The Second World War was a truly global conflict, yet when talking of the British struggle against Germany we usually think predominantly of English men, but it was really the British Empire not Britain alone which fought the war. Millions of soldiers from Britain’s colonies served during World War 2, and many experts believe that soldiers from India were crucial to the winning of the conflict, yet they did not receive the same pay and conditions as the British soldiers they served beside, or recognition afterwards. There were just under 200,000 men in the British Indian Army at the outbreak of war in 1939 but over 2.5 million by August 1945, and these soldiers were all volunteers – there was no conscription of Indian soldiers because the struggle for Indian independence was at its height and to force men to fight for a government which they did not believe in could have been disastrous. It is true that many Indians signed up simply to provide for their families as there was a great deal of poverty in the country, but whatever their reasons for joining the army, this was the largest all volunteer force in the world.
The British Indian Army fought in North and East Africa, Iraq and Iran, Syria and Lebanon, Hong Kong, Malaya, Borneo, Singapore, Burma, and across Europe. They first impressed British officers with their outstanding discipline during the chaotic retreat at Dunkirk before being sent overseas where they were instrumental in the victories against the Italians and Germans in North Africa. Indian soldiers also fought in Europe after D Day, but the vast majority of them served closer to home in the Far East where they fought the Japanese in Malaya and Burma (when the Japanese first attacked two thirds of the forces in the Far East were Indian not English). Thousands of Indian soldiers loyal to the British were taken prisoner when Singapore fell, and many of them were used as target practice or executed by Japanese soldiers. Other Indians, though, saw their captivity as a way to push their own agenda, and although they had been taken prisoner by the Japanese they formed the Indian National Army (INA) to work with their captors against the British in order to win Indian independence. Churchill was afraid that this attitude might spread amongst other Indian soldiers and so he promised independence to India after the war if the country stayed loyal until Germany and Japan had been defeated. Although the INA grew rapidly in the Japanese sphere of influence, most Indian soldiers who had signed up to defend the Empire refused to break their oath and for every one Indian who fought for the Japanese sixty-two remained loyal to the British. To encourage this the British began to promote more Indians as officers whilst the troops were being trained for jungle warfare. These loyal troops were eventually instrumental in defeating the INA, preventing a Japanese invasion of northern India and pushing the enemy back through the jungles of Burma.
The British Indian Army took heavy casualties during the war with 87,000 killed, 34,354 wounded, and 67,340 taken prisoner. The Indian soldiers showed great courage and bravery, in all 4,000 decorations were made including at least 28 Indians being awarded the Victoria Cross (numbers vary depending on which source you read), relative to their numbers this was more than in any other regiment during the war.
After the war ended India gained her Independence and many Indians were embarrassed by the fact that so many of their countrymen had fought for the British so these loyal soldiers were forgotten, ignored, or persecuted. Members of the INA who had broken their oaths and fought against the British were given pensions by the Indian government, yet those who fought for the British were not. These are the ‘Forgotten Soldiers’ – forgotten both by the British for whom they fought and their own countrymen who, these loyal soldiers believed, had attained their independence in part due to the contribution which they had made to the war effort.
It was not until 2002 that Memorial Gates were erected on London’s Hyde Park Corner in memory of the men and women of the British colonies, including Indians, who volunteered to fight in both world wars. Under the dome of the small pavilion are the names of all those who received the Victoria Cross.
The story of Indian during the Second World War is fascinating and complex. It is not possible to do it full justice in a short article such as this, but there is a compelling Timewatch programme which tells it in much more detail. You can find it (five parts) on Youtube, a fitting memorial to the Forgotten Indian Soldiers of the Second World War.
Today we have satellites travelling in orbit around the earth which can take incredibly detailed photographs of what is happening on the ground below, an invaluable aid to intelligence agencies everywhere. Surprisingly, Britain also had its own sophisticated ‘spy in the sky’ during the Second World War. Blue painted Spitfires armed with cameras instead of guns took tens of millions of aerial photos over enemy territory, ten million of which survive today and are stored in archives in Edinburgh.
The centre for this reconnaissance was RAF Medmenham based at Danesfield House 60 miles west of London, a Base rivalling the code-breaking Bletchley Park in its secrecy; and it was here that one of the most important stories of the war unfolded. With the clever use of a simple stereoscope the workers at Medmenham were able to scrutinise the spy photographs and bring every building and fold in the land to life in 3D. This enabled them to measure the height and width of objects and so gave a more accurate picture of their targets. Operatives at the Base assessed railways, factories, shipyards, and buildings; and they were always on the lookout for something ‘unidentified’, searching for anything unusual which might have a bearing on the course of the war.
The Photo Interpreters (PI’s) at Danesfield House were tasked with providing up to date and incredibly accurate information about the movements of the German war machine – during the war 80% of Britain’s intelligence came from photo reconnaissance and interpretation. The most important example of the work done at RAF Medmenham was Operation Crossbow which identified and hunted down something which had never been seem before – Hitler’s mysterious ‘V-weapons’, the new pilotless drones and rockets which could potentially have led to Germany finally winning the war.
Air reconnaissance really ‘took off’ in 1940 when the RAF created a special wing – the Photographic Reconnaissance Unit, and the secret of its success was its adapted Spitfires. These planes were painted a pale blue to be camouflaged against the sky at 30,000 feet, which was the perfect height for taking the photographs. The guns on the reconnaissance Spitfires were replaced by cameras but pilots didn’t worry about this as they had a cruising speed of 365 miles an hour and knew that no German plane would be able to catch them for most of the war, not until the Germans produced their jets in 1944 were the Spitfires in any real danger of pursuit. The planes from RAF Medmenham, flown by both British and American pilots, were able to cover great distances which allowed them to reach Berlin, they even photographed the entire Ruhr in a single mission. These pilots were incredibly skilled in flying alone, navigating to their target where they had to fly a straight and level course to prevent distortion of the photographs which were taken of targets out of sight directly beneath them. To achieve this they would roll the plane on their initial pass above the target to identify the key features, and then come in for a second pass when they took the pictures. Each plane had five very large cameras which were able to identify and photograph something as small as a man on a bicycle from 30,000 feet. To ensure the best quality images the cameras had to be heated at altitude whilst the pilots in their cockpits were left to endure the freezing cold for 5 hours at a time. Once the planes arrived back at base the PI’s took over.
The analysis of the aerial spy photos was three-phased. Stage 1 – as soon as the plane landed the films were developed and the negatives viewed. If something needed acting on immediately (say within about 24 hours) for example shelling or bombing a bridge where German troops were crossing, these would be given priority. Stage 2 – the photos were then developed; it seems almost impossible to believe, but 36 million prints were made during the war. The priority pictures were dealt with and the rest sent to Medmenham where the PI’s identified any targets which would need to be dealt with during the next week. Stage 3 – items which were more long term, factories or dams for example, were dealt with last.
Scrutinising and interpreting the photographs was not an easy task and PI’s were often recruited from professions where people were used to working precisely and in detail – many mathematicians, geologists and archaeologists were recruited from Oxford and Cambridge universities. As well as these skills a PI needed to think laterally and creatively and so staff were recruited from Hollywood with their artists eye for detail, some actors were also employed at Danesfield House, including Dirk Bogart. Around 150 women worked with the men as PI’s, helping to both identify targets and assess the damage inflicted in bombing raids to see if they had been successful or if the RAF needed to go back again.
Other countries had their own ‘spy planes’, but what made Medmenham unique was the way that they processed the information by taking ordinary 2D photos which had been shot in an overlapping sequence and looking at them through a stereoscope to create a 3D image. The pictures overlapped each other by 60% to give a very detailed image which the PI’s became experts at interpreting. It was this expertise which identified something strange in May 1942. A reconnaissance Spitfire pilot had seen something unusual at Peenemunde on the Baltic coast where he photographed a new airfield which had three large concrete and earth circles beside it. A great deal of attention was paid to the photographs, but no one could identify what the circles were, and after concluding that they might possible have something to do with sewage the pictures were shelved.
The story of Medmenham and Peenemunde might have ended there if it had not been for a curious incident in March 1943 when two German generals who had been captured in North Africa were bugged talking at Trent Park Military Prison. They were discussing a new secret weapon, a rocket which would soon be targeting England and would probably change the course of the war. On 23rd June 1943 the RAF spy planes were sent out to scour Germany and northern France to see if they could find any evidence of these weapons. Hundreds of photos were analysed by the PI’s who were told to look for tubes which could fire missiles at Britain from France – a daunting job when no one at that time had any idea what a missile site might look like. One keen-eyed PI spotted a tube on its side in one of the strange circles at Peenemunde, and with this knowledge they went back over previous photos and found a picture of one of the rockets in an upright position; thanks to their 3D technology they were able to work out the height of the object from its shadow – an impressive 14m.
Churchill’s chief scientific advisor Lord Cherwell refused to believe that Hitler had the technology to build such weapons so Medmenham needed to get more detailed information than could be seen from their simple 3D stereoscopes, what the needed was a Wild photogrammetric survey machine used for land surveys to get the detail needed to convince Cherwell. The problem was that the Wild machines were only available from Switzerland (a neutral country). Squadron Leader Ramsey Matthews arranged for a Swedish intermediary to buy two Wild A6 machines which were then shipped through Germany to Sweden before being flown to England. It was now possible to use the machines to analyse photos and get a greater understanding of Peenemunde, measuring the rockets and test sites with incredible accuracy so that scale models could be built, models which were convincing enough to persuade Cherwell that Hitler did indeed have a secret weapon.
Spy planes were sent out again and brought back more alarming photos from St Pol in northern France where they had found huge concrete bunkers and had no idea what they were for. Photos from 30,000ft didn’t help so pilots were sent in at just 30m high to get detailed close-up images; PI’s correctly identified these massive concrete structures as rocket launch sites. If Hitler was to be thwarted something needed to be done, and fast.
On 17th and 18th August 1943 more than 500 bombers set off from Britain to destroy Peenemunde. The raid did very severe damage putting back the missile programme by 8-12 weeks, but more importantly some of Germany’s most important rocket scientists were killed in the raid. The missile sites in northern France were then bombed as well even though the huge thick concrete domes were effectively bomb proof. The only bomb that could touch them was the 12,000lb Tall Boy and the even bigger Grand Slam bombs designed by Barnes Wallis. The bombs created a mini-earthquake which caused the huge domes to shift on their foundations (although not destroy them) effectively putting the sites out of action.
After the air-raids Hitler moved his V-weapons programme deep into Germany and Poland so that it could not be hit by the Allies again, so Medmenham turned its focus to finding launch sites in northern France – the ramps for the VI’s hidden in woodland were difficult to spot but, with perseverance, 96 sites were eventually identified by the PI’s, and on 1st December 1943 a V1 rocket was identified on a ramp for the first time. This was one more piece to the puzzle and the Photo Interpreters looked back at the 96 sites in northern France and were able to correctly identify them as V1 storerooms and launch sites aimed at Southampton, Portsmouth, and London. More importantly, VI’s fired from these sites would also be able to reach the proposed beachheads for the Allied invasion of Europe, for D Day to be successful the launch-sites would have to be wiped out before any invasion force set out – Operation Crossbow was planned to bomb the V1 sites, beginning on 23rd December 1943.
From early 1944 Medmenham was given a second focus – to help invasion planning by monitoring German activity in northern Europe, and every platoon commander on D Day had maps of minefields and defences in the area he was attacking, all supplied by RAF Medmenham. When the first V1’s began to land on London just days after D Day in June 1944 the PI’s again put all of their energies into looking for the launch-sites which had been moved from the woodlands and were now even more cleverly concealed in factories and amongst buildings. As the Allied invasion forces advanced they overran the V1 emplacements, and the last doodlebug fell on London 7th September 1944. One day later the first V2 travelled from mainland Europe at supersonic speed, coming out of nowhere with no warning to crash into Chiswick in London with devastating consequences. There was no defence against the new threat as V2 launch sites were mobile and so difficult to spot in time. Thankfully the Allied forces had already advanced to a point where the launch sites were soon pushed back out of range of England.
In a few short months Hitler’s V-weapons killed about 9,000 people in England, who knows how many more would have died and how much longer the war would have gone on if not for the work of the air reconnaissance at RAF Medmenham. And Operation Crossbow.
Thursday 6th June marks 75 years since the Allies invade northern Europe on the beaches of Normandy. The largest seaborne invasion in history was supported by the Mulberry Harbours, and the most moving memorial to those who built the harbours and stormed the beaches is made by Jim Radford, who was just a boy sailor aged 15 when he sailed to Normandy.
Jim has written a song about his experiences; it has been re-recorded for this anniversary and is racing up the charts towards number one.
Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler, a Jew born in Vienna on 9th November 1914, is better known to the world as the Hollywood actress Hedy Lamar. As a child she was interested in acting and theatre, but she also had a passion for inventing things and at the age of 5 she was able to take apart and rebuild her old-fashioned music box. Her father was a banker who loved Hedy’s intellectual curiosity and interest in technology and would happily spend time explaining to her how things worked. Hedy grew up to be one of the most beautiful women in the world and began her acting career in Europe where at the age 16 she went to a film studio and got a walk on part. The young actress became world famous when she appeared naked in a film called Ecstacy which was banned by Hitler and denounced by the Pope. When she was 19 Hedy married a munitions tycoon, Fritz Mandl, who was allied with the Nazis even though he was Jewish; it was not a happy marriage. By 1937 it was clear that war would be inevitable; Jews were being systematically denied their rights which led to the death of Hedy’s father from stress and worry. Hedy left her husband and escaped to England with her mother where Hedy met the film director Louis B Mayer and went to Hollywood to work for him.
Hedy’s life in America was not easy; she made a range of films from the excellent Algiers to others which are best forgotten, she also struggled to find happiness in her private life. The one constant was her love of inventions, and after filming all day she would work on her latest invention at night. Hedy met and became friend with Howard Hughes who helped here with some of her equipment and offered his scientists to help her with anything she needed. Hedy actually helped Hughes to design the wings for his fastest planes.
Life was hard for Hedy knowing that her country was at war and the US was neutral. Her mother was still in London and planning to go to America which worried Hedy as the Atlantic crossing was incredible dangerous with German U-boats causing havoc amongst
the shipping. Hedy’s creative mind came up with the idea to help those making the Atlantic crossing by improving how radio-controlled torpedos worked. These new torpedos were not particularly effective as the enemy were able to jam their signals and send them off course, Hedy thought that if the launch boat could communicate with the torpedo once it was on its way and make it change direction to follow the target then the German U-boats would no longer have such a great advantage. The problem was how to prevent the enemy from jamming the signals. With a leap of creativity Hedy decided that the ships should constantly change the frequency of the signal to the torpedo in order to confuse the enemy, something she called frequency-hopping. With such a system the enemy would only be able to jam a split second at a single frequency and so the signal would get through. In 1939 a new remote-controlled music radio had been invented by Philco and Hedy realised that this could be the answer she was looking for. Why not hop around frequencies in the same way that you could hop between radio stations, constantly sending the changing signal to the torpedo in a way which would be totally secret. It was a perfect solution but Hedy didn’t know how to put it together.
This is where her friend the composer George Anthiel came in. George came up with the idea which would make Hedy’s concept work using the same system as that used by pianos which play themselves – the rolls activate piano keys so why couldn’t they activate radio frequencies in both the torpedo and the ship? The idea was for two rolls of card with holes in them (similar to those used by the pianos) to start at the same time and run at the same speed so the ship and torpedo could secretly communicate on the same pattern of frequencies; there were 88 frequencies, the number of keys on a piano, and it would be impossible for the enemy to jam these all at the same time as it would require too much power; it would also be almost impossible to crack the system as each pair of rolls could be uniquely created using a random pattern. George and Hedy took their idea to the National Inventors Council in 1941, and the Council put them in touch with a physicist at Cal Tech called Sam Mackeown, who was an expert on electronics. On 11th August 1942, U.S. Patent 2,292,387 was granted to Antheil and “Hedy Kiesler Markey”, Lamarr’s married name at the time. George and Hedy took the invention to the navy but they rejected it, and the US government seized her patent in 1942 as the ‘property of an enemy alien’.
Unable to contribute to the war effort through her invention Hedy, the ‘enemy alien’, worked for the government selling war bonds and sold around $25 million worth (equivalent to around $343 million in todays money), she also spent time entertaining the troops.
After the war Hedy’s acting career was varied, and she never found happiness in her love life. In 1969 she wrote to a friend asking if he could find out what happened to her patent. By this time her idea of frequency hopping had been put into use in military communications – all the US ships used during the Cuban crisis of 1962 used frequency hopping radios. Hedy realised she should have been making money from this but was told that the patent had expired in 1959 before the navy began to use the idea, however there is evidence that they gave the idea to a contractor and it was used long before the expiry date. In about 1955 frequency hopping was used to develop a sonobuoy used by the US navy to detect submarines – once a submarine was detected signals from the sonobuoy were passed to a naval airplane and back to the ship – the system was totally secure, and the developer has even paid tribute to Lamarr’s invention which he used for the sonobuoy, and also for surveillance drones which were developed to be used over Vietnam.
It was not until May 1990 that Forbes magazine became the first member of the mainstream press to write about Hedy’s invention. In 1997 Hedy and George received the Electronic Frontier Foundation Pioneer Award and the Bulbie Gnass Spirit of Achievement Bronze Award given to individuals whose creative lifetime achievements in the fields of arts, sciences, business, or invention have significantly contributed to society.
Hedy Lamarr died on 19th January 2000, and never lived to see herself and George inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
The Hollywood actress with a love of inventing had come up with an idea which could have given the Allied navies the upper-hand over enemy U-boats and, perhaps, helped to shorten the war. Now, more than 70 years later, Hedy’s invention is used in satellite technology including US nuclear command and control; and you carry it in your pocket too, for GPS, wifi and Bluetooth all owe their origins to the Hollywood actress who often bemoaned the fact that the world knew her for her beauty whilst she believed that brains were always more important than looks.
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.
In the uneasy post-war peace of occupied Germany, a British soldier is billeted to a bombed Hamburg hotel. Alex’s days are spent investigating Nazi war criminals, but it is a chance meeting with a German university professor in a shabby back-street bookshop that changes his life. Having befriended the professor and his wife, Alex falls in love with their only daughter, Lisa, only to discover that the professor may not be as innocent as he first appeared. The stale aftermath of a long and hideous war has left the old society in ruins. There are still many secrets to uncover and Alex has to ask himself what is more important – love or truth? As he digs deeper into the professor’s past Alex is forced to recognise that he cannot have both.
This is an absorbing novel in more ways than one. We follow Alex as his life moves from war to peace, from seeing the Germans as enemies to trying to help them on the road to recovery. When he finally leaves the armed forces Alex, like so many men who served in the Second World War, has to re-adjust to civilian life. The Lincolnshire farm where he grew up seems confining, he feels rootless and unable to find his way. In this sense ‘The Soldier’s Story’ is a tale of lost youth. Interwoven with this is a love story, an English soldier falling in love with a young German woman at a time when ‘fraternisation’ was still frowned on; how would her family, and his colleagues, react? If this were not enough, a photograph from Auschwitz places Alex in an impossible situation. What should he do? Should he put his love for Lisa before justice for those who suffered and died in the war? Should he follow his heart or do his duty?
‘The Soldier’s Story’ is a well written novel, peopled with many facetted characters who struggle to do right in a world which is never simply black and white. The dialogue is engaging and believable, helping to bring the characters to life. The descriptions of bomb-damaged Berlin, the Russian sector, the drab people struggling to come to terms with defeat, all combine to give an insight into a fascinating period of history. ‘The Soldier’s Story’ is not a dry history book, although through its pages we achieve a greater understanding of the years immediately following the Second World War, the true destructiveness of conflict, and the loss of innocence which it brings. This is a great piece of historical fiction which I heartily recommend to anyone who has an interest in history, the Second World War, morality, human nature and love.