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The Narrative

By Robert M. Citino
7/7/2011 • Fire for Effect

A crazy question: what do we really KNOW about World War II?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the annual conference of the Society for Military History (SMH). The site this year was Lisle, Illinois, and the host was the First Division Museum at Cantigny, located in the nearby town of Wheaton. What a great facility, and what great people running it—it’s as professional and determined as the “Big Red 1” itself! Be sure to visit them when you’re in the vicinity, or click here to visit their website. And while you’re at it, be sure to join the SMH. You don’t have to be a professor. You just need to have an interest in military history, and I know you all have a lot of THAT.

Besides nitty-gritty, tooth-and-nail arguments about every battle from Pharsalus to Fallujah, one of the things that happens at the annual conference is the Awards Luncheon, where the society honors the best books and articles that have appeared in the past year. It’s always a feel-good moment (and in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I know this better than anyone, having won the SMH Distinguished Book Award in 2005 for my book Blitzkrieg to Desert Storm).

This year, one of the award winners was Marc Milner, a professor at the University of New Brunswick in My Absolutely Favorite Country to the North, Canada. His article “Stopping the Panzers: Reassessing the Role of 3rd Canadian Infantry Division in Normandy, 7–10 June 1944,” appeared in the Journal of Military History in April 2010 and has generated a lot of buzz for all the right reasons. It’s a fundamentally new view of a well known battle (at least among the World War II cognoscenti), jam-packed with deep research in the archives and written by a hard-headed author who isn’t inclined to believe everything he grew up reading.

To summarize briefly, the accepted view for years—no, make that decades—had an SS-Standartenführer (Colonel) by the name of Kurt “Panzer” Meyer launching a counterattack against the Canadian 3rd Infantry Division, advancing towards Carpiquet airfield on D+1, June 7th, 1944. According to a story I’d read a thousand times, Meyer waited coolly as the North Nova Scotia Highlander battalion, the “North Novas,” unwittingly offered him their flank, then smashed into them and drove them back in some confusion. It was a classic tale of a hard-bitten, experienced force sending a novice to school.

Milner’s article exploded all that by carefully looking at the planning documents and after-action reports—the only two things that count, for the most part. He found a very different tale: a Canadian force that, even as it advanced, was quite prepared for an eventual German counter stroke and, through solid use of combined arms (armor, infantry and especially artillery), managed to land a big hurt on Meyer’s overly reckless attack.

Listening to Milner give his “thank you address” was a revelatory moment for me. I am paraphrasing here, but he said something along the following lines: we think that the “story” of World War II is already set in stone, but in fact, much of the “history” was written in the immediate wake of the event; it was filled with immediate impressions, and it was rarely based on documentary evidence.

Milner is onto something here. What we see as “the history of World War II” is actually a “construct.” You take a few early impressions (often drawn from notoriously inaccurate newspaper headlines), mix in a few post-1945 biases—some minor and some major—and then stir and over again until “truth” forms. Perhaps you add a drop or two of “bitters,” personal axes that all historians have to grind, and you wind up with a cocktail named “The Narrative.” It is delicious, intoxicating, and you keep coming back for more. But the more we study this greatest of all wars, the less satisfying the cocktail becomes.

I relate to this. I used to believe in “Blitzkrieg.” I used to think that the Polish army launched cavalry charges against the German Panzers. I used to believe that the German tanks of 1940 were technologically superior to their French adversaries, and I used to think the same thing about the German tanks of 1941 in the Soviet Union. I now know that each of these things was false. Sometimes I have to laugh. The more the years pass, the less certain my knowledge of World War II seems to become.

A question for the readers: Is there anything that you used to believe about World War II that no longer makes sense?
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35 Responses to The Narrative

  1. Carol Schultz Vento,Ph.D,J.D. says:

    Interesting article.. I question the accuracy of the postwar narrative. While the Greatest Generation deserves all the praise and honor it receives, the narrative is incomplete. My research for an upcoming book demonstrates the difficult journey many combat veterans of WWII had upon return, and that is missing from most narratives.

  2. Darren Sapp says:

    Just this morning, I finished “The Battle for History: Re-Fighting World War II” by John Keegan. He seems to suggest that the history of WWII cannot be written for some time until all the passions, wounds, unresolved problems, etc. are removed and only then, an objective balance can be reached. His example is McPherson’s Battle Cry for Freedom as the first to satisfy all. That may be true of the Civil War due to the great tensions, lost cause, etc. Americans don’t generally have many divisive issues on WWII but we forget how many other countries had to deal with great divisiveness such as France.

    To answer your question, I use to think WWII lasted from 1941-45. And there is the problem. The American perspective has missed the world war. My world history teachers spent about thirty seconds on the period of 9-1-39 to 12-6-41. We did not discuss the war between the Red Army and Poland. We missed the establishment of Vichy France and the Japanese in French Indochina. Battle of Stalingrad who? The more I study WWII, I realize how little I know and how much I have missed.

  3. Rob Citino says:

    Great points, Darren! My own experience (starting grad school in the late 1970’s, Ph.D. in 1984) reflects yours. I am good friends with an African historian (a guy who studies it and who was also born there) and he can’t believe we don’t date the start of World War II from the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. He’s not simply trying to make a point. He really believes it. If World War II was a fascist offensive against the current world order, maybe he’s right. At the very least, it’s worth discussing.

    • Darren Sapp says:

      We adopted a little girl from Ethiopia in 2009, and only then did I learn of the Italian invasion when they served us pasta at a local restaurant. We gotta get out more.

      • Rob Citino says:

        That’s awesome. We should open an Italo-Ethiopian fusion restaurant!

  4. Rob Citino says:

    Thanks, Carol! I am 100% behind you. I’ve been privileged to know a number of WWII vets, and indeed, I was raised by one. The notion that they were all welcomed home by parades is just silly. No one who fought WWII was unaffected by it. The war hurt everyone it touched.

    • Carol Schultz Vento,Ph.D,J.D. says:

      Thanks, Rob — my youthful perception of the war was influenced by film, most notably The Longest Day, in which my father, an 82nd airborne trooper was portrayed. Since he never really talked about the war, I believed that the scenes showing him in a relatively easy D-Day were accurate. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized how traumatic dad’s war really was and the impact it had on our family.

      • Rob Citino says:

        I have looked up your father’s story on the net, Carol. Thanks for adding your voice to our conversation, and feel free to do so anytime. When is your book coming out?

        Once again, very few people came through this war–or any war–unscathed.


      • Carol Schultz Vento,Ph.D,J.D. says:

        Thank you, Rob. The book, titled The Hidden Legacy of World War II, will be out in late 2011 or early 2012…

      • Rob Citino says:

        Thanks Carol. I’ll be looking for it!

    • Guy Nasuti says:

      I look forward to reading your book Doctor Vento. When I think back on when I was a kid, so many of my relatives and my friends relatives had served, and at the time I just looked on them as these old guys that had fought the Nazis and Japanese and won the war, came home, got married and had kids and all was right in the world because they were the good guys and there was no other way the war could have turned out.

      What I later discovered was how my grandfather cried whenever he spoke about the combat he survived in Normandy (which was never more than a few times), an uncle (that had been born in Italy) that wept while telling my father and I about returning to his native country and fighting for the U. S. Army and losing his friends, and another uncle whose hands shook for the rest of his life after having survived the carnage as a young Marine on Iwo Jima. What I now know is that no man that returned from the war (regardless of nationality) was ever the same again. This is of course well-known and almost cliche now (and true of every war), but the psychological affects from that time can still be felt today.

      • Carol Schultz Vento,Ph.D,J.D. says:

        Thank you, Guy – I appreciate it.. From your own experience, you know the narrative of post-WWII was not as rosy as it has been portrayed in popular culture and the combat vets of WWII were just as impacted by war trauma as those from subsequent wars, but their trauma was not acknowledged or recognized very often.

      • Patrick Miano says:

        Dr. Vento:

        Although you are correct that the post-WWII traumas of veterans have been glossed over, they were not totally ignored. One example was the immortal film, “The Best Years of Our Lives.” There were several other films covering WWII vets, but with the exception of “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” starring non-vet Gregory Peck and “The Men” with non-vet Marlon Brando, most were B pictures starring B actors like veteran Guy Madison and German-born John Ericson.

        In some ways, however, they were better off than veterans of Vietnam and later wars. Few people argued they were stupid or evil for serving. There was relatively little harping about “atrocities” by our side. The WWII GI Bill was far more generous than later ones. What’s more, those vets with psychological aftereffects were diagnosed with “battle fatigue,” a far more sensitive term than “post-traumatic stress disorder,” which makes you sound like a nut and no doubt discourages many vets from seeking treatment.

  5. michael says:

    Sure, that the Australians were always top notch soldiers, a myth exploded by Sir Max in Retribution.

  6. Robert Carver, MA says:

    I grew up believing that the United States, with some British assistance, defeated Hitler and the Third Reich. It came as quite a surprise to learn that it was the Red Army that largely routed the Germans in numerous bloody battles on the Eastern Front all the way to Berlin. We were fortunate to have succeeded with our landings at Normandy to even show up to the party and secure Western Europe from becoming Moscow’s property. It was difficult at first to acknowledge the huge contribution that the Soviet Union made in defeating Nazi Germany since I was raised in the Cold War era. So I have to agree with the truism that the more we learn the less we actually can know. The positive aspect of this is that there is always something new for me to learn about WWII.

    • bobe says:

      We hear too much about D DAY and if we know history there was something like OPERATION BAGRATION ( in the same year), a clash with
      casualties in the millions, and little known or not much talked about

  7. Mike H. says:

    And, Robert, if we want to go REALLY far back, we need to look at the Japanese invasion and occupation of Manchuria in the early ’30s. And, how many people ever heard about the Japanese attack on the USS Panay on the Yangtze river in 1937? Or the “Rape of Nanking”?You’re absolutely right: the more we learn, the more it seems there is to learn. Boy…ain’t History fun?

  8. Rob Citino says:

    Robert Carver–

    You’re right on. I learned all the same lessons as a kid! As far as I knew, WWII lasted from June 1944 to May 1945. Some generic big battles in the East. But the real action was at Midway. I still think Midway was huge. The rest of it needs some revision!


  9. Rob Citino says:

    Mike H–

    A long time ago, my parents owned Edward R. Murrow’s “I Can Hear It Now” album set. I’m talking 75s on hard vinyl, the kind that would break if you dropped ’em! And that’s where I first heard the word “Manchuria.” The Japanese invasion (whic is exactly what it was) was the first real blow against the League of Nations. The start of WWII? Why not?


    • Sean Oliver says:

      I began to think the same thing a few years ago; WWII really started in 1933: Japan invades Manchuria
      Then the Spanish Civil War
      Then Italy invades Ethiopia (and were nearly stopped and routed at first by Haile Selassie’s little army!)
      Japan invades China
      Then Hitler finally appears.
      Or, maybe us humans oughta just look at 1900-2000 as one long bloodbath – and try to behave better during this century?

      • Tony Robertson says:

        Niall Ferguson has an excellent book, and PBS documentary, “The War of the World”, on that very subject. If you have not read or watched them, check them out.

  10. Rob Citino says:

    And Michael–

    The Australians are merely the latest army insulted by Sir Max. He’s never had anything nice to say about the U.S. Army either :)


  11. Tony Robertson says:

    I have found myself reading more lately about what would be considered the “strategic backwaters” of the war. Like the Trans-Mississippi of the Civil War, some of these campaigns and their participants are often overlooked – though they were just as hazardous and momentous to the participants as the more strategically vital ones.

    Examples: the Italian campaign post-Rome, Leyte after Ormoc, Luzon after Manila, the southern Philippine campaigns, and Burma after Merrill’s Marauders. I recall what Gen. Robert Eichelberger is supposed to have said of one of MacArthur’s many premature victory announcements. Concerning “mopping up operations” in the hills of Leyte, Eichelberger supposedly said that was “not a good enough phrase to die for”, or words to that effect.

    • Rob Citino says:

      Thanks, Tony. You’re right. A lot of people died during World War II’s “forgotten campaigns.” The post-Rome Italian campaign might be the classic example. –RC

  12. Ross Mahoney says:

    I too was impressed by Marc Milner’s article and his paper at SMH this year. I remember Terry Copp talking at the University of Wolverhampton a few years ago and saying that we really do not know anything about WW2. In some respect we are where WW1 historians were in the early 80s. I think here in the UK one of the problems is trying to get past the Churchillian view of the war. One narrative that comes from my own research is the decision for Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory to leave AEAF and go to SEAC. The traditional narrative runs that Leigh-Mallory was intensely disliked by virtually everyone in SHEAF and in the command set-up. Therefore, when the opportunity arises to get rid of him they jump at the chance. I am of generalising slightly here but this is the gist of the story. However, it does not answer one simple question; why does it take 3 months for him to re-deploy to SEAC? Yes he had leave due to him but not 3 months worth. The reality is that Eisenhower kept him on to help support allied operations, including MARKET GARDEN, in September and October. Despite the oft quoted remarks in the standard Normandy histories, such as those surrounding the late decision to stop the US airborne operations, Eisenhower valued his advice and opinions. Eisenhower’s paper’s make several comments about asking to stay around. Perhaps one of the most telling comments about Leigh-Mallory comes from a letter from General Wedemeyer to General ‘Pug’ Ismay in September 44 where Wedemeyer remarks that Eisenhower was disappointed to be losing him but that SEAC would be gaining an excellent officer. That does not sound like the traditional narrative does it.

  13. Rob Citino says:

    No, Ross, definitely NOT the traditional narrative!

    I won’t comment on the specifics of the Leigh-Mallory case because you have obviously forgotten more about it than I will ever know, but I will just endorse Professor Copp’s notion: we really don’t know all that much about WW2!

  14. Carol Schultz Vento,Ph.D,J.D. says:


    I agree that there was some recognition in the early years after the war about the combat stress of the WWII vet, at least in the media. However, battle fatigue was considered to be of short duration and the assistance from the VA was lacking if a vet wanted treatment. At least the 1000 pages of my father’s VA file show that his continuing battle fatigue which caused hospitalizations for alcoholism were partly his fault due to his “inability to digest wartime experiences”. And the Greatest Generation stereotype is unilaterally accepted on the issue of long and happy marriages, not taking account of the fact that the early years after the end of WWII had the highest divorce rate until the mid-seventies. All wars impact combatants no matter the ultimate outcome of the war. My personal experience and research have led me to the conclusion that the aftermath of WWII may have been good for many, for the million or so ( like my paratrooper dad) who were engaged in the heaviest combat, there were aftereffects that impacted them and their family, just like in the later wars.

    • Patrick Miano says:

      Dr. Vento:

      You have totally misinterpreted my comments. My own father suffered from long-term battle fatigue for decades, although he was not an alcoholic. As a sailor, he was in combat from the Battle of the Coral Sea in 1942 to Okinawa in 1945. I totally agree that the readjustment problems of WWII veterans were minimized, as I thought I made clear. I specifically said that very few, mostly minor, films described their problems as opposed to Vietnam and other wars. I only stated that the general public treated WWII veterans better than Vietnam veterans were treated in terms of educational benefits and social acceptance. Also, since the post-WWII economy picked up quickly, they did not have the long term unemployment problems their sons had in the 70s after Vietnam. A decent job goes a long way in helping readjustment.

      While your divorce statistics are accurate, they do not tell the whole story. Many of those divorces were among veterans who married before and during their military service. Some wives cheated while their husbands were away and some servicemen cheated on their wives when they were away. Also, a number of war brides took off as soon as they got their green cards. My own parents married in 1948 and remained married until my father died in 1992.

      I still maintain that the term “battle fatigue” has less of a stigma than PTSD and more Vietnam veterans would have sought help if not given a diagnosis which to laymen implies mental illness. The VA programs for Vietvets were also woefully inadequate. Believe me, I know.

  15. Patrick Miano says:

    PS: I don’t want to imply that all early post-WWII divorces were due to adultery or conniving foreign brides, any more than they should all be blamed on battle fatigue. In many cases, veterans had married too young, after short courtships, for a variety of wrong reasons, and they and their spouses didn’t really think it through. When they came home and tried to settle down, both sides sometimes realized they had made a mistake.

    • Carol Schultz Vento,Ph.D,J.D. says:

      Dear Patrick,

      I guess our perceptions are influenced by our own life experiences and are valid to each of us. I am using my own experience with my WWII paratrooper father (portrayed in The Longest Day), who attempted to get help from the VA for 50 years, as a focus. His attempts were dismissed as anxiety neurosis, inabililty to digest wartime experiences, etc. It wasn’t until the 1980s when a VA psychiatrist acknowledged that his battles in Europe actually contributed to his struggles after the war. It goes without saying that combat changes a person; my only point is that the tribulations of the vet of WWII who saw heavy combat (about a million or so) have not been sufficiently acknowledged. But that is my point of view from my personal experience which I attempt to back up with factual information in my upcoming book.
      If the Vietnam vets had not fought for the VA programs then veterans of all our wars would be much worse off. And The Longest Day movie made my father’s D-Day seem like a walk in the park – his reality was a lot different.

      • Patrick Miano says:

        ” …my only point is that the tribulations of the vet of WWII who saw heavy combat (about a million or so) have not been sufficiently acknowledged. But that is my point of view from my personal experience which I attempt to back up with factual information in my upcoming book.”

        Professor Vento:

        What in the world gives you the impression that I disagree with you? My only point was that there were movies on the subject of the readjustment problems of WWII but they were few and mostly minor and unnoticed efforts. I have clearly stated that my own father who saw heavy combat suffered from battle fatigue, as did your father. Do I think he received adequate help from the VA? No. I am well acquainted, first hand, with the efforts and struggles of my fellow Vietnam veterans.

        You seem to think that I disagree with you 100% when I agree with you 98%. My father first saw combat in 1942 when most of the justly vaunted “Screaming Eagles” (to whom I mean no disrespect) were still in basic training, and continueed to until 1945. If anything he saw more heavy combat than your father and suffered just as much. Do you think the sea war in the Pacific was a “walk in the park?” Believe me, it wasn’t like “McHale’s Navy.” Like your father, his experiences haunted him lierally to his dying day. If you’re not going to take the time to really read my posts, please don’t bother replying and I won’t send anymore.

        Patrick B. Miano

  16. bobe says:

    I have problem about the battle of KURSK in 1943, and specially PROKHOROVA, the more i know about it the more i see that something is not right, doesn’t make sense if we believe the SOVIET version, or that it was a stunning victory for the soviets.
    So i ordered 3 books about KURSK one is coming november author CLARK “the battle of KURSK :Clash of the tanks” and the ZHUKOV memoirs, and another about german panzer divisions.
    Had the soviets had such victory at KURSK they would have gone to BERLIN in 1943, and about waffen SS panzer division LAH ? Was it decimated at Prokhorovka? The numbers at KURSK are conflicting, there is a BIG LIE over it, for example about total number of german tanks involved in the battle and also those tanks who survived.
    Also i don’t think that untrained(no radio, and blinded by tons of dust created by their huge numbers) t34 tank commanders prevail over highly trained, and selected TIGER tank crew in a chaotic battle, does it make sense to anyone?
    Did the soviets really stopped the german offensive or it was HITLER’S BLUNDER of stopping it to help his friend MUSSOLINI in ITALY?
    It is shame that due to political correctness, propaganda or else we still have to know what happened at KURSK/PROKHOROVKA.

  17. 11B - SGT OIF 07'-09' says:

    Oh boy! Look what I stumbled into, jackpot! I’ve got a few:

    September 1939 – Great Britain & France declare war on Germany for invading Poland. A week or two later the USSR invades Poland from the other side meets Germany in the middle & annexes it’s half of Poland. Great Britain & France are suddenly not as concerned in defending Poland anymore & G.B. even allies itself with the USSR.

    • bobe says:

      There are more, by october of 1941 during BARBAROSSA, STALIN makes a pact with JAPAN so he can rely on the t34s and siberian troops to defend, better to counteroffensive(poor germans didn’t have winter clothes, little blunder of HITLER), at the MOSCOW ‘S GATES.
      Then i believe he communicated with USA intelligence or Roosevelt directly to give some advice about Japan’s intentions of attacking USA then he like Hero got the americans to put their aircraft carriers at sea but forgot to mention that he had a pact with Japan(friend or enemy?).
      STALIN got all the LEASE AND LEND from USA/UK at bargain, although he had pact with the devil before.

      • 11B - SGT OIF 07'-09' says:

        Hey Bobe,

        It seems we missed our window to get a response from “established” historians. That or they find the questions too challenging to answer while maintaining a Nazi=evil/capitalist&communist=good guy spin. Everything I was taught began to unravel when I went to Iraq and saw with my own eyes how much the media LIES and LIES and LIES. It made me think: If they could lie about a current war in Iraq then what other past wars have they lied about?

        The more and more I read the more I began to disregard “mainstream” & “official” history as completely corrupt & all of it designed to support a certain storyline with a presupposed villain & hero. The lie that rocked my world and left my head spinning was the alleged “holocaust”. Orwell said he who controls the past controls the present controls the future.

        Eventually, after enough reading and investigating I found out why we were in iraq and why my buddies were dead and paralyzed. Have a look for yourself and see if the data below doesn’t fit the storyline of past world events and of those to come.

        –Disillusioned Veteran

        In the year of 2000 there were seven countries without a Rothschild owned Central Bank:

        North Korea


        North Korea


        North Korea

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