What did they do in the war?

Angus Calder

  • Firing Line by Richard Holmes
    Cape, 436 pp, £12.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 224 02043 9
  • The Right of the Line: The Royal Air Force in the European War 1939-1945 by John Terraine
    Hodder, 841 pp, £14.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 340 26644 9
  • The Bomber Command War Diaries: An Operational Reference Book by Martin Middlebrook and Chris Everitt
    Viking, 804 pp, £25.00, May 1985, ISBN 0 670 80137 2
  • ’45: The Final Drive from the Rhine to the Baltic by Charles Whiting
    Century, 192 pp, £7.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 7126 0812 5
  • In the Ruins of the Reich by Douglas Botting
    Allen and Unwin, 248 pp, £9.95, May 1985, ISBN 0 04 943036 X
  • 1945: The World We Fought For by Robert Kee
    Hamish Hamilton, 371 pp, £12.95, May 1985, ISBN 0 241 11531 0
  • VE Day: Victory in Europe 1945 by Robin Cross
    Sidgwick, 223 pp, £12.95, May 1985, ISBN 0 283 99220 4
  • One Family’s War edited by Patrick Mayhew
    Hutchinson, 237 pp, £10.95, May 1985, ISBN 0 7126 0812 5
  • Poems of the Second World War: The Oasis Selection edited by Victor Selwyn
    Dent, 386 pp, £12.00, May 1985, ISBN 0 460 10432 2
  • My Life by Bert Hardy
    Gordon Fraser, 192 pp, £14.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 86092 083 6
  • Victory in Europe: D Day to VE Day by Max Hastings and George Stevens
    Weidenfeld, 192 pp, £10.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 297 78650 4

When, in War and Peace, young Nikolai Rostov first rides, into action with his fellow hussars against the French at Austerlitz, he feels that the longed-for time has come ‘to experience the intoxication of a charge’, about which he has heard so much. At first he is indeed elated, but then the unseen enemy suddenly becomes visible, Rostov’s horse is shot under him, there is ‘around him nothing but the still earth and the stubble’. Frenchmen approach. ‘Who are they? Are they coming at me? Can they be running at me? And why? To kill me? Me whom everyone is so fond of?’ His family’s love makes it seem impossible that these people intend to kill him. Then as a Frenchman bears down with fixed bayonet, Nikolai flings his pistol at him and runs for the nearest bushes, possessed by ‘a single unmixed instinct of fear for his young and happy life’.

Richard Holmes’s impressive and absorbing Firing Line shows how accurately Tolstoy projected, in this episode and others, the psychology of troops in battle. Holmes quotes Lieutenant David Tinker on his first experience, during the Falklands War, of being shelled: ‘They must be mad. Don’t they know it’s very unsafe shooting things at other people?’ A US Sergeant in Vietnam recalled: ‘You thought, “How the fuck can they do this to me? If only I could talk to the cock suckers firing at me, we’d get along, everything would be all right.’”

Paintings, and latterly films and TV, have misrepresented the battlefield as a crowded, busy place. Like Nikolai Rostov, most soldiers experience it as strangely empty. Even on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, a British field artillery officer looking towards the German trenches could see ‘not a single soldier ... not a movement of any sort’. A British parachutist in combat in 1982 reported: ‘I didn’t really see any Argies properly until they’d started surrendering ... It was unbelievably confusing.’ Like Rostov, who doesn’t fire his pistol but throws it, some 85 per cent of American infantrymen, on average, did not shoot during actions in the Second World War. Many soldiers, in all armies, have run away – for instance, in Eritrea in 1940, British soldiers panicked and fled before Italians. That isn’t strange at all. What is mysterious is that relatively few soldiers desert – ‘only’ a hundred thousand from the British Army in 1939-45, while three hundred thousand deserted or went AWOL from the German Army in 1941-44.

It is still more extraordinary that armed forces maintain impetus to attack despite heavy casualty rates. John Terraine’s The Right of the Line, a comprehensive, judicious and humane account of the RAF’s experience in the last European war, gives sympathetic attention to the stress experienced by aircrews in Bomber Command, which realised as time went on that men could take a maximum of only 30 successive sorties before they began to crack. The night-in, night-out bombing of Germany, however doubtful the value of much of it, probably needed more sustained courage than any other wartime operation. The Bomber Command War Diaries, an invaluable reference book giving details of every attack, calculates that about 125,000 aircrew served Bomber Command, and of these 55,500 were killed; wounded and POWs brought the total casualties up to 73,741, or nearly 60 per cent. The gross casualty rates among British infantry fighting in North-West Europe in 1944-45 could be even higher – in the 15th Division, 62.9 per cent of men, 72 per cent of officers – but ‘only’ 16.8 of the former and 28.7 per cent of the latter were killed. The death rate in bombers was exceptional.

Charles Whiting, in his ’45: The Final Drive from the Rhine to the Baltic, provides repulsive detail which makes such statistics all too vivid. Eight months after D Day, one company of the 2nd Battalion of the Gordon Highlanders had just three men left out of the 115 who had landed in Normandy. But desertion and ‘combat exhaustion’ were rare as British troops in this sector moved through the Reichswald on Germany’s border with Holland. This was perhaps because newcomers still had some way to go before, as even the bravest would do, they cracked. Men reached a peak of performance in the first three months of a spell of combat, and most were useless before the next three were over. In the Reichswald, British youngsters led by almost equally young men defecated in shell holes or, under fire, in their own fox holes, and could not wash properly for days on end, but could keep going in hopes of looting a ‘feather bed to sleep on in their dripping damp slit trenches’, or a German’s pig to slaughter and eat. Meanwhile, the enemy, who should have known that the Reich was beaten, still tenaciously fought back. Blijenbeek Castle, whose defenders had mown down an entire company of the 52nd Lowland Division when it had tried to scale the walls, was ‘finally taken only after the RAF had dropped nine 1,000-pound bombs directly on top of it’. Charles Whiting, who writes war fiction as ‘Leo Kessler’, has a style which could fairly be called sensationalist, but the well-attested happenings of 1945 make the alternative discourse of genteel historical scholarship seem inadequate.

Douglas Batting’s slightly more restrained In the Ruins of the Reich has convinced me that no year in human history produced such appalling man-made destruction and misery. The invasion of Germany by armies from East and West committed to a policy of ‘unconditional surrender’ culminated in ‘the destruction of a modern state on a scale without precedent’. In mid-April, the three Russian Army fronts which moved in on Berlin for the kill comprised about 1.6 million human beings. The number of Berliners who had been evacuated was nearly as large, but rather more – 1,750,000 – remained. In 18 days of battle the Soviet forces destroyed 93 German divisions, took nearly half a million prisoners, but themselves lost 305,000 dead, wounded and missing. ‘Between half a million and a million human beings thus lost their lives, their sanity or their freedom as a result of this terrible and unnecessary final battle’ – many more than the total of British Empire dead in six years of war. German survivors had more suffering to come. World food shortage was such that by the end of 1946 civilians in the British-occupied zone got as little as 400 calories a day – half the ration for Belsen camp inmates under the Nazis.

Morale in armies, as Richard Holmes points out, tends to slump when the need to carry on fighting evaporates. Douglas Botting writes of a ‘catastrophic collapse’ of discipline among the Western allies after VE Day. Cynicism which treated German property and German people alike as objects ripe for exploitation had been building up before this. Botting points out that ‘during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 the American effort to throw back the German counter-offensive had been bedevilled by some 19,000 US Army deserters involved in large-scale robbery and black market dealings in the rear areas.’ One group syphoned off petrol needed for tanks and sold it on the French black market. Whiting’s italics and exclamation-mark seem amply justified when he reports that from February to May 1945 there were on the Western Front ‘five hundred cases of convicted rape a month!’ But matters got worse after the ‘unconditional’ victory.

The huge heists of jewels and bullion masterminded by US officers, though they were the biggest known thefts in history, now seem more excusable than smaller-scale operations which exploited the plight of German civilians. Army stores were pilfered for goods to trade on the black market, where a Gobelin tapestry could be had for a carton of grapefruit juice. The British Sector of Berlin became a centre of illicit dealings which, according to an official report of July 1946, threatened to ‘ruin’ what remained of Germany’s financial and economic structure, but corruption was widespread at such high levels that not much could be done to check it. One American general sent home 166 crates and boxes full of valuable antiques in a single shipment.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in