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A Short History of Military Tanks

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History and Biography Reading Suggestions (Hundreds of 'Em, by Category)

Fifty Important Battles
Of Modern History

By Bob Frost
HistoryAccess.com, 2008


This is Part Four of a five-part article. Each section covers 10 battles; the article is organized chronologically from the 1500s forward.

Part One:
Introduction, Sharur/Tabriz, Tenochtitlan,
Panipat, Cajamarca, Lepanto,
The Spanish Armada, Sekigahara,
Shanhai Pass, Naseby,
Zenta (Senta/Szenta)

Part Two:
Blenheim, Poltava, Culloden, Plassey, Rossbach,
The Saratoga Campaign,
The Yorktown Campaign, Valmy, Trafalgar, Austerlitz

Part Three:
Waterloo, Ayacucho,
The Burning of the Imperial Summer Palace,
Antietam (Sharpsburg), Gettysburg,
The Vicksburg Campaign,
Koniggratz, Sedan, Isandlwana, Mukden


Part Four:
Tannenberg, The First Battle of the Marne,
Verdun, The Somme,
The Battle of the Atlantic (the 1917 Escalation
and the U.S. Reaction),

The German Spring Offensive of 1918 (with the Second Battle of the Marne and the Allied Counteroffensive),
The Manchurian Incident (the Mukden Incident),
The Battle of France, Dunkirk,
The Battle of Britain

Part Five:
The Battle of Moscow, Pearl Harbor,
The Battle of the Atlantic, Midway, Guadalcanal,
The Normandy Campaign,
Israel's War of Independence, Hua-Hai,
Dienbienphu, Tet


Tannenberg
August 27 to 30, 1914, in Germany (now part of Poland). The Germans defeated a Russian invasion in the first weeks of World War I (called "the Great War" or "the War" until World War II).

The Battle of Tannenberg was the first of several disastrous defeats for Russia in the war and a harbinger of the tsarist collapse. Historian J.M. Roberts summarizes:

The Russian state was destroyed by the war....The makers of what was called a "revolution" in Russia in February 1917 were the German armies which had in the end broken the hearts of even the long-enduring Russian soldiers, who had behind them cities starving because of the breakdown of the transport system and a government of incompetent and corrupt men who feared constitutionalism and liberalism as much as defeat.

Tannenberg also played a significant role in events on the Western Front in 1914 (see "The First Battle of the Marne" below).

See here for reading suggestions about the First World War, here for book suggestions on war in general, and here for war memoirs.

Go here for a profile of Rasputin and here for a review of "Reilly: Ace of Spies."

See "Tannenberg 1914" by John Sweetman (2004), "Tannenberg: Clash of Empires" by Dennis E. Showalter (1991), "Passage Through Armageddon: The Russians in War and Revolution 1914-1918" by W. Bruce Lincoln (1994), and "The Shadow of the Winter Palace: Russia's Drift to Revolution 1825-1917" by Edward Crankshaw (1976). The Battle of Tannenberg in depicted in "August 1914" by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (2000 reissue, translated by H.T. Willetts).

The First Battle of the Marne
From September 5 to 12, 1914, in France, the Allies halted a German advance on Paris.

As World War I began in August, 1914, German war strategy centered on the Schlieffen Plan, calling for a quick victory in the west against France, followed by a speedy victory in the east over Russia. "There is a German way of war," writes journalist and historian Robert Messenger, that dates to Frederick the Great:

Its distinctive characteristic is the muster of overwhelming force and a rapid advance into enemy territory. The successive Prussian and German states were surrounded (and felt themselves threatened) by vastly larger ones and so aimed at short, decisive wars of movement....To Germany’s leaders, both military and civilian, the offensive must ever be immediately taken to force a decision before the geographic predicament could be made to bear.

The Schlieffen Plan went well at first in 1914 for the Germans, but then Russia, France’s ally, invaded Germany. The German high command withdrew troops from the Western Front and hurried them by rail to East Prussia, where they defeated the Russians at Tannenberg and the Masurian Lakes. Meanwhile, at the River Marne, near Paris, the Allies (mostly French) stopped the Germans short of the capital and counterattacked, striking hard at the right wing of the kaiser, weakened by the shift to the east. The Germans called a general retreat, and the two sides began years of trench warfare, with the Germans occupying a stout defensive posture fortified by machine guns.

Historians R.R. Palmer, Joel Colton, and Lloyd Kramer write of 1914 and the end of European innocence: "The units of horse cavalry, the uhlans, hussars, and lancers that had pranced off to war in high spirits, disappeared from the field....The queen of battles was the machine gun."

See here for reading suggestions about the First World War, here for book suggestions on war in general, and here for war memoirs.

See "The First Battle of the Marne" by Robert B. Asprey (1962). See also "1914" by Lyn MacDonald (1987), "The Schlieffen Plan: Critique of a Myth" by Gerhard Ritter (1979 reissue), and "The German High Command at War: Hindenburg and Ludendorff Conduct World War I" by Robert B. Asprey (1991).

Verdun
From February 21, 1916 to December 18, 1916, in France, the French repelled a German offensive.

Historian Alistair Horne writes,

Three and a half years elapsed between the First Battle of the Marne, when the Kaiser’s armies reached the gates of Paris, and Ludendorff’s last-gasp offensive that so nearly succeeded in the Spring of 1918. During this time the Germans remained on the defensive behind a brilliantly prepared and almost impregnable line, while the French and British wasted themselves against it in vain, at an unimaginable cost in human lives. Only once did the Germans deviate from this strategy that paid so handsomely. In February 1916, they attacked in the Verdun sector, catching the French there thoroughly by surprise. Compared with the seven German armies that marched into France in 1914 and Ludendorff’s sixty-three divisions that struck at Haig in 1918, this assault on Verdun with only nine divisions was but a small affair. A small affair; yet out of it grew what those who took part in it considered to be the grimmest battle in all that grim war, perhaps in History itself. Certainly it was the longest battle of all time, and during the ten months it lasted nearly three-quarters of the French Army were drawn through it. Though other battles of the First War exacted a higher toll, Verdun came to gain the unenviable reputation of being the battlefield with the highest density of dead per square yard that has probably ever been known. Above all, the battle was a watershed of prime importance in the First War. Before it, Germany still had a reasonable chance of winning the war; in the course of those ten months this chance dwindled away. Beyond it, neither the French nor the German army would be quite the same again....

See here for reading suggestions about the First World War, here for book suggestions on war in general, and here for war memoirs. Any book by Alistair Horne is well worth reading; here's a list of his stuff.

See Horne’s "The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916" (1994 reissue with a new preface), "The Road to Verdun" by Ian Ousby (2001), and "Verdun 1916: They Shall Not Pass" by William Martin (2001).

The Somme
From July, 1916, to November of that year, the British and French, and their allies, made a modest advance against a German front in France.

The Battle of the Somme was a turning point in modern consciousness. For 200 years or more, from roughly the year 1700 to World War I, even as people fought and died in innumerable battles, they could readily believe in progress, purpose, meaning, and/or glory. The First World War killed that mindset for a generation (the "Lost Generation") and its residue sticks to us today - it was the "event that begins our time," writes historian Barbara W. Tuchman. The Battle of the Somme holds a special place of infamy in the Great War. It's known to its English-speaking participants as the Great Fuck-Up.

The first day of the battle articulated, more than any other day in history up to that point, the idea of of mechanized death converting many thousands of living souls into statistical data in minutes; of people being delivered to death as efficiently as Ford Motor Company moved Model T's along the assembly line; of violent death at once instant, machine-induced, and meaningless. These ideas, given voice by the machine guns of the Somme, reached apotheosis in the Nazi death camps and permeated global consciousness during the Cold War.


Over the top, into the abyss:
the Somme, 1916.


At 7:30 a.m. on July 1, 1916, after an artillery bombardment on German machine gun positions, the first wave of British, Irish, and Canadian soldiers went over the top at the Somme. At that moment, writes the scholar Paul Fussell, they were "innocent." They were, for the most part, not particularly skeptical, and they were not at all cynical - they were "animated by the values of doing one's very best and getting on smartly." Many believed they were "undergoing really quite an amusing experience" by being in the war. Private E.C. Stanley, quoted by Fussell, wrote, "I was very pleased when I heard that my battalion would be in the attack (at the Somme). I thought this would be the last battle of the war and I didn't want to miss it." They were optimistic that they would advance not only their position in the field but civilization itself - that their efforts would have meaning.

By 7:31, writes Fussell, the Germans had

carried their machine guns upstairs from the deep dugouts where during the bombardment they had harbored safely - and even comfortably - and were hosing the attackers walking toward them in orderly rows or puzzling before the still uncut wire. Out of the 110,000 who attacked, 60,000 were killed or wounded on this one day, the record so far. Over 20,000 lay dead between the lines, and it was days before the wounded in No Man's Land stopped crying out.

The crying out of the wounded had a distinctive sound, notes British historian Lyn Macdonald:

....Lieutenant Hornshaw was to remember it as a sound that chilled the blood; a nerve-scraping noise like 'enormous wet fingers screeching across an enormous pane of glass.'....Some screaming, some muttering, some weeping with fear, some calling for help, shouting in delirum, groaning with pain, the sounds of their distress had synthesised into one unearthly wail.

Macdonald puts the number of attackers at 150,000 and the number of killed or wounded at more than 57,000. Historian David Stevenson, familiar with the latest scholarship on the topic, puts the number of attackers at 120,000, the number of casualties at about 57,000, and the number killed at more than 19,000.

The Battle of the Somme lasted until November of 1916. The British and French armies gained about seven miles of ground at the cost of about 620,000 casualties. German casualties were about 500,000. The British learned significant lessons about artillery fire over the course of the battle (i.e., after the first day); this knowledge perhaps contributed to the Allied victory in 1918.

A striking moment in journalism:

The Times of London, July 17, 1916.

Headline: GREAT DAY ON THE SOMME.

Sub-headline: Swift British Advance.

Author: Our Special Correspondent.

Text: "....The second stage of the great battle has opened with as brilliant a success as British arms have ever achieved. History will, I believe, acknowledge it."

History, as always, makes its own decisions on these matters; the truth about the Somme percolated into global awareness gradually over coming months and years.

See here for reading suggestions about the First World War, here for book suggestions on war in general, and here for war memoirs. The eve of the Battle of the Somme is portrayed in a classic episode of "Upstairs, Downstairs"; see here for an interview with the show's producer.

See "The Somme" by Robin Prior and Trevor Wilson (2005), "The Somme" by Peter Hart (2006), "The Face of Battle" by John Keegan (1976), "The Somme: The Untold Story in Never Before Seen Panoramas" by Peter Barton (2006), "The Social History of the Machine Gun" by John Ellis (1975), "The Great War and Modern Memory" by Paul Fussell (1975), "Somme" by Lyn Macdonald (1993 new edition), "Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy" by David Stevenson (2004), and "The First Day on the Somme: 1 July 1916" by Martin Middlebrook (1992 new edition). Website: The Times of London has a digital archive of every issue from 1785 to 1985 here. Interview: An interview with author Martin Middlebrook is available here.

The Battle of the Atlantic
(The 1917 Escalation and the U.S. Reaction)
In February, 1917, German submarines began unrestricted attacks on merchant ships in the North Atlantic, causing the loss of American ships and lives. The U.S. was thus spurred to enter the war. American men and materiel were a key factor in the outcome of the war.

In 1914, at the outbreak of the war, U.S. public opinion was mixed about which side to support. Indeed, many or most people were indifferent to some degree to the European mess.

"Within a few months of his victory in the Presidential election of 1916," writes historian J.M. Winter, "Woodrow Wilson brought the USA into the war. That he could do so with his country behind him was almost certainly due to the impact of (the) unrestricted submarine campaign waged by Germany from 1 February 1917."

Germany sought a breakthrough in the early weeks of 1917. Historian John Keegan writes, "The military situation on land had descended to such a level of stalemate that the German high command decided only desperate measures at sea could break it." Earlier in the war, the German Navy had mostly adhered to international maritime law, which stated that merchant ships, in time of war, must be stopped rather than instantly fired upon, and the crews given a chance to launch lifeboats. This guideline was set aside by Germany in February of '17. In February, March, and April, U-boats sank 844 ships, several of them American. (The Royal Navy resisted convoys for these months despite such a system being a logical solution to the crisis. And why the rejection? Convoy duty, notes historian Steven Weinberg, was "inglorious.")

President Wilson asked Congress on April 2, 1917, for a declaration of war against Germany, using the phrase "the world must be made safe for democracy" – a much-discussed statement of American idealism and courage, and, perhaps, naiveté:

The present German submarine warfare against commerce is a warfare against mankind....It is a war against all nations....The world must be made safe for democracy....We have no selfish ends to serve. We desire no conquest, no dominion. We seek no indemnities for ourselves, no material compensation for the sacrifices we shall freely make. We are but one of the champions of the rights of mankind. We shall be satisfied when those rights have been made as secure as the faith and the freedom of nations can make them.

Historian Samuel Eliot Morison mentions an interesting detail: "The old tradition of avoiding 'foreign entanglements' was still so strong that the United States never formally allied with the Allies. President Wilson made it clear that we were merely 'associates' in the same war."

See here for reading suggestions about the First World War, here for book suggestions on war in general, and here for war memoirs. See here for the global impact of Woodrow Wilson's idealism.

See "From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow" by Arthur J. Marder (1969, volume four of a five-volume series), "The Experience of World War I" by J.M. Winter (1989), "The Seafarers: The U-Boats" by Douglas Botting and the Editors of Time-Life Books (1979), "U-boats of the Kaiser's Navy" by Gordon Williamson (2002), "The Killing Time: The U-Boat War 1914-18" by Edwyn A. Gray (1972), "Woodrow Wilson" by Louis Auchincloss (2000), and "The World War and American Isolation, 1914-1917" by Ernest R. May (1959). DVD: "Woodrow Wilson" directed by Mitchell Wilson and Carl Byker (2002; two parts; first shown in the PBS series "American Experience").

The German Spring Offensive of 1918
(With the Second Battle of the Marne and the
Allied Counteroffensive)

In 1918, in France, the Allies repulsed the last German offensive effort of the First World War and launched a successful counterattack that won the war.

The Germans reached the River Marne in the spring of 1918 within a few dozen miles of Paris. On Good Friday they launched a shell from a giant gun called Big Bertha and killed worshipers in a Parisian church.

The Allies counterattacked in July and pushed the Germans back. By autumn the exhausted and demoralized Germans were falling apart, and they suddenly requested peace talks, accepted President Woodrow Wilson’s "Fourteen Points" as the basis for negotiations, and signed an armistice. On November 9 the Kaiser was forced to abdicate by German democrats and socialists. The war ended on November 11 at 11 a.m. – the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, a phrase that would be verbally recalled every Nov. 11 for years to come by large numbers of people.

What caused this sudden collapse? Historian Samuel Eliot Morison offers an answer:

The fortitude of the British, French, and Italians through years of uncertainty and disappointment was essential. The fresh, powerful American Expeditionary Force, which could have put over a million men into action in 1919, gave the final push. Control of the ocean by the Allies defeated the U-boats, made the transatlantic flow of men and supplies possible, and all but strangled Germany. Her people, already on short rations with every prospect of their becoming shorter, were not inclined to gamble on continuing the war, even though over two million men were still under arms and full of fight.

Morison’s last phrase is especially significant. Germany lost the war even though no enemy troops were on its soil, it occupied a great deal of territory, and it was victorious in the east. The Germans who established a republic in 1918 believed they would be able to negotiate an acceptable peace, not have a peace imposed on them. Things didn’t work out that way. The Treaty of Versailles was punitive, a fact that contributed to the rise of Hitler. Yet paradoxically, the pact was not severe enough to destroy Germany’s war-making potential. Hitler seized upon the anomaly described by Morison to promote the notion that the country had been betrayed by its leaders.

See here for reading suggestions about the First World War, here for book suggestions on war in general, and here for war memoirs.

See "To Win a War: 1918, The Year of Victory" by John Terraine (1978), "The Defeat of Imperial Germany, 1917-1918" by Rod Paschall (1989), "Amiens: Dawn of Victory" by James McWilliams and R. James Steel (2000), and "The Oxford History of the American People" by Samuel Eliot Morison (1965).

The Manchurian Incident
(the Mukden Incident)

September 18-19, 1931, in Mukden, Manchuria, China. Japanese troops, garrisoned in Manchuria since 1905, rigged a phony incident on the South Manchurian Railway near Mukden, blaming Chinese saboteurs for destroying 31 inches of railway line. They then defied civilian authorities, captured strategic centers of Manchuria, and took over the province.

Historian Alun Davies writes, "The drama which occurred at Mukden on the night of 18 September 1931 sparked off a period of war in the Far East which did not end until the holocausts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945."

The incident (not precisely a battle) demonstrated Japan’s yearning for colonial territory (a desire not unknown to Western powers). "China," writes historian Paul Johnson, "was Japan’s manifest destiny." Manchuria, larger than Texas, contained coal, iron, gold, timber, and sprawling industrial plants. It was regarded as, in the words of scholar C. Walter Young, the "international cockpit of the Far East" in these years. Historian Ramon H. Myers writes, "At heart, the majority of Japanese at home and in Manchuria were ardent imperialists. No leader or his faction dared swim against this nationalist current."

Historians R.R. Palmer, Joel Colton, and Lloyd Kramer write, "In a sense the Second World War began" with this incident – "one tributary of the torrent had begun to flow."

Historian Eric Hobsbawm summarizes the tributaries:

What caused the Second World War concretely was aggression by the three malcontent powers (Germany, Japan, Italy), bound together by various treaties from the middle 1930s. The milestones on the road to war were the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931; the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935; the German and Italian intervention in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39; the German invasion of Austria in early 1938; the German crippling of Czechoslovakia later in the same year; the German occupation of what remained of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 (followed by the Italian occupation of Albania); and the German demands on Poland which actually led to the outbreak of war. Alternatively, we can count these milestones negatively: the failure of the League to act against Japan; the failure to take effective measures against Italy in 1935; the failure of Britain and France to respond to the unilateral German denunciation of the Treaty of Versailles, and notably its military reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936; their refusal to intervene in the Spanish Civil War ("non-intervention"); their failure to respond to the occupation of Austria; their retreat before German blackmail over Czechoslovakia (the "Munich Agreement" of 1938); and the refusal of the USSR to continue opposing Hitler in 1939 (the Hitler-Stalin pact of August 1939).

"The dictator nations," summarized President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the late 1930s, "find their bluffs are not being called."

(A parenthetical note [somewhat meandering]: The Manchurian Incident, writes historian Hilary Conroy, holds important lessons about "military hotheadedness in general. It shows how determined underlings could force their high command and then the whole nation to follow their aggressive lead" even when this path was unacceptable and unwanted [at first] to the government and public. Journalist and historian Richard Reeves, in his book "President Kennedy: Profile of Power" [1993], notes that a best-selling novel in the U.S. in 1962 was "Seven Days in May" about a military plot to overthrow the presidency [later a movie]. President John F. Kennedy was asked by a friend in '62, "Could it happen here?" Kennedy's reply: "It's possible," should a youthful president stumble once too often, as with JFK's misadventure at the Bay of Pigs. Reeves writes, "John Kennedy mistrusted the military, at least its commanders.")

See "Conspiracy at Mukden: The Rise of the Japanese Military” by Takehiko Yoshihashi (1963), "The Making of Japanese Manchuria, 1904-1932" by Yoshihisa Tak Matsusaka (2001), and "Japan's Total Empire: Manchuria and the Culture of Wartime Imperialism" by Louise Young (1998). See also "The Sinister Face of the Mukden Incident" by Chin-Tung Liang (1969), "Modern Times: The World From the Twenties to the Eighties" by Paul Johnson (1983), and "The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991" by Eric Hobsbawm.

The Battle of France
May 10 to June 22, 1940, in France. The Germans crushed the French.

Hitler began World War II in September, 1939, by invading Poland, but, as noted by journalist and historian Paul Johnson, events in France "began the European phase (of World War II) in earnest." The world was stunned at the French capitulation on June 22 – the French army was a supposed bulwark, huge and bristling with armor, far more formidable than Poland’s armed forces. President Franklin D. Roosevelt articulated the shock: the events of that fateful spring meant a "shattering of many illusions."

Scholars offer two basic explanations for the defeat, says historian Talbot Imlay. One is that "the late Third Republic suffered from profound political, social, and economic weaknesses that made defeat highly likely, if not inevitable." The other line of thought says that French societal problems have been exaggerated, and that "defeat, far from being foreordained, resulted from short-term strategic and military miscalculations" - i.e., France capitulated not because of internal rot but because its armed forces were thumped. Of course, it's a historical truism that the health of a society affects the health of its armed forces. As historian Michael Howard writes, "The military system of a nation is not an independent section of the social system but an aspect of it in its totality."

A key French error was its reliance on the Maginot Line, a massive, ingenious, and expensive system of border fortifications. Historian William L. O’Neill writes, "Unlike Germany, which under Hitler regained its nerve, France had never recovered psychologically from its enormous losses in World War I. The attitude of the French Army reflected this loss of spirit. It thought only in defensive terms...." (The First World War killed 1.3 million French soldiers, which, notes journalist and historian Geoffrey Wheatcroft, is "more than twice as many as all the Americans who have died in every foreign war from 1776 until today.") See here for more on the Maginot Line.

See here for reading suggestions about the Second World War.

See "To Lose a Battle: France 1940" by Alistair Horne (1969), "The Collapse of the Third Republic: An Inquiry Into the Fall of France in 1940," by William L. Shirer (1969), and "The French Defeat of 1940: Reassessments" edited by Joel Blatt (1998). See also "The Popular Front and Central Europe: The Dilemmas of French Impotence, 1918-1940" by Nicole Jordan (1992), "Strange Defeat" by Marc Bloch (1949), and "The Maginot Line: None Shall Pass" by J.E. Kaufmann and H.W. Kaufmann (1997). Also see "World War II: A Student Companion" by William L. O’Neill (1999). DVDs: "The Eye of Vichy" directed by Claude Chabrol (1993) and "The Sorrow and the Pity" directed by Marcel Ophuls (1969).

Dunkirk
May 26 to June 4, 1940, in France and on the English Channel. Allied troops avoided annihilation by the Germans.

In May, 1940, hundreds of thousands of British and French soldiers were trapped by the Germans in Dunkirk (French spelling Dunkerque), a port city in northern France. Destruction or imprisonment seemed imminent. At that moment, writes historian Niall Ferguson, Hitler was "closer to outright victory than at any other time in World War II." Historian John Lukacs concurs: "The Germans could have invaded England before, during or immediately after Dunkirk. Parachutists could have secured landing grounds into which German troops could have been poured (by plane), even without the ferrying across of soldiers by the small German navy. This would have been possible because of the unorganized, unequipped, mangled and weak state of the British army at that time....If the Germans had secured a landing area, they would have conquered England....Had Hitler invaded England successfully he would have won the war. And that was within the Germans' capacity to do."

The Allied troops were saved at Dunkirk by evacuation across the Channel to England by a flotilla of mostly British ships and boats, some manned by civilians. Figures vary on the exact number of saved troops. Official British figures say 193,000 British and 122,000 French. The BBC puts the total at about 240,000 British and about 98,000 French. Thousands more could not be saved and became POWs.

The survival of the seasoned Allied soldiers meant that Hitler would not be able to easily conquer Britain. "A miracle of deliverance," said Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

See here for reading suggestions about the Second World War.

See "Dunkirk: Fight to the Last Man" by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore (2006), "The Miracle of Dunkirk" by Walter Lord (1998 reprint), "March of Conquest: The German Victories in Western Europe 1940" by Telford Taylor (1958), "Lost Victories" by Erich von Manstein (1958), "The Duel: The Eighty-Day Struggle Between Churchill and Hitler" by John Lukacs (1990), and the historical novel "Ride Out the Storm: A Novel of Dunkirk" by John Harris (1976).

The Battle of Britain
Mid-July, 1940, to the end of October, 1940, in the skies over the British Isles and the English Channel. The British Royal Air Force staved off the German Luftwaffe in a struggle for air supremacy, thwarting Hitler’s plan to invade Britain with troop-carrying barges.

The Battle of Britain included "the Blitz," the Nazi bombing of London and other cities. The first sustained assault on the capital began on the afternoon of Saturday, September 7, 1940, after weeks of bombing of airfields, radio relay stations, fuel depots, and other targets. The German aerial fleet that attacked London on that day consisted of 348 bombers and more than 600 fighters, forming a 20-mile-wide swath, "the most concentrated force arrayed against Britain since the Spanish Armada," writes journalist Benjamin Schwarz.

The bombers attacked London on 76 of the next 77 nights. The final attack occurred on May 10, 1941.

"We must take September 15 as the culminating date," writes Winston Churchill. "On this day the Luftwaffe, after two heavy attacks on the 14th, made its greatest concentrated effort in a resumed daylight attack on London. It was one of the decisive battles of the war...." The Germans suffered heavy losses on the 15th and Hitler eventually decided to postpone the invasion (which, of course, never took place).

Despite Britain generating a stalemate in this battle, the nation was still essentially alone and nearly helpless. For many months to come, writes journalist and scholar Robert Messenger, "Germany was master of Europe."

In the midst of the Battle of Britain, Churchill spoke one of the most famous sentences in the history of warfare. On August 20, 1940, in the House of Commons, describing the efforts of the Royal Air Force, the prime minister said: "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few." This was not merely a well-written sentence, although it was certainly that. Churchill’s words take their authority from the fact that he knew every major battle of British history – knew, in fact, every significant battle of world history. He had history in his bones; this knowledge contributed to his greatness.

Who was this man Winston Spencer Churchill? Some of the best writing about him is by William Manchester in his biography "The Last Lion" (1983 and 1988, two volumes):

Sickly (when young), an uncoordinated weakling with the pale fragile hands of a girl, speaking with a lisp and a slight stutter, he had been at the mercy of bullies. They beat him, ridiculed him, and pelted him with cricket balls. Trembling and humiliated, he hid in a nearby woods. This was hardly the stuff of which gladiators are made. His only weapons were an unconquerable will and an incipient sense of immortality....(His parents neglected him)....Determined to prove himself unworthy of parental neglect, he (lived) much of his life in a world of fantasy centered on the conviction that something special lay ahead for him....At times along the way he despaired. In 1893 he wrote, “I am cursed with so feeble a body, that I can hardly support the fatigues of the day.”....(But) he refused to yield to human frailty. In his inner world there was no room for concessions to weakness....As a youth he concluded that the great issues of his time would be decided on the battlefield, that Nietzsche, Carlyle, and Gobineau had been right: that war was a legitimate political instrument, that it was by no means the worst that could happen; that conflict, not amity, would be the customary relationship between great states. He reconciled himself to it....and began a lifelong study of strategy....There is no doubt that he enjoyed peril and delighted in battle. In his last days he said that 1940 and 1941 had been the best years of his life, despite the fact that for other Englishmen they had been incomparably the worst....More than half of the fifty-six books he published were about war and warriors; the two he most regretted not having found time to write were biographies of Caesar and Napoleon....

All his life he suffered spells of depression, sinking into the brooding depths of melancholia, an emotional state which, though little understood, resembles the passing sadness of the normal man as a malignancy resembles a canker sore....In peacetime he often lacked adequate outlets for his aggression. The deep reservoir of vehemence he carried within him backed up, and he was plunged into fathomless gloom....Thoughts of self-destruction were never far away. He told his doctor: "I don’t like standing near the edge of a platform when an express train is passing through. I like to stand back and if possible to get a pillar between me and the train....A second’s action would end everything."

He liked to lie in bed listening to recordings of his speeches....(He was) not a man of small ego. It is an egalitarian fiction that the great are modest. They haven’t any right to be, and they aren’t. He said to (Clement) Attlee: "Of course I am an egotist. Where do you get if you aren’t?" (C.P. Snow said of him), "Judgment is a fine thing: but it is not all that uncommon. Deep insight in much rarer. Churchill had flashes of that kind of insight....When Hitler came to power Churchill did not use judgment but one of his deep insights....That was what we needed."

See here for reading suggestions about the Second World War.

See "The Most Dangerous Enemy: A History of the Battle of Britain" by Stephen Bungay (2000) and the short, excellent "Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat" by John Lukacs (2008). See also "Battle of Britain - Then and Now" by Winston Ramsey (1987, revised edition), "Summer, 1940: The Battle of Britain" by Roger Parkinson (1977), "London at War: 1939-1945" by Philip Ziegler (1995), "The Winter of the Bombs" by Constantine FitzGibbon (1957), and "The Last Enemy: The Memoir of a Spitfire Pilot" by Richard Hillary (1942; 1997 edition with new introduction).

See also "Dangerous Sky: A Resource Guide to the Battle of Britain" by Eunice Wilson (1995), covering 68 topics and listing hundreds of books. Also see "Their Finest Hour" by Winston S. Churchill (1949; volume two of the six-volume “The Second World War”). See also "Churchill: A Life" by Martin Gilbert (1992; a one-volume condensation of a longer work) and "Winston Churchill" by John Keegan (2002). In addition, see "In Search of Churchill: A Historian’s Journey" by Martin Gilbert (1997) about the author’s decades-long biographical quest for Churchill. For a major piece of Churchill revisionism see "In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War" by David Reynolds (2007). See also "Problems of Social Policy" by Richard M. Titmuss (1950) and "The Myth of the Blitz" by Angus Calder (1991). Website: winstonchurchill.org for reading suggestions and other information. DVDs: "Finest Hour: The Battle of Britain" directed by Nick Read (2000). "Churchill" directed by Lucy Carter (2003).

-The End-

This is Part Four of a five-part article. Each part covers 10 battles; the article is organized chronologically from the 1500s forward.

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five

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