The Second World War
Remembered CD – Reminiscences of 24 men and women from Kent recounting their memories
of the war. This fascinating collection of first hand interviews is inter-cut with historic
archive recordings and popular songs from the war to form a unique memoir of life between
1939 and 1945.
Hear about; the Outbreak of War, The Miracle of Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, the Home Guard, Air Raids; including the bombing of Maidstone, Herne Bay, Tunbridge Wells and Canterbury, Rationing, Lord Haw Haw, Yanks, the Bomber Offensive against Germany, D Day, VE Day and more.
To buy a copy of this limited edition CD, please send your name and address and a cheque for £8.00 made payable to Kersh Media Ltd to:
Second World War Remembered CD,
Kent ME18 5BZ
Profits from the sale of the CD will go to the Royal British Legion and the Chart Sutton War Memorial Pavillion Fund. This audio CD has been produced by Kent Video Production company Kersh Media. The interviews were recorded in 1989 by Graham Majin who, working as a freelance radio journalist, produced a programme to mark the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War. It is being made available to the public for the first time to mark the 70th anniversary.
Second World War History - A Short Introduction.
The Second World War, or World War Two, began in Europe in 1939 when German invaded Poland. The global conflict which this triggered, split the majority of the world's nations into two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis powers. It involved the mobilization of more than 100 million men and women, making it the greatest conflict the world has ever known.
More than 60 million people most of them civilians, were killed, making it the deadliest war in human history. The financial cost of the war is impossible to calculate, but has been estimated at well over a trillion 1944 U.S. dollars (5 trillion dollars at 2009 prices).
So what Caused the Second World War?
The Second World War was basically the second part of the First World War. Many Germans felt they had never really been defeated in 1918 and widely held myth arose that they had been “stabbed in the back” by civilians at home.
After the First World War, Germany was forced to sign the Treaty of Versailles. Germany was stripped of land, made to accept responsibility for starting the war and made to pay huge reparations. Deep, smouldering resentment was the result and a generation later this was to explode into the Second World War.
In 1933 the Nazi party was elected to power in Germany. Its leader Adolf Hitler began a systematic and often violent take over of the state governments throughout Germany, ending a centuries old tradition of local political independence.
Hitler began to test the allies by violating the conditions of the Versailles Treaty. The allies, weary of war and desperate never to go to war again, did not respond. Hitler’s aggression was rewarded and encouraged by a policy of appeasement.
In March of 1936, Hitler remilitarised the Rhineland in direct violation of the Versailles and Locarno treaties. England and France expressed their concern, but were not prepared to take military action. However British rearmament now began with increasing speed; Spitfires and Hurricane high performance, monoplane fighters were among the new weapons ordered into production as the storm clouds began to gather menacingly over Europe.
When the Spanish Civil War broke out in July, Hitler and Mussolini supported fascist Generalísimo Francisco Franco in his civil war against the Soviet-supported Spanish Republic. Both sides used the conflict to test new weapons and methods of warfare.
In March 1938, Germany annexed Austria, again provoking little response from other European powers. Encouraged, Hitler began making claims on the Sudetenland, a region of Czechoslovakia.
Britain and France were now seriously worried and were rearming rapidly. For a while it seemed that war was imminent. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who dreaded the responsibility of unleashing another horrific war on the world, took the extraordinary step of flying from Heston aerodrome to meet Hitler and personally appeal to him to restrain Germany’s territorial ambitions.
On his return to the UK, Chamberlain announced he had achieved “peace for our time” and was greeted with relief and joyous celebration.
The bitter truth was that peace had been achieved only at the price of handing the Sudetenland to Germany. It was appeasement at its basest – though defenders of Chamberlain claim that the Munich agreement bought a precious year during which Britain continued to re-equip her army, navy and air force.
Hitler’s promise of no further territorial demands soon proved a hollow mockery; in March 1939 German troops occupied Czechoslovakia.
Thus emboldened, Hitler turned his attention to Poland; demanding the restoration of Danzig to Germany. But the mood in Britain was hardening. Chamberlain, who had allowed himself to be pushed around humiliatingly in the name of peace had reached the limit of his endurance. He would allow himself to be pushed no further.
France and Britain guaranteed Polish independence and when Italy conquered Albania in April, the same guarantee was extended to Romania and Greece.
Germany and Italy formalized their own alliance with the Pact of Steel; following this, in a move that shocked all other major powers, Germany and the Soviet Union concluded a non-aggression pact, including a secret agreement to split Poland and eastern Europe between them.
On September 1st 1939 German troops invaded Poland using Blitzkrieg tactics; rapid advances by armoured columns supported by mobile aerial artillery in the form of Stuka dive bombers. The gallant, but obsolete Polish army – which pitted cavalry units against Hitler’s panzers, crumbled in the face of the onslaught.
At 11.15 on September 3rd 1939 Chamberlain addressed the nation on BBC radio to announce that Britain had declared war on Germany. Here is the full text of Britain’s declaration of war.
“I am speaking to you from the Cabinet Room at 10, Downing Street.
This morning the British Ambassador in Berlin handed the German Government a final note stating that unless we heard from them by 11.00 a.m. that they were prepared at once to withdraw their troops from Poland, a state of war would exist between us.
I have to tell you that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.
You can imagine what a bitter blow it is to me that all my long struggle to win peace has failed. Yet I cannot believe that there is anything more or anything different I could have done and that would have been more successful.
Up to the very last it would have been quite possible to have arranged a peaceful and honourable settlement between Germany and Poland, but Hitler would not have it.
He had evidently made up his mind to attack Poland whatever happened; and although he now says he has put forward reasonable proposals which were rejected by the Poles, that is not a true statement.
The proposals were never shown to the Poles nor to us; and although they were announced in a German broadcast on Thursday night, Hitler did not wait to make comment on them, but ordered his troops to cross the Polish frontier.
His actions show convincingly that there is no chance of expecting that this man will ever give up his practice of using force to gain his will. He can only be stopped by force.
We and France are today, in fulfilment of our obligations, going to the aid of Poland, who is so bravely resisting this wicked and unprovoked attack on her people. We have a clear conscience. We have done all that any country could do to establish peace. The situation in which no word given to Germany’s ruler could be trusted and no people or country could feel themselves safe has become intolerable.
And now that we have resolved to finish it, I know that you will play your part with calmness and courage.
At such a moment as this the assurances of support that we have received from the Empire are a source of profound encouragement to us.
When I have finished speaking certain detailed announcements will be made on behalf of the Government. Give these your closest attention.
The Government have made plans under which it will be possible to carry on the work of the nation in the days of stress and strain that may be ahead. But these plans need your help.
You may be taking part in the fighting Services or as a volunteer in one of the branches of civil defence. If so you will report for duty in accordance with the instructions you have received.
You may be engaged in work essential to the prosecution of war for the maintenance of the life of the people – in factories, in transport, in public utility concerns or in the supply of other necessaries of life. If so, it is of vital importance that you should carry on with your jobs.
Now may God bless you all. May He defend the right. It is the evil things that we shall be fighting against – brute force, bad faith, injustice, oppression and persecution – and against them I am certain that the right will prevail."
On the Western front , 1939 was an anti climax. Little happened and the war was dubbed the “phoney war” or “bore war”.
The French settled behind their defensive chain of forts, the Maginot Line and awaited events. The British took up positions along the Belgium frontier and also waited for something to happen.
In April 1940 Germany invaded Denmark and Norway to secure shipments of iron-ore from Sweden which the allies sought to disrupt. Denmark immediately capitulated, and despite Allied support Norway was conquered within two months. British discontent over the Norwegian campaign led to the replacement of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain by the feisty Winston Churchill on May 10th.
It was an ominous date.
On 10 May 1940 the Germans unleashed a series of devastating and audacious operations against neutral Holland and Belgium. Airborne units supported by the Luftwaffe seized key positions in the Netherlands well in advance of the main columns. Unable to match the force and ingenuity of the invaders, and disconcerted by air raids on civilian targets, the Dutch army capitulated on 15 May.
In Belgium a memorable German airborne assault took place on the key fortress of Eban Emael. Although the Belgian army fought for three weeks against overwhelming odds, at midnight on 27 May it surrendered.
But the attacks were an elaborate deception. While British and French attention was distracted by events in the Low Countries, German tanks were stabbing through the heavily wooden Ardennes. They emerged on the River Meuse where the panzer divisions of General Guderian's 19th Panzer Corps broke through French defences at Sedan and pressed forward rapidly to prevent the French armed forces from reforming a new defensive line.
It was a new form of war, Blitzkreig; developed in Poland and perfected in France. The British and French, schooled in the ways of 1918 style war had no answer to it. They began to retreat through roads choked with terrified civilians, bombed and machine gunned by the Stukas. Panic ensured, retreat turned into a rout.
The British army fell back on the channel ports; Boulogne, Calais and Dunkirk. To save them an audacious plan was hatched.
Operation Dynamo took its name from the dynamo room in the naval headquarters below Dover Castle in Kent, which contained the dynamo that provided the building with electricity during the war. It was in this room that British Vice Admiral Bertram Ramsay planned the evacuation of Dunkirk.
The plan involved using hundreds of little ships (civilian boats) to pluck stranded troops from the beaches.
On 29 May, 47,000 British troops were rescued and brought back to ports mainly around the Kent coast. The next day, an additional 54,000 men were embarked, including the first French soldiers. 68,000 men and the commander of the BEF, Lord Gort, evacuated on 31 May. A further 64,000 Allied soldiers departed on 1 June, before the increasing air attacks prevented further daylight evacuation. The British rearguard left the night of 2 June, along with 60,000 French soldiers. An additional 26,000 French troops were retrieved the following night before the operation finally ended.
Seemingly endless train loads of dirty, exhausted soldiers made their way through Kent. When they stopped for brief comfort breaks, for example at Faversham or Headcorn, many threw letters out of the windows addressed to family members. These were picked up and posted by members of the public.
Hundreds of civilians gathered at the stations to watch the return of their battered army. Many handed sandwiches and food parcels to the hungry men inside. It was a sombre homecoming.
Subsequently, Churchill referred to the outcome as a "miracle", and the British press presented the evacuation as a "Disaster Turned To Triumph" so successfully that Churchill had to remind the country, in a speech to the House of Commons on 4 June, that "we must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations." Nevertheless, exhortations to the "Dunkirk spirit" — a phrase used to describe the tendency of the British public to pull together and overcome times of adversity — are still heard in Britain today.
It seemed certain that Britain would be Hitler’s next target.
As Churchill explained to the House of Commons on June 11th 1940;
“The Battle of France is over. The Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization… The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war… Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth lasts for a thousand years, men will still say, This was their finest hour”.
The Battle of Britain was the first major campaign to be fought entirely by air forces, and was the largest and most sustained aerial bombing campaign up until that date. From July 1940 coastal shipping convoys and shipping centres, such as Dover were the main targets; one month later the Luftwaffe shifted its attacks to RAF airfields and infrastructure.
Front line airfields in Kent such as Manston, Biggen Hill and Hawkinge were pounded. And, as the battle progressed, the Luftwaffe also targeted aircraft factories at Rochester and ground infrastructure.
The Royal Air Force’s two main fighter aircraft were the Hawker Hurricane designed by Sydney Camm, and the Supermarine Spitfire designed by Reginald Mitchell. The Spitfire was very fast and agile, and was more than a match for the German Messerschmitt Bf 109, which was its main rival. The spitfire was armed with eight browning machine guns, which could each fire at 1200 rounds a minute. It was extremely agile, and could therefore out turn the German aircraft. This was extremely useful in dogfights.
One of Britain’s most important assets was a well organised air defence network. This consisted of a chain of radar stations, linked by telephone to operation rooms, which guided RAF fighters by radio to their targets. Although Germany had radar that was at least as good as the British version, it was the British who created the most practical air warning system. The most important figure in the development of British radar was Robert Watson-Watt. He began working on the radar project in 1935, and by 1940 Britain had a series of radar masts called Chain Home and Chain Home Low.
The man who masterminded the Air Defence of Great Britain was the Commander In Chief of Fighter Command, Air Chief Marshall Hugh Dowding. He understood the importance of integrating the different elements of the RAF into one coherent network.
At first, German tactics were to provoke Fighter Command into dogfights over Kent and Sussex, and to bomb the RAF airfields. E.g. Manston, Biggin Hill and West Malling. The plan was to wear out the RAF, and it began to work. RAF losses were very heavy, and although British factories were able to replace the Spitfires and Hurricanes, they could not replace the pilots. Many of those who survived were close to exhaustion, and the replacements were untrained with little flying experience.
The situation became so grave, it seemed the RAF was on the brink of defeat. For example on 15th September 1940, the most intense day in the Battle, Winston Churchill the Prime Minister visited number Two Group headquarters. He watched the lights on the indicator boards in the operations room go on to show that all the British squadrons available were in the air. When Churchill asked Air Vice-Marshal Park “What other reserves have we”? Park famously replied, “There are none”!
At this critical moment in the battle, when Britain was almost on its knees, the Germans changed their tactics. On the 24th of August, two German aircraft accidentally bombed London, after presumably setting out to bomb Rochester and getting lost. The following night the RAF retaliated and bombed Berlin. In a speech, Hitler promised the German people that this would never happen again. When Churchill heard this, he ordered the RAF to bomb Berlin nightly. Hitler ‘lost his temper’. On September 4th he made a speech saying, “ We will raze their cities to the ground”!
On September 7th, a huge ‘armada’ of nearly a thousand German fighters and bombers took off. This time, instead of bombing RAF airfields, they attacked East London and the London Docks. This was the beginning of the London Blitz, but although London suffered terribly, this turned out to be a lifeline for the RAF. For 8 months the Luftwaffe concentrated their efforts onto major British cities and towns. This meant that the RAF had time to recover, patch up airfields, train more pilots, and give exhausted air crews a much needed rest.
Kent towns like Maidstone, Tunbridge Wells, Ashford and many others were also heavily bombed. Being on the route to London, they were located in what was called “bomb alley”.
Later in the war, there were to be further vicious (though isolated air raids).
The Baedeker raids were conducted by the German Luftwaffe Luftflotte 3 in two periods between April and June 1942. They targeted strategically relatively unimportant but picturesque cities in England. The cities were reputedly selected from the German Baedeker Tourist Guide to Britain, meeting the criterion of having been awarded three stars, hence the English name for the raids. Baron Gustav Braun von Sturm, a German propagandist is reported to have said on 24 April 1942 following the first attack, "We shall go out and bomb every building in Britain marked with three stars in the Baedeker Guide.
Canterbury was singled out on May 31st, June 2nd and June 6th 1942. Although much of the city was destroyed, the medieval cathedral remained untouched, despite the hail of bombs and incendiaries that fell all around it.
Rationing was introduced in 1940 to make sure that everyone had a fair share of the items that were hard to get hold of during the war. The British Ministry of Food refined the rationing process in the early 1940s to ensure the population did not starve when food imports were severely restricted and local production limited due to the large number of men fighting the war. Rationing did not end in the United Kingdom until the 1950s.
In late June 1941, Germany, along with other European Axis members and Finland, invaded the Soviet Union. Using their notorious Blitzkrieg tactis, they ploughed deep into Soviet territory, inflicting large numbers of casualties, and by the start of December were at the outskirts of Moscow,.
But with the onset of a fierce Russian winter, the German offensive ground to a halt and the Soviets launched a counter-offensive using tough Siberian reserve troops brought up from the border near Japanese Manchukuo.
On December 7th Japan attacked British, Dutch and American holdings with near simultaneous offensives against Southeast Asia and the Central Pacific. Most famous was the devastating air attack on the American naval base of Pearl Harbour.
President Roosevelt addressed congress with his famous Pearl Harbour Speech;
“Yesterday, Dec. 7, 1941 - a date which will live in infamy - the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan. The United States was at peace with that nation and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with the government and its emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific. Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in Oahu, the Japanese ambassador to the United States and his colleagues delivered to the Secretary of State a formal reply to a recent American message. While this reply stated that it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or armed attack.
It will be recorded that the distance of Hawaii from Japan makes it obvious that the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks ago. During the intervening time, the Japanese government has deliberately sought to deceive the United States by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace”.
The United States, Britain, China, and other Western Allies declared war on Japan. Italy, Germany, and the other members of the Tripartite Pact responded by declaring war on the United States. The war was now truly become a world war.
America’s entry into the war brought GIs to Britain. From early 1942 until D-Day, several million Americans landed in Britain, many being based in Kent. The American GIs wore more glamorous uniforms and were paid more than their British counterparts. To the war-weary British, many of these troops were "overpaid, oversexed and over here." But despite occasional resentments, many memorable friendships developed between lonely American soldiers and English women.
The Americans also brought with them exciting new sounds that were as much part of the 'American Invasion' as chewing gum, nylon stockings and liberal supplies of cigarettes and chocolate. While even the most basic of items were rationed in the UK, the GI's had access to luxury goods including V-discs, phonographic recordings for military personnel, featuring the most popular Big Bands of the day. Names like Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Lester Young and the voices of popular singers including Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby started a craze in the UK.
On Tuesday 6 June 1944, D Day, allied troops began the invasion and liberation of Europe. The assault was conducted in two phases: an air assault landing of American, British, Canadian and Free French airborne troops shortly after midnight, and an amphibious landing of Allied infantry and armoured divisions on the coast of France commencing at 6:30.
The operation was the largest single-day amphibious invasion of all time, with 160,000 troops landing on 6 June 1944. 195,700 Allied naval and merchant navy personnel in over 5,000 ships were involved.
Large numbers of soldiers and materiel were based in Kent during the build up to D Day, though the embarkation ports were mainly further along the south coast. The landings took place along a 50-mile (80 km) stretch of the Normandy coast divided into five sectors: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword.
Kent was the scene of Operation Fortitude South which was conducted with the intention of convincing the Germans that an invasion would come to the Pas de Calais—a logical strategic choice for an invasion since it was the closest part of France to England and its beaches were not easily defended. To facilitate this deception, additional buildings were constructed in Kent; dummy vehicles and landing craft were placed around the possible embarkation points of Dover and Folkestone and the high profile US General Patton was often photographed visiting these locations.
Even before D Day, the tide was turning inexorably against Germany.
Between July 1942 and February 1943 a major battle was fought for control of the city of Stalingrad in southwestern Russia. The battle was one of the turning points of the war. It was the bloodiest in modern history, with combined casualties estimated at nearly two million. The battle involved more participants than any other in history, and was marked by brutality and disregard for military and civilian casualties by both sides. It ended in the surrender of General Paulus’ 6th Army on 1st February. The remnants of the Axis forces in Stalingrad surrendered on 2 February; 91,000 tired, ill, and starving soldiers were taken into captivity by the Red Army.
Meanwhile the RAF and USAF were hammering Germany from the air in a series of large scale bombing campaigns.
The Commander of Bomber Command, Air Marshall Arthur Harris believed that Germany could be bombed into submission - a strategy he called 'area bombing'. Harris believed that if the morale of civilians was destroyed as a result of their city being attacked, they would put pressure on their government to capitulate.
In May 1942, a massive 1000 bomber raid on Cologne, did vast damage to the city for the loss of just 40 planes. Such a small rate of loss was considered extremely good especially when the government took into account the 'feel good' factor of the raid - the boost it gave to Britain's civilians knowing that Germany was being battered just as badly as they had been during the previous two years.
With such apparent success, the massive bombing raids continued on cities such as Hamburg and Berlin. The raids, which the Nazis referred to as "terror raids", culminated in the infamous raid on Dresden in February 1945.
In four raids, 1,300 heavy bombers dropped more than 3,900 tons of high-explosive bombs and incendiary devices on the city, the baroque capital of the German state of Saxony. The resulting firestorm destroyed 39 square kilometres (15 sq mi) of the city centre. Estimates of civilian casualties vary greatly, but recent publications place the figure between 24,000 and 40,000.
For a number of years, the raid on Dresden was condemned as an unnecessary act. However, a recent publication has presented arguments that Dresden was indeed a legitimate target for the Allies and that the judgment of Harris was correct. In 1992, a statue to Harris was unveiled near Trafalgar Square in London. Within 24 hours, red paint was poured over it - such is the controversy that Harris caused.
Estimates for the total casualties of the war vary, but most suggest that some 60 million people died in the war, including about 20 million soldiers and 40 million civilians. Many civilians died because of disease, starvation, massacres, genocide.
The Soviet Union lost around 27 million people during the war, about half of all World War II casualties.
Of the total deaths in World War II, approximately 85% were on the Allied side (mostly Soviet and Chinese) and 15% on the Axis side. From 9 to 11 million of these civilian casualties, including around six million Jews, were systematically murdered in the Holocaust.
The Holocaust was the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of approximately six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. In 1933, the Jewish population of Europe stood at over nine million. Most European Jews lived in countries that Nazi Germany would occupy or influence during World War II. By 1945, the Germans and their collaborators killed nearly two out of every three European Jews as part of the "Final Solution," the Nazi policy to murder the Jews of Europe. Although Jews, whom the Nazis deemed a priority danger to Germany, were the primary victims of Nazi racism, other victims included some 200,000 Roma (Gypsies). At least 200,000 mentally or physically disabled patients, mainly Germans, living in institutional settings, were murdered in the so-called Euthanasia Program.
On 30 April Hitler 1945 committed suicide during the Battle of Berlin. The surrender of Germany was authorized by his replacement, Admiral Karl Dönitz. Victory in Europe Day ( VE Day) was on 8 May 1945, the date when the World War II Allies formally accepted the unconditional surrender of the armed forces of Nazi Germany and the end of Adolf Hitler's Third Reich.
More than a million people celebrated in the streets to mark the end of the European part of the war. Many hardships remained, however, including continued rationing of food and clothing, which lasted even longer in peacetime than it had during the war. In London, crowds massed in Trafalgar Square and up The Mall to Buckingham Palace, where King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, accompanied by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, appeared on the balcony of the Palace before cheering crowds. Princess Elizabeth (the future Queen Elizabeth II) and her sister Princess Margaret were allowed to wander anonymously among the crowds and take part in the celebrations.
Written by Graham Majin, August 2009