The first stage of the war

1. The phoney war

The British establishment was preoccupied with the problem of morale throughout the war, and the Ministry of Information polled the population throughout. For the most part, though, this was a case of the establishment's own doubts projected onto the people, and Home Intelligence was surprised to report that working class people were on the whole the more optimistic, 'middle and upper class women the least' (Maclaine, 1979: 97). Lord Beaverbrook led a campaign to unite personal sacrifice with the war effort: 'we will turn your pots and pans into Spitfires, Hurricanes, Wellingtons and Bleinheims' (Haining, 1990: 34). The alleged aluminium shortage, though, was denied by scrap merchants (Calder, 1996: 149) Iron railings were also taken down, to emphasize that the wealthy too were making sacrifices, though these were never put to war use but still sat in a secret warehouse in Durham as late as the 1970s, as presumably did the pots and pans (One Foot in the Past, BBC2, 5 June 1999).

The phoney war ended with the lightning German advance to the West in the spring of 1940. On 26 May the British Expeditionary Force was evacuated from Dunkirk. A humiliating defeat was turned around by government propaganda that a ‘flotilla of tiny ships’ had crossed the Channel to save them. ‘Yes, these Brighton Belles and Brighton Queens left that foolish innocent world of theirs to sail into the inferno, to defy bombs, shells, magnetic mines, torpedoes, machine gun fire - to rescue our soldiers’, broadcast J.B. Priestly on 5 June 1940. But the boats were commandeered, and piloted by the Army, not their owners. In fact the British troops were saved by Hitler, who held back while they departed. He told his staff that he wanted a ‘reasonable peace agreement’ with Britain immediately so that he would be ‘finally free’ for his ‘great and real task: the confrontation with Bolshevism’. (Johnson, 1992: 366-7).

2 Allied war production

In the US the production of raw steel increased by 20 per cent between 1940 and 1945, that of Rayon and acetate yarn by 55 per cent, fuel oils by 44 per cent and wheat flour by 27 per cent. Only 560 locomotives were made in 1940, 3213 in 1945 (Brogan, 1985: 585). Overall, output in 1944 was nearly twice output in 1940, while consumption only increased 15 per cent (U.S. Council of Economic Advisers, 1990: 296). The growth of capacity was possible in the first place because of the under-utilisation of plant and workforce in the preceding period. Unemployment fell by 7.45 million. The war mobilisation was achieved by an extensive command economy, run by the Supply and Priorities Board, the War Production Board, the War Manpower Commission, the National War Labour Board and a score of similar authorities. Doctor Win-the-War replaces Doctor New Deal, said Roosevelt. Unions collaborated in the wartime recruitment, and the combined membership of the AFL and CIO rose from 8 944 000 in 1940 to 14, 796 000 in 1944. (Brogan, 1985: 584-6). They oversaw a massive increase in overtime, and unpaid overtime in the building of the 'liberty ships', an influx of women workers into industry, and a decline of wages relative to prices (Pijl, 1984: 115). Despite full employment, the number of days lost through strike action actually fell, particularly at the beginning of the war, though that did not stop the passage of the Smith-Connolly Act limiting the right to strike in 1944 (Brogan, 1985: 585).

In Britain production was boosted by the Labour Party and the unions' embrace of the war effort. On the initiative of the left, Joint Production Committees were formed in the engineering industry in 1942, where unions and managers collaborated in increasing output. Left-wing miners' leader Ebby Edwards denounced absentees for 'sabotaging' the war effort, and demanded they be prosecuted ('The Urgent need for Coal', BBC broadcast, 19 October 1941). 'Every one of you who holds a responsible position in our union knows how difficult it is to handle the human being', said Production Minister Ernest Bevin, 'he is the most important part of the production process unless you handle him right' (Wood, 1983: 16). As exhortation and joint management were increasing output, consumption was held down by the introduction of rationing, under Lord Woolton's Ministry of Food. Though food prices rose only 20 per cent during the war, this was largely because they were distributed on rations, with families reduced to two ounces of cheese, two ounces of teas, two ounces of cooking fat, four ounces of margarine and two of butter a week. Meat was rationed at ten pence per head per week (Longmate, 1988: 140). Defenders of the ration insisted that health improved, evidenced in children's weight and height measurements. Against the backdrop of the unemployment and undernourishment of the interwar years, the ration, and the provision of milk to the young did minimise the extremes of deprivation, though average calorie intake dropped from 3000 to 2800 in 1940 (Calder, 1996: 404). Rationing was undertaken to hold down working class consumption in the context of a surge in work and output, which it did very effectively. Dockers, miners, shipyard workers and iron and steel workers were less well nourished than clerks or those in light industry, according to the Ministry of Food which recognised internally that the system was 'essentially inequitable' (Calder, 1996: 405). The intensive mobilisation of society was underscored by a constant haranguing from the Ministry of Information to 'Turn that light out', 'Make do and mend', 'Dig for Victory', and demands such as 'Is your journey really necessary?', and 'Keep mum'.

The adjustment of relations between capital and labour, in favour of the former, achieved through the moral claims of wartime production, were creating the conditions for renewed prosperity after the war.

3. The desert war

Indicative of the real interests of the contending German and British armies, they fought the next two years of the conflict not in Europe at all, but in North Africa. Called in to assist Mussolini's forces, Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps wrestled with Montgomery's Eighth Army for possession of first Libya, then Tunisia and finally Egypt, where Rommel was finally defeated at El Alamein in November 1942. 'Churchill has now become a collector of deserts', mocked Goebbels (1948: 4). But defending the supply routes to the Empire was precisely where Britain's interests as a trading nation lay. In the writing of his war memoirs, Churchill struggled to rebut the accusation that he had abandoned Europe to Hitler.

4. Roosevelt and DeGaulle

It was in North Africa that the differences between the allies became clear. While Churchill had sponsored Charles De Gaulle's 'Free French' forces, Roosevelt was hostile to the recreation of French imperialism after the war. The American president had no need for a strong France after the war (Mandel, 1986: 124). 'France's role as a great power is finished for good', US leader Wendell Willkie told Ilya Ehrenburg, 'it's not in our interests to restore her to her former position' (Ehrenburg, 1964: 128). In keeping with their policy of trying to persuade Vichy France over to their side, the Americans had snubbed the resistance and the Free French by making a deal with Vichy's Admiral Darlan to gain access to North Africa. But Darlan was assassinated by the resistance soon after. Roosevelt's choice as French governor General Giraud had supported Petain because 'the danger was communism' (Macmillan, 1984: 72). Giraud dragged his heels over restoring the Cremieux Decree, suspended by Vichy, that originally gave rights of citizenship to Algerian Jews (Monnet, 1978: 190). America was cool towards the Free French, insisting on De Gaulle's cooperation with Giraud, and withholding 'recognition of a government of France or of the French Empire by the Government of the United States' ('American response to the French Committee of National Liberation' 26 August 1943, in Macmillan, 1984: 193)

5. Initial resistance in Northern Europe

The non-appearance of the Allied War effort left ordinary people on their own in the fight for their freedom in occupied Europe. While the elites collaborated, like Petain, or fled, like Queen Wilhelmina of Holland, ordinary people took great risks to challenge the occupying powers. Dutch opposition to anti-Jewish laws boiled over in protests in University towns in the winter of 1940-41, before a general strike was started by Communists beginning in the Amsterdam shipyards on 17 February 1941 (Hæstrup, 1978: 101-3). 'Protest against the horrible persecutions of the Jews!', read a Communist Party poster, which urged families to take in Jewish children to save them from Nazi atrocities. The strikes shocked the German authorities and effectively sidelined the Dutch Nazi movement for the rest of the war. Sporadic demonstrations throughout France in 1941 were organised from 1942, when De Gaulle appealed for May day demonstrations, a call taken up in Toulouse, Avignon, Nice and Marseilles, where 30 000 came out (Hæstrup, 1978: 79). According to the resistance historian Henri Michel 'from summer 1940 to autumn 1942 all resistance in Europe drew its support from Great Britain', 'gradually, however, clandestine resistance developed on a major scale and it was not prepared to accept orders so easily'. Furthermore, 'Churchill was himself somewhat alarmed by the growth of a force which he might not be able to control' (Michel, 1975: 50, 51).

6. Russia enters the war

Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union started on 22 June 1941, taking Stalin wholly by surprise. Militarily the Soviet Union was unprepared, having purged its senior military leaders to guarantee support for the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. By 15 September, the Germans were outside Leningrad, a siege that was to last until 1944. Three million German troops seized the bulk of Russia's industry - 65 per cent of coal production, 65 per cent of iron and 60 per cent of steel and aluminium (Furedi, 1987: 63). In the first eight months of the campaign 2,800,000 Russian prisoners of war were left to starve to death, the Wehrmacht refusing to extend to them the Geneva Convention (Goldhagen, 1997: 290).

The Soviet leadership's strategy of surviving by making alliances with the 'imperialist powers' was in tatters. But unlike the ruling classes of Western Europe, the bureaucracy had no illusions that it could survive occupation. Re-locating industrial production in the East, the ruling caste played to its strengths of total mobilisation exhibited in the 1930s industrialisation (Furedi, 1987: 64). Stalin appealed to Great Russian chauvinism, to mobilise the populace, replacing the Internationale with a new national anthem (Ehrenburg, 1964: 123). At first tragically undersupplied, the Soviet Army began to be better armed even than the Wehrmacht.

Particularly demoralising for Hitler was Churchill's 'swift and wholehearted declaration of support for the Soviet Union' on the day of the invasion (Maclaine, 1979: 196). Perhaps ironically, he considered Britain and America making common cause with the Soviet Union a betrayal of the European race. But the Eastern campaign was a useful diversion from the absence of a West European front from 1940-44. Goebbels protested that the English 'intended from the very beginning to have other countries and peoples do their fighting for them'. In October 1941, America extended lend-lease to the USSR. 'With our country not yet fully engaged in hostilities', recalled O.S.S. officer H Stuart Hughes, 'the overriding, the agonizing concern in Washington was to keep the Soviet Union fighting' (Hughes, 1990: 138). But still the early years of success in the East lent the Nazi cause a great deal of forward momentum. Over time, though, the Russian untermenschen's fightback would become the single most debilitating influence on Germany.

The Soviet Union's left-wing allies in the European Communist Parties were first relieved and then invigorated by the policy shift from the unpopular position of opposing imperialist war (and worse still of defending Molotov-Ribbentrop), to joining the People's War against Fascism. But in time the sacrifices involved in yet another alliance with one imperialist faction against another would have to be made, even if they were never fully understood.

7. The "People's War"

Russia's entry into the war gave the allies a much needed opportunity to re-brand their war as a 'People's War' against Fascism. Though the Communist Party newspaper the Daily Worker had been banned in December 1940, the British took advantage of the change to recruit more radicals into the war effort. The British Civil Services went out of its way to recruit new talent during the war, and Secretary to the Labour Ministry Beryl Power accumulated a central register of 80 000 'New Men' to ginger up the gerontocracy (Hague and Hennessy, 1985). The Communist Party's James Klugmann worked for the Special Operations Executive, as did fellow-traveller Basil Davidson and George Orwell gave broadcasts for the BBC's India Service. America's Office of Strategic Service, the foreign wing of the FBI recruited radical German refugees, like Franz Neumann and Herbert Marcuse, and trained a new generation of radicals, like H. Stuart Hughes, for whom the alliance with Moscow was an extension of the New Deal (Hughes, 1990).

Throughout, the government's guise of radicalism was intended to control the left, not enhance it. The Ministry of Information created an Anglo-Soviet Liaison Section in August 1941, with the express purpose to 'steal the thunder' from the left, by promoting all things Soviet to the British people. Its head H.P. Smollett was confident that the Russians 'realist to the point of cynicism', would agree to sidelining the British Communist Party in favour of official support (McLaine, 1979: 202-3). Kept out of the official Aid to Russia campaign, the Communist Party outdid itself in building the Joint Production Committees in industry, where its influence was strongest: 'We can only beat Fascism when we can produce quicker and in better quality and quantity more materials than the Fascists', Communist Walter Swanson exhorted his fellow shop stewards in 1941 (Wood, 1983: 17).

8. Aerial bombardment

While allied and axis armies avoided each other in Europe, European civilians were put into the frontline of aerial bombardment. First practised by the RAF in Iraq in the 1920s, the full horrors of aerial bombardment were popularised by the Luftwaffe attacks on Guernica in the Spanish Republic. In 1939, the air war made total war into a reality.

In the Blitz 29 890 Londoners were killed outright, with a further 50 000 seriously injured; 116 000 houses were destroyed outright, and 288 000 badly damaged. A third of the Port of London Authority’s warehouses were destroyed (Widgery, 1991: 34) ‘Finsbury’s huge pre-war industrial workforce never recovered from the bombing of its factories and workshops’ and the City of London lost 40 per cent of its industrial workers – part of the reason that today both are non-industrial districts (Stephen Inwood, 1998: 809-10). The slogan 'London can take it' was in poor taste. None the less, British victory in the air war in the autumn of 1940 did take the pressure off.

British marshalls, Arthur Tedder and Sir Arthur 'Bomber' Harris developed the policy of aerial bombardment to break the enemy's will. Ernest Mandel suggests that 'Churchill plumped for it as a substitute for a rapid opening of a second front in France' (Mandel, 1986: 135). 'The aim of the Combined Bomber Offensive', said Harris in 1943, 'should be unambiguously stated [as] the destruction of German cities, the killing of German workers and the disruption of civilised community life throughout Germany'. But the Air Ministry preferred to maintain a public disavowal of the policy, while endorsing it in private (McLaine, 1979: 161). In 1942 45 732 tonnes of bombs were dropped on Germany, with just four per cent of them aimed at industrial targets or ports. Incendiary attacks were made on Cologne, Hamburg, and then Dresden, where 135 000 were killed (Mandel, 1986: 135). The effect of these bombings was to atomise German society, enhancing the authority of the Nazi state rather than diminishing it. Coming after the political defeat of the opposition by the Nazis, the physical destruction of industrial cities by Bomber Command would contribute to the subjugation of the German working class in the post war era.