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Artillery Row

The myth of the plucky Brit

Notwithstanding our favourite WWII stories, derring-do doesn’t win wars

The Second World War was not won by daring, by pluck or by courage. It was not won by busting dams, dashing super-agents, launching Doolittle Raids or even dressing up dead homeless men to look like British officers. Unfortunately this needs saying, because soon we will have another major film released about one of the most famous intelligence operations of the war, Operation Mincemeat, which will imply precisely this.

That’s not to say that these moments of derring-do, spycraft and risk-taking are not fascinating and make for compelling story-telling. They obviously do, or we wouldn’t have the endless series of films, books, television programs or now podcasts churned out about them. As entertainment they can be great fun. What they cannot and should not be, however, is considered at all important in the story of Allied victory over Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

Indeed, the opposite is more likely the truth. This relationship might best be understood in what I will call O’Brien’s razor. According to this, the more an event relied on daring or excitement, the less important or even counterproductive it was in determining the course of the Second World War. It could just as easily apply to most wars through human history. When first proposed, O’Brien’s razor led to quite a lot of discussion on twitter. 

The derring-do vision of the Second World War loses touch with reality

Operation Mincemeat might be the best example of the razor in action. This operation, the brainchild of British intelligence, was very clever. It was part of a deception intended to convince the Germans that the British and Americans were not going to invade the island of Sicily in the summer of 1943. The body of a British homeless man named Glyndwr Michael, who had killed himself by taking rat poison, was kept on ice (almost literally). Meanwhile a legacy was created for a non-existent naval officer named William Miller. Miller was given pictures of an equally non-existent girl-friend and even theatre tickets, but most importantly he was given a series of forged high-level documents that made it seem that the Allies were seriously planning on invading Greece or even Sardinia. The corpse was then dressed up as a British officer, and he was given all of William Miller’s fake material and both were deposited just off the coast of Fascist Spain in April 1943.

Spanish authorities behaved exactly as British intelligence had hoped. They copied the fictitious documents and immediately handed copies over to Nazi intelligence where, it seems, they were passed on upwards maybe reaching Adolf Hitler himself. Mincemeat was a rousing success in the narrow sense of putting in German hands some documents that made it look like the Allies were not going to invade Sicily.

Beyond this, it is not clear Mincemeat made any difference in military actions. Even if it did, the result of those actions more likely distorted rather than aided the Allied war effort. There is some evidence that the Germans beefed up their defences in Greece and Sardinia after Mincemeat (though whether they did that because of Mincemeat is total speculation). When it comes to Sicily, the argument relies on the weakest of hypothetical negatives: the Germans did not increase their defences as much as they might have because of Mincemeat, and this saved many Allied lives.  

This is where the derring-do vision of the Second World War loses touch with reality. UK, Canadian and US casualties in taking Sicily were far lower than expected because the Allies had total air-sea control over the battle area, which rendered German and Italian resistance almost entirely ineffective until the fighting reached the forbidding slopes and ridges of Mt Etna in the far northeast of the Island. Indeed the collapse of resistance until that point ended up being a real problem for the Allied war effort — as it led directly to an operation that had not been agreed to ahead of time, the invasion of Italy.

Many of the famous operations at worst helped the Germans

We are so used to thinking about the Italian campaign as an integral part of World War II in Europe, that we lose sight of the fact that the invasion of the Italian mainland was only approved at the last minute, once it was shown how weak Italian resistance was on Sicily which led to the collapse of the Mussolini regime. Because of that, for two years, Allied troops would fight and die, slogging their way up the Italian peninsula in a campaign that played little role in defeating Germany. If anything it delayed the end of the war. If Mincemeat did weaken Axis resistance on Sicily, which led directly to the invasion of Italy, it ended up killing Allied soldiers in a totally unnecessary campaign.

Nor is Mincemeat an exception. Many of the famous operations (usually recreated on film) such as the Dambuster Raids, the attacks on Norwegian Heavy Water Production, almost all Commando Operations, etc, etc at best made no material difference in the war and at worst helped the Germans by squandering Allied resources while pointing out vulnerabilities the Germans did not anticipate.

Even Ultra, the program to decode German military communications sent through the famous Enigma machines, has been grossly overrated as a war shaping tool — based on the desire to glamourize intelligence. Ultra provided some good intelligence (though it was far patchier than the movies make out) but its role in winning the War at Sea, for instance, was far less important that its post-war backers (who won the public relations battle) made out. Statistical evidence shows that merchant ships were far safer in convoy throughout the war than most assume, and they became even better protected in 1942 and 1943. This had nothing to do with Ultra, but was down to primarily British systems of convoy operation and protection, from radar, to convoy formation, air cover, ASW weapons, etc. The truth of the matter was that beating the Uboats was the result of hard work, industrial muscle and constant patrolling — all of which made convoys extremely dangerous to attack. If, indeed, Ultra was used to route convoys away from German submarines in 1942 and 1943, it reduced German losses more than Allied.

That Britain was saved by “the few” is the greatest lie of the war

Nazi Germany was defeated by a non-glamorous, non-daring application of overwhelming material and technological power, which destroyed German war-fighting capacity, choked the life out of the German war economy and led to the destruction of German armed forces. By focussing on the ephemera of the war such as Mincemeat and Dambusters, the British portray themselves as a plucky underdog, trying to compete against greater forces such as Nazi Germany or keep pace with soon to be superpowers such as the USA and USSR. Britain, as David Edgerton and others have shown, actually needs to be understood as one of the great technological and economic powers of the Second World War. It won the Battle of Britain, for instance, easily and quickly. That Britain was saved by “the few” is the greatest lie of the war. Instead Britain was a more effective (and growing) air-sea power than Nazi Germany, and in a few weeks had damaged the Germans so much that they were forced to stop daytime attacks. The Battle of Britain was an anti-climactic, short duration engagement that the British won quickly and decisively because they were the stronger power.

Enjoy the films, books and TV shows about daring, courage and intelligence coups — just don’t think for a minute that they deserve the credit.

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