Wednesday, August 3, 2016

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The Storm of War

Larry Hughes with a review of The Storm of War by Andrew Roberts.



This book by Andrew Roberts, The Storm of War, sets out to examine the Axis strategy on every front and to ultimately explain how the Axis alliance and the Nazis in particular managed to lose the Second World War.

Before giving a verdict on the book itself it is perhaps worth mentioning a thing or two about the author himself. Andrew Roberts is up front and direct about his own political leanings and states openly his politics are ‘extremely right wing’. He is an avid supporter of Israel and was fully behind the decision to invade Iraq in 2003. This may be off-putting to some history buffs immediately. These facts simply made no difference to this reader of the book. Rather, they explained one or two of the very few weaknesses in an otherwise extremely enjoyable, entertaining and educational read.

Roberts is interested in public policy and sits on the boards or advisory councils of a number of think-tanks and pressure groups, including Policy Exchange, The Centre for Policy Studies, The Canadian Institute for Jewish Research, The UK National Defence Association, The London Jewish Cultural Centre, and Intelligence Squared US’s Intelligence Council. He holds an honorary doctorate from Westminster College, Missouri. He is a Director of the Harry Guggenheim Foundation in New York, a founder member of President Jose Maria Aznar’s Friends of Israel Committee (alongside Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa and Alejandro Toledo), and in 2010 he chaired the Hessell-Tiltman Award for Non-Fiction. He is also Vice President-elect of the Guild of Battlefield Guides.[1]
The book is set out in eighteen chapters, each of roughly thirty pages duration and a concluding chapter of similar length. These chapters cover the rise of the German Nazi Party and Hitler, and the various theatres of conflict during the Second World War once it had commenced. Any of the chapters could be read as a short essay on that particular phase of the war and would be enjoyable and educational in its own right. The writing style is engaging from the outset and the history of the Second World War is delivered in a fast flowing, easy to read, but very detailed and educational way.

It is a book that is difficult to set down. It is, in six hundred pages, an absolute ‘pocket battleship’ narrative of the entire war which is punctuated here and there, usually in the conclusion of each chapter, with some little ironic comments and observations. Some of these which I personally found humorous were the observation regarding the plight of the Russian General in charge of their air force after the commencement of Operation Barbarossa, during which a massive percentage of Russian planes were wiped out on the ground in the first phase of the attack. The General simply shot himself. To which Roberts’ remarks along the lines of, that given the type of system and attitude which was in prevalent under Stalin at the time, this could actually have been counted as a positive career move. Or, as when the Japanese Commander over a glass of Champagne informed his officers in Burma on the eve of an attack against the British there, that they were unlikely to survive the campaign due to a lack of air cover, logistics and disease and this would probably mean none of them would see home again. To which Roberts injects the comment, the Japanese obviously did pep talks differently. Also ‘up there’ in these little asides was Patton toasting the wives of his officers saying, what pretty widows you are all going to make.

The book covers all the theatres of conflict as stated and even goes so far as to give insight into the personal dispositions of British officers and Generals too. The history of the much maligned Chindits for example and their Officer in command in Burma, Wingate, were given some deserved coverage in the book. Somewhat surprisingly Roberts holds little back and Wingate was described as having come sixty third out of sixty nine candidates entering the Royal Military Academy Woolwich in 1921. Whilst there, Wingate hardly blazed a trail either, graduating in 59th place out of 70. He had seen action in Ethiopia, also in Sudan and Palestine. He also was described as an ardent Zionist. Wingate had attempted suicide in a Cairo hotel in 1941 after the Ethiopia campaign, and was ‘exposed’ as a nudist who only wore a pith helmet and carried a fly-whisk in camp. Someone who never bathed but instead cleaned his body with a stiff brush and who ate raw onions for pleasure. He was also described also as a neurotic maverick and a foul mouthed scruffily dressed egomaniac.

This then is what the British unleashed upon the Japanese in the Burmese jungle. The Chindit campaigns in Burma achieved little but the loss of a lot of men, equipment and mules. Major General John Kennedy noted that Wingate’s men did however keep themselves extremely fit, possibly due to the certainty that they would fall into the hands of the Japanese otherwise. 

Roberts to his credit is unafraid to give a ‘warts and all’ insight into the war and participating personnel from an Allied perspective as well as the Nazis. However his ‘little Englander’ petticoat does slip into view occasionally. For example describing the Nazi difficulties when faced with a determined and more or less suicidal resistance of the Red Army soldier on the Russian front, Roberts claims that had the Germans advanced across the English Channel after Dunkirk they would have undoubtedly faced a similarly fierce resistance from the Home Guard in England. The reality was quite obviously much different. In spite of orders to fight to the last man at Dunkirk, the BEF, 250,000 of them (my own grandfather included) were lined up on the beach there awaiting evacuation carrying nothing more than their riffle and the clothes on their backs. Everything else had already been abandoned in the indecent haste to flee that followed the German advance through the low-countries.

Also, in spite of an order from Churchill again demanding the Allies fight to the last man and the last bullet, some 130,000 British and Commonwealth forces surrendered Fortress Singapore to a Japanese force of 30,000 men on push-bikes, in what was one of the greatest humiliations in British military history. The Nazis believed it would take eighteen months and five and a half divisions to take Fortress Singapore. The Japanese did it in less than two months with only two divisions, on bicycles. So, we can forgive Roberts his enthusiasm for the English Tommy. No doubt this was inspired by a nationalist fervour, in this case the Russian nationalist fervour against Nazism. 

There is however a very depressing realisation in the chapter on the final solution, the Holocaust. The detail here is gruesome and heart-breaking. Regardless of the authors professed loyalties, this is just beyond all imagination and contemplation. Some three thousand Nazis were able to control one hundred and twenty thousand Jews per camp. Eight hundred Jews worked for the Nazis in each camp and were kept well fed and separate from the other inmates. They led them to the gas chambers and disposed of the bodies afterwards. It is also evident that the Allies knew of the concentration camps and gas chambers from as early as 1942. There were even aerial photos available during the war which clearly showed the gas chambers and Jews being marched into them. A Jewish Organisation in New York and the European Jews themselves had called for the camps and railway lines supplying them to be bombed. The Allies refused to do so.

The reason given was incredibly that the Allies did not want to kill innocent prisoners. This is absolutely unbelievable given the carpet bombing of German cities and also of Normandy before the D-Day landings in which Roberts summarily ‘guestimates’ that between 80,000 and 120,000 French civilians were killed during the softening up of ‘defences’ before the Allied invasion. 30,000 Dutch civilians were also killed in a similar softening up by the Allies in an attempt to confuse the Germans of their actual intentions for D-Day. Dresden was carpet bombed at a time when the war was already over. The Red Army were a mere sixty miles from the city when the attack was carried out. Not to mention of course Nagasaki and Hiroshima when the war was to all intents and purposes truly over and the Japanese seeking surrender terms. Although after reading of the Japanese atrocities in China (13 million people murdered) and the Philippines, where babies were thrown into the air and bayonetted, and civilians slaughtered as a policy on the realisation that the Allies were returning, it is indeed difficult to empathise with the Japanese. Why the Jews were left to be gassed is a mystery.

The book's main conclusions regarding the Axis failure is down in no small part to the failure of the Axis powers to co-ordinate an overall strategy. For example attacking Russia on two fronts by Germany and Japan would possibly have defeated the Red Army. Not only did they fail to co-ordinate, they didn’t even notify each other of their intentions. Add into this the Nazi failure to finish of the BEF at Dunkirk when Hitler ordered the tanks to stop and permitted Goring and the Luftwaffe to attempt to finish the job and Hitler’s belief that the English were Anglo Saxon cousins and a deal could possibly be done with London.

GB would have possibly been forced to come to terms had the BEF been rounded up at Dunkirk. So instead of covering his Western rear first as England had always historically done regarding Ireland, he went headlong into Barbarossa and attacked Russia. Then with Moscow at his mercy he split his forces sending some of them towards the oil fields to the south. As the Red Army dug in, supplied from America and the ‘aircraft carrier’ UK, Hitler’s inability to deviate from Blitzkrieg tactics and adapt to an enforced war of attrition at Stalingrad led to inexplicable orders refusing to permit his generals to adopt occasional retreat and consolidate manoeuvres.

Once the initial heady days of stunning surprise victories were over Hitler was unable to change or even contemplate any other course of action. This it is claimed was down to the political superior race mentality of Nazism itself. A refusal to use women on the front as the Red Army did and the UK did on the home front and the racism which gassed Jews rather than utilise their industry and intelligence also had an impact. The refusal by the Nazis to consider the use of those ‘lesser- races’ as partisans in E. Europe also undermined the capacity for victory. Roberts points out for example that the Japanese offered autonomy to Indian soldiers fighting in the GB/ Commonwealth forces they had captured in South East Asia and states that out of fifty five thousand captured, forty thousand joined with the Japanese in fighting for India against the British. So too did the neglect of the U-Boat menace play a part whereby 45,000 dock workers and shipbuilders were sent to fight at the Eastern Front rather than building ships and U-Boats was an indication of a lack of foresight.

Hitler began the Second World War an estimated four years early. He had twenty six U-Boats in operation at the time instead of the four hundred and sixty three that had been built by the end of the war, albeit too late to make an impact. The breaking of the Enigma code at an early stage also meant that the Allies were fighting an enemy whose moves they were generally aware of before they were made.

This is simply incredible. The fact also that America was ‘in’ the war economically on Britain’s side from day one and was then able to dispense with any pretence after Pearl Harbour also meant of course that the Nazis were doomed to failure in any case.

This book is full of informative and entertaining insights into the Second World War and the people who fought it. There is much humour and a lot of sadness in the pages within it. It has been a pleasure to discover this historian Andrew Roberts and his personal politics aside I cannot wait to get my hands on some of his many other works.

[1] http://www.andrew-roberts.net/about-andrew-roberts/


Andrew Roberts, 2010, The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War. Published by Penguin. ISBN: 978-0141029283

7 comments :

AM said...

Lot of work put into that review Larry. Pleased you ran it on TPQ. Great stuff

Organized Rage said...

Larry, good review, will repost it on Organized Rage if OK with you and Quill. General Percival, the hero O/C who surrendered Fortress Singapore was the same swine who behaved disgracefully during Tan war. He favoured torturing prisoners, it is also said he mistreated Tom Clarke at the end of rising. A bully and Coward.

Niall said...

Enjoyed that review Larry....perhaps another book to look out for.

larry hughes said...

Thanks lads. Feel absolutely free to post the review at will as long as it is OK with the Quill. That's what stuff is written for.

AM said...

TPQ and Rage republish from one another on a regular basis. The more get a chance to read the review the better.

Steve Ricardos said...

Great review Larry,

Two small points on Singapore though, the Japanese had given a taste of their brutality when they invaded the Alexandra Hospital and promptly shot all the patients, nurses and doctors.

After which they also captured the main water supplies though the didn't turned them off immediately, the threat was implicit and the British had no real choice but to surrender and hope for POW treatment. But Jap POW treatment as we now know was nothing short of murderous.

Michael Mahoney said...

Larry, as always your black humor and insistence on finding the absurd amidst the grim lightens this heavy topic. I'd really like to have this tome around the house. On a personal note, an English cousin of mine, different generation, fought in Burma with Wingate and the Chindits. Others in the Blandamer family (my mother's side), who are Hardy Country folk from Dorset, describe him as a curious, affable bloke who came back from Burma a changed man, a damaged man. The deprivations and psychological horrors of that odd British campaign apparently did a number on his head.

A part of the Blandamer family had a pub in East Knighton, Dorset. T. E. Lawrence burst the bubble of fanciful notion there. He abstained from abstaining. The great man made the pub his local and often drank heavily; as a result, he was forced to store his beloved Brough in the pub shed. So much for the influence of Muslim Arabia. The publican then was the brother of my gg-grandfather Harry Blandamer, who emigrated to America around about that time. Like Lawrence, the Chindit veteran must have sat at the bar with memories of exotic places, memories that were undoubtedly tinged with terror and remorse.

Really enjoyed reading that, Larry, learned a lot too. Great review my friend. You take care.