War Studies Seminar at the University of Birmingham

This weeks War Studies Seminar at the University of Birmingham is as follows:

Professor Gary Sheffield

(University of Birmingham)

The British Soldier in the Second World War – The Experience of Combat

The event will be on 23 November. The Seminar meets on TUESDAYS at 5.30 p.m. in Lecture Room 3, 1st Floor, Arts Building.

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4 responses to “War Studies Seminar at the University of Birmingham

  1. And indeed I was there. Gary gave an impressive presentation but did open up a couple of points for discussion, there would have been three,given his attitude towards SF, but apparently this has been dealt with previously by a one-star of that ilk (who probably did a better job than I would).

    First, I see that significant problem with accessing information regarding the personal experience of war (as in combat) is the reluctance of those involved discussing it with others not so involved, be they family members or academic researchers.

    In fact I would suggest that in the past it may have been more likely that they would talk to the latter, had there been particular interest post-WW2 in the academic study of such personal experiences. The truism remains extant that former foes have better understanding and empathy in this regard than fellow countrymen, and indeed the country as a whole.

    I suspect that certain things will change in present and future conflicts, what with reports from embedded journalists and combatants’ home-grown youtube videos (which might give an added dimension to the experience of a wider audience), some things might be better for the researcher.

    The second point was the importance of defining the term ‘atrocity’. Killing in the heat of battle is, as you stated, perfectly acceptable, and I together with most former soldiers would extend that to include those attempting to surrender in a number of circumstances; conversely the killing of prisoners shortly after capture is nothing new and a part of warfare, accepted (in terms of risk and convention) but unacceptable with regard to public morals and international Convention perhaps.

    Some time ago I spoke with a member of the DS at RMA, a ‘truckie’ who had somehow contrived to be in at the end of Corporate. He was responsible for investigating allegations or rumours of atrocities by members of 3 Para on Longdon, following it being taken, and regarding the treatment of prisoners. His investigation concluded that there was no case to answer, which is perhaps ‘militarily’ fair as long as it is appreciated that this does not mean bad things did not happen. Which, of course, they did. ‘Esto fue mala suerte si fue un soldado argentine,’ it must be said. All these things are very situational.

    Given the difficulties in identifying, gathering and assessing ‘combat experiences’, remaining objective whilst understanding what it means to be a frontline fighting soldier place a peculiar burden on an historian. I wish him luck.

  2. Interesting points Mac. On atrocities I think one of the key issues, as you point our, remains the issue of premeditation. Can you compare SS action to those of British units acting in a military sense.

    On the issue of special forces I am afraid I am with Gary on this one as to their utility. I think Britain raised too many ‘special’ units. In 1940-41 they served a propaganda purpose but by the period of major operations I think there utility is doubtful. However, as for the arguement that they took away skills from line units this is something I do disagree on as the Airborne and Commando units were effectively wholesale recruited into those roles after 1941. The inital units such as 1 Para were volunteers but many NCO were RTU anyway. The issue is more prevalent in the more specialist units such as the SAS and the real question is did the British Army have the manpower to go down such routes? Should we have left it to the US?

    • Ross, regarding Waffen SS actions I assume that you refer to their treatment of captured enemy soldiers in such cases as during the BEF evacuation and later in the Ardennes? I strongly suspect (but do not know) that as a result of such atrocities, more SS soldiers were subsequently killed by Allied troops, post-capture; although such incidents were conducted on a far smaller scale.

      As for the SF/specialist formations in which we may include airborne and commando troops for the purposes of this exercise, it seems that we have partial agreement. As Gary pointed out the larger airborne formations ran the risk of being deployed in the conventional infantry role, rather than as shock troops, when the situation demanded it. However it should be noted that in most such circumstances, both Allied and Axis units so deployed, gave an exceptionally good account of themselves.

      You mention initial entrants to airborne forces as being volunteers, I assume you mean professional soldiers? All British paratroops were volunteers, which is one of the reasons for their esprit de corps.

      Lastly, regarding the question that in units such as the SAS the real point is ‘did the British Army have the manpower to go down such routes’ and ‘should we have left it to the US?’ there are two answers. First, obviously yes (such units were created) but the argument remains was it a good use of limited resources? Remember we are talking three to five under-strength battalions. If you agree with the force-multiplier theory the answer to this too is yes.

      Second, left what to the US and for how long? They followed the British lead and for the most part the time distance was significant. They had no strategic raiding/reconnaissance assets in the Middle East or Italy, and it was not until operations against the Japanese that both they and the British exploited the concept of long range penetration groups which had (arguably) a strategic function. Apart from this we are of course in accord, as ever. Mac

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