The main idea of this book is to review history of WWII through somewhat different prism than usual concentrating on chronology and detailed narrative of events. This book concentrates on components of this struggle: Ideology, Technology, Strategy, Armies, and People. It also stresses diversity of the war when in different places and at different times fighting involved multiple countries and cultures and was very different in its nature and consequences. The narrative supports the idea that it actually was a struggle consisting of multiple wars from somewhat knightly and courteous African campaign when both sides behave more or less according to “civilized” rules of war to Eastern front where no rules except to win at all costs applied.
Author starts this book with reference to his memories of growing in 1950s among veterans of WWII. This is the source of his perception of this war as multiple wars that looked very different from each other depending on where people were during these years. This perception of WWII as combination of multiple and quite different war prompted him to write this book not as sequential history of the war, but rather as combination of different views at this huge event from different points: Ideas, Types of combat, People, Technology, and finally Results.
PART ONE. IDEAS
- The War in a Classical Context
This starts with the comparison of WWII with classical wars, which were mainly contests for territories and a bit of robbery. WWII started similarly with Germany trying to obtain more territory, but in process it outgrew this narrow meaning and turned into war of regime annihilation with population annihilated in process. Except for the Germany, for which it became genocidal war with main objective to annihilate Jews, all other sides pursued objectives of conquest and regime change with mass annihilation being only a method to achieve these objectives. Author also discusses unusually huge scale of this war in all conceivable meanings: geographical, number of participants and casualties and so on. Finally, the circumstances of the war initiation in author’s opinion has a lot to do with democracies unwillingness to use force at early stages or even prepare for massive use of force, consequently creating in aggressors’ minds well justified feeling of superiority of will and illusion that their economic inferiority would be irrelevant due to the briefness of the struggle and moral weakness of democratic opponents.
- Grievances, Agendas, and Methods
This chapter is about some details of psychological, political, and historical environment that led to war: grievances from WWI and believes that it was not really lost military by majority of Germans, believes in their Darwinian superiority when natural laws define winners and losers. Author reviews here the moral and intellectual mismatch of aggressors, who saw war as natural necessity and territorial and other demands with democracies that saw war as morally and logically impossible after carnage of WWI. Democracies perceived all territorial and other demands just as a method compensation for humiliation of loss that would eventually lead to satisfaction of aggressor’s demand and peaceful settlement of grievances. Correspondingly aggressors saw their own demands as an intermediate low cost method of attack used only temporarily until enough military strength for attack acquired, after which the total war and overwhelming victory would lead to permanent dominance over the world.
- Old. New, and Strange Alliances
The last chapter of this part is review of war alliances formation and how they changed during the war, which started with coordinated attach of Germany and Soviet Union against Poland, with consequent Soviet semi-neutrality of supporting German aggression economically, but without direct military action. Then, after 2 years of German’s mainly low intensity western war, the attack against Soviet Union made it into the most actively involved military participant that eventually suffered much more damage than any other country. Other countries also changed alliances during the war mainly after defeats, for example defeated France become more or less ally of Germany in 1940, but with Allies getting the upper hand by 1944, France returned to being one of the Western allies.
PART TWO. AIR
- The Air Power Revolution
This chapter is about tremendous technological and tactical revolution that occurred between two World Wars. From lightly armed wooden planes with small bomb load it moved to metal planes capable for decisive input into the war effort from effective tactical support of troops to massive strategic bombing of cities and industries. By the end of war with the use of nuclear weapons it practically achieved proven ability to win war on its own, albeit by massive annihilation of noncombatants.
- From Poland to the Pacific
This chapter is a review of the historical development air forces during the war from successful tactical air attacks that allow German forces dramatically decrease effectiveness of Polish forces to American strategic bombing and firebombing of Japan. This bombing, including use of nuclear weapons, forced Japan surrender without attempt to fight out on Japanese territory for acceptable for imperial Japan settlement by causing high level of casualties for Americans. Author provides an interesting map of the progress of air war in Europe when the new planes allowed Allies expand attacks more and more into Germany:
- New Terrors from Above
The last chapter on air power concentrates on strategic attacks on population and industries and their effectiveness or lack thereof. Probably the main point here is that idea of undermining population moral by terror attacks from the air is only valid when such attacks could lead to complete annihilation as it was case with Japan at the end of WWII. In case when it is just caused a few thousands of victims, it only increases population moral in support of war effort, especially when it is possible effectively retaliate, as it was case with attack against Britain using unstoppable missiles. However, strategic bombing demonstrated its effectiveness, even without complete annihilation of population, late in the war when Allied air forces obtained complete dominance over Germany and consequently were able suppress transportation and fuel production, making it impossible for Germany to continue industrial level mechanized warfare.
PART THREE. WATER
- Ships and Strategies
This chapter reviews participants’ navies, their ships and corresponding strategies. The key points here are transition of main power from battleships as main technological platform of early XX century to air careers and submarines as main technological platform of middle XX century, and submarine warfare directed at economic viability of opponent. The main mistakes of Axis power were overinvestment in battleships that were practically unusable either for Italian or German or Japan Navy. Similar mistakes of Allied navies, especially American were much less harmful because of overwhelming industrial power: USA built all of them: battleships, submarines, and air careers in huge numbers.
- From the Atlantic to the Mediterranean
This chapter reviews history of war in two theaters where the bulk if fight was against German and Italian navies. The key was battle of Atlantic between convoys and German submarines that had potential to isolate Europe from American industrial base. Initial German success was highly dependent on technology of anti-submarine warfare and Air coverage. When Allied technology allowed closing these loopholes, the battle was lost for Germany. Somewhat similar, but much smaller in scale and intensity was battle of Mediterranean. The main fight was about British access to resources of their Empire and main plyer was Italian Navy, which was poorly equipped and correspondingly failed.
- A Vast Ocean
The naval battle between Japan and USA followed typical pattern: much better prepared totalitarian militaristic society enjoyed massive success at the beginning, taking over significant part of Pacific resources. However, it failed successfully mobilize and use these resources due to its totalitarian nature. Besides Japan greatly underestimate American willingness to sacrifice and American public ability to understand that any settlement short of complete victory would be temporary with militaristic Japan coming back for more each time more and more powerful after integrating newly acquired resources. Author describes 3 periods of the war in Pacific and how initial Japanese superiority was first eroded, then matched, and eventually not only eliminated, but practically destroyed, opening mainland to complete annihilation.
PART FOUR. EARTH
- The Primacy of Infantry
It starts with the statement of primacy because no victory is possible without boots on the ground. The author looks at increased lethality of infantry weapons and overall their equipment in WWII. Author also briefly discusses specifics of expeditionary forces war and homeland protection war with the former much more “civilized” than latter. Author reviews newly developed methods of airborne infantry and demonstrates that its operations were much less effective than that it was expected. The final point in this chapter is that infantry of all armies was equipped with similar weapons, tools, and protection, but their behavior and effectiveness was different and highly dependent on culture.
- Soldiers and Armies
This chapter is going into details of each country military culture and behavior. Specifically, Soviet army relied on numerical superiority and ability to achieve nearly unlimited sacrifices of its troops reinforced by special detachments at the back of front line that would shoot retreating soldiers on the spot, British relied on professionalism of their troops, Americans on superior firepower, transportation, and overwhelming air and naval support. Correspondingly Germans relied on superiority of their soldiers based on camaraderie regardless of rank, widely acceptable freedom of initiative and decision-making at the lowest level, while Japanese relied on ideological conditioning that they expected to compensate for lack of equipment and firepower. The interesting point here is that both Germans and Russians respected each other as tough warriors and had a bit of contempt for Americans, but it was Americans with their firepower, equipment, and logistic support who were winning most of the time. Author also goes through tactical pluses and minuses of each force demonstrating that overwhelming superiority in firepower over German troop looked quite differently and resulted in different outcome depending on whether it was in Soviet or in American hands. Specifically, American casualties usually were relatively small, while Soviet typically were huge either in victory or defeat. At the end author gives credit land war victory where it belongs to Soviet army that was responsible for a vast majority of German losses, even if ration of Soviet losses to German was approximately 7 to 1.
- The Western and Eastern Wars for the Continent
Here author looks at the war in Europe as several different wars that occurred during period from 1939 to 1945. The first was brief and successful war of conquest by Germany in alliance with Soviet Union against Poland. The second war brought all continental Western Europe under German control. The final success of Germany was nearly complete destruction of Soviet military in 1941. The following initial success of 1942 eventually led to defeat in Stalingrad and then complete destruction of German Military and then political regime during 1943-1945.
- Armies Abroad
This is about specifics of fighting abroad for different armies. It starts with discussion of war in Africa where all: Germans. Italians, and British were fighting on foreign soil and in unusual for them environment. Author makes point that this theater was probably most civilized with all sides having no their own civilians under bombs so they behaved somewhat gentlemanly. After that author moves to look at the war in Italy and France where western allies were fighting on territories with population similar to their own. Author reviews conduct of military operations in these conditions. Author only briefly mentions Russian movement into Germany at this point. It follows with relatively brief description of war in Pacific with its island hopping and continuingly increasing American advantage in all things material over Japanese.
Here author reviews a part of WWII that usually does not attract a lot of attention: sieges. Actually, author refers to Stalingrad battle as siege, but it was not it, but rather just intensive fighting in urban environment. The real proper siege was in Leningrad where for nearly 3 years German troops surrounded city, starving to death more than a million people, but never actually trying to storm it. In addition to these two major battles author discusses other sieges of WWII: Tobruk, Malta, Sevastopol, Singapore, and Manila with Corregidor.
PART FIVE. FIRE
- Tanks and Artillery
This part is about technology of land war, especially its two main forms used: tanks and artillery. At first he looks at theory of tank use developed between WW wars and then moves to actual practice, looking a bit at technical characteristics and numerical ratios. Overall author seems to be trying to find the reason for victories or defeats not only in technology, but also at tactical use of it. Generally, experience demonstrated that superior French tanks of 1940 were nearly useless due to the failure to allocate them to right places in right numbers. Similarly, hugely superior German Tigers were over engineered that resulted in high level of mechanical failures and small numbers of these machines. One of the most interesting things here is that Germans tried, but failed to copy T-34 mainly due to unavailability of materials. Author also reviews history of Sherman tanks for which mass production was put way ahead of quality, making them uncompetitive on the battlefield against Tigers and Panthers. At the end mass production of Allies turned into such a huge advantage that it made qualitative superiority of German armor practically irrelevant.
PART SIX. PEOPLE
- Supreme Command
This is review of personalities of top leaders and an interesting discussion of their roles and ability to shape events. Author points out that it seems to be not necessarily depended on the political system that much. In democratic Britain Churchill’s personality and abilities quite possibly prevented defeatist settlement that would eventually deliver the whole Europe to Hitler, necessitating much more difficult and bloody war, than actually occurred. On the other side, the success of the plot against Hitler could quite possibly led to much earlier German surrender on much better terms. Interestingly enough the most important thing for success turned out to be correct allocation of decision-making power to various levels of the hierarchy so the decisions would be made at the level where people possess maximum information and therefore can actually implement these decisions. Overall overview of the leaders and their behavior demonstrated that they all were far from perfect, but also far from incompetent. Hitler and Stalin, who both were blamed for military failures of their countries, also were authors of their corresponding successes. There would be no quick victory over France or peaceful occupation of Austria and Sudetes without Hitler’s decisions and actions. There would be no Soviet victory without Stalin’s cruelty that cunning abilities, that assured support of allies and effective control over the country. Probably the most important role that leaders played was their ability to make final decision based on multitude of option presented by planners, generals, and managers, which right or wrong always defined the outcome.
- The Warlords
The chapter on Warlords reviews personality and actions of the second layer of military leaders: Manstein, Rommel, Yamamoto, on Axis side and Zhukov, Konev, Montgomery, and Eisenhauer on Allies side. They all were constrained by top leadership, but when allowed to act and provided with sufficient resources more often than not were successful.
- The Workers
This chapter not that much about workers, which on all sides did everything possible to produce maximum possible for their countries, but rather about economic power of these countries that to large extent defined outcome. Here is the nice top-level table of economic power during the war:
- The Dead
The final chapter about human face of the war and its participants is about those who did not survive the war. Probably the most interesting part here is that unlike all other wars, in this war winning side lost more people than losing side – Germany. The simple explanation is massive annihilation of civilians by German army that included not only Holocaust against Jews, but also indiscriminate killing of civilian population both directly and via starvation. The unusual part of it was that unlike losers of other ideological and racial wars, Germany was not subjected to mass annihilation and enslavement of its population, probably due to the immediate initiation of hostilities between two blocks of allies: Western democracy and Soviet totalitarism that made Germans useful for both sides.
PART SEVEN. ENDS
- Why and What Did the Allies Won?
After disastrous failure of the peace at the end of WWI, it was a very legitimate question. The answer author provides is that WWII provided for elimination of openly fascist ideology all over the world and opened way to transfer of former Axis powers into peaceful and democratic states. Unfortunately, it was also huge victory for another totalitarian system – Soviet communism, which obtained control over huge territory, was massively supplied with advanced technologically, including transfer to them of nuclear weapons by pro-communist elements in American establishment. The resulting power equilibrium led to Cold War.
MY TAKE ON IT:
It’s a good history and as far as I am concerned, the author’s approach seems to work very well. The history of events and their chronology is well known, but lots of details from technological to ideological are distributed all over the place in multitude of different books and are not really connected by one design. This book provides a good overview supplanted by good drill down to details, making it pretty well designed and implemented tool for understanding WWII and its role in bringing human history and development to the point we are in now.