WITNESS: 10 EVENTS of WORLD WAR TWO

pic Amy Flagg 1941. South Shields Market. Courtesy of South Tyneside Council.

War images by South Shields historian & photographer Amy Flagg are a reminder how the Second World War impacted the town. In the ‘70s I remember playing on bomb buildings and not realising that’s exactly what they were – big gaps in streets that had been flattened by German Luftwaffe.

On TV, a documentary series World at War had grainy black and white footage of soldiers fighting on the front line cut with colour interviews of people telling war stories – witnesses to armageddon.

On the big screen in the late ‘90s came Saving Private Ryan, there was audible gasps from the audience as one of the most brutal opening 20 minutes of film exploded on the screen. Using a hand held camera we were on board the landing craft shoulder to shoulder with troops riding the waves and hitting the Normandy beach. Then the noise. Gun fire, bullets on metal, screams from young men – welcome to hell.

For this post I’ve chosen events that shaped the war and eventual victory for the Allies in 1945. If some of them went another way the world would have looked a different place.  

Maginot Line : A series of concrete domes with weapons, underground rail and air–conditioned living quarters inside them, were built by France in the 1930’s. They were to deter a German invasion who had already conquered Poland, Belgium and Holland. The stronger defence line was positioned south at the border with Germany and Switzerland, but the enemy marched north through the Ardennes forest, which the French thought was impenetrable.

Operation Dynamo: The German war machine dominated mainland Europe and surrounded French, Belgian and British soldiers – it was a major military disaster. Luckily they stalled as the Germans occupied France and revelled in a triumphant march on the capital, Paris.

Meanwhile, a call went out to the British public and they responded by sending hundreds of small boats, yachts and fishing vessels to rescue thousands of British soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk in June 1940.

But with only the English channel holding the Germans back, the Luftwaffe now aimed for complete domination of the skies and ultimate surrender of the British.

Battle of Britain: Sirens howled all over Britain, blackouts, rations, evacuations, gas masks for children, broomsticks for the Home Guard, and gardens were being dug out for air raid shelters.

The Germans never countered for high numbers of radar stations along the UK coastline which instantly communicated to the British air force that an attack was imminent. Enemy positions were pinpointed rather than patrolling an area.

In one raid Spitfires and Hurricanes defended Britain against the might of over 250 German bombers. The Luftwaffe blitzkrieg was bringing the fire.

Black Saturday: 7 September 1940 sirens went off and like a dark cloud hundreds of German bombers filled the skies over the capital. The night sky was full of smoke and in its wake a trail of destruction. The blitz was in full force as airfields, shipyards, factories and civilians were targeted.

Battle of Britain Day: 15 September 1940 an all-out concentrated day attack from the Luftwaffe over the skies of London was pushed back by the British Air Force. Helped by heavy cloud cover, the Germans retreated and only night time raids were planned.

Operation Sea Lion: Hitler wanted a plan for an all-out invasion of Britain. But the German High Command went cool on the idea. New battleships weren’t ready, the Luftwaffe weren’t the success they thought they’d be, dates weren’t right for weather conditions, and the British were gaining strength. Hitler cancelled the operation and a new plan was needed. Enter the Russians.

Operation Barbarossa: Became known as one of the largest theatres of war during the conflict as the Germans turned their attention to the Soviet Union. As in mainland Europe the German war machine was expecting a speedy victory on the Eastern front. But taking on the Soviets in their own backyard during winter turned out to be a bad tactical decision.

First they were having difficulties making tracks as mud was bogging down the vehicles, then the ground was frozen. The infantry were tired and weakened without warm clothing. In this climate the Soviets were better prepared and more experienced.

Battle of Moscow: The capital was one of the main targets for the German invasion. But Soviet determination to hold their positions caused great concern to Nazi high command. Strategic defensive moves halted the attack and pushed back the Germans who after the defeat, dismissed their General. Were cracks beginning to show in the armour of the German war machine ?

The Black Pit: The mid-Atlantic was known as the black pit owing to the high number of ships that the German U boats would take out, in five month they sank 274 – it was an onslaught.

Hitler tried to starve Britain out of the war by cutting off supplies. He sent hundreds of U boats in wolf packs to hunt down, create havoc and attack merchant ships crossing the Atlantic with food and oil. The U boats were close enough to attack from ports around France and Norway, they could reach top speeds, dive to extremely low depths, find their targets with deadly precision and co-ordinate missions to attack all at once. They were so successful that the sea became a mass grave of seaman and ships.

Fortune turned when the Americans, who had so far kept out of the war, came in with a Lend-Lease deal. They supplied Britain with a number of war ships including the Corvette – which earned a reputation as a supreme U boat hunter.

Then one of the worst military decisions of the war was made at the end of 1941. Japanese war planes attacked stationary American warships at Pearl Harbour – the USA declared war and the killing business was taken up a notch. Ultimately, Hiroshima and Nagasaki would suffer dire consequences.

HMS Bulldog: A Royal Navy destroyer built at Tyneside’s Swan Hunter shipyard, saw escort duty in the Battle of the Atlantic. In May 1941 near Greenland, HMS Aubretia depth charged a U boat forcing her to the surface, Bulldog fired and closed in on the crew who were abandoning the boat.

Sub Lieutenant David Balme of Bulldog led a small party to board the U boat, enter the wireless room, and remove the coding machine. It was taken to Bletchley Park, England where a team of intelligence officers broke the code.

By 1943 U boat power was annihilated – the hunter became the hunted. The end of the German war machine was in sight and the balance of power had shifted toward the Allies.

Research: TV History programmes and official BBC websites.

Gary Alikivi  May 2021.

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