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The Spirit of ’43

Mark Perryman from Philosophy Football explores a year when the tide turned against Fascism

Ken Loach’s recent film Spirit of ’45 brilliantly celebrates the triumphant mood that delivered a Labour Landslide election victory at the end of World War Two and the establishment of both the Welfare State and nationalised public utilities. What is made less obvious was the essential anti-fascist character of the war which contributed so significantly to Labour’s victory. Perhaps, for entirely understandable reasons, this is because the Left finds it difficult to celebrate war, any war, whatever the cause. Yet to understand ‘45 we also need to account for 1943, the year the tide turned against Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy. Labour’s victory was only made possible because people, including crucially those in the armed services, knew what was at stake in the battle they were fighting.

The victory of the Red Army at Stalingrad in February 1943 had already proved that Hitler’s previously invincible Blitzkrieg offensives that had successfully invaded and then established hateful occupation regimes in France, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Norway, Poland, Greece and elsewhere could be defeated. The immediate likelihood of a seaborne invasion of Great Britain had receded too. The Communist Party-led campaign to open a Second Front in the West was not only the most popular in its history but also helped to change the mood of the nation. Building on the party’s anti-fascist credentials from Cable Street and the Spanish Civil War’s International Brigades the campaign helped the CP recover from its disastrous description in 1939-41 of this as an imperialist war. In 1945, something not mentioned in Ken Loach’s film, two Communist Party MPs were elected as part of the Landslide with the party’s leader Harry Pollitt coming within a few hundred votes of being elected as a third Communist MP.

Victory at Stalingrad had proved Hitler could be beaten yet the industrial might of Germany meant that the Nazis still had an enormous war machine at their disposal. Disrupting and destroying this from the air remained key to the Allies’ advance and the eventual liberation of Europe. The most daring raid of this sort remains the famous Dam Busters of 16-17 May 1943. Lancasters of the RAF’s 617 Squadron were equipped with the unique ‘bouncing bomb’ designed by Barnes Wallis. Their mission? To destroy hydroelectric dams and flood the manufacturing heartland of the Ruhr Valley.

Despite 40% fatal losses, the operation was spectacularly successful. Though not a lethal blow to the Nazi regime, nevertheless from this point on no sector of Hitler’s war economy would be safe.  Carling Black Label  was to turn the raid into a device to advertise their fizzy-top lager, the theme tune of the film turned into just another football chant at England vs Germany games.  This is a perversion of patriotism by those claiming to be the fiercest of patriots. It is part of a process to separate the cause from the horrific actualities of war in the name of light entertainment and crude jingoism. Bearing witness to both the heroism and the cause of World War Two as an anti-fascist war should be a key element of any progressive project. Englishness is fundamentally framed by both an imperial and martial tradition, allowing a vacuum around World War Two to develop so context becomes a optional after-thoght simply gives ground to the Right.

Britain’s own war economy remained in 1943 crucially dependent on vital supplies transported across the Atlantic from the USA and Canada by mainly unarmed Merchant Navy vessels with escorts provided by the Royal Navy. For the first few years of the war German Navy U-Boat submarines would wreak deadly havoc with many of these civilian ships sunk despite the best efforts of the escorts. In March 1943 ships lost totalled 82, in April 39 and in early May a further 19 were lost. But the Royal Navy were beginning to outwit the submariners and finally convoy  SC 130 made up of 35 ships, reached Liverpool docks on 26 May without a single ship lost while 5 U-Boats were destroyed.

This was a major victory and led directly to the withdrawal of the U-Boats from the Atlantic and a hugely important supply route secured for the rest of the war. Merchant seamen, fire-fighters, nurses and doctors who cared for the war wounded, Air Raid Precautions and Land Girls volunteers, ‘Bevin Boys’ down the pits. All civilians, all contributing to the war effort, most motivated by the anti-fascist cause. This was mobilisation of the people on an unprecedented scale, it is too easy to concentrate simply on the more obvious instances of derring-do, however heroic it is the total picture that created the platform for ‘45’s spirit of victory in the war, and Labour’s winning the peace.

On the Eastern Front the victorious Red Army continued to force back the Nazi invaders.  The Battle of Kursk between 5 July and 23 August 1943 was to prove decisive. Almost 3 million soldiers from both sides were engaged,  8,000 tanks, 36,000 artillery pieces and 5,000 aircraft. This truly was all-out war. The Red Army victory was at an enormous cost, but even more so for the the defeated Nazis. It meant tha Hitler was now unable to launch any further offensives on Soviet territory. The bloody retreat to Berlin had begun. The Cold War years served almost to extinguish any credit given to the Red Army’s role in the defat of Nazism, yet during the War Years the recognition was politically bipartisan, the warm appreciation near universal. Today that recognition is beginning to reassert itself, divorced from both the Cold War and any hagiography of Stalin too. It is instead a decent humanity to recognise the losses we shared, the victories we built together, from the East and the West. No finer tribute to this is to be found than London’s own Soviet War Memorial.

For Fascist Italy 9 July 1943 really did mark the beginning of the end. ‘Operation Husky’ was the codename for the Seaborne and Airborne landings on Sicily which began on that day. The numbers of casualties were very high but by 3 September Italy’s generals had surrendered and sued for peace. Mussolini’s fall was swift yet he could still rely on Hitler’s support and the battle for Italy would continue right through to 1945. a People’s History of the Second World War seek to redress the balance against establishment accounts of the conflict. This isn’t entirely new ground, Philosophy Football

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