A new book challenges conventional wisdom.
The Second World War remains an enduringly fascinating subject, but despite the large number of films, documentaries, books and even comics on the subject, our understanding of this catastrophic conflict, even seven decades on, remains heavily dependent on conventional wisdom, propaganda and an interpretation skewed by the information available. In my new book The War in the West: Germany Ascendant 1939-1941, first in a three-volume history, I am challenging a number of long-held assumptions about the war, many of which are based on truth by common knowledge, rather than through detailed and painstaking research.My Damascene moment came some years ago when I was being given a tour of the Small Arms Unit at the British Staff College at Shrivenham. I was glancing at a German MG42, known as a “Spandau” by the Allies. “Of course, that was the best machine gun of the war,’ I commented, relaying what I’d read in many books.
“Says who? Says who?” retorted my guide and head of the unit, John Starling. In the next few minutes, he proceeded to deconstruct everything I thought I knew about this infamous weapon: that its phenomenal rate of fire caused massive problems of over-heating, that it was widely inaccurate (for which having since fired one, I can now vouch), that is was incredibly expensive to manufacture, massively over-engineered and lacked certain simple additions that would have made its handling so much easier. The men supporting this weapon not only had to carry vast amounts of ammunition to feed this thirsty beast, they also had to lumber around six spare barrels because of its readiness to over-heat. And each barrel bore multiple inspection stamps. “Which were,” John told me, “an utter waste of time in the middle of total war.”