WWII Myths and Misconceptions (That Need to Go Away)

Discussion in 'WWII' started by Guttersnipe, Apr 7, 2018.

  1. Guttersnipe

    Guttersnipe One Too Many

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    For me, one of this biggest misconceptions is the myth of the cowardly French soldier. This view is highly related to myth that the French General Staff's reliance on the Maginot Line was foolish and led to France's rapid defeat in 1940.

    In reality, the Maginot Line did exactly what it was intended to do: prevent direct frontal assaults across the French-German boarder. Thus the German military was forced to make a grand flanking maneuver through Belgium, just as it had done in WWI. The uninformed often cite a failure to plan for this repetition as evidence of foolishness on the part of French leadership. However, nothing could be further from the truth. During the interwar years, the French and Belgian militaries developed a cooperative defensive strategy that involved French troops occupying positions prepared by the Belgian Army and flooding lowland regions to delay any German advance. Unfortunately, in 1940 Belgium remained neutral, and was therefore reluctant to provoke a German response by allowing French and BEF forces to move through its territory -- or even start preparing defensive potions. As a result, by the time the French Army and BEF were permitted to move into Belgium, the German military had stolen the initiative and was already on the offensive. The ultimate result was that the Allies were forced to fight an ad hoc defensive campaign, from improvised positions during the summer of 1940.

    Yet, irrespective of these strategic disadvantages, throughout the summer of 1940, French soldiers frequently displayed a level of courageousness that is hallmark of French military traditions. For example, during the Siege of Lille, 40,000 survivors of the 1ère Armée held a key junction on the approach to Dunkirk against a force of more than 100,000 Germans equipped with 800 tanks. The 1ère Armée was under continuous air and artillery attack, yet held out for five days, and only laid down its arms after exhausting virtually all its ammunition and having one-in-eight of its men killed. During this time approximately 250,000 troops were evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk. More importantly though, without this stubborn defense, German forces would have bypassed Lille on May 28, before an inner defensive perimeter was established, and thus (probably) prevented Operation Dynamo!
     
  2. GHT

    GHT I'll Lock Up

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    It's worth remembering that the 125,000 French troops evacuated to Britain from Dunkirk, took part in the Normandy landings. Information is sparse so I don't know if they were at the spearhead of the assault or played a role as reinforcements.

    Not so much a myth as demonised. The RAF has, over the decades, been demonised for the firestorms on the cities of Dresden and Hamburg.
    Along with their American allies, Bomber Command paid a very high price. The crews were also very aware of the tragic consequences on the ground that their campagne was causing. They didn't relish the bombing of civilians, or schools or hospitals and it played on the minds of many of them. It's therefore cruel to castigate these brave air crews. They didn't march into Poland, all guns blazing, they didn't have the where with all to retaliate when London, Coventry, Liverpool and other British cities were ruthlessly bombed, night after night, and they didn't copy the most callous order of Hitler when he told the Luftwaffe to bomb Rotterdam. That city was bombed after The Dutch had surrendered. it was an act of aggression, done deliberately, to inflict upon the Dutch, that insubordination would be strongly dealt with.
    I have nothing but pride and admiration for all the allied air crews who took part in WW2's bombing sorties. Yet, like those aircrews, I am reviled by the loss of life that it caused.
     
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  3. MikeKardec

    MikeKardec One Too Many

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    Too many of these myths grow from post hoc composites. The "cowardly" French (a mostly American trope) probably would not exist without the existence of Vichy or the grumpy behavior of the French communists who wanted to claim they had freed France on their own, without the Allies and, especially, without de Gaulle. Over the years the behavior of a certain class of French intellectuals and academics toward the US hasn't helped the American attitude either. Few realize that much of Vichy saw itself as different and distinct from the rest of France. A French person might jump in to do a better job of clarifying this but it might be slightly analogous to the relationship of Quebec to Canada. The two weren't always part of the same thing.

    I've always seen France as being very much like the US; conservative in it's own highly idiosyncratic way, very independent and not interested in explaining itself to the world, and the birthplace of a lot of good ideas (minitel, Citroen DS, high def TV, etc.) long before their time. The problem was they needed a mountain range between themselves and Germany but they had to make do with attitude. We've never had to deal with dangerous neighbors, thank god.
     
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  4. taiAtari

    taiAtari New in Town

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    The part about Rotterdam is not entirely correct, it too is an event that is surrounded by many, many myths. It is not helped by the fact it is hard to determine the events as they happened since every person and party involved has put its own spin on it for over 75 years.

    The facts that I can be fairly sure about are these: the city was bombed while negotations about a surrender of the city were ongoing. The city had not yet surrendered and had no clear military incentive to do so at that moment. Destruction was threatened in an ultimatum by the German forces that had tried to take control of the bridges over the Nieuwe Maas river for five days (the bridges were contested and nobody was able to cross, with the Germans holding the south bank and the Dutch the north bank).

    The defending Dutch army was probably stalling for time engaging in negotations. The defense of Holland was clearly hopeless at that moment, but keeping a german army occupied was worthwhile in the larger picture of the efforts of the (new) French , Belgian and British allies. It seems the German (Wehrmacht) commander on the ground was also surprised by the Luftwaffe bombing attack since he had cancelled the planned aerial assault because negotiations were ongoing.

    The official German version is that the Heinkels could not be reached at that time since they had already rolled in their long range antenna. After the destruction of the city, the Dutch commander surrendered Rotterdam (but not the Netherlands). Shortly after the whole of the Dutch army surrendered since a seperate (and unrelated, coming from a different commander and German force) ultimatum issued at the defenders of the city of Utrecht, threatened a fate similar to Warschau for this city. This was interpreted as connected to the bombing of Rotterdam and as such as a threat of a systematic campain of destroying the large Dutch cities from the air. The Dutch commander in chief could not reconcile the sacrifice the lives of thousands of civilians and the old Dutch cities for a struggle that clearly could not be won.

    What the reasoning behind the area bombing of the center of Rotterdam was, is hard to make definitive statenents about. Generally it is considered as fulfilling the threat of destruction as mentioned in the ultimatum, intended to force the surrender of the Netherlands without further German casualties. This is what more or less happened so it is easy to believe. However, militarily this does not necessarily make sense. Such an indiscriminate attack on the population could easily steel the resolve of defenders, it is impossible to pinpoint defensives positions with area bombardment and the rubble would make the city more easily defendable and very hard to cross for the largely mechanized German army waiting to enter the city.

    At this point in time not much was known about the effect of area bombing a defended city. Guernica and Warschau were really the only other examples and neither were that comparable to Rotterdam. It could have been a sort of test to see what the effect of such a large bombing attack on a defended city would be. Another possibility is that the attack was demanded by Goerring himself. The initial assault on the city (bridges) was performed by airborne troops, part of the Luftwaffe. They had been unable to secure the bridges here and had in the meantime been joined by the Army advancing from the south. Really close to Rotterdam on the northern side of the city, the remnants of another (failed) Fallschirmjaeger attack on The Hague and surroundings had retreated to the small town of Overschie (now a northern district of Rotterdam). They were under siege from the Dutch army, trying to mop up these Luftwaffe forces. The bombing could have been an attempt from the Luftwaffe to mask the relative failure of the airborne troops and claim the victory over Holland, at the same time relieving the pressure on and avoiding the potential embarassing imminent capture of the Fallschirmjaeger at Overschie.

    Shortly after the surrender of the city to the German forces, word reached the German commander that another wave of bombers were underway. This time he succeeded in averting the attack, by lying that German troops were already in the northern part of the city...
     
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  5. Guttersnipe

    Guttersnipe One Too Many

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    Free French and Vichy involvement in WWII after the fall of France is complex. Broadly speaking, the dynamics between the Vichy government, Free French movement, and maquis irregulars mirror the schizophrenic nature of French partisan politics during the 1930's.

    Contrary to Anglo-American perceptions, the Battle of France did not end with Dunkirk evacuation. The day after Dunkirk was captured on June 4, 1940, the German military began another major offensive from the River Somme, in a southward direction to cutoff Paris from the coastal escape routes. Four days latter, having effectively encircled Paris, the German advance pivoted towards the ultimate prize, Paris itself.

    Against this backdrop, chaos within the French government ensued. When it became clear that the military situation in France was hopeless, Prime Minister Paul Reynaud proposed a plan to evacuate the government to North Africa via England, and then continue fighting from French overseas colonies. To that end, Reynaud's supporters within the cabinet left for the coast. However, in what can arguably be described as military-backed coupe, reactionary ultra-conservatives within the cabinet forced Reynaud to resign. The French Army's commander-in-chief, General Weygand, met with Reynaud and demanded the government seek an armistice. In response, Reynaud convened a meeting with the remaining cabinet members, who were mostly supporters of the minister of war, Marshal Henri-Philippe Pétain. During the meeting, in a "shocking coincidence" the cabinet backed Weygand's demands. As a result, Reynaud resigned, Pétain became prime minister on June 16, requested an armistice the very next day, and signed the surrender agreement on June 22.

    However, none of these sketchy, behind the scenes actions were known at the time. Rather, from the perspective of French soldiers, civil servants, police officers, local officials, and the general public, the Pétain regime initially seemed like the legitimate, legally constituted government of France. Hence, the vast majority of French troops evacuated from Dunkirk chose to be repatriated to France, where they were demobilized and returned to civilian life. Likewise, French military commanders and colonial administrators around the globe were initially reluctant to support Charles de Gaulle's Free French movement because, irrespective of its moral authority, the exiled provisional government lacked actual legal legitimacy. So again, the "cowardly collaborating Vichy" trope arises from a black-and-white oversimplification of a complex situation where the French people were not faced with any easy choices.
     
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  6. Edward

    Edward Bartender

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    Two particular myths I'd like to never hear again.....

    "Plucky Britain stood alone" - apart from, y'know, all those guys from countries the British Empire had marched into and taken by force over the centuries, now expected to die for British freedom from a threatened invasion.

    "America won the war"/ "You'd have been speaking German if it wasn't for us" and so on.

    Probably lots of myths (and nasty behaviour) on all sides.

    My primary school headmaster was in a bomber crew; as the navigator, it was hid job to directly operate the bomb doors. He was acutely aware of particularly the children among the innocent civilians he killed, which was why he got into education after the war, to try and pay it back somehow. FWIW, he was shot down, escaped a POW camp - and was treated far worse by the Brits on his return to England than ever he was by the Wehrmacht. Never once did he have anything to do with the Remembrance parades as a result. I've got nothing against the boys who were sent out to do a dirty job, and then swept under the carpet to avoid awkwardness after the war, but those who sent them out deliberately to kill civilians I hope faced justice over it in the next world if they escaped it in this.
     
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  7. MikeKardec

    MikeKardec One Too Many

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    As in all the serious German victories there was an element of fruitfully exploiting the political situation. As soon as that aspect was not in the offing success became a good deal more unlikely. They should (if you were them) have stuck to what worked!
     
  8. Guttersnipe

    Guttersnipe One Too Many

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    Context is key. Many of the politicians in Pétain's camp were ultra-right reactionaries; in the first place, they harbored an admiration of fascism for its anti-leftist ideology and were opposed France's entry into the war from the get go. From their perspective, they were just making the best of a disastrous situation, which they believed the left wing Lebrun and Reynaud governments had caused. This deep-seeded social conservatism, which you astutely pointed out above, is why a vocal minority willingly embraced the Vichy Regime's abandonment of republican ideals. On the flip side, as it became clear that Vichy rule was merely a velvet glove disguising the Nazi fist, public opinion shifted. That's why by 1942 and '43, the Free French movement was an odd mix of socially conservative military men, Catholic traditionalists, republicans, socialists, and even exiled Spanish anarchists!
     
  9. Tiki Tom

    Tiki Tom One Too Many

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    Great discussion, gentlemen.
    Go to Google, type in "French military victories", hit "I'm feeling lucky", and see what comes up. ("Your search --French military victories-- did not match any documents... Try to search for losses, there are plenty of those.") It is only mildly humorous, but underlines how wide-spread the idea of French military incompetence is. But, of course, if you ask any Frenchman "who won Waterloo?", they will tell you that, technically, Napoleon won; but the allies took the day by cheating. A couple of years back I went to a museum exhibition in Paris on the liberation of Paris; in the exhibit's retelling of history there was hardly a GI to be seen. So regarding "myths of WWII", I guess every country has their own stockpile of feel-good-myths. I don't know why I am typing all this. You have heard it all before. At my office I work with several Frenchmen (as well as Brits, Russians, and Germans) so the subject of the war ---and international politics in general--- is usually off the table by unspoken mutual agreement. But believe me, the French can give as good as they get. There are some very ugly stories about GI behavior in France that I'd never heard before and I was branded as naïve for it. For their part, the Russians take full credit for the defeat of the Nazis. They even host a little party every year in my building to mark the event. In Vienna! In fact, in a couple of weeks, I should be seeing the posters for this year's party. None of this should be unexpected. It's always interesting to listen to the other guys perspective, if only to remind myself that the version that I grew up with is not the only version.
     
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  10. It's generally well-known that the Germans greatly feared being captured by the Russians and at the end of the war would try to surrender to the British and Americans to avoid such a horrific fate. Less well-known is that the French were equally feared as captors by the Germans. But understandably, both the French and Russians almost literally had an axe to grind.
     
  11. Guttersnipe

    Guttersnipe One Too Many

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    A challenge with studying French military history is that much of it is not published in English. Off the top of my head, take a look at the Wikipedia page for the Battle of Bir Hakeim (namesake to a Metro station in Paris). For an especially interesting read, check out the often-overlooked Free French victory during the liberation of Corsica (spoiler: it did not go well for the Italians!).
     
    Last edited: Apr 10, 2018
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  12. GHT

    GHT I'll Lock Up

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    Churchill & De Gaulle had a love/hate relationship, Churchill, never a shrinking violet, he once ripped into Stalin for suggesting that the British weren't doing enough in the war, but it irked him that although the French resistance and the second French Amoured Division brought about the surrender of Paris, later, no mention is made in France of the role of Patton & the US 4th Infantry Division.
    Perish the thought that Churchill held a grudge, but did you know :

    That towards the end of his life, Churchill was visited by a young official to discuss the details of his state funeral. The official showed Churchill the planned route that his coffin would take from his home to London and was surprised that, though Churchill proved flexible and uncomplaining about most details, here he demurred. Churchill suggested various other routes and when the young official finally asked why Churchill tapped his fingers on the map of London and one of the capital’s most important stations. ‘If I outlive De Gaulle, there is no problem. But if he is still alive I want him to be part of the group that greets my body as it comes into Waterloo!’
     
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  13. EngProf

    EngProf A-List Customer

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    One of my father's WWII stories that I remember clearly was his description of the last days of the War when the Germans were beyond the usual surrender terms, and were mostly just heading west as quickly as possible. He said his armored column would see a mob of Germans heading toward them in the open and the GI's would point and wave at them and the Germans would do likewise, indicating that they were aware of each other and no one was hostile. The GI's would then point to the rear and the Germans would march past with no formal surrender taken. The US forces would keep moving east.

    Everyone knew that the war was over, despite not being officially so, and the Germans were just heading home and away from the Russians. Being behind US lines meant life over death.

    My father was deceased years before the series "Band of Brothers" came out, but I wish he could have been around to see that sequence in which the US forces are driving along the autobahn going one way and the Germans are marching the other way down the median. That scene looked *exactly* like what he described.
     
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  14. Guttersnipe

    Guttersnipe One Too Many

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    Ha! De Gaulle was certainly a fly in the ointment for the Americans and British throughout the war, but there was a method to his madness. From the outside his actions often seemed like rampant egotism; however, de Gaulle's concern was always looking out for French interests, which was definitely not a primary concern for Churchill or Roosevelt.

    My parents' landlord in Bordeaux, Monsieur Marcelle (a jolly old fellow despite being captured in 1940 and having a rough war as a POW), summed up de Gaulle pretty well. He would say: "we French have always known de Gaulle is a bastard. But he is our bastard!"
     
    Last edited: Apr 11, 2018
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  15. [​IMG]

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  16. p51

    p51 One Too Many

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    Yeah, people forget that the French were considered quite fearsome prior to their defeats in WW2. Just look at their actions in the Great War and the 19th century for excellent examples.
    Here's a few others:
    • The German autobahn did not come as surprise to the Allies as they invaded Germany. Heck, the first designs on that were drawn I think at the end of WW1!
    • The Holocaust was not a surprise, either. To the rank and file Allied solider; yes. But SHAEF and the allied powers were very aware it was going on (not that they could stop it until they overran those camps, though)
    • The US Marines did not lose the highest percentage of people in WW2. Actually, I'm pretty sure the 8th AF bomber crews before late 1944 had the highest losses of anyone in the US military
    • Japanese were not the only ethnics group rounded up in internment camps in WW2. Actually, only the West coast Japanese people in the US were rounded up. Lots of them in the Midwest and east coast weren't handled at all. And many Italian and German nationals were put into such camps, too (though not nearly as many as the Japanese-heritage people)
    And one that drives modern Army NCOs out of their minds when you remind them of it:
    • Audie Murphy was a Second Lieutenant at the time of the action from which he was later awarded the Medal of Honor (seriously, tell a current Army NCO that and watch them squirm at the very idea, I used on plenty when I was a 2LT and had them making comments about how LTs were worthless)
     
  17. scotrace

    scotrace Head Bartender Staff Member

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    One I always heard was of Italian rank-and-file "cowardice." Quote marks because it is hard to fault a soldier for not being enthusiastic about helping Il Duce and Hitler in their aims. But my dad told of Italian soldiers quickly surrendering any time they were encountered. He said a single GI would be assigned to guard an entire truckload of Italian prisoners, handing their weapon up into a man in the back of the truck before climbing aboard himself, without any concern for a revolt.

    As for Americans thinking of the French in anything but loving terms, The United States itself owes its existence to French government assistance and military intervention. Even in the midwestern USA, you can't swing a cat without hitting some street or building or town named Lafayette.
     
  18. Harp

    Harp I'll Lock Up

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    Murphy was a mustang commissioned from the ranks and that makes a difference.:D
    ...sorry, but the 2nd Lt rep is a proven attribute-not always, to be sure, but the newbie commissioned always were closely watched.:mad:
     
  19. Guttersnipe

    Guttersnipe One Too Many

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    This touches on one of the other classic misconceptions about WWII: that Italian military defeats were due to cowardice. The genesis of this myth is large number of Italian prisoners captured in North Africa. However, this was a result of circumstances, not a failure of martial spirit.

    Throughout the war, the Italian military suffered from structural problems caused by Italy's stunted economic development, and exacerbated by Mussolini's kleptocratic regime. One of these problems was a critical shortage motorized transport. As a result, the overwhelming majority of Italian soldiers during WWII relied on the mark 1 foot to get where they were going. In the context of the highly-dynamic, mobile warfare environment the North African and Western Desert campaigns, this was gigantic problem -- especially because, for all intents and purposes, the Afrika Korps and Eight Army were entirely motorized.

    The typical Italian infantry division on the other hand, even under ideal circumstances, was only equipped with enough trucks to transport its field artillery regiment, regimental support batteries and, at most, half of its infantry companies. As a result, on a fluid battlefield characterized by long tactical withdraws and advances, Italian units were frequently unable to keep up with their German counterparts or Allied adversaries. Thus, especially in the latter part of the campaign when Rommel was on the defensive, during Axis retreats, Italian soldiers were often in the unenviable position of being cutoff while trying to outrun tanks and trucks - on foot!

    Against this background, it's no surprise that Italian soldiers surrendered in droves, especially in the latter part of the campaign, when they found themselves cutoff from supplies and retreat, low on ammunition and water, and dangerously dehydrated after hauling themselves and their equipment through hundreds of miles of desert on foot. But nevertheless, Rommel spoke very highly of the Italian units under his command and praised them for their courage and tenacity.
     
    Last edited: Apr 12, 2018
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  20. Edward

    Edward Bartender

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    The Allies could have tried to stop the death camps by bombing the rail lines, but they chose not to. I think I coild wear the attempt to retrospectively justify some of the more unpalatable tactics by reference to Auschwitz if they had.
     

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