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Challenges of 1944 remain

by Hugh Cortazzi

Among the many heads of state and government at the memorial ceremonies in Normandy, the queen, 88, and the Duke of Edinburgh, 93, were the only leading figures who had served in World War II. They received a warm welcome in France. The ceremonies provoked many reflections on events that took place 70 years ago.

In Britain the first thoughts were of the many who had been killed or wounded in the invasion. There was sympathy for the veterans who in their late ’80s and ’90s made their way back to the beaches on which they had landed so many years ago. We remembered our American allies who had come in huge numbers to a beleaguered and isolated Britain after the Americans declared war on Germany in December 1941.

Without the vast numbers of American soldiers and airmen, the invasion would not have been possible. We also remembered the Canadian and other Allied contingents who had taken part in that dangerous enterprise.

The Free French under Gen. Charles de Gaulle contributed to the defeat of the Germans in France. The French had suffered many casualties and much damage from Allied bombings in the runup to the invasion of Normandy and the subsequent landings on the Mediterranean coast. They had also suffered grievously from atrocities committed by German occupying forces and by French collaborators.

While the invasion marked the beginning of the end of the war, Britain would suffer many more casualties and destruction before Nazi Germany was defeated. In the summer of 1944, the Germans launched V1 flying bombs targeting London and the southeast of England. When the defenses managed to blunt their impact, the Germans launched V2 rockets.

While work continued in utmost secrecy on the joint Anglo-American development of atomic weapons, there was genuine apprehension that German Chancellor Adolf Hitler might be preparing to launch further destructive missiles against Britain. German scientists had made some progress on developing an atomic weapon.

The battles leading up to the German surrender in May 1945, especially in the Low Countries, were bloody and tough.

Large contingents of German forces were still involved in fierce fighting in Russia and Eastern Europe. Soviet forces had suffered casualties far greater than those on the Western Front. There was much British sympathy for the Russians and even more for the Poles who had been betrayed in 1939 by Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s pact with Hitler. The destruction and massacres in Poland were not yet over.

There was little sympathy for the Germans, who still supported the Nazis. In 1944 they stepped up their enslavement of the peoples of occupied Europe and intensified their attempts to eliminate European Jews through the Holocaust.

The Allied bombing offensive against Germany intensified and casualties increased to the extent that few bomber crews survived a full tour of duty.

One question still debated is how much the bombing offensive, which caused so much damage and death in Germany, influenced the outcome. The German population suffered grievously as did beautiful old cities such as Dresden. Yet, despite the devastation and loss of life, German forces continued to resist Allied advances on the Western and Eastern fronts. The Germans feared that Soviet forces would exact a terrifying revenge for the sufferings inflicted on them by the German armies.

The wisdom of the demand for unconditional surrender has been questioned. This policy advocated by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had been decided at the Casablanca conference in January 1943. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who had not been properly consulted before the decision was made, had his doubts. But we need to remember that many Germans argued that the German Army in World War I had never been defeated and that the armistice of Nov. 11, 1918, was a truce.

Those who had committed crimes against humanity could not go unpunished. Nor could the Nazis be allowed to remain in power in Germany. Without unconditional surrender, there was no guarantee that once again the German army might claim that it had not been defeated and rise again to threaten the peace of the world. These fears were not baseless, but the demand for unconditional surrender made committed Nazi supporters even more determined to go on fighting to the end.

In June 1944 the main focus was on winning the battles in Normandy, but plans had to be made for what should follow the war. In Britain there was almost universal agreement that radical changes were needed. There could not be a simple return to the old order.

Some of the slums in British cities had been destroyed in the bombing. There was a huge demand for better housing. British welfare provisions had been inadequate, and the Beveridge report of 1942 paved the way to the creation of the modern British welfare state. Education had been neglected and the Butler reforms in 1944 to the British education system signified important changes.

While much needed to be done at home, Britain in 1944 faced huge challenges abroad. Japanese forces still occupied former British possessions in Burma, Southeast Asia and Hong Kong. There were fears that an invasion of the Japanese mainland might have to be made before Japan could be defeated.

The days of the British Raj in India were numbered. A new international system more effective than the League of Nations had to be created and revised rules governing the behavior of states and their citizens had to be drawn up.

Many of the challenges facing the world in June 1944 have still to be fully met. Occasions such as the Normandy memorial meeting evoke sad memories but also valuable self-reflection.

Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.