Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
6 March 2013
Review by Antoine Capet, Université de Rouen
A Very British Experience: Coalition, Defence and Strategy in the Second World War
By Andrew Stewart
Portland, OR: Sussex Acad. Press, 2012. Pp. ix, 247. ISBN 978–1–84519–439–0.
Descriptors: Volume 2013, 20th Century, World War II Print Version

All authors of books on Great Britain in the Second World War, even those as well-published[1] as Andrew Stewart (King's College London), must justify adding to a corpus of literature of long-since unmanageable proportions. Stewart means to do so by concentrating on seminal, yet neglected, aspects of the subject. There is throughout an implicit Winston Churchill theme; whether Stewart adds anything new on the great man's wartime leadership is debatable. The book also addresses "Britain's inability to fight the Second World War without drawing upon its membership of key alliances and the resulting impact that was witnessed in terms of how the war developed" (3)—hardly a novel angle of approach. More promising (and surprising) is the concern to show "the significance of the African theatre for the British war effort and the wider wartime experience" (5)—a topic of particular expertise for Stewart. A final area of special interest here is the home front, especially the humble volunteers of the Home Guard, "who stood prepared to defend their towns and villages" (6)—again a well studied subject in the literature.

The first of the book's chapters or "essays," as Stewart prefers to call them, "Challenges of Coalition Management: The 'Empire Air Training Scheme' Negotiations,"[2] is a superb, archive-based piece of research. Readers will learn that Mackenzie King could not have survived so long in the complex world of Canadian politics, where a Francophone minority did not share the majority's enthusiasm for "Empire" and "The Mother Country," had he not been the wily character that emerges from Stewart's account. To say that he held "the British Government to ransom" (27) is indeed strong language about a "friendly" Dominion Prime Minister.

The subject of essay 2, "The Other 'Battle for Britain': Muddling Along on the Home Front," has been frequently and very intelligently treated elsewhere.[3] Even the consultation of unusual archives yields only the obvious conclusion that the British had divined the meaning of German parachute operations in Holland (32n20, 176). This essay should have been left out.

If Stewart has not fully mastered the enormous literature on the home front, he is perfectly at home in his special field—the war in Africa—which provides the material for essays 3, 4, 7, and 8. Essay 3 is aptly entitled "First Victory: Forgotten Success in East Africa." Indeed, even historians of the Second World War are often unclear about what happened there, when, and where. Sadly, the absence of maps or sketches will prevent readers from getting a good grasp of the geography of events.[4] In fact, one soon stops following the described operations. Fortunately, the essay is full of insights on the geopolitical impact on domestic politics of the elimination of the Italians from the region by November 1941, with surprisingly few British and Commonwealth casualties, considering the atrocious terrain, notably at Keren. "In the British Parliament and the media the congratulory statements were quickly issued but just as quickly forgotten" (47). Clearing this vast 360,000-square-mile area of Italian troops was a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for Allied mastery in Africa.

Logically enough, the subject of essay 4, "The Struggle of Command: Operation Crusader and the Failure of British Leadership," is the operations in Cyrenaica/Libya that led an impatient Chruchill to sack successive commanders who were too reluctant to attack the German forces that were, under Gen. Erwin Rommel of Afrika Korps fame, taking over the campaign from the Italians they had been sent to support. By 31 December 1941, after the Allied relief of Tobruk, Rommel had withdrawn in good order to the Gulf of Sirte. Having failed to destroy the German forces, Lt. Gen. Alan Cunningham was relieved of his command by Gen. Sir Claude Auchinleck, whom Chruchill in turn replaced in August 1942 with Lt. Gen. Bernard Montgomery at the head of the Eighth Army. Stewart concludes that Operation Crusader "never quite receives the comprehensive level of attention it deserves" (81), but I find his account confusing and tedious.

Essay 5, "Twelve Tumultuous Months: Britain, the Dominions and the Politics of the Widening War," tracks Britain's difficulties with its Dominions. Naturally, Stewart quotes Australian Prime Minister John Curtin's famous words of 27 December 1941: "Australia looks to America, free of pangs as to our traditional links and kinship with the United Kingdom," which "deeply shocked" Churchill, as he told the Cabinet (90). The essay ends with a long and very interesting quotation from an article by Robert Menzies, at the time in the Opposition, in the Daily Express (7 April 1942): "a resounding British success in some theatre of war would clear them [anti-British grumbles among Australians]." The British public at the time was in exactly the same mood, substituting "anti-Government" for "anti-British," of course.

Essay 7, "Military Defeat, Political Crisis: The Loss of the Tobruk Garrison," returns to the oft told story of military operations in North Africa. We read of Churchill's reaction when President Roosevelt told him on 21 June 1942, during his visit to Washington, that Tobruk had fallen, and the dismay and political outcry in Britain at "Rommel's unanticipated and stunning victory" (127). Nothing new in this, but the essay is valuable for its concentration on the South African involvement in the defense and final surrender. Stewart fleshes out the wider context of Anglo-South African reactions before and during the war, notably the sometimes muted, sometimes overt opposition of Nationalists (Afrikaners) disinclined to join their "Mother Country." The uneasy position of Jan Smuts, Churchill's indefectible ally, who managed to overcome the crisis only to be eliminated after the war, is very clearly explained.

The narrative of operations in Africa (but not North Africa) continues in essay 8, "The Worst Case: The Second 'Battle' for Kenya," which mostly examines the precautions taken against a possible Japanese attack on British East Africa via the Indian Ocean. Following the Japanese conquest of Malaya, the British decided to reinforce the naval defenses of the East African coastline by concentrating forces in Mombasa/Kilindini (Kenya), which became the major naval base of the Eastern Fleet under Admiral Sir James Sommerville. These measures turned out to be entirely unnecessary: "With hindsight the invasion scare and the substantial work that was undertaken in 1942 to make Kenya an important wartime base seems to have been something of an over-reaction" (154); hence the quotation marks around "Battle" in the essay title. The only battle was between British high commanders in Africa and the defense chiefs in London over the allocation of resources in the theater.

Essay 6, "At War with 'the Old Empire': The Often Difficult Alliance with the United States," is another attempt to say something new and true about a subject analyzed in many books, often by outstanding historians. To be sure, Stewart repeats the old yarns about the American diplomat Benjamin Sumner Welles finding Churchill permanently drunk, or Churchill confiding that "no lover ever studied every whim of his mistress as I did those of President Roosevelt" (103). But his Empire-and-Commonwealth specialization pays dividends in Stewart's elucidation of the complicated three-cornered relationship between Britain, the United States, and the Dominions. He unearths, for instance, a Foreign Office document explaining that "a distant flirtation is one thing but [the Australians and Canadians] would both recoil violently from embraces which would, in their view, shortly be of the possessive kind" (111) and the Australian Minister in Washington's attribution of American isolationism to "central heating and other softening influences" (111). More seriously, there is an astute discussion of the efforts of the British Government, often with the aid of the Dominions, to correct the deplorable image of the Empire in the United States. These efforts were apparently in vain, for Stewart writes in the concluding pages of his book that "American wartime machinations had a major part to play" in the demise of the British Empire (160). His Introduction, too, warns that "Of all the alliances into which Britain entered into [sic] in order to complete this war, including that with the Soviet Union and with the Free French, this [with the United States] was the most difficult" (8).

The short ninth and final essay, "Blood and Treasure: Britain and the Second World War," begins unpromisingly with the banal remark that "The Second World War and the impact it had upon Britain and the British people remains an important and keenly pursued subject for study" (156). Yet here, too, we find little gems, like the provocative claim that "the British never really understood their allies" (161), or the assertion in Sir John Rupert ("Jock") Colville's diary (January 1940) that "for some reason no subject is more boring to the average Englishman than the Empire" (161). Not all Stewart's readers will agree with his emphasis on Africa, and many will be surprised by his sharp refutation of Churchill's celebrated bon mot—"Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein, we never had a defeat" (164) (he omits to recall that Churchill was careful to say "It may almost be said that …"). But all will agree with his judgment that, after "Alamein," the show was increasingly run by the Soviet Union and the United States.

In sum, this is an uneven book of uneven interest and value, reminiscent of collections of conference papers or Festschriften. This explains why Stewart prefers to call his chapters "essays." The unifying theme—Britain in the Second World War—does not ensure equality of treatment among the book's discrete topics, the clear winner being operations in Africa. Despite its author's meticulous archival research in a wide range of relevant papers,[5] the law of diminishing returns applies to A Very British Experience as it does to other current works on the Second World War, at least as regards the major Western powers. New books contain less and less that is unfamiliar to students of the subject.

[1] Currently Senior Lecturer in Defence Studies, he is the author of Empire Lost: Britain, the Dominions and the Second World War (NY: Continuum, 2008), based on his 2002 King's College doctoral dissertation, and many scholarly articles in such professional journals as Twentieth-Century British History, Contemporary British History, and the Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History.

[2] A revision of "The 1939 British and Canadian 'Empire Air Training Scheme' Negotiations," Round Table 377 (2004) 739–54.

[3] A glaring omission, among others, from Stewart's bibliography is Angus Calder, The People's War: Britain, 1939–45 (NY: Pantheon, 1969).

[4] Particularly useful would have been maps of Ethiopia and Italian Somaliland showing, e.g., "the Italian fort at El Wak" (55), "Kismayu" (56), and especially Kassala, "the focal point of communications between Eritrea and Sudan" (60), and Keren, whose fall to the British in 1941 "proved decisive" (61). Ironically, writing of the relief of Tobruk, Stewart quotes a British aide-de-camp's remark that "a description of the battle at that time is really too complicated to understand without the study of a series of maps" (67). Just so.

[5] Including those of Admiral Algernon Willis at the Churchill Archive Centre at Cambridge and of Air Vice Marshal Ernest Stedman at the Directorate of History, Ottawa. Nor has he overlooked hitherto neglected primary sources in such out-of-the-way places as the Intelligence Corps Archives at Chicksands, Bedfordshire, UK.

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