Ripping Yarns

The Storm of War by Andrew Roberts

Do we really need another history of the Second World War? That’s the question that immediately comes to mind on picking up Andrew Roberts’s weighty new tome. After all, this territory is not so much well trodden as trampled. Type in “Second World War” on Amazon and you get more than 35,000 matches. What does this book add to all of that?

Well, the answer is plenty. 

That’s not because The Storm of War contains any startling new revelation. And you will, of course, learn more about any individual aspect of the war by getting hold of other books. If you want to read about the war against the Soviet Union, buy Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad; or the war on the home front, Juliet Gardiner’s Wartime Britain; or the economic history of the war, Adam Tooze’s The Wages of Destruction. But if you want an overview of the whole conflict — a sense of how the largest war in the history of the world all fits together — then this is the book for you.

Ultimately, you buy Storm of War to bathe in Roberts’s considerable gifts as a narrative historian. He possesses, for example, an uncommon confidence of judgment. “Winston Churchill’s most important, most dangerous, but ultimately his most constructive characteristic had always been his impatience,” he writes. “He had exhibited impatience throughout his life, both with himself and with the world around him.” On the next page, Roberts offers an unqualified insight into why the new Prime Minister was able to turn morale around as soon as he came to power: “Churchill had a certain idea of heroism — both his own and that of the British people — and in 1940 the two came together in a sublime way…” 

All historical writing is about selection — a skill that is especially required in this type of wide-ranging work. Luckily, Roberts selects in a masterful fashion between the key sources, picking examples that aptly illuminate his argument. Take, for instance, the way he illustrates the difference in leadership style between Hitler and Churchill. While first acknowledging that Hitler undoubtedly possessed a remarkable memory, able to recall the detail of thousands of individual weapons, and that the German leader used this gift to impress his subordinates, Roberts then laconically remarks: “Yet knowing the calibre of a weapon or the tonnage of a ship is far removed from being a strategic genius…Because a train-spotter can take down the number of a train in his notebook, it doesn’t mean he can drive one.”

And though Churchill “also took a close interest in the minutiae of war-making”, Roberts demonstrates that the British PM often used the information he learnt not to berate his colleagues, but to try and improve the lot of the ordinary soldier. When Churchill realised that troops in France were not receiving regular cooked bread and meat, he said that they “should not put up with it” and “instructed the War Office to accelerate the movement of mobile bakeries to France”. As Roberts accurately concludes: “Such an exchange would have been unthinkable at a Führer-conference.”

Not only is Roberts not a wishy-washy historian — no “up to a certain extent”-type weasel words for him — he is also unafraid to inject a certain wry humour into the work, which makes it all the more readable. Recounting the lamentable failure of the French High Command during the spring of 1940, he remarks that its generals allowed their headquarters to be a considerable distance away from the front line, adding: “Even in the land of chateaux this was taking chateau-generalship ludicrously far.” The strongest sections of the book — not surprisingly given Roberts’s previous work — are those about the Western Front. In particular, the way Roberts charts the shifting relationship between the Western Allies throughout the course of the war is exemplary.

More controversial is the lengthy conclusion Roberts appends to the book. His central thesis is that Hitler lost the war because, as he puts it simply, “he was a Nazi”. Roberts thus believes that Hitler’s ideological beliefs led the Germans to defeat. It is an argument that is certainly open to debate. After all, ideology doesn’t necessarily mean that a military adventure is doomed — indeed, the possession of an absolute belief system was one of the reasons that a variety of conquerors throughout history were successful. And during the Second World War, as Roberts acknowledges elsewhere in the book, things could have gone very differently. In the spring of 1940, for instance, more than 300,000 British soldiers might not have escaped from Dunkirk and there was a possibility — if Churchill had not been Prime Minister — that Britain might have sued for some kind of compromise peace. 

Equally, Roberts is in danger of underestimating the delicate balance that existed in the war between the Nazis and the Soviet Union in the autumn of 1941. A persuasive argument can be made, for example, that the most crucial moment of the 20th century occurred on 16 October, 1941, when Stalin decided not to flee Moscow in the face of the German advance. If Stalin had left the Soviet capital, then Red Army resistance might well have swiftly collapsed, with the Nazis forcing the Soviet Union shortly afterwards to make a humiliating peace. And this, remember, was before the Americans had entered the conflict. Hitler would thus have most likely won the war. And he would have remained, of course, very much a Nazi — a successful one.

But none of this is to take away from the power of Storm of War. Indeed, part of the joy of this book is that one can argue with Roberts’s point of view — not least because he so clearly expresses it. And in terms of narrative history the book is an undoubted triumph. 

This, simply, is the best one volume history of the Second World War currently available.

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