This year, on 8th May, VE Day celebrates 75 years since the Allied Forces defeated Hitler. As part of marking this momentous occasion, we rounded up some of Key Publishing’s World War II experts for a chat (remotely, of course). So it’s over to Nigel Price and John Ash, Editor and Deputy Editor respectively of Britain at War, Andrew Stone, Editor of Classic Military Vehicle, and Aeroplane Editor Ben Dunnell, for their thoughts. Take it away, gentlemen…
What, in your opinion, was the turning point of WW2 and why?
Nigel Price: I don’t think there was just one turning point – several momentous events turned the tide of war and ultimately lead to the defeat of Nazism. But there are some key actions that stand out for me, such as Dunkirk in 1940, with the escape of Allied men in vast numbers, under the noses of the Germans. If they had been lost, defending Britain would have a tall order. There was also the Battle of Britain that year – preventing the Nazis from invading and keeping the fight on ‘Western Front’ open. It showed the seemly unstoppable Nazi war machine wasn’t invincible; it also inflicted great losses on the Luftwaffe, albeit at a high cost in allied and civilian lives.
John Ash: It is a huge question. For Europe, many suggest Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain – not as individual turning points per-say, but rather the fact Britain endured was a turning point in itself. D-Day, the invasion of Normandy, is another commonly offered turning point. Others would convincingly argue the turning point was on the Eastern Front. Not so much at Stalingrad, as popularly imagined, but rather Kursk or the lesser-known Battle of the Dnieper. The problem is things were so incredibly intertwined that it is hard to single out one event. The Allied invasion of Sicily, for example, it is claimed, forced Hitler to halt the Kursk offensive – at least this is what German Field Marshal Erich von Mannstein was told by the Führer.
I believe the key contributors for victory in Europe happened off the continent. There are the various agreements with Canada and the USA to supply Britain and the USSR and linked to this is the Battle of the Atlantic, the critical struggle against the German Navy’s U-boats and surface raiders. This battle ran the entire length of the war, and how many other single battles can be described as a campaign, or even as a theatre?
This turning point enabled the fight back in Europe. It required dogged determination and endurance from participants, and innovative and technical leadership from commanders, all underpinned by the intelligence produced by Bletchley Park and other sites. It was an all-encompassing, war-winning effort.
Ben Dunnell: Singling out an individual turning-point from a series of interconnected events is difficult, but, if there’s one that stands out, for me it must be Stalingrad – the culmination of a campaign on the Eastern Front that proved enormously wasteful, in lives and resources, for Germany. It thus possesses wider significance for the course of the entire war, as men and equipment were diverted from other theatres to fight the Soviet Union in an ultimately doomed effort.
Andrew Stone: The entry of the US was obviously a major turning point, but I agree Ben – the Battle of Stalingrad was as decisive. This really was a key battle for so many reasons, but mostly because it showed that the fearsome German military machine could be beaten. While an Allied victory was still not a certainty at this point, the war was never the same for the Wehrmacht following the defeat and for the most part, it became an army in retreat until surrender in 1945.
NP: There are several others that come to mind. The German invasion of the USSR in 1941 – opening a second front against the Soviets stretched Hitler’s forces. He could never win against the massive fighting machine Stalin had at his disposal. Then there was the USA entering the war in 1941 – had Hitler not declared war on the USA after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the conflict would have gone on much longer in Europe. The massive amount of men and machines deployed by the Americans to Europe made the ‘Western Front’ a lot costlier for the Germans, splitting their forces and largely prevented Hitler’s ‘wonder weapons’ from entering the battlefields.
And, of course, one cannot forget D-Day in 1944. Hitler’s goose was well and truly cooked when the Allies invaded Normandy and opened up the road to Berlin.
T-34 tanks and Soviet infantry push into Stalingrad’s urban centre (Ukrainian Central State Archive)
What do you think is the greatest story of heroism from WW2?
NP: There were so many – people from all walks of life showed amazing courage.
BD: I truly find it impossible to choose a single story of heroism above all others. The list of Victoria Cross recipients from 1939-45 alone contains so many outstanding acts of bravery and selflessness.
AS: You’re right – there are so many stories and the choice massive. Much of it depends on how you define heroism, but from a fighting perspective I’m going back to Stalingrad and a story that has always fascinated me – that of Pavlov’s House. It is about a group of Red Army soldiers who defended a four-story apartment block in the face of a massive German onslaught during the Battle of Stalingrad. Pavlov’s House became a symbol of the resistance during the battle and today it is still used as an apartment block with an attached memorial.
JA: For me, Frederic ‘Johnnie’ Walker sticks out. He was a Royal Navy Captain who led 2nd Escort Group and tasked with actively hunting U-boats. Walker proved the most successful anti-submarine commander of the war. He died young, aged 48, in 1944, following a stroke – having essentially worked himself to death. Then there is the story of the Wasbies – the Women’s Auxiliary Service (Burma) – who supported British Fourteenth Army with their mobile canteens. They experienced similar hardships to the fighting men and endured sieges and air attacks.
NP: The list is almost endless. SOE agents dropped behind enemy lines; almost suicide missions to buy time for troops to escape from Dunkirk; arctic conveys, the fighting Home Front spirit during the Blitz – I could go on. A typical story of an ordinary person doing extraordinary things sticks in my mind through. We told the story recently in Britain at War of a female driver who served in London during the worst of the bombing in 1940/41. Her job was to ferry petrol to the fire engines in the East End during the raids – and to fill the water pump generators up with fuel. One spark in the wrong place or one drop of fuel spilt on the red-hot pumps and she would have been engulfed in flames. She carried out what she called “her duty” for weeks on end. Amazing courage.
JA: You’re right – there were so many individual acts of gallantry; among the most extraordinary is Lieutenant-Commander Gerard Roope VC, captain of HMS Glowworm. On April 8, 1940, he took his destroyer into battle with the German cruiser Admiral Hipper despite being alone and outgunned. Before long, Glowworm was battered and burning, but Roope nevertheless rammed the Hipper before his vessel sank, taking more than 100 men with her. The action was not only photographed, but Roope’s recommendation for the Victoria Cross partly came from the German captain.
Another inspiring act was that of Havildar (Sergeant) Parkash Singh VC. On January 6, 1943, a patrol from his unit, 5th Battalion, 8th Punjab Regiment, was ambushed in the Arakan and Singh assumed command when his platoon commander was wounded. He used a Universal Carrier to rescue men pinned down by heavy Japanese fire, saving eight. Later, on January 19, he sortied out under heavy fire to find survivors of another ambush and towed back another Universal Carrier with two severely wounded men inside.
Captain ‘Johnnie’ Walker on the bridge of the sloop HMS Starling (with sandwich in right hand) as his command hunts down another U-boat
Who do you think were the unsung heroes of the war?
AS: The answer to this question is probably best summed up by General George Patton who said that in an army “every man is a vital link in the great chain”. However, because of the nature of my magazine, Classic Military Vehicle, I’m going to take a biased approach and say the thousands of supply line drivers who delivered critical supplies where needed. Not only were they often priority targets for enemy aircraft, but a shortage of drivers and maintenance crews led to long hours behind the wheel resulting in chronic fatigue for the overworked drivers. Without these vital supplies getting through, the Allied cause would have been lost.
JA: Everyone who served, whether they drove tanks or towed water bowsers, played an important role. It is easy to forget that while those in the firing line were at the sharp end, they were the thin end of the wedge. They were backed by logistics, training, command, intelligence – anything imaginable – to generate an advantage. Also, the war mobilised entire populations. A city lad may not have served in battle, but perhaps he produced munitions by day and was a firewatcher by night. Many servicemen had families living and working beneath the Blitz, so the war was hard on them, too.
BD: To me, the role of women in the Second World War too often goes unappreciated. Whether performing some extremely hazardous tasks on the home front, working in factories or ferrying aeroplanes, to name but three examples, their contribution deserves greater recognition.
NP: Again, it is very hard to single out one group of people. I think the codebreakers did amazing work, but it was many years before any recognition came their way, due to national security and secrecy. I’ve always thought the ‘Bevin Boys’ – young men conscripted to work in the coal mines – were unsung heroes. Their work was vital to the war effort; it was also backbreaking and highly dangerous. But the ‘Bevin Boys’ were often seen as ‘draft dodgers’ by the public and they suffered considerable, and very unfair, abuse. Many, if not all, of the boys wanted to serve in the military but once you were selected at random for the mines, that was your fate and the decision was irreversible.
JA: For me, it’s the engineers, problem solvers and innovators who stand out; the Barnes Wallis’ and Alan Turings’ are rightfully celebrated, but how about Józef Kosacki, the Pole who developed the first viable man-portable mine detector? Or Robert Dippy, who developed GEE, a navigation system used to coordinate the RAF’s bombers?
As for commanders, I’d look again to the Battle of the Atlantic. If you had to single out a military leader as the person who made the most difference, then the tenacious Admiral Sir Max Horton would be a strong candidate. At its climax the Atlantic struggle was very successfully steered by him and his staff from his Western Approaches Command in Liverpool.
You have interviewed many WW2 veterans. How would you describe talking to these individuals who did such incredible things?
JA: Incredibly humbling. Sometimes humorous, often tragic, but always fulfilling.
NP: I’ve been fortunate to meet and interview many World War Two veterans, from both sides of the conflict, over the years. People such as Roland Beaumont, Neville Duke, John ‘Cat’s Eyes’ Cunningham, Billy Drake, ‘Johnny’ Johnson and Eric Brown are perhaps the most well-known British airmen. I can honestly say they have all been perfect gentlemen to me; helpful and dignified. I remember Billy Drake put me on the spot once, though. I asked him about something in his biography; he turned the tables and started asking me lots of questions in a very stern manner and a withering stare, to see if I’d really read the book, which thankfully I had. He then smiled and answered my question – he was just having a bit of banter with me. I think!
JA: The veterans we speak to have ranged from conscripted privates to career officers – last year we even interviewed a major-general. They have a huge and varied range of stories, which add real flavour to our understanding of history. Their words help Britain at War build a picture of what happened at a given time, and we combine that with our work to create the best analysis and narrative we possibly can. Stories like theirs are the bread and butter of what we do, and preserving the experiences of veterans while we can is something we believe is very important.
BD: It is always a privilege, and the main aspects that stay with me from most of these encounters are their modesty, their dignity and the thoughtfulness of their reflection.
NP: Roland ‘Bea’ Beaumont is one of my all-time heroes – fighter ace in World War Two, Cold War test pilot who took the Lightning, Canberra and TSR-2 into the air for their maiden flights, and much more. The nicest chap you could hope to meet – so down to earth. My first editor, Ken Ellis, often tells of me taking a phone call in the office when I was a fresh-faced ‘cub’ journalist – on the other of the line was ‘Bea’. Ken says that I stood up, snapped to attention and kept calling him sir!
BD: The most memorable meeting for me was with a group of six Battle of Britain veterans during 2010, 70 years to the day since what became known as the battle’s ‘Hardest Day’. The opportunity to hear such first-hand testimonies was an extremely special one then. Now, with all six of those gentleman having died, the memory is to be treasured. Some words from my conversation with Geoffrey Wellum, author of that marvellous memoir First Light, seem extremely apposite: “To me, it’s not about medals, it’s not even about we survivors being thanked. It’s important and rather nice to be remembered, because if you’re remembered you’re taking in everybody, not only those of us who survived but those who paid the extreme sacrifice.”
AS: As I only joined Classic Military Vehicle in February 2019, I have not really had the opportunity to interview or meet many veterans since. But I was fortunate in that I grew up with a World War Two veteran, my late father Les Stone who served aboard the Royal Navy S-class submarine HMS Spur during the war. From a young age I remember him sharing his exploits with us and when I reflect on his and other stories I have since heard from veterans, the one thing that stands out is that none of them see themselves as heroes, but simple, ordinary men called on to do extraordinary things in an extraordinary time. To this day I am still bitterly disappointed for not asking more questions of my dad.
NP: The valour of the World War Two generation was widespread. One of the most moving interviews that I remember was with a Liberator tail gunner who joined up fairly late in the war. His aircraft had “a bit of a do off Norway” with a Luftwaffe fighter; they made it home to crash land with several of the crew dead or wounded on board. The chap survived with cuts and bruises, but was dispatched to the family of a dead crewmate to tell them what happened… he was barely 17 years old. They call them the ‘great generation’ for a very good reason. Lest We Forget.
World War 2 fighter ace Roland 'Bea' Beaumont in a Lightning