Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Both necessary and honourable

Over on Peter Hitchens' blog there has been an interesting discussion about Dunkirk.

Some people, including Mr. Hitchens (as I understand it) have suggested that Britain's guarantee to support Poland and our declaration of war was both unnecessary and damaging - and that if we had not given this guarantee we may have stayed out of the war and held on to our Empire.

Although I agree that our offer of support to Poland was useless from any practical point of view, I do not agree that it would have made any difference to the way the war was to pan out.

First of all, a lot of people seem to think that had we not gone to war over Poland then Hitler would never have invaded western Europe. They seem to think that the war was always going to be between Germany and the Soviet Union.

This is nonsense. Hitler's motivation leading up to the war was to erase the ignominy Germany had suffered at Versailles. That is what reclaiming the Rhineland was about, that was what invading Czechoslovakia was about and that was what invading Poland was about.

British intelligence were already aware at the outbreak of war that the next target for Germany was an invasion of western Europe to begin in November 1939 and the defeat and humiliation of France. This would be the ultimate prize for Hitler to make up for Versailles and was not only central to his plan for a "United Europe", but essential to his personal ambition.

In other words, we were always going to be dragged into the war regardless of whether we declared war in September 1939 or not. If things had gone to schedule then there would have been no "Phoney War", the BEF would have still gone out to France, would still have been kicked out at Dunkirk only we'd have been trying to extract them from the beaches in the middle of a harsh winter rather than a dull early summer.

As it happens, the November invasion was postponed due to bad weather - but it is possible that our support for Poland gave those people the spirit to fight on for more than a month when their defeat was predicted in 2-3 weeks. Had they not held on then the invasion of western Europe may have begun earlier and the above scenario played out. I doubt that we could have used the "little ships" to assist in getting 30,000 men off the winter beaches of Dunkirk let alone 300,000 and Britain would have been in a far worse predicament than we eventually were.

And let's not forget that at this time, the Soviet Union were our enemy, Germany's ally and were supplying the Nazis with the oil with which they would launch their invasion of France and the low countries.

There was never going to be just a war between Germany and the Soviet Union. Western Europe was always the principle goal and the defeat and humiliation of France the prize for Hitler. Had we not declared war in September 1939 we would stil have declared war in May 1940 and it is only through luck that we weren't at war sooner than we wanted and even more unprepared than we eventually were.

There was never any chance that Britain could have stayed out of the war and our guarantee to Poland made no significant difference whatsoever.

What did make a difference and is severely under rated by modern historians is the North Africa campaign. When the allies finally kicked the Nazis out of North Africa they took over a quarter of a million of Germany's most experienced troops prisoner - three times as many as were captured at Stalingrad - while the Germans suffered more casualties and lost more tanks and planes in North Africa than they did at Stalingrad too. This massive loss of men and materiel was crucial to the outcome of the war - every bit as important as Stalingrad.

And while all this was going on, we were also fighting the Japanese in the Far East - so we would still have lost our Empire regardless. Far from being an "unnecessary" war, WW2 was unavoidable for Britain. There were disasters, defeats and humiliations - but we also have much to be proud of too. Not least that - when the rest of the world thought we were defeated - we stood and fought against the evil of fascism.

That we ultimately failed Poland was shameful - but not our fault. Churchill pushed for free elections for Poland and insisted that Britain could not be content with a situation that didn't leave Poland as a free and independent state. It was Roosevelt who sold Poland out - not Churchill or Britain.


Antisthenes said...

As I understand it RS Hitler was shocked that Britain declared war and had not counted on it. Some think that the Dunkirk evacuation was helped by Hitler hesitating not wanting to completely humiliate Britain as he thought he could negotiate a separate peace with Britain with a guarantee that Britain could keep its Empire. Still it is hard to know what to believe as there is no evidence one way or another.

Stan said...

One of the things that annoyed me about the thread on Peter Hitchens' site was the specualtion - if we hadn't done this then this might have happened - all of which is impossible to predict.

However, I'm pretty sure that the war would have gone pretty much the way it did regardless of what we did. Hitchens - along with others - suggests we could have kept out of it or waited to join in at a time of our choosing, but that is a ridiculous assertion. Germany was the agressor - after the invasion of Poland our entry into the war was always going to be at a time of their choosing and would most likely have been in May 1940 when Germany invaded western Europe. As nothing much happened between the fall of Poland and May 1940 then it made no difference that we declared war in September 1939.

We would never have been able to keep our Empire because the threat to that was from Japan - not Germany - and any guarantee Hitler might have given would have been worthless (as most of his guarantees were).

Richard Matthews said...

Hi Stan

I'm rather enjoying reading the debating match between Hitchens and you. I'd chime in myself but both of you seem to know your history far better than I do, so I'll keep out of it rather than being, inevitably, exposed as an amateur.

What I'd be interested to know is whether you have a view on Britain's involvement in the First World War. After all, the Germans declared war on France and Britain stepped in on the side of the French. Might Britain's involvement in World War One have been the initial mistake that, in the long term, caused us to lose the Empire?

Obviously, one can only speculate on what might have been had Britain stayed out of World War One - but we all know that Germany's dire economic situation post WW1 was instrumental in allowing Nazism to take root.

Stan said...

Hi Richard - I've been enjoying the debate too!

To be honest, I'm not so up on the First World War. Was it a mistake? Well, aren't all wars? Or, rather, aren't all wars the consequence of mistakes?

My understanding of WW1 is that we did not go to war to defend France, but because Germany invaded Belgium - but we would probably have gone to war to defend France even if Germany hadn't violated Belgian neutrality.

Whether it was avoidable or not I do not know. I think probably not as the plans to invade France had been around for a long time before 1914 - but it is certainly true (in my opinion) that WW2 was a "follow on" from WW1 (and that WW1 itself was a follow on from the Franco Prussian war of 1870).

Even so, there were a number of points in time where we could have avoided WW2 - or certainly postponed it - but none of them were after September 1938 and the Munich agreement.

Richard Matthews said...

Yes, WW2 was a definite follow-on from WW1. That's why I wonder whether if Britain had just let the Germans and the French slug it out (as they did in the Franco-Prussian War), we might have avoided WW2.

By the way, just read your latest retorts to Hitchens. I'll be interested to see if he decides to go another round when he comes back from his travels. Interesting stuff.