This series has changed in its evolution since I began it in November 1995, so essays on how I am doing it seem appropriate.
This series began with very modest intentions. I was aiming to fill up the otherwise barren official "Plan of the Week" for my command, Naval Antarctic Support Unit, based in Christchurch, New Zealand, with educational and entertaining material. My research methods and sources were limited to what I had on hand in New Zealand and fairly slipshod, as I was racing a weekly clock.
As a result, there were and still are numerous errors in the text. More importantly, many major battles and campaigns have not been described as I would like to report them. A good example would be the German "Channel Dash" of February 1942. Another example is my original description of the Battle of Midway. Most of my sources were sitting on my bookshelf in New Jersey, when I wrote those entries in New Zealand in June 1996. I drew a lot of criticism. The entry for June 4, 1942, was subsequently rewritten in 2002.
An additional burden I have had to overcome in writing this series is the fact that there's only one of me. Unlike university professors, historians, and top journalists, I have no army of interns and graduate students to do my legwork. Nor am I the beneficiary of any grants or publishing contracts to pay for trips to England, France, and Germany to study archival material or battlefields.
I also lack the skilled and objective eye of a good copy-editor to check my errors and writing. I have researched and written every word on this page. At least I can't blame my ghostwriters or interns for my mistakes.
Nor is this project my entire life. In addition to my daytime job of writing press releases and speeches for the Mayor of Newark, New Jersey, I have a full-time family.
And, from 1999 to 2001 I was also a full-time student, earning my Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Degree at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan. That helped gain me a lot of writing ability, but consumed a lot of time.
Two days after my graduation ceremonies in May 2001, I had to move my mother out of her Hoboken home, a 90-year-old brownstone, and move my family into the Newark house we had just purchased. My mother wound up bouncing from seniors' home to hospital to rehab home and finally to a small apartment. Thus, the summer of 2001 was all about boxes - packing and unpacking them, and moving them across New Jersey. These issues were sorted out by early September 2001.
However, as all readers are aware, the lives of all Americans (and many other nationalities) changed dramatically on September 11. In my case, my duties at work included preparation of the City of Newark's Domestic Security Plan and its presentation to the public.
The shortage of time is also exacerbated by the shortage of money. I have never received a penny for a single word on this page. However, I've spent a good deal of money purchasing books to research it. Even if I had millions of dollars to spend on books, I'd also run out of places in my house to put them.
To write this series, I have had to make judgments about what to cover, how to cover it, and what opinions I would hold. My training as a journalist has taught me that objectivity is a wonderful goal that can never be achieved. One cannot be objective between the arsonist and his victims, for example. As David Brinkley once pointed out, a truly objective journalist would "favor nothing and oppose nothing."
However, my training did inculcate the concept of "fairness." If you cannot support a cause, you can at least make the effort to report his or her views and achievements fairly. This can be very hard when having to choose between the murderer and the victim. It is even harder to find humanity in the lives of sadists like Rudolf Hoess, the commandant of Auschwitz, or traitors like former Hearst reporter Douglas Chandler, who broadcast Nazi propaganda against his fellow Americans from Berlin. The best one can do is try to understand their viewpoint and how their character works, while condemning person and deed at the same time.
A historian also has to make less objective judgments than the pure rights and wrongs of cold-blooded murder, such as Lidice or Oradour-sur-Glane. Those incidents and many others are clear-cut. Other events and decisions in World War II are still crowded by unending controversy, like Operation Market-Garden and the decision to drop the atomic bombs.
A historian has to decide whether a given action in history was right or wrong, good or bad, wise or foolish. These are hard decisions, which are always colored and blinkered by the historian's personal prejudices and personal agenda.
Official historians are often required to follow the line of their political masters. Academic historians are required to follow the strictures of the educational system and the struggle to gain tenure. Popular historians run the risk of letting facts and reality give way to drama and rhetoric in order to sell their book or movie. Biographers and autobiographers have duties to their subjects, usually to make them look omniscient and to cover up their mistakes. And revisionist historians have a personal axe or penknife to grind, usually that they are right and everyone else is wrong.
All of these historians have their uses. The hard part is to sift through this varied material (and in some cases, muck) and deciding who is right, what is important, and what is trivia.
In this series, I began with certain positions, which reflect, of course, my own personal prejudices. The first is that I am ignoring anything written by David Irving. In the wake of his libel trial in London in 2000, I regard him as a thoroughly discredited apologist for Adolf Hitler. Mr. Irving grinds the penknife that Adolf and the Nazis were not bad fellows after all, they gave the Jews what they deserved, and the Nazis didn't kill any Jews, anyway. I have no time for such nonsense-on-stilts.
My second prejudice was reflected by my English ancestry and service in New Zealand. Most of the American-oriented histories of World War II naturally stress the vast American achievements. Most of the American war movies and novels about World War II do so at the expense of America's allies, usually Britain and other Commonwealth nations.
For example, the otherwise wonderful movie Saving Private Ryan annoyed Royal Navy veterans when it had Tom Hanks' Rangers go ashore on D-Day from American-manned landing craft. According to history and the veterans who were there, those landing craft were British.
In the movie U-571, American sailors capture a German submarine for its codebooks, and turn it against its former masters. In history, the submarine was U-570, and two British sailors gained posthumous Victoria Crosses in seizing the books. The U-boat went to the bottom. The list goes on. The reality, of course, is different, more complex, and more interesting than any screenwriter's imagination.
I want to correct that view if possible, if only to give respect and attention where I feel it is due, and to also give American and other readers some idea of the vast expanse of the Second World War. Admittedly this is difficult for someone who only speaks English: it automatically bars me from Russian, Chinese, and even French accounts.
Another determination was to try to get past some of the myths and superficialities of the war, to round out the complexity of the people who fought it, from top to bottom, thus bringing legends, heroes, and villains to life. In so doing, I could transform them from marble statues and figures on postage stamps into flesh-and-blood human beings, and therefore, more recognizable and real to the reader.
At the same time, I also wanted readers to make the jump between history as it is taught and history as it is lived. I wanted readers to realize that World War II, while often being humanity's great epic poem, was also a story about real people who lived real lives - not distant and grainy black-and-white images on old newsreels of long-dead people in outdated costumes. While technology and many attitudes have changed in the 60 years since World War II, much of humanity and its beliefs, values, ideas, and emotions, have not. I wanted readers to be able to recognize their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents…and themselves.
Another point I felt that needed to be made was that war is often seen by the casual historian as sweeping thrusts on maps punctuated by colorful incidents of bravery or sacrifice. Other history buffs see the war in terms of technical development of weapons, tactics, and equipment. And still others have vast expertise on uniforms, insignia, and color schemes. All three subjects have their value - uniforms and color schemes to model-makers, for example.
However, as the cliché points out, "Amateurs study tactics. Professionals study logistics." Many battles of World War II were won and lost long before they were fought, because of logistics, training, equipment, morale, attitudes, tactics, and even weather. These factors to me were as relevant, or more so, than sharp arrows on a map.
So, while many readers may like to read and discuss the armor thickness of the Panzer IV or the number of threads on the shoulder badge of the 88th Infantry Division, I felt that it was important to see how all the factors, including those listed above, played into the events of World War II.
For example, Burma's low standing on the Allied supply chain meant that as late as 1945, the British 14th Army fought its battles with 10-foot-tall rivet-hulled Lee and Grant tanks instead of Shermans, Comets, and Pershings. The RAF in Burma still operated P-40 Kittyhawks and Hurricanes in anti-tank and attack roles while more effective Typhoons and P-38 Lightnings dominated the skies over Europe. The 14th Army's status as "tail-end Charlie" to the Allied war effort added to the morale - and equipment - problems of the "Forgotten Army." Yet it pushed on to victory.
On a larger level, the shortage of Landing Ships Tank and their use in the invasion of Anzio prevented Admiral Mountbatten and his Southeast Asia forces from invading the Andaman Islands and cutting off Rangoon by air and sea. This dynamic crossroads of competing theaters and their needs forced Churchill and Roosevelt into making tough decisions. These choices were not made in abstract - they have to be seen in contest to be properly understood. Battles were not fought in vacuums - they were all parts of a gigantic jigsaw puzzle on a world stage.
Another decision was to avoid the over-use of hindsight, a useful commodity for barroom quarterbacks and armchair generals. We may know, with the advantage of casualty lists and captured documents, that decisions taken in 1942 were blatantly wrong. We may also know, with the information the decision-makers had at hand in 1942, that those decisions were poor choices.
But I wanted to somehow find and convey the sense of what the decision-makers were thinking, and how the world appeared to them, when they chose to invade North Africa instead of Normandy in 1942. Or when OSS Major John Birch got into a hot argument with Chinese Communist guerrillas in 1945. While knowing what people thought, felt, and believed at the time may not excuse or support their actions, it may at least make their decision and the method by which they reached it understandable.
As related earlier, I have certain interests and views, like very other person in the world, so by nature, I find New Zealand's role in World War II more personally interesting than, say, Bulgaria's. For that I apologize in advance. But perhaps in scratching the surface of these subjects, I can at least help readers know where to look to finish these stories.
My inability to understand mathematics and sciences makes it hard for me to understand the finer points of codebreaking and the development of the atomic bomb. Readers will have to bear with me as I struggle to comprehend this vital material in order to explain it.
Lastly, by following around numerous commands, be they ships, fighter wings, or armored divisions, and various people, we follow the lives of men, women, and commands, as they affected, or were affected by, the war. Ordinary people were pushed about by the winds and tides of history. They banded together in the face of these storms to survive and endure, and in doing so, changed those winds and tides and the direction of humanity. That is the ultimate essence of history - the story of people and their lives.
SOURCES USED AND THEIR EVALUATION
To get the "big picture" on World War II, I needed to start with baselines. My primary timeline source was Chronicle of the Second World War, by Doris Kindersley, London, 1990, which provides brief capsules of major and minor events for each day of the war. I used this as a launch point for further research. Exhaustive in itself but superficial in tone and coverage (because of space issues), it was an excellent starting point.
An additional chronology came from two volumes of Purnell's History of the Second World War, first published in 1966 in England, reprinted in England and the United States in 1973, done with the backing of London's formidable Imperial War Museum.
This series of 130 weekly magazine issues suffers the disadvantage of having been printed in the late 1960s, before many of the revelations about Ultra and Enigma appeared. Many of its articles on the Eastern Front were written by American historians using German sources, or Soviet historians using official propaganda.
This combination led to questionable statements. German sources tend to disparage the Soviets' combat abilities and blame Hitler for the generals' defeats, which is not always true or fair. The Soviet historians have their axes to grind, mostly on Katyn Woods and the 1944 Warsaw Rising. In addition, Soviet historians disparage or ignore Western contributions to Allied victory, particularly Lend-Lease supplies. It was only after the collapse of the Soviet Union that the truth about Katyn Woods came out, for example. However, the Purnell's series, being long out of print, could not change its published article on Katyn, prepared by a Soviet historian, that followed Moscow's line to blame the Germans.
Nonetheless, the series remains an excellent starting point and some of its articles offer superb stories. Some of the material is condensations of published books and official histories.
After that came Martin Gilbert's magisterial The Second World War, published in 1989 by Henry Holt and Sons. I have used the 1991 Revised Edition. Sir Martin Gilbert, Winston Churchill's official biographer, has written a superb book that in many ways inspired my series.
His book turns simple chronology into powerful literary and historical force to convey his two themes of the war: courage and suffering. Courage was seen and suffering was felt on a daily basis, by and to the mighty and the meek. He places small and large pictures on his broad canvas, and unfolds the continuing impact of the war on humanity in a chilling yet compassionate style. His final sentence, "The greatest unfinished business of the Second World War is human pain," is the saddest and most accurate statement on the war that I have ever read.
The Time-Life series (list of volumes separately) on World War II is also useful in a variety of ways. It has been assailed for failing to show photographs of dead Americans, but it actually does. The reason it does not show as many as one would hope is that the US government banned publication of such photographs from Pearl Harbor and other battles until 1943. This was done to avoid alarming the American population about the true horrors of war.
The Time-Life series of hardback books has useful overviews of major and minor campaigns, with volumes on "War in the Outposts," "The Neutrals," "Germany: The Home Front," "The Home Front: USA," "Japan At War," "Italy At War," "The Secret War," "The Resistance," "Partisans and Guerrillas," "Prisoners of War," and "The Nazis." All of them are extremely useful as both introductions to and overviews of a variety of topics. Some of the specialized volumes cover little-known subjects in great detail. All volumes offer superb photography and text that illuminate people, places, and events of the war, and excellent bibliographies. They are highly recommended, although they do take up a lot of space on a bookshelf.
Also in the "overview" category and in separate sections is the After The Battle magazine series, which is past its 120th issue of photographs and detailed text about campaigns famous and obscure, with photographs and maps of historic sites during the war and 30, 40, 50, and 60 years later.
The publishers of this impressive series have gone to great lengths to track down everything from identity of the "Man Who Never Was" to decent maps of the Wolf's Lair in Rastenberg, with fascinating before-and-after photography and articles. It has also covered related subjects as wreck recovery and restoration, World War II films and their production, veterans' accounts, reunions, and even entire issues on Rudolf Hess's flight to England or the "Cockleshell Heroes." Meticulously written and researched, this magazine series is a must-have for serious students of World War II.
Three other chronological sources that proved useful were War Memorial by Laurie Barber, Octopus Publishing, New Zealand, 1989, Chronology (US Army Official History), and Australian Armed Forces at War, 1939-1945, by Bruce T. Swain, Allen and Unwin, Australia, 2001. The latter book is a recent acquisition.
All three are chronologies of the war, the first for New Zealand, the second for the United States, the third for Australia, and their level of detail enabled me to follow all nations' progress through the war very closely. The US volume covers the US Army's war in tight detail and military language. The New Zealand book has a great deal of material on that nation's home front.
Books that cover World War II as a whole in one shot tend to hit the big picture well, with limited coverage of the smaller subjects. However, to get the big picture, one needs the overview from the top. In addition to the books listed above, I found Why the Allies Won by Richard Overy, Norton, New York, 1995, to be very useful. Its subject is self-explanatory and its chapters discuss specific subjects: Allied use of technology, production, the Eastern Front, the air war, the invasion of Europe, Allied leadership, and even Allied moral advantages.
Another useful book was Dirty Little Secrets of World War II by James F. Dunnigan and Albert A. Nofi, William Morrow, New York, 1994. Despite its odd name, it packs a great deal of valuable essays on a variety of subjects in a limited space, including assessments of such odd subjects as collaborators and World War II conspiracy theories.
Benjamin Disraeli said that one should read biography, not history, and to a large extent, I agree. People make history, and history is the story of people's lives.
The only difficulty with biography and autobiography is that all too often, the writer lionizes his subject, which is very often himself. American Civil War generals did most of their fiercest fighting after the war, in harsh memoirs that assailed each other for causing Confederate defeats.
World War II was no exception. As soon as the fighting stopped, all the top dogs signed their memoir deals, and the books reflected their personalities. Eisenhower's was genial and cordial. Montgomery's was pompous and abrasive. MacArthur's alternated between pomposity, sanctimony, and denigration of his enemies, real and perceived. Bradley's first memoir was subdued in its views of Patton and Montgomery, his second memoir, published posthumously, downright harsh. Monty attacked his predecessor in North Africa, Auchinleck, which nearly led to the two field marshals hurling libel suits at each other. Tedder attacked Montgomery. Diplomat Robert Murphy blamed everybody and took credit where it wasn't due. And all the German generals universally blamed Hitler for their defeats, finding in him a convenient excuse for their own questionable generalship. Soviet generals lauded Stalin, until he was demonized, at which point they lauded Khruschchev.
Memoirs produced after the war also glossed over potentially deadly subjects. German generals tap-danced around their involvement in wars of aggression by saying they were defending European civilization from the Soviet barbarians. They all were somehow linked to the various plots to kill Hitler, and all had worked to save Jews from massacre. Reading these German memoirs, one wonders who in Germany actually committed all the atrocities. Only Eichmann's recently released diaries show any Nazi who admitted to his role in the horrors, and even those diaries fob the responsibility off on Hitler.
On the Allied side, Churchill was cagey about assigning blame for the Convoy PQ-17 fiasco. Montgomery insisted that the invasion of Normandy had followed his plan precisely, which seems to have caused more offense to Americans than his actual waging of it.
Other problems with memoirs and autobiographies are manifold. Some had their tone set by the ghostwriters who prepared them, like Truman's and Wainwright's. Others could not be fully revealing because of wartime secrecy. Ike never wrote about Ultra, for example. And nobody was going to admit to making a blunder, no matter how small.
Some folks could not write their memoirs for personal reasons. Sir Richard O'Connor was a shy and private man, as was George C. Marshall. The men and women who worked on the atomic bomb, the Bletchley Park decoding apparatus, and the espionage wars were barred by secrecy agreements from penning their stories, or required to wash them down before publication. Ewen Montagu, for example, obfuscated many of the details of the "Man Who Never Was" story, both to protect the donors of the corpse and his colleagues, who were still active in British intelligence when the coup was revealed 10 years later.
And other memoirs and autobiographies went untold because the authors had much to hide: the Japanese prison camp guards and concentration camp commandants, for example. In that way, we are probably luckier: we are spared the reminiscences of such evil men and women as Julius Streicher and Irma Grese, whose life stories would merely nauseate the righteous and inspire neo-Nazi imitators to emulate their appalling examples.
Another problem for the historian is that some of the best sources for memoirs never produced them. The Patton Papers, The Stilwell Papers, and The Rommel Papers were prepared and published after their authors' deaths. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Bertram Ramsay, Isoroku Yamamoto, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., Claus von Stauffenberg, and Werner Moelders all died before writing their memoirs. Stalin's paranoia insured that he would leave behind no memoirs.
Adolf Hitler wrote his memoirs in Mein Kampf, and left behind his views on life in transcripts of his conversations, but they are worth more for their psychology than for actual recollections of events. Nazi labor boss Robert Ley wrote his memoir, "The Fate of a Peasant," while awaiting trial at Nuremberg, which was mostly his love for his dead 17-year-old mistress. After completing the text, the slobbering alcoholic Ley hanged himself in his prison cell. Consequently, it was never edited nor revised. In any case, it seems hardly worth publishing.
Memoirs and biographies of persons below top command level reveal a lot about how the war was fought and how it was endured by those involved in it. However, they vary in accuracy across a wide spectrum, ranging from professionally-prepared accounts like Lord Lovat's March Past to privately-published (often by vanity presses) and badly-written self-justifications.
POW escape memoirs often take latitudes that have helped give the permanent impression that the escape attempts from Colditz and Stalag Luft III were an at times comedic game. While humor was a necessity in surviving German captivity, the idea that the POW experience was a version of the television comedy "Hogan's Heroes" view is a complete disservice to the memories and accounts of many POW camp survivors, who recall near-starvation rations and brutality.
Concentration camp memoirs are by definition horrific and inspiring at the same time, as the author recounts his or her struggle to stay alive and maintain humanity and dignity in the face of unbelievable violence and sadism. Their nature makes them painful reading.
A weakness in many of these memoirs is that they are often vague on dates, which is key to my project. That is understandable…beatings at Belsen, wasted days at Stalag Luft I, and continuing firefights on the Arno blend into one. Did Frank get killed by the sniper two days after the Tarawa landing or three? Was the air raid that flattened the Aznio trench line in February or March? Was the Kamikaze attack that destroyed the gun turret at Leyte or Lingayen?
Diaries are useful, as they contain the contemporary view of events, often unvarnished. Goebbels' diaries reveal his cynicism and his hypocrisy. He assails the British for lying in their propaganda on one day, yet honors his own press for spreading even bigger lies the next. Galeazzo Ciano's diaries reveal the flabby weakness behind the gleaming façade of Fascist Italy. Joseph Stilwell's diaries show his deep hatred of Chiang Kai-Shek and his antipathy toward his British colleagues. They're brutal, honest, but highly laden with pre-existing prejudices that were not borne out by reality. For example, Padre Ellison Platt's diary of Colditz was assailed by his fellow inmates for inaccuracies.
I have always had a fondness for Winston Churchill, so it should not surprise anyone that my biography list is headed by his mammoth History of the Second World War, Cassell, London, 1955. Very little can be added to the gallons of ink that have been used to commend Churchill for these works. Reading his books is very much like being at dinner with him at Chartwell or by his side on the flight to Egypt in 1942.
Biographies of Churchill also fill bookshelves. I relied heavily on the first two parts of William Manchester's biography of Churchill, The Last Lion, Sphere, London, 1988. Volume 1 is Visions of Glory. Volume 2 is titled Alone in America and The Caged Lion in England. Sadly, Manchester, who is suffering from strokes, may not complete the critical third part of this trilogy, which is a tragedy: his storytelling powers are hard to match.
One of the useful points of these two books is that they drift just far enough from the topic - Churchill - to remind the reader of the other key people in history at the time and their growth, as well as give some idea of the character of the age, with references to wristwatches as new gadgets in the Flanders trenches, for example. It reminds the reader that Churchill's life was not in a vacuum.
Two views of Churchill from beneath him come from Assignment: Churchill by Walter Henry Thompson, Farrar, Straus, and Young, New York, 1955. Thompson was Churchill's Scotland Yard bodyguard. The War and Colonel Warden by Robert Pawle, Knopf, New York, 195, is based on the memories of another Thompson, Cdr. Tommy Thompson, RN, Churchill's naval aide. These give an outstanding sense of the milieu in which Churchill lived and worked.
Churchill's sovereign, King George VI, has his biographer in the capable and talented Sarah Bradford, in George VI, Weidenfield and Nicolson, London, 1989. She conveys how the stuttering career naval officer, thrust upon the throne of Empire, rose to the occasion and became a beloved moral leader.
The Last Emperor by Group Captain Peter Townsend, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1975, tells the same story amid the historical context of the decline of the British Empire, covering the parallel lives and achievements of such anti-imperialists as David Ben-Gurion, Eamon de Valera, and Pandit Nehru in the same book. Alert readers will note that Group Captain Townsend is the man who nearly married the late Princess Margaret.
Churchill's partner in world leadership, Franklin D. Roosevelt, died in office, so we are denied his innermost thoughts and views. Writer Bernard Asbell has made a valiant try to interpret them in The FDR Memoirs: A Speculation on History, Doubleday, New York, 1973, which made use of Roosevelt's private papers and extensive research. Asbell justifies his statements in memoranda after each chapter. It may be as close as we'll come to hearing FDR's memoirs.
The biographers have all pursued the subject, though. One of the earliest was Roosevelt in Retrospect by the talented John Gunther, Harper, New York, 1950, which not only analyzes his life but aspects of his character, including his sense of humor and stamp collection (1.2 million stamps in 150 or more albums, appraised at $80,000, it sold at public auction at $250,000 in 1946).
Joseph Lash gained the Pulitzer Prize in 1971 with Eleanor and Franklin, Norton, New York. Lash was well-placed as one of Eleanor's key aides. His book was one of the first to reveal Franklin's adultery. Lash followed up with a book on the Roosevelt-Churchill friendship, Roosevelt and Churchill, Norton, New York, 1976.
Doris Kearns Goodwin earned her own Pulitzer Prize from the Roosevelts with No Ordinary Time, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1994. More than a biography of America's most famous couple, it is also a solid history of the top-level American war effort, and how it transformed the American character, putting the problems of blacks, women, and unions to the forefront. It is also highly revealing as to the way the Roosevelt marriage - by then merely a political union - worked. er, the situation was beginning to take on crisis proportions."