Second world war history

The misery of the Kindertransport children

On the night of 9 November 1938, across Germany and Austria, Jews were attacked and their synagogues and businesses set on fire. In the days that followed Kristallnacht, a scheme was put in place to save children from Nazi persecution. Known as the Kindertransport, it would, over the following ten months, bring 10,000 children to the UK.  The Kindertransport – the word refers both to the means of transport and to the overarching programme – has always been regarded as a symbol of British generosity towards those in peril and seeking asylum. But it was all rather more complicated, as Andrea Hammel sets out to show. There have been innumerable

The faked passports which saved countless lives in the second world war

In the summer of 1942, the Polish poet Władysław Szlengel made a detour into light verse with ‘The Passports’: ‘I would like to have a Uruguayan passport/ Oh, what a beautiful land it is/ How nice it must feel to be the subject/ Of the land called Uruguay…’ Successive quatrains hymned the joys of Paraguayan, Costa Rican, Bolivian and Honduran citizenship before the final stanza declared that it was only with one of these citizenships that ‘one can live peacefully in Warsaw’.  The joke was serious. Szlengel was a Jewish man living in the Warsaw ghetto; and as Roger Moorhouse’s absorbing new book describes, Latin American passports were, or could

The sheer tedium of life at Colditz

They say each generation needs its own biographies of Cleopatra, Joan of Arc and Napoleon, not just when more evidence is unearthed but because the lens through which we view character and motive changes. The same is true for the great set pieces of history. According to Ben Macintyre, the story of Colditz and its second world war POWs with their ‘moustaches firmly set on stiff upper lips, defying the Nazis by tunnelling out of a grim Gothic castle on a German hilltop’ has been unchanged and unchallenged for more than 70 years. In his latest page-turner, Macintyre includes the stories of those heroes who were not straight, white, moustachioed

The nondescript house that determined the outcome of the second world war

Sometimes the struggle for a single small strongpoint can tip the whole balance of a greater battle. One thinks of the closing of the gates of Hougoumont farm at Waterloo, or the bloodless German seizure of Fort Douaumont at Verdun – an error it took an estimated 100,000 French lives to reverse. According to Iain MacGregor, this role at Stalingrad was played by a non-descript four-storey building in the city’s central district, codenamed ‘the Lighthouse’, but subsequently known as ‘Pavlov’s House’, after one of its garrison’s leaders, Sergeant Yakov Pavlov. MacGregor’s meticulously researched narrative of the titanic battle that was the turning point of the second world war focuses on

More stirring stories of little ships

‘I found this story by accident,’ begins Julia Jones’s Uncommon Courage, referring to documents belonging to her late father that she discovered in a far corner of her attic. True, but also false. This is not one story: it is a tsunami of stories. Sometimes it’s hard going, as you try to shelve the curiosity aroused by each tale. But the author writes with vim and vigour and with her own curiosity to the fore. It is all, appropriately, as far from dry as one could wish. The imagination finds it difficult to yoke yachting with war – the one solitary and pacific, the other dense with people and mayhem

Operation Chariot succeeded because it was unthinkable

Eighty years ago, just after midnight on 28 March 1942, the British destroyer HMS Campbeltown crept up the estuary of the River Loire towards the heavily defended port of St Nazaire. Here lay an immense dry dock, the only facility on the west coast of France that German battleships such as the ferocious Tirpitz could use if they needed repair. Destroy the dock, and Tirpitz would be unable to sortie against the Atlantic convoys supplying Britain. The only way to do that, however, was to wreck the lock gate at the entrance. And that meant filling a ship with explosives, ramming it into the gate and blowing the whole lot

Has the role of resistance in the second world war been exaggerated?

When in 1941 Winston Churchill famously declared that the newly formed Special Operations Executive, set up to encourage resistance movements, would ‘set Europe ablaze’, neither he nor anyone else could have known the extent of the help the partisans would provide to the liberation of the continent. Nor, indeed, did anyone envisage the fact that not all of them would prove as biddable to Allied wishes as they hoped. As Halik Kochanski shows in her compendious book on the six-year underground war, resisters came in all shapes and sizes, not easily controlled or corralled into categories. She divides her survey into three periods. The first runs from March 1939 and

Why did Britain lock up so many innocent refugees in 1940?

Despite prostrate Germany’s need for the return of its men, in Britain we didn’t release our prisoners of war until 1948. In Russia — for those who survived — freedom came even later, in the 1950s; an apparent lack of moral equivalence saw the subject conveniently ignored until recently. Likewise, in a country that thrives on retelling wartime tales of derring-do, Britain has been slow to examine the complex story behind its internment of ‘enemy aliens’, the vast majority of whom were Jewish refugees. The horror of the Nazi concentration camps helped contribute to the silence on the subject post-1945, but, as Simon Parkin argues in The Island of Extraordinary

Father Christmas battles through the Blitz

When the shrill air raid sirens blared their familiar warning cries over the city at 6.01 p.m. on 29 December 1940, Londoners thought they knew what was coming. Life under siege had taken on a strange sense of normality. They had been bombed systematically by the Luftwaffe for months and fully expected this to resume with ferocity after a brief lull over the Christmas period. But the events that unfolded that night would bring horrors on an entirely new scale. The 136 bomber planes that swooped down from the sky and dropped their high explosives and 22,000 incendiaries onto the capital were intent on creating an inferno. It worked. The

Spitfires of the sea: the secret exploits of the Royal Navy’s 15th Motor Gun Boat Flotilla

Fast boats and fast women have been the ruin of many a poor boy. But they can also prove a triumphant mix, as the wartime exploits of the Royal Navy’s 15th Motor Gun Boat Flotilla, described in Tim Spicer’s highly enjoyable book, show. An under-cover unit run during the second world war by the Secret Intelligence Service, it used sleek 110ft motor launches to ferry agents and supplies between England and France. Leaving Dartmouth in the late afternoon, their mission was to race across 100 miles of Channel, evade German patrol boats, navigate the rocks and tidal races of the Brittany coast to a pinpoint spot under the noses of

How Churchill’s success hinged on a small Mediterranean island

If you can tell the difference between Jack Hawkins and John Mills, and between a Stuka and a Sten gun, perhaps after long, wet afternoons watching black-and-white war films, this is the book for you. Max Hastings is a wily operator who knows exactly what his readers want and with Operation Pedestal he has produced it for them again. The latest book off the apparently unstoppable Hastings conveyor belt tells the dramatic story of one of the most ambitious and dangerous naval operations of the war, and tells it well. Malta, an island slightly smaller than Birmingham, sits at the crossroads of the Mediterranean, 60 miles south of Sicily. A

The road to firebombing Tokyo was paved with good intentions

In the 1930s, a group of American airmen had a dream. Air power, they believed, would do away with the need for armies and navies. The aeroplanes of the future would be able to drop bombs so accurately that there would be no need to kill soldiers in their millions: a handful of strikes on a few key factories would be enough to cripple an enemy’s economy and force them to sue for peace. It did not take long for this dream to turn sour. When the second world war broke out, the Americans soon discovered that their precision bombing was not nearly so precise when they were being shot

Why did Hitler’s imperial dreams take Stalin by surprise?

The most extraordinary thing, still, about Operation Barbarossa is the complete surprise the Wehrmacht achieved. In the early hours of 22 June 1941 the largest invasion force in history, ultimately some three million men, struck at the Soviet Union on a front of nearly 2,000 miles. When Stalin was woken with the news, he wouldn’t believe it. It couldn’t be Hitler’s doing, he insisted; surely just sabre-rattling by Wehrmacht generals? Hours passed before he would accept his calamitous misjudgments and issue a general order to fight back by every means. Hitler’s strategic challenge in the late 1930s had been essentially the same as the Kaiser’s in 1914: how to make

Stalin as puppet master: how Uncle Joe manipulated the West

Of the two dictators who began the second world war as allied partners in crime but ended it in combat to the death, there is no doubt who has received more attention from historians and in the popular imagination. So much so, indeed, that the conflict is often labelled ‘Hitler’s War’. In this unashamedly revisionist account, the American academic historian Sean McMeekin asserts that we have been looking at the war through the wrong end of the telescope. The tyrant who, while not launching the conflict, took advantage of the circumstances that it presented at every turn, and certainly ended up by winning it, he says, was the man he

Break-out and betrayal in Occupied Europe

Für dich, Tommy, ist der Krieg vorbei. However, many British servicemen, officers especially, didn’t want their war to be over. Or, at least, didn’t want to spend it in a PoW camp. One of the enduring myths of the second world war is that officers had a statutory obligation to escape, but nothing in King’s Regulations required it. Most just saw it as their duty to rejoin their units. The German military courts that tried escaping officers generally viewed it that way too. Besides escapers, there were those evading capture, particularly downed airmen. In December 1939 a special meeting of the Joint Intelligence Committee discussed how to help them. Present

Monuments to the second world war are looking increasingly dodgy

Most monuments are literally set in stone — or cast in bronze to better survive the weather. Being enduring, they arguably become ‘prisoners of history’, as this fascinating series of essays by Keith Lowe is titled. Conversely, perspectives are like the weather, constantly changing, as relationships between and within nations, and views on social and moral norms, shift over time, as we are seeing particularly at present. The inherent tension between the human desire for monumental permanence, especially after the upheaval of war, and the natural transience of social values, proves fertile ground for this examination of the lessons that can be drawn from second world war monuments around the

They took a lot of flak: the lives of the Lancaster bombers

Those of us who write occasionally about military aviation can only admire the compelling personal experience that John Nichol brings to his work. A heroic RAF navigator, he was shot down, captured and tortured by the Iraqis during the first Gulf War before his release at the end of the conflict. Since his retirement from the air force, he has become a successful author, writing five novels as well as an acclaimed, best-selling study of the Spitfire fighter. Now he turns his attention to a very different, but equally iconic, British plane: the Avro Lancaster bomber. Where the Spitfire was a dashing rapier, the Lancaster was a mighty broadsword. The

It’s still impossible for Horst Wächter to recognise his father as a Nazi war criminal

In 1926, while putting in place the repressive laws and decrees that would define his dictatorship, Mussolini appointed a new chief of police. Arturo Bocchini was 36, a lawyer and former prefect of Brescia, a cynical, vengeful, witty and corpulent Neapolitan. Under his 17-year tenure, fascist Italy became one of the most sinister and efficient police states of the years between the wars, with overlapping and rivalrous legal and illegal police bodies, fed by a vast army of informers and spies. Said to number around 10,000 at their peak, these men and women were to be found in every corner of Italian life, from the civil service to the Vatican,

The nightmare of Okinawa made Truman decide to use the atom bomb

The US operation of 1945 to take the island of Okinawa was the largest battle of the Pacific during the second world war. Seven US divisions were used in the operation, approximately half a million men, along with the entire US Pacific fleet of 1,457 ships. The initial assault was led by a landing force of 183,000, which brought with it 747,000 tons of cargo. It was, according to this superbly researched, well-written book, ‘the greatest air-land-sea battle in history’. The US side was led by Lieutenant General Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr, the son of a famous Confederate general. His opponent on Okinawa was Lieutenant General Mitsuru Ushijima, whose force

The Far East Campaign of 1941-5 is the new focus of Daniel Todman’s comprehensive history

To begin not at the beginning but at the end of the beginning. Or rather, to begin at another beginning, where Daniel Todman’s book ends. In January 1948, Clement Attlee’s foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, told the Commons that ‘the free nations of western Europe must now draw more closely together’, for western Europe was not just a geographic entity but a global presence: If we are to preserve peace and our own safety at the same time we can only do so by the mobilisation of such moral and material force as will create confidence and energy in the West and inspire respect elsewhere, and this means that Britain cannot