BRITISH OFFICIAL MILITARY HISTORIES:
WORLD WAR II
Source: Sir J.R.M. Butler, written in 1965 and printed in Official Histories: Essays and Bibliographies from around the World (Robin Higham, Editor, Kansas State University Library, 1970).
Bookmarks Initial plan / Revised plan / Grand Strategy / Selection of historians / Enemy records / What is an official history?
In the United Kingdom there was already in existence in 1939 an organization concerned with the production of official military histories. In 1907 it had been recognized as a function of the Committee of Imperial Defence (C.I.D.) to prepare histories of naval and military operations. In accordance with this decision, which was extended in due course to air operations, the C.I.D. organization, working through its Sub-Committee for the Control of Official Histories (C.O.H.), was responsible for the military histories of the war of 1914-18, and a Historical Section had been set up under Brigadier-General Sir James Edmonds. This Section had been working continuously on the history of the First World War when the Second World War broke out, but had not finished its task. The staff of the organization were therefore left intact for that purpose.
At the beginning of the second war the C.I.D. was merged in the War Cabinet Office, which thus became the organ of Government responsible for official histories of the war, with its secretariat under Sir Edward Bridges. The importance of making early provision for an official history was realized and it was now seen to be desirable that activities in the civil sphere should be included. Within a few weeks a circular letter was sent to Government Departments, civil as well as military, inviting them to put aside, for the eventual use of historians, copies of their current diaries of important events concerning themselves and of relevant documents.
From this time onward there was discussion in Government circles as to the form the histories should take and the method of selecting the writers, in the light of the experience of the Historical Section with regard to the histories of the first war.
The co-operation of the Service Departments, which held the primary material, was obviously necessary. They would be expected to write their own histories of administration, and they could produce valuable preliminary studies of operations also.
In July 1941, the C.O.H. took far-reaching decisions with regard to the scale and nature of the official histories. Apart from the fact that a civil, a diplomatic and a medical series were now provided for in addition to a military series, the plan included important differences from that of the previous war.
The Committee discussed and substantially approved an ‘Outline Plan’ drafted in the Historical Section and presented by Sir Edward Bridges. In the first place it was agreed that the history of the current war should be shorter than its predecessor and should be written in less detail. Two other decisions were taken which formed the distinctive feature of the new series. It should include key volumes’ dealing in broad outline with the strategic situation and the interlocking of diplomatic, strategic and economic action; such volumes, it may be noted, were particularly appropriate to the second war, in which the central control of strategy by the Minister of Defence and War Cabinet was far closer than anything existing in the first. Thirdly, it was suggested that under the conditions of modern war it was not possible to write entirely separate histories for each of the Services as in the past. All accounts of land operations must include an account of related Air operations, and often of actions of the Royal Navy. Separate volumes should cater for the respective needs of advanced students and of the general reader.
The Committee decided at the same meeting to set up an Advisory Committee of historians from the universities and approved the appointment of six Narrators to prepare factual studies of Army and Air operations. The Admiralty was producing monographs of its own.
The Prime Minister, Mr. Churchill, as he then was, gave general approval to what was being done.
By February 1943, the first Army and Air ‘narratives’ had been compiled and naval ‘battle summaries’ were in hand. The Advisory Committee of Historians had met, and the Dominions and the United States had been informed of the steps taken.
At a later stage (in 1944) a proposal was made by the Committee of Historians for a two-volume general history of the war, to be produced within two years of the end of war by some eminent historian. This plan fell through, but a different proposal for a series of popular preliminary histories, to be written on the basis of currently available official records by well-known authors and published fairly soon after the end of the war, was adopted. Several such volumes dealing with Army and Air aspects were duly written and published, but the naval side of the proposal was eventually dropped. From this time onwards the Committee of Historians seems to have played little part in the direction of the histories.
At length in 1946 it was agreed that work on the official histories themselves should begin and that a Chief Historian should be appointed to edit the military series―as Professor Hancock had some years previously been appointed to edit the civil series―and to write one or more of the volumes on Grand Strategy. The histories should be written in the main from a Combined Service angle, but some volumes might deal wholly or preponderantly with one particular Service. On 25th November Mr. Attlee, the Prime Minister, announced that the histories were to be planned as ‘a broad survey from the inter-service point of view’, and that a Cambridge historian had been selected as Chief Historian and Editor.
The Editor’s rough outline plan was approved by the Chiefs of Staff Committee and the C.O.H., and at his request a Panel of distinguished senior officers from the three Services was appointed to advise him on further planning and the selection of writers.
The new historical section was taken under the wing of the Cabinet Office, a Civil Servant was appointed to take charge of its administrative side and quarters were assigned to it in Great George Street, Westminster.
In the planning of the series the early suggestion that it should consist of some ‘general’ and some more specialized volumes has been adhered to in principle. It was soon decided that the history should comprise three sub-series: one, of five volumes, on grand strategy or the central direction of the war at the highest level; a larger number, which came to be known as ‘campaign’ volumes, on major aspects and topics, such as the war at sea, the strategic air offensive, and operations in separate land areas; and a few ‘supplementary’ volumes, dealing with such subjects as the influence of logistics, or of scientific research, on strategy. In fact, most of these topics were found to need more volumes than was originally envisaged, while the only ‘supplementary’ volumes undertaken were four on Civil Affairs and Military Government.
The Grand Strategy volumes were intended to be written from the point of view of London or Washington; the campaign volumes from that of the central headquarters, whether in England (as in the case of the naval war and the bombing of Germany) or abroad. Matters of military interest excluded from the scheme of the official histories could be left for treatment in such technical monographs as the Service Departments might choose to produce, or, for the general reader, in regimental histories, personal memoirs and similar unofficial publications.
It was recognized that it would be desirable to keep in touch, and if possible exchange drafts, with the official historians of the Dominions and the United States. An opportunity for initiating such consultation came with the invitation for British representatives to attend, in February 1948, a three-day conference in Washington convened by the Historical Division, Special Staff, United States Army, along with representatives of Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The conference, during which the visitors had the privilege of meeting General Eisenhower, was of great value to the British members in laying a foundation of mutual understanding and desire to co-operate.
The selection of historians was not an easy matter. The experience of the earlier war told against the employment of eminent civilian writers and no more positive expedient was suggested than ‘trial and error’. Distinguished writers in the Services were few, and such as existed were likely to have already formed strong opinions on controversial matters which it was desirable that a historian should discuss with an open mind. The choice seemed to lie between academic historians with no professional knowledge of military affairs and Service officers with no experience of historical method. Of the first class, most of the younger historians had been engaged in war work, whether military or in Whitehall, and were eager to return to their universities, while the Service officers whom a temporary job as a historian was likely to attract were senior men, retired or on the point of retirement, whose professional knowledge might not be up-to-date and who might find historical research too demanding. Eventually a team was got together, consisting partly of academic historians who had seen some war service and partly of Service officers, most if not all of whom had had staff experience. The Grand Strategy volumes were entrusted, for the most part, to the university men, the campaign volumes for the most part to sailors, soldiers and airmen, the principle being observed that no-one should be employed to write the history of operations in which he had himself played a major and responsible part. For the very controversial subject of the strategic air offensive against Germany the solution was found in a partnership between an eminent historian and a younger scholar with a fine Service record as a bomber navigator.
It was soon found that if the land campaigns were to be adequately treated from an inter-service point of view the historian in charge must be assisted by colleagues representing the other Services, and this was arranged for the operations in North-West Europe, the Near and Middle East, and the Far East. A number of Research Assistants were also recruited, either from young women with university or Service backgrounds or from retired officers who were willing to undertake this laborious work.
Besides the official records the minutes, memoranda, war diaries and telegrams which were freely put at their disposal the historians had access to Sir Winston Churchill’s invaluable personal files; also to the private papers of many of the other principal actors. They were further able to submit their drafts for comment to surviving actors and to discuss them with them personally.
One advantage peculiar to the Allied historians of the Second World War was the possession by the American and British Governments of the most important German documents, captured by the Allied armies. Those of chief interest on the naval and air sides were in London, but the high-level German army records were in America. For the former, the historians could call on the ready help of the Admiralty and Air Ministry historical sections; for the study of the army and O.K.W. records it was necessary to create an Enemy Documents section in the Cabinet Office, under a former member of the War Office Military Intelligence Directorate, with a representative, also with M.I. training, at Washington. Thanks to their work and the co-operation of the United States authorities the historians in London were kept supplied with the necessary material on the German side and to a less extent on the Italian.
With regard to the Far East, few Japanese documents fell into British hands. Such material as there was on the enemy side consisted mainly of the statements supplied by Japanese officers working under American supervision in Japan. For the interpretation of these and all other Japanese documents the British historians were fortunate in being able to draw on the experience of one of their colleagues who had been Military Attache in Tokyo.
The section included a mapping department under the direction of a retired senior officer of the Royal Engineers.
The writing of an official history as ‘a broad survey on an inter service basis’ raised questions which could only be answered in practice.
What is an official history? To the professional historian it may seem a contradiction in terms. It obviously implies official sponsorship. In each volume of the naval history of the 1914 war it was stated that the Admiralty had given the author access to official documents but ‘were in no way responsible for his reading or presentation of the facts as stated’. In other words, an official history did not imply an official point of view. The military histories of the Second War were written on the same understanding. The writers have been given unrestricted access to the official records, without censorship other than that imposed by military ‘security’. They are under obligation to submit their early and their final drafts for comment by the Government Departments concerned, but they are not bound to alter their texts in accordance with such comments, though they are glad to do so when they feel that their texts would be thereby improved. On the other hand the Government are not bound to publish matter which they consider contrary to the public interest. In theory deadlock might result, but in practice it has not. Discussions have led if not always to agreement, at least to acquiescence, and the historians have been able to state in their prefaces that they have in no case altered their text against their better judgment.
The historians did, however, accept the conditions that, in deference to the constitutional principle of Cabinet solidarity, they should not report expressions of personal opinion within the Cabinet and that they should respect the traditional anonymity of the Civil Service; also that, in general, they should not give detailed references to classified documents in the published volumes, but only in confidential annexes for the use of official persons, and, presumably, of future scholars.
The primary purpose of a history based on material not open to the public must be to supply new information and to interpret the facts in the light of it; the historian will show how, in his opinion, such and such a decision led to such and such a result. But it is not necessarily his duty, particularly if he is a civilian, to suggest what decision ought to have been taken. Nor, writing as a contemporary, will he wish to go out of his way to criticize Individuals and give unnecessary pain to the living.
How much detail a ‘broad survey’ should include could obviously not be laid down beforehand, except by an allocation of space to the several topics. In fact most of them were found to need more volumes, but not many more, than was originally planned. Some overlapping between the Grand Strategy volumes and the others has been unavoidable, and the special position of the Admiralty as an operational command-in-chief has meant some overlapping in naval affairs.
The inclusion of separate national elements in a single Allied command has raised the question how far a British history should concern itself with non-British operations and decisions, notably when the primary material is not in British hands. The intention has been to make the story intelligible without trespassing more than necessary on the fields of Allied historians. Here the arrangements for interchange of information with them have been most helpful; unfortunately the same relations did not obtain with regard to the Soviet histories.
The instruction to write ‘on an inter-service basis’ has raised no serious problems. Indeed the historians would agree that the history of such a war as the last could not be satisfactorily written otherwise. Officers of the different Services had learned to work together during the war, and the provision of inter service teams, helped by comments from the three Service Departments and from the Advisory Panel, has preserved the balance. The adjective military has been used throughout as applying equally to Navy, Army, and Air. Only in the accounts of battles and campaigns in which both army and air operations took part has it sometimes been found difficult to weave the two into a readable narrative, partly because the number of sorties flown means more to an airman than to a landsman.
There had been thoughts, as has been said, of including a volume on the influence on strategy of logistics, but, partly because the approved plan seemed a heavy enough commitment without it, and partly because this subject formed such an intimate part of the whole story and was sufficiently dealt with in other volumes, the idea was abandoned. The same was the case with regard to the organization of the Anglo-American high command. There was a good case, however, for assigning some volumes to ‘Civil Affairs and Military Government’, a subject of wider than merely military interest and one which is neglected in most histories of war.
The general scheme appears to have worked well. But there is cause for disappointment in the length of time the main project has taken. The official history of the 1914-18 war had come under much criticism in this respect, and it was hoped that the later history would do much better, that it would be completed in fact within ten years of the end of the war at latest.
In fact the first volume to appear, Dr. T. K. Derry’s Campaign in Norway, was published in 1952; now, in 1965, there are still a few volumes to see the light.
Probably the original term was unrealistic, in spite of the assignment of different topics to different teams working concurrently and of different periods of the war, centrally viewed, to different writers–a decision which has led to these latter volumes not appearing in chronological order. The material has been vast; some of the historians could only work part-time, and there have been casualties among them. Delay has also resulted from the circulations of drafts, at two stages, for departmental comment, and typists and printers have had other commitments.