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By Jason Michael
ON 8 MAY 1945 – Victory in Europe Day, when people all over the world were celebrating the defeat of Nazi Germany, the relief in Britain was absolute. Since June 1940, with the flight of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk and the Fall of France, the island of Great Britain lived under the constant threat of invasion, cities from Glasgow and Belfast to London endured the near relentless Blitz bombing of the German Luftwaffe, and not a family was untouched by the loss and anxiety of the war effort. The British sense of relief on VE Day was not a triumphal celebration of victory. There was no feeling that Britain had won the war. Britain’s relief was that Nazi Germany had been defeated, that the war was – at long last – over. When Prime Minister Winston Churchill, a monster in his own right, said of the Battle of Britain in August 1940: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few,” he was already beginning a post-war spin on Britain’s wartime defeat – yes, Britain was defeated. He wanted us to think of the heroic men in their flying machines, exhausted and massively outnumbered, who bravely kept the German’s on their side of the Channel. He wasn’t promoting the fact that the Royal Air Force was utterly dependant on pilots from Poland, France, and so many other countries overrun by Hitler’s Third Reich. His listeners were to imagine only the gallantry of “our boys,” the British Anglo-Saxon supermen of Churchill’s imperialist imagination – every bit as racially supremacist as Hitler’s Germanic Aryan race.
By May 1945 this chippy little line had been turned on its head: Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so few to so many. Some 48 million Britons had been saved at the cost of 27 million Soviets, almost 6 million Poles, a million Greeks, and tens of millions of civilians and combatants over the whole of Nazi occupied Europe. None of this is to in any way take from the efforts and suffering of England, Scotland, Wales, and the north of Ireland during the 1939-45 conflict, rather it is to inject into a very modern British reinterpretation of the war some reality. Now, after decades of growing tensions between an increasingly insular and isolationist Britain and our European neighbours, and more recently in light of the faux patriotism fomented by the right-wing politics of Brexit, World War II has become a myth of British exceptionalism – this sceptred isle nonsense of a plucky little Britain fending off immigrants foreign invaders.
The truth of the Second World War is that Britain was defeated. It was comprehensively defeated on the beaches of Dunkirk. On 15 May 1940 – at the very beginning of the British-German war – Germany’s Army Group A crossed through the Ardennes with 45,000 mobile armoured units, flanked the French and British forces, leaving them encircled and trapped north-east of Calais. On 27 May, under a horrifying Blitzkrieg assault from the air, Britain abandoned its allies to their fate as a mere 198,229 British soldiers fled thanks only to the miracle that was Operation Dynamo. As the German Army marched into Paris this battered expeditionary force was all Britain had left. Sure, Britain did not surrender. It was not invaded. But these facts are, as they were at the time, academic. The British Army was routed and smashed. Nothing stood in the way of a full-scale Nazi invasion of England – not even the RAF. Had Hitler prioritised the invasion of England – which he did not – England knew it was weeks away from total defeat.
Over the years Britain has concocted a plethora of “we won the war” myths, every one put to the service of contemporary political necessity. London’s grand alliance with US foreign policy and the State of Israel from the Suez Crisis has produced a World War II narrative of the good guys standing against the bad guys, but the reality was far different. Britain declared war on Nazi Germany not because it saw Hitler as a bad guy, quite the contrary. Until the outbreak of war the British establishment was quite in love with Herr Hitler. Not only was Edward VIII and his American wife Wallis Simpson fans and frequent guests of the Führer, Elizabeth – the current occupant of the English throne – was photographed giving the Nazi salute with her mother. British appeasement was all about London’s understanding that Germany was given a bum deal at Versailles. As far as the United Kingdom was concerned, there was nothing wrong with invading other countries. Hitler’s only problem – from Britain’s point of view – was that he was late to the party and that the whole business with Poland was him stepping on the wrong toes. The long and short of it was that London was quite happy with Hitler and the Nazi regime, they were halting the advance of Communism.
Not even does the “Hitler had to be stopped” narrative hold water. In 1939 the British Empire had to be stopped. Newspapers in England were well aware of the Nazi’s treatment of the Jews and other minorities well ahead of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. A year before the invasion of France every last man on the English football squad was happy to give the Nazi salute in Berlin – and that was after the Nazi’s had deprived Jewish Germans of their citizenship and rights with the racist Nuremburg Laws. Even nearing the end of the war, as the Red Army approached Warsaw, when the facts of the Nazi genocide were well known, Churchill ordered the RAF not to bomb the rail tracks leading Jews to their deaths at Auschwitz. Absolutely, the modern excuse for this is that resources had to be concentrated on the “war effort.” But this assumes supporting their Russian allies was not an essential part of the war effort. In 1938 and 1939 the London government placed strict limitations on Jewish immigration from Germany, and even after Kristallnacht Louise London, author of Whitehall And The Jews, 1933-1948, is able to say that “The (British immigration) process was designed to keep out large numbers of European Jews – perhaps 10 times as many as it let in.” Sadly, even during the war, Britain’s ban on Jewish immigration to Palestine contributed in no small part to the “Final Solution.”
Britain’s endless revision of the Second World War has nothing to do with history and everything to do with Britain’s present ideological requirements. Westminster needs a narrative – a myth – to explain its hostility to the European project. It has needed to legitimise its own illegal wars by reinforcing the perception of goodies and baddies in international politics. Every enemy of Britain since 1945 has been “just like the Nazis.” Its rewriting of history has nothing to do with remembering the heroism of those who fought and those who died; remember – there has never been a greater privilege for the English labouring classes then to die for their social betters, a higher honour for a Scotsman, a Welshman, or an Irishman to die for England. Today, the Dad’s Army animation is all about the defence of British neoliberalism. It’s about inventing an easily digestible reason for keeping migrants and refugees – refugees fleeing their homes because Britain is behaving “as bad as the Nazis” – from our shores. Twisting the war narrative Uncle Albert style is as much to make monsters of “foreigners” in our midst as it is to make monsters of fictional “eurocrats” abroad.
So, we’re marking “D-Day 75” – super. The Normandy Landings were possible only because the Soviets were marching to Berlin and the United States had entered the war. By the time Tommy set foot back on French soil the war was ending, and it wasn’t Britain’s doing. We take our hats off to the giants of men who landed on those beaches; English, Scot, Welsh, American, Canadian… they deserve our praise and eternal gratitude, but let’s stop kidding ourselves on – Britain survived by accident, not by might. Let’s quit buying into this false narrative of stopping the Nazis. Britain was fighting a selfish imperial war in June 1944. London’s still fighting that same imperial war today, and this is what explains the need to mark the 75th anniversary of the landings; not the 50th or the 100th, but the 75th. This is a great story, and let’s face it – they need it. But enough of this. It’s time to put on the poppy t-shirt and stand up and clap like mindless drones. There’s a Brexit war to win.
Remember Dunkirk: Timeline of a Miracle
5 thoughts on “Britain’s War Mythology”
Reblogged this on Ramblings of a 50+ Female.
A much needed corrective! Thanks, Jason!
Agree with most of this, except your third paragraph. While the British Expeditionary Force was roundly defeated in May 1940, along with the French, that did not mean that Britain was defeated. The world had moved on a long way from the days when defeat of a land army in the field meant total defeat as at Waterloo or earlier battles.
It is wrong to say that nothing stood in the way of a Nazi invasion of Southern England. The Royal Navy was still extremely powerful and the RAF had not been destroyed (although it did rely heavily on experienced foreign fighter pilots as you point out) so the Germans did not have full air superiority. Most historians agree that Operation Sealion would have been an unmitigated disaster for Germany – lacking any experience of seaborne invasion and planning to use Rhine barges rather than landing craft for their troops. – and the Germans themselves called it off, recognising the extent of the remaining opposition.
Britain was in no shape to continue a war. Without the US and the Soviet Union Britain would have eventually fallen.
Maybe, if you posit an extreme scenario where the US and USSR stay out of the war completely. However, even if Hitler hadn’t attacked Russia in 1941 it was pretty likely that Stalin would have attacked Germany a year or two later anyway. Extra time doesn’t help a German invasion of Britain that much as you’d expect Britain to be mobilising, re-arming and organising for defence all the time the Germans were gathering their strength for the invasion.