“Arms and armour provide the opportunity to tell a very different story to that normally featured in Second World War museums: the story of combat on the front lines. Not the story of politicians and generals but the story of how Britain really fought Hitler.”
This is part 1 of 2 blog posts covering Alexander’s AHRC-funded Innovation Placement at the Royal Armouries. Read part two here.
Dr Alexander Shaw
WRoCAH Alumnus (2015 Cohort)
University of Leeds
There is something both intimate and spine-tingling about guns. A Bren light machine gun has just one purpose: to kill the enemy. At the same time, these are strangely personal objects. Soldiers developed strong emotional bonds with their weapon. They spent all day carrying, cleaning and, when called upon, firing it. This gun could take an enemy’s life, but it could also save yours. Or your friend’s. These weapons are more than just examples of technology and mechanical innovation. They remind us of the frontline fighting soldier and help us better understand how the Second World War was fought. That is what attracted me – previously an historian of Cold War diplomacy and espionage – to work with the Royal Armouries under the Innovation Placement scheme. Arms and armour provide the opportunity to tell a very different story to that normally featured in Second World War museums: the story of combat on the front lines. Not the story of politicians and generals but the story of how Britain really fought Hitler.
The Innovation Placement scheme was run by the AHRC in 2018-19. It placed postdoctoral researchers on secondment to a non-higher education organisation in the hope of doing something ‘innovative’. I chose to work at the Royal Armouries because of my long-standing fascination with the Second World War. I felt it was about time somewhere started saying something innovative about that conflict, and the Royal Armouries was committed to doing just that. The Royal Armouries is the UK’s national museum of arms and armour and, when I started, was just beginning preparations for a new exhibition telling the story of the Second World War through the weapons used to fight it.
I began working eighty years after Hitler occupied Prague. I joined the Royal Armouries’ Curatorial Department and Collections Directorate, principally working with Keeper of Firearms Jonathan Ferguson. Our goal: to say something new about the Second World War.
Working alongside colleagues specialising in collections and interpretation, I was principally responsible for the research underpinning the new exhibition. By scouring archives across the UK as well as delving into the Royal Armouries’ own collections, my task was to find the details which would enable us to construct exciting new narratives.
‘Our idea is not to attempt to make specialists out of average people, but simply to teach a few simple tricks that everyone can learn in a matter of minutes, that will make you more efficient at the task we all have to hand – exterminating Germans. The phrase “exterminating Germans” is used purposely, because we must always remember that all Germans live for just one purpose, and that is exterminating all Englishmen; and therefore the only hope of winning this war is in our doing the job first.’
Lt. E. Hartley Leather, Combat Without Weapons (Gale and Polden, 1942), p. 7
This shocking statement from a Home Guard training manual may seem out of place to many British people. After all, the Germans started it – they invaded Poland. As did the Soviets of course, but it is easier not to talk about that. The crimes committed by Germany during the Second World War – not just the Nazi leadership and the SS but also the armed forces and with the tacit acceptance of many (but, it is important to note, not all) seemingly ordinary people – are too numerous to list. The Nazi state does not broker comparisons with contemporary affairs – this was a regime apart in terms of the atrocities it committed.
So, if the Germans were the ‘baddies’, then surely the Allies were the ‘goodies’? Britain stood alone in 1940. Everyone pulled together in the Blitz spirit. Britain won the war and democracy triumphed. This is what many have been telling themselves for the past 74 years. Historians, however, are increasingly uncovering some of the more dubious and callous actions taken by the country in its treatment of the colonies, particularly India, during the Second World War. Behind the façade of the ‘Blitz spirit’, organised crime enjoyed a wartime boom. Some of Britain’s most notorious criminals seized their opportunity – ever heard of the ‘Acid Bath murderer’? This is not to mention the debates surrounding Allied strategic prosecution of the war, Dresden being a case in point. Let’s be clear: the end of defeating Hitler is inarguably worthy, but it is important to understand the sometimes dubious means by which Britain and its Allies achieved it.
This brings us back to the quotation from Combat without Weapons. This manual came from an authoritative private military publisher. The instructions contained within are as unambiguous as they are shocking. For those who were being trained to fight in it, the Second World War was a war of kill or be killed.
But aren’t all wars like this? Perhaps the surprising answer is no. Prior to the Second World War, British Army doctrine said relatively little about killing. Soldiers were taught to live up to values of professionalism and efficiency. The goal of combat was as much to force the enemy to retreat or surrender, but not explicitly to kill them. This all changed following the outbreak of the Second World War. Soldiers were given an unequivocal message. They had one job: to kill the enemy. This represented a new departure in military training and doctrine: one that was inspired by the unprecedented nature of total war initiated by Hitler on 1 September 1939.
Part two of Alex’s blog is coming soon.
Dr Alexander Nicholas Shaw is an historian interested in Cold War diplomacy; secret intelligence; the Second World War; art collecting; and headhunting. He finished his WRoCAH-funded PhD at the University of Leeds in 2019.