Lines from the front

NIGEL JONES strongly rec­om­mends a Sec­ond World War his­tory that of­fers fresh per­spec­tives on the con­flict

BBC History Magazine - - Reviews - Nigel Jones is the au­thor of Peace and War: Bri­tain in 1914 (Head of Zeus, 2014)

The War in the West: A New His­tory. Vol­ume 2: The Al­lies Fight Back, 1941–43 by James Hol­land Ban­tam, 752 pages, £25

How many gen­eral heavy­weight his­to­ries of the Sec­ond World War can the mar­ket en­dure? Shelves are al­ready groan­ing with big books on the sub­ject in re­cent years f from bi big hit­ters like Max Hastings, Nor­man Davies, Antony Beevor and the in­de­fati­ga­ble An­drew Roberts – and many lesser lu­mi­nar­ies be­sides.

Now the equally pro­lific James Hol­land has reached the half­way point of his mas­sive but read­able chrono­log­i­cal tril­ogy on the con­flict with this im­pres­sive sec­ond vol­ume. So how does Hol­land’s work stand out in a very crowded field?

There are two as­pects of Hol­land’s am­bi­tious aims that dif­fer from his ri­vals, it seems to me. The first is a re­fo­cus­ing on Bri­tain’s role in the war. The sec­ond is an in­sis­tence on pre­sent­ing three key facets of the war si­mul­ta­ne­ously, giv­ing each equal weight: the over­all strat­egy of the war­ring war­lords and na­tions; the eco­nomic sinews of the strug­gle; and the front­line ex­pe­ri­ences of those who ac­tu­ally fought the war at the sharp end – from the sol­diers, sailors and air­men in the teeth of the ac­tion to the civil­ians caught up in a cat­a­clysm not of their mak­ing.

Hol­land’s nar­ra­tive opens in mid1941 as Hitler launches Op­er­a­tion Bar­barossa, his bold in­va­sion of his erst­while de facto ally, Stalin’s So­viet Union. Just as with Ger­many’s Bl­itzkrieg con­quest of western Europe the year be­fore, the Ger­man at­tack be­gan with style and swag­ger, daz­zling friend and foe alike with its vast swathes of con­quered ter­ri­tory, le­gions of So­viet pris­on­ers, cities cap­tured and planes de­stroyed.

But be­neath the sur­face sheen, as Hol­land points out, all was not as it seemed. The Ger­man armies were still un­der-mech­a­nised and de­pen­dent on horses and the shanks’s pony of march­ing men. Mean­while, a glance at the map would tell any sane com­man­der that the end­less empty Rus­sian steppes and the com­ing Rus­sian win­ter would slow any ad­vance to a par­a­lytic crawl.

But then, as the next years would prove, the in­creas­ingly de­mented führer was not that com­man­der, and his mi­cro-man­ag­ing of the cam­paign and crazed strate­gic er­rors would ul­ti­mately seal its fate.

Mean­while, be­hind Ger­many’s back, an un­de­feated Bri­tain hung on, pa­tiently shift­ing its re­sources from de­fend­ing its is­lands from the Blitz to ex­tend­ing the strug­gle to a global, rather than merely a Euro­pean, war. Mar­shalling sup­port from its Com­mon­wealth al­lies such as Canada and Aus­tralia, Bri­tain’s con­voy sys­tem won the Bat­tle of the At­lantic against the ma­raud­ing U-boat wolf­packs, while, from De­cem­ber, Churchill’s canny pol­icy of lur­ing

Hol­land fo­cuses equally on strat­egy, the eco­nomic sinews of the strug­gle and the sol­diers’ front­line ex­pe­ri­ences

the US into the war achieved de­ci­sive help from an un­ex­pected quar­ter: Ja­pan’s sur­prise aerial at­tack on the US navy at Pearl Har­bor.

These two events, Bar­barossa and Pearl Har­bor, as Hol­land shows, truly were the hinge of fate when the hopes of the Axis for vic­tory crum­bled into ashes. It may not have seemed like that at first: there were plenty of Al­lied dis­as­ters and de­feats to come – from Rom­mel’s bravura per­for­mance in north Africa to Ja­pan’s spec­tac­u­lar sweep through Bri­tain’s far east­ern em­pire – but the over­whelm­ing in­dus­trial su­pe­ri­or­ity of the US, com­bined with the sheer in­vin­ci­bil­ity of the So­viet Union meant that fi­nally the war could only have one end.

He puts the case for Al­lied tech­no­log­i­cal and mil­i­tary skills as vi­tal in turn­ing the war’s tide

Though as­sid­u­ous and du­ti­ful in as­sem­bling eco­nomic statis­tics and ex­plain­ing the strate­gic goals of the pro­tag­o­nists, Hol­land is clearly at his hap­pi­est when re­port­ing how it felt to be the war­riors ac­tu­ally do­ing the fight­ing. Quot­ing from a stag­ger­ingly wide ar­ray of sources, he brings us re­ports from in­side a bomber grind­ing Ger­many to de­struc­tion and also from those ab­sorb­ing the pun­ish­ment on the ground.

Dis­sent­ing from the ad­mir­ing view most as­so­ci­ated with Sir Max Hastings – that man for man and ma­chine for ma­chine the Nazi co­horts were the war’s most for­mi­da­ble war­riors – and that only the dull su­pe­ri­or­ity of num­bers and re­sources brought Al­lied vic­tory, Hol­land puts the case for Al­lied tech­no­log­i­cal and mil­i­tary skills as a vi­tal fac­tor in turn­ing the war’s tide, and makes us ea­ger for the third and fi­nal part of what now ranks as a tow­er­ing work of his­tor­i­cal re­search and writ­ing.

Waf­fen-SS sol­diers at­tack a So­viet vil­lage as part of the Nazis’ huge Op­er­a­tion Bar­barossa, June 1941

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