Normandy: New Perspectives
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Mat: Hello everyone welcome to Living History and an episode that I think you will really enjoy. We’re speaking to Gary Sheffield, who’s been on the podcast before. You’d recognize him from his books, from his TV work, but also from that previous episode of the podcast where we talked about the plans, the Nazi plans to invade England during the Second World War. So if you haven’t checked that episode out, certainly do because it was one of the most popular we’ve ever done. Today we’re still focusing on World War II with Gary, but we’re going to shift to the direction slightly to France. We’re going to talk about Normandy but in particular some new perspectives on Normandy campaign, because there’s a few misconceptions out. There’s a very interesting public perception that might not actually hold up to the reality, so it’s gonna be great to dig into that a little bit further. Gary, thanks for joining us on Living History.
Mat: I think through movies such as Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers and this is obviously been over the decades a whole stream of movies about Normandy, and because most of them have come out of America, there seems to be this perception that Normandy was either a wholly or mostly American operation, but that’s not really the story, is it?
Gary: Absolutely not! It was a coalition operation, and we should never forget that the ground campaign was up to the end of the battle was commanded by General, as he was then, Sir Berrnard Montgomery, a British commander. There was significant number of British troops on the ground in Normandy; also Canadians and indeed some other nations, so for example there was a Polish Armoured Division serving there by the end of the campaign, and that’s even before we begin to look at the massive contribution in the air and at sea of Britain. So it was very much a coalition operation. In fact, probably it’s the last time in history that Britain and the United States have had something like equal strength on the ground in a campaign, because after Normandy the Americans did race ahead in terms of numbers of troops but Normandy is very, very much a joint-venture.
Mat: Well you make a great point about the combined contribution there, because even from our position as Australians, there weren’t a lot of Australians who landed on the beaches on D-Day or who fought with the infantry, but there are an awful lot of Aussies in the Air Force and in the Navy, without which there would…the Naval and the Air Force contribution was absolutely essential for the entire Normandy campaign, wasn’t it?
Gary: Oh, absolutely it was and it brings home one of the themes of quite a lot of recent scholarship for both world wars actually, that when we talk about the British what we’re really talking about is the British Empire, and of course in the Second World War, the Air Force in particular was so thoroughly integrated that you might have a bomber crew which might have a Pom pilot, an Australian navigator, a Kiwi rear gunner. It really was an integrated empire force so yeah, there were a fair few Australians serving in the Normandy campaign.
Mat: As well as you mentioned, so many of those other our brothers in the Empire, as it was at the time. Why do you think it is, Gary that over the years the story of Normandy has evolved to this American narrative, because what I’m not trying to play down obviously the role of the Americans in Normandy, though they were absolutely vitally important? Why do you think the story though at least from, perhaps it might be different in the UK, but at least in other parts of the world did the stories evolved to be mostly an American story? Is it as simple as the fact that the Americans just churn out lots of good TV and movies about the subject?
Gary: I think it’s got something to do with that certainly because you mentioned Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan. We should go further back to the early ‘60s and you have The Longest Day which of course is actually an Anglo-American production but somehow it’s the American elements you tend to remember. Also I think for the point of view of Britain, historians really since the early 1950s have been quite almost dismissive of the British contributions of the Normandy campaign, and all of that sort of added to the idea this is mainly an American victory, and again I’m certainly not underplaying the absolutely critical importance of the Americans in Normandy, but it wasn’t just the Americans.
Mat: I wonder if one of the factors of this story as well is that for many of the American forces who participated in either the D-Day landings or the Normandy campaign, this was their first operation. You know there’s a real feeling from the American perspective that their first operation in Europe was D-Day in 1944, whereas for the poor old Poms that were there, many of them had been fighting since 1940. So there’s kind of this fresh new narrative that this was the first step in this sort of glorious American adventure in Europe. Do you think that’s a fair comment?
Gary: Well, no to be honest because I’ve certainly seen that perspective but of course the Americans have been involved in what they called the ETO, the European Theatre of Operations since late 1942. American troops landed on the North Africa coast in the Torch invasion, then of course you had a British/American/Canadian attack on Sicily in July ’43, and of course significant numbers of American troops fighting in Italy in 1944, but I think what is true to say is that Normandy, indeed the rest of the fighting in northwest Europe, puts the Mediterranean into the shade so I think this is seen as being something new and fresh for the Americans.
But it’s also worth making the point that there were some British veteran troops and indeed veteran formations in Normandy but many of them weren’t. 3rd Division for example, which had fought at Dunkirk in 1940 is actually Montgomery’s old division, also landed on Sword Beach on D-Day on the 6th June 1944, but effectively it was a fresh division. There were very few 1940 veterans left. A really surprisingly large number of British troops spent the years 1940 to 1944 in training in the UK, rather than fighting in the Mediterranean or elsewhere, and so some of these troops have been training for up to three years so there’s a lot of raw British troops as well, and there is a debate actually about whether they were not more effective than some of the frankly battle-weary troops who were brought home from the Mediterranean.
Mat: It’s a very interesting point there. I think it illustrates that great distinction we have to make when we look at military history that the difference between the collective and the individual. So you may say that some units have been serving throughout the war and because of that they may have more efficient leaders and more efficient systems in place, but the men on the front line may all be brand new.
Gary: That’s right, and there’s certainly some evidence to suggest that 3rd Division, which effectively was a brand new division, fought rather better at least the beginning of the Normandy campaign than the 51st Highland Division which of course was a veteran division from North Africa and the Mediterranean, and 51st Highland Division’s performance certainly improved as the campaign went on. There was some key personnel changes at the top. There’s very much a sense that people had already been through perhaps three pretty gruelling campaigns, so they’ve been asked to do to do a fourth, and so it was a fine call about getting that balance between experienced troops and green troops, matching experience with enthusiasm, and the British didn’t always entirely get it right, at least at the beginning of the Normandy campaign.
Mat: Probably one of the lines in Saving Private Ryan that got the most feathers ruffled was when, I think was Ted Danson who said it, but there was a suggestion that Monty was moving too slowly and that was holding up the advance and it was constricting the Americans. I mean, it’s only a movie of course but it echoes a perception that while the Americans were charging forward and ready to grapple with the Germans close up, the British were advancing cautiously. Do you think that’s accurate? Is it an accurate suggestion that the British were moving more slowly and cautiously than the Americans were?
Gary: There’s certainly some truth in that, and there was a lot of contemporary criticism from George S. Patton, among other senior Americans of course, not much more junior Americans, but I think to understand the reason why, I think you’ve actually got to look back into the long term. Britain of course in 1944, was in the fifth year of war. As I’ve just said, substantial portions of the army had spent 1940-1944 in the UK. it actually also had done a lot of fighting in Europe and the Mediterranean and elsewhere, and of course the big black cloud hanging over not just the British Army but British society in this time was the First World War, and we should never forget that the senior commanders of the Second World War had been junior or middle ranking officers in the 1st, so of course Bernard Montgomery went off to war in 1914 as a Lieutenant in the Royal Warwickshires, and he was badly wounded, came back and became a staff officer. He ended up as a Lieutenant-Colonel, Chief of Staff of a Division in 1918, and so there’s a huge amount of experience of the First World War and basically if people agreed about nothing else in the 1930s, they agreed that Britain could never go through another gruelling, bloody experience like the Western Front, and so that’s very much in the back of everybody’s minds.
Also I think very important to bear in mind is that Britain basically was trying to do too much in 1944. Really in terms of manpower, the cupboard was bare. If you think about it, Britain’s fighting a major campaign in northwest Europe, in Normandy, in the Mediterranean. It’s fighting in the Far East. It’s got this enormous Air Force, much, much bigger than in the First World War, the Royal Navy. It has dot garrisons all over the globe. Basically it was trying to do too much. Montgomery was well aware if he took significant casualties in Normandy, in northwest Europe, his army was a wasting asset. It was not going to be easily replaced.
So put all these things together, you can see why the British would rather send a shell or a bomb or a tank, rather than a soldier. It’s been described as fighting with steel rather than flesh, the comparison being with the First World War. so yeah, the Brits were cautious on occasions and it did bring some criticism from the Americans and indeed historians, and sometimes that criticism is fair enough but it’s the Brits could be slow for very, very good reasons.
Mat: I think it’s important you mentioned the First World War to say that we look back on the Normandy campaign in hindsight, and note that it moved relatively quickly especially compared to the First World War, but that wasn’t always apparent at the time, was it? I mean, I’ve read accounts where they were concerned that once they landed in France, they could find themselves in the same sort of conditions they found themselves in on the Western Front, and that was a big preoccupation was to try and avoid simply having these impenetrable German lines and the stalemate we saw during the First World War.
Gary: Well that’s absolutely correct, and that’s more or less what happened. Of course it’s a different sort of stalemate. It isn’t really trenches, it’s foxholes. It’s the Germans making really excellent use of some very good terrain in various places. I’ve been very good training for the defenders I mean, particularly in the western part of Normandy, the so-called bocage where you have very small fields with earth and banks with hedges on them and sunken roads. Really they’re absolutely a defenders’ delight and of course in retrospect, we can see the Normandy was over quite quickly. They landed on 6th of June 1944, and the Allies had broken out of Normandy by August.
but in late June and July from the perspective of London in particular, it was started to look alarmingly like the First World War – very, very heavy casualties, attritional battles, inching forward and no obvious way of breaking through quickly – and I think it is fair to say…I think it’s fair to see rather Normandy as being in many ways an updated, more sophisticated version of the fighting, not really on that 1916 Somme fighting that most people associate with the First World War, but the sort of thing that was going on 100 days of 1918.
Again going back into the criticism of Montgomery and the Brits being slow, some of that comes down to the fact that the British made excellent use of three major assets. The first one is air power. The Allies had pretty well air supremacy for most of the campaign. The second one was the Navy. Of course because the Germans chose to fight close to the coast, actually then the Royal Navy and US Navy could carry out gunfire support in support of the troops, but above all artillery. Artillery as in 1918 was the real battle winner for the British and the artillery was used very, very effectively.
Now by its very nature if you’re fighting an artillery heavy battle, it’s not going to be a swift battle. It’s not going to be a fast-moving battle, but my argument and indeed the argument of many historians these days is that you don’t actually… war isn’t something like figure skating. You don’t sort of get points awarded for technical merit. so one of the arguments over the years about the German army allegedly being more effective than the British is that if you look at the way the Germans behave on a tactical level, you can actually make out that argument that possibly they were more skilful than the British, although I can name at least one British veteran of the Normandy campaign who vehemently denied it, but in a sense that’s utterly irrelevant because what did the Germans tactical fancy footwork get them? Where did it get them? It simply brought defeat because in the end the grinding, attritional, allied approach based on airpower, based on heavy artillery, based on armour, ground the Germans away and of course in the end, the Allies won a convincing victory in Normandy. So yeah if we ever get award points for technical merits, I can see the Germans might rate more highly than the British, but war is about winning. It’s about victory, and on that basis it’s a bit difficult to disagree that the British were pretty effective in Normandy.
Mat: Before we move on from this context of the First World War, I just want to throw in an interesting question. Gallipoli, many of the planners and leaders that led the British in Normandy would have served in Gallipoli, and Gallipoli of course up until the big amphibious operations of the Second World War was the largest amphibious operation we’d ever seen. Do you think that the disaster at Gallipoli weighed on the minds of planners and the other British leaders?
Gary: It certainly weighed very heavy on the mind of Winston Churchill for a long time. He was, to put it mildly, ambivalent about the entire Normandy campaign at one stage. I seem to remember he had a sort of nightmare about the seas of France running red with the flower of British and American manhood, and of course as a man who was one of the prime movers behind the Gallipoli campaign, you know he probably had a pretty guilty conscience about that. Actually the British, not so much in the interwar period but while the war was going on, had actually studied amphibious warfare pretty effectively. They’d looked at Gallipoli. they’d also looked at their own operations because of course another huge amphibious operation was Operation Husky, the landing on Sicily in July 1943, so what, eleven months before D-Day. That succeeded but a lot of things went wrong. They learned an awful lot of lessons from that.
Oddly, the biggest beneficiaries from studying Gallipoli were the Americans, particularly the US Marine Corps which basically had this amphibious commitment and spent the interwar period basically reverse engineering the Gallipoli campaign, learning what to do and learning what not to do, and that actually I think did have quite a significant impact on American thinking and planning for the Pacific. Ironically though, actually the American army planners in Europe didn’t pay too much attention to what was going on in the Pacific, partly because it was a Marine/Navy operation. also I think there’s a bit of the – if you don’t have the phrase in Australia – the “not invented here” syndrome going on, so actually they weren’t very keen on learning from what was going on elsewhere, and so I think that the British approach to amphibious operations was much, much more effective on D-Day in many ways than the American one was. You only have to compare Sword, Juno the Canadian beach, and Gold with Omaha of course and see everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong and it was nothing short of a miracle that the American troops actually got ashore.
Mat: It’s quite extraordinary to me, Gary when you say that about the “not invented here” syndrome that when the stakes are so high and especially when you’re talking about people’s lives, that there could be that sort of ambivalence to learning what was going on in the Pacific, particularly when there were so many effective amphibious operations happening in the Pacific.
Gary: It’s bureaucratic politics which always gets in the way. To put it into context, I was doing some reading on British and American high command before Normandy just the other day for something I’m doing at the moment, and it became pretty clear that some people actually were… well, slight exaggeration, they seem to be keener on fighting their enemies within their own forces than they were on taking on the Germans. High-stakes egos at play so don’t be entirely surprised that people take that attitude you know, regrettable though it undoubtedly was.
Mat: We mentioned that the British were potentially more cautious than the Americans wanted them to be, and were using their technology rather than flesh and blood to break through the German lines. I guess the most important question about that was, was it effective?
Gary: Yes, I think it was. The Americans I think it’s worth bearing in mind, going back to the First World War, had only seen heavy fighting in the last six weeks of the war. No actually the fighting was heavy and they took significant casualties but because it didn’t last very long in absolute terms, American casualties were quite light in comparison to the British and French and so on, and so in the Second World War, I think the Americans had almost the mentality that British had in the First. They were willing to take very, very heavy casualties in order to achieve objectives. Now the Brits simply didn’t do that. Society had changed. I think you can argue that for the Americans, their, if you like, Somme moment which actually affected the British came 25 years later in Vietnam, which made the Americans somewhat casualty-averse, but I think the British methods actually did work.
If you look at operations like the attritional battles like Goodwood, Epsom they worked in the sense of grinding down the Germans, inflicting attrition and ultimately that was all it was about. I mean, there are some tactical mistakes so for example the British and Operation Goodwood had a very, very bad mistake in separating the armour from the infantry but they learned from that, and by the end of the Normandy campaign, they’re starting to put things right on that front.
It’s worth bearing in mind we’ve said about the “not invented here” syndrome. The British actually are very poor about learning lessons from the Mediterranean. I think there is this view that not all the lessons that come from the desert or Italy are appropriate to north-western Europe. up to a point that’s fine, but basic things like the importance of infantry and armour cooperation have to be learned again from scratch, which is pretty amazing given that we’re in the fifth year of a war and an Army’s been fighting it. So the Americans are by no means the only people who actually have this “not invented here” syndrome and it’s pretty damaging.
Mat: You mentioned Goodwood and a couple of those other campaigns that took place, some of the other battles that took place during the campaign. It’s a really important point to stress that we tend to focus disproportionately on D-Day, where even when people visit the area, they want to go and see the beaches where their troops landed and they want to check out the landing areas. D-Day was the first day of a campaign that went on for months. How important is it that we look at this as a whole, rather than just focusing on that opening day of the campaign?
Gary: Oh, it’s so absolutely fundamental. I’ve taken a number of tours to Normandy over the years, and it’s always a pleasant change when I’m allowed to go inland as it were and not concentrate solely on the D-Day beaches and the landing areas, but yeah it’s like… think of any other big campaign, D-Day could not have been more critical. In amphibious operations, basically it’s a race between the assaulting troops – can they get ashore at all, and then can they build up sufficient combat power to break inland? That’s a race against the defenders who want to try and throw the attackers back into sea, so D-Day is absolute critical. I’m not arguing it wasn’t, but once they are ashore, what happens next?
Well the short answer is you need to break down the enemy in your front and win if you like a conventional land campaign, and we frankly know too little about it, or rather I should say most of people who aren’t specialist military historians, know too little about it. I vividly remember – it must have been in 1994, we had a quite a big celebration of what would have been the 50th anniversary of D-Day here in the UK and there’s lots of television programs and all sort and so forth, I remember talking to a Normandy veteran who didn’t arrive until mid-June but then saw some extremely heavy fighting. I remember him telling me basically he felt ignored. People simply weren’t interested in his story because he wasn’t there on the 6th of June.
I guess it’s understandable for people to zoom in on an obvious iconic day, but really to understand the Normandy campaign, you must understand 7th of June onwards. It’s not all about the 6th of June.
Mat: I think it’s natural even during even wartime, because I remember reading accounts from First World War veterans – Australians this is – talking about the men who landed at Anzac on the 25th of April held up as these gods amongst men, so even to the men themselves and these were men who were fighting now at Pozieres and Mont Saint-Quentin and Passchendaele and all these later battles that came, yet they still felt that the April 25 originals who landed at Gallipoli were the men they had to aspire to.
Gary: That’s a really interesting point and it’s worth making the connection that in both the case of Anzac Day as it’s called now, and D-Day, for very different reasons they have become iconic, and everything which happens after that is seen by some as a little bit of a disappointment or an anti-climax, I should say. Of course that’s utterly a historical attitude but nonetheless it’s there so to this day, if you go to Normandy you take a party to the battlefields or to the beaches I should say, you’ll see lots of other people looking at the same operations. Take it just a few miles inland and you’ll probably find nobody there.
In fact one of the my favorite battlefield walks in Normandy is to walk the path of 15th Scottish Division’s attack during Operation Epsom in late June, and you can walk along a road where you could walk from different Memorials, different places and really got a sense that probably nobody has been there since last time you were there. I’m an exaggeration but you take my point.
The inland fighting in Normandy has been so scandalously neglected in the popular media and in popular books, and of course it’s quite some telling that even when you do get a popular book on Normandy, so I think Anthony Beavers from a few years ago, it has to be given the title D-Day even though of course is about that’s a lot more than that, because Normandy campaign it doesn’t ring that many bells. D-Day – everybody knows what it means.
Mat: You touched earlier in the conversation, Gary on the Germans and their tactical abilities compared to the Allies. Let’s dig into that a little bit deeper, because even to today, there is a perception that the Germans were the superior fighting force and they were simply overwhelmed by the industrial might of the collective Allies. Talk to me a little bit about that. Is it fair to say that the Germans were a superior force? Did they have superior equipment? Was blitzkrieg a revolution? I mean, that could probably take up a whole podcast on its own, but just give me your perception in terms of the Normandy campaign and the efficiencies of the Germans versus the Allies.
Gary: Like all myths, the idea of massive German tactical superiority in Normandy contains a grain of truth. There is no doubt that German troops were very tough, very, very resilient, and very difficult to beat at the tactical level. There’s all sorts of reasons for that. One of them is fairly straightforward, that the Germans actually had a very impressive and generally quite efficient system of supplying officers, and it’s worth making a comparison here with the British or with the Canadians, where you tended to get soldiers who either came straight from civilian life or possibly they’d pass through the ranks. Most did pass through the ranks by the later stages of the war but they would then go off to an officer cadet unit, or an officer – cadet training unit and they would be trained, and then they would be posted to their units and then they would leave their men into battle, and it might well be the first time they heard a bullet fired was when they were taking their platoon into action.
Sidney Jary, the author of 18 Platoon, one of the best books on the combat experience in Normandy, in the northwest European campaign I’ve ever read, that’s slightly true in his case. He took command of a platoon in the 4th Somerset Light Infantry, 43rd Division. The Germans on the other hand, their officers tended to be hard-bitten, ex-NCOs with experiences of the Eastern Front or Italy. In other words, they had much more experience at the battalion/ company/ platoon level, and undoubtedly taught.
the Germans also, by no means all of them were Nazi fanatics, but of course even in units where you didn’t have Nazi fanatics, there were sufficient people there who were ideologically fired up actually to make people fight, as in they were very, very ruthless in dealing with people who refused to fight. Later on as the war was obviously being lost in early 1945, there were lots of examples of German troops being shot out of hand or hanged by the zealots to keep the others in the line, and German kit, some of it actually was very good. There’s no two ways about it, but we must immediately counterbalance that.
Were the Germans tactically superior to the British? Well, certainly! Sydney Jary, who I knew fairly well, would certainly not agree with that. I remember being with him at a conference on D-Day and I think in 2004, in which he stood up and said, well I’ve read these books saying how wonderful the Germans were. All I know is every time we came up against them, we beat them. By “we”, he meant of course his platoon of the 4th Somerset, and of course if you look at the detailed tactical actions, the British and the Canadians and in fact, the Americans did have a pretty high success rate, not least because they had airpower and they had artillery to back them up.
the other point worth making is that yes, some of the German equipment was better, so for example, the MG42, the standard German machine gun was probably a better weapon than the Bren, which was the standard British machine gun, light machine gun, but it’s worth bearing in mind that they were designed for different things. The MG42 is basically there as a weapon to fight war in Europe. Now where was the British army going to be fighting in the 1920s or ‘30s? The odds were at that time not in Europe, but in a colonial campaign in India or Africa or somewhere like that. Therefore they needed to have a weapon which was light enough actually to take you halfway up a mountainside of the Northwest Frontier, and so the British had to actually equip of rather different sort of army from the Germans, and it had swings and roundabouts because of course the Bren didn’t churn off the ground in the same way as the MG42 did, but it was arguably more versatile, also of course the MG42 used a massive amount of ammunition which the Germans increasingly had difficulty replacing.
Probably the most notorious example of superior German equipment, or put it this way, inferior British equipment are with tanks. Even here we have to be slightly careful because the Sherman, the M4 Sherman which was the standard British medium tank, normally American tank of course originally, probably about the same as the German Panzer4. The German Panther and Tiger were undoubtedly more heavily armoured and with better tank killing guns, but I tell you to drink petrol, they weren’t very manoeuvrable, and in the end the British and American simply had more armour, which they were able to use to be quite callously in an expendable fashion, which combined with artillery and air power, saw them through.
I keep coming back to artillery and air power. In that sense, actually the Germans were not superior. The British and Americans had more and on the whole, better artillery and aircraft and actually plenty of them, so yeah so the Germans were a tough enemy. There’s no two ways about it, but I certainly wouldn’t go all the way down the track of arguing they were a greatly superior enemy only beaten by overwhelming numbers. There’s a lot more to it than that.
Mat: Just as we summarize, we’ve spent the last half an hour looking at new perspectives of the Normandy campaign, at least from the layperson who might not know about this in detail. Answer me this question – it’s the 75th anniversary this year of the Normandy campaign. Why after all this time is it important for us to look below the surface, to look at more than just D-Day, to try and paint a broader picture of the Normandy campaign?
Gary: I think the reason why we need to be aware of the Normandy campaign in the round…there’s so many answers. An obvious one is to slightly belatedly do justice to people like Sidney Jary, who regarded himself as being to some extent marginalized because he did not serve on D-Day, and of course we must not forget there are still some Normandy veterans with us, although there they are fairly long in the tooth these days. Also I think as in any example or episode of history, it’s never very healthy simply to look at the surface. There’s always a lot more going on. It’s a lot more complicated than people think, and I think that simply taking half-truths or the standard narrative, I think actually it’s more interesting apart for anything else if people go beyond that.
In terms of Normandy campaign itself, I think that people do need to see the difference that it made to global history, if I can put it that way. Now I think there is an argument and I have made it in the past that had the D-Day campaign not happened or had it failed or had been called off of whatever ever reason, Nazi Germany still would have been defeated but this is critical. It would have been defeated by the Red Army on its own. I think it’s entirely plausible to think of the war being extended by six months or maybe a year, but the same basic result occurring only this time the Red Army does not stop in middle of Germany. It actually goes on and occupies the Netherlands, Belgium, even arguably France.
so quite aside from the argument about the importance of D-Day in defeating Nazi Germany and I think it was important, the British and Americans and Canadians and their allies played a very significant role in that, it’s also about getting a footprint back on the continent of Europe for the democratic powers.
I remember thinking I think it must have back in 2004, I did one of these what-if radio programs for the BBC, in which we were speculating what would have happened if D-Day had failed or not taking place, and we came to the conclusion that pretty much what I’ve just said, that actually Europe would have been occupied in 1946 or 1947 by the Red Army, and Britain would have become the frontline in a new Cold War, rather than what actually happened in reality, the front line being the inner German border. And so this is not just about the defeat of Nazi Germany, important though that undoubtedly was. It’s also about ensuring that liberal democracy actually has a chance to thrive in Western Europe for the next 50 years.
Now you may not think of it often in those terms, because we think very much about the Second World War as being all about the democracies against the Nazis. Somehow we’ve managed to block out of our collective memory what actually happened immediately after the war. now of course during the war itself, the Soviet Union was extremely popular, certainly in Britain. I think because people recognized that the Red Army was doing the heavy lifting of smashing up the Wehrmacht that basically the British and their allies had done on the Western Front in the First World War. one of the reasons why British Canadian and American casualties in the war against Germany were relatively low in comparison to the First World War is because the British and their allies didn’t do as much heavy fighting, and the reason for that is because the Germans were engaged 1941-1945, for that entire period their major campaign is against Soviets, not against the Allies.
There is a falling-out at the end of the war. it’s probably never was going to happen, given the ideological differences between Stalin’s Soviet Union, capitalist United States, imperialist Britain, but actually both at the time and now, it’s important to recognize there’s a very strong political dimension about getting a footprint on the continent of Europe for the democracies. If D-Day had failed, if the Normandy campaign hadn’t ended in victory, it’s entirely possible it would not have just have been Poland and East Germany and all these other states which were under Soviet domination for 50 or more years, it would have been Western continental Europe as well.
Mat: It’s a fascinating point. It’s staggering to think of the outcomes that would have occurred had the Normandy campaign not taken place and had the Allies not been fighting in Western Europe at the same time.
Gary: It’s pretty completely unprovable one way or the other if it didn’t happen, but certainly that strikes me as being a reasonable deduction from what actually did happen in 1945 to 1947.
Mat: And I think when you look back in it as well, all the research I’ve done on Normandy demonstrates that the Allies fighting in Normandy had an incredibly difficult time that in many instances, was on par with what was happening on the Eastern Front, and we look back now and that there’s almost the feeling that the Russians won the war in the east and we helped them out a bit by fighting through France, but I don’t believe that when you look back through the records of what those men went through and what they achieved in France, that that is accurate. I think it’s more appropriate to say there were two fronts that brought about the downfall of Germany.
Gary: I think that’s absolutely right. The achievement of the British and Canadian and American armies in 1944-45 I think should not be underrated. Now certainly from the 1980s among historians anyway, there was a bit of a backlash against the narrative of it was all the British and Americans who beat the Germans, and there was perhaps a bit of an overcorrection by saying no actually the real victor in the Second World War was the Soviet Union. I think if we rebalance that to say actually the most of the fighting or the majority of the fighting I should say was actually done by the Red Army. that’s fair enough but actually if you look at what the Western allies did achieve, it’s very significant and at the very least the war would have been prolonged maybe for another 12 months if the Allies had not won in Western Europe.
And of course we haven’t mentioned Italy hardly at all, because that’s another frog that’s involved. just like the First World War I think trying to reduce it to one army did better than another one simply just does violence to the very, very subtle interconnection of all the fighting that was going on, so I think a fair assessment is that the Soviets carried out very, very impressive victories on the Eastern Front but the Western Allies had their equipment in the West as well. The major difference is they’re on a different scale there’s fewer of them and they’re smaller but there are remarkably significant and we shouldn’t lose sight of that.
Mat: Gary, it’s been wonderful to talk to you. I always love having you on the show and the times that we’ve been fortunate enough to sit down over a beer and talk about this as well, they’re always fascinating. I just love getting your perspectives on this so thank you very much for that. What are you working on now? What are we going to see next from Gary Sheffield?
Gary: A-ha! I’m putting the finishing touches to a collection of letters written by a First World War Brigadier General Hugo Dupree, who happened to be Douglas Haig’s cousin, and the book actually should have been finished by now but at the end of last year, I met a member of the Haig family who told me about this collection of papers that no historian had seen before, and I went up to Scotland and saw them and lo and behold, they include some previously unused letters of Douglas Haig himself, and so actually this book is slightly delayed but is likely to be coming out later this year.
my longer-term project what I’m actually doing mostly is a book called Civilian Armies, which basically looks at the experience of British and Dominion soldiers across the two World Wars, so one reason I’ve been doing quite a lot of reading on Normandy recently is that one of my case studies is going to be a comparison of D-Day and Normandy with Gallipoli, and so at the moment both Gallipoli and Normandy are very much uppermost in my mind.
Mat: Wow, fabulous stuff! We’ve got a lot of material there for future podcasts, so I look forward to getting you back on to talk about those again in the future. Gary, as always it’s been a wonderful pleasure. Thank you so much for joining us.
Gary: Thanks very much indeed