The World at War: e04 – Alone (May 1940 – May 1941)


The fourth episode of The World at War gives me an opportunity to air some concerns I have had about the series over the first few weeks.

From the first open to the first episode I have been slightly suspicious of what the series is telling us. That episode began with shots of a French village, destroyed by the Germans during the Second World War, and never re-occupied, maintained as a War Monument. It was a striking story, and stirring and moving one, and true, but it struck a tone that has been maintained throughout the series since. It was a story.

The World at War was conceived and created as a documentary series whose intent was accuracy, honesty, reality and truth. It wanted to tell the definitive story, though I believe that there is no such thing and that it is more properly a definitive story. But it is also a television series, that went out in prime time, at 9.00pm, on a commercial channel dependent upon selling advertisements, and dependent upon attracting large audiences. As such, it not only had to be accurate, honest, real and true by its self-set standards, but it also had to be a Story. It had to be shaped into a dramatic form.

Now I’ve never in fifty years heard anyone challenge the series for its clear-visioned account of what happened, and I’m not about to suggest now that it has any of the ills of the more modern docudrama form, in falsification, simplification or dramatisation. These were things far from the minds of the makers of this series, and I don’t think for one minute that any conscious bias of any kind crept in. But that doesn’t deal with the notion of any subconscious bias, nor does it account for the effect of the factuality being presented as a natural drama.

Was anything distorted subconsciously in order to fit that requirement? The episodes have heavy and portentous moments, and they end on a form of cliffhanger. The narration is by the man who was then regarded as the world’s leading actor, Sir Laurence Olivier. Is the truth truthfully truthful?

As I said, I’ve been aware of these questions from the beginning but they arise inescapably from the fourth episode, which covers the twelve-month period from the fall of France until the surprise German attack on Russia, during which period Britain faced the German assault without allies. Alone.

It’s an episode in which the temptation towards self-mythologising has to be most sternly resisted, but to what extent is that even possible? For one thing, the facts themselves are the subject of myth, and for another its central components – Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, the Blitz, ‘We Can Take It’ – are now actual Myth, as much as the Norse Gods. They are an indelible British myth that plays an ineradicable part in the British mindset, and especially that of the Conservative Governments ever since, not to mention New Labour. British exceptionalism.

And the episode, without getting hagiographical, does lend itself to those myths in it’s low-key manner. No dissenting voices are allowed, except for one offhand reference to some East end women giving Churchill some abuse over the ‘We Can Take It’ slogan, pointing out that it was them who were taking it, not him, but what was said was not repeated. Ordinary people who lived through the Blitz were gathered in a pub to reminisce (all anonymous, unlike the great and good and the RAF veterans) and to a man and woman they were pure ‘Cockney Blitz Spirit’, whereas we now know that Londoner’s morale was not so unaffected as they and the episode makes out.

There was even something, not joined up but definitely in the telling, of the ‘miraculous’ in the ‘Miracle’ of Dunkirk. Downplayed last week because it was to be treated on a quasi-mythological level as the start of this episode, the evacuation of Dunkirk, the massive loss of equipment abandoned, the scale of defeat was rightly described as a disaster. It could, and perhaps should have been a terminal defeat. But Hitler, for some reason, didn’t press home the military advantage he had. The Navy didn’t blockade the port and cut the British and French soldiers off. The Luftwaffe didn’t strafe and bomb the defenceless beaches. Even the weather, sub-titled God, intervened to provide a week of no winds and a still sea. Half a million men could have been taken out if Germany had done what you wuld have expected it to do, and the episode had no real explanation for why it hadn’t been done, offering little more than Hitler wanting to enjoy his victory over France.

Before I leave Dunkirk, which was the first of basically four phases in this episode, I do want to just mention the ‘little ships’. Testimony of those there confirms their presence and the aid they provided in achieving the impossible evacuation of 330,000 men, but little was made of it and I’ve seen challenges to their importance since then. The episode didn’t go into that, but later on it had Lord Beaverbrook’s son explainging how his father’s massively successful appeal for scrap metal to build airplanes (which they couldn’t be used for) was a propaganda campaign, the great morale-booster of drawing everyone in to feel part of a single united effort, and I think the effect of the ‘little armada’ was exaggerated for morale, into contemporary mythology, with the same idea in mind.

It wasn’t spelled out but the mysterious failure to press home an annihilating attack, the curious weather conditions, the ‘miracle’ of the little ships all wove their web around Dunkirk. The reality of crushing defeat became an assurance that Britain was being watched over. It was special. It was destined.

The next phase was the Battle for Britain. This too was presented as it was, as a very close-run thing. The facts were spelled out, the figures given, but most of all there was a full examination made of the German tactical approach that made survival possible. Hitler did indeed intend to invade Britain, but it was not a priority. Instead of pressing home his advantage when the enemy was at its weakest, least organised and most demoralised, Hitler assumed Britain would sue for peace and made his invasion plans only slowly, preparing for September.

But Britain refused to consider surrender. The respite gave it time to pull together, especially in terms of round the clock factory production of planes and weaponry. Fighter Command had lost near half their planes and pilots defending the Dunkirk beaches: new Spitfires rolled out at a rate of 100 per week. Anti-tank defences and barbed wire was rolled out acoss the south and east, the Local Defence Volunteers, soon to be renamed the Home Guard, were established.

Britain was massively aided by dissension between the three branches of the German forces. The Navy didn’t want to take the brunt of it. The Army wanted the Navy to go in first. Nobody wanted to start without proper air cover. The Luftwaffe thought that the Navy and Army plans weren’t serious. And so everything focussed on the Air. The Battle of Britain came about by the enemy’s division over how to proceed. It was the only Battle that Britain could have fought at the time.

There was much about the mental approach of the men who went up in planes, ignoring their own risks, shutting out the fates of their friends. It was presented publicly as gallantry, derring-do, insouciassance, but it was a mindset dictated by necessity, one I could never have achieved myself, of shuttng away all such things and turning the war into almost a game, because without that they couldn’t have done it.

And yet the battle was one not by force, not by strength, because come September 1940 the RAF was hanging on by its fingernails, close to breaking. It was won by courage and defiance, by coming back every time for more, by refusing to cede even a corner of the skies, until Goerring gave up the battle. Germany changed its tactics, just in time. It began the Blitz.

This was taking the War round the back of the professionals, by-passing them to strike at the people, especially England’s capitol. It was an attempt to break the country. The facts were horrific. Seventy-six consecutive nights. Death and destruction. Again, the episode went for the accepted line of ‘We Can Take It’, the Blitz Spirit, though there’s more evidence now – possibly unconvered later as opposed to ignored by the story, but I don’t know – that this Spirit wasn’t as universal at it’s always been cracked up to be.

This part of the episode shaded over into the beginning of the North Africa campaign. It was imperative to strike back at Germany, to divert their attention from its exclusive focus on Britain by giving them another theatre of War to attend to. It was North Africa because there was literally no other theatre in which to operate. Early successes were seen as a basis for an invasion of Europe through the Balkans, adding Greece and Yugoslavia to the Allied Forces. The Italians were virtual pushovers, the Germans not so. Greece was taken. The North African gains rolled back. The East Mediterranean Naval Base of Crete was lost.

In the end, what really saved Britain, and ended the full force of the Blitz, just like the Battle of Britain, was German tactics. The concentration on destroying Britain, the last enemy, was diverted, and with it the resources, to face the East, and Russia.

Looking back on what I’ve written, relating how I read the facts of this episode, I can see that I’ve fallen for the mythology in large parts, especially when it comes to the RAF. Indeed, whilst the episode was dealing with Dunkirk, I found myself affected by the achievement. The notorious British celebration of a defeat, or rather what we could salvage from it, it’s bred into me by my childhood. The episode was pretty honest, but it veered towards the old adage, ‘When the legend becomes the Truth, print the Legend’, which Anglocentricity was probably always going to be the case for a programme made for British viewers by British television. I hope, and expect, that this will be the most extreme case of any such failings in the series. Alone.


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