Remembering the Russians – West We Forget

Posted on May 12, 2015

When I was at school, modern history was one the few things that really interested me really. I was respectably good at English, art and geography, mediocre at religious education, biology and home economics (though I made a mean fruit salad) and unspeakably bad at mathematics, technical drawing, chemistry and physics.

In fact I was so bad at maths and the sciences, if I had put the results of all three together, I would have still been listed as ungraded. I think I am correct when I say that at 4%, I still hold the school record for a Physics CSE, which, as I recall, was for spelling my name correctly. I was no Henry Heimlich but I  was quite good at spelling, as the result proved

Admittedly it is not a school record to be proud of but my secondary school was hardly the Bulingdon Club when it came to producing well known people, with only Kathy Cook (Olympic 400 metre champion) and Brian Lawrence, my metal work teacher (bludgeoned someone to death, set alight their house and paid hit-man to execute his friend in the local brass band) making the national news.

I think the murder revolved around rabid paranoia over a woman but I may be wrong, it could have involved someone having the audacity to be a better trumpet player than him, or perhaps even worse, it was just someone who was in the wrong place at the wrong time as he had a flashback about how bad I was a metalwork, a subject that I never even got graded in because I threw my attempted effort at an ashtray into a bucket of oil and pretended it had been stolen.

Even in his early days, Mr Lawrence had already shown the tendencies of a moderate psychopath and whilst I was useless at metal-work, at the tender age of 14, I was remarkably adept at spotting a potential murderer, so by throwing away my piss poor attempt at an ashtray, I quite possibly avoided becoming Lawrence’s first victim.

Anyway, even though I was not the most academic of children excelling only at being disruptive, I can confirm that I was rather good at modern history.

This came to mind the other day when I was watching something on the television about the VE commemorations or celebrations, or whatever they choose to be called. It’s only a personal thing but I shift uncomfortably in my seat when I see the triumphalism and glory at these events, probably because there is nearly as much propaganda about them now as there was in the secondary school history books.

One thing that I always recall in a certain history lesson was when my teacher, Mr Price, drifted away from the standard text and starting telling us about the carnage in the east, where the Soviet army were taking hit, after hit, after hit, repelling a German onslaught that made Dunkirk look like a summer picnic by a trout stream.

The reason I became interested was because Mr Price was a compelling orator, informing us with the facts like an accomplished story teller. At the beginning of the war, there was of course a Nazi-Soviet pact to offer each other land between their borders but when Hitler turned on Russia, it was the most ferocious combat imaginable and shaped the outcome of WII in a way we have heard little about in the last few weeks as Britain and America, lay claim to the war being one that was won the beaches of Normandy.

Please don’t think I am doing disservice to those soldiers and civilians, as without them and the punishment and casualties they took, Britain and Europe would be a different place; however, there is not a chance that victory would have been achieved if Germany were not involved in such a sapping and brutal battle to the East.

The figures are chilling. For every one American soldier killed, there were eighty Soviets, and such was the death toll, no one really knows the exact figures to this day. However, it is estimated that 26 million Soviets died between 1941 and 1945, including 11 million soldiers. An even more telling statistic is that Russia took 95% of the Grand Alliance casualties whilst German lost three quarters of their army during the battle of the East.

Russland, Kesselschlacht Stalingrad

Historians argue that the reason there were so many Soviet casualties was because they were ill-equipped, ill-trained and ripe for starvation and disease as well as slaughter, but no-one denies that the willpower their effort demanded after 1943, when they had already lost five million soldiers and half of their industrial output, was a monumental effort against the odds and aided the Allies to victory in France.

What we hear about in the West, is the resolve and the moral courage of Eisenhower and Churchill and rightly so, but we hear little of the Russian effort. There are many obvious reasons for this, some that I know about others I don’t. The ones that spring to my mind include Stalin’s human rights record which was patchy to say the least, the spiteful double crossing of the Poles in Warsaw, the subsequent Cold War that went from frosty to ice-age in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s and of course, the more recent and chilling warmongering by Putin in former Soviet states, such as Ukraine.

There has never been a lot of trust between East and West and at the recent Great Patriotic War 70th Remembrance Day in Moscow, there were no Western leaders amongst the 16,000 troops, 190 armoured vehicles and 140 aircraft that provided the setting for one of the country’s biggest ever military displays.

I cannot and would not, dare to claim that I am a military strategist and to try to account all of the twists and turns in the most complex of World Wars, would take me years, but what I can say is that had Germany not suffered from delusional ambition to the East, there is every chance Britain would have been annihilated, forced to surrender/reach a pact (as some wished already) or be stuck in a horrendous conflict which may have seen America forced to use nuclear weapons in Europe as well as Japan.

I don’t like it that Soviet effort gets swept under the carpet just because we don’t like them now and as well as the ‘we’ll fight them on the beaches’ speeches, I would like to see a few more of these quotes coming out.

“The scale and the grandeur of the Soviet effort mark it as the greatest military achievement in all history” General Douglass MacArthur

“History knows no greater display of courage than that shown by the people of Soviet Russia…” Henry L. Stimson, US Secretary of War

We and our allies owe and acknowledge an everlasting debt of gratitude to the armies and the people of the Soviet Union” Frank Knox, US Secretary of the Navy

I remember when I was a kid, the common things your elders would say were “You’d be speaking German if it wasn’t for Churchill” or “You wouldn’t even be alive if it wasn’t for the spirit of Dunkirk” which may well have been true, but it wasn’t quite as simple as that, it never is.

Mr Price bucked that trend by saying;“You probably wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the Soviets”. The equivalent of espionage in 1983.

Right I must crack on, someone is at the door…

“Aah Mr Lawrence, you’ve found my ashtray…do come in…would you like me to take your hammer?”

2 Replies to "Remembering the Russians - West We Forget"

  • Lorna Harrison
    May 12, 2015 (7:56 pm)

    Strangely though you evoked memories of my time in state secondary education where in fact my 3rd year attempt at woodwork was brilliant! I loved my ashtray carved into the shape of a leaf from an Ash Tree. I felt it was a clever interpretation of the standard output of an ‘ashtray’ for year 3 or 9 as it is now known. I was also greatly praised for my inventive rice salad including diced peppers and spring onions in my HE lessons. Basic by todays standards but strangely exotic back then, (Mum’s influence). Sadly, a sign of the times, I was, being female, in fact not allowed to continue with Woodwork after year 9 and taking cookery or Home Economics was deemed below par in terms of intellectual ability, which alledgedly, I had some of. Truth is I bloody love arts and crafts and make my living as a cook!!

  • Nick
    May 13, 2015 (8:28 pm)

    My metalwork teacher had a metal leg which we were all convinced he must have made himself.

    Re the war, don’t forget to read dominion by C K Sansom

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