The Second World War is such a massive topic, you could research it your whole life and still be turning up new things every day. However, some of the popular public perception of the war is a long way off the mark. These are some of the big misconceptions that you either hear bandied around a lot, or which I found genuinely surprising when I discovered them myself.
“The Normandy landings were a turning point in the war”
The invasion of northern France was a significant new development in the war, but its importance to the overall war has been hugely overinflated over the years. It’s quite common to hear them mentioned in the media as the point at which we began to win the war.
The actual situation in mid-1944 was that Germany was already losing badly, and had been for at least a year. The Allies had the strategic advantage in Europe, with a firm hold of the seas and skies. Endless convoys of ships full of men and materiel were arriving from the US, Canada and further afield. Allied bombers pounded German industry into rubble. Germany had no effective answer for either of these war-winning advantages. On the ground, Allied troops had knocked Italy out of the war and the Germans holding on there were being steadily pushed back. In the East the Germans had had the guts torn out of their army at Stalingrad and Kursk, and were in the middle of a monumental retreat that would only end when it reach Berlin. Everywhere the Wehrmacht fought it was losing ground. That force was a pale shadow of its former self, with most units under-equipped and training drastically cut back. Irreplaceable experienced troops and leaders had been lost and only half-trained conscripts had been sent to replace them.
Far from being the most significant Allied operation of the war, the Normandy landings weren’t even the biggest operation launched in the summer of ’44. That honour goes to Operation Bagration, the massive Soviet attack in the east launched at the same time as the fighting in Normandy. In fact, much of the success of the Normandy operation is due to the fact Bagration was simultaneously squeezing the German forces from the east. The Soviet operation was so overwhelming and so successful that there was no chance of reinforcing Normandy. Although you could also argue that the elite mobile German formations fighting in Normandy could have helped in the East, the scale of the German defeat there means it’s unlikely they would have achieved anything. Bagration killed or captured as many German troops in eight weeks as were lost on the entire western front in the 11 months from D-Day to VE-Day.
The real significance of the Normandy landings was on the shape of the post-war map. What would have happened if they’d failed? Well, the western Allies actually had a plan B; Operation Dragoon was a second massive amphibious and airborne landing that took place in the south of France and had its own D-Day two months after the more famous northern one. With German forces heavily engaged elsewhere it encountered little resistance and swept through most of southern France. Even if the troops at Normandy had failed to break out or even had to be evacuated, the Allies could have taken another crack at France from the South, and if even that didn’t work they were close to achieving a breakout onto the northern Italian plains after their hard slog up the peninsular, although entering Germany from the south across the mountains would have been another slow grind.
So the real impact of the Normandy landings was that they were the best option for a quick liberation of France, and the shortest road into the northern German industrial heartland. They were never going to change the outcome of the war; Germany’s eventual defeat was already assured. What the western Allies were playing for was where across Europe the Iron Curtain would fall. Had it not been for Operation Overlord, Checkpoint Charlie could have been in Paris!
“Dunkirk marked the end of British operations in France”
Like many of these common misconceptions about the war, this one has its roots in wartime propaganda. In the summer of 1940, Britain badly needed a “victory” to bolster morale, and the miracle of Dunkirk certainly inspired the nation and allowed them to believe that there was hope in continuing to resist. There were also reasons the government wanted to pretend the rest of the evacuation never happened.
Dunkirk evacuated one pocket of BEF and Allied troops that had been trapped near the coast, but was only the first of three big evacuation operations. There was still a large number BEF troops in France, and they kept fighting. In fact, fresh BEF units had been landing in France during and even after the end of the evacuation at Dunkirk. The intention was to form a “2nd BEF”, and units included the 1st Armoured, 51st (Lowland) Infantry and 52nd (Highland) Infantry divisions, a Canadian brigade and improvised units such as the Beauman Division. They were supported by an Allied Air Striking Force operating from bases in France, and by fighters from English bases.
The writing was on the wall though. The tiny 2nd BEF was never going to be able to fend off the German juggernaut, although a plan to turtle up and make a stand in Brittany was briefly considered. In Normandy they conducted a fairly orderly fighting withdrawal and most of the forces in that region were evacuated by the Royal Navy from Le Havre and Cherbourg by 13 June (nine days after the end of Dunkirk’s Operation Dynamo). This phase of the withdrawal was called Operation Cycle. Even this still left large numbers of troops in France, many of them rear echelon units stretching all the way back to the ports on the west coast. Operation Ariel then kicked off on 15 June and ran through to the 25th. The Navy picked up BEF, French, and Polish troops from several ports and brought the final tally to 191,870 troops rescued in the three weeks after Dunkirk.
So why do we celebrate one of the three big evacuation operations, and ignore the other two? Part of this was a deliberate decision taken at the time. During Operation Ariel the British Army suffered one of its greatest ever losses of life, when the civilian liner Lancastria was caught by German bombers and sunk off Saint-Nazaire. It was loaded with an estimated 6,700 troops and civilians including women and children, and only 2,477 were pulled alive from the water. This accounted for one third of all BEF losses in 1940, and to avoid damaging morale the whole operation was downplayed and the loss of the Lancastria hushed up. Families were told their loved-ones had died in the fighting. The actual truth was uncovered by the newspapers some time later.
“Dunkirk was all about the little ships”
Another Dunkirk one, and part of British national mythology. I might cop some flak for this one, but the truth is that Operation Dynamo didn’t actually need the Little Ships to be a success. They certainly provided some useful extra capacity, but the majority of troops that got out through Dunkirk did so on large vessels.
The Germans bombed the actual harbour facilities (which was one of the reasons they felt able to rest their knackered panzer divisions) but instead of just giving up the British and French authorities devised a plan to use the harbour’s breakwaters instead. The East Mole was a mile long and faced deep water, allowing large ships such as Royal Navy destroyers to get alongside and load large numbers of men quickly. Over two thirds of the evacuees got out of Dunkirk in this fashion.
That’s not to say the Little Ships made no contribution. Lifting the remaining third of the total amounts to well over 100,000 men, who would be a vital cadre in rebuilding the army to fight in the Med and North Africa.
It’s also worth pointing out another aspect of the Little Ships that has become mythology: very few were crewed by civilians. The vast majority were sailed by Royal Navy officers and men. In many cases the Navy had taken these craft without permission. They had the right to do so in wartime, and they only did so if they could not contact the owner in time, but the popular view of patriotic weekend sailors “doing their bit” has little basis, and even more recent movies like the 2017 Christopher Nolan film perpetuate this romantic but largely inaccurate view. I’ve not been able to find out if anyone actually refused to allow their vessel to be used, it was probably unlikely and the Navy may just have taken it anyway.
Some of the larger Little Ships did take men right off the beaches and go direct to Britain, while others served as a shuttle service between the beaches and larger ships standing off in deeper water.
So yes, the Little Ships were there and they did contribute. But the brave sailors in them were mostly Navy personnel and far from being the key to the evacuation they played a supporting role.
“It took five Shermans to knock out one panzer”
It’s not quite clear where this strange claim started, but what’s certain is that it has no basis in fact. Looking at actual tank losses between US and German units the Germans took the worst of it, losing three tanks for every two US ones. But even comparing overall losses is somewhat pointless as most tank losses in WW2 weren’t from tank-on-tank action. Most were lost to mines and AT guns, and in the Allied case more were knocked out by self-propelled guns than tanks. British records indicate that only 12-15% of tank losses were caused by German tanks.
But when tanks did go head-to-head the bottom line is that a single Sherman tank was capable of knocking out almost any late war German AFV one-on-one. The 75mm armed version was able to knock out all the commonly seen vehicles (eg: Panzer IV, StuG, Marder), and the upgraded 76mm or 17pdr tanks were even able to knock holes in the big Panther and Tiger models from the front, although the latter were fairly rarely seen in the west.
As an extreme example the Battle of Arracourt showed that well-handled Shermans were more than capable of eating German armour for breakfast. A major tank battle in Sep ’44, this pitched 75 Panzer IVs, 107 Panthers and 80 assault guns against a smaller force of 75mm Shermans. The Panther crews were poorly trained and repeatedly flanked by US counter-attacks. After 11 days of fighting the Americans had lost 25 Shermans and 7 TDs, while the Germans had lost 86 tanks knocked out and 114 damaged. Remember, it was the Shermans who started the battle outnumbered. The better-led and better-trained US crews used the terrain and good tactics as a huge force multiplier that allowed them to annihilate a German force that on paper had better tanks and more of them.
In real combat there are a lot of factors that influence who lives and who dies, and simplistic comparisons of stats should be taken with a humongous pinch of salt. Was the Sherman actually an amazing tank? Well no. Were the German tanks better? Often, yes. Like the much-overhyped Soviet T-34 the Sherman was in fact pretty mediocre, but was adequate for the job expected of it. It certainly was worth a great deal more than a fifth of a German tank.
“The Battle of Britain saved the UK from Nazi conquest in 1940”
In the public eye, and thanks to some great propaganda from Churchill, the only thing that stood between Britain and domination by the Nazis in 1940 was the RAF. Victory in the Battle of Britain saved the UK from an invasion by a ground force it couldn’t hope to defeat.
Or did it?
In reality even in its weakened state post-Dunkirk the British Isles had more than enough combat power to stop a potential German invasion cold. Substantial reserves of Empire troops were stationed in Britain and able to assist, and even if the RAF had taken a kicking in the Battle of Britain, the Royal Navy was still a massive behemoth which the German Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe could do little to stop.
The central problem though was that while undoubtedly powerful on land, the Wehrmacht was woefully unprepared for amphibious operations of the scale required. German army planners envisaged Operation Seelowe as an extended river-crossing operation, which was hopelessly naive. To their credit, the Kriegsmarine told the army exactly that and Admiral Raeder continually badgered the army to try and adopt more realistic plans in line with what amphibious resources were available. German forces had no landing craft to speak of, the majority of troops would be towed over on barges. These could not land on the beaches, so the invasion would need to capture usable ports, and the Kriegsmarine was especially pessimistic about the prospects of that.
A famous wargame was played out at Sandhurst in 1977, with several former Allied and German generals participating. Using the original German invasion plans and weather records for the time, they played out the scenario. Essentially the Germans got their first wave ashore, but only because the umpires deliberately restricted early action by the Royal Navy. After struggling inland a short way (hampered by the inevitable British destruction of port facilities) the Royal Navy sent a cruiser force crashing into the invasion fleet and despite valiant attempts by German e-boats and u-boats they tore through the poorly-defended tugs and barges. Buoyed by their victory the British released the balance of the Home Fleet for action, and seeing all the big battleships coming the Germans scrambled to evacuate their beachhead before everything flying a German flag was sent to the bottom of the English Channel. The result of the wargame was a crushing defeat for the Germans, and all parties involved agreed that the result was highly plausible given the actual German operational plan of 1940. Yes, the British army was weak, but it didn’t have to face the full might of the Wehrmacht ground forces and was more than strong enough to contain the first wave of German troops until the Navy could strike the decisive blow.
You only need to look at the vast scale and massive tonnage of ships (many of them highly specialised) that Allied forces had to use in Sicily, Italy, northern and southern France and many times in the Pacific to successfully carry out opposed amphibious landings. The Germans were absolutely nowhere near that level of capability at any point in the war, and worse they didn’t even realise how badly under-prepared they were. If they had tried it would have been an embarrassing and costly error.
“Polish Cavalry charged German tanks in 1939”
Every schoolboy has heard this one, but it never happened. While it’s true that the Polish army did still have cavalry in 1939, so did almost all other armies (including the Germans).
What actually happened was that a Polish cavalry unit equipped with horses and TK tankettes charged and dispersed a German infantry battalion. When the cavalry encountered fire from a nearby German armoured car unit, they withdrew. German propaganda units took pictures of dead horses on the battlefield and concocted the myth of Polish Uhlans charging tanks on the spot. It’s not hard to understand why it’s stuck in the western consciousness, the image of valiant Poland bravely battling an unstoppable horde is more palatable than the truth.
In fact, Poland knew they were outnumbered and outgunned, and couldn’t defeat the Germans. They were fighting purely for time, as both France and Britain had promised to attack Germany if Poland were invaded. The Poles fought on expecting a British/French attack in the west, which never came. Ironic that we retell this tale of Polish bravery against overwhelming odds, when the reason their fight was hopeless is because we in the west left them to die.
Some more obscure but also interesting misconceptions:
“German paratroops never made a drop after Crete”
They did, but never one so big. As far as I know the last combat drop was during the Ardennes Offensive in Dec ’44, when they dropped about two battalions behind US lines (at night no, less). The operation was an embarrassing failure. They’d also done a battalion-strength drop in Yugoslavia that May.
While it’s true that by the late war most fallschirmjager weren’t even drop-trained, the ones that could jump were still making the occasional drop.
“US tanks weren’t designed to fight tanks; that job was for the tank destroyers”
While it’s true that US doctrine did call for a commander to meet a breakthrough by enemy tanks with his own tank destroyers, so did the doctrine of every other combatant. That’s literally what tank destroyers were for: they were highly mobile AT guns that could quickly rush to plug the gap and stop enemy tanks from penetrating further. There was nothing in US doctrine or plans that said their own tanks couldn’t be used to fight enemy tanks. Like all other nations, the US designed its tanks as offensive systems, designed to fight their way through enemy units whether those were infantry or tanks. US doctrine did not call for tank destroyers to be used offensively against enemy tanks, that was a job the tanks were expected to do themselves.
Often the US tanks packed anti tank guns the same as or better than what the tank destroyer branch had anyway. The 75mm gun on the Lee/Grant and Sherman was significantly better that the 37mm and older 75mm guns on the early US tank destroyers. The Sherman then got the exact same AT-optimised 76mm high-velocity gun that the tank destroyers got. There are many, many examples of US tanks being used to fight Axis tanks. They were equipped and trained to do it, and the army’s doctrine supported it.