Second World War-Game

Douglas Johnson

  • 1943: The victory that never was by John Grigg
    Eyre Methuen, 255 pp, £7.95, April 1980, ISBN 0 413 39610 X

It is the historians of military events and strategical planning who have all the fun. Whereas those who study the political or economic past are confined to a discussion and analysis of the facts, and are rapped on the knuckles if they speculate about what might have happened if the first Reform Bill had been defeated, or if they dream about all the possible governmental reactions to the economic crisis which started in 1929, the historians of war are positively encouraged to indulge in a counter-historical world of fantasy. If Napoleon had destroyed the Prussians at Longwy, as he should have done; if he had more carefully reconnoitred the ground at Waterloo, as he should have done; if he had been more explicit in his instructions to Grouchy, as he easily might … Such series of reflections are endless. Nothing is more delightful than to point to the shortcomings of some powerful figure from the past, and in no area is the historian on such firm ground as in battles and the planning of battles, because it is here that the mistakes are the most difficult to conceal and the missed opportunities most obvious.

So far as the Second World War is concerned, we have for long been accustomed to seeing the frailties of the leaders exposed by zealous commentators. Montgomery was too cautious to be able to exploit victory; Churchill was like a schoolboy in his enthusiasm for wild and ill-considered schemes (as when, discovering by chance that from Sumatra one could bomb the Japanese at Singapore, he became fiercely determined to occupy the northern end of that island); Hitler threw everything away by his failure to drive on rapidly to Moscow; the American commanders were unbelievably careless in their failure to take seriously warnings of a Japanese attack, as was Stalin in his unpreparedness for a German invasion. It is comforting to feel that no ordinary, sensible man would be capable of such blunders. It is reassuring to think that some lone politician, decrying the way that the war was being fought, and being shouted down and rejected by those in authority, was, after all, right.

It will be even more pleasing for those who might recall how, in the black-out of 1942 and 1943, they chalked on walls the near-seditious slogan, ‘Open the Second Front Now,’ to discover from John Grigg that they were right. The argument of his book is simple. We should have invaded France in the summer of 1943. Had we done so, he claims, the whole operation would have been simpler. We would have lost fewer men in the operation, there would have been less destruction, many of the casualties of the concentration and extermination camps would have been prevented, there would have been less dependence on Russia. Perhaps there would have been no disillusionment. Nostalgia must surely hit the ceiling as we look back to the victory that never was, the D-day that was delayed.

The fact that John Grigg cannot, by the very nature of things, prove his case does not prevent him from presenting it in a persuasive manner. All the more so, since he is able to make our flesh creep by outlining the risks which the British ran by delaying the invasion until June 1944. The Germans were well advanced in their researches into a nuclear bomb. They were producing new and more effective fighters and submarines, they had important stocks of lethal gas, and, above all, they were well advanced in the techniques of guided missiles, the V-1 bombs and the V-2 rockets. No defence existed against the last-named, and if the Allies had not invaded when they did, London might have suffered an even greater devastation than that which had already occurred. The scientific race was won, but only just. The risk involved in delaying invasion until 1944, says Grigg, was unwarrantable.

Naturally, this is not the first time that these arguments have been put forward. One notable predecessor is the American Samuel Eliot Morison, who does not figure in Grigg’s bibliography, but who delivered lectures at Oxford, and wrote in the New York Times Book Review, during 1957, in a way which foreshadowed many of the arguments in the present book. The debates about the strategical value of the landings in North Africa, the manner in which the Italian campaign was fought, the wisdom of opening up another Mediterranean front in the South of France rather than in the Balkans, have been frequent. We can turn as far back as 1952, and read Chester Wilmot’s brilliant indictment of Allied strategy, expressing the belief that had things been better handled, then the Western Allies rather than the Russians would have captured Berlin, Vienna and Prague. And in all these controversies, conflicting sharply with the wishful persuasiveness of the critics, there is the obstinacy of official thinking. In 1942, Roosevelt was anxious to get his troops into action somewhere. Where else but in French North Africa? Afterwards, the logic of the situation was to exploit this victory, even if the victory was more delayed than had been hoped. Was it not necessary to draw German forces into Italy, thereby weakening their position in France and thus preparing the way for a cross-Channel assault? The considerable difficulties which the Allies ran into during the course of 1944 and 1945 are taken as unanswerable arguments for the thesis that, in 1943, a weaker Allied assault force might well have been destroyed in France.

John Grigg picks his way skilfully in this debate and counter-debate. The concluding section of his book, when he discusses the technical problems of landing-ships, the German reinforcement of their defences (the Atlantic Wall) and the number of divisions which they were able to deploy, is by far the best. But there is a tendency to weaken the force of his case by drifting into the writing of a general history of the Second World War, and he is not always able to resist the temptation of commenting on all aspects of the struggle. As is usual in criticism of Allied strategy, it is Lord Alanbrooke who is the chief target. It was he who had the most effective influence over Churchill, it was he who consistently tried to delay any large-scale operations across the Channel and who believed that the war would be won in the Mediterranean and in the air over Germany. But to Alanbrooke, John Grigg has added another, new source of mistaken strategical thinking – the Air Force chief, Lord Portal. He sees Portal as the man behind ‘Bomber’ Harris, someone who believed in area bombing and who imagined that if Berlin could only be on the receiving end of a very large-scale attack, German morale would be broken and victory would be ours.

What is important is not so much to apportion blame for the victory that never was, but to try to understand why a number of experienced and intelligent men should have thought as they did and should have exercised so much influence. This brings us to a fact which has often been overlooked. We all know that in 1939 and 1940 the French were haunted by memories of the Somme and the massacres of the First World War. As a consequence, during the period of the so-called Phoney War, they dreamed up scheme after scheme for action in Scandinavia, in the Balkans, in the Black Sea and else-where – anywhere but in France itself. Anglo-Saxon historians have mocked them for their foolishness. But we can now see that the British showed the same apprehension of history repeating itself, it is no accident that Alanbrooke, after attending an Armistice Day service on Vimy Ridge, in November 1939, should have written in his diary about ‘the futility of again causing such bloodshed’, or that when the American General Marshall was explaining why a prompt invasion of the Continent was essential. Lord Cherwell, who was very close to Churchill, explained to him: ‘It’s no good, you are arguing against the casualties of the Somme.’ The experience of 1940 had confirmed this view, and Alanbrooke, who had fought in the bocage of Normandy, was convinced that this was not the terrain for an advancing army, as it was not Britain’s role to fight on land.

The fact that it was the Americans who were talking of an invasion of the French coast merely confirmed British cynicism. The American generals had little experience in war and were desk-men, unaware of the implications of their plans. As a nation, the Americans were unaccustomed to greatness, and their leaders did not know how to exercise their power, or so the British thought. As Harold Macmillan put it, after observing the Americans at the Casablanca conference, ‘these Americans represent the new Roman Empire and we Britons, like the Greeks of old, must teach them how to make it go.’

The result was that as late as the summer of 1943, the plans for a landing in France that were being prepared by a British Chief of Staff, General F.E. Morgan, were being questioned severely by most of the senior officers at British Home Headquarters, for whom the whole enterprise represented an undue risk. As the American Secretary for the Army, Henry Stimson, put it, ‘the shadows of Passchendaele and Dunkirk’ still hung too heavily over Britain. The reluctance to fight in France until Germany had virtually collapsed, and the preference for action elsewhere was a widespread sentiment and was in no way confined to a few perverse leaders.

So far as Churchill is concerned, Grigg is determined to be fair. He holds Alanbrooke more responsible for insistence upon the Italian campaign than his Prime Minister, and he denies that it was out of nostalgia for the Dardanelles venture of 1915 that Churchill insisted upon finding the soft under-belly of Hitler’s Europe. He quotes a letter written in January 1915 in which Churchill is far from enthusiastic about attacking the Turks. But Churchill did become the great enthusiast for the Dardanelles campaign, and much of his action in the Second World War was derived from his personal experience of the First. Sometimes this was fortunate, as when he favoured Mountbatten because he had failed to protect his father in 1914; sometimes less so, as when he discharged part of his debt to David Lloyd George by appointing his son Gwilym to a post at the Ministry of Food (although the Minister, Lord Woolton, had already approached someone else). And as he firmly maintained that cross-Channel operations should be fitted into the framework of the Mediterranean campaign until Stalin jolted him out of this posture, there can be little doubt that his prodigious memory was recalling the objectives of 1915.

Thus the point of studying the victory that never was is to find explanations rather than to indulge in war-games. After all, everyone had their own game to play. Alanbrooke himself believed that the war might have been finished by 1943 had the invasion of Italy been pushed harder and the Balkans set ablaze. A part of Grigg’s war-game is imagining what the Germans would have done. He assumes that they would not have taken any initiative (just as he boldly assumes that the French Resistance movement would have risen in support of De Gaulle in 1943). But had the Allies simply continued to occupy North Africa and to remove their troops to Britain, Hitler might have launched an offensive, against Malta, against the Black Sea, in the Middle East. Where must the guessing stop? Perhaps it should never start. Historians of war had better settle down to being dull, like other historians.