The Battle of Britain

A Supermarine Spitfire (front) and Hawker Hurricane (rear). The two fighter plane variants were the RAF’s main weapons during the Battle of Britain. (Wikimedia Commons)

In the summer of 1940, things looked very, very bad for the Allies of WWII. Poland and most of Eastern Europe were in Axis hands; France had just capitulated; and the Japanese were gobbling up huge swaths of Pacific islands. In fact, the Allies as we now call them – England, America, China, and the USSR – barely existed. The USSR was still technically an ally of Nazi Germany, and the Americans were nervously watching developments like a kid with his phone out during a highschool fistfight. As German panzers (tanks) rolled into Paris, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill knew that England was the next logical step. As German troops of the Wehrmacht (army) gazed across the English Channel – the stretch of water between England and France, 33.3 km (20 miles) at its narrowest point – they were probably pretty confident after steamrolling the massive French army.

ASAP: Overconfident German air forces tried to wipe out the RAF, but were unable to match British determination and industrial output.

Read on for details!
Operational regions during the Battle of Britain. (Wikimedia Commons)

Operation Sea Lion

Adolf Hitler, the German Fuhrer (leader), actually liked England. In his convoluted racist ideology, the English – people of a (then) very white colonial power – were near the Germans in terms of racial purity, and would have made an important ally against communism. But since Churchill refused to consider peace terms, Hitler ordered the OKW (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, or army command) to draft up Directiver no. 16: plans for Operation Sea Lion, or the invasion of England. Hitler planned to invade the USSR in spring of 1941 (what?! Hitler betraying an ally?), and he wanted England out of the war by then. The Kriegsmarine (German Navy) lacked sufficient ships to blockade England successfully, and the Wehrmacht was not yet ready to launch a massive amphibious invasion; so the task of bringing England to its knees would have to start in the air with the Luftwaffe (air force) under Commander Hermann Göring, a WWI fighter ace. Since water separated the two combatants, the Battle for Britain – and for the fate of the Allied war effort – would be fought in the air. If the Germans won air superiority over the Brits, they would be able to launch operation Sea Lion without much trouble.

A Messerschmitt ME-109. (Wikimedia Commons)

By that point, the Royal Air Force (RAF) was a relatively young organization and its posh upper-class pilots lacked experience. They were supplemented by pilots from Poland, Canada, and several other Allied countries – but their counterparts in the Luftwaffe had years of experience in air-to-air combat (and ground support missions) from the Spanish Civil War to Poland and France. They also had the Messerschmitt ME-109, a fast and agile fighter plane heavily armed with machine guns and 20mm cannons. Luckily, the RAF had been at the cutting edge of warplane development and was churning out hundreds of Supermarine Spitfires – advanced planes capable of taking on the ME-109 – which supplemented the older Hawker Hurricanes already in service. Leading the RAF was Air Marshal Hugh Dowding. Like Göring, Dowding was a veteran of WWI; but unlike Göring, Dowding was not a raging morphine addict and lunatic.

German pilots discuss tactics. (Pinterest)

The Lead-up to Battle

Beginning in May, RAF units began blowing up Wehrmacht targets in Europe in order to disrupt production of ME-109s and hamper their overall war effort. Shortly after, a series of small battles – AKA Kanalkampf, or Channel Struggles – took place over the English Channel. Luftwaffe Do 17 scout planes began running intelligence-gathering ops and harassing the RAF. Stuka Dive Bombers – which made a horrifying wailing “siren” sound when diving at their targets – began knocking out Royal Navy transport vessels. The Kanalkampf – a part of the phony war, where both sides were technically fighting but not full-on yet – allowed the RAF to gain experience and hone their tactics. RAF Command pioneered the “Dowding System”, a network of advanced radar units that gave up-to-date info to fighter squadrons and ended up giving them an edge over Luftwaffe formations.

A depiction of the interior of a Spitfire cockpit from Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk”, 2017. (Warner Bros.)

Aerial combat generally consisted of dogfights in which fighter pilots attempted to get above and behind their prey and chase them till they managed to get a burst of machine gun or 20mm cannon fire into the rear of the enemy plane (in much the same way as dogs like to mount one another and spray each other with machine-gun fire, presumably). Fighter wings – groups of aircraft – needed to get high up above their enemy, but not too high up, or else their machines wouldn’t function properly. Dogfights were viewed as glamorous and gentlemanly by the media – a sort of duel between upper-class officers – but the reality of the situation was impossible to ignore for the pilots: every successful “hit” could result in the death of another human being. Pilots would attempt to eject from their planes and parachute to the earth, but often they were killed in their cockpits by bullets, flames or glass shards – or machine-gunned as they hung powerless beneath their parachutes.

An He 111 Heinkel bomber of the Luftwaffe is hit by tracer bullets, as seen from an RAF Spitfire’s “gun camera”. (Imperial War Museum)

In the early days of August 1940, there weren’t many reasons to be optimistic. The RAF – charged with defending the last Allied stronghold – prepared to face off against over 2,550 enemy aircraft with a little over 1,900 of their own.

The Main Attack

Adlertag (Eagle Day) began on August 13th, 1940. Luftwaffe units attacked radar stations; the Dowding system was blinded briefly but, crucially, was operational within 6 hours. As the week wore on, fighter squadrons flying out of Denmark and Norway took on determined Allied defenders in the air over England. The Luftwaffe strategy was an attempt to destroy RAF planes on the ground at various airfields to cripple their fighting ability. As Göring had correctly guessed, the Battle of Britain would be won by whichever side could sustain the heaviest losses of men and machines. On August 15th, Luftflotte 5 attacked apparently-undefended airfields in Northern England. Using the Dowding System, the RAF managed to surprise the enemy and took out a total of 75 Luftwaffe aircraft – most of them bombers without their usual “escort” of ME-109 fighters.

Spitfire pilots rest during missions, joined by their canine mascots. Many actual dog-fights took place between the pilots’ mascots, presumably. (Wikimedia Commons)

During lulls in the battle, Allied pilots waited in folding chairs near the runway, sipping tea and trying to take cat-naps. When the alarms went off, the “Scramble” began and a mad dash to ones’ plane resulted. The sooner the RAF could scramble its planes, the better: every 30 seconds wasted on the ground meant they would be 1,000 feet lower than their opponents. And ME-109s liked to attack from above. As the battle wore on, the pilots got used to sleeping fully-kitted and ready to go; but as more young men were killed, the age and experience level of the average pilot lowered. For both sides, the Battle of Britain was quickly becoming unsustainable.

An He 111 Heinkel bomber over the Isle of Dogs in London. (German Air Force)

August 18th – the Hardest Day – was a turning point. This was the Luftwaffe’s last-ditch main effort. The Brits were exhausted and having trouble producing enough planes and pilots to keep up with the rate of attrition. The Germans, too, were having similar troubles, and Göring needed the fight over quickly as Hitler’s childish impatience grew. In a series of air raids, hundreds of worn-out Germans attempted to overwhelm the similarly exhausted young Allied men in their aircraft. Throughout the day and into the night, the Luftwaffe attacking force – comprising hundreds of aircraft – was whittled down. All over the country, German pilots were falling from the sky and many were captured by townsfolk wielding pitchforks and knives. By the end of the 18th, the RAF had lost roughly 30 planes and 10 pilots killed; but they’d forced over 70 Luftwaffe planes out of the air and killed nearly 100 enemy pilots – a huge loss of experienced fighters which the Luftwaffe never recovered from. The Hardest Day was over, and the tide had finally been turned in the favour of the Allies.

Never was so much owed by so many to so few.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill on the “Hardest Day”

The Blitz

The fighting on August 18th massively degraded the Luftwaffe’s ability to fight. Forced to withdraw their remaining ME-109s to protect Axis France, Göring now shifted his focus from attacking airfields to bombing cities. British civilians all over the country were murdered in the street and in their beds by bombs from Luftwaffe aircraft. London – previously a verboten target – was bombed by mistake, and the RAF immediately retaliated by striking Berlin. Some of the most savage air-to-air combat took place in the early days of September as massive flights of Luftwaffe bombers streaked towards England and were desperately machine-gunned (and even rammed) by Spitfires.

London firefighters during the Blitz. (Wikimedia Commons)

Raids continued throughout the summer, killing hundreds civilians but ultimately strengthening the British resolve. The Royal family remained in London during the worst of the Blitz and helped inspire confidence amongst Londoners. Although German air raids caused untold suffering in England, they ultimately did not succeed in breaking the Allied will to continue fighting. At an OKW meeting in September, Hitler officially called off the effort to obtain air superiority over England. By December, 23,002 British civilians had been killed and many towns had been flattened.

An ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) spotter keps watch for Luftwaffe bombers. Vast amounts of women signed up for military service and were an invaluable part of the battle. (Imperial War Museum)

Aftermath

In the end, mathematic factors ensured the Allied victory during the Battle of Britain. Both sides suffered similar losses in terms of aircraft and pilots (although the Brits, of course, lots many thousands of civilians as well); but the British were able – through intensive industrial efforts and support from the United States – to produce more aircraft and more pilots. By November of 1940, the RAF had 40% more pilots than they did in July. By contrast, the Luftwaffe lost 25% of their pilots in September alone. German pilots, unlike the Brits and Allies, were never allocated periods of rest and as a consequence, burned out more quickly and made more mistakes in combat. Their training pipeline was longer, and the British had access to pilots from all around the world to supplement their pool of recruits.

Londoners take shelter in the tube. The Blitz became an ordinary part of life during WWII. (Wikimedia Commons)

Perhaps the most disturbing development of the Battle of Britain – and the ensuing Blitz – was the normalization of “strategic bombing” of population centres by both sides. As soon as kids going to school and milkmen in the streets became fair game, all bets were off. Any Allied claims to fighting “the good fight” became a little bit murkier after the first strikes on Berlin.

One of the most important factors for the Allies was that, simply put, the British were fighting for their lives. There was a sense that the battle was the last stand of the “free world”, and, as Churchill warned, defeat would result in a return to “a new Dark Age.” During the Battle of Britain, the few hundred Allied pilots in their Spitfires fought tremendously hard – but they had essentially the entire world behind them. Women of the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service) scanned the skies for ME-109s, factory workers churned out planes and radar operators of the Dowding System ensured “their boys in the sky” knew when and where “bandits” would strike. For England, the Battle of Britain was a hugely significant victory that reinvigorated the war effort after the disastrous withdrawal from Dunkirk. And for the world at large, it was the first sign of cracks in the facade of Nazi invulnerability.

ASAP Notes

In a hurry? Here are the ASAP notes on this topic.

  • Who? The Royal Air Force or RAF (commanded by Air Marshal Hugh Dowding) with pilots from England, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Canada, Australia, America, South Africa, and elsewhere. They faced off against the Luftwaffe (German air force, commanded by Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring). The RAF started with 1,900 aircraft, and the Luftwaffe with 2,550.
  • Where? Over the English Channel and various cities and airfields in England. RAF missions also took place over France and Germany.
  • When? From July 10th to October 31st of 1940 – nearly 4 months.
  • What? German command ordered the Luftwaffe to destroy British air assets and ensure air superiority. In August, the Luftwaffe attempted to destroy RAF airfields but were eventually beaten back; in September, they began bombing civilians. Massive aerial battles took place throughout the summer and autumn.
  • Why? Hitler perceived that the RAF was his main barrier to invading England and he wanted the force wiped out prior to his planned Operation Sea Lion. The British perceived this threat (correctly) as an existential threat to all Allied powers and fought back with surprising savagery and persistence for such a young and untested force. They were also supported by the United States and other Allied nations.
  • Result: British victory. Although brutal, the battle resulted in a massive growth of the RAF and a weakening of the Luftwaffe. It also inspired fierce determination amongst the English and kickstarted the war effort against the Axis everywhere. 23,002 British civilians were killed along with 1,542 members of the RAF; 2,582 Luftwaffe crewmen were killed or went missing.

Food for Thought

Like what you’ve read? Here are a couple essay questions/prompts to get you thinking. Good writing is all about answering questions the reader didn’t know they had, after all. These questions are to inspire further research, help with an academic paper, or maybe just get you thinking more about the topic.

  • Was the Luftwaffe actually ready to take on the RAF? What significant disadvantages did they face?
  • Assess the leadership on both sides of the fight. What advantages did the British have at an institutional level?
  • What was life like for civilians during the Blitz? Compare this to the German experience.
  • How did German treatment of the English differ from its treatment of “inferior” peoples like the Poles?
  • What impact did the Battle of Britain have on its Allies?

Further Reading & Citations

Here are a couple useful sources for further reading or using to flesh out an essay. Remember to cite everything properly!

  • Foreman, John. 1988. Battle of Britain: the forgotten months, November and December 1940. New Malden, Surrey: Air Research Publications.
  • Birdwell, Russell. 1942. Women in battle dress. New York: The Fine Editions Press.
  • Chambers, Matthew. “S. P. MacKenzie. The Battle of Britain on Screen: ‘The Few’ in British Film and Television Drama. Societies at War Series. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007. 
  • Cumming, Anthony J. “Did Radar Win the Battle of Britain?” The Historian 69, no. 4 (2007): 688-705.
  • SUGARMAN, MARTIN. “More than Just a Few: Jewish Pilots and Aircrew in the Battle of Britain.” Jewish Historical Studies 38 (2002): 183-204. 

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鋼の雨: The Battle of Okinawa

US Marines engage IJA troops on Okinawa. (Britannica)

By the spring of 1945, WWII was drawing to a close in Europe. The Axis in that region were either on the run (the Germans) or had already switched sides (the Italians). As Allied command began talking of dividing up liberated Europe in the wake of the Normandy landings, Pacific command was still locked in a brutal struggle with the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA). Having seized most of the Pacific islands and parts of China during the 1930s and early 1940s, the IJA presented a formidable threat to the Allies. Knowing they faced a far from defeated enemy willing to die before giving up, the Allies began planning what was to become one of the bloodiest battles of the war: the Battle of Okinawa, or “Steel Rain” (鋼の雨) as the IJA called it.

ASAP: American hopes for a quick victory were ruined by fanatic Japanese resistance. The savagery of Okinawa helped convince Truman to nuke Japan.

Read on for details!
A map of Allied landing locations on Okinawa. (Wikimedia Commons)

Lead-up to Battle

Following the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbour in 1941, the Americans led the charge in the Pacific against the Japanese. They were, of course, joined by lesser-known allies from Britain and the Commonwealth as well as fighters from the Pacific nations. Having beaten down the Japanese Navy during the Battle of Midway earlier on in the war, and made bloody progress advancing from island-to-island towards Japan, the Allied force now had Okinawa – a small island 550 km (340 miles) from Japan – in their sights. Okinawa would enable the Allies to launch air strikes on mainland Japan with greater ease and practice for the inevitable landings on Japan. The Ryukyuan inhabitants of the island – who had been treated pretty poorly by the IJA during their occupation – were to suffer the greatest losses during the upcoming battle.

An American naval vessel bombards inland positions during the Battle of Okinawa. (Flickr)

The assault was to be the largest amphibious landing of the Pacific campaign. Landing craft would be driven largely by British and Canadian crews, and the bulk of the fighting force – the “tip of the spear” – was to be comprised of roughly 250,000 soldiers and Marines from the XXIV Corps (Army) and III Amphibious Corps (Marines). They were supported by the Naval Fifth Fleet, and all were commanded by American Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. Nimitz, an imaginative submarine specialist, had proved himself an expert at coordinating combined-arms (naval, aerial and ground) forces against the tenacious IJA. They faced off against nearly 100,000 defenders; 76,000 were experienced and motivated IJA men, and 20,000 were Okinawans forced to wear Japanese uniforms. They were commanded by Lieutenant General Mitsuru Ushijima. Allied doctrine advocated for a 3:1 numerical advantage of attackers to defenders, and as such the assault presented a significant risk for Nimitz. Okinawa’s numerous caves and pre-built tunnel systems – as well as gusuku castles with high walls – meant that the IJA defenders were extremely well dug-in by the time the Allies arrived.

Japanese Kamikaze pilots prior to their “divine wind” suicide missions. (Welt.de)

The Battle

Beginning in February of 1945, Allied ships had been repeatedly targeted by over 1,465 concerted kamikaze (or divine wind) attacks. These attacks were conducted by specially selected pilots who were trained to ram their Zero planes into enemy ships. Concurrently, a Japanese naval fleet codenamed Ten-gō sakusen (Operation Ten-Go) attempted to sneak up on Allied vessels preparing for the invasion of Okinawa. Led by the Yamato – the world’s largest battleship – Ten-Go was ambushed by the Americans. On April 7th, Ten-Go had been effectively destroyed and Yamato was sunk. This proved to be a huge loss for the Japanese, whose naval force had been slated to defend the island. As they had been previously during the campaign, the Allies were able to predict Japanese naval movements thanks to top secret signal interceptions.

The massive Yamato at sea. (Wikimedia Commons)

Near the end of March, Marines and soldiers of the 77th Infantry had begun landing on some of the small islands surrounding Okinawa. While a fake landing was made towards the south of the island, the main force landed in the north on April 1st. They pushed inland across the rocky ground and captured several crucial airfields with limited opposition at first, and by April 18th, the remaining IJA troops in the north were surrounded on the Motobu Peninsula. IJA special suicide troops codenamed Giretsu Kuteitai (“Heroic Paratroopers”) were dropped in to sabotage Allied fuel dumps, but their entire company was wiped out quickly.

Marines return fire at IJA snipers as they advance across the blasted Okinawan landscape. (Flickr)

Concurrently, another American landing group had swung south and began engaging IJA defenders along Highway 1. From there, they pushed on towards the heights of Shuri, site of an old Ryukyuan Castle which was heavily defended. Towards the end of April, the American advance had stalled and the tenacious IJA – and their unwilling Okinawan allies – clung to their positions. The Americans had been surprised at how well the Japanese were able to resist huge artillery bombardments by disappearing into caves and emerging after the firing had stopped. The blasted earth, hammered by naval artillery, only made it easier for the deafened Japanese soldiers to find cover. But my May 11th, American troops had captured two important hills, codenamed “Sugar Loaf” and “Conical”; these two positions flanked Shuri, and allowed the Americans to bring more fire to bear on the IJA positions. After a heavy bombardment from American ships off the Okinawan coast, Shuri was captured by a force of US Marines on May 29th. Although fighting continued, the loss of Shuri seemed to represent a strong psychological blow to the IJA.

An IJA soldier hurls a grenade at enemy troops. (Pinterest)

The Tide Turns

By June 21st, the IJA had been pushed back to their command post on Hill 89 and were forced to hide in underground tunnels. Knowing they had been defeated, Japanese command prepared to commit suicide. One man, Colonel Yahara, was apparently ordered to stay alive by his commanding officer:

“If you die there will be no one left who knows the truth about the battle of Okinawa. Bear the temporary shame, but endure it.

Lieutenant General Mitsuru Ushijima

The battle was over on June 22nd after 81 days of fighting. Most of Okinawa now resembled a WWI battlefield; constantly hammered by artillery, drenched by relentless rains and blasted with flamethrowers, the earth looked more like a foreign planet than earth. As the rains continued, corpses emerged from the earth. Over 100,000 Japanese soldiers, sailors and pilots had been killed, or committed suicide; roughly 15,000 Americans were lost, and men who had served in Okinawa suffered the highest rate of psychological damage out of any battle in the Pacific theatre. The few Japanese men who survived probably experienced the same difficulties.

The most hard-hit of all were the Ryukyuans who lived on Okinawa. Many had been forced to wear IJA uniforms, and were shot by American troops; others had been used as human shields. As the battle wore on, many Okinawan women were sexually assaulted by Japanese troops, a custom established during the Rape of Nanking in China. As the Americans advanced, the IJA spread rumours that the Okinawans would be massacred by the enemy troops, and as such, thousands jumped from the cliffs to their deaths. According to current estimates, almost 100,000 Okinawans were killed by the Japanese and Americans during the battle, or one third of the prewar population.

A wounded Marine receives plasma during May of 1945. (Flickr)

Aftermath

By all accounts, the Battle of Okinawa was a decisive Allied victory. Japanese naval capabilities had been wrecked during the Ten-Go operations, and many of the most talented remaining IJA commanders had perished in the caves under Hill 89. To Allied command, Okinawa represented the stepping-stone to mainland Japan, a key staging area where aircraft could refuel and men could prepare for battle. But according to some, the devastating losses suffered by both sides convinced American president Harry Truman to drop atomic bombs on Japan and “save American lives” by doing so. Victory in Europe had been declared as VE Day on May 8th, and the Allies were quickly losing steam. If the Battle of Okinawa had one main strategic impact – beyond the obvious and horrendous devastation of the unwilling Ryukyuan participants – it was convincing American command to use “the bomb”.

ASAP Notes

In a hurry? Here are the ASAP notes on this topic.

  • Who? 250,000 American Marines and soldiers under Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, supported by Commonwealth troops. They faced off against over 100,000 Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) troops under Lieutenant General Mitsuru Ushijima. Notably, over 20,000 of the IJA force were Okinawan residents – including children – forced to don Japanese uniforms.
  • Where? Okinawa, one of the Ryukyu Islands of Japan. 550 km (340 miles) from the mainland.
  • When? From April 1st to June 22nd, 1945 – 81 days. (Naval battles leading up to the main action commenced in late March).
  • What? The battle was a series of engagements on land, sea and air over the important airfields on Okinawa. Japanese naval vessels were destroyed at sea as the American ground force landed and pushed north and south. The north was captured quickly, but fighting in the centre and south of the island dragged on for months. After the capture of Shuri (an ancient castle and dominating position), IJA resistance collapsed and thousands of Japanese soldiers – and Okinawans – committed suicide.
  • Why? Okinawa was seen as a vital stepping stone to mainland Japan, and a training ground for the main invasion. The battle took longer than expected due to the fanatical Japanese resistance.
  • Result: Decisive Allied victory. It was the bloodiest battle in the Pacific theatre, and possibly resulted in American president Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bombs on Japan.

Food for Thought

Like what you’ve read? Here are a couple essay questions/prompts to get you thinking. Good writing is all about answering questions the reader didn’t know they had, after all. These questions are to inspire further research, help with an academic paper, or maybe just get you thinking more about the topic.

  • Was the Battle of Okinawa necessary? Could the island have been bypassed by the Allies?
  • What was the Okinawan situation prior to the battle? How were they treated within the hierarchy of Japanese society, and how did Okinawan society rebuild after the fighting stopped?
  • What were the key Japanese mistakes, and how did the Allies exploit them?
  • Assess Nimitz’ handling of combined arms assets (air, ground and sea).
  • What has been the legacy of the battle for Okinawans in the decades after?

Further Reading & Citations

Here are a couple useful sources for further reading or using to flesh out an essay. Remember to cite everything properly!

  • Leckie, Robert. 1995. Okinawa: the last battle of World War II. New York: Viking.
  • Tzeng, Megan. “The Battle of Okinawa, 1945: Final Turning Point in the Pacific.” The History Teacher 34, no. 1 (2000): 95-117.
  • Sarantakes, Nicholas Evan. “Warriors of Word and Sword: The Battle of Okinawa, Media Coverage, and Truman’s Reevaluation of Strategy in the Pacific.” The Journal of American-East Asian Relations 23, no. 4 (2016): 334-67
  • Pearson, R. (1996). The Place of Okinawa in Japanese Historial Identity. In D. Denoon, M. Hudson, G. McCormack, & T. Morris-Suzuki (Eds.), Multicultural Japan: Palaeolithic to Postmodern (Contemporary Japanese Society, pp. 95-116). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Yahara, Hiromichi, and Frank Gibney. 1995. The battle for Okinawa. New York: J. Wiley.

The 2nd Battle of Panipat

War elephants as used by the Hindu forces. (source: Wikimedia Commons)

On November 5th, 1556, The 2nd Battle of Panipat took place. Forces of the Mughal Empire (founded in 1526 by Babur of modern-day Uzbekistan) faced off against Hemu Chandra Vikramaditya’s Hindu forces in the north of India. The Mughals had recently lost land near modern day Delhi and Agra and sought to reclaim what the Hindus had won.

Akbar – the 13 year-old ruler of the Mughals – had roughly 10,000 cavalry (horse-mounted) fighters to take on Hemu’s 30,000 men. Worse, Hemu had war elephants: these heavily-armoured beasts were unpredictable and incredibly expensive, but could crush enemies on the battlefield and had proven a decisive weapon for thousands of years.

Akbar’s victory in 1556 enabled the Mughal empire to grow and dominate much of the subcontinent for centuries to come. (source: Wikimedia Commons)

As the two armies faced off, Hemu’s experienced cavalry quickly encircled the Mughals and threatened to crush them with their elephants. As Hemu moved forward on his elephant Hawai, however, a lucky Mughal bowman shot the Hindu ruler through the eye. The Mughals, who did not rely on strict orders and were able to operate more independently (their leader Akbar was several kilometres back from the fighting), were able to take advantage of the confusion once the Hindus lost their command element. As was typically the case in “ancient” battles, the retreat – or rout – resulted in massive casualties for the Hindus, who lost upwards of 5,000 men and animals. The Mughals, impressed by the Hindus’ elephants, stole 120 of them. After the battle, Akbar had Hemu’s head sent to decorate the gates of Kabul.

13 year old Akbar, who enjoyed smelling flowers, beheading rival leaders, and taking long walks on the beach. (source: Wikimedia Commons)

The ensuing centuries saw the empire grow significantly: by the 18th century, the Mughals were producing upwards of 25% of all goods in the global market, and India was a centre of arts and culture. Stretching from Afghanistan to Bangladesh at its largest, the Mughal empire was one of the most diverse and powerful of its kind. The growth of the empire can partially be attributed to the arrow of one Mughal bowman – demonstrating the power that individuals can have in altering the path of history.

Main Points

In a hurry? Here are the main points on this topic.

  • The powerful Hindus under Hemu were all set to steamroll the Mughals, who were led by a 13 year-old. The Hindus possess a numerical advantage as well as 120+ war elephants, an ancient weapon of terror.
  • The Mughal leader watched from far away as his forces were about to be massacred; a lucky arrow killed Hemu and the Hindus retreated in chaos, where they were slaughtered.
  • The battle allowed the Mughals to claim large parts of India and enabled them to become one of the largest and most diverse empires the world had ever seen.

Food for Thought

Here are a couple essay questions/prompts to get you thinking. Good writing is all about answering questions the reader didn’t know they had, after all. These questions are to inspire further research, help with an academic paper, or maybe just get you thinking more about the topic.

  • Was the Mughal Empire one of the most successful empires in human history? If so, how?
  • What does Akbar’s victory show about the nature of conflict and military tactics?
  • Why did Hemu’s Hindu forces win despite possessing superior numbers and elephants?
  • Was Akbar a good leader? Or was his victory down to luck?
  • What would have happened to the continent if Akbar had lost the battle in 1556?

Further Reading & Citations

Here are a couple useful sources for further reading or using to flesh out an essay. Remember to cite everything properly!

  • Richards, John F. The Mughal Empire. The New Cambridge History of India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
  • Ali, M. Athar. “Towards an Interpretation of the Mughal Empire.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, no. 1 (1978): 38-49.
  • Rezavi, Syed Ali Nadeem. “THE EMPIRE AND BUREAUCRACY: The Case Of Mughal Empire.” Proceedings of the Indian History Congress 59 (1998): 360-82.
  • Smith, Vincent A. “XVI. The Death of Hēmū in 1556, after the Battle of Pānīpat.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 48, no. 3 (1916): 527–35.
  • Heesterman, J. C. “The Social Dynamics of the Mughal Empire: A Brief Introduction.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 47, no. 3 (2004): 292-97.

World War II

When: 1939 – 1945

Beginning at the end of the 1930s, WWII was really a series of interconnected regional conflicts. Every human being on earth was touched in some way by the unprecedented carnage of the war, whether on the front lines, at the home front, or in the concentration camps. More so than perhaps any other conflict in recent memory, WWII is easy to define as a struggle between good and evil. Although this is partially due to the fact that (as is always the case) the victors wrote the history of WWII, it’s largely because the losers – the Axis powers – carried out some of the most heinous and well-organized crimes in the history of humankind.

Many argue that WWII was merely a continuation of WWI, and this is (in some ways) true – the unresolved frustrations of the Axis carried on throughout the Interbellum period before being abruptly ended in 1945. But the world of 1939 and 1945 were two very different places: colonial empires, like that of England and France, were hugely diminished by the fighting while younger powers like the United States and the USSR emerged stronger than ever at the war’s end. The experiences of women and African Americans in the war effort galvanized movements that challenged the post-war social order, while the rise of young, newly-independent nations like Indonesia and Vietnam posed new threats to their former colonial overlords.

American GIs at a mass military grave. Entire generations of human beings were wiped out during the conflict. (National WWII Museum)

ASAP Notes

In a hurry? Here are the ASAP notes on this topic.

  • Who? The Allies (America, the Soviet Union, France, England, the Commonwealth, China, Mexico, and more). They faced off against the Axis (Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, Imperial Japan, and more).
  • Where?  In Asia (the Pacific theatre), Africa, Europe (Mediterranean, Northern, Central, and Eastern), the Americas (parts of Central and South America, as well as the Aleutians), and the high seas.
  • When?  From September 1st 1939 to September 2nd, 1945 – over 6 years. Germany surrendered in spring of 1945 while the Japanese surrendered later. (Note: one of the most significant battles of the war, Khalkhin Gol, took place earlier in 1939. The above date is the common Eurocentric timeline, although many regional conflicts that impacted the overall war began much earlier).
  • What?  Beginning in the late 1930s, a rapid German invasion of Europe (backed by a treaty with the USSR and inspired by Adolf Hitler’s racist nationalism) and Italian military actions in North Africa took the Allies largely by surprise. Japan attacked the United States, and the war grew in scale. Although the Axis made massive territorial gains, a series of Allied victories on all fronts in 1942 and 1943 changed the tide of war. The conflict ended in 1945 after battles in the air, on sea and on land.
  • Why?  Although the “why” of WWII is a complicated question, the events that began the fighting in 1939 were directly tied to the racist nationalist goals of the Axis. Fanatic leadership in the Axis countries, as well as sometimes inept leaders amongst the Allied troops, resulted in the conflict lasting much longer than it would have if more rational people had in charge.
  • Result:  Complete collapse of the Axis powers. Over 75 million people were killed – a majority of them civilians – in camps, crossfire and bombings.

The World at War

The world in June of 1942, at the near-peak of Axis reach. Although the Nazis pushed farther into the USSR, many of the initial Axis gains had been reversed by 1943. Western Allies = Blue, Eastern Allies = Red, Axis = Black. (Wikimedia Commons)

Important Names

  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt (US president)
  • Harry Truman (US president)
  • Adolf Hitler (German Führer)
  • Benito Mussolini (Italian “Duce”)
  • Chiang Kai-Shek (Chairman of Republican China)
  • Emperor Hirohito (Emperor of Japan)
  • Rosie the Riveter (American Feminist Propaganda/Labour Icon)
  • Winston Churchill (UK PM)
  • Dwight D. Eisenhower (US general/president)
  • Joseph Goebbels (German Propaganda Minister)

Terminology

  • Total War
  • Home Front
  • Lebensraum (“living space”)
  • Blitzkrieg (“lightning war”)
  • The Allies
  • The Axis
  • The Holocaust

The above themes, name and terms are intended as a guide to kickstart your research. Because ASAP History is generalists’ site – that is, we cover all eras and events (within reason) – it is impossible for us to provide detailed insight on every important event or person. With that in mind, below is a collection of articles on significant events. Longer, more in-depth articles are bolded.

The Eastern Front

The Eastern Front was, in and of itself, the most destructive war in human history. Over 40 million human beings – the majority of whom were civilians – lost their lives in clashes from the Finnish border to the steppes of Mongolia. Characterized by intense racial animosity, the Eastern Front saw a blurring of the lines between soldier and civilian as both sides, Axis and Allied, murdered and raped all accused of collaborating with the enemy. The messiest, least-organized stages of the Holocaust – the so-called “Shoah by bullets” – took place as German soldiers and collaborating civilians murdered countless Jewish people. The determination and fanaticism of two men in particular – Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin – resulted in the deaths of millions and an unprecedented refugee crisis.

Timeline and Articles

Concepts and Terminology

  • Kesselschlacht (“cauldron battles”)
  • Shoah by Bullets
  • Spheres of Influence
  • Lend-Lease
  • Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact

The Pacific

Although Western scholars tend to count the Pacific War as beginning with the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor, the conflict had its roots in decades of American/Japanese economic and political competition as well as a burgeoning civil war in China. As with the Eastern Front, battles in the Pacific were incredibly vicious and saw many civilians murdered by all belligerents. Fanatical Japanese troops – motivated by their emperor to fight til the death – faced off against determined Allied troops led by the Americans, but countless other nations took part in the fighting. A majority of Asian and Southeast Asian people were directly impacted by the war that culminated in the first – and only – use of atomic weapons in human history.

Timeline and Articles

Concepts and Terminology

  • Island-Hopping
  • Kamikaze
  • Northern/Southern Expansion Doctrines
  • Fat Man/Little Boy
  • Unit 731
  • Shinto Directive

The War at Sea

An often-overlooked part of WWII was the war at sea. The Allies possessed a massive advantage in resources, and shipping was the primary means for transporting men and goods from nation to nation; in the early stages of the conflict, these routes were incredibly vulnerable to Axis submarine attacks. The advent of enhanced intelligence assets, as well as the Allies’ superiority in naval strength, eventually won out over the German “U-Boat” swarm attacks – but not before countless sailors (and merchant marines) had lost their lives. Additionally, naval clashes in the Pacific War – where movement from island-to-island was accomplished by boat – helped decide the fate of the war early on.

Timeline and Articles

Concepts and Terminology

  • Ultra
  • Lend-Lease
  • Midway
  • Merchant Navy
  • Aircraft Carriers

Africa & the Mediterranean

The first major engagements between the European Axis (Germany and Italy) and the Western Allies were fought in North Africa and later, the Mediterranean. Described by Winston Churchill as the “soft underbelly of Europe”, Allied war planners sought to thrust upwards into the occupied continent from the south. This strategy was largely rejected after plans for Operation Overlord were drawn up, but not before an incredible series of large-scale battles from El Alamein to Ortona had taken place. North Africa had historically been a resource and manpower-base for the European colonial powers, and its significance – and the effects of war on its population – should not be overlooked.

Timeline and Articles

Concepts and Terminology

  • Special Air Service
  • The Desert Fox
  • “Italy’s Place in the Sun”
  • Colonial troops
  • Operation Compass

The European Theatre of Operations (ETO)

Perhaps the most studied conflict in history, the European Theatre of Operations (ETO) began in 1939 after the failure of the British and French-led appeasement effort. The conflict, which saw almost the entirety of continental Europe under Axis control for a number of years, varied in intensity from place to place. In general, the experiences of occupied territories in the East was much worse than those in the West (although all populations in occupied Europe suffered tremendously during the war). The largest battles between the Allies and Axis took place in 1944 after the start of D-Day; by that point, however, millions of people had been systematically murdered. The Holocaust – a term which encompasses everything from the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau to the killing squads of the SS Einsatzgruppen – resulted in the virtual extinction of the European Jewish population, as well as a significant decline in the numbers of Sinti-Roma, homosexuals, the mentally ill, and a variety of other German-labelled “undesirables”.

One important thing to note when studying the ETO is that, contrary to popular mythology, a vast majority of German civilians and soldiers, as well as many civilians in occupied territories, either knew about or actively participated in the Holocaust. There is no such thing as the “clean Wehrmacht.” (For further reading on the topic, see Soldaten by Harald Welzer and Sönke Neitzel).

Timeline and Articles

Concepts and Terminology

  • Concentration Camps
  • Strategic Bombing
  • Partisans
  • The Phony War
  • Displaced Persons (DPs)

Revolution, Unrest & Decolonization

Many of the colonies, like Dutch Indonesia, took advantage of the war-weariness of their European masters and proclaimed independence near the end of WWII. Although these movements – which had been growing in prominence for some time – achieved varying degrees of success, the post-war decolonization movement upset the balance of power and resulted in a decline of European global dominance. These newly decolonized states were forced to choose their own path: alignment with the East, the West, or, eventually, non-alignment.

Timeline and Articles

Concepts and Terminology

  • Decolonization
  • Revolution
  • The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM)

Politics, Diplomacy & the Home Front

The war touched everyone’s lives, whether they fought at the front or endured rationing and bombing on the “home front”. Unprecedented economic mobilization characterized the war effort in North America and England, while civilians were often forced into combat roles in the Eastern and Pacific theatres. As the fighting raged, diplomatic agreements – secret or otherwise – helped pave the way for the new world order of the post-war (or Cold War) era.

Timeline and Articles

Concepts and Terminology

  • Home Front
  • Bomb Girls
  • Rationing

Science & Technology

War brought with it an incredibly rapid series of technological advancements. From radar to penicillin, M&Ms to the atom bomb, the Allies and Axis were constantly striving to outdo one another with increasingly advanced weapons and technologies. Many of these innovations directly impacted civilian life, too, such as advances in medical technology and consumer goods.

Timeline and Articles

Concepts and Terminology

  • Wonder Weapons
  • The Manhattan Project
  • Rocket Power
  • Operation Paperclip

WWII – The North African Campaign

An Afrika Korps tank advances during the North African Campaign. (Pinterest)

Some of the very first action in WWII took place in North Africa and the Middle East. By the 1930s, most European powers – predominantly the Allies – had economic interests in the region. The new fascist powers of the era wanted a piece of the area too, and in 1935 the Italians began expanding their hold on East Africa with the Invasion of Ethiopia. Tensions rose as the decade wore on and British and French troops reinforced their holdings, particularly in the Middle East. Conflict in the region was inevitable. On June 10th, 1940, the Italians declared war on the Allies and the North African Campaign of WWII began.

ASAP: European colonial tensions came to a head at the outset of WWII, and superior Allied numbers eventually won out over the Afrika Korps and less-competent Italian troops.

Read on for details!
Africa’s northern half in 1940. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Western Desert Campaign

As France fell to the Axis blitzkrieg (lightning war) in May, British troops in Egypt knew to expect trouble. Italian troops began reinforcing their garrisons in Libya. In early June, the Brits began raiding Axis positions and harassing their supply lines, and their regional commander – General Archibald Wavell – pleaded with his superiors in England for reinforcements. At the time, British war planners were expecting a full-on assault from across the Channel by the newly-dominant German forces; little to no help arrived for Wavell. The situation became increasingly desperate as Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini ordered an offensive against British Egypt – but luckily for Wavell, the Italian army was largely incompetent and Mussolini’s order was ignored. However, in early September the Italians reluctantly advanced towards Mersa Matruh, the new British position in Egypt.

A British convoy under attack in North Africa. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Italians made decent progress but by mid September their supply lines were falling apart. The British launched Operation Compass, an effort to harass and destroy the enemy advance. 36,000 men of the British Commonwealth Force attacked and soon nearly 100,000 Italians were fleeing West, their attack on Egypt all but forgotten. In the ensuing 10 weeks, the Brits chased the massive Italian force all the way to El Agheila, a port in the far west of Italian Libya. Over 130,000 Italians were captured by the tiny British force.

Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Spitfire pilots prepare to fly a ground-support mission during the North African Campaign. (IWM)

Operation Compass also saw one of the first uses of special forces during WWII. The brand-new Special Air Service – the brainchild of eccentric painter and explorer Lieutenant Colonel David Sterling – was a 60 man detachment who parachuted into the desert and essentially snuck around getting into “ungentlemanly engagements”: ambushing and sabotaging the Germans. The tiny unit was hated by most conventional British officers, but British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (a romantic who loved daring stories) supported the SAS and ordered its expansion. Throughout the rest of the campaign, the SAS tore around the desert in modified Jeeps and shot up Axis airplanes far behind enemy lines. The strange, bearded men of the SAS had an outsized impact on the Afrika Korps, who became terrified of the unit and were forced to devote more men to guarding their airbases. Stirling’s strange new unit went on to fight in Europe, and was the inspiration for special units the world over in the ensuing decades.

British SAS troops on their way to shoot up a German airfield. (Imperial War Museum)

The Desert Fox Arrives

By February of 1941, it was becoming increasingly clear to German Fuhrer Adolf Hitler that the Italian Army was far from the elite force of fascist supermen Mussolini made it out to be. Italian units were pulled from Europe and sent to reinforce the heavily-depleted force in El Agheila, while Hitler grudgingly sent a force of his own – called the Afrika Korps – to help. The Korps was only a few divisions strong, but it was complemented by huge numbers of Italians. Concurrently, much of the Allied presence in North Africa was withdrawn to reinforce Greece against the impending Axis attack. In the winter and spring of 1941, commander of the Afrika Korps General Erwin Rommel (AKA the Desert Fox) faced off against new, inexperienced British troops of the XIII Corps.

“The Desert Fox” (R) consults with his officers. (Pinterest)

Despite orders to hold a defensive position, Rommel began raiding Allied positions. Hitler hated being disobeyed, but a man named “the Desert Fox” was surely not going to wait around for orders. Luckily for Rommel’s reputation, the raids were a success; soon, the Australian 9th Infantry Division was besieged at Tobruk in Libya and Afrika Korps panzers (tanks) were rolling into Egypt. Rommel’s new positions stretched far into Allied territory, but his attempts to take Tobruk – which disrupted his supply lines – were beaten back and the Royal Navy continued to support the Allied defense. Rommel’s tiny but mobile force of short-pants-wearing Germans (and considerably less effective Italians) was unable to advance farther, and soon he was forced to consolidate his gains in North Africa. Allied attempts to retake Libya – Operations Brevity and Battleaxe – failed, but placed the Afrika Korps in a precarious position.

Can you guess which Commonwealth nation owns these tanks? Hint: It begins with “Aus” and ends with “tralia”! Light Tanks of the 9th Infantry stationed at Tobruk. (Wikipedia)

Wavell was replaced by General Claude Auchinleck, a Brit who was given massive new reinforcements from the Commonwealth armies. The new and enlarged British 8th Army assaulted the Afrika Korps at Tobruk as a part of Operation Crusader and finally pushed Rommel back to El Agheila in November 1941. General Auchinleck was again replaced by General Bernard Montgomery. The new officer – an eccentric man who, like Rommel, played by his own rules and, unlike Rommel, liked to wear oversized non-military sweaters – was soon thrown into chaos when the Afrika Korps counterattacked and pushed the 8th Army all the way back to El Alamein in Egypt. Rommel was only 140 km (90 miles) from Alexandria – but again, his advance was slowed by a lack of fuel and adequate allies. The German general was aware that he could not be adequately supplied so far from Libya, but he pressed on regardless.

Maori troops from New Zealand perform a Haka. (Wikipedia)

Around this time, the Allies stopped using the Black Code (a code developed by the US State Department which had been “broken” by German intelligence) to transmit information. Thereafter, German command had no idea what the 8th Army was up to. Concurrently, codebreakers at Bletchley Park in England deciphered the German “Enigma” coding device. This new intelligence asset – codenamed Ultra – allowed the Allies to anticipate Axis movements for the rest of the war. From that point on, the Allies had the intelligence advantage.

Positions of opposing forces prior to the 2nd Battle of El Alamein. (NoClador)

The 2nd Battle of El Alamein

After months of resupply the British 8th Army was ready to attack again, supported by new M4 Sherman tanks as well as British Spitfires (advanced warplanes that had successfully held off German attacks during the Battle of Britain in 1940). Montgomery’s staff developed comprehensive predictions of casualties and abilities, and in October 1942 felt that the 8th Army was ready. On October 23rd, 195,000 Allies attacked the 116,000 Afrika Korps men at El Alamein with heavy air support from their Spitfires. As General “Monty” had predicted, the planes had a huge effect on Axis morale. German and Italian air assets were not adequately trained to support Afrika Korps ground troops, and as such were of little help during the battle. The Sherman tanks too were more than an equal match for the panzers, and managed to knock out many of them.

8th Army Sherman tanks advance. (Wikimedia Commons)

By early November, significant panzers had been removed from the Afrika Korps’ ranks (according to Monty’s calculations) and the breakout from El Alamein began. As the main Italian force withdrew to the West, Rommel ordered his remaining men to hang tight. By November 4th, the 8th Army had punched a 19 km (12 mile) hole in Rommel’s ring around El Alamein and the Axis were running low on ammunition and water. Parched and terrified by Allied airpower, the remaining Germans and elite Italian “Folgore” paratroopers fought until their last bullets were spent. Rommel telegraphed Hitler asking permission to retreat; the Fuhrer waited too long in replying, and at 5:30 pm that day Rommel pulled all his forces back to Mersa Matruh. By November 7th, the Afrika Korps was in full retreat and the Allies had forced a turning point in the North African Campaign.

General Montgomery with his unusual sweater and cartoonish beret in 1942. (Flickr)

On November 8th – just as the Axis withdrew from El Alamein for the last time – Americans and British troops landed in Algeria as a part of Operation Torch. They totally surprised French Vichy troops there (who were technically Axis soldiers), who surrendered immediately. From there, they pressed on and began engaging Afrika Korps units.

Before Alamein, we never had a victory. After Alamein, we never had a defeat.”

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill

The Tunisian Campaign

Immediately after the Torch landings, German and Italian forces rushed into Tunisia to reinforce the Afrika Korps. The new troops were just that – inexperienced and outclassed by the veteran troops of Rommel’s army. The new Eastern Task Force was unprepared for German offensives, and the US II Corps was humiliated at the Kasserine Pass by Rommel’s panzers. Luckily for the new Allied arrivals, the 8th Army had advanced far along the Mediterranean coast and was soon squeezing Axis-held Tunisia. The Allies had Rommel in a headlock, and in March of 1943, the German general returned to Europe for health reasons.

An American tank crew with their outdated M3 Lee tank in North Africa. (Wikimedia Commons)

In the spring, the Allies attacked from both sides and on May 13th, 1943, the Afrika Korps under Italian General Giovanni Messe (who had inherited an unwinnable mess) surrendered completely. Over 275,000 Axis troops were captured, although a large number managed to escape to Europe. The North African Campaign was over, and the entire continent – including Italian Somalia and Ethiopia – was in Allied hands.

Captured German troops of the Afrika Korps guarded by a stern-looking Brit or “Limey”. Note that all pictured are wearing short pants. Also note that, since WWII was fought in black and white, it was often quite difficult to distinguish enemy combatants from one another. (Imperial War Museum)

The Aftermath

The North African Campaign was a real test for all involved. For the British, it was their very first taste of “revenge” (for the bombing of England) and a crucial dose of real-world experience for them going forward. The Americans – who landed with Operation Torch – were forced to confront many of their tactical shortcomings and overhaul their Army in preparation for the invasion of Europe.

It was also a wake-up call for the Axis. Benito Mussolini’s boastings had been proven untrue; the fascist supermen were largely incapable of taking on the Allies and subsequently relied on German support. This frustrating revelation for German command meant that, going forward, many men and resources had to be devoted to defending the Mediterranean theatre (the “soft underbelly of Europe”, according to Churchill). This hampered their ability to conduct operations elsewhere, and ultimately hastened the demise of the German 3rd Reich. By the time of the fall of Tunisia, the Allies had had their very first taste of victory – and, as Churchill liked to say, the Allies continued to win from that point onwards.

ASAP Notes

In a hurry? Here are the ASAP notes on this topic.

  • Who? The Allied 8th Army led by General Wavell and later, Montgomery. The force was comprised of British, Australian, Indian, Sudanese, New Zealand, South African, Rhodesian, Canadian, Tunisian, Moroccan, Algerian, and Greek troops, as well as “Free” Polish, Czech and French troops. They were later joined by Americans; Allied losses totaled about 48,000 killed. They faced off against the German and Italian Afrika Korps led by General Erwin Rommel AKA the Desert Fox. The Axis lost close to 42,000 men.
  • Where? In North Africa. Battles took place in Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco and Libya, and in the waters of the Mediterranean.
  • When? From June 10th, 1940, to May 13th, 1943 – over a thousand days.
  • What? The North African Campaign was a series of major battles and minor skirmishes between the Allied and Axis in the region. Initially, Italians attacked British troops in Egypt but were chased back to El Agheila in Libya. Reinforced by the German Afrika Korps, they pushed back east and trapped the Commonwealth forces at Tobruk and El Alamein. After a series of battles, the reinforced British 8th Army pushed the overextended Afrika Korps back to Tunisia. A British-American landing in Algeria enabled the Allies to squeeze the Axis forces in Tunisia, and, despite a rough start for the new American troops, German and Italian forces surrendered the continent to the Allies in may of 1943.
  • Why? Most European powers had colonial interests in Africa and the Middle East. Tensions rose as Italian imperial ambitions grew in the 1930s, and by 1940, their simply wasn’t enough elbow room left for either side. The continent provided an important foothold for the Allies for their inevitable invasion of Italy.
  • Result: Allied victory. Despite German general Rommel’s ability to make do with limited forces and resources, superior Allied numbers eventually won out. The victory in North Africa – which came less than a year after the Soviet success at Stalingrad – was an important turning point for the Allies, who had essentially been kicked around by the Axis till that point.

Food for Thought

Like what you’ve read? Here are a couple essay questions/prompts to get you thinking. Good writing is all about answering questions the reader didn’t know they had, after all. These questions are to inspire further research, help with an academic paper, or maybe just get you thinking more about the topic.

  • How did colonial troops view the conflict? Was their participation, broadly speaking, voluntary? Why or why not?
  • What impact did the campaign have on local North Africans?
  • Assess some of the Allies’ biggest tactical blunders, and how Rommel exploited them.
  • Was the Italian Army ever truly ready to take on large scale military operations? Why or why not?
  • Assess the importance of developments like the employment of the SAS or new intelligence breakthroughs like Ultra. What was their significance going forward?

Further Reading & Citations

Here are a couple useful sources for further reading or using to flesh out an essay. Remember to cite everything properly!

  • Macintyre, Ben. Rogue Heroes: The History of the SAS, Britain’s Secret Special Forces Unit That Sabotaged the Nazis and Changed the Nature of War. Toronto: Penguin Random House, 2016.
  • Fennell, Jonathan. Combat and Morale in the North African Campaign: The Eighth Army and the Path to El Alamein. Cambridge Military Histories. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.
  • Moorehead, Alan. 2000. African trilogy: the North African campaign, 1940-43 : comprising Mediterranean front, A year of battle, the end in Africa. London: Cassell.
  • Katz, David Brock. 2018. South Africans versus Rommel: the untold story of the desert war in World War II.
  • Piekałkiewicz, Janusz. 1992. Rommel and the secret war in North Africa, 1941-1943: secret intelligence in the North African campaign. West Chester, Pa: Schiffer Pub.

05/20 – Operation Mercury

Two German paratroopers surveying a distant fire in Crete. Although these men are heavily armed with rifles and submachine guns, many airborne troops struggled to find weapons once on the ground. (Imgur)

On this day in 1941, the German invasion of Crete began. Home to the ancient Minoans – Europe’s first advanced civilization – the Greek island occupied an important spot in the WWII battle for the Mediterranean: from its ports and runways, British air and sea forces dominated the region and threatened Romanian oil fields, an important part of the Axis war effort. After Germany’s failure to destroy Britain’s air defences in the summer of 1940, Hitler desperately wanted a new victory. In 1941, Panzers rolled into Greece and by the spring of that year, the country was under Axis control. But Crete remained in Allied hands, defended by over 40,000 troops Hellenic and Commonwealth troops. Armed with a brand new military capability – the elite fallschirmjägers, or paratroopers – Hitler ordered an airborne invasion of the island. Their mission, codenamed Operation Mercury, was to seize Allied airfields, enabling a much larger force of Gebirgsjägers (mountain troops) to arrive by transport aircraft and secure the island.

The German road to Crete. Although a small island, Crete was an important Mediterranean stronghold; its loss was a huge blow to Allied confidence. (Wine Tours in Heraklion, Crete)

By 8 AM on May 20th, thousands of Germans were falling from the clear blue sky. At Maleme airfield, the defending New Zealanders picked fallschirmjägers out of the air with well-placed shots; the lucky few who made it to the ground were rounded up or shot on site. According to German doctrine, the paratroopers jumped without personal weapons; at Maleme, the crates containing their rifles had been lost due to parachute malfunctions. As a result, the majority of the attackers were killed or wounded in the first few hours as they struggled to find weapons. The three Von Blücher brothers, serving in different sectors, were all killed in the first few days. A series of Allied intelligence failures, however, resulted in key airfields being abandoned; the remaining Greek troops, although committed, ran dangerously low on weapons and ammunition. After several days of hard fighting, the Germans had gained a foothold on the island and soon, gebirgsjägers were blasting around on motorcycles, rapidly seizing key positions. Although the locals fought on – one old Cretan man beat a fallschirmjäger to death with his walking stick, and mobs of old women stabbed several others Germans to death with kitchen knives – the Allied troops were eventually forced to withdraw to the south. By May 28th, only 500 Commonwealth and Hellenic troops remained on the island, where they fled to the mountains alongside the Greek resistance.

Commonwealth troops – From Britain, Australia or New Zealand – manning an anti-aircraft gun at a Cretan airfield. (Wikimedia Commons)

After 13 days of brutal combat, Crete was firmly in German hands. The Allies had been evicted from the island, losing an important regional stronghold and suffering a massive reduction of their naval strength at the hands of German bombers. In retaliation for Crete’s resistance, the German occupiers massacred hundreds of locals for alleged “partisan behaviour”. But although Operation Mercury was a German success, it came at an incredible cost. According to fallschirmjäger commander Kurt Student, Crete was “… the death of the airborne force”. After the incredibly costly invasion – during which the attackers had lacked weapons and the element of surprise – Hitler became convinced that airborne invasions were a waste of men and resources. As the much larger invasion of the USSR began later in June of 1941, German airborne troops were kept firmly on the ground; any possibility of future airborne fallschirmjäger deployments was over.

European Urban Centres from West to East, 1940-44

This article is a revised version of an essay submitted for academic credit at the University of Toronto.

Belgian displaced-persons (or “DPs”) after their escape from urban combat in 1945. (Time)

Throughout history, military forces have usually avoided fighting in built-up areas for a variety of reasons. Street battles are difficult to control, harder to wage, and nearly impossible to “win”. In WWII the German Wehrmacht realized this; manuals on doctrine and strategy warned that “… street battles are costly, and could extend beyond a point to which forces prepared for short operations could properly be sustained.” As a consequence, German forces tended to bypass urban centres in their patented Blitzkrieg (“lightning war”) approach. But in some cases, the Wehrmacht (and SS forces) were drawn into cities — and their time within those urban centres had pronounced effects. German treatment of cities and their populations in the ETO (European Theatre of Operations) varied significantly from location to location due to logistical factors, timing and most importantly, the racial and ethnic makeup of the local inhabitants.

A ruined European city in the wake of WWII. (History.com)

Paris

Paris certainly felt the effects of war during its occupation by German forces from 1940-1944. But the French capital fared significantly better than most other European cities in WWII. Soviet Red Army generals joked in 1942 that “… the enemy lost more men attacking [a Stalingrad] house than they did in taking Paris.” French forces certainly lost many men in the German offensive due to their outdated tactics and general lack of political will to fight a costly war. The Third Republic swiftly collapsed and government officials fled to Bordeaux on June 10th. The ensuing Vichy regime collaborated with German forces to a large extent, enabling the Germans to govern with a “hands off” approach that spared them military manpower for engagement elsewhere. 

The evolution of German military plans for the 1940 invasion of France. The rapid sweep through the Ardennes – which bypassed France’s defensive line – took the Parisian government by surprise. (Wikimedia Commons)

In Paris, little actual street violence accompanied the German advance in 1940. The Standard Oil refinery was lit on fire to deny fuel to the approaching Wehrmacht; US diplomat William Bullitt barely managed to convince German forces not to bombard the city with artillery in response. As occupation wore on, some small but futile acts of resistance occurred: three Germans were assassinated on the metro in 1941, but their deaths were avenged with the execution of 100 French prisoners. As a result, assassinations were rare. Even as the German labour drafts of 1942 prompted revolt in Paris, there were few acts of open violence directed at the occupying forces. 

German troops marching into Paris through l’Arc du Triomphe in 1940. (Reddit)

The only sustained street-fighting in Paris took place in 1944. Gaullists seized government buildings, while Free French operatives assaulted rail-yards and industrial targets. Regular Parisians flew homemade Free French (FFI) flags and mobbed policemen. Some Milice collaborators and isolated German fanatics sniped at advancing Allied forces from rooftops, but they were quickly caught, and usually surrendered. Overall, Paris saw very little urban violence during WWII, at least on the scale of that seen in Warsaw or even London, and there was little German retaliation during the German retreat. Upon liberation, many Parisians even complained that “the Americans were worse than the Germans.

A Parisian street scene during the occupation. Very little destruction of property took place there during WWII. (Daily Mail)

Why was Paris preserved?

Well, one must note again how unpleasant wartime life was for Parisians. The average height of Parisian children fell between 7 and 11 centimetres due to malnutrition, and of course one must never forget the plight of much of Paris’ Jewish population who were rounded up by French policemen. But the majority of Paris survived, and much of its prewar architecture stands today. And much of the Parisian population remained in place during the war.

L’Arc du Triomphe, years after the German capture of Paris. Allied troops rolling (unopposed) into France’s capital found it virtually undamaged. (Wikimedia Commons)

German forces were at the relative beginning of their advance and so had abundant supplies and equipment. German troops stationed in France always received good rations and board, even in the earliest days of occupation, and as such their morale was relatively high in Paris. Secondly, the invasion of France came at a time when Germany was at the near-peak of its military power. German soldiers were not yet fighting for their survival, at least not in the most literal sense. Because of this, acts of resistance were not met with the same level of savagery as they were farther east.

Most importantly, Paris’ location in Western Europe combined with the ethnic makeup of its population meant that Germans regarded the Parisian French as only slightly inferior to German Aryans.

The flag of the Free French, seen in large numbers in Paris during liberation. (Wikimedia Commons)

One captured German soldier remarked that if you put a French or English soldier in German uniform, “you wouldn’t notice the difference.” Hitler in particular respected the fighting reputation of the French, and admired the cultural achievements of the country. The Fuhrer and his staff had endeavoured to turn France into a “tourist country”, and for a period of time, that’s essentially what it was — well-kept and pretty, but staffed by underfed and unhappy locals. Paris certainly did not escape the horrors of WWII, but it fared well compared to other cities within the ETO due largely to its location and ethnic/cultural makeup. 

A Parisian woman accused of “horizontal collaboration” with German troops. According to many sources, Parisians took an “animalistic delight” in punishing similar women in the wake of liberation. (All That’s Interesting)

Warsaw

Before Paris was taken, Wehrmacht tanks were rolling into Poland and waging a very different war. German forces encountered a highly determined enemy in the Poles, and Polish patriotism remained “astonishingly resolute through the darkest days of […] Nazi oppression.” Following a brutal ground and air campaign, Poland was incorporated into the Third Reich. In 1943, after years of brutal oppression, Jewish fighters in Warsaw embarked on a historic, 3-week long last stand to resist deportation to the concentration camps. Using pistols and homemade weapons, Jewish Poles fought bravely but were eventually crushed by brutal SS action.

A German light tank in 1940 during offensive operations in Poland. (Rare Historical Photos)

In August of 1944, underground leaders of the Polish Home Army decided to stage a much larger-scale uprising. The Warsaw General Uprising was partially galvanized by widespread Red Army propaganda broadcasts from across the Vistula river, urging Poles to begin fighting with words like “…Warsaw already hears the guns of the battle which is soon to bring her liberation… “  As Soviet General Rokossovsky’s 1st Belorussian Front battled German rearguard action and held back at the Vistula’s edge, the Polish Home Army began to mobilize. 

The invasion of Poland in 1939. As the Germans pushed in from the West, the Red Army occupied portions of Poland’s Eastern provinces. (Wikimedia Commons)

Using captured and homemade weapons, the 50,000-strong Home Army began daylight offensive operations on August 1st, 1944. A small undercover team sprayed a German convoy with Sten-gun fire, thus initiating the uprising. German troops were systematically flushed out of the city centre, although some 200 held out in the PAST Telephone building for a number of weeks. Polish female sappers of the Kilinski Bn. eventually cleared the building with explosives and flame-throwers. The SS retaliated by deploying Nebelwerfer rockets that destroyed many buildings and killed scores of Poles. But Polish resistance never slacked, and the civilian population became so involved that “…a 9 year old boy threw a grenade into a German tank, and raced off… he burst out crying” as German and Polish forces watched in disbelief. Actions like this were proof enough to German viewers that all Poles were to be regarded as partisans. 

Jewish occupants of the Warsaw Ghetto captured by SS troops as their homes burn, 1943. (Wikimedia Commons)

For the Germans, it was “an established doctrine to nip any incipient guerrilla activity in the bud with brute force”, so the partisan Polish aggressors were rarely captured alive, and the majority of civilians found in the combat area were killed or deported. Even prior to the uprising, “25 to 50 [civilians] were executed daily” as Germans watched. During the uprising, Poles were forced to act as human shields and perform other suicidal tasks.

A Polish Home Army trooper armed with a British-supplied submachine gun. (Beskidzka24.pl)

After 63 days of resistance, the Warsaw General Uprising collapsed. For a variety of reasons beyond the scope of this article, the 1st Belorussian Front had not come to the aid of Warsaw’s defenders. Some 17,000 Germans had been killed, but in turn 200,000 Poles died in battle and later in the chambers of Treblinka and Auschwitz. A full 85% of the city was razed through Nebelwerfer fire and arson, including 923 historic buildings, 150 schools, 2 universities and the national library.

A German armoured infantry section engages Polish troops during the battles of 1940. (ayay.co.uk)

Why was Warsaw purged?

Warsaw had never been a popular destination for German forces, with limited rations compared to Paris and less appealing culture and nightlife to explore (from a chauvinistic German perspective). At that point in 1944, the Wehrmacht and SS were stretched thin, with deployments to the West drawing manpower away and the advancing Red Army significantly lowering morale amongst the troops. Many of the SS troops stationed in Warsaw had lived through some of the harsher fighting in the ETO, particularly on the Eastern Front, and as such were hardened and on edge. The Poles of Warsaw faced a combined group of foreign “Hiwi” (non-German) troops from the Eastern front and SS, later joined by the infamously fanatic Assault Bde. Dirlewanger.

Most importantly, Warsaw was a predominately Slavic city located in Central-Eastern Europe with a large Jewish population.

The flag of the well-organized Polish Home Army. (Wikimedia Commons)

While Paris was seen as a jewel to add to the Reich’s crown, Warsaw was seen as an ugly but necessary bump in the road Eastwards. From the very beginning, Warsaw was doomed to a much harsher fate than that experienced by more Westerly European cities. One Luftwaffe bomber pilot noted during the initial attack in 1939 that “… it was our over-breakfast amusement to chase [individuals] over the fields with MG fire… I was sorry for the horses, but not at all for the people.” This transcript is indicative of the wider German attitude towards combating Poles: they were lesser than Germans, and killing them was sport. Much of German action was in response to fierce resistance activities — but this resistance was in reaction to oppression that Paris never experienced on the same scale. Warsaw fared very poorly during WWII under German occupation due to strained logistical factors and morale, poor timing and above all, German attitudes towards the Slavic and Jewish population.

Polish refugees in a Red Cross camp near Tehran, Iran, in 1943. The lucky few who managed to escape Nazi brutality in their homeland had little to return to by war’s end in 1945. (Wikimedia Commons)

Stalingrad

Some time after Poland and France were forced to capitulate, Operation Barbarossa began in spring of 1942. As they advanced on Stalingrad, German forces were “full of confidence …. that Stalingrad will fall in the next few days.” The summer had not yet ended, and the 6th Army Group was nearly a million strong. But as the Germans drew up plans for the initial assault, the Red Army was quickly regrouping from its disastrous retreat. According to one Russian officer, Soviets “…were ideologically prepared for the battle of Stalingrad. Above all, we had no illusions about the cost, and were prepared to pay it.” When General Chuikov, commander of the defence on the Volga River, was asked to interpret his orders, he responded: “We will defend the city or die in the attempt.” This simple, brutal mindset was what motivated Soviet fighters long after their situation appeared hopeless. 

The German 6th Army push on Stalingrad in 1942. As with all other invaders of modern Russia, the Germans were far too optimistic about their chances. (Awesome Stories)

Already by the end of September 1942, the ground near the Volga was almost completely paved with corpses. Chuikov swiftly set about consolidating his forces, issuing Order no. 166 stating that assaults on enemy-held positions would be undertaken by small “storm groups” of men throwing grenades every 25 metres. By taking and holding certain strong-points, Chuikov intended to make the Germans pay for every inch of ground they took. One location, an inauspicious-looking building nicknamed the Black House, was the subject of particularly brutal fighting:

The storming of the house began in the morning, after an artillery bombardment. The Germans, hiding behind the thick stone walls, were firing from all the windows and out of the basement. The storm groups moved forward in short hops, covering each other’s approach with gunfire. Using grenades and MG [machine gun], we carved out a path up the stairs… there was a struggle on the staircase landing at the second floor, and an enemy bullet felled LT Rostovtsev; Sgt Zhernov took his place. While the battle continued on the second floor, more storm groups burst into the building. There were battles in every corner of the house..

Red Army infantrymen push through the ruins of Stalingrad. (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

Violence in the “Black House”, which wore on for months, was common to the entire city and showcased the resolve and ferocity of the fighters on both sides. As in Warsaw, German forces used Nebelwerfer “Vanyusha” rockets to terrifying effect, knocking down block after block of buildings and coating everyone in a thick, choking dust, and “… turning the city into a perfect killing ground”. The inventive Russian defenders made use of every pile of rubble to hide and snipe at Germans. By mid-winter 1943, the German 6th Army had been worn down and could not match the strength and ferocity of the Soviet Stalingrad Front. Germans had partially occupied the city for months; but thanks to the tenacity of Chuikov’s defence, they had failed, and the tide of war began to change.

A Nebelwerfer rocket gun in action. The German weapon – which emitted a terrifying screeching sound when in flight – was responsible for much of Stalingrad’s destruction. (Wikimedia Commons)

Stalingrad was completely destroyed. The Mamayev Kurgan mound in particular was “so polluted with shrapnel and debris that no grass would grow there for some time”. 1.1 million Red Army casualties occurred at Stalingrad, and in turn the entirety of the German 6th Army was encircled and killed or imprisoned. The civilian population of the city had clung to life as “the whole universe shook with the mighty roaring of the heavy guns”. Many thousands perished in German prison camps, where freezing rain killed almost as many as starvation and brutality.

Soviet Red army troops eat lunch amidst a gunfight. (Busy.org)

Why was Stalingrad flattened?

Logistically, the 6th Army at Stalingrad was always low on supplies, forced to eat horses and use captured Soviet weaponry. Morale was low almost from the start, with one soldier complaining that “There are two people who didn’t know that in Russia it is cold in the winter […]: Napoleon Bonaparte, and […] the Führer.” But many Germans grimly clung to their positions, determined to do their homeland proud. As such, morale within the 6th Army group amongst Germans can be described as low, but determined.  The timing of the action is significant as well, for in correspondence and interviews, many Germans indicated that they saw Stalingrad as a crucial point in the war. This contributed to the brutal way in which Germans fought for Stalingrad.

Finally, German forces in Stalingrad had a number of significant racial preconceptions about Russian troops. Soviets were regarded as having “a terrific toughness of spirit and body”, and were viewed more as superhuman beasts than mortal soldiers.

The flag of the Soviet Union, planted wherever the Red Army prevailed. When the Soviets captured the Reichstag in Berlin, they flew this flag as a symbol of revenge. (Quora)

Germans tended to look down on and fear the Slavic Red Army in almost equal measure. General Eberbach described the attitude at Stalingrad: “Things are now so desperate that … the German race [must] fight to the bitter end, so that at least some respect may be wrung from the enemy, and …the  German race may at some future date rise again”. And that’s exactly what the Germans did, effectively wiping the city off the map and bringing untold miseries upon everyone involved.

Russians flee the fighting. In many cases, Stalingrad residents were forced to stay in their homes to prevent an impression of defeatism from taking hold. (Hobbylink Japan)

Conclusion

This article’s aim is not to “rank” suffering or tabulate who “had it worse”; the goal is simply to understand how the presence of German forces impacted various cities in different ways. Paris, a Western European city, was treated relatively well because of the circumstances of its conquest, lack of partisan activity and the racial attitudes Germans had towards the French. Warsaw – a Central-Eastern European centre – was largely destroyed and many of its population deported, partially because of the impending Red Army advance and because of the partisan/Jewish identity of the Uprising. And Stalingrad was completely razed because of the symbolic nature of the city, desperation on both sides and the racial preconceptions and biases of German forces towards Russian Slavs. Whereas the Germans grudgingly respected the French, they hated the ethnic Poles and feared the Slavic Russians. After examining these three example, it’s clear that German treatment of cities and their populations in the WWII ETO varied significantly from location to location due to logistical factors, timing and most importantly, the racial and ethnic makeup of the local inhabitants.

Further Reading & Citations

Here are a couple useful sources for further reading or using to flesh out an essay. Remember to cite everything properly!

  • Beevor, Antony. Stalingrad – The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943. London: Penguin Books, 1998.
  • Beevor, Antony. The Second World War. New York: Back Bay Books, 2012.
  • Bull, Stephen. World War II Street-Fighting Tactics. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2008.
  • Conklin, Alice L., Sarah Fishman, and Robert Zaretsky. France And Its Empire Since 1870. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.
  • Kaplan, Alice. The Collaborator: The Trial and Execution of Robert Brasillach. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
  • Lukas, Richard C. Russia, The Warsaw Uprising And The Cold War. The Polish Review 20, no. 4 (1975).
  • Miller, David. Fighting Men of World War II – Axis Forces: Uniforms, Equipment & Weapons. New York: Chartwell Books, 2011.
  • Neitzel, Sönke, and Harald Welzer. Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing, and Dying. London: Simon & Schuster, 2012.
  • Perry, Marvin, Matthew Berg, and James Krukones. Sources of European History Since 1900. 2nd ed. Boston: Wadsworth, 2011.  
  • Zaloga, Steven J. Polish Anti-Tank Defense And The 1939 Campaign. The Polish Review 34, no. 3 (1989).

02/13 – The Bombing of Dresden

An RAF bomber during a sortie over Germany during WWII. (History.com)

On this day in 1945, over 1,200 Allied bomber aircraft took to the skies for an attack on Dresden, an industrial city in Eastern Germany. That night, the first of four sorties (missions) began and, over the next 48 hours, 3,900 tonnes of incendiary and high-explosive (HE) munitions were dropped on the city centre. The fires spread quickly and the flames, reaching high into the night sky, ravaged the industrial centre. But as the railyards and factories of Dresden went up in flames, so too did the residential districts. In revenge for the Blitz attacks on London, Allied air crews had been instructed to raze Dresden. By the end of the last sortie on February 15th, over 90% of the city centre was in ruins; nearly 25,000 German people were killed as they took shelter in air raid shelters and ran for cover in the streets.

“The Lady of Goodness” statue atop the Dresden city hall (Rathaus) watches over the remnants of the city centre. (Flickr)

At this point in the war, many months after the Allied invasion of France, the attack on Dresden was of dubious necessity. The city was virtually undefended: Luftwaffe aircraft and ground-based AA (anti-aircraft) crews had been sent East to take on the Red Army. . British Air Chief Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris defended his support for the raid, claiming that it was a justified piece of revenge. Since the Blitz, Harris had been an almost fanatical proponent of area (as opposed to pinpoint) bombings of German civilian centres. By this point, however, even Prime Minister Winston Churchill – one of the Allies’ most aggressive leaders – recognized that bomber command had gone too far. After Dresden, Allied bombing raids were cut back significantly.

Civilian stretcher-bearers pick their way through the ruins of Dresden after the Allied attack. (Air Force Times)

In The Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut – an American prisoner in Dresden at the time – claims that the bodies of dead civilians were so numerous that German authorities had to burn them with flamethrowers. As a firsthand witness of the bombings, Vonnegut later claimed that he was the only person on earth who benefited from the Dresden “atrocity”, because of the profits from his book sales: “Some business I’m in.” After the war, some went so far as to claim that Dresden was a war crime on the same level as the Holocaust, because of the masses of civilians who perished for no strategic gain. Whatever the exact legal truth of the Dresden bombings – which will likely never be agreed upon, because the intelligence used to justify the raid has been lost or hidden – the tragic loss of civilian life and infrastructure was one of the most extreme manifestations of Allied revenge at the tail end of WWII.

The Soviet-Afghan War

Mujahideen fighters in the Afghan mountains. (Al jazeera)

As the 1970s came to a close, Soviet power seemed to be on the ascent. New military technology contributed to a rising fear of nuclear war, regime change in Iran marked a rebalancing of power in the Middle East and the aggressive foreign policy of Russian leadership had many in the West concerned. The Cold War seemed far from over, and as the unbeaten Red Army rolled into Afghanistan in December of 1979, they had every reason to be confident of success. But as the war dragged on, Russian casualties mounted and the Soviet state edged closer to bankruptcy, it became clear that Afghanistan was to be the USSR’s first decisive military loss – and its last battle.

ASAP: The previously invincible Red Army met its match in Afghanistan, the Graveyard of Empires – a defeat that sent shockwaves through the entire world.

A map of Afghanistan showing the complex nature of the disparate resistance movements known as the mujahideen. (Library of Congress)

Lead-up to Invasion

In 1978, the Saur Revolution brought a new, Soviet-friendly government into power in Kabul. The People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (or PDPA) and its harsh “modernizing” reforms were massively unpopular with the country’s largely rural population. In September of 1979, PDPA president Nur Mohammad Taraki was murdered by members of his own party. Soviet-Afghan relations took a turn for the worse, and on Christmas Eve of 1979, Russian General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev ordered the deployment of the 80,000-strong 40th Army to Afghanistan. The invasion (which was massively unpopular in the West) was in line with the “Brezhnev Doctrine”, a policy that advocated for Russian intervention in the affairs of any communist state.

Women studying at a university in Kabul in the 1970s. Before the Soviet-Afghan war – and ensuing Taliban rule – women enjoyed considerably more rights. (Daily Mail)

At this point, the Soviet Red Army had a (mostly factual) reputation for being unbeatable on the battlefield, and was well armed and equipped. Initially, rebel Afghan Army units and lashkar tribal forces engaged the Red Army in the open, but were quickly slaughtered. After the initial invasion, the main Soviet opponents were the mujahideen – or, “those engaged in a holy struggle” – a diverse group of freedom fighters who took refuge in the mountains near Pakistan. Many were armed with hundred-year old British Lee Enfield rifles, legacies of the failed British invasion in the late 1800s.

Mujahideen fighters pray with their weapons close at hand. Their tenacity and familiarity with the unforgiving Afghan mountains made the Soviet mission incredibly hard. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Offensives

The Red Army controlled Kabul, but the countryside remained relatively free. Some Afghans living in Nuristan were completely unaware of the invasion. In order to “pacify” the rural areas, the Red Army launched numerous offensives through the Panjshir Valley and elsewhere. Columns of BMP and BTR armoured vehicles pushed into towns and hamlets while terrifying Mi-24 Hind attack helicopters patrolled the skies. Resistance from the mujahideen brought massive retaliation from the Red Army; a shot fired from a village resulted in the annihilation by artillery of said village. Any remaining inhabitants were often tortured or killed. Millions of anti-personnel mines – like the PFM-1, which was designed to look like a toy to attract children – were airdropped over the countryside in an effort to degrade Afghan morale.

The PFM-1 – or, “Perfect Family Murder” as Western military forces refer to it – a mine designed to maim children. Millions were dropped on Afghanistan, and millions remain there today. (Wikimedia Commons)

This unrefined approach was not only inhumane, but counterproductive. The mujahideen were usually able to escape after their ambushes on Red Army columns, and the ensuing destruction of civilian property only shored up support for the Afghan resistance. The Red Army’s reputation – largely earned during WWII at Stalingrad and the steppes of Eurasia – was well-deserved; but their tactics had always relied on overwhelming artillery power and massed human-wave attacks to clean up any survivors. This blunt force doctrine, where the enemy was to be trapped between the “hammer and anvil” of artillery and mechanized infantry, was ill-suited to asymmetric warfare like the Russians encountered in Afghanistan. Additionally, many historians tended to forget that the Red Army had actually been beaten many times before in the Winter War with Finland, a guerilla conflict very similar to the one they were now engaged in.

Red Army troops, dismounted from their AFVs and IFVs, engage in some rare “heart and minds” activities with local Afghans. (AP)

As the war progressed and almost no palpable change occurred, the Soviets began aggressively deploying the Khadamat-e Aetla’at-e Dawlati (or KHAD) – Afghan secret police – in an effort to infiltrate mujahideen cells and identify enemy positions. Although the KHAD did succeed in setting off some ethnic rivalries between mujahideen groups, they were hated by the Afghan populace for their brutal and ham-handed tactics. Additionally, spetsnaz (special purpose) troops of the GRU and FSB Alfa enjoyed some measure of success against the mujahideen. Spetsnaz troops – unlike the usual Russian conscript soldier – were incredibly tough and resourceful, and managed to close down a number of mujahideen supply routes from Pakistan.

A captured mujahideen fighter is interrogated by Spetsnaz (special-purpose) troops in the mountains. (Public Domain)

Red Army efforts at blasting the Afghans into submission only strengthened mujahideen resolve. The fierce guerillas learned to attack Red Army convoys suddenly before melting back into the mountains. They learned that they could hide from the ever-present Mi-24 Hind helicopters – and their advanced thermal imaging scanners – by laying on sun-baked rocks under prayer blankets. Armed with hundred-year-old British rifles and captured Soviet Kalashnikov systems, the mujahideen became adept at infiltrating Russian bases at night and carrying off terrified Russian teenage soldiers into the hills. The few who returned told tales of savage mujahideen torture, and soon, Russian morale was plummeting.

An Mi-24 Hind gunship on a “show of force” run in Afghanistan. The massive helicopter was heavily armed with cannons, machine guns and rockets, and could spot a human target from miles away. (The Atlantic)

American Involvement

As war in Afghanistan dragged on into the 1980s, tensions began to rise with NATO and the Western alliance. The Americans were already upset about the death of Ambassador “Spike” Dubs in 1979, and relations soured further in the following years. The election of US president Ronald Reagan in 1980, and the aggressive anti-Soviet policies that followed, made matters worse. In 1983, a NATO exercise codenamed Able Archer 83 took place in Central Europe; the Soviets, made paranoid by Reagan’s aggressive rhetoric, assumed the worst and believed the exercise to be a real attack. Disaster was averted at the last minute, but tensions remained high.

Charlie Wilson (centre, caucasian), the “champion” of the mujahideen in the United States congress and the FIM-29’s biggest fan. (Public Domain)

Concurrently, many Americans had come to identify with the mujahideen and their cause. Christian groups began fundraising for the Afghan freedom fighters, and one congressman by the name of Charlie Wilson adopted the Afghan cause as his own. For many Americans, Afghanistan represented an opportunity for revenge for the Vietnam War (and the Soviet involvement in the conflict). In 1986, Wilson learned of the FIM-92 Stinger, a relatively advanced anti-aircraft weapons system; the eccentric congressman fixated on the weapon as a sort of “wonder weapon” that he hoped would win the war. Soon, thousands of Stingers were flowing into Afghanistan, and Mi-24 Hinds – seemingly the only Soviet weapon the mujahideen feared – were now vulnerable. By the end of the conflict, a total of 74 Hinds had been shot down. Support for the mujahideen from Charlie Wilson and the CIA certainly did not “win the war”, as American historians like to claim (Afghan tenacity and determination was largely responsible) but it certainly helped speed things along.

An artist’s rendering of the “First Sting”. (Wikimedia Commons)

Impacts in Russia

The Soviet government kept disastrous information about the war secret. Casualty lists were kept under wraps, and returning dead soldiers were not granted state funerals. Wounded veterans were discouraged from talking about their experiences, but word gradually spread – word of the unbeatable mujahideen, the brutality of the KHAD allies, and, perhaps worst of all, the Red Army’s inability to pay its soldiers’ salaries and pensions. The war in Afghanistan wrecked the Russian military’s image as an invincible force and degraded public support for the institution as a whole.

Mikhail Gorbachev (R) with Ronald Reagan (L) in the late 1980s. (History.com)

In March of 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev took office as leader of the USSR. Unlike his predecessors, Gorbachev was young, well-traveled, well-educated and seemingly immune to the Soviet aversion to self-criticism. After taking office, Gorbachev uncovered massive weaknesses in the Soviet system; the economy was stagnant, the military was unable to keep pace with American advancements, and the state was running out of money. The war with Afghanistan’s “primitive” freedom fighters was rapidly draining the public purse, and Gorbachev knew things had to change. Reforms were announced in the shape of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (openness, freedom of speech and transparency), and in 1987, talks began with Afghan powerbrokers. Troop withdrawals began that year and concluded in 1989 after 9 years of fighting. Soon after – despite Gorbachev’s best efforts – the Soviet Union collapsed.

The Red Army retreats from Kabul on the 15th of February, 1989. (Leonid Yakutin/Defense Ministry Press Service via AP)

Impacts in Afghanistan

Needless to say, the war was a disaster for Afghans. Between 500,000 and 2 million civilians were killed, and 7 million refugees displaced throughout the region. Some rural Afghans – like those in Nuristan – remained blissfully unaware that any war was going on at all, but the vast majority of Afghans suffered. The power vacuum left by the retreating Red Army resulted in years of bloody civil war, out of which emerged the Taliban, a violent Islamic extremist movement that drastically limited civil freedoms. Arms, training and financial aid left over from the proxy war waged by the USSR and United States during the 1980s had a lasting impact on Afghanistan and contributed to decades of regional instability – and suffering for the Afghan populace. Afghanistan’s reputation as a “graveyard of empires” has proven historically very accurate: no modern state, from the British to the Americans, has succeeded in “winning” there. But let’s not forget the impacts of centuries of combat on the ordinary Afghans who live there, caught in between the struggles of “greater nations”.

Mujahideen fighters mixing with Afghan children near Wanna, on the border with Pakistan. (AP Photo/Christopher Gunness, File)

ASAP Notes

In a hurry? Here are the ASAP notes on this topic.

  • Who? The invasion was launched by the Soviet 40th Army and the 5th Spetsnaz (Special Purpose) Brigade; 620,000 Russians served there in total. They faced off against rebel Afghan Army units at first, but as the war progressed, the main Soviet opponent became the mujahideen: tribal guerilla fighters.
  • Where? Afghanistan.
  • When? From Christmas eve of 1979 to February 15th, 1989 – over 9 years.
  • What? The 40th Army invaded the country rapidly and Kabul, the capital city, was seized quickly. However, the Red Army had trouble securing the rural areas of Afghanistan. A brutal policy of “search and destroy” rapidly eroded civilian support for the Soviet invaders, and the war dragged on without much measurable result. Eventually, American support and the mujahideen tenacity won out over superior Russian numbers. Over 30,000 Soviet and Afghan Army soldiers were killed; 57,000 mujahideen were killed; and between 500,000 and 2 million civilians died.
  • Why? The invasion was justified by the Soviet “Brezhnev doctrine” as a necessary act to support a friendly communist government. Red Army reliance on overwhelming force meant that the nuance required for counter-insurgency operations (or asymmetrical warfare) was severely lacking in the Soviet approach.
  • Result: Decisive Afghan victory (and proxy victory for the US and NATO). Afghanistan descended into civil war and the Taliban – a repressive Islamist movement known for sheltering terrorist groups – took control of the country.

Food for Thought

Like what you’ve read? Here are a couple essay questions/prompts to get you thinking. Good writing is all about answering questions the reader didn’t know they had, after all. These questions are to inspire further research, help with an academic paper, or maybe just get you thinking more about the topic.

  • Compare and contrast the Brezhnev Doctrine with American interventionist policies. Compare the two policies in practice (e.g the Vietnam War vs the Soviet-Afghan War).
  • What was the initial Afghan reaction to the Soviet invasion?
  • What was the initial Western reaction to the Soviet invasion? What forms did protests take?
  • Compare Afghanistan before the war to Afghanistan in the present day. What are some of the most devastating losses suffered by the country throughout decades (or centuries) of war?
  • The British experienced a similar military humiliation in Afghanistan a hundred years before the Soviet invasion. Compare and contrast the two events.

Further Reading & Citations

Here are a couple useful sources for further reading or using to flesh out an essay. Remember to cite everything properly!

  • Sikorski, Radek. 1987. Moscow’s Afghan war: Soviet motives and Western interests. [Great Britain]: Alliance for the Institute for European Defence & Strategic Studies.
  • Baitenmann, Helga. “NGOs and the Afghan War: The Politicisation of Humanitarian Aid.” Third World Quarterly 12, no. 1 (1990): 62-85. Accessed January 30, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3992448.
  • Khalili, Masood, and Mahmud Khalili. 2017. Whispers of war: an Afghan freedom fighter’s account of the Soviet invasion.
  • Crile, George. 2003. Charlie Wilson’s war. New York: Grove Press.

British Colonial Troops at War, 1914-18

This article is a revised version of an essay submitted for academic credit at the University of Toronto.

A French child greets British Indian soldiers during a break from the front lines. (Reddit)

At the outset of WWII, Britain had one of the best armies in the world. Years of small but tough engagements such as the Boer and Anglo-Zulu wars – and rigorous selection and training programs – had produced an army whose men were in top shape and its officers highly experienced. But as members of the Allies (France, England and Russia) and the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottomans) soon discovered in 1914, the “Great War” was only great in one aspect: the unprecedented number of deaths. As thousands of men began falling on the frontlines, the British – with their small army – started calling on their colonial subjects to enlist. According to one British General, they would have lost both World Wars if it had not been for the colonial armies.

The Martial Theory of Race

The Sepoy Mutiny in Hyderabad, 1857. (Wikimedia Commons)

Deeply-entrenched British prejudices played a large part in the recruitment and employment of colonial troops. After the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny in India, British officers devised the martial theory of race in order to classify the combat abilities of different “races”. The theory holds that some groups – such as the Nepalese Gurkhas – are genetically predisposed to combat while Hindus, for example, are not. The implementation of the martial theory helped the British recruit large numbers of colonial troops; it also helped breed competition between different ethnic groups and prevent colonial unity. At all levels, the British colonial soldier’s experience in WWI was largely a result of the scientific racism of the romantic “martial theory”.

The Shock Troops

Although British command sought to recruit as many colonial troops as possible, certain ethnic groups were prioritized. Sikhs made up a large portion of the Indian Army and were often separated into their own units because of British perceptions of them as ancient warriors. Towards the end of the war, the British Army was roughly 20% Sikh.

Sikh troops marching towards the lines. (Flickr)

Gurkhas, from the mountains of Nepal, were held in even higher regard. Gurkhas were and are incredibly tough soldiers, feared by their enemies in every conflict; the British, unable to beat them, instead invited the Gurkhas to join the British empire. Much of the mystique surrounding these skilled warriors was built up by the British press and colonial “adventurers” who likened the Sikhs and Gurkhas either to dark and mysterious warriors from an ancient period or, even worse, animalistic savages who needed an Englishman’s discipline to beat them into shape.

The 9th Gurkhas pose for a picture during a break in their gruelling operational schedule. (Picryl)

The placement of colonial troops depended less on actual combat abilities and more on bizarre notions of warrior heritage. The Gurkha regiment was sought by every Allied commander, and was passed between units with little rest. At Ypres, Gurkhas and Canadians were the only forces to hold their ground despite the first ever use of gas in combat. Throughout France and Belgium the Gurkhas — 200,000 of them during the course of the war — carried a fearsome reputation. Allied command lumped Gurkhas and Canadians together into its “shock” force, used to storm enemy positions that had held out against British and French troops. At the battle of Loos in 1915, the 8th Gurkhas attacked German positions mercilessly and fought until there were no Gurkhas left alive. Despite British respect for the fighting abilities of these “martial men”, it quickly became clear that Gurkhas in particular were viewed as little more than highly-skilled cannon fodder.

The blasted landscape of Ypres after years of fighting. (Daily Mail)

Indigenous Men

Although not technically “colonial” subjects, indigenous men from the dominions (Canada and New Zealand in particular) were treated almost identically to the Martial colonial troops of the Indian Army. Maori men, for example, had long captivated the British in romantic writings. A British newspaper wrote, “A Maori is a fighting animal, while the British soldier is a fighting machine […] one ruled by instinct, the other by [reason].” In 1914, the Maori Pioneer Battalion was formed: ostensibly an engineer unit, the pioneers were also highly skilled infantrymen. Native Canadians too, although not segregated from white troops, were singled out as well and given difficult tasks as snipers and trackers. Although the British were generally correct and the “martial” men excelled in combat, much of the reasoning for their recruitment centred around romantic notions of their status as “exotic warriors”.

The Maori Pioneer Battalion. (Flickr)

The Maori experience in Europe was similar to that of the Gurkhas, and the unit was tasked with carrying out stealthy night raids. According to a particular British observer, Maoris were “innurd [sic] to war and in their attacks work themselves up by their War Dance to a kind of artificial courage which will not let them think in the least”. The man is referring to the Haka dance, a long-standing Maori tradition and another subject of British romantic fixation. British commanders often made Maoris perform Hakas before entering battle, completely unaware of the fact that Hakas are a means of retelling historical events — not just to prepare for war. The unit was sent to Gallipoli; at Chunuk Bair, the Maori Pioneer Battalion was nearly decimated but earned a reputation that led to historian James Cowan exclaiming in 1926 that Maoris ” … made Gurkhas look like children”.

A Canadian sniper in a “hide”. (Wikimedia Commons)

Although Native Canadians were not segregated into special units, they were often singled out for their combat abilities. A full third of all status Indians from Canada served in WWI, and many became renowned for their marksmanship. Henry Norwest, a Cree/Metis man from Alberta, was known for killing 115 Germans. His commanders – having recognized his shooting abilities early on – pressed him to undertake increasingly more dangerous solo raids into enemy territory that eventually got him killed at Amiens in 1918. Francis “Peggy” Pegahmagabow, an Ojibwe man from Ontario, killed 378 Germans and captured 300 more. Upon entry into the Canadian army, these men were treated relatively poorly; their emergence as expert snipers did little to improve their treatment, but resulted in them being paraded around as little more than highly-skilled unit mascots. After the war, many suffered from emotional and physical trauma.

Francis “Peggy” Pegahmagabow pictured during and after the war. (hohtribute)

The Non-Martial Men

Despite being labelled flabby and weak by British “experts”, non-martial colonial men were also recruited en masse out of pure necessity. In the Indian Army, Punjabis made up the majority of fighting forces, and by 1918 the Punjab province was nearly 100% devoted to war production. The British West Indies Regiment (BWIR) — comprised of all volunteer forces from the British Caribbean — contributed a total of 15,600 men to the war effort, and experienced many of the same prejudices as their Indian army counterparts. But despite their poor treatment, colonial men flocked to the recruiting stations. In many cases, enlistment was seen a way to travel the world and prove oneself as a man. Some saw enlistment (for colonial subjects were rarely officers) as a means to improve the standing of their particular ethnic group within the empire; a proud BWIR recruit announced in 1914, “I mean to win something … for my race.”

One of the few explicitly diverse recruiting posters from the period. (Docplayer.nl)

Non-martial troops were more likely to serve in combat support operations than in actual combat. But when they did fight, it was in the worst conditions and in campaigns that the British public was practically unaware of. Men of the BWIR, as well as Black troops from West and South Africa were relegated to fighting in the Middle East. Treatment by their British commanders was decent, but non-white troops tended to get little in the way of proper supplies for their operations. Colonial troops — Indians in particular — were issued with out of date weapons, a legacy of the Sepoy Mutiny. Units of the Indian army were initially deployed to Europe in small numbers, and at Ypres, mass confusion amidst a gas attack and heavy enemy resistance lead to the deaths of 4,000 Lahore Division Indians in one night. For whatever reason, British military planners decided that the Lahore division’s casualties were a result of European weather.

Captured British Indian troops in the Ottoman Empire. (Ottoman History Podcast)

Deployed to Mesopotamia, Indian and BWIR troops experienced horrible fighting conditions. Many of the Indians sent to the Middle East were experienced only in light border skirmishes with tribesmen in India and were wholly unprepared for modern warfare. British officers were wary of mutiny after feeding their colonial troops horse and goat meat, and a hunger strike was followed by mass desertions. The 76th Punjabis in particular became adept at shooting off their trigger fingers without leaving powder burns so they could be sent home. Furthermore, Muslim troops were often unwilling to fight against Muslim Ottoman troops. Poor conditions, a lack of proper supplies and tensions with British officers lead to the Mesopotamian campaign becoming an unmitigated disaster.

The British Indian Army enters Baghdad in 1917. (Wikimedia Commons)

Behind the Lines

While many colonial troops experienced the worst combat that WWI had to offer, a great proportion never saw any fighting at all. Facing abuse by British troops, colonial soldiers found that French and Belgian civilians treated them with a surprising amount of respect. Gurkha forces, who fought at a near-constant tempo for the duration of the war, were given decent beds and food when brought back from the front lines. The Maori Pioneer Battalion took part in much hard fighting in Europe and the ill-fated campaign at Gallipoli, but after their return to European lines, the unit was given much-needed rest and spent much of their time playing rugby with other Allied units. Strangely, New Zealand newspapers tended to ignore the military exploits of the Maoris and focus entirely on their rugby achievements. 

Chinese Labour Corps workers in England. (Wikipedia)

Non-martial colonial soldiers were viewed with much suspicion by German forces. The Employment, Contrary to International Law, of Coloured Troops upon the European Theatre of War by England and France, a propaganda document, urged Allied nations to limit the use of colonial troops in European combat, saying that non-white troops did not belong there. To a large extent, British commanders agreed. Just like the Germans, the British did not like the idea of “Africans jumping around in a devilish ecstasy” and tried to forbid blacks from fighting in Europe entirely. As a result, Indians, Africans, Egyptians and Chinese troops were put to work on menial labour tasks behind friendly lines. The elite Maori Pioneer Battalion was put to work building roads, while Indians were often relegated to working at field hospitals. The Chinese were in high demand, as “… the coolie is a splendid and versatile worker, inured to hardship and almost indifferent to the weather”. Indian soldiers, and workers from Asia in general, were treated poorly: one BWIR soldier witnessed a British private beating a Sikh sergeant for sport, and Chinese workers had half of their wages stolen by British overseers. 

BWIR men maintain their kit in England. Many Brits were horrified at the prospect of Black men setting foot on European soil, despite their desire to defend it. (Libcom.org)

Fortunately, British command generally forgot about the BWIR. Caribbean troops, who spoke the best English out of the colonial forces, were usually allowed to work near civilian centres and as a result befriended many French people. Etienne Dupuch, a Bahaman soldier of the BWIR, noted in 1919 that…

“…the French people look upon coloured soldiers as their saviours […] our appearance in public spaces was every time the signal for cheers […] at one time an old man knelt down and kissed my feet. I am now so proud to be a Negro.” 

Dupuch had several affairs with French women, and claimed that his low rank of private was the only barrier to attending high-society functions. During the war, martial troops had precious little time away from the frontline; non-martial troops, by contrast, spent much of their time on leave and on make-work projects that allowed them to interact with locals. The awful prejudice of the martial theory actually benefited non-martial troops in some ways, as they were much less likely to be killed in action than martial soldiers. 

Not all Black British soldiers came from “exotic” locales. These men are from Canada. (CBC)

Conclusion

Overall, despite growing demand for combat troops, British commanders prioritized racist thinking over necessity. The romantic image of the “warrior savages” led to martial soldiers being given priority over non-martial men in the recruiting process. In combat, martial forces — Gurkhas, Maoris, Sikhs and Native Canadians — were pushed hard in “glamorous” campaigns, while non-martial forces — Hindus, Sikhs, BWIR and Chinese men — were given distinctly undesirable tasks. And when away from combat, colonial troops were treated poorly by British soldiers but (sometimes) quite well by the locals they defended. Although British colonial soldiers’ treatment varied depending on their “race”, all colonial troops were subject to the prejudices of the martial theory. 

Further Reading & Citations

Here are a couple useful sources for further reading or using to flesh out an essay. Remember to cite everything properly!

  • Duhamel, Karine, and Matthew McRae. “‘Holding their end up in splendid style’: Indigenous people and Canada’s First World War.” Manitoba History, no. 82 (2016): 41+.
  • Gardner, Nikolas. 2015. “British Prestige and the Mesopotamia Campaign, 1914–1916.” Historian 77 (2): 269-289.
  • Goldthree, Reena N. “Viva La France!”: British Caribbean soldiers and interracial intimacies on the Western Front. Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, ISSN 1532-5768, 2016, Volume 17, Issue 3.
  • Hutt, Michael. 1989. “A Hero Or a Traitor? the Gurkha Soldier in Nepali Literature.” South Asia Research 9 (1): 21-32.
  • Khalidi, Omar. “Ethnic group recruitment in the Indian army: The contrasting cases of Sikhs, Muslims, Gurkhas and others (1).” Pacific Affairs 74, no. 4 (2001): 529+. Academic OneFile (accessed April 3, 2018).
  • Kochhar-George, Ché. 2010. “Nepalese Gurkhas and their Battle for Equal Rights.” Race & Class 52 (2): 43-61
  • Koller, Christian. 2008. “The Recruitment of Colonial Troops in Africa and Asia and their Deployment in Europe during the First World War.” Immigrants & Minorities 26 (1-2): 111-133
  • Shell-Hole. (1918, Sep 27). WITH THE MAORI (PIONEER) BATTALION. Chronicles of the N.Z.E.F.: Records of Matters Concerning the Troops and Gazette of Patriotic Effort, 5, 108.
  • Tai-Yong, T. (2000). An imperial home-front: Punjab and the first world war. The Journal of Military History, 64(2), 371-410. 
  • Walker, Franchesca. 2012. “‘Descendants of a Warrior Race’: The Maori Contingent, New Zealand Pioneer Battalion, and Martial Race Myth, 1914-19.” War & Society 31 (1): 1-21