War is rife with mythology, and over the years the mythology becomes accepted fact, in spite of the evidence being out there that the myths are just that, myths. There are numerous examples of this in the desert war, such as recurring claims about heavily armoured German tanks, impervious to British ‘pea shooters’, or the superior night-time patrolling of the Tobruk perimeter (I’m going to get around to that one), or the weakness of the Italian allies and their unwillingness to fight. All of which may have an element of truth (they wouldn’t be solid myths otherwise), but the reality is far more fragmented and unclear in many cases.
In many cases, in order to lay the myth to rest, if that is ever possible, we need to go back to the original source material, such as there is, and deconstruct it from first principles. This is painstaking and sometimes impossible work. Records may no longer exist, they maybe hard to find, impossible to access (moreso during a worldwide pandemic), or you may just not be lucky on the day.
So, while not related to the Desert War, I thought it would be instructive to show what this process looks like, by means of another blog, this time about Northwest Europe in 1944/45 and in particular a story we all ‘know’, namely how the British 1st Parachute Division jumped right on a German tank formation, even though there was photo evidence warning them of this.
I mean, we all know it, right? It’s in the movie ‘A Bridge too far’, and it’s a great bit of cinema. But in reality, the tanks were neither here nor there, and while the basics of the warning seem to be correct (about the presence of two SS armoured divisions refitting), the tanks of these divisions weren’t immediately involved I think. So a similar issue, a grain of truth, but distorted in public memory.
Well it turns out that any tanks pictured were outdated models from a training unit, maybe similar to the one in the picture below, which was a 1941/42 vintage Panzer III with the short 50mm gun, a tank that had become obsolete by 1943.
The officer in question, later to be knighted Brian Urquhart, was to have an illustrious postwar career, ending it as an Under Secretary to the United Nations, a level equivalent to that of a Secretary of State in the UK Cabinet, and is regarded as the father of UN peacekeeping operations.