Posts Tagged ‘churchill’

Title: Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions That Changed The World (1940-41)
Author: Ian Kershaw
Genre: World War II, History, Politics

The series of events that marked the opening of the Second World War left most of the world in a state of shock. Suddenly it seemed almost anything was possible. For the aggressors there was no limit to what they could do; for their victims a new Dark Age seemed to beckon. Within this hurricane of events, small groups of individuals were faced with a huge range of decisions on which triumph or extinction could turn.

In this gripping book Ian Kershaw re-creates ten critical decisions taken between May 1940 (when Britain decided to fight on rather than surrender) & the autumn of 1941 (when Hitler decided to destroy Europe’s Jews). In London, Tokyo, Rome, Moscow, Berlin & Washington, politicians & generals, often working with very poor information & vast logistical, financial, economic & military problems, had to decide how they were going to exploit or combat the unfolding crisis. These decisions really did determine the future of the world.

Fateful Choices gives the reader an extraordinary sense both of the real constraints within which leaders worked but also of the role of personality: Churchill fighting on in the face of the catastrophe in France, Hitler ordering the invasion of the USSR despite Germany’s failure to defeat Britain, Stalin trusting Hitler & leaving his country wide open to Operation Barbarossa, Roosevelt realizing that the revolutionary idea of lend-lease could keep Britain fighting, the Japanese high command opting to attack the USA even in the face of evidence that it would fail.

Fateful Choices is a remarkable book that looks into the terrible heart of the modern age, & attempts to understand how decisions that changed or ended millions of lives really came about.

Read more about Sir Ian Kershaw @ Wikipedia


The London Blitz began on Saturday, September 7th, 1940, when the Luftwaffe shifted its focus from the RAF airfields it had been attacking & began bombing civilian London instead. On September 4th, in a major address at the Berlin Sportpalast, Hitler had excoriated the British for bombing Berlin & declared that the Germans would retaliate. “If the British air force drops 2,000, 3,000 or 4,000 kilograms of bombs,” the Führer told a wildly applauding crowd, “then we shall now in a single night drop 150,000, 180,000 & 320,000 kilograms of bombs & more.” Three days later, Hitler made good on his threat.

The Luftwaffe’s September 7th raid began in the late afternoon with the dropping of incendiary bombs. These munitions lit fires that, in turn, gave directional guidance to the squadrons of Heinkel & Dornier bombers that followed & pounded London all night. The all-clear wasn’t sounded until four-fifty the next morning.

Although British censors kept specific details of the bomb damage out of the press, the destruction was obviously extensive, especially in the East End, where most of London’s port facilities were located. Many of the bombs fell on dockworkers’ homes, killing several hundred. Nevertheless, this change in German strategy proved to be a costly mistake. Frustrated with the slow pace of the battle of Britain, Hitler & Luftwaffe chief Göring had concluded that savaging civilian targets would pressure the British public into compelling their leaders to sue for peace. Instead, the terror bombing merely deepened British resolve, & far worse, gave something of a reprieve to the hard-pressed RAF, whose losses had been nearing a critical point.

Whether or not continued bombing of the RAF bases would have won the Battle of Britain is a debatable matter; it quickly became clear; however, that the bombing of civilian targets – targets of questionable strategic value – wasn’t going to win anything, at least not in the short term. Two heavy German raids on September 15th, for example, resulted in such damaging losses for the Luftwaffe that Hitler & Göring decided that their efforts to destroy RAF Fighter Command had failed. Without air supremacy, of course, there could be no invasion, so on September 17th, Hitler postponed Operation Sea Lion indefinitely. The bombing of London continued; however, & in November Göring extended the campaign to Coventry & other cities in the industrial Midlands.

In all, Churchill made five trips to Paris to stiffen Reynaud’s resolve during the battle for France, but he was never able to give Reynaud what the French leader most wanted: use of Britain‘s remaining fighter squadrons. Churchill knew that if Britain were to carry on alone after the fall of France, it would have to rely upon its navy & the Atlantic lifeline to America. Yet the Royal Navy couldn’t possibly bear up under such a stain unless the Royal Air Force (RAF) also completed effectively for control of the skies.

After France’s defeat, a euphoric Hitler assumed that Britain, now isolated, would submit as well. Yet Churchill surprised the Führer by rebuffing several peace initiatives made through neutral countries, & Hitler instead went to work on a British invasion plan, code-named Operation Sea Lion.

The chief problem that the German planners encountered was that they couldn’t transport large enough armies across the English Channel: The German navy had neither enough troopships to carry sufficient men & equipment, nor enough warships to protect such a fleet, even if one could be assembled. However, eager to shift the focus elsewhere, naval commander in chief Erich Raeder pointed out that, given any invasion scenario, air supremacy over the Channel would be vital. Therefore, while the naval planning continued, Hitler ordered the Luftwaffe chief Hermann Göring to eliminate the RAF.

Goring accepted this task with his usual confidence, bordering on braggadocio. Wiping out the RAF’s Fighter Command wouldn’t be a problem, he told the Führer; in fact, Göring believed that his medium-range Heinkels, Dorniers & Junkers could likely bomb the British into submission without any invasion. The first phase of his air operations over the Channel began on July 10th, focusing primarily on British shipping lanes & thus rarely engaging the RAF. On August 8th; however, the Luftwaffe began attacking the RAF’s southern fighter bases in earnest, marking the start of the Battle of Britain.

As the Germans soon learned; however, the British had several key technological advantages. The Hurricanes & Spitfires that they had been stockpiling since 1937, for example, could outperform most of the German fighters; & the new British radar, which had only recently become operational, now provided the RAF with reliable advanced warning of all incoming German planes. Thus the Luftwaffe could not use surprise, as it had in France, to destroy countless Allied aircraft on the ground.

Guderian’s breakthrough at Sedan on May 13th seriously unnerved the French government. At 7:30 in the morning on May 15th, Premier Paul Reynaud awoke Churchill with the desperate news, “We are beaten. We have lost the battle. The road to Paris is open.” Reynaud then confessed that he was considering giving up the fight, but Churchill was able to calm him down, & the next day the British prime minister flew to Paris to meet with Reynaud, Daladier (then defense minister), & General Maurice Gamelin, the French commander in chief.

Gamelin had so badly underestimated the threat posed by Germany’s Panzer divisions that two days after this meeting with Churchill, he was dismissed. Reynaud replaced him with General Maxime Weygand, another aging hero of the First World War, & also brought into his government as vice premier eighty-four-year-old Philippe Pétain (so that the French might be inspired by the memory of Pétain’s courageous defense of Verdun). However, neither Weygand nor Pétain believed that the German offensive could be stopped, & Pétain even used his new position to lobby quietly for a separate peace.

As best he could, Weygand established a new defensive line along the Somme & Aisne Rivers, but with only sixty-one weakened divisions, few tanks, & no permanent fortifications, it simply couldn’t hold. On June 5th, the Germans threw ninety-five divisions against the “Weygand line,” which broke quickly, allowing German armor – flanked by hundreds of Stuka dive-bombers – to speed south nearly at will. On June 10th, Reynaud’s government fled to the French capital for Tours (& later Bordeaux), after which Paris was declared an open city so that it might be spared the torture suffered previously by Warsaw & Rotterdam. The Germans marched in on June 14th.

In Bordeaux, Reynaud wanted to continue fighting from France’s colonies in North Africa, but Pétain & Weygand – along with a majority of the cabinet – insisted on an armistice. Therefore, on June 16th, Pétain replaced Reynaud & early the next morning sued for peace. On June 21st, determined to humiliate the French, Hitler accepted their surrender in the same railway car near Compiègne – removed from a museum for the occasion – in which the Germans had capitulated at the end of World War I. The terms of the armistice, dictated by Hitler, provided for German occupation of the northern two-thirds of France, the remainder of the country to be governed by a new French authoritarian regime led personally by Pétain & headquartered in the southern spa city of Vichy.

The initial American military response to Churchill’s plan for a second front in North Africa was firmly negative. On July 11th, 1942, less than three weeks after the prime minister’s visit to Washington, army chief of staff Marshall & navy chief of staff Ernest J. King recommended to the president that he “assume a defensive attitude toward Germany, & use all available means in the Pacific” should the British insist on “any other operation rather than forceful, unswerving adherence to full Bolero plans.”

Roosevelt; however, had no intention of abandoning his “Europe first” strategy & immediately sent the two chiefs to London to work things out with the British. When Churchill proved adamant, Marshall & King, following Roosevelt’s instructions, acceded to the North African landing, now code-named Torch.

If the two chiefs of staff were perturbed by the shelving of Bolero, their agitation was niggling compared to Soviet premier Joseph Stalin’s outrage. In the wake of the PQ 17 disaster, Churchill had already halted the Arctic convoys, & now the second front in France that had been promised for 1942 was also disappearing. Meanwhile, the Germans were once again on the move, advancing on Stalingrad & punishing the Soviets, who continued to bear by far the heaviest part of the fighting against Hitler. Unless the British & Americans became more actively involved & soon, Churchill feared, Stalin might well choose to seek a separate peace. Therefore, the British prime minister decided to visit the Soviet leader personally & use his considerable diplomatic talents to improve, as best he could, Stalin’s morale.

During his subsequent journey to Moscow, Churchill contemplated how he might mollify “this sullen, sinister Bolshevik state I had once tried so hard to strangle at its birth.” In the end, there was little he could do. As he noted later, “Stalin observed that from our long talk it seemed that all we were going to do was no Sledgehammer, no Roundup, & pay our way by bombing Germany.” The RAF had indeed intensified its area-bombing campaign during 1942, but this was hardly equivalent to the Soviet contribution & did nothing to distract the Nazis from their onslaught in the East. “Peering into that Kremlin gloom in August 1942,” David M. Kennedy has written, “some historians have discerned the first shadows of the Cold War. Certainly the Soviets at this point had ample reason to doubt their Western partners.”


We pull out in the morning for the invasion of Sicily, I think it will be a pretty bloody show… I doubt that I will be killed or even wounded, but one can never tell. It is all a question of destiny.

General George S. Patton, letter to his wife Beatrice, July 9th, 1943

At a meeting in Casablanca, western Morocco, in January 1943, Churchill had persuaded Roosevelt that, after North Africa, they should attack the “soft underbelly” of EuropeSicily. However, in an elaborate deception, a body in a Royal Marine uniform was dropped in the waters of Spain with papers suggesting the attacks would be on Sardinia. The Spanish handed the papers to the Germans, who were taken in by the ruse. Hitler ordered the strengthening of fortifications on Sardinia & Corsica. A panzer division was sent to Greece & two more withdrawn from the Soviet Union, immediately before the conflict at Kursk.


On July 10th, 1943, at 05:00 hours, Montgomery’s Eighth Army & General Patton’s Seventh Army landed on the southern shores of Sicily to find the island’s defenders were drawn up along the north shore, facing Sardinia. They knew an attack was coming. For a month, their defenses had been pounded by 4,000 Allied planes. In response, the defenders could put up just 200 Italian & 320 German planes, & much of the island’s infrastructure, including its airfields, had been wiped out. Even so, the landings were nearly a disaster. Axis aircraft had spotted the Allied fleet leaving Malta. The fleet was hit by a storm, nearly forcing it to turn back. In the heavy weather, the defenders dropped their guard, but high winds took their toll on the invading airborne troops, blowing its gliders & parachutists out to sea to their deaths. Those that landed on the island were widely dispersed. Nevertheless, they succeeded in harassing enemy movements, & 100 British airborne troops took a vital bridge on the coastal road & held it for five days until the Eighth Army arrived.


At dawn on July 10th, the coastal defenses were pounded by tactical aircraft & naval gunfire. Then a fleet of 2,590 ships, including 237 troop transports & 1,742 landing craft, began putting ashore 115,000 British & Canadian troops, & 66,000 Americans. Facing them were the 230,000 men & 150 guns of the Italian Sixth Army & two panzer divisions. The Italian coastal force put up a heroic defense but was virtually wiped out. The following morning the Panzers ran into the forward posts of the First American Division, but they came under fire from six Allied destroyers & the cruisers Savannah & Boise, who knocked out 30 German tanks. The Italian “Livorno” Division was also badly mauled. Meanwhile, the British Eighth Army occupied the ports of Augusta & Syracuse in the southeast without a shot being fired, because their garrisons had already been evacuated. On July 14th, the airfields at Comiso & Ragusa in southern Sicily were taken & rapidly put back into commission.


The Allied dash was then on for Messina, the crossing point to mainland Italy. Once Messina was taken, the enemy would be trapped on the island & forced to surrender, but Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, now the German commander in Italy, preempted them. He sent in another Panzer division & General Hans Hube took over command of all German fighting forces in Sicily.

Montgomery’s dash for Messina was stopped at Catania by stiff defense, halfway up the east coast. He then turned inland, switching his attack to the west of Mount Etna. But this move stepped on the Americans’ toes. Patton pushed westward & captured Sicily’s capital, Palermo, on July 22nd, 1943. He then began his own dash on Messina along the north coast. But Hube stopped him at the small town of Santo Stefano, halfway down the coastal road. Meanwhile, the First Canadian Division pushed northwest, confining German defenders to the northeast corner of the island. The British were now landing the 78th Division at Syracuse, while the American Ninth Division landed at Palermo. This increased the Allies’ strength to 11 divisions. Totally outnumbered, Hube pulled back.


On the night of July 24th, Mussolini told the Grand Council of Fascists that the Germans were thinking of evacuating southern Italy. Hitler was clearly more interested in defending Germany than Italy &, after the reverses on the Eastern Front, some members of the Grand Council believed that his defeat was inevitable. Their priority was to prevent Italy from becoming a battleground. They voted against Mussolini, who was arrested & imprisoned at Campo Imperatore, high in the Abruzzi mountains. Meanwhile, the new Italian government, led by Marshal Pietro Badoglio, began secret peace talks with the Allies, while assuring the Germans that they were doing nothing of the sort. After the fall of Mussolini, Kesselring was ordered by Hitler to withdraw from Sicily. The Strait of Messina was bristling with anti-aircraft guns & Hube managed to get two-thirds of his force across to the Italian mainland before, at 08:30 hours on August 17th, 1943, the British & Americans met in the ruins of Messina, leaving just two miles of clear water between the Allied Army & the mainland. The invasion of Sicily cost 5,532 Allied dead, 14,410 cruisers damaged. The Italians lost 4,278 dead & the Germans 4,325. The Allies had taken 132,000 prisoners, along with 520 guns & 260 tanks.


After winning the race for Messina, “Old Blood & Guts” Patton snatched disaster from the jaws of triumph. Visiting the Allied wounded, he slapped two shell-shocked enlisted men, accusing them of cowardice. The press was outraged, but Eisenhower refused to sack him, saying: “Patton is indispensable to the war effort – one of the guarantors of our victory.” However, Patton was forced to apologize & was ordered to remain behind in Palermo when the Allies invaded Italy. The final blow came when he heard that General Omar Bradley had been chosen to lead the US land forces in the invasion of Normandy.

From The Story Of A World At War: World War II, by Nigel Cawthorne