Blood, toil, tears and sweat
SECOND WORLD WAR
by Martin Gilbert
Weidenfield & Nicolson, £18.95, pp.846
THE SECOND WORLD WAR by John Keegan
Hutchinson, £19.95, pp.608
STRUGGLE FOR SURVIVAL: THE HISTORY OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR by R. A. C. Parker
OUP, £14.95, pp.327
In the immense output of writing about the second world war in this year, the 50th since its outbreak, these three books, different in approach, style and make-up, are likely to be of lasting interest.
Martin Gilbert's, the longest, has the advantage of its author's close association with Winston Churchill; his six-volume biography is unlikely to be surpassed. His narrative, clearly and persuasively set out, with helpful touches like the heading of each page by the year in question, a most useful index whose entries carry some indication of subject matter, and a splendid set of maps, many drawn by himself, makes much use in its course of anecdotal illustration. This lends liveliness and verisi- militude, but the episodic effect can be distracting. Moreover, since this book is likely to become a respected source, the question has to be asked whether the illustrations used are always aptly chosen or even accurately reported. Some of us with close first-hand experience of events described here may find this account of those personally known at best ill- balanced. Out of five years of warfare, all but a few months of it overseas in three different continents, I find several inst- ances where what is reported here does not fit my own experience. I single out one for frank criticism.
A detailed account of the German cap- ture of Crete in the first major airborne battle in history (and for the Germans the last) takes up three pages in Gilbert's book, with a good map. The principal actors on either side are identified by name, as are the recipients of three Victor- ia Crosses. In contfast, the British and American airborne operation in Holland in September 1944, 'Market Garden', which used up resources that might have been better applied to opening the Scheldt but would, if successful, have shortened the war by some months, receives no more than 16 lines, half of them misleading. The two principal British commanders receive no mention at all. They were that great fighting Scot Roy Urquhart, who stoutly defended the whole bridgehead until he withdrew the remnants of his First British Airborne Division across the Rhine on 24 September, and John Frost, whose epic battle at the Arnhem bridge with his 2nd Parachute Battalion lasted five days in- stead of the two expected of him. These are ignored and deserve better. The award of not three Victoria Crosses but five is not mentioned either, though one given to Flight Lieutenant Lord, for an act of bravery in a supply drop which will not be forgotten by any of us who saw it from the ground, is alluded to later in a summary of air operations. Instead, half of Gilbert's short report is devoted to an inaccurate account of action by Major Richard Lons- dale, whose fine performance hardly de- serves to be cheapened by misrepresenta- tion. Lightly injured by flak on the way in, and so left out of the battalion in my own Parachute Brigade in which he was second- in-command, he was put in charge of a group of stragglers whom he then led most bravely in battle. One of the Victoria Crosses, of which no mention is made in Gilbert's narrative, was won in this little force. Like many other officers of his rank `Would madam prefer a lady's glass?' he fought outstandingly well, with his own notable panache, but the claim that his was the action that safeguarded the main escape route of the division is just not true. He was not the last man out, either, as Gilbert claims, and he did not swim across the Rhine. He went over by boat. There has been something of a publicity cam- paign, now happily subsiding, to inflate Lonsdale's achievements and Gilbert may have been influenced by this. Those who know what happened here, however, may well question the reliability of other accounts of illustrative action in this book.
The later stages of Gilbert's Second World War tend to become a grim and perhaps necessary but on the whole tedious catalogue of killing, whether in battle, from bombing, or in the horrifying activi- ties of extermination camps or special murder units. An admirable bibliography testifies to the striking breadth and depth of the author's scholarly prepa- ration, much of which has contributed to impressive earlier work. In addition to the Churchill biography and much else, there is The Holocaust (1986) a history of the Jewish tragedy. The main core of interest in this book, however, is likely to consist in the light it throws on Churchill himself, a person who was inconsistent at times, even capricious and often a little wayward, but incomparable as a war leader, with his country fervently behind him, and sadly prescient of dangers in the unfinished business, when the fighting was over, that lay ahead. Always aware that no warfare is justifiable without a clear political aim, he was troubled by his inability, especially after Roosevelt's death, to bring this home to his American allies, and was equally saddened by his failure to secure full American support in his efforts to moder- ate Stalin's expansionism. The unfinished business of the second world war is still with us. Martin Gilbert makes it clear that if Churchill's guidance had been more fully followed it could today have been less.
John Keegan approaches his task in recognition of its virtual impossibility. To give an account in one volume of the causes, course and consequence of 'the largest single event in human history' (can it be called that?), which left 50 million dead and hundreds of millions injured in one way or another, is hardly possible. He identifies four topics, described as narra- tive, strategic analysis, battle pieces and themes of war, and then divides the whole into six sections, each examined under these heads. In his attempt thus to impose some order upon a chaotic whole he marshals a huge mass of evidence and presents a survey of it which must com- mand attention and respect.
Demographic changes together with technical and industrial development in the 19th century led to a `militarisation of Europe', with enormous increase in the military forces available to fiercely com- petitive nation states. This made general war, Keegan submits, in due course inevit- able, with every citizen a prospective sol- dier and every soldier a recycled civilian.
Hitler was the channel through which flowed a resurgence of aggressive German nationalism, determined to shed the shack- les of Versailles, recover territory torn away and re-establish Germany in its right- ful place among the great nations. The destruction of the old enemy, France, and the newer enemy, Bolshevik Russia, were obvious objectives, with the purging of the nation from the poison of Jewry as a necessary step towards paramount nation- hood. Stalin refused to believe that the USSR would be attacked and continued to pour valuable suppy into the Reich up to the very day, 22 June 1941, that the Barbarossa Campaign opened. Hitler and most of his military henchmen expected a push-over, with the Red Army destroyed in a matter of weeks and no need for winter clothing. Certainly Stalin's purge had gravely weakened the Soviet Army and Keegan's summary of it makes striking reading. The Russian soldier's dour fight- ing quality, however, Hitler's inconsisent and capricious interference in military op- erations and the onset of a Russian winter stopped the German invasion in front of Moscow and Leningrad and began, slowly at first, to drive the invaders out.
Keegan examines each of the strategic dilemmas facing the principal figures on the stage. These are, in turn, Hitler, Tojo, Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt, the last study in many ways being the best. He avoids the temptation to over- simplification in the handling of monstrous masses of material, still incomplete, but ploughs a steady furrow through it. He is a little inclined to emphasise the 'most' the biggest, the fastest, the most expen- sive, the greatest in some other way — but in description of this war superlatives are hardly out of place. His handling of Chur- chill's dilemma when America's full entry left him no longer the warlord of the West, is deft and sympathetic. In spite of Mar- shall and King, who headed an important body of Ainerican public (and naval) opin- ion that Japan was the main enemy, Roosevelt managed to keep the Alliance steady on the aim of defeating Germany first, though resisting Stalin's insistence on early invasion of north west Europe in case it were to be so ill-prepared as to invite defeat, and also resisting Churchill's in- clination to move the war into the Balkans and southern Europe, through some appa- rent doubt as to the sincerity of British intentions. He regarded Britain's imperial pretensions with scepticism and was by no means sure that a dominant British pre- sence in central and southern Europe was wholly desirable.
Keegan's chapters on war production and supply are clear and helpful, his tale of grim horror in occupation and repression saddening, his assessment of strategic bombing (was area bombing a war crime, as well as a tragic miscalculation?) calm and useful, his treatment of weapons and techniques on the whole fair. The Russian T34 tank on the pre-war Christie model may have been the best tank of the war, but we on our side were happy enough with our American Shermans, when we got them to replace the earlier sorry run of British failures and unsatisfactory early American types like the Grant and Ste- wart. His account of the extraordinary translocation of Russian industrial equip- ment into safe depth behind the Urals will come as new to many. So will the light he throws on Hitler's uncertainties and Sta- lin's doubts and vacillations.
Among many points upon which more can be said there is one I must correct. It is not true that after Crete 'Allied Airborne Forces had established the doctrine that airborne descents should be made at a distance from the chosen target'. This was the doctrine of Allied Air Forces, thrust by them upon the Airbornes. These adhered to the principle that a drop onto or very near the objective was critically important, even if it meant casualties. Unwillingness to accept these should mean radical review of the operation and even its cancellation. We on our side knew what an approach march of five miles through alerted de- fences would mean, even without part of a Panzer Division standing in the way, as those who attended my own last Brigade conference before taking off for Arnhem will recall.
Alistair Parker's book, the most com- pact of these three, is essentially that of a professional historian. Making good use of `I hope its Ozone Friendly.' his sources, what he has written is less military history, telling how the greatest war the world has seen was won and lost, than an analysis of its causes and consequ- ences with a careful avoidance of national prejudice and, above all, any tendency to regard the whole earthshaking business as now finally at an end.
The German attack on Poland was the occasion, not the cause, of war. Hitler's determination on armed aggression for the defeat of France and the destruction of Bolshevism made war, of course, inevit- able, though he still hoped for an amicable concord with Britain in a partnership of power on land with strength at sea, while he would be glad (though this was of secondary importance) to recover Ger- many's lost colonies and a place in the sun. France, with an army of uneven quality and largely out of date, had consistently made concessions in the Thirties. Britain's policy of trying to reconcile incompatibles was the catalyst which precipitated the explosion. Two main wars then developed, one in the West and another in the East, with many sideshows. Parker seizes on the outstanding features of each main war, with some attention to the more significant sideshows.
The chapter 'Japan attacks' is a particu- larly valuable analysis of events in the East, moving to a climax in 1941 when the `uniquely successful politician Roosevelt had given as much aid to the enemies of Germany as American public opinion would tolerate' and now found, after the well-planned Japanese attack on the US fleet in Pearl Harbour on 7 December and Hitler's declaration of war on the 11 ('we still do not know why he did it') full national support for American war against the axis.
We now see the principal actors in the drama of the West in calm review. Stalin's perversity and his dominant intention to preserve his own position, and that of Russia, come what may, is clear. Hitler's complete mastery of a political and military system in which his wayward interference in the conduct of operations, where opposition and even criticism were easily suppressed, is no less so. Churchill, lion- hearted leader of a fervently supportive nation, is seen as occasionally inconsistent. Roosevelt himself emerges as a thoughtful and detached but truly dominant figure, resistant to pressure for the direction of America's main effort against Japan, stout- ly supportive of Soviet Russia. He always remained of the view that military judge- ment in wartime must prevail and dis- trusted, with some justification, Churchill's intentions in southern Europe as politically motivated. On Roosevelt's death Truman was to allow Russian troops, in logical pursuit of his predecessor's principles, to secure the main cities of central Europe Berlin, Prague and Vienna — in order to save further fighting and American lives. Few books have done as full justice to
Roosevelt's power, persuasion and style.
Parker moves in the last four of his 18 chapters to a consideration of post-war Anglo-American relations, and the emerg- ence of the Cold War between Soviet Russia and the West, with comment in his final chapter on casualties, crisis and change, after a stunning penultimate chap- ter on the murder of the European Jews. This is the most balanced and best pre- sented (as well as the shortest) of the books now under review.
Each of these three books, in what is already a flood and can become a deluge, deserves in its own way to remain promin- ently on the surface.