Writers for Conservatives, 65: World War II Again
Recently I wrote about books on World War II by Len Deighton, excellent accounts of the Battle of Britain, the 1940 Blitzkreig, and the last book, an analysis of certain aspects of the conflict, and now I want to call your attention to two books about the war in Europe in 1944-45, Overlord and Armageddon by Max Hastings, the most impressive books on the subject I have ever read. The author maintains a fine balance throughout of enough detail to make us feel the intense reality of what’s going on at the same time that we have a sense of the general movement. This is not just a matter of narrative balance — Hastings makes the point again and again that plans at the top must be carried out by the men at the bottom, that the success or failure of an army depends on its soldiers, especially in battle against the most formidable army in the world. German soldiers by tradition, by culture, by ideology and training were fighters, while British and American soldiers were civilians in uniform. This is not a bad thing in itself, but the fact and its ramifications explain what happened on the Western Front in the last year of the war.
“It seems fruitless to consider whether an Allied plan or maneuver was sound in abstract terms. The critical question, surely, is whether it was capable of being carried out by the available Allied forces, given their limitations and the extraordinary skill of their enemies.”
This is, I think, the unique value of these books. The focus, usually, is on the commanders and their plans. While Hastings does not neglect the elevated prospect, it is always tied closely to details of the battle on the ground, the struggles of individual units, and it is there that we see how the Germans were better at the task.
“Their tactics were masterly: stubborn defense; concentrated local firepower from mortars and machine-guns, quick counter attacks to recover lost ground . . . they were great opportunists. They were prepared to act — always. . . . It is not that the Allied armies were seriously incompetent, merely that the margin of German professional superiority caused them great difficulties.”
Two other points that Hastings stresses are the lack of full cooperation between the air forces and the armies, because the armies, in their vanity about their supposedly superior role as arbiters of destiny (“Bomber” Harris was still claiming in 1945 that our air power alone could win the war), could not see that “the war could only be won by the defeat of the German army upon the battlefield, an enormously difficult task to which all other operations by sea and air must be subordinated.” Of course, the superiority of the Allied air forces over the Luftwaffe, their absolute supremacy over the battlefield, was of great value to the troops on the ground, but they could have done better, as Hastings shows by his account of the success of those airmen who cooperated closely with the troops. The other critical point Hastings makes is the superiority of German weapons, especially of tanks, which could “brew up” Shermans almost at will, while the Sherman’s 75 mm gun couldn’t dent the Tigers and Panthers they faced.
Overlord ends in September when the Allies were in Belgium, pressing toward the German frontier. Armageddon takes up where the earlier book ends, but it also tells the story of the Russian offensives (in lesser detail) in 1944-45. The Russians bore the brunt of the war, and their losses and achievements were much greater than those of the Americans and British. Armageddon is a more somber book, partly because it deals with Allied reverses, like Arnhem and the Bulge, but mostly because it records the ordeal of the East Prussians during that winter as they desperately tried to escape westwards.
“The saga of East Prussia’s winter of blood and ice is one of the most awful of the war. . . . In 1945 the Red Army considered itself to deserve license to behave as savages on the soil of Germany . . . they dispensed retribution for the horrors that had been inflicted upon the Soviet Union.”
Churchill said to his daughter Sarah, in February 1945, “I do not suppose that at any moment of history has the agony of the world been so great or widespread. Tonight the sun goes down on more suffering than ever before in the world.”
What finally brought victory to the British and American armies was their huge material advantage, and the wearing down of the German armies by attrition, not least from the air.
Hastings’ judgments seem to me to be eminently balanced. Of the Allied troops he says finally, “They fought as bravely and as well as any democracy could ask, if the values of civilization were to be retained in their ranks.” And his conclusion:
“The battle for Germany began as the largest single military event of the 20th century, and ended as its greatest human tragedy. More than half a century later we may be profoundly grateful that its worst consequences have been undone without another war. The men who fought and died for the freedom of Europe received their final reward with the collapse of the Soviet tyranny, two generations after the destruction of its Nazi counterpart.”
Max Hastings wrote another short book about the war, Das Reich, the March of the Second SS Panzer Division Through France. The Germans wanted the division to bolster the troops fighting the Allies in Normandy, 450 miles from their base in southern France, and this book is about the many attempts by the Resistance to delay the division’s progress. The main interest for me was the honest portrayal of the various groups of guerillas, about whom so much romantic nonsense has been written. *