To Russia, with thanks

Why the Allies Won

September 22, 1995

According to Saul Bellow, we are always looking for the book it is necessary to read next. Anyone looking for the second world war book it is necessary to read next need look no further. Why the Allies Won stands out from the 50th anniversary throng like Coventry Cathedral in a Baedeker raid. Gerhard L. Weinberg's A World at Arms (1994) has met its match. The two go well together: Weinberg magisterial, Overy inquisitorial; the panoptic and the analytic, the how and the why. Students of this gargantuan, barbarian conflict have never had it so good.

The book is not without its blemishes, many of which could be easily removed for the paperback edition that must come soon. Stylistically, Overy is artisan rather than artist. He has a magpie eye for the sparkling quotation - a soldier's comment that "we are gaining ground rapidly but in the wrong direction", Churchill's dislike of "the official grimace" - but his own writing is strictly unadorned. At its best this stripped-for-action style makes up in efficiency what it lacks in elegance. Most of Why the Allies Won is marvellously efficient - A.J.P. Taylor without the epigrams - but there are slack passages and infelicities which contrive to spoil the overall effect. In general Overy is stronger on the organisational than the biographical. His individual portraits do not carry the same conviction as his operational analysis. More specifically, after the thumping impact of the argument, the epilogue is otiose. The tide turns with Arthur Bryant-like regularity every chapter. So many people are "visibly moved" that one cannot help but regret the passing of the stiff upper lip. In this respect as in others the author has been poorly served by his publishers, who have failed to catch the duplication of phrasing and information on successive pages, or a number of spelling and typographical errors, the choicest of which is to render kamikaze (originally, the divine wind) as the divine wine - thereby ruining one of the best historical allusions in the book. The photographs are imaginatively selected and informatively captioned, but the maps, scant and scattered like so many refugees, are entirely inadequate to the purpose, while a single tabular appendix, "Weapons Production of the Major Powers", hardly begins to meet the needs of a work which makes such sophisticated connections between strategy and supply.

These are secondary issues. The greatest strength of Why the Allies Won is its remorseless fundamentalism. "Everything in war is very simple," said Clausewitz, "but the simplest thing is difficult." The same is true of explaining its outcome. The leitmotif of this book is that nothing in war is preordained. Overy makes the argument - convincingly, I think - at every level. "Battles are not preordained," he says at one point. "If they were, no one would bother to fight them. The decisive (naval) engagement at Midway Island was won because ten American bombs out of the hundreds dropped fell on the right target. The victory in the Atlantic came with the introduction of a small number of long-range aircraft to cover the notorious Atlantic Gap. . . . The Battle of Stalingrad depended upon the desperate, almost incomprehensible courage of a few thousand men who held up the German sixth Army long enough to spring a decisive trap. The invasion of France hung on the ability to keep the enemy guessing, against every conceivable odds, (at) the centre of operational gravity, and then on the weather. It is hardly surprising that Churchill thought at the end of the war that Providence had brought the Allies through."

For this author, however, Providence will not do - nor might, nor right, nor enemy error. He has a more persuasive tale to tell. The Allies learned faster and adapted better than the Axis. Singly and together - theirs was a meaningful if instrumental alliance - they increased their comparative effectiveness as the war went on. Unlike their opponents, they were an infinitely more formidable fighting force in 1944 than in 1942. As they recovered, the Axis relapsed. And so they won - just. It was a close-run thing. They could have lost. In a sense they should have lost. In early 1942, Overy remarks, no rational person would have guessed at the eventual outcome.

It is true that Hitler had made the mistake of taking on the three greatest industrial economies outside continental Europe. In retrospect, that mistake appears fatal. At the time, it was by no means certain that they could deliver, or that they would even have the chance to try. Moreover, as Overy points out, "it is often forgotten that in the critical middle years of the war (in 1942-43) the balance of economic resources was not yet weighted heavily in the Allies' favour". In the 12 months leading to the siege of Stalingrad in August 1943, for example, Germany produced four times as much steel as the Soviet Union. The eventual disparity between the Axis and the Allies was created by remarkable transformations of different sorts in both the American and the Soviet war economies. The prodigious reach of the former is justly renowned. The stupendous feat of the latter is not. This balance of ignorance is symptomatic of a wider deficiency. In two member states of the "Grand Alliance" there has always been a troubling lack of clarity about the contribution of the third. During the three years that elapsed between the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 and the Anglo-American invasion of France in June 1944, Soviet forces engaged over 90 per cent of German combat divisions. In the first two of those years the figure approached 100 per cent. In December 1942, with the echo of Alamein still ringing in the ears, Allied forces in the West engaged some six German divisions. In the East the Soviets engaged 183. Between 1941 and 1945 Soviet forces destroyed or disabled an estimated 607 Axis divisions. If the defeat of the German army in the field was the sine qua non of victory in the second world war, as Overy plausibly maintains, then certain consequences painfully follow. Given the adaptability and tenacity of that army, the task would necessarily involve what was in effect an epic battle of attrition. There was no alternative - not even strategic bombing, of which Overy provides an integrated assessment unsurpassed in the existing literature, including his own The Air War (1980). The crucial theatre for that battle was the eastern front.

A clearer appreciation of the meaning of the fighting on the eastern front has only recently leaked into Anglo-American historiography - or Russian, for that matter, in as much as Stalin himself is now held partly responsible, by omission and commission, for the butchery of his own people. Much of the debate has centred upon the scale and savagery of the fighting - almost literally unimaginable in the West - and above all on the losses to the Soviet Union (and incidentally to Germany), losses far exceeding any other theatre of war. We now have some idea of the price of attrition, and the terrible scars it leaves on the body politic. What we have still to appreciate, and what this book demonstrates brilliantly, is how the revival of Soviet fighting power after the calamities of 1941-42 was as much an economic as a strategic endeavour: victory in the battle of attrition was predicted upon victory in the battles of production, application and organisation. The Soviet Union was turned into Stalin's "single war camp". It became, one might say, the arsenal of autocracy.

The second world war, then, was Hitler's war to lose but Stalin's to win. In this sense it was a Soviet war: Soviet action, reaction, and inaction governed its grand strategy and decided its grand outcome. It was a red war - red in tooth and claw, prosecution and prospect. In a neat twist, Overy remarks that, "if anything, the war made the world safe for communism" . . . for a while. Winning, as Boris Pasternak knew, is a constant battle.

Though other pairs of feet Will tread your living footsteps It's not for you to settle What's victory and what's defeat.

And yet you must defend Each inch of your position, To be alive, only Alive, only alive to the end.

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, University of Keele.

Why the Allies Won

Author - Richard Overy
ISBN - 0 224 04172 X
Publisher - Jonathan Cape
Price - £20.00
Pages - 396

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