Saturday, October 23, 2010

World War II again

Every so often I go back into the war in my reading. The war always ends the same way, but I seem to learn something. For earlier reports see here and here.

I borrowed one volume of General Brooke's diaries. My late father owned this work. Brooke became the most senior British general during the war--equivalent to Marshall for the U.S. As with Marshall, he didn't enjoy the public profile of battlefield generals once fighting was underway, and he was probably unfairly neglected, especially in comparison to Montgomery, after the war.

Brooke met for hours every day with Churchill as well as his fellow generals. Churchill drove everyone crazy with endless talk, meetings, and work. Even after a major agreement of all parties on strategy, he would bring up 100 different ideas a day: what about Malaysia? What about Malta? Vienna? Singapore? Often these would make little or no strategic sense, but he would force the generals to go through pro's and con's. Arguably this was a good way to keep on testing "the consensus"--to make sure everyone had good reasons for doing what they were doing. But the flow of different and contradictory ideas raised questions about Churchill's judgment, age, and health both physical and mental. Unlike Hitler or Stalin, he never over-rode his generals; he simply forced them, through long meetings and exchanges of notes, to defend their positions. The American generals had no taste for this at all, and they thought a lot of Churchill's weird excursions were attempts to restore the old British empire. This may well have been in Churchill's mind, but he may also have been quicker than Roosevelt to realize that there was a case for stopping the Soviet Union from spreading too far too fast.

Before even finishing Brooke, I've switched to Wilmot, The Struggle for Europe. Wilmot does a nice job of relating different fronts in the war to each other. Hitler was obviously hoping Britain would capitulate after Dunkirk. He was surprised, and he remained surprised, that this didn't happen. The British public turned, almost overnight, from supporting Chamberlain's Munich deal and achieving "peace," to wanting to fight with Churchill to the end. Churchill's cabinet agreed, probably with some reluctance, that the public simply wouldn't let them surrender, almost no matter what. So the Battle of Britain, even if it was somewhat inconclusive, was enough to convince Hitler that Britain wouldn't surrender immediately. The blitz led to basically the same result. To go further, the Germans would have had to invade across the Channel, which they had given no real thought to, and they utterly lacked the equipment, air and naval support to do. That is the main reason Hitler, who had said repeatedly he did not want to fight on two fronts, invaded the Soviet Union. He was convinced he had the army to achieve success in the East, and then he would be free to invade Britain. Later, when everyone knew D-Day was coming soon, Hitler supposedly thought now at last he would be able to destroy Britain and weaken the U.S., and then he would be free to finish the job in the East where he had begun to lose ground. North Africa and Italy, of course, became a third front, which did significant damage to the Germans partly because Hitler refused to withdraw, even tactically, anywhere. The British generals predicted Hitler would send a lot of troops into Italy; the Americans doubted it; the Brits turned out to be correct about this.

It's kind of chilling to read about 1940. The U.S. is not in the war, and Germany has not yet invaded the Soviet Union. Hitler is trying to maintain American neutrality by ordering German U-boats not to attack American shipping. He tries to persuade Japan to attack British colonies in preference to the Soviet Union, and the Soviet Union in preference to the U.S. He is negotiating with the Vichy government of France, and with Franco of Spain, to secure the Med for himself as much as possible. He tries to persuade Stalin that he can conquer to the south, into British possessions, rather than west into territory that Germany wants.

One big problem is that Hitler would love to be able to say "Britain has been defeated"; but he can't. November 13th: Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov meeting with German Foreign Minister Ribbentrop in Berlin: "If England is in fact defeated and powerless, why have we been conducting this discussion in your air-raid shelter?"

Hitler's rashness and impetuosity--his conviction that will power would prevail--helped to bring about Germany's spectacular early victories. Among other things, these victories subdued rebellious generals, and offered enormous gratification to the German people. But the other side of Hitler's "winning" qualities were his refusal ever to admit defeat, and his tendency to under-estimate his opponents. He made serious mistakes, and they contributed directly to the German defeat.

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