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Eighty years ago, at its darkest hour British propaganda launches its best campaign

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  The hugely successful British comic author P.   G. Wodehouse, creator of idiotic socialite Bertie Wooster and his manservant Jeeves, made a fateful mistake. He had been interned by the Germans when his home in Le Touquet was overrun in 1940 but had just been released when eh reached the age of 60. Naïvely he accepted a German request to make a series of radio broadcasts. These were light-hearted, humorous and in no way propaganda, but the mere fact he was willing to speak on German radio appeared deeply suspect. He was abused as being practically a traitor, most venomously on the BBC by the Daily Mirror journalist William Connor (“Cassandra”). Connor’s attack was so unbalanced that it provoked severe criticism of the BBC. The “Cassandra” affair created an elegant opportunity to shift MP Harold Nicolson from the Ministry of Information to the BBC as a governor without consulting the existing governors. Nicolson was disappointed at what he recognised as a demotion but he was at best

Eighty years ago, the guns fall silent, but only in a miserable conflict between former allies and then only for a while

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  The German invasion of the USSR helped save the career of the British ambassador, Sir Stafford Cripps, an extreme left-wing Labour politician, who had been sent to Moscow in the hope that that his immense indulgence towards Stalin would count in Britain’s favour. It had not; the Soviets had been more suspicious of Cripps's parade of pro-Soviet sentiments than they would have been a frankly capitalist envoy. Cripps’s waywardness and general neglect of British interests as distinct from apologising for the cause of Stalinism had led to his being recalled to London by the Foreign Office just before Barabarossa with a   permanent return to the UK in disgrace as a distinct possibility. As it was, he now found himself signing an Anglo-Soviet treaty pledging each country to wage war against Nazi Germany and not to make a separate peace. The Soviet signatory was foreign minister Molotov, albeit under the watchful eye of Stalin himself. It was one of the corner-stones of Cripps’s spurio

Eighty years ago, in the midst of the largest conflict in history, begins a small war you may have missed

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  Just as it had been for the Chamberlain government, the Ministry of Information (MOI) was proving to be a painful cross for Churchill’s national government to bear. Government plans for reforming the Ministry were poorly received in the House of Commons, or more accurately, the almost invisible nature of the changes was instantly obvious. Apart from the minister of information, Duff Cooper, no MP spoke in favour of the measures although sympathy was expressed for Sir John Anderson, civil servant turned minister, who had the misfortune to have to present the proposal to the House. The crux of the matter was the dissemination of war news. Here the individual service ministries continued to reign supreme, behind a façade of parroting the need for security as grounds for keeping full control over news. In reality all three operated their own PR machines dedicated to their own glorification. This stand-off was known as the Battle of Bloomsbury after the MOI’s headquarters in the Senate Ho

Eighty years ago, Churchill sacks a great general whom he dislikes and indulges a scheming minister

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    The German advance into the Soviet Union continued at breakneck pace, encountering practically no serious opposition. Stalin issued orders for counter-offensives which bore no resemblance to anything possible under the military situation of the moment, but gave him a pretext to shoot generals for failing to carry out the attacks. The German 2 nd and 3 rd Panzer groups met near Minsk and captured the city. This completed the encirclement of vast Soviet forces. The 3 rd and 10 th Armies were destroyed and massive losses were inflicted on three more. A snapshot estimate awarded the Germans over 300,000 Soviet prisoners and the capture of 3,300 tanks and 1,800 artillery pieces. The Red Air Force had been caught on the ground in the initial strikes and practically ceased to function. Churchill took a gentler but still brutal approach to his generals. He had never seen eye-to-eye with Wavell and mistook his inarticulacy for stupidity or hostility. He gave him no credit for his bold

Eighty years ago, Hitler launches the largest military operation ever to destroy the Soviet regime

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  After weeks of news headlines dominated almost exclusively by domestic sport and industrial output, Moscow radio turned its attention to military matters and reported exercises across the Soviet Union devoted to getting the army into “fighting trim.” The previous rather unexciting editorial line had been determined by the desire of the Soviet leader not to do anything that might be taken as a provocation by Hitler. Rather like Neville Chamberlain in August 1939, Stalin clung to the hope that there would be peace with Germany until the very end. Unlike Chamberlain, Stalin had the power to exterminate any of his citizens who threatened this delusion, so the rule was rather more widely and fully respected. When Britain passed on entirely reliable intelligence that an attack was imminent, Stalin treated this as a malicious attempt to set him at the throat of his fellow dictator. German deserters who warned the Soviets of the coming attack were shot as provocateurs. The build-up of German

Eighty years ago, real battles and diplomatic fencing in Britain's undeclared war with France

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    The British attacked Rommel’s forces in the western desert in an operation codenamed Battleaxe in their first significant offensive operation against the Germans. After weeks on the defensive as other commitments in the theatre, notably Greece and Crete sucked away resources, the move intended to relieve the garrison of Tobruk besieged since April. The British had been received over 200 fresh tanks brought by the Tiger convoy, replacing the bulk of the tanks lost in the advance into Libya and the subsequent retreat.   Churchill was especially attached to these tanks, which he referred to as his “Tiger cubs”, but over half were unreliable and poorly armoured cruiser class tanks, armed with only 2lb guns; there were also worthless MkVI light tanks. Churchill had high hopes of Battleaxe , but it was abandoned after three days with the loss of half of the tanks and 1,000 casualties. The British tanks were completely outclassed by the Germans’. Vichy French forces put up stiff resis

Eighty years ago, Britain and France again come into open conflict

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  The oil spot of war continued to broaden, reaching the eastern end of the Mediterranean. With the Germans now securely lodged in Crete, the British feared a further extension of their power towards Egypt and the Suez Canal even though the intelligence was now pointing very firmly to an attack on Russia. The complicity of the Vichy French authorities in the Levant in German air support for the Golden Square revolt in Iraq created acute fears that the next step would be to admit a significant German military presence which could attack Egypt from the North. To pre-empt this British led forces launched an invasion of Syria and Lebanon. Any hope that the French colonial forces would abandon Vichy en masse were wide of the mark and the attackers encountered stiff resistance. Little more than a year after the Royal Navy’s partial destruction of the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir, British and French forces were in full scale combat against each other. The defenders were no less resolute i