World War II Plans That Never Happened

Michael Kerrigan. World War II Plans That Never Happened, 1939-1945. London: Amber Books, 2011.

As a historian, I'm probably not supposed to like counterfactuals. There are very good reasons for this. It's hard enough to reconstruct what did happen without worrying about what didn't. There are no minutes from meetings which never took place, no diaries from people who didn't exist, no newspaper reports of events which never happened. The further you depart from our timeline, the more speculation you indulge in, the more pointless it seems: thinking about the Roman Empire undergoing a steam-powered industrial revolution is fun, but what does it tell us about, well, anything to do with reality? And if objectivity is impossible to achieve when doing history, alternative history is prone to wish fulfilment and outright fantasy.

And yet I think counterfactuals can be useful. There is so much we don't know about the past, so much that we cannot now recover, but in one important sense we know more than the people we study: we know what happened in their future. Our histories of the Soviet Union, for example, will forever have to take into account the fact that it dissolved in 1991, something which nobody knew in 1917, 1921, 1945 or 1968. That makes it hard for us to truly understand how people thought about the future and, crucially, how that affected their decisions and actions in the present. Considering counterfactual scenarios can help restore this sense of contingency, of uncertainty: what did happen was not necessarily what had to to happen. Or even likely to happen. Besides, historians implicitly indulge in counterfactual thinking all the time: whenever we single out some event or person or institution as important in whatever way, we are effectively saying that if it that event hadn't happened, or if that person hadn't existed, or if that institution hadn't been created, then history would have been significantly different (for whatever definition of 'significant' works for you).

So asking 'what if...?' can at least help to ease the tyranny of actuality. But that doesn't do away with the objections I mentioned earlier. If it is to be of any use, counterfactual speculation has to be anchored in reality in some way: it can't just be about making stuff up wholesale. One obvious place to start, then, is with the ideas people had about the future. That leads directly to paleofuturism. In my own work I find the scenarios dreamed up about future warfare, whether sensational or sober, to be particularly compelling. Another way in to useful counterfactual history is through military history. I don't mean the venerable but somewhat arid 'for want of a nail' mode of alternative history, but rather looking at what the military forces thought about doing in wartime but, for one reason or another, did not actually do. It's here that we can see their dreams and nightmares most clearly.

In truth, the book I'm reviewing here -- yes, this is a book review! -- is not framed as a work of alternate history. But that it could have been is why I chose to review it. In World War II Plans That Never Happened Michael Kerrigan argues that (7):

When we see World War II as following a single triumphant trajectory, disregarding the provisional plans, the improvisatory execution, the bright ideas that came to nothing, we're forgetting the very stuff of war.

He aims to demonstrate this by examining several dozen military operations planned -- but never executed -- by both Axis and Allies between 1939 and 1945. These range from the well-known, such as Operations Sea Lion and Downfall (the seaborne invasions of Britain and Japan respectively) to the obscure like Operation Culverin, a British plan to capture Aceh, in the Dutch East Indies, for use in attacking Japanese shipping. There are also a number of weapons and other technological research programmes: for example, attempts to weaponise biological toxins (this was a time when it seemed like a good idea to think about bombing Germany with ricin-tipped needles). Then there are few odd ones which don't quite seem to fit: Operation Pastorius, a German attempt to infiltrate saboteurs into the United States may have amounted to nothing in the end, but the agents were in fact landed on American soil (where they were soon rounded up), so this doesn't seem like a plan 'that never happened' to me.

To be clear, this is not an academic text. It's very much a light, popular book, heavily illustrated with large type. With only two pages for most of the entries, there isn't a lot of space for deep analysis. But Kerrigan's critical approach helps here, as he explains why the various operational plans were never put into effect. So the various pre-1944 plans for a Second Front fell foul of British memories of Dunkirk and the lack of sufficient landing craft; an Allied occupation of the Cape Verde Islands, a valuable base for protecting shipping, was judged to be not worth the risk of alienating Portugal and Spain. Sometimes, however, he seems to assume that just because a plan was drawn up that, at least at some point, there was an accompanying intention to carry it out. But some of these plans, like the German invasion of Switzerland, were surely more contingency planning than strategic desire. There's also a lot of repetition (though given that this book is probably intended to be dipped into rather than read cover to cover, that may be by design). Sometimes this is thanks to the planners themselves: there are no less than four potential invasions of Ireland described here (one British, three German, though one of the latter was more about fomenting resistance to a possible US occupation of Eire).

The other thing I like about this book are the many reproductions of documents from government (mostly British) archives. This gives readers an insight into the arguments and objections considered by the planners, adding greatly to its interest. (At least for a historian, it does!) It's fascinating to see the British Chiefs of Staff mulling over Operation Unthinkable, a war against the Soviet Union after the defeat of Germany, possibly over the fate of Poland: 'A quick success might induce the Russians to submit to our will at least for the time being; but it might not. That is for the Russians to decide. If they want total war, they are in a position to have it' (169). I do wonder if it was necessary to also transcribe most of these documents, given that they are typewritten and that space is already limited.

Unfortunately, there are quite a few factual errors throughout World War II Plans That Never Happened. Libya was conquered by the Italians in 1912, not 1934, for example, and oil was not discovered there until after the war. As well, there are oddly elliptical statements: Kerrigan writes that while USS Kitty Hawk 'literally [...] carried aircraft, she was not an aircraft carrier like the later vessels named after her' (116). Why not just explain that it was an aircraft transporter? In fact, why mention Kitty Hawk at all in a work of this scope? There is an index, which is helpful; but no table of contents to speak of (it just lists the chapters, '1939-1941', '1942', etc) which is not. A page-and-a-bit of bibliography is probably about right for this level, but without in-text references it's often hard to work out which book might relate to a particular operation.

I do find it difficult to recommend this book wholeheartedly, even to a popular audience. But perhaps the 'woah!' factor outweighs the scholarly flaws. As an example, consider this quote: 'It was at the beginning of July 1943 that Anthony Eden sent a memo to Prime Minister Winston Churchill' (110). The memo is reproduced on the opposite page (111), and while it does indeed say 'Foreign Secretary' near the bottom, it's obvious that this is a request for Eden's advice on the matter. The memo itself is initialled 'C.P. C.A.S.', which pretty clearly stands for Charles Portal, Chief of the Air Staff. Which makes sense since the impetus for the memo came from Bomber Command, not the Foreign Office. Knowing the author of a document is one of the fundamentals of research, and makes you wonder what else has been missed. But let's set that aside for a minute and look at the content of the memo, dated 15 July 1943, which is a proposal by Air Chief Marshal Harris, head of Bomber Command, for a precision air attack on Rome with the objective of killing Mussolini:

Harris would use the Squadron of Lancasters (No. 617) which made the attacks on the dams. It is manned by experts and is kept for special ventures of this kind. The attack would be made just above the rooftops and which give the only chance of destroying the two buildings [Mussolini's residence and his office] without much other damage [...] I suggest that if Mussolini were killed or even badly shaken at the present time this might greatly increase the chance of our knocking Italy out at an early date and I therefore ask your permission to lay the operation on.

For Harris to propose this is completely at odds with his rather better-known espousal of area bombing techniques. It suggests that he was not averse to precision bombing if a suitable target presented itself. To bring this back to my long excursion into counterfactual history, it suggests that there were roads which Bomber Command could have taken at this stage of the war, but chose not to. In the short term, however, Mussolini was deposed just days later which rendered this operation unnecessary.

I'd never heard of this plan for a decapitation strike before, and might never have without reading World War II Plans That Never Happened. And there's more where that came from. For that reason it could interest the jaded grognard as well as those just starting out in their studies of the Second World War. But it is most valuable for restoring that sense of how the war might not have been the one we know today.

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10 thoughts on “World War II Plans That Never Happened

  1. So Harris is supporting what looks like a Lancaster lo-lo-lo raid, even after the MAN-Augsburg raid. Terraine presents Harris as having learned his lesson from the heavy casualties of that raid, and links it to a subsequent dispute with Wilfrid Freeman, who pressed specially armoured Lancasters on Bomber Command. Supposedly, Freeman wants more low level raids, and visualises these as just the tool. Harris is presented as protecting his crews from the callous Freeman, an interpretation that finds favour in Peter Furze's more sympathetic biography. Finding Harris arguing for another, even longer-range raid at a later date is interesting.

    Although it seems to me that the sensible approach is to keep this weapon in the quiver, even if Mosquitoes were more suitable planes for the job.

  2. Chris Williams

    On the other hand, it's a more obvious 'panacea' than going after ball bearings, and if it works, it would be obvious. If the Air Staff could say that they'd killed Public Enemy #2 and knocked Italy out of the war that would be something to write home about, regardless of losses. And 617 had just taken some horrendous losses in a single op which was written up as a victory.

    Somewhere online there's a USAF history theses which argues that the raids on Rome did in fact knock Italy out of the war, therefore, SAC! But I can't find the reference.

  3. Post author

    It turns out that there were some press reports last year about the Mussolini proposal: here and here. It looks like Michael Kerrigan isn't responsible for the error in attributing the document to Eden, as both of those reports do so.


    It's not your average panacea, true, and it probably helped in Harris's eyes that it was a single strike by a single squadron and didn't entail any large-scale/long-term diversion of his resources. But I think it does help show that he was not quite the inflexible, dogmatic thinker he's often thought to be by many people (myself included!)

    I've heard similar claims regarding the Rome raids, I think at the Exeter bombing conference. Which reminds me, I need to order the proceedings of that conference...

  4. TF Smith

    Long-time reader, first-time poster:

    "...the raids on Rome did in fact knock Italy out of the war, therefore, SAC!" seems like a heck of a stretch; the blockade, defeats in Egypt, Libya, Russia, Tunisia, and (pending) in Sicily, and the (obviously pending) invasions at Calabria, Taranto, and Salerno would seems to have a heck of a lot more to do with it.

    The first major daylight raid by 15th Air Force was 19 July, the same day the 7th Army jumped off Palermo (the start line was 100 miles+); Badoglio's comment about Allied air superiority to Rintelen was on 1 August) and, interestingly enough, is couched in general terms of "the preponderance of Allied resources..." that being said, it cites both the Rome bombings and Hamburg, which certainly suggests the correlation of forces in the air was in Badoglio's mind, but it is also worth making the point that at the same time these doubts were being riased, the Italians approved the movement of the 44th Infantry and 26th Panzer divisions into Garland and Smyth wrote" "Thus it was that Army Group B made its initial penetration with Italian consent. It was seduction, not rape."

    I think a safer interpretation is the Italians were, as ever in 1943, playing for time; the Rome raids were one of innumberable reasons why they recognized the Axis were losing, but far from the only one.

    Details above are from "Sicily and the Surrender of Italy" which takes more than 560 pages to over its topics; it is an old (1965) source,but reads as pretty complete.

  5. Post author


    Yes, I think it's fair to say that the bombing of Rome was only one factor and not the most important one. But then it might not have been the least important either. The 19 July 1943 raid killed around 1500 people, and the railway yards which were the primary target were not much more than a kilometre away from the Forum area. Possible repeats of that added up to a lot of risk to Rome.

  6. Ian Evans

    Only slightly off the subject (but what else is a blog for?), Mary Beard, in her book on Pompei, refers more than once to the site being bombed during WW2.
    Not-so-gentle reminder, belated response to 55BC, or oops?

  7. Post author

    It seems it was bombed in September 1943, because German forces were believed to be encamped there. I don't know whether that's true or not, but as far as motivation goes it puts it in the same category as Monte Cassino a few months later. Fortunately the devastation was not nearly so great: here's a contemporary press report, and this is an example of a gateway which was severely damaged and later restored. Of course, even minor damage could lead to the loss of important archaeological information.

  8. You have to say, though, Italian Fascists would have been suitably impressed by a massive, suicidally brave, lo-lo-lo strike with giant lumbering aircraft aimed directly at The Leader, with the intention of leaving Palazzo Venezia (that bourgeois, effeminate pile of 1870s kitsch!) and everything in a sizable radius around it a smoking hole in the ground. D'Annunzio would have approved of the style of the thing.

  9. Post author

    Claudia Baldoli has an article in the latest History Today (unfortunately only only available online to subscribers, though as a consolation here's a brief one by Taylor Downing on the accuracy of popular perceptions of the RAF in WWII) on the Allied bombing of Germany. She discusses the proposal to bomb the Palazzo Venezia but dates it to December 1942, not July 1943. Since an actual memo from July 1943 is reproduced in Kerrigan's book, this must have been an earlier proposal. She says that the idea was proposed by Bomber Command after an enquiry by Churchill, and also that it had been passed to Eden for comment, which is evidently what happened in July too. It was decided in December that (in Churchill's words) that Rome would be bombed only when 'the structure of the Fascist state has been thoroughly shaken by repeated bombings of the main centres of Italian war industry and transport and by close military approach to the heart of the country', that is, more softening up by bombing and invasion was required before a decapitation strike could be effective.

    It's well worth the read (though to my mind it only dances around the issue of how far the Rome raids helped bring down Mussolini) and makes me anticipate her forthcoming book with Andrew Knapp, Forgotten Blitzes: France and Italy Under Allied Bombs, 1940-1945, all the more.

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