We have all seen photos of Winston Churchill giving his famous ‘V for Victory’ sign during the Second World War, but we actually have Belgian tennis star Victor de Laveleye to thank for this iconic sign. de Laveleye competed in the 1920 and 1924 Olympic Games for Belgium, but he was also a politician who served as Minister of Justice in 1937. As the Germans pushed west in 1940 de Laveleye fled to Britain where he was put in charge of the BBC’s broadcasts to occupied Belgium and soon became the symbol of free Belgians everywhere. On 14th January 1941 Laveleye asked all Belgians to use the letter ‘V’ as a symbol of resistance and a rallying cry to fight the invaders because, he said, ‘V is the first letter of Victoire (victory) in French and Vrijheid (freedom) in Flemish, like the Walloons and the Flemish who today walk hand in hand, two things that are consequences of each other, Victory will give you Freedom’. He went on to say that “the occupier, by seeing this sign, always the same, infinitely repeated, [will] understand that he is surrounded, encircled by an immense crowd of citizens eagerly awaiting his first moment of weakness, watching for his first failure.” The Belgian people willingly adopted the sign and the letter immediately began to appear daubed on walls in Belgium, the Netherlands, Northern France, and other parts of Europe, a symbolic act of defiance against the Nazis.
Winston Churchill realised how successful this symbol was in uniting people against Hitler’s regime and decided to use it during a speech in July 1941 when he said that ‘The V sign is the symbol of the unconquerable will of the occupied territories and a portent of the fate awaiting Nazi tyranny. So long as the people continue to refuse all collaboration with the invader it is sure that his cause will perish and that Europe will be liberated.” Churchill continued to use the sign as his ‘signature gesture’ for the remainder of the war.
Soon after Churchill’s broadcast Douglas Ritchie at the BBC noticed that the Morse code for V was three dots and a dash ( …_ ) which was the same as the rhythm for the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and the BBC used it in its foreign language programmes directed at occupied Europe for the rest of the war. It was not long before the rhythm was used as a symbol of defiance in Europe, one which people could tap out almost anywhere.
In Germany Goebbels, the Nazi Propaganda Minister, was infuriated by the ‘V campaign’, but there was nothing he could do to stop it. He tried to argue that because ‘V’ was the first letter of the German word ‘viktoria’ and the musical representation was from a symphony written by a German composer then it was really a symbol in support of the Nazi’s final victory and was a sign of the conquered population’s support of Hitler, but of course no one believed him. To try to bury the use of the symbol by the resistance the Germans started using the ‘V’ themselves, even the Eiffel tower had a ‘V’ with the slogan ‘Germany is Victorious on All Fronts’ underneath.
When Churchill first used the ‘V’ sign he sometimes did it with palm facing in until it was pointed out to him that this had a rather rude meaning for the working classes; from then on Churchill made a point of holding his hand palm outwards. Of course, the sign appealed to many people precisely because of its ‘double entendre’ meaning – with a simple movement of the wrist they could indicate a belief in victory and also tell Hitler where to go!
America also took the ‘V’ sign to heart and it appeared in numerous places, including on this poster from the War Production Board.
Four years after de Laveleye first urged the use of the ‘V’ sign the Allies finally achieved Victory in Europe, and months later came Victory against Japan, but by that time the iconic Second World War symbol of defiance had become so embedded in the minds of the people that it is still used today.
There are some interesting pictures of the use of the ’V’ sign during the Second World War in this video
Not all battles during a war are fought between armies in the open field. There have always been the men and women who work in intelligence and whose stories can often be very complex and difficult to understand, if we can unravel the truth of them at all. One such example was brought to our TV screens in December 2018 when many people in the UK were enthralled by the BBC drama ‘Mrs Wilson’ which told the story of Alexander Wilson, author, spy and bigamist. What most people found fascinating was that almost eighty years after some of the events took place we still don’t know the truth about Alexander Wilson as the government has still not released all the papers relating to his work. Who was Alexander Wilson? What role did he play in the murky world of espionage before and during the Second World War? Was he a patriot or an inveterate liar? Is it possible that a look at the situation in Egypt, and specifically Cairo, during that period may lead to some answers, or will it simply lead to more questions?
One thing that we do know about Alexander Wilson is that he was a bigamist. After serving in the First World War (with wounds which meant that he could not go on active service in World War 2) he left his first wife Gladys and son Dennis to go to India as a Professor of English Literature, and it was there that he began to write spy novels. Whilst in India he also married his second wife, Dorothy, without getting a divorce from Gladys. There is no evidence that Wilson worked for MI6 at the time, although that claim has been made by some.
When Wilson returned to England in 1933 he left Dorothy and their young son, Michael, and returned to his first wife, Gladys. About eighteen months later (in 1935) he moved to London, leaving his legitimate wife behind yet again. We do know that Wilson was working for MI6 at this time as he met his third wife, Alison, when she was his secretary there (again, no divorce); Alexander and Alison had two sons, Gordon and Nigel. In 1942 Wilson told Alison that the authorities were about to say that he had been dismissed from MI6 but it was all part of an elaborate cover story which would enable him to work as a spy in the field – specifically enabling him to get close to fascists and other targets in prison. The reason MI6 gave for his dismissal was that he had embellished a story about alleged Egyptian espionage and could not be trusted; he was also later accused of burglary and declared bankrupt.
The key reason for Wilsons ‘dismissal’ by MI6 was that they said his reports that the Egyptian Ambassador in London was spying for the Nazi’s were pure fabrication. Yet it was well known by the authorities at the time that a number of factions in Egypt were actively helping the Nazis in the hope that they would gain independence if Britain was defeated. And the Egyptian Ambassador in London was none other than Nahas Pasha, a key nationalist who had already plotted to overthrow the pro-British Egyptian government. To understand Wilson’s story we may need to understand more about Egypt during the Second World War.
Egypt had become part of the Ottoman Empire in 1517 but western countries, including France, German, Italy, and Britain began to have more influence in the 19th century. In the 1850’s Ferdinand de Lesseps was given permission to build the Suez Canal which was underwritten by the Egyptians who were more or less forced to give the Suez Canal Company generous concessions, so much so that Egypt had to borrow large amounts of money to keep her economy going. Egypt was soon over £100 million in debt and had to allow the British Prime Minister, Disraeli, to buy up many of their shares in the Canal. France and Britain understood the importance of the Canal for trade and took over the Egyptian economy in 1876, declaring that they would maintain this role until the debts had been paid. When influential Egyptians tried to take back more control of their country British forces moved in and the British occupation of Egypt began in 1882 with the country becoming a Protectorate in 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War. Many Egyptians felt cheated at the end of the war when the independence they thought they had been promised was not forthcoming, in fact they were not even allowed at the conference to decide the fate of their country. This led to riots in Cairo which spread throughout Egypt. Political instability continued until the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936 which required Britain to withdraw troops from all parts of Egypt except at the Suez Canal by 1949.
Nahas Pasha served as Prime Minister of Egypt before the war but was pushed out because of his nationalistic and ant-British feelings. When young King Farouk came to the throne in 1936 things changed – he wanted an end to British occupation of his country and was very friendly with the Italians. When war broke out many (but not all) Italians and Germans were interned at the insistence of the British, but Egypt refused to declare war on Germany and remained technically neutral until 1945. At the end of May 1940 Cairo was declared an ‘open city’ which meant that as the war in North Africa ebbed and flowed through the desert British troops rubbed shoulders with Italians and Germans on the streets of Egypt’s capital city. King Farouk refused to dismiss his Italian servants who kept lines of communication open with Rome, there were rumours of a powerful transmitter at the king’s Inchasse Palace, and he kept the lights burning at his palace in Alexandria despite the black-out imposed because of the Italian bombing of British facilities. It didn’t take a member of the intelligence community to see that although nominally British those in power in Egypt were firmly on the side of the Axis.
In Cairo itself there was a vocal if ineffectual contingent of Axis spies who frequented nightspots looking for information useful to Rommel, and it was believed by many that the barman at Shepheard’s Hotel (which was frequented by British officers) was a German spy who listened in on conversations and reported back to his superiors. Hekmet, the most famous belly-dancer in the city was later arrested and accused of being a German spy. Ex-chief of staff of the Egyptian army Aziz el Masri formed a secret anti-British organisation in the Egyptian armed forces, and students held rallies in support of German advances chanting ‘press on Rommel’; at one point Anwar Sadat was imprisoned by the British for trying to get help from the Axis powers to throw the British out of Egypt and Sudan.
It is almost impossible to separate truth from fiction when looking at Alexander Wilson so we have little hope of understanding his motives, yet nobody disputes that Wilson was a fervent patriot who clearly wanted to serve his country in any capacity. One wonders why with all of the knowledge they had of the nationalists anti-British activities in Cairo Wilson’s superiors at MI6 said that his reports on Egyptian espionage were wrong and he could not be trusted. Was this and the later accusation of burglary and declaring him bankrupt all part of an elaborate cover as Wilson claimed? Why else would MI6 continue to meet with him until his death in 1963? He said he was still working for them while they said they had him under surveillance, but if he was so disgraced and no longer had access to sensitive information why would they feel the need to keep him under surveillance for more than twenty years?
After the war, Wilson entered yet another bigamous marriage with Elizabeth although he continued to live with Alison who knew nothing of the intricacies of his private life. Everyone accepts that he was dishonest in his relationships, but that did not necessarily transfer to his work for the intelligence services. Was Alexander Wilson simply an inveterate liar or did he work under deep cover during the war and for many years after? One thing is certain, until the British government finally releases their files on Alexander Wilson we will never know the answer.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!)
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.
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 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.