The Second World War in 100 Facts by Clive Pearson
I was delighted when Amberley Publishing asked me to write a book on the Second World War for their 100 Facts series. I had already completed a manuscript for a book about Britain at war in 1939-45 and so I was able to include points from my research on this as well as from an article published previously about the Soviet Union in this period.
Quite a lot of the book includes facts about Britain in the war. This was inevitable as Britain had a large part to play in all stages of the war as well as fighting on three continents. This was due, of course, to the fact that Britain had a huge sprawling empire. Added to this, British readers would want to know about how their country participated in the conflict and about the iconic moments such as Dunkirk and D-Day.
Beyond this I was keen to introduce readers to what I consider to be two forgotten wars. The first ‘forgotten war’ was the British struggle against the Japanese in the Far East. From the film ‘The Bridge over the River Kwai’ many readers might perhaps be familiar with the idea that there was another war going on there and that life was horrendous for British and Commonwealth prisoners. But how many people know about the epic British march all the way from Burma to India and which ranks as the longest retreat in British military history. Following on this, mainly British and Indian troops managed to turn the situation around by forcing the enemy back from the gates of India and reinvading Burma. Taking the Japanese on in their favourite terrain (the jungle) proved to be crucial. The unsung hero in all this was Major-General Bill Slim who inspired his troops and engineered a winning strategy. He was one of the finest commanders of the war but few know of him. At the time British people were naturally preoccupied with the conflict on their doorstep and it fell to Churchill on VE Day to remind everybody that the war was not over and that the struggle against the Japanese continued.
The second ‘forgotten war’ was the one between Nazi Germany and Russia in Eastern Europe. Brits generally do not understand how vast and cruel the conflict there was. Perhaps this is because of the secretive nature of the Soviet regime. When the Soviet Union eventually collapsed in 1991 the archives could at last be opened up and historians such as Richard Overy in his book Russia’s War and Catherine Merridale in her work Ivan’s War were able to reveal the true horror of the conflict.
The immensity of the war was not just due to the size of the theatre of operations but also because the Nazi regime had turned a huge part of its military machine into the project of knocking out and occupying this enormous country. In total four million German and other Axis forces crossed the frontier into the Soviet Union in June 1941. It was to be an ideological war and Hitler gave his armies a free hand to carry out a campaign of barbaric cruelty not experienced in the west. Jews and Communists were to be rounded up and liquidated and the rest of the population were ultimately to be enslaved. Evidence of the horrific treatment endured there is the fact that a large percentage of the millions of Soviet soldiers taken prisoner were simply left to suffer a long lingering death through starvation. Others were used as slave labour. This was a very different story from that of British prisoners and based on the idea that they were fellow Aryans (and therefore received kinder treatment).
The German invader did not have it all his own way, of course. The winters were terrible with the thermometer at times hitting -400 C leaving hundreds of thousands of ill-prepared German troops literally freezing to death or suffering from frostbite. In addition, Russian forces also committed atrocities on their enemy.
Unfortunately for Soviet troops their own government was not above meting out horrific cruelty on its own people. An example of this is the ‘penal battalions’ which were composed of political prisoners and criminals who could be driven forward to clear minefields willy-nilly, without protection and without concern for losses. Indeed, the whole Soviet command was less concerned about casualties than with winning the war. No wonder, then, that in every battle fought on the Eastern front, even including Berlin, Soviet losses were always more than the enemy. The total cost of the conflict for the Soviet people was 27 million dead and Belarus lost a third of its population. German losses for the whole war were roughly five million.
In the end the Fascist powers were defeated because they were out-manned and out-gunned. As pointed out in the book America’s production figures alone dwarfed that of the enemy countries combined. One big surprise is the total inefficiency of German armaments production. For example, only 2200 tanks were produced in 1940 (and plane production was a similar story) and it wasn’t until 1943 after the defeat at Stalingrad that full production really got going by which time it was too late. At the end of the day no matter how fearsome or valiant your soldiers are (and the German and Japanese soldiers were certainly this) it is of relatively little consequence if your enemy has countless manpower available and seemingly endless numbers of planes and tanks to throw at you. To have any chance the Germans and Japanese had to achieve some kind of knock-out blow in the early stages of the war and this they singularly failed to do.
Clive Pearson's new book The Second World War in 100 Facts is available for purchase now.