The Second World War (III)

You can read my previous posts about the book here and here. I gave the book 5 stars on goodreads. Below I have added some more quotes from the stuff in the middle, on various topics. I expect to post at least one more post about the book later on; there’s a lot of interesting stuff in here, and in order for me to have at least some chance of remembering some of that stuff later on I think I need to blog it.

“The battle [of Crete] began on the morning of May 20 [1941] […] It was the first large-scale airborne attack in the annals of war. […] When the battle joined we did not know what were the total resources of Germany in parachute troops. The 11th Air Corps might have been only one of half a dozen such units. It was not till many months afterwards that we were sure it was the only one.” (This quote highlights, I think, one aspect of the war which is easy to miss for people who ‘wasn’t there’; how much uncertainty there was, about a lot of things that the enemy might be doing, or might not be doing, or might be planning to do. Espionage will get you only so far).

“Prime Minister to Stafford Cripps               3 Apr 41

Following from me to M. Stalin, provided it can be personally delivered by you:
I have sure information from a trusted agent that when the Germans thought they had got Yugoslavia in the net – that is to say, after March 20 – they began to move three out of the five Panzer divisions from Roumania to Southern Poland. The moment they heard of the Serbian revolution this movement was countermanded. Your Excellency will readily appreciate the significance of these facts.”

(If the significance of these facts is not clear to people unfamiliar with the scene at the time, here’s what Churchill thought: “This shuffling and reversal of about sixty trains could not be concealed from our agents on the spot. To me it illuminated the whole Eastern scene like a lightning-flash. The sudden movement to Cracow of so much armour needed in the Balkan sphere could only mean Hitler’s intention to invade Russia in May. […] The fact that the Belgrade revolution had required their return to Roumania involved perhaps a delay from May to June. I cast about for some means of warning Stalin […] I made the message short and cryptic, hoping that this very fact, and that it was the first message I had sent him since my formal telegram of June 25, 1940, commending Sir Stafford Cripps as Ambassador, would arrest his attention and make him ponder. […] This was the only message before the attack that I sent Stalin direct.” When Churchill and Stalin later briefly discussed the warning during their 1942 Moscow conference, Stalin remarked that he remembered the warning, and added: “I did not need any warnings. I knew war would come, but I thought I might gain another six months or so.”)

“Almost all responsible military opinion held that the Russian armies would soon be defeated and largely destroyed. […] President Roosevelt was considered very bold when he proclaimed in September that the Russian front would hold and that Moscow could not be taken. […] Even in August 1942, after my visit to Moscow and the conferences there, General Brooke, who had accompanied me, adhered to the opinion that the Caucasus Mountains would be traversed and the basin of the Caspian dominated by German forces, and we prepared accordingly on the largest possible scale for a defensive campaign in Syria and Persia.”

“In the whole of the war ninety-one merchant ships were lost on the Arctic route, amounting to 7.8 per cent. of the loaded vessels outward bound and 3.8 per cent. of those returning. Only fifty-five of these were in escorted convoys. Of about four million tons of cargo dispatched from America and the United Kingdom, an eighth was lost. In this arduous work the Merchant Navy lost 829 lives, while the Royal Navy paid a still heavier price. Two cruisers and seventeen other war-ships were sunk and 1,840 officers and men died. The forty convoys to Russia carried the huge total of £428,000,000 worth of material, including 5,000 tanks and over 7,000 aircraft from Britain alone. […] The […] extreme difficulties of the Arctic route, together with future strategic possibilities, made [the] creation of a major supply route to Russia through the Persian gulf [a] prime objective. […] Starting in September 1941, this enterprise, begun and developed by the British Army, and presently to be adopted and expanded by the United States, enabled us to send to Russia, over a period of four and a half years, five million tons of supplies.”

“As we had flown [back to Britain, after the Arcadia Conference] for more than ten hours through mist and had had only one sight of a star in that time, we might well be slightly off our course. Wireless communication was of course limited by the normal war-time rules. It was evident from the discussions which were going on that we did not know where we were. Presently Portal, who had been studying the position, had a word with the captain, and then said to me, “We are going to turn north at once.” […] As I left the aircraft [after the landing] the [air] captain remarked, “I never felt so much relieved in my life as when I landed you safely in the harbour.” I did not appreciate the significance of his remark at the moment. Later on I learnt that if we had held on our course for another five or six minutes before turning northwards we should have been over the German batteries in Brest. We had slanted too much to the southward during the night. Moveover, the decisive correction which had been made brought us in, not from the south-west, but from just east of south – that is to say, from the enemy’s direction rather than from that from which we were expected. This had the result, as I was told some weeks later, that we were reported as a hostile bomber coming in from Brest, and six Hurricanes from Fighter Command were ordered out to shoot us down. However, they failed in their mission.”

“By the end of March [1942] the first phase of the Japanese war plan had achieved a success so complete that it surprised even its authors. Japan was master of Hong Kong, Siam, Malaya, and nearly the whole of the immense island region forming the Dutch East Indies. Japanese troops were plunging deeply into Burma. In the Philippines the Americans still fought on at the Corregidor, but without hope of relief. […] Whether it was wiser to organize their new perimeter thoroughly or by surging forward to gain greater depth for its defence seemed for [the Japanese leaders] a balanced strategic problem. After deliberations in Tokyo the more ambitious course was adopted. […] The Japanese High Command had shown the utmost skill and daring in making and executing their plans. They started however upon a foundation which did not measure world forces in true proportion. They never comprehended the latent might of the United States. […] they were drawn into a gamble, which even if it had won would only have lengthened their predominance by perhaps a year, and, as they lost, cut it down by an equal period. In the actual result they exchanged a fairly strong and gripped advantage for a wide and loose domain, which it was beyond their power to hold; and, being beaten in this outer area, they found themselves without the forces to make a coherent defence of their inner and vital zone. Nevertheless at this moment in the world struggle no one could be sure that Germany would not break Russia, or drive her beyond the Urals, and then be able to come back and invade Britain; or as an alternative spread through the Caucasus and Persia to join hands with the Japanese vanguards in India.”

Churchill included these interesting thoughts on the status of affairs roughly in the middle of the war: “I had now been twenty-eight months at the head of affairs, during which we had sustained an almost unbroken series of military defeats. […] The fact that we were no longer alone, but instead had the two most mighty nations in the world in alliance fighting desperately at our side, gave indeed assurances of ultimate victory. But this, by removing the sense of mortal peril, only made criticism more free. Was it strange that the whole character and system of the war direction, for which I was responsible, should have been brought into question and challenge? It is indeed remarkable that I was not […] dismissed from power, or confronted with demands for changes in my methods, which it was known I should never accept. I should then have vanished from the scene with a load of calamity on my shoulders, and the harvest, at last to be reaped, would have been ascribed to my belated disappearance.”

“In September [1942] 30 per cent. of Axis shipping supplying North Africa was sunk, largely by air action. In October the figure rose to 40 per cent. The loss of petrol was 66 per cent. […] There had been serious derangements in the enemy’s command. Rommel had gone to hospital in Germany at the end of September and his place was taken by General Stumme. Within twenty-four hours of the start of the battle [of El Alamein] Stumme died of a heart attack. [Talk about bad timing…] […] The Battle of El Alamein differed from all previous fighting in the Desert. The front was limited, heavily fortified, and held in strength. There was no flank to turn. A break-through must be made by whoever was the stronger and wished to take the offensive. In this way we are led back to the battles of the First World War on the Western Front. […] It may almost be said, “Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat.”

An important thing I learned from the book was the answer to the question why the (Western) Allied forces were mainly fighting in Africa during the first part of the war, but didn’t seemingly really do much else aside from trying to keep the Germans from bombing their cities and sinking their ships. A very important point is that landing craft was the binding constraint, and these were in desperately short supply, and it took a lot of time to build up the supply. It would have made no sense for the Allied to have tried to unload substantial numbers of soldiers in Europe during the first years; they would have been slaughtered, and valuable landing crafts would have been lost. What might have happened, had such a strategy been pursued, might have been repeated experiences like those of the Dieppe raid, where almost 60 % of the soldiers who made it ashore were killed, wounded or captured, and the rest had to be evacuated within hours. So instead the Allied leaders tried to seek out the enemy where they were actually capable of taking him on, and that way bind resources of his which could not be used on the Eastern front – which ended up meaning mainly military engagements in Africa and the Mediterranean. Operation Torch could be initiated successfully significantly sooner than any sort of successful cross-Channel operation could.

“[In May 1943] there were 185 German divisions on the Russian front. […] Brooke [during a strategy meeting at that time] set out our whole Mediterranean strength [available for operations in the near future]. Deducting seven divisions to be sent home for the cross-Channel operation and two to cover British commitments to Turkey, there would be twenty-seven Allied divisions available in the Mediterranean area. […] In the initial assault [of the invasion of Sicily] nearly 3,000 ships and landing-craft took part, carrying between them 160,000 men, 14,000 vehicles, 600 tanks, and 1,800 guns.” And still this was small potatoes compared to the forces engaged in conflict on the Eastern front – which makes you think…

“In 1940 and 1941 we lost four million tons of merchant shipping a year. In 1942, after the United States was our Ally, this figure nearly doubled, and the U-boats sank ships faster than the Allies could build them. During 1943, thanks to the immense shipbuilding programme of the United States, the new tonnage at last surpassed losses at sea from all causes, and the second quarter saw, for the first time, U-boat losses exceed their rate of replacement. […] In May alone forty U-boats perished in the ocean. […] The convoys came through intact, the supply line was safe, the decisive battle had been fought and won. […] The extirpation of Axis power in North Africa opened to our convoys the direct route to Egypt, India, and Australia […] The long haul round the Cape, which had cost us so dear in time, effort, and tonnage, would soon be ended. The saving of an average of forty-five days for each convoy to the Middle East increased magnificently at one stroke the fertility of our shipping.”

May 20, 2016 - Posted by | books, history

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