk. After the fall of France the Windsors travelled to Madrid where the Duke appears to have been introduced to a plan for the Nazis to put him back on the throne with Wallis at his side, a not very subtle plan to use the former king against the established government in Britain. Edward travelled from Madrid to Lisbon where he is said to have received a number of telegrams with details of the plan to reinstate him on the throne in return for his support for Hitler. Copies of the telegrams (which were found in Germany at the end of the war) say that Edward had initially believed that he could never be king again after abdicating but that when he was told that it was possible that the British constitution could change after a Nazi victory ‘the Duchess in particular became very thoughtful.’ One telegram even suggested that the ‘Germans expect assistance from the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the latter desiring at any price to become queen.’

The British were not aware of the telegrams at the time, but Edward’s reluctance to return to England forced Winston Churchill to threaten to court martial him if he did not immediately travel to London; then the Prime Minister offered him the position of Governor of the Bahamas as there were ‘fears for his safety’. The Windsors travelled to the Caribbean in 1940 and remained in post until the end of the war. In December 1940 the Duke gave an interview to Liberty magazine in which he was reported to have said that ‘Hitler was the right and logical leader of the German people,’ he went on to say that the time was coming for the American President to mediate a peace agreement between Germany and Britain. The former king said that he had been misquoted and misrepresented in the article, but the Allies were sufficiently worried that President Roosevelt ordered the Duke and Duchess to be placed under surveillance when they visited Florida in 1941. The Allies concerns were further enhanced when they received information (which may or may not have been true) that Wallis had slept with Ribbentrop (the German Ambassador) in 1936, was still in contact with him and passed secrets to him.

Governor of the Bahamas

After the war ended the Windsors returned to France to live, and the Duke never held another professional position after his Governorship of the Bahamas.

Just after the war ended the Americans found 400 tons of German diplomatic papers near Marburg Castle; included in the haul were around 60 letters, telegrams and other papers about the Duke of Windsor and his links to the Nazis. Amongst the documents were details of ‘Operation Willi’ which was the codename for the plan to conquer Britain, overthrow George VI and put Edward back on the throne. It appears that there was a concerted effort to manipulate Edward into helping the Nazi plan, including telling him that his brother, the king, planned to have him assassinated. Copies of the documents were sent to America, and Churchill appealed to the Americans and French to refrain from publication for at least 10 to 20 years, saying that the documents were ‘tendentious and unreliable’ and likely to leave the misleading impression that the Duke ‘was in close touch with German agents and was listening to suggestions that were disloyal.’ Eisenhower replied, saying that the telegrams were “obviously concocted with some idea of promoting German propaganda and weakening western resistance” and were “totally unfair” to the Duke. The telegrams were suppressed but not for as long as Churchill had hoped. They were eventually published in 1957. Included in the documents were statements attributed to the Duke saying that he was convinced that war could have been avoided if he had not abdicated as he was a firm supporter of compromise with Germany. Another telegram said that the ‘Duke believes with certainty that continued heavy bombing will make England ready for peace’ (some historians believe that his comment could have been the reason that Hitler shifted the focus of Luftwaffe actions in 1940 from the Battle of Britain to bombing cities). American naval intelligence also published a report from a German conference held in 1941 that said that the Duke was ‘no enemy to Germany’ and the only English representative with whom Hitler was willing to negotiate peace terms, saying that Edward was ‘the logical director of England’s destiny after the war.’ When he found out about them the Duke of Windsor said that the telegrams and documents were ‘complete fabrications…and gross distortions of truth’. Edward admitted in his memoirs that he admired the Germans but had never been pro-Nazi and that Hitler struck him as a ‘somewhat ridiculous figure, with his theatrical posturing and his bombastic pretensions.’

Marburg Castle

Some historians don’t believe that the Duke of Windsor knew about the plan to put him on the throne and that his contacts with Germany were more about working for peace and finding a place for himself and Wallis in government circles after his abdication, as well as making the Duchess feel important and a part of state affairs (something which the royal family never did). On the other hand Andrew Morton, the royal biographer, suggests that Edward was a Nazi sympathiser saying that he ‘was certainly sympathetic…even after the war he thought Hitler was a good fellow and that he’d done a good job in Germany, and he was also anti-Semitic, before, during and after the war’.

The Duke of Windsor’s attitude to Germany and conduct during the war is in stark contrast to that of his brother, King George VI, and his niece, Princess Elizabeth. There will always be controversy about just how much of a Nazi sympathiser he was and how deep his admiration and support for Hitler went but, if the historical documents are to be believed, then many people feel that he should never have been allowed to return to live in France after the war ended and that he certainly should not have received any further funds from Britain. True, he was socially ostracized and had very little contact with his family for the rest of his life, but many people felt that was far too lenient and he should have been tried for treason.

Whatever your view of the monarchy one could argue that the Windsors were a fair reflection of British society during the Second World War, from an appeaser and probable Nazi sympathiser to a prince who died for the Allied cause (Prince George), a princess who enrolled in the armed forces, and a king and queen who worked tirelessly to build morale and support the British people in their hour of need.

(The Marburg files appeared in a recent episode of The Crown, you can find out more about how the files were discovered here )

Bibliography:

Block, Michael. The Secret File of the Duke of Windsor. L

Donaldson, Frances Lonsdale. Edward VIII.

Roberts, Andrew, and Antonia Fraser. The House of Windsor. A Royal history of England.

Windsor, Edward, (Duke of). A King’s Story The Memoirs of H.R.H. the Duke of Windsor K.G.

Ziegler, Philip. King Edward VIII The Official Biography.

The Windsors at War – Part 2 Queen Elizabeth II

Queen Elizabeth II was a teenager during the Second World War and life for her was, in many ways, not dissimilar to that of other teenagers. Her father, King George, insisted that the royal family should not have any special treatment, they had the same rations as everyone else and even applied this to visitors to Buckingham Palace – including Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of the American President!

Princess Elizabeth was 14 years old when Britain declared war on Germany and her safety as heir to the throne was of great concern to many people. Viscount Hailsham, a well respected former Conservative politician, spoke for many when he suggested that Elizabeth and her sister, Princess Margaret, should be evacuated to Canada for the duration of the war. The Queen, however, was adamant that this should not happen and told the Viscount that ‘The children won’t go without me, I won’t leave without the King, and the King will never leave.’ This was a very public statement that the royal family intended to stay in the United Kingdom but, in private, King George VI made plans for the two princesses to be evacuated if, and only if, a German army landed in England and there was a real threat that the royal family might be taken prisoner. (see article on George VI) Although his children would be taken abroad to safety King George intended to stay after any invasion to help with the resistance.  This plan was kept secret in order to keep up the morale of the British people and, thankfully, there was never any need to put it into action. During the first winter of the war Elizabeth and Margaret stayed at the Balmoral estate in Scotland, moving to Sandringham after Christmas 1939 and then back to Windsor where they lived for the remainder of the war. Each year they ‘did their bit’ by putting on a pantomime to raise money for the Queen’s wool fund to buy wool for the manufacture of military clothing.

The relentless bombing of British cities in the Blitz meant that many children were evacuated to the countryside and, in October 1940, Princess Elizabeth broadcast a radio message to them on the popular Children’s Hour programme. Her message offered thanks to the host families and support for the children who were living with strangers in a strange environment. The core of her message was that the children should stay strong, and face the war with courage, determination, and hope. She said that ‘We are trying to do all we can to help our gallant sailors, soldiers and airmen, and we are trying, too, to bear our share of the danger and sadness of war. We know, every one of us, that in the end all will be well.  When peace comes,” she said, “remember, it will be for us, the children of today, to make the world of tomorrow a better and happier place.’ (Princess Elizabeth’s broadcast)

Although Elizabeth felt an affinity for the children of the United Kingdom her position as heir to the throne meant that she would have a unique role and responsibilities. In 1941, at the age of 15, she was appointed Colonel-In-Chief of the Grenadier Guards, and her first public appearance alone was a visit to inspect the regiment when she was 16. Yet she could sympathise with those who had lost family members in the war for she, too, lost her beloved uncle Prince George, Duke of Kent, who was the first member of the royal family to be killed on active service for 500 years. Mystery still surrounds the circumstances of his death; Prince George was an RAF pilot and set out alone on a secret mission, when his body was recovered from the hillside in Caithness where his plane had crashed he was found with a bag containing a large number of 100 Krona banknotes handcuffed to his wrist.

In 1944 Parliament changed the law to allow Princess Elizabeth to act as one of the five Counsellors of State who were senior members of the royal family who would effectively take over the role of the monarch should the King be incapacitated or out of the country. She performed this role when George VI went to Europe to visit the troops after the D Day landings. (see article on George VI)

When she was 18 Elizabeth wanted to join the ATS but this was opposed by the King; it was not until February 1945 that he finally agreed and the princess signed up as an honorary Second Subaltern with the service number 230873. After five months of training as a mechanic and military truck driver in Camberley the future queen was promoted to the rank of honorary Junior Commander (the equivalent of a Captain in the army). Throughout her training Elizabeth worked for seven hours a day before returning to Windsor Castle at night; she appears to have taken her duties very seriously and, although some people were excited by her presence, it is reported that she was hard working and humble during the time she served in the ATS. The Queen is the only female member of the British royal family to have served in the armed forces. The ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) was the women’s branch of the army during the Second World War, but although the women had full military status they were only paid two-thirds of the wage of a man of the same rank even when serving overseas. Women in the ATS served in a number of roles from the mundane clerical to the most dangerous, including manning anti-aircraft guns (Mary, the daughter of Winston Churchill, served on anti-aircraft batteries for the duration of the war).

Watch a Pathe News report of the King, Queen and Princess Margaret visiting Princess Elizabeth on a driving course at a training centre.

There were great celebrations when the Allies finally achieved Victory in Europe. On VE Day, 8th May 1945, the royal family made numerous appearances on the balcony of Buckingham Palace to the cheers of massive crowds. The princesses Elizabeth and Margaret looked down to the joyful celebrations and wanted to join in; surprisingly, the King gave his permission for the sisters to go into the streets incognito. So the heir to the throne strolled down Whitehall arm in arm with her sister, possibly the only time that she has been able to be just one of the crowd, as she later described it ‘We asked my parents if we could go out and see for ourselves. I remember we were terrified of being recognised … I remember lines of unknown people linking arms and walking down Whitehall, all of us just swept along on a tide of happiness and relief.’

Although the Second World War ended in 1945 rationing was only phased out gradually and did not finally end until 1954. The royal family continued to follow the restrictions and Princess Elizabeth even saved up ration coupons to buy the material for her wedding dress in 1947.

Queen Elizabeth II is the only remaining living head of state in the world who served during the Second World War and remains the only female member of the royal family to have served in the armed forces.

 

The Windsors at War – Part 1 King George VI

King George VI was a reluctant monarch. He grew up with the expectation that his elder brother would become king, a situation he was more than happy with as he was a rather shy man who suffered from a stutter. Unfortunately for George his plans for himself and his family were turned on their head when his brother, King Edward VIII, abdicated in December 1936 so that he could marry Wallis Simpson. George suddenly found himself in a position he had never wanted and, what was worse, at a time of impending crisis. But George also had a profound sense of duty and honour, things he found sadly lacking in his elder brother, and vowed to be the best monarch he could as the world faced up to the growing threat of Nazi Germany.

George VI had served in the Royal Navy during the Great War and was present at the Battle of Jutland in 1916 when Britain lost 14 ships and over 6,000 men. As with many of his generation the King wanted to avoid another war like the one which had blighted his youth and so was in favour of Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement, but as time passed he realised that this was hopeless and war against Germany was unavoidable. In 1939 George VI travelled to America and Canada in an effort to build support for the inevitable conflict. By 3rd September of that year, the day that Britain declared war on Germany, he was resigned to what was to come; he wrote…

“As 11 o’clock struck that fateful morning I had a certain feeling of relief that those 10 anxious days of intensive negotiations with Germany over Poland, which at moments looked favourable…were over. Hitler would not and could not draw back from the edge of the Abyss to which he had led us. Despite our protestations that the Polish Question could have been settled without force, Hitler had taken the plunge.” The King went on to compare his situation in 1939 to the one he had been in at the outbreak of war in 1914 when he was “keeping the middle watch on the bridge of HMS Collingwood… Today we are at War again, and I am no longer a midshipman in the Royal Navy.” The King obviously felt that Edward VIII had shown a great lack of character, and remarked in his diary that, before the abdication, he had “never expected to have all this responsibility on me”.

On the day that war was declared the King spoke to the nation in a radio broadcast, something he always found difficult as those who have seen the film ‘The King’s Speech’ will know. In his address George VI said “In this grave hour, perhaps the most fateful in our history…for the second time in the lives of most of us we are at war. Over and over again we have tried to find a peaceful way out of the differences between ourselves and those who are now our enemies. But it has been in vain…The task will be hard. There may be dark days ahead and war is no longer confined to the battlefield, but we can only do the right as we see the right and reverently commend our cause to God…with God’s help we shall prevail. May He bless and keep us all.”

(You can listen to the full speech here.)

King George VI made it a matter of principle that, no matter how busy he was, he would write a diary entry every night for however long the war lasted, and his writings give an insight into the reluctant monarch, his relationship with his government, and his sense of duty and service.

In May 1940 Chamberlain resigned as Prime Minister and the King, along with many others, wanted Lord Halifax to take his place; the monarchs role in appointing a Prime Minister is, however, little more than a symbolic confirmation of the will of the ruling party and George was reluctantly persuaded that Winston Churchill should be made Prime Minister. The King initially found Churchill difficult to get along with, but as time passed they developed a deep respect for each other and a close personal relationship, meeting for lunch every Tuesday to discuss the war in private in a very open and frank way.

At the outbreak of the war some of the King’s closest advisors suggested that he should move from London to the countryside to avoid enemy attacks, but both he and the Queen were adamant that they would stay in the capital as a symbol of strength and unity. George VI was not reckless, however, and personally set up the Coats Mission which was to be enforced if a German army invaded the British Isles. The key to this was the creation of a personal bodyguard of Coldstream Guards and Royal Lancers led by Major Coats to protect the King, the Queen and the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret. The Lancers had specially adapted armoured cars which were to be used to take the royal family from Buckingham Palace to either Windsor or one of four other country houses which had been secretly prepared to conceal them, and where they would be met by the Coldstream Guards. King George was firm in his instructions that the royal family should not be handed over to the enemy and the guard were to fight to the last man if necessary. The second stage of the plan was to fly the Princesses abroad whilst the King and Queen remained behind to bolster resistance.

Thankfully the invasion never came and the Coats Mission was never put into operation, but there were other actions which did take place to ensure the safety of the royal family and Britain’s heritage. Hiding the Crown Jewels in a biscuit tin is just one example. This may sound like a comedy sketch but it did, in fact, happen. Some of the most precious jewels, including the Black Prince’s Ruby from the Imperial State Crown, were taken to Windsor Castle where they were put into a biscuit tin and buried under what is known as a sally port (a secret exit which could be used in an emergency). A large hole with two chambers protected by steel doors had been dug in preparation and was accessible by a trap door which, reportedly, still exists today.

The royal family spent most of the war at Buckingham Palace, although they often spent the night at Windsor Castle during times of heavy air raids. The King and Queen were at Buckingham Palace on 13th September 1940 and narrowly missed injury or death when two bombs exploded in the courtyard. In a letter to her mother-in-law the Queen wrote that they had gone to the Palace to collect some possessions after a previous bombing raid when they heard the approach of a German plane closely followed by the scream of falling bombs. At the first explosion they all dived for cover, after the second they all made their way to the shelter. The Queen describes how everyone remained calm whilst the three people who had been injured were treated. She later went on to say that “I am glad we have been bombed. It makes me feel we can look the East End in the face.”

King George VI believed that he had an important role to play in keeping up the morale of the British people and so frequently visited bomb sites and munitions factories, accompanied by the Queen who took a great interest in what was being done to help people whose homes had been destroyed in the bombings. The Royal couple were also interested in the war work which was being done by civilians, often women, and their visits had a profound effect. The Ministry of Supply found that production figures inevitably dropped on the day of a royal visit, but the workers found it such a morale boost that they worked even harder and the weekly production figures always rose after such a visit. Both King George and Queen Elizabeth were compassionate by nature and also toured hospitals to visit wounded civilians and troops.

In his role as monarch George VI held the ranks of Admiral of the Fleet, Marshal of the Royal Air Force, and Field Marshall, and he made a particular effort to visit every type of unit within the armed force; whenever he toured work places or inspected troops he would invariably do so in uniform. The king often visited troops in the UK, but it was not always so easy for him to do so abroad because of fears for his safety, although he did visit military troops in France in December 1939 during the ‘Phoney War’, Malta and North Africa in 1943, Normandy 10 days after D Day in June 1944, southern Italy in July 1944 and the Low Countries in October 1944. His trip to the Mediterranean in 1943 is an example of how he saw his role as that of a ‘morale booster’ for armed forces and civilians alike as he inspected the Roya Navy (and also the US Navy), the Merchant Navy, the Royal Marines, the Army, and the Royal Air Force before going on to the island of Malta. As well as visiting troops George VI also took a keen interest in the planning and strategy of the war and it was after he made a personal request to be kept informed that Dwight Eisenhower briefed him on the plan for Operation Overlord – the invasion of Europe via the Normandy beaches in 1944.

King George VI created the George Cross which is awarded “for acts of the greatest heroism or for most conspicuous courage in circumstance of extreme danger” and can be awarded to civilians as well as members of the armed forces. During the war air raid wardens, fire men, policemen and other individual civilians were awarded the George Cross, but one of the best known awards went to Malta. The people of the island had suffered dreadfully when besieged by the Germans and Italians who bombed the island round the clock. Malta held a strategically important position in the Mediterranean and so the people were determined not to give in even though whole towns and villages had been reduced to nothing but rubble, and there was a terrible food shortage. King George made a personal decision to award the George Cross to the island of Malta saying that “To honour her brave people I award the George Cross to the Island Fortress of Malta to bear witness to a heroism and devotion that will long be famous in history”. During his visit to North Africa in 1943 King George was determined to visit Malta and spent a day touring the island where he was greeted by cheering crowds and the ringing of the island’s church bells.

Although he was the monarch George VI believed that he and his family should share the same difficulties and dangers as his subjects. He insisted that the royal family should have the same rations as everyone else and follow all other war time directives; what’s more, this also applied to visitors. When Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of the American President, visited Britain she commented on her time at Buckingham Palace which was unheated and boarded-up and where she was only allowed limited bathwater and was served rationed food. The royal family also knew what it felt to lose a loved one to the conflict with the King’s brother and the Queen’s nephew both killed.

Prince George, Duke of Kent, was a member of the Royal Air Force and set off alone on a mission about which little is known. His plane crashed into a hillside in Caithness in Scotland, and his body was found with a briefcase full of 100 Krona banknotes handcuffed to one wrist.

After sharing the dangers and deprivations of a country at war it was only fitting that the royal family shared in the jubilation when victory was finally achieved in Europe. At 6pm on the 8th May 1945 the King made a broadcast to the country, and during the afternoon and evening of that day the royal family made eight appearances on the balcony of Buckingham Palace as the city celebrated VE Day, huge crowds cheering the royals who had refused to leave Britain and stayed to play an active part in the war effort. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth had become symbols of national resistance, as had Princess Elizabeth who served in the ATS. The man who had only reluctantly taken on the role of king at his brother’s abdication had proven to be the one most fitting to lead his country in a time of war and, as such, was greatly loved. It is sad that he did not live long enough to enjoy the fruits of peace as he died in February 1952, aged 56, the beloved king of a country which still had another two years before rationing was finally over.