Tag Archives: World War 2

Czech pilots of the RAF

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

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

Blitzkrieg

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

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

Jossef Frantisek

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

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

Karel Kuttelwascher

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

Josef Koukal

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

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

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

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

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

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

sudetenland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bad Godesberg, Münchener Abkommen, Vorbereitung
Bad Godesberg

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

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

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

Münchener Abkommen, Chamberlain, Mussolini, Ciano
Chamberlain and Mussolini

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended Read – The Soldiers Story by Bryan Forbes

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.

The Soldiders Story can be found on Amazon 

You can find out more about Bryan Forbes here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

Blitzkrieg – the ‘lightning war’

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

Signing the Armistice 1940

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

The Maginot Line

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

Blitzkrieg – German attack through the Ardennes forest

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

Carl von Clausewitz

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

Heinz Guderian

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

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

French refugees, 1940

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

Fall of Berlin

Bibliography:

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

The Windsors at War – Part 2 Queen Elizabeth II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Windsors at War – Part 1 King George VI

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

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

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

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

(You can listen to the full speech here.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A wartime Christmas

Children who grew up during the long years of the Second World War had a difficult life, they certainly had little idea of the type of Christmas festivities which had been enjoyed by their parents or older siblings in earlier years. With food shortages, rationing, and manufacturing focused on the war effort, these children had far less too enjoy than those who had gone before. But what was worse for most families was the fact that they had to spend the festive season without their loved ones – many husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons were fighting overseas, or were prisoners of war; many women were in the services or carrying on vital war work, many children had been evacuated and would be spending Christmas far from home with strangers. And many families had empty chairs at their tables which would never be filled again – family members killed in action or bombing raids.

As well as the sadness of separation Christmas luxuries were also hard to come by, even basic foods were scarce and people had to improvise by finding creative substitutes for festive ingredients. The black market did a roaring trade  in December but, even so, few people were able to buy gifts which  meant that many of the presents unwrapped on Christmas morning were homemade and practical. The government even encouraged people to ‘Make it a War Savings Christmas’, buying bonds and supporting the war effort rather than giving presents.

Poster issued by the National Savings Committee. © IWM (Art.IWM PST 16433)

Making Christmas look as festive as possible was more difficult from 1941 onwards because it was impossible to buy Christmas wrapping paper thanks to the Ministry of Supply ruling that ‘no retailer shall provide any paper for the packaging or wrapping of goods excepting foodstuffs or articles which the shopkeeper has agreed to deliver’. This effort to save paper  impacted on many aspects of life, including making it difficult to wrap Christmas presents and keep them a surprise. The shortage of paper also meant that it was almost impossible to find decorations so these, too, were homemade, often using old newspapers which had been painted in festive colours.

Children at Fen Ditton Junior School (Cambridgeshire) making paper chains for Christmas..© IWM (D 23619)

Britain’s allies understood the hardships of people back in the United Kingdom and set up charities to help. In America many of these charities came together under the umbrella of the British War Relief Society whose aim was to send food and clothes to those in need. In this photograph a young boy called Derek Cunningham received a Christmas card and gifts from the BWRS in Canning Town (London).

© IWM (D 23296)

American soldiers were also encouraged to spend Christmas with their English allies in an effort to integrate more closely as they were often resented by the locals for being ‘overpaid, oversexed, and over here!’ Most GI’s had never been abroad before so to be spending Christmas away from their families was difficult for them. The idea was that civilians would invite an American to spend Christmas Day with them and, in return, the soldiers would bring gifts (nylon stockings, chocolate, cigarettes, chewing gum etc.). Rationing meant that the British had limited food supplies so each soldier who accepted an invitation was given special rations from the PX for every day that they spent with a host family (the PX was the Post Exchange which was the American equivalent of the British NAAFI). Despite initial misgivings the programme proved a huge success.

© IWM (EA 10182)

Added to the sadness of Christmas without family members and the hardship of trying to find food and presents during a time of rationing, was the fear of the enemy. In 1940 London had been bombed for 57 consecutive nights leading up to Christmas, and no one believed that Christmas Eve would be any different. Fearing for their safetly many people spent the night before Christmas in air-raid shelters rather than waiting at home for Father Christmas to call. It could be a very dark and dreary begining to what should be a festive season.

A Shelter in Camden Town under a Brewery: Christmas Eve, 1940, by Olga Lehmann. © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 1899

Some places which offered shelter did thier best to raise people’s spirits with decorations and maybe even a little tree. This picture, by Edmund Knapp, depicts the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields church (close to Trafalgar Square) which was used as a canteen by firewatchers, ARP wardens, and people whose homes had been bombed. The church itself was damaged by the massive bombing raid on 29th December 1940 but the crypt remained intact and in use for the remainder of the war.

Ready for Christmas: the Canteen under St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields, 1941, by Edmund Knapp © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 800)

Despite the hardship of a war-time Christmas some pre-war rituals remained, such as carol singing and pantomimes, and the BBC tried to help with the festive cheer by broadcasting a special radio programme for Christmas Day. In 1939 this programme included a Christmas speech from King George VI. Although there had been previous broadcasts by monarchs this message had particular meaning as it was the first year of the war. As well as praising the  armed forces the king ended with a message of hope from the poem ‘God Knows’ by Minnie Louise Haskins:

I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year, “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.” And he replied, “Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light, and safer than a known way.”

George VI’s speech was listened to by everyone who could get close to a radio, instilling a sense of common purpose as the country faced an uncertain future. It was to be six long years before the king gave his next Christmas message in a time of peace.

May I take this opportunity to send you all best wishes for  a happy and peaceful  Christmas, and hope that 2018 is all that you dream it will be.