This article is an edited transcript of World War Two: A Forgotten Narrative with James Holland on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 22 November 2015. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.
Over the years, as the decades have passed, the narrative about Britain’s role and performance in World War Two has changed.
Tied into our collective narrative of the Second World War is that period at the end of the British Empire that saw the decline of Britain as a great power and the increase of America as a superpower, along with Russia becoming the enemy in the Cold War.
During that time, the only people who had ever fought the Russians were the Germans and so we listened to the Germans and followed their tactics because they had experience. And overall, what that has done is belittle Britain’s performance during the war.
By contrast, immediately after the war it was like, “Aren’t we great? Aren’t we fantastic? We helped win the war, we’re fantastic.” That was the era of The Dam Busters film and other great war films where Britain was repeatedly shown to be absolutely flipping fantastic. And then subsequent historians came in and said, “Do you know what? Actually, we weren’t that great,” and, “Look at us now, we’re rubbish.”
A forgotten part of the narrative
And that’s where the whole “declinist view” has come in. But now that time has passed, and we can start looking at World War Two at the operational level, which is what’s really interesting. If you look at films from the day, it’s not all about frontline action – there’s as much coverage of factories and people producing aircraft as there is about people at the front.
Britain produced 132,500 aircraft during the war, as well as ships and tanks, and all that sort of stuff. It’s just that that is a forgotten part of the narrative.
But actually, when you do start to look at it, you realise that Britain’s contribution was absolutely enormous. And not only that, but some of the world’s great inventions came out of Britain. It wasn’t just that Germany was doing its rockets and interesting stuff like that; they didn’t have a monopoly over key inventions, everyone was doing it.
The Russians made amazing tanks, Britain had the cavity magnetron, the computer and all sorts of developments in radio technology, as well as Bletchley Park and the Spitfire. So everyone was doing amazing things – and not least Britain.
Britain’s biggest contribution
The Battle of Britain was a really, really key moment, in particular Britain’s ability to just sort of keep going and fighting. The Battle of the Atlantic was also pretty important in the overall war but the Battle of Britain was the decisive theatre of World War Two in the West.
And the interesting thing is that the Germans never really appreciated that. If Germany wanted to beat Britain and prevent America from getting involved, then it had to cut off the world’s sea lanes, and that’s something it never ever did.
So the Battle of Britain was a key turning point. It forced Hitler to turn East to the Soviet Union earlier than he would have liked, which meant he was consigned to fighting a war on two fronts.
And that was disastrous for Germany with its shortage of resources and all the rest of it.
Intelligence was also an important part of the British contribution to the Allied effort in World War Two. And it wasn’t just Bletchley Park, it was the complete picture.
Bletchley Park and the decoding and all the rest of it was absolutely crucial, but you always have to look at intelligence – whether it’s British, American, or whatever – in its entirety. Bletchley Park was one cog of many. And when you put those cogs together, they collectively add up to much more than the sum of their individual parts.
It was also about photo reconnaissance, the white service, the listening service, agents on the ground and local intelligence. One thing for certain is that the British intelligence picture was streets ahead of Germany’s.