The 60th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy on 6 June 1944, could not have arrived at a more politically charged moment. In Iraq the former D-Day Allies are ‘standing shoulder to shoulder’ again. But this time the apparent moral certainties of the conflict (the Allied commander Eisenhower described the invasion as a ‘great crusade’1—a term echoed by George Bush in the case of Iraq) are not so clear.
Today US and British forces are caught up in a dirty war in cities like Fallujah and Najaf. The pictures of US and British soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners don’t quite match up with the heroic images of the previous era. Perhaps that’s why the Second World War has become such a touchstone in recent times. In both the US and Britain the Allied role in defeating German and Italian fascism has become a central part of each nation’s self-image.
In Britain for people on both sides of the political fence the Second World War has been seen as ‘our finest hour’. Certainly growing up in Britain in the 1970s on a diet of Dunkirk and The Dam Busters on Sunday afternoons it seemed clear to me that Second World War was something to be proud of. This was a feeling cemented by my own family’s stories of the London Blitz (sanitised by 30 years’ distance from the actual events). Even the recent BBC ‘Great Britons’ poll reflected the obsession with the war, with the election of Britain’s wartime leader Winston Churchill as the greatest ever Briton.
The Second World War seems to offer the writer or film-maker none of the difficulties of conflicts such as Vietnam or the two Gulf wars (examining such periods has brought us a whole genre of anti-war books and movies, from Platoon and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket to Three Kings). Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and the mini-series Band of Brothers show US soldiers as liberators, welcomed by the occupied just as Bush believed they would be in Baghdad.
A wave of revisionist histories of the Second World War, such as Frederick Taylor’s recent defence of the Allied bombing of Dresden, have attempted to airbrush out the darker side of the Allies’ wartime conduct. But was the D-Day invasion really an example of brotherhood between the two wartime Allies? Did the invasion of Normandy represent the pivotal moment of the war, as we’re being told each day in the run-up to the anniversary? And was there really a unified purpose at every level of British society, Churchill and Orwell, left and right marching together towards the D-Day landings?
‘The great Allied invasion of Normandy on 6 June 1944 was the most complex and daring military operation in the history of modern warfare,’ argues Carlo D’Este in his Decision in Normandy.2 Stephen Ambrose described the invasion as the ‘climactic battle of the Second World War’. But how was such an incredible undertaking carried out by two allies who, D’Este argues, had ‘fundamentally opposing military and political philosophies’?3
Britain entered the Second World War as an apparently great power. But underneath the trappings of empire the reality was very different. Britain’s global empire was threatened on every front. As Chris Bambery has argued in this journal, ‘Britain could no longer plan on fighting a war both in Europe and the Far East nor in these circumstances could it guarantee to protect its imperial colonies and dominions in the Far East’.4
By the 1930s the country that had once been the workshop of the world had just a 10 percent share of world manufacturing, behind Germany, and just a third of US output. This left Britain without the ability to defend its far-flung empire. After the fall of France in 1940 Japan exploited British weakness in the Far East. A series of British defeats culminated with the humiliating surrender at Singapore, where 80,000 British and Empire troops capitulated to an inferior Japanese force.
As in the First World War Britain’s survival increasingly depended upon the aid of the US. On 8 February 1941, months before the US entered the war, Churchill called for the US to ‘give us the tools and we will finish the job’.5 This was a reference to the ‘lend lease’ bill, set to boost US aid to Britain (eventually providing $27 billion of aid)—at a price. In return for US aid Britain was forced to make huge economic concessions, limiting its rights to export to new markets and ending its dominance of trade within its empire. Fundamentally, US aid to Britain was a case of pure self-interest. Clive Ponting argues:
At best if Britain could be kept going through US arms [it] might defeat Hitler without the need for American military intervention. At worst, even if they were defeated they would have gained time for the United States to be ready to meet any challenge [to rearm].6
Even the loan of 50 outdated First World War destroyers to help combat the German U-boat threat in the Atlantic had to be paid for by the handover of British military bases.
Churchill’s belief that the ‘special relationship’ with the US would lead to an early American entry into the war was unfounded. Even the German invasion of Russia in June 1941 did not lead to US entry; only the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 caused the US to enter the war. Writing as war began, Trotsky outlined Britain’s position in the Second World War: ‘The war can only crush and disrupt the British Empire—that is why Mr Chamberlain was so friendly to Hitler during the Munich period [the agreement that allowed Hitler to take over Czechoslovakia in 1938]’.7 In other words, for those sections of Britain’s ruling class who could see the weakness of Britain’s economic position any compromise would have been preferable to a calamitous war that could only weaken their position on the global stage.
The hope that Hitler would turn his attentions away from British interests towards the East and ‘Bolshevik’ Russia was commonly held by many in British ruling class circles. As late as November 1939 (after Germany’s invasion of Poland and the infamous Hitler-Stalin pact) Chamberlain’s private secretary wrote, ‘We should play our hand very carefully with Russia, and not destroy the possibility of uniting, if necessary, with a new German government against the common danger [Bolshevism]’.8
For the US, entry into the war would herald a new era of global dominance. Trotsky looked at what US involvement in the war would mean: ‘If American capitalism survives, and it will survive for some time, we will have in the United States the most powerful imperialism and militarism in the world’.9
The disparity of power and the difference in aims (Britain attempting to maintain its empire by defeating Germany and Japan, the US attempting to establish a post-war ‘pax Americana’) between the two allies was to have a huge effect on the conduct of the war. In fact the tensions between the two countries were at their strongest over the establishment of the ‘second front’, the invasion and liberation of Western Europe.
There was one point of agreement between the US and Britain. Despite the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the huge defeats Britain had suffered in the Far East, the main Allied effort had to be directed against Germany. This was made all the more urgent by the plight of the Soviet Union, now an ally of Britain and the US and the country facing the vast bulk of Hitler’s forces. If the USSR were knocked out of the war, Germany’s position would be strengthened immeasurably.
In 1942, 27 German divisions were kept back to defend France, while 190 were committed to the fight against the USSR. The Russians might not be able to hang on. Four million German troops and their allies had invaded the USSR in the summer of 1941. The Russians had suffered unbelievable losses with whole armies surrounded and destroyed by the German Blitzkrieg. War in the East was no ordinary war. It was to be, according to the Nazis, a ‘Rassenkampf’—a race war. It was to be what Hitler described as a ‘battle between two opposing worldviews, a battle of annihilation’.10
The Wehrmacht was up to its neck in the genocidal nature of the conflict that saw tens of millions killed in the USSR and across Eastern Europe. As Anthony Beevor argues of the German Sixth Army, later destroyed at Stalingrad, ‘Sixth Army headquarters, for example, co-operated with SS Sonderkommando—they even provided troops to assist the round-up of Jews in Kiev and transport them to the ravine of Babi Yar’.11
Throughout the autumn of 1941 Germany had advanced. By the end of the year it had reached the gates of Moscow and laid siege to Leningrad. Despite setbacks the Germans’ push towards the Caucasus in the summer of 1942 seemed to take them to the point of victory. The battle for the Volga town of Stalingrad cost millions of lives. The defeat of Hitler’s Sixth Army in February 1943 at Stalingrad was to prove the turning point of the war, but as the US entered the war the survival of the USSR was very much in doubt.
It seemed urgent to come to Russia’s aid as soon as possible, but the Western allies were divided over how and when to strike against Germany.
The Americans clearly favoured a direct assault on the European mainland: as early as March 1942 the US chief of staff Marshall had the future D-Day commander Eisenhower draw up a plan for the opening of a second front on the continent. The planned landings would be on a vast scale and were planned for April 1943. The invasion was codenamed ‘Round-up’. An emergency plan (‘Sledgehammer’) was developed to land forces, if possible as early as the autumn of 1942.
The British response to such plans was cool at best. Churchill and his commanders were all for the US directing its soldiers and resources to the West but saw any attempt at an early return to the European mainland as premature. Talks between the US, Britain and the USSR over the second front led to confusion. In May 1942 the US State Department and Soviet foreign minister Molotov announced Allied agreement for a planned landing in 1942—this at a time when Britain was in fact pushing for an Allied landing in North Africa! Churchill’s response was to argue, ‘It would not further the Russian cause or that of the Allies as a whole if, for the sake of action at any price, we embarked on some operation which ended in disaster’.12
Angus Calder writes:
Churchill had publicly rebuked those who were chalking ‘second front now’ on the walls, indicating that Britain’s resources were so fully stretched already that such action was out of the question. He still saw North Africa as the key to victory.13
Despite Britain’s weakness Churchill was to continue the battle to postpone any cross-Channel attack in favour of a more indirect policy that he believed favoured British interests. Gabriel Kolko wrote: ‘The British objective was to employ their very limited resources carefully in a global struggle at precisely those points where they might have the maximum effect’.14
Britain scuppered any idea of an invasion of Western Europe in 1942, winning US president Roosevelt’s support for Operation Torch, the invasion of French North Africa in November 1942. The landings, following Rommel’s defeat at the hands of Montgomery’s Eighth Army at El Alamein, enabled the Allies to surround and defeat the Germans and Italians in North Africa. From the British point of view victory in North Africa secured the Suez Canal and the route to Britain’s imperial ‘jewel in the crown’, India. Victory saved British oil interests in Iran and Iraq. But the campaign was a sideshow compared to the huge conflict on the Eastern Front.
Victory in North Africa encouraged Churchill’s military commanders to push for further action in the Mediterranean. The British, haunted by their losses in the First World War and scared of a bloody cross-Channel invasion, saw the next step as following up North African success with the invasion of Sicily and Italy. Taking out Italy would ‘overstretch’ the German army as it would be forced to replace Italian forces in Italy and the Balkans with German troops. In Churchill’s eyes Italian defeat opened up the ‘soft underbelly’ of Europe and the possibility of involving Turkey in the war.
Britain’s later wartime involvement in Greece and Churchill’s infamous dinner with Stalin (where they carved up spheres of influence on the back of an envelope) shows that the Mediterranean campaign dovetailed with Churchill’s post-war plans. Although opposed to a Mediterranean diversion of resources away from the second front in France, US military leaders agreed to operations continuing in return for firm British commitments to a date for landings in 1944—both sides agreed to April 1944.
In July 1943 the Allies invaded Sicily. When the island fell and with Italy’s government offering peace they invaded the mainland in September. The Italian collapse did ‘overstretch’ the Wehrmacht. Some 50 divisions out of the German army’s 300 were forced to transfer to Italy and the Balkans as Italy was knocked out of the war. But every success in the Mediterranean made Britain less willing to commit to (the renamed) ‘Overlord’, the invasion of France. As late as November 1943 a British Joint Chiefs of Staff paper argued:
We must not regard Overlord on a fixed date as the pivot of our whole strategy. The German strength in France next spring may be something that makes Overlord impossible.15
However, the meeting of the ‘Big Three’ at the Tehran conference in November 1943 finally overruled British objections and committed the US and Britain to cross-Channel invasion in May 1944. Now both allies were committed to the invasion. The invasion was to be led by the US’s General Eisenhower as Supreme Allied Commander. But the first part of the battle—the initial landings and the breakout from the landing areas in Normandy—was to be under the command of the British hero of El Alamein, Montgomery. One of Britain’s few real popular heroes, Montgomery was seen as part of the new breed of military professionals, a world away from the ‘Colonel Blimps’ who had contributed to earlier wartime failures.
Five divisions (two American, two British and one Canadian) were to land on D-Day from 4,000 landing craft. This initial landing was to build up rapidly until 38 divisions were landed for the initial phase. Increasingly the US forces would grow as against the British component—only in the first stages would Britain be able to play an equal part with the US, if Canadian and Polish divisions can be counted in the British total. They were to be supported by huge numbers of warships to pound the German defences, the ‘Atlantic Wall’, and preceded by three divisions of US and British paratroopers. Twelve thousand Allied aircraft would support the landings:
We must blast our way on shore and get a good lodgement before the enemy can bring up sufficient reserves to turn us out. We must gain space rapidly and peg out claims well inland—then we will have the lodgement area we want and can begin to expand.16
The first thing to say is that despite the Allied superiority in material the Normandy campaign was a close-run thing. Leading figures had huge doubts about the campaign’s success. Eisenhower carried a letter with him for the first month of the campaign stating:
Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.17
Just before the invasion the chief of Britain’s Imperial General Staff, Field Marshall Brooke, wrote, ‘I am very uneasy about the whole operation… At worst it may well be the most ghastly disaster of the whole war’.18
The landings themselves did not go to plan. The paratroopers of the US 82nd and 101st and the British Sixth Airborne were often dropped miles from their targets. As shown graphically in Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, the American landings at Omaha beach (each beach was codenamed: Juno, Sword, Utah, Gold and Omaha) almost turned into a disaster. Intelligence reports on the beaches’ defences were wrong. Instead of older soldiers or Russian and Polish prisoners, the Americans faced the experienced 352nd Infantry Division. The pre-landing bombardment was too short—bombing missed the beach defences and supporting amphibious tanks foundered in the Channel. The result:
The Germans patiently held their fire until the first wave of men hit the beaches, then all hell broke loose. Heavy fire from automatic weapons and mortars raked the beaches, inflicting heavy casualties on the confused, badly exposed troops.19
Colonel George Taylor told his men:
Two kinds of people are staying on this beach—the dead and those about to die. Now let’s get the hell out of here.20
Cornelius Ryan explains:
The second wave of troops arrived on the shambles that was Omaha beach. Men splashed ashore under the saturating fire of the enemy along the crescent-shaped strip of beach. Dead Americans gently nudged each other in the water.21
In all the Americans suffered 2,000 casualties on Omaha beach. At one stage the 352nd Division reported that they had thrown the Americans back into the sea. The Germans had one chance to push the Allies into the sea: they had to counter-attack hard with the panzer divisions stationed in France for just this purpose. But control of the divisions was split between Rommel and a strategic reserve under Hitler’s direct control. Stephen Ambrose argues:
The German command structure was a disaster. Hitler’s mistrust of his generals and the generals’ mistrust of Hitler were worth a king’s ransom to the Allies.22
When the invasion came Rommel was in Germany (the bad weather had convinced him an invasion was impossible) and desperate pleas by commanders on the scene to use the panzers were blocked. As news of the invasion came in Hitler slept: ‘His adjutants now hesitated to waken him with mistaken information’.23 According to D’Este, ‘Hitler did not learn of the invasion until midday on 6 June’.24
It was 1600 hours when Hitler at last gave his approval. By then the clouds had broken up and Allied fighters and bombers ranged the skies over Normandy. The panzers had to crawl into roadside woods and wait under cover for darkness.25
Ian Kershaw argues in his biography of Hitler:
The delay was critical. Had they moved by night, the panzer divisions might have made a difference. Their movements by day were hampered… They suffered severe losses of men and material.26
Why is all this important? Because the victory in Normandy was not inevitable. Kershaw goes on to argue, ‘What appears in retrospect to have been almost an inexorable triumph of “Operation Overlord” could have turned out quite differently’.27 Despite the devastating implications of an Allied invasion Hitler had almost looked forward to the event:
If only they would land half a million men…and then foul weather and storms cut them off in the rear. Then everything would be alright.28
His first reaction to the invasion was:
The news couldn’t be better… As long as they were in Britain we couldn’t get at them. Now we have them where we can destroy them.29
But despite Allied setbacks, once the landings were secure there was little chance that the Werhmacht could dislodge the Allies. By the time the Panzers were released the heavy cloud cover experienced on 6 June had dissipated and the tanks were bombed and strafed all the way to the coast by thousands of Allied planes.
The conduct of the campaign was far less bold than Montgomery’s original plans envisioned. Initial success in the landings was not followed up. Despite the weight of the attacks and the superiority of Allied airpower the Germans were able to blunt attempts by British and US forces to break out of their Normandy bridgehead.
After the early euphoria surrounding the landings, inter-Allied friction increased as their forces became bogged down. The British were blamed by their US allies for their timidity in failing to take the strategic town of Caen, a D-Day objective until 22 July. The final breakout was not obtained until August, led by US armour commanded by Montgomery’s great rival, Patton.
Huge differences between US and British commanders (kept secret for decades afterwards) were exacerbated by a number of factors. Firstly the Germans didn’t play ball. Despite a muddled command structure and Hitler’s orders for not an inch of ground to be given up, the Wehrmacht used the ‘bocage’ (grove) country of Normandy brilliantly to hang on for months after the initial landing. Allied underestimation of the German will to fight was a pretty common factor at every level of the Allied military machine. The two Allied armies had very different qualities. US soldiers were less war-weary and better trained than their British partners. And a huge factor in British caution was their manpower crisis.
The demands of war industry and the needs of the army, navy and RAF stretched British manpower. With casualties in Normandy concentrated among infantrymen the British were simply unable to make good their losses in frontline rifle units. Units were increasingly ‘cannibalised’ to make up for losses. Lack of manpower led to caution, which prevented the exploitation of openings for fear of losses. Failure to seize opportunities resulted in a battle of attrition more akin to the First World War, resulting in the very casualties British commanders wished to avoid. By the end of the war the US army would greatly outnumber the British at every level—the British were dependent upon the US. No wonder Montgomery argued, ‘The good general must not only win his battles; he must win them with a minimum of casualties’.30
D-Day: the moment the war was won?
No controversy over tactics has ever threatened the central argument made in both Britain and the US—the Allied invasion of France was the pivotal moment of the war. But was D-Day the war-winning battle we were told about in school?
Defeat in Normandy was a huge blow for the Wehrmacht. When the front finally collapsed in August 1944 there was a slaughter. The battle for the Falaise pocket saw German divisions surrounded and annihilated: ‘German columns four-deep, intermingled with groups of men, guns, horses and vehicles, strove to achieve the Mount Ormel heights, pursued by the RAF, harried by artillery’.31
Of the 56 infantry divisions that had opposed the Allied landings 15 were destroyed completely and by August the fragments of the other 40 were running towards the Seine. Of the 11 armoured divisions two had lost all their tanks and the other nine were mere shadows of their former power. The Germans had lost 1,300 tanks, had 200,000 men taken prisoner and 50,000 dead.32 But the army in the West was not defeated. The Germans were able to stop Montgomery’s plan to ‘end the war by Christmas’—Operation Market Garden, the airborne landings in Holland in September. They even counter-attacked in the West at the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944.
German losses in Normandy in no way compared to those lost on the Eastern Front. Chris Bambery writes:
In the year November 1942 to October 1943 the Eastern army had lost 1,686,000 men and had received only 1,260,000 replacements. Stalingrad was a terrible blow. Hitler complained in the spring of 1944, ‘I can sketch where every division was at Stalingrad. Hour after hour it goes on’.33
He goes on to argue:
But terrible as Germany’s defeat at Stalingrad was, it cost Hitler 20 divisions—just a tenth of the Ostheer’s strength and a fifteenth of the Wehrmacht’s whole strength. This was dwarfed by the losses inflicted in June 1944 in Byelorussia. This little-known battle resulted in German losses of 300,000 with 28 divisions simply written off.34
So, as important as the battles in Normandy may have been, it’s pretty clear that the main force responsible for destroying Hitler’s military power was Stalin’s Red Army—not the main lesson I was taught on those Sunday afternoons watching The Longest Day and A Bridge Too Far!
The view from below
Years of war led to a radicalisation in British society, starting with the British debacle at Dunkirk. The British public, brought up on tales of the country’s military prowess, was shocked by the defeat. The pamphlet The Guilty Men, which sold in its thousands, put the blame for defeat squarely on the shoulders of the ‘men of Munich’, the traditional British establishment. It painted an image of brave ‘Tommies’ let down by politicians:
One Bren gun, one hero, against eight Heinkels. Three bayonets and three heroes against machine-guns. Relays of Nazi bombers against nonexistent British fighters.35
The popular reaction to the Blitz in the winter of 1940-1941 wasn’t just to grin and bear it, as the popular myth would have it. Angus Calder writes, ‘Fairly or unfairly, the reaction of the East Enders to the failure of the authorities to plan for the real nature of the Blitz was first bewilderment, then anger.’ The Communist Party organised protesters to occupy the shelter at the Ritz to highlight the fact that the rich could find protection while the poor were bombed. A general feeling that something fundamental had to change developed. People didn’t want to suffer for nothing as they’d done in the First World War. George Orwell expressed the mood:
The defeat in Flanders will turn out to have been one of the great turning points in English history. In that spectacular disaster the working class, the middle class and even a section of the business community could see the utter rottenness of private capitalism.36
Spanish Civil War veteran Tom Wintringham, a leading figure in the Home Guard, coined the phrase the ‘People’s War’. J B Priestley described the new ‘militant citizen’.
By November the government’s mass observation study was reporting that many now regarded the war as a radical or revolutionary struggle. Politicisation also spread into the armed forces. Its height in the British armed forces arrived later in the war with the ‘forces parliament’ in Cairo. In the autumn and winter of 1943 hundreds of soldiers met to discuss the big political issues of the day. They elected a ‘mock’ parliament which, under Communist Party influence, elected a Labour landslide (soldiers’ votes were a big factor in sweeping Labour into power in 1945). The army authorities had at first approved the parliament—now they took fright. In April the parliament was closed down: ‘Several of those who had served on its parliamentary committee were “posted” elsewhere’.37
The attack on the USSR in June 1941 was the galvanising factor behind popular support for the second front. Angus Calder writes:
Stalin broadcast to the Russian masses, announcing the ‘scorched earth’ policy that appalled yet captured the British imagination. Interest in war news quickened. People began to feel shame-faced that Russia was pouring out her life blood while Britain except on her east coast enjoyed a respite from bombing.38
Until this stage Britain really had ‘stood alone’ in Europe, with its chief support resting on its overseas colonies and dominions. Now there was an ally on the European mainland, even if that ally was a ‘Communist’ one. Even while offering his support to the USSR against Hitler, Churchill stated:
The Nazi regime is indistinguishable from the worst features of Communism. No one has been a more consistent opponent of Communism than I.39
There certainly was an opportunity to galvanise support for the USSR and for the opening of a second front to aid the Russian army. Up until the invasion of the USSR the chief radical political organisation inside the British working class movement, the Communist Party (CP), had opposed the war. The CP had supported war against Hitler for the first few days of September 1939 until orders from Moscow had led to a change of line. On 3 September the CP’s paper the Daily Worker had argued, ‘We are in support of all necessary measures to secure victory of the democracy over fascism’.40
Harry Pollitt, the general secretary of the CP, wrote a pamphlet, How to Win the War. It went on sale on 12 September, and 50,000 copies were printed. Support for the war effort was the logical continuation of the CP’s policies since the mid-1930s, the popular front against fascism. This policy had seen Communist parties across the world making alliances with ‘progressive forces’ prepared to oppose fascism even if, as in Spain, the policy set the CP against developing revolutionary movements to keep its bourgeois allies on side. Such a policy wedded ordinary workers’ desire for unity against fascism with Stalin’s need for military alliances abroad. The CP’s unity with Liberal and Tory alike against fascism would hopefully win respectability for the party and for Stalin in his search for military partners. But overtures to France and Britain had failed and in August Stalin had signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler, freeing Hitler to invade Poland. In return Stalin received his payment—huge parts of the defeated Poland. As a result the popular front was out and Stalin’s Comintern argued the war was ‘an imperialist and unjust war for which the bourgeoisie of all belligerent states bear an equal responsibility’.41 By 24 September the CP was arguing, ‘The bourgeoisie is not conducting war against fascism as Chamberlain and the leaders of the Labour Party pretend’.42
Some individuals did put up a fight against this 180-degree turn. Harry Pollitt was sacked from his position and replaced by more loyal supporters of the Moscow line. Pollitt argued at the CP’s central committee meeting on 2 October 1940, ‘I don’t envy comrades who can so lightly in the space of a week go from one political conviction to another’.43
The CP turned to campaigning for a people’s government and a people’s peace and organising for a people’s convention. The Daily Worker even called for the government to respond to Hitler’s peace moves. Despite the confusion of the line change the CP position met with some success. When the convention met on 12 January 1941, 2,234 delegates attended. The organisers claimed the delegates represented some 1.2 million people in affiliated organisations. The convention showed that despite ordinary workers’ hatred of fascism many were not prepared to go through another worldwide slaughter. The success of the convention caused some worries in government circles and led to the suppression of the Daily Worker.
But the line changed again with the invasion of Russia. The former chief supporter of the war policy, Harry Pollitt, was brought back into the party leadership. On 23 June he argued, ‘The people of this country should fully support every measure taken by the British government to secure the effective joint defence of the British and Soviet peoples against German fascism.’ Pollitt pulled the CP behind the war and behind Churchill (a step too far for some in the CP’s leadership). He offered Churchill support ‘wholeheartedly without any reservations’.44
The CP began to push for all-out war production and for the second front. They helped to initiate shop stewards’ conferences to speed up production: ‘The Communist-controlled shop stewards’ national council held a mass meeting in London in October  where delegates recounted case after case of “inefficiency”’.45
The CP pushed for Joint Production Committees composed of workers’ and employers’ representatives to speed up production. And the class struggle could not be allowed to get in the way of the push to produce more. Harry Pollitt said of millionaire newspaper proprietor and member of Churchill’s cabinet Lord Beaverbrook, ‘In the first two minutes we could agree that there was a class war, that he is on one side and I am on the other, and that for the duration of the anti-fascist struggle there is a truce’.46 As an enthusiastic supporter of the second front Beaverbrook was now a key ally. His Daily Express called meetings to support the second front—Beaverbrook even spoke out in praise of Stalin!
Everything had to be thrown into supporting the USSR and pushing for the opening of the second front. The CP called for an end to the ban on the Daily Worker, as it was needed to back the government’s drive to increase production. On 22 September 1941 the government launched ‘Tanks for Russia’ week. This met with genuine enthusiasm across the country, energetically supported by the CP. The central point of the CP’s work was to throw itself into agitation for the opening of the second front:
In May  an estimated 50,000 attended a second front demonstration in Trafalgar Square. At a huge rally in London that month [June 1942] to celebrate the anniversary of the invasion of Russia the audience applauded ‘like baying wolves’, one speaker noted, ‘at every mention of the second front’.47
The new line led to a huge growth in the CP’s membership. The party conference in May 1942 showed that party membership had leapt from 22,000 at the end of 1941 to 53,000. Of the 1,323 delegates 700 were from key war industries.48 A CP pamphlet in July 1942 stated:
The position at the moment is more serious than it has ever been. It can be changed only if Britain and the US throw their forces into the scales by opening the second front in Europe.49
The same pamphlet brands as ‘traitors to socialism’ the Independent Labour Party MPs who had voted against Churchill’s government following the British disaster at Tobruk in June 1942. It implied strongly that they were in league with a pro-Nazi ‘fifth column’. As this last comment shows, there were forces to the left of the Communist Party, forces they saw as irresponsible and dangerous.
The Common Wealth Party emerged in mid-1942. It was an expression of the general radicalisation in British society. A mix of everything from Marxism to liberalism, the party challenged the Churchill-led coalition government at the polls and pushed for the immediate implementation of Beveridge’s report, which became the basis for the welfare state. The Beveridge report became symbolic of people’s wish for a better society. Angus Calder gives an impression of the response to the report:
The public welcome given to the report was well nigh universal. The national press, with the exception of The Daily Telegraph, behaved as though it fell only slightly short of the millennium—635,000 copies were sold; 86 percent believed the report should be adopted.50
British Trotskyists had some influence in a number of wartime strikes and were roundly attacked by the CP as agents of Hitler for doing so. The Trotskyists attempted to argue that greater working class control of the war effort would be the most successful way of beating the Nazis.
This policy, developed by the US Socialist Workers Party, the largest section of Trotsky’s Fourth International, was known as the ‘Proletarian Military Policy’. The policy attempted to build a bridge between the Trotskyists who analysed the Second World War as an imperialist war and workers who wanted to see the military defeat of fascism. In the few factories where they had real influence British Trotskyists attempted to implement this policy. At the Royal Ordnance factory in Nottingham they were able to win increasing elements of workers’ control of production in order to produce weapons more efficiently, but nationally the Trotskyists were a tiny force and were unable to generalise such positive experiences. And the big guns of the workers’ movement, Churchill’s Labour coalition partners and the CP, fought for a policy of class truce to win the war.
However, popular support for the USSR and for the second front did not mean all British workers agreed that they should pay the price for the war. Tony Cliff argues, ‘Although Labour participation in government was supposed to show that all classes were in the war effort on an equal footing workers could not help noting that, in Rosa Luxemburg’s phrase, “profits are springing like weeds from the fields of the dead”’.51 He goes on to show the big rise in union membership from 1939 to 1945, from 4.5 million before the war to almost 7 million at its end.
Despite the pressure of the war effort and the influence of the CP, by 1942 strike figures had climbed back to pre-war levels. Angus Calder argues:
Both trade unionists and management feared that concessions made now would leave them at a disadvantage in the post-war depression (commonly believed to be inevitable at the war’s end). Workers who resisted dilution or refused to scrap restrictive practices were certainly contributing to inefficiency but the 1920s and 1930s had made such attitudes very hard to break.52
In 1943 1.8 million days were lost to strike action and 3.7 million in 1944. While two thirds of strikes were in the traditionally militant coalfields, engineering, the heart of the war industry, was the second hardest hit. Many of these strikes were short-lived and the figures in no way match the figures for the high point of British working class struggle in the period following the end of the First World War. But they do show that despite the hold of Labour and the CP and the threat of government repression many workers didn’t recognise Harry Pollitt’s ‘truce’ in the class struggle.
But there was no major force inside the British working class able or prepared to bring together the will to fight fascism with the class antagonism that still existed in British society. The only force that could have done so, the CP, had abandoned the class struggle until a later date.
Across Europe the Communist parties were to play the same role. The bravest of fighters against fascism, they were to put ‘national unity’ first even if that meant passing up the chance to develop the power of the workers’ movement. In France and Italy this meant missing the opportunity to build a working class movement capable of challenging for power.
The US and Britain were not so much a band of brothers as a band of warring brothers. Their mutual interest in defeating German fascism and Japanese militarism could not hide the deep divisions that existed between the declining British Empire and the emerging American one.
The ‘great crusade’ launched at D-Day was a great blow to the Wehrmacht but represented only a fraction of the effort expended by the USSR, an effort that broke the back of the German military. And while the ‘great crusade’ had large-scale popular support there was no ceasefire in the battle between employed and employer. Most workers believed that, just as after the First World War, war would be followed by recession. Concessions made to help the war effort would come back to haunt them. Sadly despite its implantation in the workers’ movement the CP’s popular front politics did not allow it to lead both the militant workers’ desire to fight Hitler and their desire to fight the enemy at home.
British workers greeted the Beveridge report with great enthusiasm. They showed an ongoing mistrust in the ruling class’s desire to get to grips with Hitler by opening a second front. They took strike action to defend their living standards in the midst of war and booted out Winston Churchill’s government at the first chance they got. All this points to the fact that a more radical policy carried out by the CP could have led to the emergence of a very different post-war Britain.
As for today, the ‘special relationship’ between the US and Britain goes on. But what first appeared as tragedy now appears as farce. Blair’s poodle impressions have sickened millions. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the abandonment of the road map for peace in Palestine have all been swallowed by Blair. In the last few weeks he has resisted calls from within his own party to distance himself from the Bush administration—still he goes on standing shoulder to shoulder with George W Bush. From ‘brothers in arms’ Britain has become the US’s loyal attack dog. All the hopes of those who fought on 6 June 1944 for a better and more peaceful world have, to paraphrase Dr Martin Luther King, been shot down on the battlefields of Iraq—just as they were shot down on previous battlefields from Korea to Vietnam.
- S Ambrose, D-Day (Pocket Books, 1994), p171.
- C D’Este, Decision in Normandy (Penguin, 1983), p13.
- As above.
- C Bambery, ‘Was the Second World War a War for Democracy?’, International Socialism 67 (Summer 1995), p55.
- C Ponting, 1940: Myth and Reality (Cardinal, 1990), p217.
- As above, p198.
- L Trotsky, ‘On the Eve of World War II’, Writings of Leon Trotsky 1939/40 (Pathfinder), p23.
- C Ponting, as above, p47.
- L Trotsky, as above, p26.
- A Beevor, Stalingrad (Viking, 1998), p17.
- As above, p15.
- J Keegan, Six Armies in Normandy (Pimlico, 1982), p54.
- A Calder, The People’s War (Pimlico, 1992), p297.
- G Kolko,The Politics of War (Pantheon, 1990), p198.
- J Keegan, as above, p54.
- As above, p58.
- C D’Este, as above, p110.
- As above, p109.
- As above, p141.
- As above.
- C Ryan, The Longest Day (Gollancz, 1960), p166.
- S Ambrose, as above, p480.
- I Kershaw, Hitler, vol 2, Nemesis, 1936-1945 (Allen Lane, 2000).
- C D’Este, as above, p112.
- S Ambrose, as above, p481.
- I Kershaw, as above.
- As above, p641.
- J Keegan, as above, p143.
- S Ambrose, as above, p481.
- C D’Este, as above, p252.
- J Keegan, as above, p272.
- As above, figures for German casualties in Normandy, p285.
- C Bambery, as above, p64.
- As above, p64.
- A Calder, as above, p137.
- As above, p137.
- N Branson, History of the Communist Party of Great Britain 1927-1941 (Lawrence and Wishart, 1997), p59.
- A Calder, as above, p261.
- As above, p261.
- N Branson, as above, p265.
- As above, p268.
- As above, p331.
- F Beckett, Enemy Within: The Rise and Fall of the British Communist Party (Merlin, 1998), p100.
- As above.
- A Calder, as above, p262.
- F Beckett, as above, p99.
- A Calder, as above, p298.
- N Branson, as above, p1.
- As above.
- A Calder, as above, p215.
- T Cliff and D Gluckstein, The Labour Party: A Marxist History (Bookmarks, 1988), p203.
- A Calder, as above, p259.