The War in 1941
"For my part I find our prospects in this war better than I would have believed possible last June"— Reed
BY THE end of 1941, or early in 1942, the British forces should be the master of Germany in the air. That, in my view, should be a decisive thing in this war; when we have achieved it, the speed with which we reach victory will depend on nobody but ourselves and our own skill. The “offensive springs” which, as Mr. Churchill has said, are now “being compressed,” should then be released. He has also spoken of the continuance of the war into 1943 and 1944. It is a long and dire prospect, the tragic penalty of locust-eaten years.
For my part, I believe the war could be finished sooner. But for the present, comfort—and that cold—can only be derived from the wisecrack of the British soldier in the last war called Great—“Well, cheer up, every day brings the end of the war nearer.” That, at all events, is undeniable; even man cannot destroy this planet, as he surely would if he could, so .somewhere ahead lies peace.
To contemplate London today is not so much to doubt “the future of civilization” as to marvel that men can still use the word “civilization.” Not that London has been even gravely injured. The death-from-the-air, in the form that was expected, never really came. At the time of Munich the experts thought in terms of “two or three million dead,” if that sudden blow from the air should be delivered, and this was no nightmare fantasy, but a sober forecast, as the experience of Rotterdam showed, where the Germans destroyed 30,000 human beings in half an hour—a thing too little known. London, after ten weeks, has had some eleven thousand killed. For some unfathomable reason Hitler did not, when he could, launch that blow, and now he cannot. London, the other British cities, are undergoing a great ordeal—but not the gigantic calamity which once loomed over them.
Not the death and destruction, therefore, but the levels to which human life has been reduced cause a thinking man to wince, and almost retch, when the word “civilization” is used today. Life has been driven down to the bowels of the earth. It is fantastic to walk about the empty streets of the greatest city in the world, at night, and suddenly to realize that millions of human beings are all around, underfoot. A patriot instinctively wishes to cover his eyes with his hand as he passes along the lines of human beings stretched out in huddled rows in the underground stations—babes and sucklings, lovers holding hands as they sleep, old men and women.
Yet, of such rare stuff are the Londoners made that these underground dens of human misery are no festering nests of discontent and defeatism, and Hitler, if he could be transplanted to one of them for a night, would make the mistake of his life if he saw' revolution brewing there. The mood, in spite of conditions that sometimes disgrace the people who should amend them, is one of cheerful resignation. Even a certain social order has grown up in London, underground. The people keep themselves incredibly clean and decent against enormous odds. The Londoner’s simple philosophy of “stick it” applies alike to his own rulers and to Hitler. He seems not to feel that he has any particular grievance against either.
Faith in Britain Unshaken
AMAN sometimes sees his own ixiople best through the eyes of a stranger. On a night in late November I stood on a London pavement with an Austrian girl whom I have known for several years. Lacking any political upbringing or knowledge, she is the best judge of affairs I have ever met, has foreseen everything that has happened during these years (including the collapse of France, which I doubted) and has never once lost her faith in Britain and the Empire (as I sometimes almost did). She had been always unshakeably convinced that they would one day rid the earth of Hitler, possibly give her back her homeland, and at all events make life on this planet tolerable again.
This night, her first in London since the raids began, was also the worst Ixmdon had had. It w'as like a very bad night in the Ypres Salient in the last war, with bombs and guns going off all round, a devil’s din. Quite fearless, she stood on the pavement in a London seemingly empty of human life, and watched the glow of fires, the shellbursts. the bomb flashes. Suddenly, a rumbling and monstrous shape only less black than the night, a London bus, came round the corner and passed, ponderous, stately and imperturbable on its way, carrying its few odd passengers here and there as if nothing were happening.
With incredulous but shining eyes she watched it go. and
said to me: “Look at that. You could not see that in Germany”—which she knows well—“save under compulsion. That simple and unknown man”—we had dimly seen the figure of the driver—“is doing his duty without thought of reward or recognition. This strength of character is the thing that impresses me about your people. That is the reason you will win the war.”
The Number Thirteen bus has become a symbol to me since that night.
And what of the war? As the invasion has not come, we cannot—short of suicide—lose, for a successful invasion of this island would have been the one irretrievable calamity. If it had happened, it would have been a bullet in the head and heart of the Empire and, with all deference to Dominions readers, I do not believe that the legs and arms could individually have carried on the war effectively, or long. As long as the head and heart remain, we can fight and win.
Is the invasion still possible, and therewith our defeat? I can only say that it ought not to be. The experts say that Hitler is still preparing it, that guns are still being mounted, barges and rafts assembled on the F'rench coast, that he may try it in tire fine nights in early winter, or in the early spring. My opinion is that we should long for nothing so much as that, for the defense of this island, now that we have had time to make good our omissions, should be
any general’s dream; we ought to be able to feed any invader to the fishes, and if we are not able, then we should deserve not to survive.
So I, for one, have to assume now that the invasion will not now be attempted. That Hitler did not attempt it in the early summer is the one inexplicable thing to me in all that has happened, and I hardly dare, even now, to think back to June, when the French were in disintegration, when the two arms of the advancing German armies were relentlessly closing round the British armies fighting with their back to the coast, when I had to listen to the ranting voice of the German broadcaster shouting, “We will not let a single rat escape us,” and when I used to walk along English beaches that were destitute of all defense, so that the Channel looked to me, not like the symbol of a Britisher’s freedom, but like a prison wall.
“So We Were As Near As That”
NOW THAT that nightmare is over, I can tell of an incident that may be illuminating for Canadian readers. In early June, when I already felt sure that the French would collapse and that the assault on this country would immediately follow, I lunched with a very important man who was in a position to know as well as the best how our chances stood. “If we were to lose this war—” he said, “but we shall not ...” “Are you sure of that?” I interrupted. “Yes,” he said, “the invasion is a very difficult task,” and he went on to explain why, in his reasoned opinion, it would fail.
He did not convince me; but when the weeks passed and, in spite of all other disasters, the invasion did not come, I thought with great respect of that utterance. Here was a man, I thought, who dearly had known something I did not know'; even in those dark days he wras able positively to say that we should survive. This thought obsessed me; I could not imagine w'here I could have gone wrong, or what he could have known that gave him such confidence. In November I saw him again and asked him how he could at that time have been so confident.
His answer was: “A fortnight after I saw you I thought that I w'as in my last two or three weeks of life. I was convinced that the invasion would come, that the Germans would succeed in landing, and that each of us would then have to sell his life for as many German lives as possible. I -still think the fighting qualities of the people of this country would perhaps have broken the invasion in the long run.”
So we were as near as that. I believe now that Hitler, by a margin slender enough to deserve the name of miracle, missed the chance of a victory without precedent in history, in June. His melodramatic nature drove him first to complete the spectacular humiliation of France, to stage his armistice ceremony in the coach used by Foch in 1918, to go in flamboyant homage to Napoleon’s tomb. If he had stood on a line somewhere near Paris and even pretended that he could not advance farther, we should have been forced, willy-nilly, to continue flinging the frail remnant of our fighter aircraft across the Channel to the support of our armies there, and of the French. There, far from their bases, they would have been used up, and then he could have turned on a Britain without fighter defense, on a British navy exposed to his dive bombers. But he gave us a respite, and when, at length, he turned toward this island and sent his own bombers and fighters on journeys across the Channel, there were enough British fighters left to take heavy toll of his airmen. Those half dozen days in the summer, on each of which the Royal Air Force destroyed one or two hundred German aircraft, may have been the decisive battle of this war.
Youth at the Helm
NOW the picture is entirely different.
The Royal Air Force, as it is now taking shape, is a force probably unique in the history of arms. Men from all parts of the Empire and many foreign countries— the pick of the world’s young men—meet in it, and wear the same British uniform, only distinguished by such shoulder tabs as “Canada,” “New Zealand,” “Poland,” “Czecho-Slovakia” and the like. Moreover, youth, for the first time, is coming to the helm, or rather, to the control column. In the Royal Air Force the “lost generation” of 1914, of those men who were supposed to have been steeled and ennobled by an experience greater than any men had ever had, but who by some means were always kept from the helm, is at long last coming into its own.
The Royal Air Force will play a decisive part in this war, and I count it great good fortune, as a chronicler of events, that I not only knew Goering, who at Hitler’s order built “the greatest air force of all time,” but that as a flying officer in the last war I knew and served under the man who is now to be his adversary, the commander of a still greater air force, Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal.
Major Portal of Number 16 Squadron, R.F.C., made a lasting impression in 1917 and 1918 on the mind of a young subaltern named Reed, and although I never heard
of him from that day until his emergence in this war, and did not even know whether he had remained in the Royal Air Force, I am glad to recall now that in a book I wrote in 1937, “Insanity Fair,” my memory moved me especially to mention the outstanding qualities of leadership I had seen in one Major Portal in the last war.
Portal is an outstanding leader. His experience as a pilot, as a fighter, as a leader, and as an administrator is even greater than Goering's. His Huguenot
ancestors were smuggled to England in a wine barrel, and to this distant French descent he may owe his remarkable cast of feature, which is as untypical as it could be of the average British visage. He is very dark and strongly featured, and, with his beaked nose, would look very much like the Duke of Wellington if he wore side whiskers and a cocked hat. I met him in 1940 for the first time since' 1918 and found that he has changed physically hardly at all and that his personality, as it did in 1918, leaves an immediate imprint on the mind of those who speak with him.
As I say, I cannot believe in the invasion now. Rhyme and reason are both against it, but if it comes we now should welcome it. What, then, is the outlook?
In October it seemed that Hitler had done the obvious thing. Realizing that the invasion—and with it victory—were now beyond his reach, he had turned southward, to seek in the Balkans, in the Near East and in Africa, the successes which he needs to maintain himself in power. King Carol of Roumania, having survived longer than I expected the inescapable choice between abdication and assassination, fled abroad, and Hitler entered into posses-
sion of Roumania with its oil. Russia, the only country which could have gainsaid him in that region, stood passively aside.
The rulers of Russia, still deeply distrustful of Britain, are now dominated by one all-pervading obsession—fear of Germany. Trusting neither party to the conflict, and fearing one. the nearer, they see their best hope in the prolongation of the w'ar to the point at which both parties will be too exhausted to turn upon the Soviet, and they may be counted on to guide their policy by that consideration, using the time gained to strengthen their armies in the air and on the ground.
Hitler’s Southward Push
HITLER’S next moves seemed obvious: to continue southward. Bulgaria could not refuse to let German troops through her territory and might even enter the war on Germany’s side. Hungary was already a pawn in the German hand. Turkey would be given Roumania’s choice, of submitting to intimidation, or fighting. Simultaneously German or Italian troops, or both, w'ould have gone southward through Spain to take Gibraltar and establish themselves in Northern Africa. Mussolini, after mopping up Greece and thus completing the German-Italian hold on Southern Europe, would have struck in Egypt while Hitler thrust for Syria, Palestine and the Near Eastern oil fields.
This seemed the obvious plan—to drive the British from the Mediterranean and the Near East, to begin their expulsion from Africa. As I say, I think that such a scheme, even if it'were fully successful, would be of relatively minor importance, compared with the invasion of Britain. That would have been the final disaster, from which there could be no appeal, but
as long as this island remains inviolate, successes in Africa or elsewhere can always be converted into failures, attacks can be cancelled by counterattacks, the war is never lost.
But as I write, the plan seems to have gone agley, for the moment at least, because Mussolini has signally failed to mop up Greece. Of all sad things of tongue or pen . . .* The Italian fiasco in the first weeks of the campaign against Greece shows at least how easily all the progressive disasters of the last five years could have been averted if Italy had been sharply checked, and not pandered to, in Abyssinia! Mussolini has had the same experience in Greece that Stalin had in Finland; for the first time in their lives, probably, these two men may feel that sympathy which unites companions in misfortune.
The final outcome of the Greek campaign, unfortunately, may still be similar to that of the Finnish campaign. It almost certainly will be if Hitler now descends from the north to the succor of his stilettoman. In that case he and Mussolini may, for the present, share-up Jugoslavia between them, Hitler taking Croatia and Slovenia, with an Adriatic port, and Mussolini the coveted Dalmatian coast, a tiny Serbia being left in mock independence beneath the luckless boy king Peter, who comes of age next year, and is then due formally to ascend the throne of his father Alexander, murdered at Marseilles. By the time this article appears, the issue of the Greek campaign, and the next steps in Hitler’s and Mussolini’s Balkan, Mediterranean and African adventures will, I think, already be known.
"DOR MY part, I find our prospects in this
war better than I would have believed possible last June. I only find it disconcerting, as I mentioned in a previous article, that some people in this country who were most optimistic in the years when optimism was imbecility, now tend to a pessimism that is almost defeatism. I find it very strange that the selfsame people who, in those bygone years, scouted the idea that “Herr Hitler, the Fuehrer” w'as anything but a man with a just grievance who only needed a little sympathetic handling, now hang their heads and. lament “the stupendous difficulty” of fighting our way back into Europe and overcoming “the enormous German army.”
Now, as then, they ignore the German mentality. The same thing that they regarded as an exclusively psychological problem, when it was a military one, they now regard as an exclusively and dauntingly military one, when it is first and foremost a psychological one. Our best weapon in this war—though it is of course only effective when backed by a strong air force, navy and army—is the fourth arm, propaganda, sabotage, undermining; in brief, the achievement of a condition of mind in Germany which thinks anxiously of the sudden defeat in 1918, after threeand-a-half years of unbroken victories, and fears that history will repeat itself. Our best allies are the conquered peoples who want nothing better than to turn on Hitler as soon as they see a hope of success, and Hitler’s enemies in Germany.
In other words, victory over Germany cannot be achieved by the PasschendaeleSomme method of a headlong assault on impregnable fortifications. Victory can be achieved by the weapon Hitler used with such enormous success in Norway, Holland and Roumania—fear.
Our friends within his camp are far greater in number than his friends in those camps ever were. But we have as yet hardly begun to organize and use them. Here the insular habit of mind, the lack of personal knowledge, among our leaders, of Germany and the other countries concerned, is a heavy handicap to us.