Saturday, 17 May 2014

Liddell Hart's History Of The Second World War

There are literally thousands of books available which provide an overview of the 1939-45 conflict, catering for many perspectives and tastes. Of those which major primarily on the purely military/strategic aspects, Basil Liddell Hart's "History Of The Second World War", first published in 1970, stands out, both for its level of detail and erudition and its absence of equivocation and bias.

Until recently, I had not read this book in its entirety for several years, and there is a greater quantity of discussion about grand strategy, and the "behind closed doors" elements, than I had recalled. Works of this depth travel comfortably beyond the wishy-washy generalisations seen elsewhere. Liddell Hart quotes extensively from diaries and official records, and from his own post-war interviews with some German commanders.
A lengthy pre-amble sets the scene. It is dispiriting, but worthwhile, to be reminded of the appeasement policies practised by Britain in the 1930s, and of the missed opportunities to stifle and confront Hitler's expansionist sorties, particularly those circa 1938.
In his accounts of the early campaigns of the war, the author emphasizes how comparatively fine the margins were between German success and their being repulsed by the Allies, in France in 1940 for example. He appears to adopt the line that the German victory in the West was not a foregone conclusion, dispelling a few common assumptions about that campaign, and highlighting, as he does elsewhere, how the impetus for the Wehrmacht's tactics emanated chiefly from certain of their field commanders, not from the high command itself.
As one of the early prophets, and advocates, of the new fast-moving armoured warfare, Liddell Hart is therefore ideally placed to judge how these ideas impacted on the course of events in the early stages of the conflict, and how those who failed to take heed of the new realities paid a heavy price for their blinkeredness. In expressing his exasperation at the failings of Allied strategy, he is not simply saying "I told you so", but does back up his assertions with reasoned analysis, whilst also allowing that the deficiencies sometimes resulted from political neglect and misjudgement, or economic factors.
Some of the arguments employed here about strategic and diplomatic matters are ones which appear to be unfashionable today, but I see that as a distinct strength!  These viewpoints are arrived at by reasoning and knowledge, whereas I get the feeling that many 21st century commentaries on World War Two are bland, watered down or populist over-simplifications, designed not to tax people's pre-conceptions too much.
The relating of the feverish diplomatic activity both prior to and during the "Operation Torch" landings in North Africa in 1942 is a fine example of how detail and comprehensiveness can give a more representative overview than the "bullet-point" tactics used in many versions. My impression, rightly or wrongly is that the British Mediterranean strategy in the 1942-43 period is given a qualified thumbs-up, even if fault is found with its later implementation. The dreaded word "sideshow" is not to be found that frequently in these chapters!
Liddell Hart's views on the Eastern Front are fascinating, including his view that the "backwardness" of the USSR in those days helped to save it from total collapse and defeat in the first phases of the German invasion. To my mind, he does not adhere as much as some observers to the notion that the Russian front was the only "real front" in the war.
There is a balanced, humane and realistic assessment of the merits, or otherwise, of the various Allied strategic bombing initiatives.  The blind alleys are highlighted, but equally the later innovations, breakthroughs and effects are acknowledged. The missed opportunities to end the war more swiftly on the Western Front are subjected to a lengthy dissection and lamentation.

The flaws and pitfalls in the "unconditional surrender" demands put forward by Allied leaders in both Europe and Asia are examined. Did this stipulation unnecessarily prolong the war, by bolstering both civilian and military morale, and defiance, amongst the surviving Axis powers?
On the subject of the atomic bomb, and the possible motivations for employing it, much emphasis is placed on the anxiety in Washington about forestalling increased Soviet influence in the Far East. The author persuasively argues that Japan was probably already finished before the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Did the bomb merely hasten the inevitable surrender by a very short time?
It may seem to the casual observer that the closing chapters on the chronology of the war itself are a little truncated, but on reflection this is probably just symptomatic of how quickly Germany and Japan collapsed. Also, most of the fighting in the Pacific did not lend itself to the mobile and fluid warfare about which the author specialized.
Those looking for a comprehensive social and political history of the war should probably look elsewhere. The "humanitarian" aspects of the conflict are rarely touched on in detail here, although Liddell Hart refers at times to the moral dimension, and the wider struggle for civilization.  If you want to read in-depth about those broader considerations, there are plenty of books which cater for those things handsomely....
Above all, what emerge to me are the author's clarity of thought, his disdain for inertia, and the power of his ideas. This is a lengthy work, but also one which can be devoured quite swiftly, such is its authoritativeness, and resultant capacity to maintain the interest.




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