Tonight I went to the Imperial War Museum (of which I am a Friend) to attend a debate amongst three historians ‘what was the greatest battle of the second world war?’
Stalingrad, I hear you cry. No, Kursk, says someone else. What about Midway, says another?
OK, say the organisers, there’s a word missing. Which was the greatest BRITISH battle of the second world war? And the choice is Battle of Britain, El Alamein or the D-Day landings.
Controversy straight away. Is D-Day a ‘British’ battle? There were a lot of Americans and Canadians there. And if you could ask Winston Churchill, he would have said that the Battle of the Atlantic was the most important – it was the one that gave him the most sleepless nights. To be fair, this point was raised, but no-one thought of Kohima – an overlooked but very important battle, certainly the greatest British battle in the Far East. But I digress, on to the debate.
The Battle of Britain has been in all our minds recently. The argument was that had we lost it, then there would have been no El Alamein or D-Day. We were literally fighting over our own territory where the price was high. At the end, this was my own choice. It must have been frightening to be living at the time – when a ruthless and powerful enemy had conquered all Europe and was only just across the channel, wanting to enslave you, while you had to go to work and get on with normal life. The responsibility on the RAF pilots must have been immense.
The argument against was that Hitler never wanted to invade Britain. Had the Battle of Britain been lost, the war would not yet have been over – Germany would have had to mount a seaborne invasion which took the Allies over two years to organise. Hitler's heart was never in invading Britain. He might have chosen to enforce a peace settlement, disarmed Britain, and then turned everyone round to march East. We know this now, of course, but at the time the British people didn’t.
The argument for El Alamein was that it was the first time the Brits stopped retreating - a major turning point. British forces took on the German army in a major battle and defeated them for the first time. Had the battle been lost, it would have put the North African campaign back a year. It was argued that victory at El Alamein had persuaded the Vichy French forces to go easy on the American landing in north west Africa whereas British defeat and they might have resisted further.
My own view: the German forces were at the end of their supply lines, Rommel was home on sick leave – had Alamein failed then there would have been another go a few months later. And the American landings would still have been successful.
The argument for D-Day took the, in my view, rather ludicrous line that had D-Day failed we would all be speaking Russian! Without the Allied landings, the Red Army would just keep on marching westwards to the channel and then hop across to Dover.
My objections were that with Berlin falling and Hitler dead, wouldn’t the Germans in west Europe dash off home and then the Allies could liberate France? And, by D-Day the Allies were halfway up Italy and preparing to invade southern France – which was not as well fortified as the north. Might we not have invaded Germany from a different direction? I raised this point and it was dismissed rather discourteously I felt. The Germans would hold onto the Alps, I was told. Even with Russians occupying Berlin? And if D-Day failed, what would we be doing with the troops over there – might we not have another go or at least wheel them round to the south?
The vote at the end was Battle of Britain 31, D-Day 28, El Alamein 3 so I was on the winning team – which doesn’t happen very often. But an interesting evening, some nice sandwiches and wine, and a debate which will of course go on.