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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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