19 Nov 21

These two books about the Second World War at sea are essentially looking at the same topic, but could not be more different in the way they approach it. The central topic is specifically stated in How the War Was Won but only implicit in Operation Pedestal. It is the centrality of military materiel (platforms, fuel, weapons, etc.) to the conduct and outcome of war. It concerns the way in which human beings produce the materiel in the first place, in their relative efficiency in getting it to, or preventing it reaching, the battle area and then about the relative efficiency of the way in which the military consumer uses the materiel available.

Hastings focuses on the dramatic and very human story of the British fighting a much-needed convoy through to the beleaguered island of Malta in 1942. Although the bare outlines of the campaign – for that is what it was, not just a drawn-out battle – are generally well known, the author as a skilled journalist- cum -historian makes a real page turner out of his subject. The sheer guts of the contestants come out loud and clear as does the cool, unemotional reasoning behind some of the tactical/operational decisions that were made. For instance, it went against the grain for the Royal Navy’s Gibraltar-based Force 7 to turn back in the Central Mediterranean leaving the convoy to fight its own way through the narrows against what would surely be the toughest German and Italian resistance, but wider considerations meant it made sense. The Navy could not afford to lose another carrier. Likewise for the stragglers damaged after earlier attacks the odds for going it alone and creeping along the North African coastline, isolated and unprotected, seemed better than trying to catch up with a barely defended convoy about to get a real battering.

Hastings identifies and condemns the inevitable mistakes that people made and is particularly critical of the delay before Malta-based aircraft reached what was left of the convoy as it neared the end of its perilous voyage. His account is very well written as you would expect, his conclusions sensible and all-in-all Operation Pedestal is an agreeable, nicely produced, un-demanding read that is at the same time, thoroughly researched and reliable.

How the War Was Won, on the other hand, and in total contrast to the impression given by the dramatic technicolour picture of the Battle of Midway on the front cover, is a relentless slog through the statistics of the production and destruction of military materiel of all stages of all the theatres of the Second World War. The coverage is chronologically based, dense and repetitive and ‘illustrated’ by some of the tiniest tables of figures I have ever seen in a book produced by a serious publisher. One expects more of Cambridge University Press than tables only intelligible with the aid of a magnifying glass. But despite all this the reader keeps going because of the surprising and interesting points that constantly emerge.

O’Brien’s is a simple thesis. It was the production and delivery of materiel that won the war, not the great battles on land and sea that everyone is familiar with. Further, he advances the argument, and indeed shows, that it was because this campaign against the other side’s materiel base was largely fought by allied navies in the SLOCs and by air-forces in their strategic bombing campaigns against its manufacture and transport to the field of battle, that the operations of navies and air-forces are much more important than those of armies.  It’s not a great leap from the proposition that armies didn’t matter very much (that’s a bit unfair, O’Brien doesn’t go quite that far) to the much greater conclusion that it was the Western Allies who actually won the war not the Soviet Union.

O’Brien’s case rests on the fact, which he convincingly demonstrates, that far more tanks, aircraft, guns and ammunition were denied to the Germans by their not being manufactured in the first place, by their being denied the fuel the Germans needed for training and exercises, and by their interdiction and destruction before they reached the battlefield. The destructive results of even the great tank battle of Kursk on the Eastern Front pale in comparison with those indirectly delivered by the American and British bombing campaigns. It was the same story against the Japanese, although, interestingly, O’Brien argues that they were much more capable of manufacturing equipment and weaponry than generally believed. Their crucial air losses weren’t delivered by battles like Midway (on the cover, remember) or even the Philippine Sea, but by naval forces battering Japan’s SLOCs (reinforced by Japan’s purblind failure to recognise their importance) and, when the island campaign brought them close enough, by the US bombing campaign destroying most of Japan’s industrial capacity. Neither the Germans nor the Japanese could do much against American industry of course.  The Germans did their best with the U-boat war to prevent its products reaching Europe but comprehensively lost a campaign they could never win. The Japanese didn’t even try.

Some of O’Brien’s methods are perhaps debateable. He measures losses in manufacturing against Germany’s original production targets without going into whether those targets were realisable in the first place. His argument about the decisive role of seapower and airpower is partly based on the relative economic effort the Western allies devoted to producing ships and planes when compared to the weaponry of land warfare. But this is false logic. Navies and air forces are capital intensive and so more expensive; in itself that doesn’t make them more important, though, stretching a point, it might be thought to show that the allies thought they were! Some of O’Brien’s account of strategic decision is also pretty debateable.

So, summarising, what to make of these two books ? One easy conclusion is that they could both do with a bit more of the other’s approach. Hastings tells a dramatic story really well, but he skirts around the issue of military cost-effectiveness in terms of relative battle loss – of who won the battle and its overall significance in the grander scale of things. But on page 349 he makes a point that O’Brien arguably should have considered more than he did. “Winston Churchill”, Hastings writes, “understood better than did most of his commanders that the moral issues at stake in the conduct of a war are quite as great as the material ones. No battle can be justly assessed by a mere profit-and-loss account of casualties, of tanks, aircraft, ships destroyed. Perception is also critical and often decisive”.  Quite so. But undoubtedly there comes a point when the other side’s superiority in materiel does actually decide the day.

Both books are recommended. They make you think, especially in combination.