The Second World War exercises an extraordinary hold over my generation, despite the fact that we were born too late to have any part in it. Being a baby-boomer meant growing up in a post-war world: my dad would dig the potatoes in the garden whilst wearing his RAF fatigues. The image that was given was a heroic one – Britain stands alone, never in the field of human conflict, and all that) – with particular credit to Churchill’s strategic insights. The explanation for victory was two-fold. Firstly, heroism (our fellows were braver than theirs – cockneys in the Blitz, Kenneth More and Jack Hawkins). Second, equipment (our stuff was better than their stuff – Spitfires and Mustangs, Enigma, bouncing bombs and Mulberry harbours).
The problem that you face as an adult who does a bit of reading is that these explanations aren’t true. For whatever reason, Axis forces seem to have been as brave as ours – indeed, according to some historians, they were more effective, being experienced professional soldiers against a citizen army. No-one who hasn’t faced enemy bullets and bombs is in a position to feel superior, but modern histories about the conduct of Allied troops in Singapore, on the beaches of Dunkirk or the sands of Tobruk do not give a wholly positive message. And as for equipment, the Japanese had the best fighter at the beginning of the war (the Mitsubishi Zero) and (in the Me 262) the Germans had the best one at the end. German tanks were very much superior to British and US ones. And there is a good book to be written about Churchill’s mistakes. He came into the job with bad decisions on the Dardanelles in the First World War and the Gold Standard in the twenties on the record, and in the Second World War added new mistakes, from Norway and Greece onwards to invading Italy the laughably un-soft underbelly of Europe.
So how did we come out of it OK ?
The reason I write this is because I have been reading some books and looking at TV documentaries over the New Year break. A documentary about Malta revealed that one convoy of four ships got through to Valletta from Alexandria, but was not unloaded for a day, during which time the German air force sunk them all whilst at anchor in Grand Harbour. So the next convoy was organised much better, and unloaded without delay. Mark Urban’s documentary about tank warfare revealed that allied tanks in Normandy were very much inferior to the German Panzers and Tigers, but losses were replaced within 36 hours. The Wehrmacht got few replacements, and after great delay. In the Pacific air war, the Japanese Zero was beaten by the introduction of the Grumman Hellcat, which was a slightly better plane but produced in vast quantities (12,000 in three years). And the Battle of the Atlantic was won – yes, by devices like the hedgehog depth-charge thrower, HF/DF and the Enigma intercepts – but mostly by better training and tactics, pioneered by sailors like Walker. Mulberry harbours unloaded relatively little onto Normandy beaches, and the bouncing bomb was only used on one raid.
Why does this matter ? Well, apart from knowing the truth, which is a better basis for future action (e.g. it is generally wise to enter a war on the understanding the enemy is as brave as you are), it suggests that it is organisation and resources that matter. Even in peace time, public policy based on the idea that leadership and technology will sort things out, without attention to skills, organisation and resources, is likely to fail.
This is an amateur view. If you want a more expert one – who gives a bit more credit to leadership but agrees about resources and organisation – read Richard Overy.