The ever-flowing torrent of Second World War books tends to provoke exasperation among the modern-minded. The enduring appetite for them seems sympomatic of an unhealthy obsession with bygone battles as well as a misguided nostalgia for an era when Britain was still great. When, they wonder, will historians let go and move on? The answer is probably never. Fascination with the War is not the same as fascination with warfare. It was the biggest event in human history, a manmade disaster of unparalleled awfulness. As such it will continue to appal and inspire as long as there is life on earth.
It was close to being a universal event touching hundreds of millions, each with a story to tell. Having spent years sifting through personal accounts of wartime by soldiers, sailors, airmen and civilians, I have yet to read one that was devoid of some drama, insight or interest. They record the abysmal depths and the soaring heights that humans are capable of touching. The breadth of experience was on an equal scale.For the people at the centre of the European war; the inhabitants of Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, the Baltic states and the Balkans the war mostly meant terror, hunger, pain, rape and death. For those in America and Britain, the conflict could bring opportunity — social, sexual and financial — a chance to shine and a sense of shared endeavour, so that many would look back on it as the best passage of their life.
Trying to wrap all this up in one volume is a colossal task, but historians seem willing to rise to the challenge. Antony Beevor’s effort comes hard on the heels of Max Hastings’s All Hell Let Loose, published to great acclaim and big sales only last autumn. Beevor engagingly explains that his book — which weighs in at a hefty 880 pages — had a “very simple and unheroic genesis”. When consulted as a general expert on the period he became acutely aware of the gaps in his knowledge. He has thus laboured to “understand how the whole complex jigsaw fits together, with the direct and indirect effects of actions and decisions taking place in the very different theatres of war”.
Beevor’s method is the same essentially chronological one he used in Stalingrad, Berlin and D-Day. Event follows event. You start these books expecting the author to break off the account from time to time to reflect, analyse or judge. Beevor, on the whole, doesn’t. The story keeps on coming. The method works. Eventually you feel yourself being carried along on the narrative flow, channelled this way and that through the pools and rapids by Beevor’s expert helmsmanship. It is not until the end that he delivers a sort of verdict. The reader is mostly left to form his or her own views about the meaning of it all.
Several big truths loom out of the mass of absorbing detail. One is confirmation of the increasingly standard view that the period 1914-45 is best viewed as a single chunk of history. There was no real peace in the interwar years, merely a pause while toxic ideologies proliferated, bringing a devastating new lethality to the conflict when hostilities resumed. Another is the idea that this was unreservedly a “good war”. Of the main combatants only Britain and the Dominions, and the United States can take any real pride in their conduct. The Nazis and the Japanese may have been defeated but communism was not, enabling the triumphant Soviets to enslave half of Europe for most of the next 50 years. Above all, as Beevor says, “Victory conspicuously failed to achieve world peace.”
As we have come to expect from the author, great events are leavened by telling vignettes and anecdotes. He ends the book with the story of a German farmer’s wife who was picked up in Paris having smuggled herself aboard a train bringing French deportees back from Germany. It turned out that while her husband was away at the front she had begun an affair with a French prisoner of war who had been put to work on their farm. The poor woman had risked everything in an attempt to be reunited with him. It is a tale that the late Richard Cobb would have relished, a welcome reminder of the power of good old love over rotten ideology.
From the macro to the micro. Christy Campbell’s Target London is a meticulous, archive-driven account of the V-1 and V-2 campaign that began in the summer of 1944. Both weapons were innovative; the V-2 particularly so. Allied scientists found it hard to credit their sophistication. But they were, as their name declared [V stood for Vergeltung-retaliation], essentially instruments of reprisal. Many Germans, from Hitler downwards, nonetheless deluded themselves that they would prove the salvation of the Reich. The mood was catching. Instead of interpreting them as a grand gesture of despair, the British political and military establishment regarded them with something approaching dread.
The story is a fascinating blend of drama and symbolism and Campbell has concocted a narrative mix as rich as the ethanol and liquid oxygen cocktail that blasted the V-2 heavenwards. Much of the tale concerns Allied efforts to determine exactly what the German army and air force were up to at a mysterious research site set amid the sandy heathland of Peenemünde on the Baltic coast. There was a fair amount of information to go on, from Enigma decrypts downwards and no shortage of boffins and intelligence experts to interpret it. Campbell has fun recounting the rivalries of a cast of strutting egotists led by the appalling “Prof”, Churchill’s pet scientist Lord Cherwell, who seemed more intent on preserving his monopoly of his master’s ear than countering the V-weapon threat.
There was little amusing about the back story. The V-weapon programme was a microcosm of the Nazi project. The feats of construction and production were achieved by slave labour. Campbell evokes the ghastliness in a single image of human robots, worked to death in their thousands, collapsing at night into tiers of bunk-beds “slithering with excrement”.
The effort soaked up a vast amount of desperately needed resources. What were the Germans thinking? The V-weapons flew in the face of their understanding of the utility of air power in which aerial bombardment was linked intrinsically with manoeuvre on the ground. The rationale was that saturation bombing would not only punish the British for the industrial bombardment of German civilians, but also produce a collapse of public morale that would force Britain out of the war. The Luftwaffe, though, had already tried that in the winter blitz of 1940-41, and got nowhere. The Nazis had only to look at their own cities to see that the theory that populations could be bombed into submission was rubbish.
Nonetheless, the V-weapon bombardment of London and the South East demoralised public and politicians alike. The blitz spirit was a memory. With the Allies ashore and victory in sight this was an ordeal too many. “[People] hated it,” observed H.E. Bates. “The edges of their nerves were rubbed raw by it.”
So too were moral sensibilities. Churchill was driven to raise the possibility of “drenching” German population centres with poison gas and even anthrax, a move that would have caused problems for the shaping of the Allied “good war” narrative. In the end, the V-weapons were defeated by a combination of fighters, anti-aircraft artillery and the capture of the launching sites. The “wonderweapons” had achieved little more than killing nearly 9,000 civilians.
As Campbell points out, however, the pioneering rocket science involved “jolted human history into a direction in which it is still travelling”. After the war the chief Nazi rocketeer Wernher von Braun was snaffled by the Americans and became a national hero in the US after the launching of the Explorer satellite in 1958. A biopic was made called I Aim at the Stars. The multiple ironies were summed up in Mort Sahl’s brilliant gag. A better title, he suggested, was ”I Aim at the Stars, but Sometimes I Hit London.”