Hastings has written eight books on various aspects of the Second World War previously. In this one he presents an overview of the whole conflict, with particular emphasis on the experiences of people who were alive at the time. To do this he draws extensively on contemporary records…memoirs and letters from both combatants and civilians.This makes for a sense of immediacy and drama, so the book, although long, is never dull. It isn't light reading, however; there is no shortage of horrors. In fact, I couldn't read continuously but had to break off at times to read something lighter, otherwise the succession of tragedies became too overwhelming.
But I don't want to give the impression that the book is just a collection of reminiscences; these serve merely to illustrate the story of the war, which Hastings tells with considerable skill. To do this he has had to knit together events in three very different theatres of conflict: Western Europe and the Mediterranean, Russia, and the Pacific and Far East. There are also two different enemies to consider, German and Japanese (the role of the Italians was minimal). Although Germany and Japan were allies, each largely pursued their own agenda and there was little direct collaboration between them.
The beginning of the war, leading up to the Dunkirk evacuation, was a disaster for Britain. Invasion seemed imminent (although it probably wasn't) and only Winston Churchill's coming to power averted collapse. (Incidentally, Churchill is three times referred to as having been First Sea Lord; he was in fact First Lord of the Admiralty, which is not the same thing.)
Paradoxically, we owed our survival and ultimate victory over Germany to Hitler; his decision to invade Russia ultimately led to his downfall. But the Japanese also played their part by making an equally big mistake that brought America into the war when they attacked Pearl Harbor. The role of Britain amid these events was of secondary importance, although that was not how it was perceived here.
A recurring theme in the book is Hasting's admiration of German military professionalism. Time and again the Wehrmacht out-manoeuvred and out-fought their opponents both in Europe and in Russia, at least to begin with. They also had better tanks and fighter planes, at least in the early years of the war. After the Normandy campaign one of Montgomery's ablest staff officers wrote of the Germans, for whom he had boundless admiration, 'I have often wondered how we ever beat them.' So why didn't the Germans win?
There seem to have been two main reasons, according to Hastings. One was that although the Germans repeatedly succeeded tactically on the battlefield, their strategic planning was poor. In part this was due to the generals, who were mostly less competent and imaginative than their divisional commanders; but a major contribution to defeat came from Hitler. Time and again he made bad decisions, especially in Russia. He also repeatedly forbade strategic withdrawals and insisted that units should fight to the last man, thus wasting enormous amounts of human and material resources.
Even if the Germans' strategic planning had been better, however, they would most probably have lost the war—certainly after the USA came in. This was because Germany was economically weaker than the Allies realised and was unable to replace its losses in sufficient numbers. It was also short of fuel after Romania fell to the Russians.
This may seem surprising, but Hastings isn't averse to discounting widely held opinions about events and personalities. The ultimate Allied success in the North African campaign was significant in that it provided a much-needed boost to morale at home, but its strategic importance was not as overwhelming as it appeared at the time. Neither Rommel nor Montgomery, Hastings finds, merits the great reputations they have acquired. Among the Americans Douglas MacArthur comes across as a 'vainglorious windbag'. Eisenhower was not a great strategist but his success lay in coordinating the forces of different nationalities under his command. The ablest British general, Hastings finds, was William Slim, who led the recapture of Burma from the Japanese in 1945.
The war in the Pacific had greater importance in American than in British minds; the Americans hated the Japanese but had little dislike of the Germans. I found Hastings' account of the defeat of Japan particularly interesting because I knew relatively little about it, probably because initial Japanese success against the British in Burma, Singapore and elsewhere appeared so inexplicable and shameful that we heard relatively little about it. In fact, the Japanese won thanks to British incompetence as much as to their own fighting ability. This was publicly admitted at a reckless press conference by a British field commander.
Allied censors smothered publication of his remarks, but they reflected the defeatism, incompetence, and incoherence prevailing among British commanders in the East. Churchill minuted the chiefs of staff: 'I am far from satisfied with the way the Indian campaign is being conducted. The fatal lassitude of the Orient steals over all these commanders.'
The role of the 'Chindits'—British forces that operated behind Japanese lines—was much trumpeted in the Indian and British Press, but they had little practical importance, as one survivor later confirmed: 'we had achieved absolutely nothing'.
Plenty of other little-known facts emerge in the course of the book. For example, when troops were brought from North Africa to take part in the invasion of Normandy there was nearly a mutiny among the 3rd Royal Tanks. And when troops did arrive in Normandy to liberate the French there was a fair amount of looting.
I was a boy during the war so many of the events narrated here are familiar to me, at least in outline, but I'm glad to have had the opportunity now to set them in their narrative context, as well as to know what was going on in other parts of the world while we in Britain were relatively spared, in spite of rationing and the Blitz. I read this in the kindle version, but it would have been better to have the printed version because in kindle the maps are so difficult to see as to be practically useless.
So was the war worth fighting. In a word, yes, but with qualifications.
Allied victory did not bring universal peace, prosperity, justice or freedom; it brought merely a portion of those things to some fraction of those who had taken part. All that seems certain is that Allied victory saved the world from a much worse fate that would have followed the triumph of Germany and Japan. With this knowledge, seekers after virtue and truth must be content.
In 1920 a book appeared with the title The First World War. It was a best seller but the title was considered to be sinister and in poor taste because it implied there would be another.
To call this book The Last World War might tempt providence, but it is at least certain that never again will millions of armed men clash on European battlefields such as those of 1939–45. The conflicts of the future will be quite different, and it may not be rashly optimistic to suggest that they will be less terrible.
Let's hope he's right.