Dispatches from the front

Scenes from the End - A War to be Won

December 15, 2000

The effort to circumscribe the second world war within a single volume is by no means new. A War to be Won has distinguished forebears, notably Henri Michel's The Second World War , first published in 1968 as La Seconde Guerre Mondiale , Gordon Wright's The Ordeal of Total War 1939-1945 (1968) and Peter Calvocoressi and Guy Wint's Global War (1972), revised in 1989, then reissued in 1999 as The Penguin History of the Second World War . Most recent is Gerhard L. Weinberg's A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II (1994).

While these several volumes present admirably comprehensive panoramas of the second world war, the very nature of this approach precludes close operational analysis as opposed to general operational narrative. This is the gap that A War to be Won fills - an operational history of the 1939-45 war focusing on military operations, with dispassionate discussion of military effectiveness whether involving the Allies or the Axis. The initial analysis examines the "revolution in military operations", stressing that what was so devastating about the second world war derived from tactical improvements that "enlarged operational possibilities", outstripping anything seen in the first world war. Technology improved, but successful innovation resulted from "intellectual conceptualisations" combining "tactical pieces" into complicated operational capabilities. German success in the battle of France in 1940 represented operational success, the triumph of a "coherent, combined-arms approach", but not a solution to "strategic problems raised by Hitler's vision".

Williamson Murray and Allan Millett dispute the interpretation that war in the west differed from that in the east. Both were segments of the same ideological struggle. The greatest loser in 1940 was Stalin. The direct result of the French defeat meant that the Soviet Union had to fight alone for three years, the desperately awaited "second front" having vanished.

Both the German and Japanese wars of conquest are analysed in tandem, avoiding that awkward and artificial separate treatment of the western and eastern hemispheres. Paradoxically, initial German victories in Russia actually "obscured how high the odds were against Operation Barbarossa". Russia was not "unconquerable", but the belief that the Wehrmacht could destroy the Red Army in five months was fallacious. Extraordinary logistical and intelligence weaknesses, exemplars of "the German way of war", compounded the fundamental miscalculation.

The origins of the Asia-Pacific war and the early Japanese successes are presented with exceptional vividness, with an illuminating passage on the battle of Bataan and the "MacArthurian way of war", a unique leadership style. While MacArthur pawed the ground in Australia, about to embark on his "march of revenge" to the Philippines, President Roosevelt affirmed that only American air-naval power could eject the Japanese from their Pacific outposts. In May and June 1942, in the Coral Sea and at Midway, Japan suffered serious naval defeats, after which the Asia-Pacific war "drifted toward a limited, extemporised conflict of opportunism and attrition". The Anglo-American strategy of Germany First and the Soviet strategy of Germany Only prevailed.

While attrition wore down the Japanese in the Pacific, in the Atlantic the Allies won their most important victory, one which underpinned the combined bomber offensive, the invasion of Europe and Lend-Lease aid to Russia, critical to the Anglo-American attempt to "project their industrial and military power back on to the European continent". It was a battle involving massive industrial resources, modern technology and the "decisive intercession of intelligence", a battle eventually won by the Allies but at "needlessly high cost", in part exacted by the "RAF bomber barons" refusing to commit long-range aircraft to protect convoys. In reviewing the combined bomber offensive the authors take issue with received postwar wisdom that strategic bombing played a relatively unimportant part in winning the second world war. Admittedly the bomber barons of the combined bomber offensive claimed too much for air power, they waged an unimaginative campaign often restrictive of the potential of air power, one "neither elegant nor humane", but effective, and ultimately essential in the defeat of Nazi Germany.

A War to be Won , confined within a single volume, is a remarkable achievement deserving of the many plaudits it has received. It has a narrative deftness that will attract the general reader, operational analysis incisive and original enough to engage the specialist, technical evaluation and tactical appraisal of military effectiveness in abundance, though not without controversial, even acerbic comment where appropriate.

Frank E. Manuel, author of Scenes from the End , boasts excellent credentials as a chronicler of war: reporter on Spain on the eve of the Spanish civil war, protagonist for the Loyalist cause, Harvard graduate, intelligence officer in 1945, prisoner-of-war interrogator with 21 Corps US Army.

Like many thousands of Allied soldiers, Manuel was immediate witness to that "horrific accomplishment" of the Wehrmacht, the wrecking of the Reich during the days of lethal but futile manoeuvres. His account has been resurrected after a lapse of some 50 years, those papers "composed in a frenzied attempt to recapture what I had seen and heard" in the last days of the second world war - at least in the European theatre.

Prisoners flooded in from regular and irregular units, nominal order of battle was preserved for surrender purposes but was otherwise meaningless as divisions cannibalised each other, or as 1,000 prisoners yielded 215 separate unit identifications. Yet what remained inviolate was "the universe of files and paper forms". In retreat, orders went out "save the papers first": "papers make the German man".

So runs this bitter, sardonic memoir, a study in both the psycho-pathology of defeat and humiliation and "the sentiment of superior virtue besmirching all victors".

John Erickson is emeritus professor of defence studies, University of Edinburgh, Scotland.

Scenes from the End: The Last Days of World War II

Author - Frank E. Manuel
ISBN - 1 86197 241 5
Publisher - Profile
Price - £12.99
Pages - 130

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