Posts Tagged ‘Churchill’

WW2 Relevance

|   19 November 2011

What are you here for?

Churchill – he certainly knew what he was here for.

I was talking to some American university students a few weeks ago about – not surprisingly – the Second World War, when, much to my surprise, one of them asked this question: ‘is there anything useful you have learnt from all this that might help me find and keep a good job after I graduate?’

Well, I have had some pretty left field questions thrown at me before, but this one was entirely new.

The first thing that came into my head, as I considered an answer, was the courage and certainty I had encountered in many of the people I met who had fought against the Japanese Empire or the Nazis. And then I thought of the one quality that these people had seemed to lack and which many people who I have seen fail in employment have had in abundance – cynicism. Often disguised as ’sarcastic wit.’ This kind of attitude is the reason why I saw a lot of potentially talented individuals never attain their potential. Often their bosses never wanted to mention the issue because they knew how difficult it is to discuss someone’s personality, so they would simply not renew their contract or try and sideline these difficult people. I mentioned this to the American students, and also expressed my long held view that it seems crazy that nowhere in the traditional educational system are students taught the importance of possessing enthusiasm and an attitude that demonstrates a willingness to help out.

I also told them that the vast majority of the most impressive people I’ve met personally, or have heard about through others, possessed a kind of passionate enthusiasm for what they were doing and were unencumbered by any sense of bitterness. I remember when I was making a film about the playwright and performer Noel Coward – a film looking in particular at his contribution to wartime propaganda – that the actress Joyce Carey told me that she most valued a visit from Coward when she was feeling low. ‘He gave you a sense that you could press on,’ she said. ‘Not live for ever or anything, just press on.’

Winston Churchill’s personality, of course, was crucial to motivating the British during WW2. And studying Churchill’s leadership skills made me realise that he seldom burdened himself with the question ‘What’s the point of things?’ – the toughest question of all, it seems to me, to answer – because he re-phrased it as ‘What am I here for?’ a question he most certainly could answer.

As Ghandi said: ‘Almost everything you do will seem insignificant, but it is important that you do it’.

WW2 Relevance

|   19 November 2010

Does it matter who becomes King or Queen?

We have no say over who wears the crown. Does it matter?

Looking at the interview this week with Prince William and Kate Middleton I thought two things. The first was – what a perfectly nice young couple. The other was – this perfectly nice young couple will become King and Queen one day, and not one citizen of the United Kingdom will ever have had any say about it.

But does it matter? After all, many years ago, when I was taught the history of the British Constitution, I was told that the great advantage of an unelected Head of State was not so much the power they possessed as the ‘power they denied others’ as a result of their presence. Trouble is, a study of the relationship between one British monarch and the Nazis has made me think that my teachers were somewhat naive about the nature of power. In fact, it can matter a huge amount who is King or Queen.

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WW2 Anniversary

|   5 August 2010

Battle of Britain


Did Churchill ‘hype’ the danger of a German invasion in 1940?

We’ve just released onto the site for subscribers our video on the Battle of Britain.

It was a fascinating video to make because of the divide on this subject that I detected between many academic historians and the popular myth. The prevailing view in popular culture is clear: the victory of the RAF in the Battle of Britain saved this country from invasion. But to many experts the history is not quite as simple as that.

Take the views of Professor Adam Tooze, for example, now a Professor at Yale University but for many years an academic at Cambridge University. In answer to my question ‘Was there ever any real prospect of the Germans invading Britain in 1940?’ He answered: ‘No’. And then elaborated: ‘I do think one has to understand the timeframes here. They [ie the Germans] hadn’t started thinking about a war with Britain, let alone an invasion, until May 1938. The naval armaments programme doesn’t get into gear until January 1939. For the preceding five years Britain had been outspending Germany on the navy so the already enormous gap between the German navy and the British navy in 1933 had not been shrinking but growing larger every year. So when they then also go on to lose the vast majority of their modern naval forces in the Norwegian debacle which, from a German naval point of view, is a catastrophe, they essentially do not have a surface navy with which to protect an invasion in the summer of 1940. I believe they had three cruisers and four destroyers. Two of the cruisers are light cruisers, and so the preponderance of the home fleet is absolute, which basically makes any invasion attempt a huge gamble, because if the British decide to launch a suicidal charge through the Channel they can cut the supply lines and isolate the German army and that will be the end of that.’

Professor Tooze goes so far as to agree that it is ‘fair to say’ that Churchill was to some extent ‘hyping’ up the chances of a German invasion during this period.

Or listen to what the historian Andrew Roberts, author of the acclaimed history of WW2 ‘Storm of War’ told me: ‘I don’t think the Germans were going to be able to invade successfully in 1940. I think that the actual plans needed to get an army across the channel, even in the event that the RAF was neutralised for a long enough period, were just not in place. There weren’t enough of those flat bottom boats, they weren’t particularly sea worthy and if the Royal Navy had got amongst them there would have been a massacre.’

All of which begs the question, why is this reality not properly reflected in the massive coverage this summer of the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain? Or do we know the answer already – that myth is more comforting than history?

WW2 Competitions

|   2 August 2010

Competition result – July

What is the name of this monastery, the site of a famous WW2 battle?

That was the question subscribers were asked in July. And it proved a good deal easier than the question we posed the previous month, since lots of people gave the correct answer – Monte Cassino. The three lucky winners, drawn at random from the list of people who gave the right answer are: Mr Stewart of County Tyrone, Mr Rassell of Colchester and Mr Givens of West Boldon. Each will shortly receive a signed, hardback copy of ‘World War Two: Behind Closed Doors’ together with a DVD of the accompanying six part television documentary series.

In the foreground of the picture is the Polish graveyard at Monte Cassino. It’s an intensely moving place to visit, not only because so many Polish soldiers died to capture Monte Cassino, but because a large number of these Poles came from an area of Poland that Churchill had agreed would become Soviet territory at the end of the war (and is part of Belarus and Ukraine today).

I remember that just after this photo was taken a group of Poles arrived to hold a memorial service in the cemetery. It was a very emotional affair and many tears were shed.

After it was over I saw a couple of younger Poles looking in a puzzled way at the gravestones. When I asked them what it was that troubled them, one said, pointing to the place of birth of the dead soldier which was written on the gravestone: ‘Many of these Poles don’t appear to have been born in Poland.’

This, of course, was because they had been born in territory that had been Polish before WW2, but was no longer Polish in 1945 – and this young Pole did not know the history. It was a powerful reminder of how boundaries and memories can change. And of how small countries can be at the mercy of superpowers…

PS There is now a new competition in the Members’ Zone. This one is harder, I think, and requires you to know which hideous henchman of Stalin’s was also obsessed with  football.

WW2 Anniversary

|   25 May 2010

Churchill’s lucky break

In May 1940 Churchill’s government got lucky.

Seventy years ago today, something quite extraordinary happened. Or rather, to be more precise, something quite extraordinary didn’t happen.

German tanks, which were in position to advance on the British Expeditionary Force which had retreated to the channel port of Dunkirk, did not move forward to crush the soldiers on the beaches. They weren’t ordered to attack until three days later, on 28 May 1940. As a result, Churchill and the rest of the British leadership were able to organise the evacuation of over 300,000 allied troops. It was, said Churchill, a ‘miracle of deliverance’. But if it was a ‘miracle’ then the person who should be thanked is Adolf Hitler.

At a meeting on 24 May 1940 attended by both Hitler and General Gerd von Rundstedt, the commander of Army Group A, the decision had been taken to stop the German advance. But why? What were the reasons behind this seemingly idiotic decision? Over the years many different theories have been proposed. Was Hitler trying to send a secret message to the British by allowing them to save their troops – one which emphasised his desire to seek peace with them? Were there technical problems with the Panzers? Was Hitler simply not thinking straight, drunk on the euphoria of Germany’s swift victory in France?

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