Historical myths?

Historical myths are sometimes hard to shake. They seem to creep in to the history books, and get repeated (by later historians). These are two I’ve always wondered about:
(1) In the 1920’s an Italian general named Giulio Douhet wrote a book about the role of airpower (chiefly strategic bombing), in wars of the future. His book was said to be enormously influential, and inspired the German Luftwaffe generals. It was also supposed to have been read by American and British advocates of heavy bombers (people like Gen. Mitchell and Teddar in England). Yet, I have never seen the book, and been unable to obtain a copy (in English). So if this Gen. Douhet was such a genius, why is he (today) so obscure? You read references to him, but did this guy really originate strategic bombing?
(2) Again (1920’s) an obscure French officer (Charles DeGaulle0 wrote a book about armored warfare-again this book was said to be very influential, and several of the German panzer generals read and absorbed the ideas in it. Pity the French Army never saw fit to read it (if in reality the book was a real breakthrough).
Has anyone ever read either of these books? Of course, they must be terribly dated (by today’s standards). Are these books really the earth-shattering breakthroughs that historians are fond of discussing?

I never heard of either book. But i wanted to point out that H.G.Wells wrote about the importance of both in stories well before either of these books came out – Aerial warfare in his novel The War in the Air (as well as other stories) and tank warfare in The Land Ironclads, written well before the word “tank” appeared. His view of tank warfare was too pretty, but he had his finger on the importance of aerial bombing.

He also wrote another book that was very influential – The World set Free is the first to use “atomic bomb”, and he describes the devastation wrought by dropping an atomic bomb out of an airplane on a city far in advance of the reality. Leo Szilard said that he was influenced in his proposing the atomic bomb by Wells’ vivid descriptions of its effects. (Wells’ bomb had an achingly slow chain reaction, requiring a very long time to double, rather than the virtually instantaneous detonation time of a real atomic bomb. But it was no less cdevastationg). wells got his information (and the term) from a book by the undeservedly obscure physicist Frederick Soddy.

Well, i’m not a military historians and i’ve never read either of those books, so i can’t comment on their significance. However, the Air Force Historical Studies Office saw fit to translate and reproduce Douhet’s book in its USAF Warrior Studies series.

It seems to be out of print on the Air force site, but there are currently four copies available, new and used, on Amazon.

I suppose one reason for Douhet’s book has been forgotten might be that, post WWII, most military strategists have rejected large-scale strategic bombing (as oppossed to limited targeting of transport networks and key armaments and communications hubs) as being wasteful and too dangerous for its benefits. But the OP asked for some military myths (in chronological order):

-The Americans won the “War of Independence”. Nope, the French blockade played a much greater role than the efforts of Washington’s troops- and without it, a resupplied Cornwallis would have crushed the Continental Army. Admittedly, Washington was an excellent general, and his troops fought hard, but I don’t think people remember the French role nearly as much as they should. People also forget (in my experience, anyway) that this really was a civil war, and far more Americans died fighting for the King than did British.

  • On a similar note: The Battle of Britain did nothing to prevent Operation Sealion, British involvement in North Africa was a fleabite compared to the war in Russia, and Dunkirk was a disastrous defeat. Britain’s role in WWII was mainly waiting until the Americans and Russians showed up, as well as providing technical expertise on a whole host of matters.

I think we are supposed to be looking for myths, not highly dubious contentions.

The fact that England was able to maintain air superiority over it s own territory power played a major role in preventing a German invasion. And England maintained air supriority inlarge part because of the Battle of Britain.

IIRC RAF pilots flew something like 75% of all European bombing raids during WWII. Saying that the British role consisted of “Waiting for the Americans and Russians to show up” isn’t in any way accurate.

No doubt you could argue for your point of view but it would be just that, an argument. That does not make the prevailing opposing viewpoints myths.

Simply not true. While the opposite is equally untrue (that it was prevented PURELY by the RAF during the BoB), this does not make this statement true.

While significantly smaller in scale than campaigns on the Eastern Front. These operations hapened when the conflict of eastern front was finally balance, and the outcome far from certain, so probably had a far bigger effect on the outcome of the war that later, larger, and more well known operations such as D-Day (by which time the germans had lost it was just question of how long, and costly, that defeat would be).

The battle for France was distastrous defeat, it is never potrayed at anything else. Operation Dynamo (the offical name for the operation) was an attempt to evacute the defeated army, it by-and-large succecced ( 300,000 troops were evacuated).

Simple not true. As well inflicting serious defeats on Germany in North Africa, (and later against the Japanese in Burma, which was almost was primary british and dominion campaign). The British continued to provide a significant portion of forces in the European theatre (the naval operation on D-Day was primarily a Royal Navy operation).

Myth: Columbus proved the world was round.

Fact: A reasonably accurate inferred calculation of Earth’s circumference was performed by Erastothenes of Cyrene more than 1700 years earlier, and an actual circumnavigation wasn’t completed until Magellan’s voyage, thirty years later.

His book was “The future of the army”. I have not read it myself (and cannot find a definitive cite). But I understand it was, along with similar books by visionary British Military Theorists J.C. Fuller and Percy Hobart, on the German Military Curiculum.

Most ground break theories look dated and obvious today, that does not make them any less ground breaking.

I guess that’s why Conrwallis played the crybaby and refused to come out and personally surrender his sword and didn’t even have the good manners to surrender it to Washington. France, Spain, and the Netherlands certainly helped us out but it’s kind of strange to dismiss the efforts of the Continential forces over an 8 year period.


One WW2 myth I’d add is that French were completely on the side of the allies during WW2 … While they fought bravely before the fall of france (the success Dunkirk operation was down the brave reargaurd actions by french units). Significant numbers of french troops, particularly in the colonies, maintained their loyalty to the Vichy regime and fought the allies… Madagascar, Lebanon and Syria all had to liberated from Vichy France troops by the allies (no significant numbers of German troops were invovled at all). Though it should be added significant number of Free French troops fought in these campaigns.

Re: the american Revolution; yes, the frtench were a critical factor in the defeat of Great Britain. Mostly, it was the french fleet (Adm. DeGrasse) who kept the british from resupplying Cornwallis. Of course, the british could have sent another army to N. America, but the fact was that the war was bankrupting the British, and parliament was in revolt. the British gave up because:
(1) the war was too costly
(2) the N. American colonies were not worth the expenditure
(3) the British fear that the french would use the war and attack England in the rear.

The French and Dutch also provided huge sums of gold with which the continental forces could back their currency. Without this aid the continentals would have been bankrupt and unable to wage the war at all.

(4) the British “southern strategy” had failed. Defeats at Cowpens and King’s Mountain, and continuing harassment by Francis Marion had disabused the British of the notion that they could use the southern colonies as a loyalist bastion from which they could conduct the war.

Right, the main issue with Columbus’s plans for the western route to the Indies were his radical underestimate of the circumference of the earth and his radical overestimate of the breadth of Eurasia in order to make the trip plausible. He was wrong, he lied, and he got lucky.
With respect to the American Revolution I always thought it was nice of Benedict Arnold to win the war for us before turning traitor. (bonus points for becoming incompetent at the same time he became a loyalist). Victory at Saratoga brought overt French and European participation, without which victory was considerably less likely.

Little George Washington did so cut down a cherry tree!

And he told his father the truth about it!

And his father kicked his ass!

I’m amazed to see these contentions (coming out of London, of all places).

Concentrating on early phases of the war, Britain won the battle of the North Atlantic against the U-boats as well as keeping the Luftwaffe at bay, preserving British soil as a base for future operations against the Nazis in Europe and providing valuable expertise in convoys and antisubmarine warfare for the U.S., which was badly unprepared at the outbreak of war against the Germans in 1941.

It’s interesting how some prewar books on military strategy were ignored. For instance, Admiral Doenitz had noted in published writings before WWII the importance of night surface attacks by U-boats against shipping. When the war actually started, the British were caught off guard at first because they were expecting attacks from submerged U-boats, and their ASDIC detection was useless against U-boats operating on the surface.

The story of the cannibalistic cave-dwelling Sawney Beane family gets repeated really often.

I’ve always wondered about the Balvano Limited train disaster – I read about it in the People’s Almanac series, but I’ve never seen any other accounts.

I thought *Panzer greift an * by Irwin Rommel was the book that influenced the German military. The French, meanwhile, though that tanks should be added to existing infantry dividsions, as support. I think it was Shirer who mentioned this.

Also, if you’re going to compare theaters of WWII in Europe, pretty much everything was a sideshow to the Russian Front.

Was BA really all that important?

One big myth that keeps getting repeated:

American Indians were hunter-gatherers.

Nope, most were farmers, until disease and genocide in the 1800s forced them to give up their lands and become hunters.

We all know that the Aztecs were farmers, but somehow we think of the rest of North America as hunters, despite everyone knowing the story of how Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to grow maize. Where would those indians have got the maize unless they were farmers? The Pilgrims moved into an indian farming village that was deserted because almost the entire village had died of disease, Squanto was the only survivor. He helped the Pilgrims settle in his own hometown because his people were already all dead.

The whole Mississippi valley was densely settled farm country, until plagues destroyed it. European settlers moving in found the land deserted, or thinly populated by hunters, because the population had crashed and society had broken down Mad Max style.