Category Archives: WWII
As I write, world leaders are gathering in a European Union country to remember the arrival, 75 years ago, of the Red Army at the gates of Auschwitz to discover a horror unique in the annuls of our tortured species.
Using the tools which a newly industrialised world had created, one of its present member states had set about the extermination of an entire people.
It would be wrong to say that the state in question was unaware of the evil it was perpetrating, as it tried every means possible to hide what it was doing. What it did believe fervently was that, in the fullness of time, when the world woke up to the fact that the twelve million Jews of Europe had vanished, it would ‘applaud the courage’ of the country that had risen to the challenge and done the unthinkable.
What warped form of logic could ever make an otherwise cultured people harbour such thoughts? The answer is simple. If a criminal gang gains control of a country and spends two decades reigniting ancient hatreds using all the means of modern propaganda and pseudo-science, an entire people can be brought to the edge of madness.
Right up to the advent of Hitler, Germany was no more anti-Semitic than any other country in Europe (actually less so than many). Jews fought with distinction for the Kaiser, gaining hundreds of Iron Crosses. They considered themselves safe and at home and loved their Fatherland, the birthplace of Goethe, Beethoven and Schiller.
Had a similar criminal gang gained control of another European country – at a time of acute economic distress and political humiliation following the vengeful Versailles Treaty – and employed the same brainwashing techniques as did the Nazis, that country would have ended up the same. We have only to look at North Korea today to see what brainwashing can achieve.
Two things allowed Nazi Germany to take matters to their logical conclusion. The first was the astonishing rapidity and breadth of its conquests; the second was its industrial might and legendary efficiency.
Only a large and advanced state would have the means to embark on such a programme, and within every country there are people in a criminal class willing to do the really merciless work. So complete and fixated was the determination of the monsters who drove that programme that, even as their resources were stretched to the limit on the battlefield, they still were prepared to risk defeat than redeploy enormous Holocaust resources to the front and perhaps save the day.
Genocides have been a regular feature of our benighted species, but none have so scarred our conscience as that which ended seventy-five years ago. Thankfully, it can never happen again. Our 24/7 news cycle, cameras in every pocket and inability to prevent whistle-blowers and email leaks will make any such repeat effort impossible to conceal from the world.
Following the award-winning movie on Dunkirk last summer, another blockbuster is to be released on 12th January concerning those testing days for Britain. Called ‘Darkest Hour’, it provides an account of the chaotic and emotional cabinet scenes that surrounded the calls for a negotiated peace with a triumphant, and seemingly unstoppable, Hitler.
In the long period of the 1930s, the appeasers had very largely held the floor. From the top echelons of the political establishment, only the siren warnings of Churchill had interrupted their narrative. Now, in the spring of 1940, Western Europe was ablaze with the British army in headlong retreat and its mighty French ally on the point of collapse. In all of Britain’s long history, no direr situation had ever confronted it. Both Philip II of Spain and Napoleon has posed just as great a risk of invasion, and historians are all agreed that, in both cases, their armies, once landed, would have been successful. But the regimes imposed would have been pussycats compared to the one which a Hitlerite Germany would have delivered, had it been obliged to fight its way into Britain.
Only one man stood out as having the credentials to lead the nation in a government of national unity. Churchill – for all his many flaws – had, since Hitler’s ascent to power seven year earlier, stridently warned of the ‘gathering storm’. He had called for rearmament and condemned the Munich Agreement it as an ‘unmitigated defeat’ for the democracies. It was now patently clear that he was right. Moreover, he alone had held ministerial rank during the previous war. As such, he was acceptable to both opposition parties whereas the prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, and his foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, were not. Neither were deemed credible as war leaders. What was not known – and this is what the movie seeks to make clear – was how very close Britain came to choosing a different path from the one it did. I want to argue that from Britain’s point of view, and indeed the world’s, it chose the wrong path.
Timing is everything. In May 1940, Churchill has luck on his side – even the weather. Fortuitously, as it turned out, he was right to argue passionately that his country should fight on. But he was only just right because, at that time, Britain stood in the gravest danger of losing its entire army on the beaches of Dunkirk. Without it and its French ally, it would almost certainly have been obliged to sue for peace. Even in those circumstances, as I have argued in previous writings, Hitler would have granted what the world would have perceived as an honourable peace. He had no quarrel with Britain and saw war with it as a distraction from his main purpose: the defeat of the Soviet Union. He even admired Britain’s conquests around the world.
Yet by fighting on at that stage, two stunning results were delivered and they strengthened Britain’s arm immeasurably. The first was the miraculous rescue of its all but doomed army, and the second was the defeat of the Luftwaffe over the skies of southern England. Together, they placed Britain in an altogether stronger position vis-à-vis the Nazi juggernaut. Its high command knew at that point that the option of defeating Britain in the short term had been lost. Remaining in its rear would be an enemy with a dagger always at its back. This was the opportunity Britain should have seized.
Britain’s best interests would undoubtedly have been served by negotiating a deal. It would have been a deal between equals, with Germany triumphant on land and Britain equal in the air and, as ever, triumphant at sea. Minus the air, almost an exact parallel could be drawn with Philip’s army in the Low Countries and Napoleon’s at Boulogne.
But with the passage of time – perhaps three years – Britain would have been able to defeat Hitler, and without even the entry of the United States into the war. Immense bloodshed would have been avoided as a result of a much earlier end to the war. Most of the killing outside of Russia took place in its final phases. During that time, of course, the Soviet Union would have been utterly defeated by the Nazis, who came within a whisker of total defeat anyway. With peace in his rear, Hitler would have felt safe to turn his whole war machine against the enemy in the East. Communism would have been destroyed and Central and Eastern Europe spared what happened to it during the years of the Cold War. China, too, would have been spared the horrors of Mao.
The means by which Britain could have defeated the Third Reich unaided was with the atomic bomb. In 1939, when the war broke out, Britain was the most advanced country in the world in nuclear physics. It even had its own atomic weapons programme, codenamed “Tube Alloys”, years before the American Manhattan Project. At this point, Britain was still an immensely rich country with vast overseas holdings, despite all the asset sales of the previous war against Germany.
People will argue that, despite our initial lead, Americans got there first with the atomic bomb. Yes, indeed! But that was because Britain chose to fight Hitler when it did. Had it conserved its wealth and industrial capacity – during what would have amounted to a phoney peace – it could have resumed and accelerated the Tube Alloys programme: a project even further removed from the prying eyes of the Reich than the Manhattan Project in the deserts of New Mexico. Australia would have been the perfect testing ground, as it proved later when Britain did eventually develop and test its own bomb in 1952.
It was principally the gigantic financial and industrial effort needed to create Britain’s vast bomber fleets, along with the warships, tanks and other paraphernalia of war, that robbed Britain of the capacity to take on another major project such as this. It was with government approval, given at the Quebec Conference between Britain and America, that its nuclear physicists decamped en masse to its ally to pursue the work there. Until quite late in the day, the US had shown little interest in the explosive potential of the atomic bomb. It cannot be denied that, had it prioritised the lead it had enjoyed pre-war, Britain would have got to the bomb first.
What would have been the benefit to Britain of a phoney peace of the sort Stalin made with Hitler while it raced ahead to be the sole possessor of the bomb? Well, it would have dictated the post-war peace. Communism would have been eradicated from the world and Britain’s status as a great power preserved or even enhanced. For a period, at least, Britain would have resumed its former position of top dog. It would have avoided bankruptcy and heavy military losses. Although its empire would, in the fullness of time, have been wound down, it would not have happened so precipitously. Its peoples would have had more opportunity to develop fully functioning civic and democratic processes.
During the phoney peace with Hitler, Britain would have been in a position to increase massively its military presence in the Far East and given Imperial Japan pause for thought before confronting it and the United States. Indeed, Japan has admitted that it was only the hugely successful raid by the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm on the Italian fleet, as it lay at anchor in Taranto, that emboldened it to believe that it could do much the same at Pearl Harbour. That raid is unlikely to have taken place under the scenario I have outlined. Although ultimately defeated, the humiliations which Japan heaped on Western powers during its six-month rampage through the Pacific destroyed the previous aura of white invincibility and brought about over-hasty rushes to independence. An informed guess would be that fifty- or seventy-five years might have passed before the colonial handovers eventually did take place. We might now be seeing Prince Charles or William globe-trotting the world performing the flag lowering ceremonies.
It is also fair to say that the Holocaust, itself, could well have been avoided. There were no plans to liquidate Jewry in its entirety while Hitler was winning the war. Other solutions were sought, such as shipment to Madagascar or resettlement beyond the Urals as slave labour. Only a mad belief that the power of international Jewry had brought about the war, and that if he was going to go down he would take Jewry with him, fuelled Hitler’s fanaticism into outright genocide. He never seems to have asked himself why, if international Jewry was so over-achingly powerful, it proved so utterly helpless to protect its own when he began his persecutions and eventual descent into genocide. Had the war ended sooner, and he been allowed meantime to conquer the whole of the Soviet Union before he himself faced sudden Armageddon, that terrible blot on humanity might never have happened.
It will be argued by some that there was no guarantee that the bomb would ever work. To that I would counter that a large majority of scientists, including Einstein, were confident it would. There was certainly more chance of it working than ever there was of Britain winning the war on its own without it, and that was the starkness of the choice faced by the war cabinet at that time. Perhaps, in the circumstances, and with the dice so heavily loaded against them, they were irresponsible to take the gamble they did. After all, it was a nation’s very existence they were there to consider. In the event, victory did eventually come, but it came at a terrible cost.
All in all, a powerful case can be made for the alternative narrative: the one which would have bought Britain time, rather than the one that actually did win the day during those heated and emotional exchanges in May 1940. The outcome, in my view, might now be a calmer, happier world than the one we see around us.
Amidst all the who-ha over Ken Livingstone’s assertions about Hitler being a Zionist, one thing seems to have escaped the commentariat: he appears to be absolving Hitler from responsibility for the crimes committed after his election success in 1932. He does so by claiming that “Hitler supported Zionism” in 1932 “before going mad” following his entirely legal and success pursuit of power. The clear implication here is that we must accept that Hitler didn’t know what he was doing when he launched World War II or secretly ordered the lethal eradication of European Jews.
Across the entire world it is accepted that an insane person cannot be held responsible for his or her actions, however heinous. To be culpable, humanity has long held the view that a person must know the distinction between right and wrong – goodness and evil. That is why, also, there is a limit in a child’s case of criminal responsibility (in our case 10 years of age). If Livingstone is to be believed, even if we had captured Hitler we could not have put him on trial because he was a victim of a diseased mind. He was crazy. Perhaps Livingstone has convinced himself that the enormity of what Hitler did is in itself proof positive that he was mad. If that yardstick were to be applied more generally, then we were wrong to put Serbia’s tyrant, Slobodan Milosevic, on trial. Such a yardstick would also have excused Pol Pot of Cambodia and just about any other tyrant who ever lived.
The fact is that Hitler was the leader of a criminal gang of misfits who knew perfectly well what they were doing. Look no further than their efforts to conceal their murder of the Jews. This tells you that they knew what they were doing was wrong. Indeed, not one single paper relating to the Holocaust bares Hitler’s signature. All was communicated to his underlings verbally. This great and meticulous nation of record keepers kept no record of the biggest crime in human history. Livingstone’s own crime is to act as an apologist for such a man as Hitler.
Amidst all the ballyhoo of this incredible election we are in danger of not giving proper thought to an event which has shaped all our lives. Seventy years ago today saw an end to what Churchill called ‘the German War’. It was a war in which 50 million died – 20 million, let us never forget, Russian.
I have never regarded the Second World War as anything other than a continuation of the First, but with a 21-year interregnum. On 8th May 1945 the world was still far from at peace. Not yet vanquished were the fanatical Japanese. If our soldiers feared the last ditch fanaticism of the Nazis as they stormed across the Rhine into the enemy heartland, their fears were multiplied several fold as they considered the horrors of what awaited them on the beaches of Japan. Their naval comrades had already experienced a foretaste of what they could expect with the Kamikaze death flights into their ships.
As the great armies of the Western allies celebrated with their Russian allies in the West, they knew that an even more fearful test of their resolve awaited them in the East. Bloodletting on a scale hitherto unknown seemed guaranteed as they briefly enjoyed their moment of triumph in Europe before their embarkation to the other side of the world and a fresh clash of arms.
Their foe in this encounter did not abide by Western concepts of warfare and could, especially in defending their homeland, be expected to die to the last man and perhaps even woman. At that very moment, while the celebrations were continuing, British Empire forces were locked in mortal combat in the steaming jungles of Burma and south east Asia while their American allies were island-hopping ever closer in the Pacific to the Japanese mainland.
But far away in the deserts of New Mexico a secret project was being furiously fast tracked to its terrifying completion. It was a bomb of such enormous potential that a single one could lay waste an entire city. Millions of lesser bombs had fallen on the cities of the Reich, but still there were whole districts of them relatively unscathed. If it worked then even the suicidal Japanese – who at that moment were preparing for a ‘twilight of the gods’ – would bear what their emperor would later broadcast ‘the unbearable’ and surrender, rather than see their 2000-year-old civilisation wiped from the face of the earth.
In all the long march of humankind towards a better world, the stakes had never been higher. Terrible as the new weapon was, it would save those fearful young Western men who were even then preparing to board their ships, as it would also, ironically, save the Japanese themselves. (Though a quarter of a million of them would have to be sacrificed in the initial blast and its aftermath, it has been estimated that perhaps eight times that number would have perished on both sides before Japan could have been overcome by conventional means.) So while we are right to commemorate the end of the war in Europe, we must not forget the true end of the war, three month later.
This ‘true end’, as I call it has, in my view, the greater significance. This is because it really did achieve what many had, mistakenly, believed in the First World War to be: ‘The War to End Wars’. From the detonation of those two nuclear devices over Hiroshima and Nagasaki came a belief – rightly – that global war was no longer an option as it would escalate, inevitably, into a nuclear conflagration and with that the end of all human civilisation. In such a scenario there could be no winners and it is my belief that that it is this appreciation during the Cold War that kept it from becoming a hot one.
As for the reason I do not believe the two European wars to be separate wars, it is because certain powerful elements in Germany considered the outcome of the First World War unfinished business. It took only a charismatic demagogue like Hitler to fan the embers for a re-run. Even then it would have been unlikely to happen, but for the Wall Street Crash and the impoverishment and mass unemployment which struck Germany. Of all the advanced economies, Germany suffered by far the worst because its situation was dramatically worsened by the huge reparations it was forced to pay under the Versailles treaty.
Why those powerful elements in Germany considered the war unfinished business was because the Western allies did not press home their advantage when they finally broke the four-year impasse on the Western Front and went on to smash the, by then, retreating German army which was surrendering in droves. Heeding Ludendorff, the German commander – who had a breakdown – and his call for a cessation of hostilities (Armistice) the allies allowed the Kaiser’s high command to maintain the fiction that it had not been defeated in the field. Hitler, of course, was all too ready to encourage them in this misplaced belief and, more to the point, provide them with the tools to try once more. The rest is history.
Something exciting is happening among the paddy fields and jungles of distant Burma, that land of ‘On the Road to Mandalay’ and the hilarious sitcom ‘It Ain’t Half Hot Mum’ – with its bewhiskered sergeant major, played so memorably by Windsor Davis. Some say that in its own way it is as thrilling as the opening of Tutankhamen’s tomb, the greatest archaeological dig since that momentous discovery of Howard Carter’s in the Egyptian desert in 1922.
Whereas the treasures of the boy Pharaoh were of unknown quantity and value, this archaeological dig promises thirty-six items, each valued at £1.5m each and there are another twenty-four between two other locations, making a potential treasure trove of £60m. We are talking about sixty, boxed and never been opened, brand new Spitfires – that legendary victor of the Battle of Britain, the Mk XIV – the very latest version of the 20,000 built with their 2,000hp Rolls-Royce Merlin engines.
What, I hear you say, are they doing there in the sodden soil of equatorial Burma? And why, after 68 years in that steaming land, is it thought possible that they might take to the skies again rather than be rusted and corroded out and fit only for the knacker’s yard? Well, it is a tale of imperial endeavour, both heroic and resolute.
The war to expel the Japanese from Burma was entering its final phase after the bloody last effort of the Japanese to crash through the borders of India at Imphal and Kohima had failed. Sixty spanking new Spitfires had been sent to reinforce XIV Army Corps’ last push under its brilliant commander, Field Marshal Bill Slim, Britain’s finest general of WWII. The Forgotten Army’s thousand-mile slog southwards through the jungles, from the borders of India to Rangoon, the Burmese capital, was over. Now it was southwards again through more jungles for another thousand miles to Singapore for the liberation of Malaya – except it wasn’t necessary. The atom bomb brought a sudden end to the war in the Far East. The advent of this devastating weapon convinced even the fanatical Japanese that the game was up.
So what to do with the Spitfires? It might have been sensible to bring them home to face the growing Cold War threat of the communists in Europe. But the decision was taken to leave them in Burma. Why was this? And why do so strange a thing as to bury them? Planes – even small ones – take some burying. And besides, they would be useless in that climate when they were disinterred. Why not hanger them?
It all goes back to the decision to wind down the empire. But it was to be a tidy, gracious end – not like the French, Dutch Belgium and Portuguese who chose, unsuccessfully, to fight. We were determined to leave regimes in place which were well disposed to us – regimes we could bolster if the need arose. How better than to leave a stash of state-of-the-art fighters that we could come back and fly for them. But don’t tell the locals they are there or where they are located: they might be tempted to have fun with them after we are gone. The temptation would be great. Hangers are obvious; graves are not.
We were deeply worried at that time that the whole of the East would fall to communism. Chairman Mao was close to victory in his war in China and Ho Chi Minh was close to evicting the French from Indo-China. Communism, worldwide, seemed to be on a roll.
The fighters had arrived in Burma in kit form, ready for assembly. Strange as it may seem, I know a little about these crated fighters because my father, a major in The Royal West African Frontier Force based in Ghana (then the Gold Coast), was responsible for receiving crated fighters bound for Egypt and the Eighth Army – the Desert Rats – in its desperate battle to keep Rommel’s Afrika Korp from taking the Suez canal. The fighters were assembled, flown eastward to British Nigeria, refuelled and flown further east to British Sudan. There, after further refuelling, they headed north towards threatened Cairo. (The reason they were sent round the great bulge of Africa and not on the much shorter route through the Mediterranean straight to Egypt was because German and Italian submarines were inflicting heavy losses at that time.)
My father told me of his amazement when pretty girl pilots turned up to ferry the fighters on their long and hazardous route to Egypt. Britain was well ahead of her enemies in recognising the value of the fair sex in making total war possible and aiding the war effort. The process had begun twenty-one years earlier in the Great War when Britain’s womanhood – the genteel types we saw in Downton Abbey – manned the munitions factories, drove the buses and did just about everything while their men were away at the front. This, more than anything, made their case unanswerable when at war’s end they demanded equal rights.
But returning to the Burma dig, the £60 million question remains: will the extraordinary measures taken to protect the delicate aero engines and other parts from the fetid climate of that region have been sufficient? They were wrapped in special greaseproof paper and the whole lot greased up to the eyeballs. Then the crates, made from some of the toughest woods known to man (jungle hardwood) were close to hermetically sealed. Finally, it was decided to bury them at the extraordinary depth of forty-feet – beyond, it was hoped, anything that the elements could throw against them, and that included monsoon rains. Amazingly, not only was the whole operation conducted on a strictly
‘need to know’ basis of secrecy, so that not a single Burmese knew of the burials, but precious few Brits did either and all of these have died. The net result is that no one knows for sure where the precious cargo is hidden. The information – kept always on a highly restricted basis – has been lost now in the mists of time of a departing empire. But the word is that the locations are former British airfields and the firm which has secured a deal with the Burmese government to search and excavate has employed special hi-tech earth penetrating gear to pinpoint the cache. We must hope they are successful and that one day we may see a mass formation of Spitfires swoop down the Mall over Buckingham Palace and amaze the crowds. What a sight that would be.
While on the subject of digs it will not be long before we know the results of forensic tests on the ‘king under the car park’. If it proves to be Richard III, the last English king to die in battle, we will know if Shakespeare has poisoned Richard’s reputation over a five-hundred-year period. The record shows that Richard did many enlightened things during his short two-year reign, and if the skeleton shows only a mild deformity, as initial observations have indicated, then the Bard will have been shown to be a liar – a propagandist for the usurping Tudors. He has given the game away by that extraordinary and bizarre claim in his play Richard III that dogs barked when Richard passed by. A wonderful playwright, we will readily admit – arguably the world’s greatest – but a lousy historian.
I am delighted that after 67 years the nation has finally honoured the brave young men of Bomber Command who did their country’s bidding and died in such horrific numbers in the blackness of the night over occupied Europe. My own mother was made a widow in that campaign of hitting back at the enemy.
What must be remembered is that, after the evacuation at Dunkirk, we faced years of being marooned on our island with no way of being able to engage the enemy on the mainland of Europe while we rebuilt our army and readied ourselves to assault Hitler’s formidable Atlantic Wall.
What were we to do in this time? Allow Hitler to consolidate his hold over all the captured nations or disrupt it as best we could?
He had showed no qualms about using that new form of warfare – aerial warfare – to bomb our cities, and the jury was still out at that time as to whether it was possible to win a war entirely from the air. So it was not, in my view, immoral to send out our air fleets to see if this surgical solution was indeed possible. If we had won the war from the air, we certainly would have saved many of our soldiers’ lives from a bloody land campaign.
Although events later revealed that, until the arrival of the atomic bomb, you could not win a war without boots on the ground, the bombing campaign brought massive disruption to the German war machine; over a million men were tied down on home defense who would otherwise have been deployed on the Eastern Front and huge quantities of ordnance were similarly kept at home which also would have gone east. Indeed, 70% of their fighters alone had to stay to engage our bombers. It made the difference between Russia staying in the war or losing it, which it very nearly did anyway.
It can be convincingly argued, therefore, that the air campaign indirectly won the war by preventing the full might of Germany ever reaching Russia.
As well as having only 30% of its fighter force to engage the Russians, it had 50,000 fewer artillery pieces and much else besides. And then there was that massive morale booster: a symphony in the night skies played out over occupied Europe. In the eyes of its downtrodden peoples it beat anything Beethoven ever wrote; it was the sound of our bombers droning their way to the oppressor’s heartland. It was the one thing that gave them hope. It reminded them that a free people on the Atlantic seaboard of their continent remained unbowed and would one day bring them deliverance.
So when the establishment turned its shameless back on those brave young men (average age of 22) who were carrying out their orders so selflessly and stood a one in two chance of dying, it did a terrible thing.
The otherwise great Churchill must take a considerable share of the blame. In his speech after victory, when he lavished praise on every branch of the Armed Forces, he pointedly made no mention of those 55,000 dead bomber boys.
Now, at last, thanks to the pops stars Jim Dooley and Robin Gibb – bless them – the people, with their humble subscriptions, have had their say. The Ministry of Defence would not contribute a penny, nor has it to this day issued a campaign medal to this arm of the services who took by far, proportionately, the highest number of fatalities. Shameless, in fact, does not even begin to describe how they have behaved.
What, I have to ask myself, is the matter with our ministry? It refused also, through all those same years, to issue a medal to those heroes of the Arctic convoys who made what Churchill described as “the worst journey in the world” – worse even than that terrrible slog through the jungles of Burma to retake that country from the Japanese.
Our Ministry of Defence does not deserve such fighting men. Though it is penny pinching in looking after our boys – not even giving their families decent housing, and sending them into battle ill-equipped – it even argues the toss over piddlingly inexpensive medals.
And it can’t even get its procurement policies right, recently ratchetting up a black hole of debt that was almost as great as the annual defence budget.
The Ministry of Defence should be disbanded and started again with the top 10% of its echelon lopped off and not allowed to re-apply for their jobs.
I recently watched a BBC interview with Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor – a very rare event since she has only once before given an interview to the foreign media.
The interview represented a considerable feather in the cap of the BBC, further confirming its status as the world’s premier broadcaster.
The interviewer, Newsnight’s Gavin Esler, wanted to get inside the head of the person who will largely determine the future of the eurozone and, to some degree, the rest of the world.
The visual aspect of TV makes it very difficult for an interviewee to ‘fake it’; to pass himself off as someone else. His body language and emotions are often plain to see; and when his face occupies most of a 42″ screen in your living room, you feel you can almost look into his soul. TV greatly assists in our quest to sort out the wheat from the chav.
Merkel came over as a pleasant, but no-nonsense, woman – interested more in getting the job done than in sound bites. Astute as she was with thoughtful responses, she seemed genuine.
And there was more than a little guile there too (but you don’t get to lead the most powerful economy in Europe without a level of that).
It was not difficult to understand why she had taken a shine to our own prime minister – the polished, well-mannered product of England’s leading public school. She may even have fancied the younger man a little, or perhaps felt a tad motherly, seeing him as the archetypal English gentleman as opposed to the coarse, bling-loving French president who wants to smother her at every opportunity with Gallic kisses. The contrast is stark.
Cameron is a most courtly emissary from a fellow Teutonic power which, from early childhood, she had come to respect. Yet despite its bombing of large areas of her beloved homeland almost back to the Stone Age only a generation or two before, it is apparent that – in economic terms at least – Merkel regards Britain as a natural ally and one she is most unwilling either to offend or marginalise.
The BBC was right in picking Gavin Esler as the interviewer, since Paxo might have been too adversarial by adopting his characteristic ‘master inquisitor’ approach.
But what I really gleaned from the interview is an appreciation of the lengths to which Germany will go to save the single currency.
Up to now, Angela Merkel has, understandably, played hardball. The German taxpayer is not going to throw his money at profligate nations which show an unsatisfactory willingness to change their ways.
The Germans want a new economic order in Europe so that nations act responsibly in the future; and to this end they want robust systems in place in the form of a fiscal union.
Germany is not interested in imposing a German jackboot, but wants the whole exercise to be seen as a pan-European affair – even though a fiscal union would result in all 17 eurozone nations’ budgets being overseen by EU officials: a fact masked by a Byzantium-level of cunningness or ingenuity (call it what you will).
I came away from that interview convinced that the German political elite do not want a single member – not even Greece – to drop out of the eurozone. And when push comes to shove, they will do everything in their power to see that this does not happen. They see the loss of a single country as the trigger that will begin the unravelling of the entire single currency and, more than that, of the whole ‘European Project’ to which it is so utterly and irredeemably committed.
So now, it would seem, it is down to the individual eurozone member states to do what is necessary. Only time will tell whether the eurozone’s peripheral countries’ impoverished citizens will – or even can – stay the course.
Pain levels in Greece – and now, more alarmingly, Spain – are at breaking point. A pistol shot to the head outside the Greek Parliament of a 77-year-old retired pharmacist has a terrible resonance with that pistol shot long ago at Sarajevo which set in motion the chain of events which led to the First World War.
Germany has to understand that PIGS’ (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain) citizens can take little more pain. While it was necessary to start the austerity drive and change PIGS’ spending habits, it is clear that austerity alone is fast becoming counter-productive.
If Germany wishes them to hold on, she must give them hope – and this can only mean a plan not just for cuts, but for growth. She must put together and spearhead a new Marshall Plan of aid – such as saved Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War.
Germany does not wish to be cast as the villain all over again; the one who did wrong by Europe for a third time, only now by economic, rather than military, might.
Now that we have all come to understand that we must stop living beyond our means, and that the social model we have developed is unsustainable, we are in a position to go forward.
Only by means of growth and a smaller state sector have we a chance of paying down our debt.
Fearful and envious as we may be of the developing countries – and that includes the oil producers – they are as one in wanting us to succeed; for if we go down the pan, we are as likely as not to drag them down with us – and they know this.
They might even feel that it is in their interest to involve themselves in such a rescue plan. But they will not do so if they see north Europe, and in particular the Germans, sitting on a pot of gold but refusing to use it to kick start their own salvation.
God, as they say, helps those who help themselves.
It used to be said that when America sneezed, Europe caught a cold. Now it’s the other way round, except that Europe has done a great deal more than sneezed; it’s almost taken to its bed. The reason for this is that Europe today is, despite appearances – the world’s economic powerhouse. It has on the way to twice America’s population and accounts for well over 40% of the world’s trade. But it has mismanaged its affairs to the point where the markets have had enough.
We must not blame the markets; they are only a reflection of how the guardians of our pension funds and insurance companies view future prospects. It is their job to identify risk and so protect people’s savings. They do not worry about the Scandinavians, Swiss, Dutch, Germans, or even us (now that we are in the process of balancing our budget and bringing our deficit under control). What they look for are not fine words and good intent – welcome as they are – but action.
They have seen it from us, but they have not been getting it in any meaningful way from Europe. From bestriding the world like a colossus in the lifetime of people still alive (not many, admittedly), Europe has seen its position twice destroyed by the two German wars.
The European Project was designed to ensure that this never happened again. For 50 years, Europe has painstakingly climbed back on its feet. Its people realised that old style nationalism was not the way forward, and today it is a beacon of cooperation and prosperity admired around the world. But all this is now threatened. Ruin, recrimination and bad – if not spilt – blood faces the continent unless it acts fast and decisively
It is to Europe’s great good fortune that it has one economy big enough and strong enough to silence the markets. But the leaders of that economy must step up to the plate. While we all understand why Germany is so paranoiac about printing money, no extra notes are actually printed – it’s just an electronic exercise in today’s world. And that is the point.
Today’s world is very different from the financial circumstances which brought Hitler to power. First, we now know that beggar thy neighbour, protectionist policies are counterproductive. Second, we are a much more joined up, globalised world, with powerful computers assisting our fragile brain capacities. Third, there are the great institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF, the World Trade Organisation, G20, and many, many more which were not in place when Germany’s Weimar Republic wrestled with its horrendous problems. (Not the least of these were the foolish and ruinous Reparations imposed by the victorious Allies in the Versailles Treaty). So Germany can take a more relaxed view today.
While it is important to learn the lessons of history, it is equally important not to be spooked by them. Germany has an historic opportunity to save Europe which its previous militarism helped to destroy. Germany must realise that if its fears and parsimoniousness allow the Euro to collapse, it will be among the greatest losers; its export-dependent economy would reel under the weight of a super valued Deutschmark. Nobody would be able to afford its goods. And that’s another thing! Nobody has benefited more from the reasonably priced Euro than have the Germans.
Poor, benighted Greece, (along, I might add, with the rest of us) has indulged itself on German products and that’s part of the reason it owes so much. There’s an irony in there somewhere, surely. Another irony is that this crisis has ended a British foreign policy which has been central to it for 500 years – even propelling it into any number of pre-emptive wars – never to allow a continental power bloc to develop which would overshadow us.
When our Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer urge Germany forward into a fiscal union, of which we will not be part, they are doing just that: putting the final building blocks in place which will lead to a united Europe.
It is a measure of the extraordinary trust which has built up that they feel safe to do so. So Fritz now has his chance to be the hero of the hour. Let him look at the big picture and rise to the challenge. Europe will be forever in his debt (literally). The European Central Bank must be the vehicle of his largess. It must be beefed up to the point where it can act like the Federal Reserve or the Bank of England – the lender of last resort.
The consequence of Germany opening up the coffers on all its hard earned dosh will not be without benefit in other ways. Systems will be put in place to ensure that such a drama never happens again; the feckless will be compelled into good housekeeping; corruption will be rooted out; Spanish practices in the workplace will be curtailed and Europe will have the fiscal union which, but for the crisis, it would never have had.
South Europe, despite all these measures, will always need a little forbearance, much like the poorer regions of Britain. We northerners will have to accept that with all that heat you will never get the Club Med countries to beaver away quite like us. But if they are unable to implement the austerity requirements – and they should not be too draconian (remember Versailles) – then they should be let go.
One thing, though, is certain. Either we all do our best to all hang together or we will surely all hang separately.
We have just reached the end of the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. Today we enter its 71st. I believe that of all the titanic battles of WWII, this was the one which determined its outcome. Though tiny in terms of the numbers of combatants involved, it was massive in high-tech: it did not get more massive in this regard for those times. Brilliant machines and brilliant fliers – on both sides – and a ground-breaking British structure of command and control. Without this system, which was put in place during the year which the much-maligned Chamberlain gained us after the Munich Pact, we would have lost the battle.
Churchill said that upon its outcome depended the survival of Christian civilisation and, indeed, the whole world. Lose it and we would all descend into “a new dark age made more sinister and protracted by the lights of perverted science”. He was surely right.
After the fall of France, Hitler sought peace with Britain. The war which his invasion of Poland had precipitated had been the one gamble which misfired. All the others – the reoccupation of the Rhineland, the Anschluss (union) with Austria and the annexation of Czechoslovakia – had all succeeded, bloodlessly. He did not realise we had, at last, rumbled him and hereon would fight him. Hitler even entertained fanciful notions that as a fellow Teutonic power – one he hugely admired – we would join him in his crusade against Bolshevik Russia.
His plan to invade us was born of the lover’s pangs of anger and frustration: unrequited love they call it. Some in the Royal Navy have said that even if we’d lost the Battle of Britain they could still have sunk Hitler’s landing barges.
But we saw time and again as the war progressed how vulnerable surface ships were to air attack. After all, we crippled the Italian fleet at Taranto as did the Japanese the American at Pearl Harbour.
Interestingly, the Japanese commander said that they would never have thought of it but for what we did at Taranto. Then there was the loss of the Repulse and the Prince of Wales off Malaysia and the Bismark in the Atlantic.
Tirpitz also succumbed to aerial assault. No one doubts that had the Wermacht been able to make a landing in force it would have been game over for Britain.
After the debacle at Dunkirk, three months earlier, the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) survivors were without vehicles, heavy ordnance and even the majority of their small arms. Britain would have been forced to give in to its own powerful ‘peace party’. What then would have been the result of Britain’s withdrawal from the war? A free run for the Nazi juggernaut. Hitler would have been able to hurl his entire armed might against Soviet Russia. The many divisions locked up facing a still belligerent Britain would have been released to powerfully augment that effort in the east.
As it was he came within a whisker of success. Death would have then been guaranteed to Stalin’s regime. Master, then, of the entire Eurasian landmass, Hitler’s dream of world conquest would have been complete. Only success in the race to develop the atomic bomb could have reversed that verdict. But the US Manhattan Project would have been impossible without the help of British scientists who were well ahead of their US counterparts in their understanding of the physics involved.
These are the reasons which cause me to believe that the battle which kept Britain in the war was the one which spelt Hitler’s ultimate defeat. On the 50th Anniversary, I wrote a poem to commemorate that extraordinary feat of arms and I am greatly honoured that it has found a home in the Battle of Britain museum. I hope the reader feels that I have done justice to those wonderful, boyish heroes of “our finest hour”.
You were young and you were brave:
You a nation had to save;
Scrambled from your aerodrome,
Test those skills so freshly honed;
Whirling in your fighter high:
Fought your duels across the sky;
Like the famous knights of old,
You were fearless, keen and bold;
Never did a fate so grim
Threaten all with mortal sin:
Never did so very few
Save so great a multitude;
Spurn a deal that would have saved
All that men of empire made;
Chose the path of blood and debt:
Know that honour’s fully met;
Far beyond your nation’s shores,
All humanity took pause:
For it knew that you alone
Could for misspent time atone;
Be the first to best the Hun:
Yours a famous victory won;
Boyish banter in the sky,
Where you were so soon to die;
Almost out of school you came,
There to die in battle’s flame;
Fire and smoke and cannon’s roar,
Trapped within your cockpit door:
Feel the searing heat around;
See the fast approaching ground:
Time to dwell but fleetingly
On that love on mother’s knee;
Bought you time that others might
Join you in that fateful fight;
Lift the terror, set men free:
Save them from base tyranny!