Unleashing Hell; The Second World War – A History Masterclass with James Holland

Unleashing Hell; The Second World War – A History Masterclass with James Holland

15th July, NCH London.



On 15 July 2017, in Bloomsbury, central London, James Holland ran a highly successful History Masterclass on Unleashing Hell: The Second World War in the West.

Our Masterclass of 25 students was challenged by James Holland with one chief contention: that war can be understood to be fought on three levels – strategic, tactical, and operational – but that this latter level tends to be left out of narrative accounts of the war. War, he argued, is all about supply. Together the Masterclassers interrogated crucial details, such as, the number of motor vehicles, pigs and radios in Germany and the UK before the war – for such details are how a war is won or lost. We then considered the story of Dunkirk, and considered how difficult it was for a Stuka dive bomber, coming in at 6,000 feet, to hit a moving target, and whether reports of Dunkirk overestimated the damage done by bombers.

In a fascinating hands-on section of the Masterclass, we examined, in groups, three sets of items from the Second World War: jackets, gas-mask cases, and guns. Such material culture gives fascinating insights into the reality of warfare. We realized that British items were all about practicality: they were cheap, cheerful and functional. German items were all about image: keeping up an aesthetically complete image. The uniforms were representative of the different national mentalities.

Finally, we looked at some of the assumptions in some historical writing about the war, including the superiority of German guns. Speed of manufacture, accuracy of shot, and amount of ammunition to carry turn out to be just as important as rate of fire, but often overlooked by historians.

This was a brilliant History Masterclass that gave all participants a real glimpse into the realities of fighting a long attritional war, brought us face-to-face with evidence we hadn’t considered, and allowed us to get hands-on with the stuff of war.

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