Why World War Two’s Operational History Isn’t as Boring as We May Think

History Hit Podcast with James Holland

Twentieth Century World War Two
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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.

War is understood to be fought on three different levels: strategic, tactical and operational. In fact, you can even apply that perspective to businesses. With a bank like HSBC, for example, the operations are the nuts and bolts – getting people computers, sending out new chequebooks, or whatever.

The strategic level is the overall worldwide view of what HSBC is going to do, while the tactical level is the activity of an individual branch.

You can apply that to everything, including World War Two. The interesting thing about that war, though, is that if you read most general histories of the Second World War, what they concentrate on is the strategic and tactical levels rather than the operational.

That’s because people think the economics of war and the nuts and bolts and the logistics is really boring. But it isn’t. 

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A rifle shortage

Just like every other part of World War Two, the operational level is full of incredible human drama and amazing stories.

But once you apply that third level, the operational level, to a study of war, everything changes. For example, in 1940, Britain was defeated. Britain’s very small army had escaped from Dunkirk and come back to the UK in complete disarray.

The traditional view was, “We hadn’t prepared enough so therefore our army was in desperate straits and about to be invaded at any moment”.

To take a single example of the state Britain’s military was in, there was a rifle shortage in 1940. The most basic elementary requirement for any soldier and Britain didn’t have enough of them.

The reason we were short of rifles is because on 14 May 1940, British foreign secretary Anthony Eden announced that he was going to launch the Local Defence Volunteers, which later became the Home Guard.

Members of the Local Defence Volunteers are inspected at the LDV’s first post in central London, near to Admiralty Arch, in June 1940.

By the end of August, 2 million people had volunteered to join the Volunteers, something that no one had been expecting.

Before 14 May, no one had even thought about doing a home guard – it was a quick response to the crisis in France and, you could argue, a pretty good one.

So what did Britain do? Well, because of its enormous global purchasing power, it bought rifles from the United States.

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You could argue that that was a sign of weakness, but you could also argue that it was a sign of strength: Britain had a problem and it could solve it immediately by just buying rifles somewhere else. By the end of August, job done; everyone had enough rifles.

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History Hit Podcast with James Holland