The Second World War Explained

Reviewed by: Bill Evershed

Bravo Zulu, Mike!
Oh that we had all had this book available to us as Sub Lieutenants attending the Junior Officers War Course during our 8 months at RNC Greenwich in the mid-1950s. Indeed, the author’s ‘Timeline’ at Appendix 2 seems so reminiscent of the one issued to us. Or that I had paid better attention to our Lt Cdr-level Directing Staff, all of whom had served in the War; indeed one, as a Captain, had advanced to become a very young Brigadier but was now back to his substantive rank of Major. And our Captain of College who had been a junior Lieutenant at Dunkirk. Yes, all a long time ago.
Do young RN officers nowadays study World War II at all? Or is it already ‘history’ for study at school? If the latter, then I think this book could well find itself a big market as a textbook – certainly ‘Pen & Sword’ must believe there is a good market for it. It is well researched, easy to read, with large-ish and well-spaced print.
There must be thousands of books written about WW2 so why another? Well, because ‘it does what it says on the tin’. It explains things. So what does the reader learn or re-learn? For me it was the sheer scale, if spared the stench, of the slaughter. Fifty to sixty million lives snuffed out. Just imagine not a living soul left alive in our Islands. London and every other big city, town, village and hamlet totally deserted. Every single inhabitant shot, bombed, bayoneted, incinerated, drowned, dead from wounds, executed, starved, asphyxiated, or vaporised. How many British gave their lives in the Falklands in 1982? Two hundred and sixty. Or Afghanistan? Four hundred and sixty. Seven times these totals, 5000 men, women and children, were lost in a single German merchant ship sunk in the Baltic in 1945.
And if humanity is not enough, the stultifying statistics as every industrialised nation in the world geared itself up to a war footing for the manufacture of multi-thousands of ships, aircraft, tanks, guns, shells, torpedoes, mines, machine guns, rifles, helmets, uniforms. The snakes honeymoon of relationships at the fifteen or so meetings of the Big Three. Churchill’s early beseeching to Roosevelt and his later sidelining as the US had no wish to see any post-war resurgence of the British Empire. Stalin’s almost schizophrenic scheming and his successful bewitching of the ill and dying Roosevelt, who naively believed him, with consequences which still beset us 60 years later.
Both Churchill and Hitler were dynamic leaders but their meddling in the detail of the conduct of the war led to the exhausting exasperation of the former’s Chiefs of Staff and the latter’s demand for blind obedience which cost Germany dear in gross strategic blunders.
And for me, as an RN-er, the book explains the reasons why long before and throughout my career in the Navy, there was no great love lost between us and the RAF. Those 20 years prior to 1938 when the Air Ministry would not release maritime air back to the Admiralty and then, during WW2, ‘Bomber’ Harris’s obsession with Germany and his blind refusal to recognise that if we didn’t win the Battle of the Atlantic he wouldn’t have any fuel to fly his bombers anywhere. It is all here.
So who exactly is the market for this book? WW2 veterans, now in declining numbers, may not wish to be reminded of their war but could be intrigued to learn of the problems and follies of their leaders, civilian or military. We who grew up in WW2 but were, in the main, spared its horrors, would probably find it really interesting. But would our children? Or grand-children? Only those, I sense, who have been nurtured with an interest in history and geography.
So I return to my original theme. This is a superb and objective textbook for history in schools and of profound use to teachers. And if WW2 is studied at the Service Colleges, then it should certainly be required reading. Is it recommended for NR members? Yes, certainly so because, on the whole, we have a discerning interest in the lessons of history and of military history in particular.
And above all because ‘Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it’.