“We will fight them on the beaches…” British Prime Minister Winston Churchill so dramatically declared on the 4th of June 1940, shortly after the Dunkirk Evacuation and days before the fall of France. It was, it seemed, a time of great peril, when Britain stood alone against the monstrous tyranny of Nazi Germany.
Few myths are more enduring than those forged in conflict. Stories of the Trojan War, of the three hundred Spartans, of Genghis Khan and Waterloo and Trafalgar—these are some of the most enduring tales in our culture. Looking at them with a closer eye however, the reputation of these events tends to far exceed the reality.
There were, for instance, not just three hundred Spartans guarding the pass at Thermopylae. Initially there were some 20,000 Greek warriors. After being outflanked by the Persians the “three hundred” were among those who remained as a rearguard—though even they were accompanied by some seven hundred Thespians and four hundred Thebans. Modern estimates put the strength of the Persian army at between 70,000 and 300,000 men, rather than a million.
World War Two has long been depicted with a similar narrative—as a desperate, noble struggle waged against seemingly hopeless odds, fighting a tyranny the likes of which the world had never seen.
It seems it is time however, with the Greatest Generation all but gone, to start setting the record straight.
The Myth of Axis Supremacy
At its heart, the Second World War was a rebellion by the world’s second generation industrial powers—primarily Germany, Italy and Japan, against its already established ones—among them Britain, France, the United States and (with a few caveats) Russia.
Ever since Columbus sailed to the Americas the Great Powers of Europe had been busily sending off expeditions to explore, conquer, pillage and rule every inch of the world they could reach. Over a four hundred year period from 1492 to 1914 some three-quarters of humanity either bowed down before the Europeans, or were annihilated for their refusal.
The native peoples of the Americas and Australia were largely wiped out in the process of their lands being colonized while countless ancient states across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia were gradually brought under heel. Sixty million people died of famines during British rule in India. Millions of Congolese died or had their limbs chopped off working on Belgian rubber plantations. Tens of thousands died digging canals through Panama and the Suez.
By the late 19th century nationalism was a growing movement. In a relatively short period many smaller states unified into a few larger ones. It is no coincidence that Germany, Italy, and Japan were among the most prominent examples.
The First World War is an important chapter here. One may label it an abortive attempt to throw off the stranglehold of the Allied powers. Stalemated on land and blockaded by sea however, Germany eventually lost the war. The few colonies it had gained overseas in the last half century were confiscated by the victors. Its borders were considerably reduced, its national pride forsaken and its economy artificially crippled.
World War Two was a second attempt, though this time formed of a broader coalition including Italy (having gained little in the Versailles Treaty) and Japan (which sought to carve out its own empire in the far east).
While the Axis was able to win a string of stunning victories from 1939-42, this was more due to Allied incompetence and complacency than anything else. Even the casual student of history may wonder at how brief the Second World War was. A conflict that killed some 70-80 million people was over in just eight years (dating it from the Japanese invasion of China in 1937 – as one should).
Most empires take centuries to rise and fall. Once the Allies began truly mobilizing for war however, the tide quickly turned. Despite their tenacity the Axis powers only managed to survive a few short years before succumbing to the overwhelming might of the Allies.
The numbers really speak for themselves. Germany, Italy and Japan, plus their allies, had a population in 1940 of around 250 million. Over the course of the war they were able to call up some thirty million personnel to fight.
The Allies meanwhile, were able to call upon some eighty million soldiers in total. The lion’s share of this came from the Soviet Union, the United States, China and the British Empire.
Looking at the military production figures, one begins to appreciate the sheer scale of World War Two. In total the Allies produced over 600,000 aircraft, 250,000 tanks, 50,000 ships and a million artillery guns, vastly higher than all comparable Axis figures. They produced twice as much coal and iron ore and over fifteen times as much oil.
This disparity is no accident – the fact that the Allies already possessed these resources is the main reason the war was fought in the first place.
Perhaps the most telling imbalance of all was in sea power. The Allied navies—long their method of controlling the world’s sea lanes—consisted of over 800 major vessels on the outbreak of war. Between them the British, American and French possessed 37 battleships, 12 carriers, 122 cruisers, 433 destroyers and 255 submarines—hardly the armada of a peace-loving coalition. Axis naval strength was only ever a fraction as great, and steadily eroded as the war went on.
When war broke out, Britain began marshaling the full resources of its empire to crush the Axis rebellion. India alone supplied some two and a half million troops, its African colonies over a million and Canada, Australia, and New Zealand some two million more. This is in addition to the nearly seven million men Britain itself supplied, among others.
Oh poor, besieged Britain—able to marshal only fourteen million men to oppose Nazi tyranny!
Pictured: Britain stands “alone”
Allied Dissent Ignored by History
This mobilization did not occur without resistance across the empire, particularly in India. Tens of thousands of Indian leaders (Mohandas Gandhi among them) were locked up by the British for opposing the war. Especially following the Japanese advance into Southeast Asia in 1942, the British feared armed insurrection. Indeed, at least 40,000 Indians—mostly captured prisoners of war—took up arms to fight the Allies in Burma and elsewhere, a chapter of history largely ignored in the west.
The worst atrocity of all occurred in India as well. The strain of war soon weighed heavily on the sub-continent. In Bengal Province (centered on modern-day Bangladesh) famine had set in by 1943. War conditions and the indifference of the British authorities contributed to up to 4 million people starving over the next year.
This disaster is similar in scale to the holocaust or the holodomor, yet few people in the west have heard of it. Hitler and Stalin are widely condemned as tyrants and mass-murderers, but Churchill gets off the hook completely for similar brutality.
The Allies also undertook occupations of neutral nations such as Iceland and Iran. These can be viewed along similar lines as the German invasion of Norway in 1940, which was also pre-emptive in nature.
In 1941, as Axis forces advanced through North Africa, Arab forces rose up in revolt against the British—a dramatic reversal of the Lawrence of Arabia-style heroics of a generation earlier. This forced the British to redeploy considerable forces to their rear to crush this latest in a long string of rebellions.
Similarly, when Japanese forces began their lightning advance across the Pacific in 1941, they often met cooperation in the forming of their “Co-Prosperity Sphere.” After all, they were not taking Vietnam off the Vietnamese, Malaysia off the Malaysians, Indonesia off the Indonesians or the Philippines off the Filipinos—they were stealing them off the French, British, Dutch, and Americans respectively.
Thailand had old scores to settle with the British and French, while thousands of Burmese welcomed the Japanese as liberators when they marched into Rangoon. European administrations quickly collapsed in the face of the most determined Asiatic resistance in four centuries of Imperial rule.
In the largest example of all, more than a million Soviets ended up defecting to the Wehrmacht to fight against the Red Army. This included Cossacks, Turkmen, Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Azerbaijanis and anti-communists of all kinds.
We should now see the actions of the Axis nations for what they were—a desperate gamble to overthrow the stranglehold the Allies held on the global economy before they were utterly crushed.
Upon kicking the Axis out, the Allies busily set about re-subjugating the colonies they had lost. Some 200,000 Indonesians died in that country’s revolution against the Dutch from 1945-49. Algeria fought a bloody, decade-long war of independence against the French in which at least 150,000 died.
The British spent most of the 1950s fighting local insurgent movements in locations as far afield as Kenya, Cyprus and Malaya. This same course of events dragged on for a whole generation in Vietnam, with some five million dead.
All this is not to say the Axis powers weren’t generally the “bad guys” of the war. Any holocaust deniers out there—you are still scum. Nor is it to say the Axis had no chance of winning the war in the first place. I also mean no offense to the men and women who fought against them, which include at least three of my ancestors.
It is merely to point out that the Allies were hardly the innocent victims western historians like to portray them as, and that they massively outclassed the Axis in nearly every way at every point in the war.
Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo were unsuccessful rebels against the international order, and for that reason they are cursed by history. This is why we’ve all seen “Schindler’s List” and “The Bridge on the River Kwai” but probably none of us have seen a movie about the Indian Mutiny, the Belgian Congo or any of a hundred other colonial horrors.
It is also a separate argument entirely whether the world would be a better place now if the Axis had won, though given the later horrors of Communism and the gradual degeneration of western culture, this seems an open question.
Even “the good war” was hardly a noble fight between freedom and tyranny, but more a jostling of rival empires. Contrary to every Hollywood movie you’ve ever seen, the line between “good guys” and “bad guys” was actually surprisingly blurred.
It is time to stop pretending otherwise.
Read More: The Humiliation Of A Great Empire