Of the writing of books on the Second World War, and the reading public’s appetite for them, seemingly, there is no end. And the past few months have seen a particularly rich crop from some of our finest and most senior historians of the conflict; their books representing the considered summation of their thoughts on the worst disaster humankind has yet to experience.
Of the quartet under review, David Edgerton’s Britain’s War Machine offers the boldest revisionist argument that seeks to overturn some of our most treasured assumptions about Britain’s role in the war. Until Edgerton detonated his grenade our lazy assumption was that Britain — particularly in that annus mirabilis 1940 — was the plucky little underdog standing alone against the German juggernaut that had conquered the rest of Europe.
The truth, remorselessly revealed by Edgerton, an economic historian with an army of marshalled facts and figures at his fingertips, is that the plucky little pipsqueak was a global superpower, still commanding an unconquered empire that embraced around a quarter of the world. Britain may have had a small army, which had lost its kit and its pride at Dunkirk, but its Navy was second to none, and had destroyed much of Germany’s tiny surface fleet during the otherwise disastrous Norway campaign, and its air force — as the Battle of Britain proved — was about to humble the might of the previously all-conquering Luftwaffe.
Perhaps more importantly, as Edgerton repeatedly emphasises, the almost limitless productive capacity of the British Empire was at the mother country’s disposal. Plants and factories, farms and fields in distant Australasia, South Africa, India and Canada turned out the finished goods and raw materials, the food and fuel, needed to keep the war machine turning over at a rapid rate. So long as the Navy could keep the U-boat menace at bay and hold the sea lanes open, then Britain could never be conquered. Knowing these facts Churchill — and even that mean-spirited Anglophobe De Gaulle — had substance behind their rhetoric when they told their respective nations, in the dark days after the fall of France, that Britain may have lost a battle but that she would ultimately win the war. This is truly an eye-opening book that explodes the masochistic myth of poor little Britain, revealing the island as a proud power with the resources needed to fight and win a world war.
With a little help from her friends, of course. Perhaps Max Hastings sometimes goes too far in repeatedly pointing out that the war was not won in the skies over Kent and Sussex, nor in the sands of North Africa or the jungles of Burma, and not even on the beaches and Bocage of Normandy — but in the snowy wastes around Moscow, Stalingrad and Leningrad in the winters of 1941 and 1942. In All Hell Let Loose — his mighty history of the war, and the best single volume on the subject currently available — Hastings again thumps his familiar kettle drums of war: compared to Russia, all the war’s other theatres were essentially sideshows; Bomber Command’s air war on Germany was wasteful of life ( not least those of the 55,000 aircrew who died pulverising Germany) for questionable gains; that, man for man, the German soldier outclassed any warrior from any other nation; and finally, that the class ridden officer caste of the British army produced commanders who were — with a few exceptions, such as Slim of Burma — mediocre, or sometimes downright disastrous.
Hastings has repeated these themes in books going back thirty years and more. Perhaps it is a sign of the mellowing of age that his idee fixe seems less strident this time around. Hastings’ own characteristic voice — so opinionated that you feel that if only he had had a corps or a fleet there at the time the whole shooting match could have been wrapped up much sooner — is more muted now. And he has yielded the authorial floor to the ordinary people whose quotations, tellingly chosen, pepper every page of this fine and moving book.
Late in the day, another historian who makes frequent and judicious use of eye-witness accounts, Antony Beevor, has brought his own heavy artillery into battle with another sweeping one volume history. The Second World War crowns the stunning achievement of his trilogy of books on Stalingrad, Normandy and the Fall of Berlin with an over-arching account of the world at war written, as he has candidly confessed, partly to fill in areas of the conflict of which he previously knew little.
This includes the war in the Far East against Japan. Beevor considers that the war really began not in Poland in 1939 but with the bestial Japanese assault upon an almost defenceless and distracted China in the mid-1930s. Writing with compassion as well as the hard eye of the professional soldier, Beevor illustrates the war as a gigantic human tragedy in which mass suffering and hecatombs of life were the price paid for the ideological fanaticism and inflated egos of the warlords (on both sides) who unleashed history’s greatest tragedy with scant regard for the millions of lives scattered and trampled in the process.
Finally, Hitler’s biographer Sir Ian Kershaw’s The End, concentrating on the Gotterdammerung that engulfed the Thousand Year Reich after just twelve, asks why Germany, with all hope of victory long gone, took as long as she did to collapse in 1945. His answer confirms Hastings’ doubts about the effectiveness of the bombing Blitz that had reduced the Reich’s cities to rubble. German efficiency, thoroughness and innovation kept the sinews of war intact and functioning when, on paper, they should have been broken long before. And the terror state, run by the SS, kept ordinary Germans in a straightjacket of fear in which they performed their functions like automatons, in a state of suspended animation caught between hope that Goebbels’s much promised secret weapons would come in time to save them, and terror that the rampaging Red Armies of Bolshevism would first rape and then kill them. The hopes proved dupes, but the fears proved all too terribly true.