Max Hastings has written a definitive account of the war that redefined the world, says John Hinton
All Hell Let Loose
BY MAX HASTINGS HARPER, £30
World War II began with Britain and France blowing a chasm in their moral high ground, according to author Max Hastings. For they promised aid to Poland which they had no intention of giving. Individual Poles could scarcely believe it. But as Warsaw was reduced to rubble, a French army which promised to halt the invading columns never arrived, nor did RAF fighters help against the Luftwaffe which crowded the skies, attacking even small groups trying to shelter in the countryside.
Meanwhile in Britain, for six long months, there was a feeling that what was dubbed a “Phoney War” had been declared. Civilians wanted normal life to resume quickly and dispirited troops awaited orders which never came. Rejoicing in Berlin Adolf Hitler strutted about his first successes and happily conceded through his pact with Stalin the historically Russian part of Poland.
Stalin, the war leader least worried by casualties, ordered a winter invasion of Finland which was resisted heroically, causing massive losses until the sheer numbers of invaders prevailed. The spring of 1940 saw Britain actually commit reserve troops and the Royal Navy to the defence of Norway, but this was such a military pantomime that it led to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain stepping down and being replaced by Winston Churchill – a victory for the Allied war effort if not for Norwegians, who were left abandoned and occupied.
This was just the start of a sixyear battle against the Axis, later joined by Japan and America, which eventually engulfed hundreds of millions of people around the world, transcending everything in their previous experience.
From the jungles of Malaya to the icy waters of the north Atlantic, the Second World War was the defining event of the 20th century. Struggling to find words to describe the whirlwind, many would describe it succinctly as a time when “all hell let loose”.
Hastings has made a 30-year study of World War II which has been distilled into this masterly volume. His skill as an author of more than 20 books is underlined by service as a war correspondent reporting from many conflicts including Vietnam and the Falklands.
Like a circling eagle, he clearly sees the broad historical worldwide picture. Yet he is also brilliant at swooping down on the telling personal accounts which make the conflict come to life. “We have returned to prehistoric times,” said one woman in the terrible siege of Leningrad. “I’m proud of you and I love you all,” said a hospital matron as she and her colleagues were machine-gunned by Japanese troops. “Not a bird, not a green tree, no people, nothing but corpses,” said a stunned Frankfurt housewife of her street after an Allied raid. The remarkable escape of the small British force from Dunkirk in May 1940, celebrated here as a “miracle”, mattered little to the Germans whose over riding concern was crushing the French army, by far their most formidable obstacle. Their Blitzkrieg swiftly defeated troops whose commanders dreaded a repeat of the devastating losses of the 1914-18 war.
In June 1940, Italy’s Mussolini joined Germany, eager to share the spoils though without doing any serious fighting, as the Nazi war machine paraded triumphantly through Paris. With unerring timing, Churchill made his “finest hour” speech, urging doubters to abandon thoughts of defeat and ensure the survival of Christian civilisation.
The subsequent air assault on Britain was, according to the author, not only strategically ineffective but one of Hitler’s greatest mistakes. A few hundred RAF Spitfire and Hurricane pilots gloriously fought off the Luftwaffe. And the powerful Royal Navy stood by to make mincemeat of any seaborne invasion. The nightly Blitz was terrible but at least there were no jackboots during the day.
But Hitler’s cardinal error – as he replenished his armaments and his citizens enjoyed the luxuries plundered from France – was to plan an attack on Russia in 1941. This was to be an ideological crusade against Communism and a campaign of economic conquest. Yet it was to be the graveyard for the German army: 90 per cent of all German combat deaths took place on the Eastern Front.
The war’s statistics amaze even the author. The Soviet Union suffered 65 per cent of all Allied military casualties, China 23 per cent, Yugoslavia three per cent and Britain and the United States two per cent each. The feared U-boats attacked only eight per cent of slow Atlantic convoys and four per cent of fast ones. And this wasn’t always a war of good against bad. The truth is that many nations’ loyalties were divided. More Frenchmen carried arms for the Axis or Vichy – killing thousands of British soldiers in action – than ever joined the Resistance or Allied armies. And most of India’s 400 million people saw no joy in Allied victory if they still suffered British rule. If they shed blood for the Empire fighting the Japanese, they anticipated the prize of independence.
Among Hastings’s other informed conclusions: while their army fought brilliantly well, the Nazis conducted their war effort with “stunning incompetence”; the Royal Navy and US Navy were their countries’ outstanding fighting services and the industrial contribution of the United States was more important than its army.
Many vignettes are here, including the Dambusters’ raid, the sinking of the Bismark, Arctic convoys, desert and jungle combat, and the devastating demolition of German cities by RAF and USAAF bombers. Between September 1939 and August 1945, a staggering 27,000 people died every day.
The war did not bring universal peace, prosperity and freedom, concludes the author. “All that seems certain is that Allied victory saved the world from a much worse fate that would have followed the triumph of German and Japan. With this knowledge, seekers after virtue and truth must be content.” A reviewer can only add that a one-volume history of the war which trumps this volume is highly unlikely – just as unlikely, one hopes, as a repeat of a conflict on anything like this scale.