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