back to article Western Approaches Museum: WRENs, wargames, and victory in the Atlantic

Walking down the ramp into the Western Approaches Museum in Liverpool you are faced with a quote from American journalist David Fairbanks White, author of Bitter Ocean: The Battle of the Atlantic, 1939-1945. It states boldly that Derby House is where the Second World War was won. That's quite a claim for a rather bland 11-storey …

  1. Antron Argaiv Silver badge

    Merchant Marine

    The US sailors were not considered veterans until recently (1977,1988)

    One of my ham radio friends was a radio operator on the convoy ships. Nicest guy you'd ever meet, and taught licence and Morse classes almost up to his death. Only after I had done a bit of reading did I realise how lucky he was to have made it through the war alive. He had the ability to be sitting around the radio room, having a conversation, and simultaneously listening to (and understanding) whatever Morse was coming out of the speaker. A talent of limited usefulness nowadays, but impressive, nonetheless.

    RIP Ed, W1NXC

    1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: Merchant Marine

      It's only relatively recently that the UK got round to issuing campaign medals for the merchant seamen on the Russian convoys.

      A classmate at school had lost his father in the Merchant Navy. Just because they weren't shooting anyone they seem to have been largely overlooked.

    2. This post has been deleted by its author

  2. UCAP Silver badge

    Video by Drachinifel on YouTube

    Drachinifel has produced a video on YouTube of when he toured the museum. Fascinating to watch. Warning - nearly an hour long!

    1. KBeee Bronze badge

      Re: Video by Drachinifel on YouTube

      And Lindybeige - The wargamers who won a real battle

      Specifically about WATU, though he also has videos about a visit to the museum, and The Battle of the Atlantic.

      1. Hans Neeson-Bumpsadese
        Thumb Up

        Re: Video by Drachinifel on YouTube

        Thumbs up for Lindybeige mention - he has some fasctinating stuff on his channel (the video about Chile's clandestine involvement in the Falklands war is most excellent).

        Back on WATU...I believe I first heard about this on Al Murray & James Holland's "We Have Ways Of Making You Talk" podcast - essential listening for the middle-aged man who enjoys listening to other middle-aged men chatting about the Second World War.

  3. Anonymous South African Coward Silver badge

    History need to be set down lest it be forgotten.

    1. Pseudononymous Coward

      >History need to be set down lest it be forgotten.

      History is always forgotten when the next big event rolls over it.

      The Second World War largely erased memories of the First, and the First erased memories of the Boer War, which had in turn erased Waterloo in the public perception.

      Battles are always followed by fine words like "we will never forget", but who cares about the Battle of Stormberg now?

  4. Colonel Mad

    Geeks Guides

    I really love these, another place I had never heard of. Many thanks to Richard Currie.

    1. Gene Cash Silver badge

      Re: Geeks Guides

      This series of articles are masterpieces of photography and narrative, and I'm glad El Reg is keeping it going.

      1. Neil Barnes Silver badge

        Re: Geeks Guides

        This was completely new to me - thanks. I repeat the above plea, particularly as I now live in, er, Germany...

        1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: Geeks Guides

          If you can get Yesterday on satellite over there, they are constantly showing programmes about the German "secret" factories and defences, R&D places etc. Occasionally they even document some British places. Their series War Factories was quite interesting too. I'm guessing it's the same production company making all these series. The same "experts" keep popping up and the format is the same; I wonder what this place was? It's foreboding, it's creepy, etc, while giving more and more, bigger and bigger clues so the audience can feel clever by guessing what it is before finally being told. Once that bit is out of the way, they can often be quite informative.

  5. Joe Gurman

    In addition to the 2700 Liberty ships….

    of 10,000 tons, and up to 11 knots, the US also produced, starting in 1943, ~ 540 Victory ships of 15,000 tons, up to 15 knots.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    More info

    Another article on those submarine wargames available here:

    1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: More info

      Thanks for that. An excellent read.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: An excellent read.

        Indeed. But as an ex-wargamer, I can't help but want to see the actual rules they used...

        1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

          Re: An excellent read.

          Submarine warfare rules. Have seen this game done, it was funny and reasonably accurate.

          Blindfold ten people. Place them in a medium sized hall with a slidy wooden floor. Your church hall or local community centre should be perfect.

          Each person has 6-10 marbles to act as their load of torpedoes.

          Each person lies flat on the floor on their back.

          Movement is as fast or slow as you like. If you hit someone you're both dead as you've sunk your submarines.

          Passive sonar: Listen. If someone is moving, you should hear them. Unless they're moving very slowly and stealthily.

          Active sonar: Say "ping". This is where you need people who won't cheat. Anyone who hears the word "ping" must repeat it at exactly the same volume they heard it at. Thus your active pings will be heard further away than you can hear the replies. Plus you can moderate the power of your active sonar.

          Torpedoes: When firing, simply roll your marble in the desired direction. Anybody hit by a moving marble is dead.

          Suggested tactic: If you hear a torpedo, you may wish to fire one back down that bearing.

          If you are hit (torpedo or other boat), say "bang" - then get up and quickly and quietly leave.

  7. Irony Deficient Silver badge

    a quote from American journalist David Fairbanks White, …

    … author of Bitter Ocean: The Battle of the Atlantic, 1939-1945. It states boldly that Derby House is where the Second World War was won. That's quite a claim for a rather bland 11-storey office block in the Stripped Classicism style that most people have never heard of.

    It certainly is quite a claim, when compared to the much larger area east of Poland where the Wehrmacht met its match.

    Nonetheless, this museum looks quite interesting.

    1. graeme leggett

      Re: a quote from American journalist David Fairbanks White, …

      It's all interconnected.

      While UK is in the war, then

      1) Britain is a base for operations against German war production which Soviets aren't in a position to attack

      2) Royal Navy maintains blockade of German so they don't have access to tungsten, copper, rubber and other things useful for making tanks and ammunition

      3) USSR gets some of the Lend Lease via Persian corridor

      4) British supplies to Soviets include 5,000 tanks (inc Canadian Valentine production), 1400 radar sets, 1 battleship, 4000 or so aircraft, 13000 tons copper, 114000 tons rubber, £13 million worth of machine tools etc

      On top of which are supplies from USA to USSR sent via Atlantic. So keeping the Atlantic open affects the war to the East.

      1. KBeee Bronze badge

        Re: a quote from American journalist David Fairbanks White, …

        5. Nazi Germany expends vast resources building and defending the Atlantic Wall.

      2. Pseudononymous Coward

        Re: a quote from American journalist David Fairbanks White, …

        The most important thing the British brought to the table was the other 450,000 people and their resources in the British Empire and Commonwealth.

        Since the 1950s there has grown a pernicious myth that it was the UK fighting Germany, particularly the bollocks about "Britain standing alone" following the fall of France. This was emphatically not the case. India, for example, contributed 2.5 million troops over the course of the war, fighting in every theatre, and Canada grew its navy from 13 ships to 450.

        1. Pseudononymous Coward

          Re: a quote from American journalist David Fairbanks White, …

          s/450,000/450 million/

          of course

        2. EvilDrSmith

          Re: a quote from American journalist David Fairbanks White, …

          A fair point to make (have an upvote).

          The 'Britain alone' concept does appear to date back to 1940 though (there's a fairly well known cartoon by Lowe, who was in fact a New Zealander).

          So I think there was possibly an acceptance (initially) that 'Britain Alone' meant not just Britain but also Dominions and Empire.

          70 years of changing attitudes to Empire have I suspect changed how we as a society talk about it and what it achieved, and resulted in some simplifications. Hence, 'Britain alone' does nowadays tend to be viewed to mean just Britain.

          This point does actually tie in nicely with the article that's triggered it. The resources available to Britain (ie. all the Empire+Dominions, plus all the neutrals that Britain can trade with but the Germans can't because of the British blockade on Germany) meant that Germany had no chance of winning a long war, unless they can somehow cut that trade network (which in fact they never came close to, not withstanding that it was a long and hard fight).

        3. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

          Re: a quote from American journalist David Fairbanks White, …

          Pseudononymous Coward,

          I strongly disagree that it's a pernicious myth that Britain stood alone.

          Partly just from the practical sense that people said it at the time, but were pretty loose in their terminology. Saying Britain when they meant the empire, or if you were Hitler often saying England when you meant the whole lot of the UK + empire and dominions.

          Saying England when you meant the UK was also commonplace at the time. There's even a dig at this in 'The Man Who Never Was' (1956), where an officer says how this will do great service for England, and the father of the dead man says that we're Scottish - but we're used to you saying that.

          I don't really like to use the word pernicicious about any honest attempt to do history, but I'd argue there's at least as much bad faith in their arguments from the revisionist types as the original (perhaps more jingoisitic) ones who they're reacting against.

          Britain had the Empire and Dominions (principally Oz, NZ, Canada and South Africa). This was clearly a massive part of the war effort. But they were a long way away. And of course, in the case of the Empire, they didn't get a choice about joining in the war. Though the Dominions' governments did.

          In 1940 it was Britain that was under threat of invasion. And the bulk of the forces in play were British - both in terms of personnel, manufacture and funding.

          After Dunkirk, when the bulk of the British army came back disorganised and with no heavy weapons I believe one Canadian division made it to the UK. Which was dead useful, seeing as Churchill sent most of the remaining organised troops (and the only armoured division) off to North Africa. Which is where the first available ANZAC and Indian troops were also sent.

          For example, of the 3,000-odd pilots counted as having fought in the Battle of Britain a bit less than 600 were foreign. Although only one Canadian squadron fought as such. All the rest were integrated into the RAF - or had already been in it for years - given that "British" forces always had a number of recruits from around the empire.

          I think to call it a pernicious myth is utterly ludicrous. Certainly context needs to be added, but it wasn't Canadian cities getting bombed, nor was Australia under immediate threat of invasion.

          Obviously I've no right to take any kind of smug, self-satisified kudos from having fought the Nazis alone. I wasn't born yet. I suppose my Mum could - although as she was a child in the war Hening Wehn argues that all she was doing was using up resources vital to the war effort - so she was actually on Hitler's side...

          I'd argue Hening Wehn is much better at puncturing that pomposity with humour - than any number of revisionist historians are with their own self-righteous twisting of the narrative.

          1. Mooseman Silver badge

            Re: a quote from American journalist David Fairbanks White, …

            "In 1940 it was Britain that was under threat of invasion. And the bulk of the forces in play were British - both in terms of personnel, manufacture and funding."

            Only very, very briefly, and the German invasion barges were never really up to the task of moving enough men and equipment to our shores in enough numbers in order to succeed. The Battle of Britain definitively stopped any German intent to invade, and had they succeeded in forcing the RAF back from the South coast we still had plenty of airfields further North.

            The invasion threat, while real, was only every a short term issue which the German high command never seriously pushed - the famous halting of the tanks at Dunkirk allowed (with a lot of effort) us to evacuate the bulk of our army and quite a lot of the French, meaning we had a lot of battle trained troops (granted lacking heavy equipment temporarily) available as defence. Changing tactics against RAF bases allowed us to rebuild and re-equip, thus the Luftwaffe never really had a chance (poor tactics imposed on fighters etc didn't help either)

            Standing alone? With huge quantities of material and supplies being shipped in from all over the world?

            (coincidentally as I wrote this a Spitfire flew overhead :) )

    2. Peter2 Silver badge

      Re: a quote from American journalist David Fairbanks White, …

      It certainly is quite a claim, when compared to the much larger area east of Poland where the Wehrmacht met its match.

      Arguably, but if we'd have lost the battle of the Atlantic then if you look up the percentage of British supplied tanks at the Battle of Moscow (between 30-40%) and where the machine tools and raw materials that the Soviets were lacking while relocating and building new factories came from you can't help but think that those latter victories rely in turn on this.

      And this also relies upon earlier victories and things like the Polish work on breaking the early Enigma machines; the war was a gargantuan team effort.

    3. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: a quote from American journalist David Fairbanks White, …

      It certainly is quite a claim, when compared to the much larger area east of Poland where the Wehrmacht met its match.

      And why did the Wermacht meet its match? Because the Soviet Union had massive armed forces. And why was the Red Army so well equipped? Partly down to lend-lease.

      As an example, the Allies provided the Russians with 400,000 trucks and jeeps. This meant that they were able to field whole motorised armies. The Germans could barely scrape together a handful of fully motorised corps. This made a massive difference. The Russians were continually able to surprise the Germans by building up forces behind the line, and then rapidly moving them in for quick attacks. The Germans, who lacked motor transport were tied to the railways for supply. They had a bit of air and road supply, but were basically reliant on trains and mules/horses. It's a myth that Germany didn't have winter clothing for its troops around Moscow in 1941. They had it, it was just in the depots in Germany. They couldn't get sufficient ammunition, fuel and food to the front - let alone clothing.

      Also, even though three quarters of the German army were on the Russian front, only 25-30% of their war production was used to supply that. Most of it went on lost production to allied bombing, defence against that bombing or building U-Boats. Just think how many more tanks the Germans could have had on the Russian front, if they hadn't had to build 700 U-Boats?

      Back-of-the-envelope calcs here. Germany built about 25,000 tanks during the whole war. Britain about half that, the US about twice and Russia about 4 times. If you can build 50 tanks with the steel and industrial resources it takes to build one U-Boat - then every 100 U-Boats less is 20% of Germany's entire tank production.

      If Germany had been able to motorise its army, it may well have taken Moscow in 1941 or Stalingrad in 42. But most of the army walked - and their supplies came by horse, mule and train.

      An interesting source here. Just from a quick Google, I had the 400k trucks number in my head from somewhere else - but I hadn't realised that the US supplied a third of the Soviet's entire supply of explosives during the war. Linky Linky

      1. EvilDrSmith

        Re: a quote from American journalist David Fairbanks White, …

        Surface displacement of a U-boat varies (a lot) according to mark, but is typically perhaps around the 1000ton mark.

        German production of the Tiger 1 (weight ~50t) was a tad under 1350. (not a typo, One thousand three hundred and forty-something).

        So 50 tanks/U-boat would be optimistic, but purely on a mass of material basis, 20 (Tiger 1) to 40 (Panzer 3) - so the the basic idea holds true.

        Most coffee-table-TV programmes on Blitzkrieg tend to give the impression that the German army was composed entirely of panzers and infantry riding around in armoured half tracks ('Hanomags' to those of us of a certain age and with memories of Airfix).

        In reality, the German army marched everywhere. 90% of it's numerical strength was foot-infantry, moving long distance by train, then getting out and walking, with heavy weapons and supply wagons drawn by horses.

        Despite this, the German army in 1941 and 1942 had the mobility to out manoeuvre the Soviet Army, killing 100,000s and capturing millions (literally) of POWs.

        In 1944 and 1945. the Soviet army is doing the same back to the Germans, and this is when the bulk of the German Army losses occur.

        The simple view is to look at the casualties suffered by the German army, note that the majority was on the Eastern Front, and jump to a conclusion.

        If you look at when in the war the casualties occurred, and try to understand why, for example, the German Blitzkrieg worked in 1941 and 1942 but couldn't be repeated in 1944/45, whereas the Soviet deep operational plans (which were basically blitzkrieg in Russian) failed in 1941/42, but worked so well in 1944/45, it becomes clear that it actually isn't that clear.

        German fuel supplies were crippled because of actions from the west; German airpower was destroyed in the west (look up 'operation point blank'). German transport infrastructure was destroyed from the west. This all acted to destroy the German army's mobility in 1944/45.

        Did Germany lose the war because the German army was defeated in the East, or was the German army defeated in the East because Germany had lost the war?

  8. The commentard formerly known as Mister_C Silver badge

    "...most people have never heard of..."

    Mister C senior (born 1928) was an office boy in a Liverpool shipping office during the war. As the most junior of juniors, a lot of his duties were carrying messages. He regularly had to carry (sealed) reports to and from Derby house. He enjoyed being stopped by a Royal Marine sentry telling him "you can't go in there, it's secret" - at which point he would remember that he had a pass in his pocket. Scouse teenager - 1, His Majesty's Finest - 0.

    Icon coz the pass is in here somewhere

    1. Antron Argaiv Silver badge

      Re: "...most people have never heard of..."

      "When I was a lad, I served a term..."

  9. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

    Seems a security risk

    You have a wall size map showing where all your convoys are and a staff of 100s who can see it everyday.

    You are rather trusting that all these people are 100% on your side

    1. Antron Argaiv Silver badge

      Re: Seems a security risk

      ...and, yet, like Bletchley Park, Nebraska Avenue, and so many other places during the war, the (mostly women) who worked at those jobs, never said a word about their work -- then, or for decades afterwards.

      The trust was not misplaced.

      1. Pseudononymous Coward

        Re: Seems a security risk

        >The trust was not misplaced.

        The British were fortunate that there weren't any German spies, but there turned out to be plenty of ideologically motivated Russian ones. And the Russians managed to get more or less everything that they were actually interested in, and they weren't interested in British Atlantic convoy routes - so who knows if there were any Russian assets in Derby House.

        Russia was not a friendly state until the middle of 1941, so the British were damned lucky that Russia and Germany did not share intelligence despite the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact etc.

        1. ButlerInstitute

          Re: Seems a security risk

          > The British were fortunate that there weren't any German spies

          Not so much luck but that the British had all the German spies under their control.

          Either there was a mole high up in German Intelligence, or Bletchley Park etc tipped them off to trap them when they landed, or find them if they were native, either way then taking control of them.

          1. This post has been deleted by its author

          2. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

            Re: Seems a security risk

            >Either there was a mole high up in German Intelligence, or Bletchley Park etc tipped them off to trap them when they landed, or find them if they were native, either way then taking control of them.

            Generally they were just totally incompetent.

            German high command wasn't really into spying - except on each other. The nice thing about paranoid personality cult dictatorships is that they don't really encourage secretive plots among their underlings.

          3. Peter2 Silver badge

            Re: Seems a security risk

            There was no fortune involved. Google the "Double Cross" system to read about what MI5 was up to during the war; by 1941 they had captured every single German spy in Britain with the exception of one, who had committed suicide.

        2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

          Re: Seems a security risk

          "they weren't interested in British Atlantic convoy routes"

          They did, however, have a strong interest in the success of those convoys and the Arctic convoys to themselves.

      2. disgruntled yank Silver badge

        Re: Seems a security risk

        The NSA has a small pamphlet on Enigma, which mentions Nebraska Avenue (and Dayton, Ohio before that). I had gone by the Naval station at Nebraska and Massachusetts for forty years without ever having a notion that it played such a role.

    2. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: Seems a security risk

      Not just anyone could get cleared into the map room. So it's not like the cleaners could see it. But also the information was extremely time sensitive. Yes, an intel source would be very useful in learning Royal Navy patterns of operation. But the only way to get that kind of tactical information fast enough to be useful would be to tranmit it by radio - which was detectable at the time. Plus in order to inform their U-Boats, the Germans would also have to use radio - risking giving away their information source.

      At various points in the war, Enigma was broken. I think it went dark in late 1941 and for most of 1942 - after the Kriegsmarine updated to Shark (the 4 rota Enigma). Once Bletchley cracked that, they realised that the Germans had broken the Navy's merchant shipping code - and had to change it. If there'd been a spy in the ops room, it would have been very hard to use the information without making it obvious.

      Also German intelligence in the UK was rubbish. They couldn't even get ordinary spies in to wander round the countryside looking at stuff - let alone anyone at top levels.

  10. Potemkine! Silver badge

    the rescue of some 330,000 British and French troops from the area around Dunkirk in the early summer of 1940

    More exactly 338,226 including 198,315 British soldiers, 123,095 French soldiers and 16,816 Belgian ones.

    Something rarely if not never said on the British side is that the evacuation was decided unilaterally by the British War Office without warning the French Government on May, 26. The General Gort refused that 3 British divisions participated into the protection of the port and beaches of Dunkirk.

    Re-embarkation was made possible only because of the sacrifice of the 40,000 French soldiers from the 12th Infantry Motorized Division , 68th, 21st, 32nd and 60th Infantry Divisions, who fought for 9 days alone vs 160,000 German soldiers.

    With a thought for the two brothers of my native village who fought there, one being killed on the suburbs of Dunkirk with 18,000 of his comrades, the other who went over 4 years in German prisoners camps.

  11. Paul Johnston

    Well worth a visit

    Interested people may want to read "A Game of Birds and Wolves" by Simon Parkin to get a fuller picture.

    As an aside I playfully complained whilst there that they were offering discount to present and ex members of the armed forces but not present and ex merchant navy people.

    They said they would look into it, so if you are serving or former MN suggest you bring your discharge book. (let the jokes commence)

  12. Fastitocalon

    "The Fighting Captain: Frederic John Walker RN and the Battle of the Atlantic" by Alan Burn is a very good book if you want to find out more about Frederic Walker.

    1. Tim 49

      Good fiction reads

      And for a fictional account, the book "The Cruel Sea" is very good. Darker than the also-excellent film, it has a nice description of how the Escort Commander training course was carried out in that building, when Our Hero, newly-promoted to Commander, is given charge of an escort group.

      Other good fiction is "Sharks and Little Fish" by Wolfgang Ott if you can find a copy, from the German perspective. Not for the squeamish. And "UMS Ulysses" by Alistair MacLean, for some honest thud & blunder.

      1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

        Re: Good fiction reads

        The film of the Cruel Sea is truly excellent, and doesn't shy away from some of the nastier bits of war. I was planning to recommend it, just because I watched it during lockdown, and there's a scene where one of the officers pops into Western Approaches to have a look at the operations map. One of my favourite scenes is the junior officer basically told that you're it, there's no doctor, here's a crew member with a broken arm and a book on advanced first aid. Get on with it. Which was pretty much how stuff went on the converted trawlers they were sending out as corvettes in 1940/41. It wasn't until they got the new flower class frigates in numbers, that things got a bit better.

        Walker also talks a bit about it during the episode of 'The World at War' on the Battle of the Atlantic.

        I guessed (and just checked) it was Audacity that was the escort carrier lost in the convoy where they gamed Walker's tactics. Audacity was Eric "Winkle" Brown's carrier (as often mentioned in this parish) - and he was on it when it got torpedoed. He talks about it in the BBC program where they interviewed him for his 90th birthday. Said that he survived because he had an RAF life jacket, which was much better than the Navy ones. He also talks about it in his book 'Wings on My Sleeve'.

        And finally, while recommending books, 'Das Boot'. Lothar-Gunther Buchheim. Glad I looked up how to spell his name, as that's a fictionalised account of his two patrols as a photo-journalist on a U-Boat. Later he produced a trilogy of book-length photo essays on the war in the Atlantic - although they're probably going to be hard to get hold of.

        But it's important to remember the Battle of the Atlantic. Not only was it vital to the war. But both sides suffered terribly. You were far safer in most army units than you were wandering round the Atlantic in 1941-43.

  13. Mooseman Silver badge

    Interesting place, it's on my "to-visit" list now. My father served in the N Atlantic in 1943 and on at least one Murmansk convoy escort before transferring to North Sea and Channel operations following D-Day.

    1. yet_another_scouser
      Thumb Up

      Derby House

      My mother drove the lift in Derby House during the war. She met all the big-wigs coming and going and worked there for most of the war but never knew what was happening there other than access was restricted. She only found out the true significance when the museum opened!

      The air-raid shelters were in the sub basement and was one of the few places she felt safe in during some of the bigger air raids. After one particular heavy raid which caused massive disruption to the buses and trams, Admiral Sir Percy Noble was so concerned of his staff having to make their way home with no transport that he gave her a lift in his limousine. My mother lived in a house near where the BBC comedy "Bread" was filmed and her arrival in a chauffeur driven limo with a guy in a senior uniform caused a stir. She did invite Sir Percy and his driver in for a cup of tea but she told me he was getting his driver to drop him off and then sending his car back to take more staff to their homes.

      Top guy for looking after my mum whilst my father was away being shot at as a gunner in a Wellington.

  14. Charles Calthrop

    Book recommendation

    I've got a book recommendation the thesis of which, at first glance, will make you will recoil in disbelief.

    The book is: How the war was won, by Phillips Payson O’Brien

    Its tenet is this: Where were the most decisive battles of ww2? Got to be Stalingrad, right? Or the battle for Moscow, or Kusk, or even El Alamein


    But the war was lost by the Germans in the East, right? Where the Wehrmacht was swallowed up by the distance of the USSR and then ground down by the Red Army. It was basically the USSR who won the war, with our contribution a sideshow?

    Nope. All of those are distractions, to what O'Brien says were the descisive factors, which was war in the air and in the sea. Sounds like either a brexiteers wet dream, or else the history we were taught in the 1980s but I have to say, having read the book, his arguments are really compelling

    1. EvilDrSmith

      Re: Book recommendation

      It's a good / interesting book, that does challenge the 'standard' narrative that 'everyone knows'. But then, in my (limited) experience, when it comes to history, the stuff that 'everyone knows' is often less than accurate.

      O'Brien's argument (Spoilers!) really comes down to 'production mattered', and when the Axis are losing more war material through mismanagement of production/bombing/losses during delivery than they are at the front in actual battle, the battles themselves are not the critical feature of the war.

    2. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: Book recommendation

      In the end, it was a war of economics. And so the author has a point. It's easy to forget, because reading about battles is more interesting to most people. But reading about how Germany mismanaged its war economy, while the UK ran its far better - and the US economy boomed off into the stratosphere is vital to understanding the war.

      However, the battles still matter. What if Germany had captured Moscow in 1941? That would have cut the Soviet rail network in half - severering almost the last North-South links. As well as doing immense damage to morale and Stalin's prestige. It would have done immense damage to the economy and made military operations so much harder - allowing the Germans the mobility to shift forces around and possibly outnumber different Russian fronts and defeat them in detail.

      This post is giving me flashbacks. All those essays I was set at university, what is the effect of blah, blah blah on the thesis of Paul Kennedy's 'The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers'. Which basically takes 800 pages (and quite a lot of charts) to tell you that the alliance with the biggest economy tends to win the big wars. But at least I'm old enough to have avioded all the essays on Francis Fukuyama and his thesis about the end of history...

      It is underestimated how much damage bombing did to the German ecoonomy. Not just bomb damage, but the vast resources put into trying to counter allied air attacks. And thus how little was left for equipment for the armies on the Russian front. The other thing is how crap Hitler was as a strategic commander. He had the attention span of a 4 year-old, when it came to someone wanting to waste vast resources on a shiny new project. So the mad thing is that German war production didn't peak until June/July 1944! And by then bombing had made a mess of Germany, and it was getting impossible to coordinate production properly.

      1. Charles Calthrop

        Re: Book recommendation

        Interesting post, and I agree with almost all of it. One interesting thing about the mobility, though, was that the german logisticians knew that every yard of Russian train track would have to be relaid because the German wagons were set up for a differnt gauge. So, the soviet mobility would have been hindered but the germans not necessarily bostered (unless there were huge amounts of soviet wagons in moscow)

        Loads of ww2 what ifs are nonsense. 'what if they'd not been as harsh to the Ukrainians', uh, they wouldn't have been nazis etc etc etc, but the moscow one is fascinating. Personally I think USSR would have fallen had moscow fallen. The myth of Stalin would have crumbled and one of his generals would have offed him, I recodon./

        1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

          Re: Book recommendation

          Charles Calthrop,

          Oddly the railway tracks weren't really the problem. It was the depots and infrastructure. To change guage - you simply picked up the rails, moved them a bit closer together and nailed them down again. This could be done by reasonably easily and quickly.

          The problem was that Russia is bigger than Germany. So even if they hadn't destroyed them, Russian depots and water towers were further apart. Russian trains had larger coal tenders. Also the Russians were pretty good at destroying or removing their locomotives - and the Germans were always short of replacements.

          The Germans had actually predicted the logistics problesm. In the original invasion planning von Paulus (of Stalingrad fame) had suggested a 2 week pause at some point in the middle of the campaign. This would allow troops on the frontline to rest and re-organise, and for the whole logistics system to be overhauled - so that more supplies could be pushed further forward.

          Admittedly it would have also given the Russians time to reorganise. But given that Stalin was even worse than Hitler at interfering in operations at this point in the war - he'd have probably ordered a suical counterattack (as he did at Smolensk in September 41) - or sent more troops to the front to hold ground, that would have been ripe for pocketing and capture.

          Supply would also have been much easier if the Germans had picked fewer axes of advance. Trying to advance on all fronts simultaneously was just asking for trouble - and logistical overstretch. Concentrating on just Moscow might have led to it's capture. Sending Guderian's panzers off to capture Kiev did net them another 700,000-odd prisoners. But crippled the attack on Moscow. Maybe doing that and Moscow, but not Leningrad would have made the difference? Pushing the Russians back to Leningrad and ignoring it - while winning elsewhere was much sounder strategy.

      2. Mooseman Silver badge

        Re: Book recommendation

        " German war production didn't peak until June/July 1944"

        Indeed - the navy wasn't predicted to be ready (ie surface ships not uboats) until 1946, so it was never really a credible opposition. The vaunted panzer divisions invaded Poland (and to some extent France) in training tanks and small light tanks that were essentially gun carriers rather than actual tanks. The luftwaffe while relatively numerous was hampered by ridiculous vanity projects and competing designs that were imposed on it because of the makers' influence on Hitler rather than for tactical and strategic reasons.

        I'm always astonished that he Germans managed to do as well as they did.

      3. graeme leggett

        Re: Book recommendation

        I read the first part of Tooze's "Wages of Destruction" which looks at the economy of Germany before and during the war.

        I only read the first part because that was the extent of the free sample that Amazon dished up. But it was informative on the economics thinking from 1928-ish to 1936 and how that led to Nazi's gaining power, how much they put into rearmament, and how Germany blew any chance of getting some of what they wanted without war.

        The money merry-go-round of American bank loans to 1920s Germany which enabled Germany to pay Versaille reparations to Britain and France, which allowed them to pay back war time loans and purchases to the USA was a surprise.

  15. RegGuy1 Silver badge

    Alas, here we go again...

    Matthias Matussek's description of a trip to Germany by British history teachers

    And what did the rotters do? They spurned all the attention as though it were some kind of indecent proposition. "It wasn't a great experience," a paper quoted one teacher, Peter Liddell, as saying. At the opera, the woman next to him nodded off, he reported. They went along for the ride. But that wouldn't change the curriculum, which - after all - calls for Hitler, Hitler and more Hitler. A colleague summed it up for the record: "Nazis are sexy. Evil is fascinating."

    There are three simple lessons here.

    One: the British have zero interest in the new Germany.

    Two: the British have zero interest in the old Germany.

    Three: the British are interested only in Nazi Germany.

    And that, I would say, is not a German problem, but a British one

    1. Kubla Cant Silver badge

      Re: Alas, here we go again...

      I'm afraid I've no idea who Matthias Matussek is, or why we should be interested in his opinion of British history teachers.

      Maybe it's a generational thing, but I find "not a German problem, but a British one" unreasonable. Germany started not one, but two, world wars in the space of 50 years, and we're expected to believe that it was all the fault of somebody else. Nobody belonged to the Nazi party, the concentration camps were staffed by a few bad apples, the SS were really not that bad, and army were all just ordinary guys doing a difficult job.

      It reminds me of "You shag one sheep...".

      1. RegGuy1 Silver badge

        Re: Alas, here we go again...

        Then you totally miss the point. The war is over. Get over it. Germany is a fabulous place. No one cares any more -- apart from the British. That is the point.

        1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

          Re: Alas, here we go again...

          I did A Level History in 1990-92. Our syllabus was European economic and political history from 1789-1945. The themes we covered were the Congress of Vienna (not the Napoleonic Wars) and the diplomatic system that followed it for much of the 19th Century - ending with a bit of the start of WW1 and Imperialism in Africa. Italian and German unification. British politics up to WW1. And finally the industrial revolution in Europe and its social effects in Britain in the 19th C.

          There's an awful lot of German history in there, and no mention of Nazis. I think we did the Oxford exam board. Our German history textbook even had a brand new cover and a hastily written final chapter on German reunification in 1989-90. But we pretty much stopped in 1914.

          Although I did do a Cambridge exam board paper, which had loads of WWII.

          My brother got medieval to early modern history for his A Level with all the Henries and up to the Civil War.

  16. G R Goslin

    Existence could be spartan for the staff ....

    hardly spartan, I spent two years of National Service in conditions similar to this, but without the second pillow, or telephone. Beds were never made up like this, the blankets and sheets had to be folded just so, and the bed made up, only when you were going to climb in it. Some of my sleep time was spent under a single blanket on a concrete floor, with a pair of boots for a pillow.

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