WWII in focus at festival

Troops head for the Normandy beaches during the D Day invasion of Woarld War Two
Troops head for the Normandy beaches during the D Day invasion of Woarld War Two

It may be 70 years since its end, but the Second World War continues to resonate down the generations and remains hugely important.

And despite the countless millions of words written and broadcast about the conflict, we’ve still only scratched the surface of much of what went on during six years.

That’s certainly the view of James Holland, the young dynamic historian, who makes his second appearance at the festival.

Holland, whose three-volume magnus opus, War in the West, about the Second World is published in September, believes that the 1939-45 period is steeped in perceptions and myth rather than fact.

Always working from primary sources, Holland has spent the last 15 years interviewing surviving combatants, from all sides, as well as civilians, nurses, partners, partisans and the like.

He works from the ground level, up to the high command of each conflict, and his audio research is now so significant – 400 recorded interviews – that The Imperial War Museum in London has actually given him his own archive.

In preparation for bombing raids, children at South Bridge primary school  Edinburgh are fitted with their gas masks on the 28th August 1939.

In preparation for bombing raids, children at South Bridge primary school Edinburgh are fitted with their gas masks on the 28th August 1939.

Born in Salisbury, Holland is the prolific author of non-fiction works concerning the Dam Busters, the Battle of Britain, Fortress Malta and the war in North Africa, among others, as well as having written a number of novels and television programmes.

Asked why he finds the Second World War such a fascinating subject, as opposed to the earlier Great War, for example, Holland says it is the sheer scope of the conflict.

“Of course, as a historian I am interested in the First World War too, but the Second World War involved literally everybody.

There was not a man, woman or child in the nations that were the major combatants who was not affected to some extent, more even so than in the First World War” Holland told us this week.

Holland says the paper trail for researchers is vast: “There is still a heck of a lot of new material. The Second World War is fascinating on three levels - firstly, the strategic overview, as seen by nations; secondly, the tactical side and thirdly, the nuts and bolts of how the whole thing happened on the ground.

“It is this last level at which a very difficult picture emerges,” he added.

Holland says what also becomes apparent is how much more advanced Britain and the United States were when it came to producing the materiel needed to fight the war.

“Germany’s military strategy was still based on the German/Prussian model of warfare involving massive knock-out blocks, which can deliver very rapid victories.

“However, if these become stalled and battles become longer and more drawn out battles, then what comes into play are factors like industrial capacity and agricultural; areas in which Britain and the US were much more capable.

“It was the totality of effort which is staggering: it was an extraordinary effort.”

Asked if he considers himself a frustrated soldier, Holland laughs: “Not in the slightest. I nearly joined the army when I was younger, but am glad I didn’t - I’d find it too constraining.

“But when you look at the Second World War and how it demanded total involvement, you do wonder how you would have coped if you had to go off and fight; how would you have coped living through that.”

- James Holland: War in the West. Thursday, June 11. Harmony Marquee, 7.15pm.