1990s >> 1991 >> no-1039-march-1991

Myth and Reality

There have been countless examples of the official myth-machine working hard to mislead the working class about war, telling us that war is glorious and that right and justice is always on our side. This deliberately calculated deception is based on the fear that if the truth about war—its causes, nature, effect and whose interests it is fought in—were to be publicised the workers’ enthusiasm for it would be less than complete and there would be no-one to do the fighting and to make the weapons and ammunition.

Capitalism’s crises and conflicts are a continuing horror and this is a good time to read Clive Ponting’s book 1940: Myth and Reality which lifts a small corner on a hugely sordid deception. As the civil servant whose concern for the truth over the sinking of the Belgrano was so embarrassing that he had to be charged with (although later acquitted of) offences under the Official Secrets Act. Clive Ponting needs no introduction.

Winston Churchill described the year 1940 as Britain’s “finest hour”. According to the mythology that was the year when a country united and inspired by the brilliant, defiant speeches of their great leader resolved to fight for every beach, field, street and house against an invasion from the super-efficient German military machine which, having crushed the French, was in preparation across the English Channel. It was the year when the British Expeditionary Force was let down by their allies and had to fight a glorious retreat to Dunkirk where they were lifted from the beaches by a fleet of small British boats manned by week-end sailors. It was the year when the Battle of Britain was won by a brilliantly-led RAF which inflicted crippling losses on the Luftwaffe. It was the year when stubborn British courage so impressed the Americans that Churchill’s friend and ally, President Roosevelt, eagerly gave as much aid as he legally could to the British war effort. And so on.

But it didn’t happen like that. In 1940 the British government were by no means united in a resolve to fight to the bitter end; in fact, they were secretly exploring the possibilities of a negotiated peace with Germany. The German military machine was a ramshackle affair which depended largely on horses for its transport. As the BEF withdrew towards Dunkirk the British government did not tell the French of their evacuation plans—in fact they slyly encouraged the French and the Belgians to sacrifice themselves in rearguard actions; as the British commanders’ chief-of-staff put it, ”we don’t give a bugger for the Belgians”.

One of the war’s great romantic stories was of the armada of small boats with their volunteer crews chugging across to Dunkirk. What actually happened was that volunteers were not called for until almost three-quarters of the BEF had been evacuated; two-thirds of the force were taken by Royal Navy ships straight off the quay in the harbour and the little boats picked up only about eight percent of the total. The withdrawal and evacuation were chaotic, as the British troops stole from the local people and were inclined to shoot anyone who was so much as suspected of being a spy. In breach of the Geneva Convention British troops were using dumdum bullets, in reprisal for which unpublicised act the SS performed a well-publicised killing of 170 British prisoners. Discipline broke down among the evacuating troops, with officers deserting their men and other ranks throwing their rifles and equipment out of train windows when they got back to England. Heroic it was not: in private Churchill told his colleagues that it was the worst military defeat for centuries.

The RAF’s success in the Battle of Britain owed a great deal to mistaken and inconsistent German tactics. At times the RAF was close to breaking point but was relieved by Goering senselessly switching the Luftwaffe’s point of attack. Casualty figures on both sides were hugely distorted by the British with the RAF losses understated by 15 percent and the Luftwaffe’s overstated by 62 percent. On September 15—the crucial day, now Battle of Britain day—the British claimed that 185 German aircraft had been destroyed when the true figure was 60. What really stopped a German invasion was the English Channel and the fact that the German navy could not have protected an invasion fleet.

America’s attitude towards the war was not fashioned by any “special relationship” with Britain but by a long-standing ambition of their ruling class to undermine British world influence and in particular to dismantle the system of Imperial Preference which obstructed American industry’s access to some enticing markets. Aid came to Britain from America grudgingly and with stringent conditions. Many British assets overseas had to be sold to pay for American aid and were snapped up by American firms for knock-down prices. In typical style Roosevelt told one of his cabinet that this was “milking the British financial cow which had plenty of milk at one time but which has now become about dry”. By the end of the war the cow was wretchedly emaciated while America, whose industrial and military power had been crucial in the Allied victory, was a dominant world power.

While this was going on the British working class were deflected from reality by a relentless stream of lies and false promises. In this great exercise in deception Churchill’s speeches were supposed to be valuable for their inspiring defiance but at the time many of his colleagues did not rate them highly. His more rousing speeches were made in the Commons; some which were broadcast—including the famous pledge “ . . . we shall fight on the beaches . . .” —were not delivered by Churchill but in an imitation of his voice by an actor called Norman Shelley, who also played Larry the Lamb in Children’s Hour.