Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
13 September 2013
Review by Larry Grant, The Citadel
The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War
By Andrew Roberts
New York: Harper, 2011. Pp. lvi, 712. ISBN 978–0–06–122860–5.
Descriptors: Volume 2013, 20th Century, World War II Print Version

The Second World War was the pivotal event of the twentieth century; historians link to it everything between the Treaty of Versailles (1919) and the fall of the Soviet Union (1989). Six years of brutality, atrocities, and annihilation wrought enormous strategic, political, economic, and cultural changes. Even now, the war's ripples occasionally stir old antagonists, as may be seen, for example, in the tense Sino-Japanese relations in the western Pacific. While so momentous a cataclysm will never be forgotten, as veterans of the conflict pass away, there is a place for an authoritative and readable history of it. The Storm of War by prolific historian and journalist Andrew Roberts now stands among the best single-volume accounts of the war.

The book comprises three roughly chronological parts of six chapters each and a concluding essay entitled "Why Did the Axis Lose the Second World War?" Part I, "Onslaught," covers the period from September 1939 to mid-1942. Chapter 1, "Four Invasions: September 1939–April 1940," is devoted to the German invasions of Poland, Denmark, and Norway, as well as the USSR's invasions first of Poland in concert with Germany and later of Finland. Soviet difficulties in Finland, Roberts writes, alerted Nazi leadership to the debilities of the Red Army. Also treated is the "six-month hiatus on land between the end of the Polish campaign in October 1939 and Hitler's sudden invasion of Denmark and Norway on 9 April 1940"; the false tranquillity of this "Phony War" on land did not extend to the struggle at sea: "Within nine hours of the declaration of war, the 1,400 passengers aboard a blacked-out British liner SS Athenia were torpedoed on their way from Glasgow to Montreal by U-30 …" (35).

Chapters 2, "Führer Imperator: May–June 1940," and 3, "Last Hope Island: June 1940–June 1941," detail the invasion and fall of France and Britain's time as sole holdout against Germany. On the question of Adolf Hitler's putative military genius, we read that his "sheer knowledge of matters military was undoubtedly impressive, and has certainly bowled over modern apologists such as Alan Clark and David Irving, with the former stating that 'His capacity for mastering detail, his sense of history, his retentive memory, his strategic vision—all these had flaws, but considered in the cold light of objective military history, they were brilliant nonetheless.' It was true that Hitler had a phenomenal recall for the technical details of weaponry of all kinds" (50). Roberts cautions, however, that savant-like knowledge of "the calibre of a weapon or the tonnage of a ship is far removed from being a strategic genius…. Because a train-spotter can take down the number of a train in his notebook, it doesn't mean he can drive one" (51). This echoes the evaluation of Hitler by, for instance, Heinz Guderian in his autobiography.[1] Roberts contrasts Hitler's preoccupations as national leader with those of Winston Churchill, who showed much less interest in technical minutiae than in sustaining high morale among the fighting men by ensuring regular provisions and mail from home.

Chapter 4, "Contesting the Littoral: September 1939–June 1942," surveys the fighting on the periphery of Europe during the Nazi flood tide prior to the entry of the USSR and the United States into the conflict in 1941. German operations in North Africa and Greece and Yugoslavia are highlighted. But Roberts judges that the most important event of the period, "Worth more than hard currency," was the August 1941 meeting of Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt at Placentia Bay in Newfoundland, which resulted in the Atlantic Charter. This agreement "provided an idealistic basis that set the Second World War apart from the dynastic, commercial and territorial conflicts of the past" (131).

The title of chapter 5, "Kicking in the Door: June–December 1941," refers to Operation Barbarossa, the Germans' initially very successful attack on the Soviet Union. The story of the Wehrmacht's rampage across western Russia finds an echo in chapter 6, "Tokyo Typhoon: December 1941–May 1942." The words attributed to Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto about attacking a larger enemy were clairvoyant: "We can run wild for six months or a year, but after that I have utterly no confidence."[2] Six months after the opening of Barbarossa, the Germans stood before the gates of Moscow; six months after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese fleet was steaming just over the horizon from the Midway Atoll. For both, the war would thereafter be a steady descent toward defeat.

The second part of The Storm of War covers various turning points, but two chapters take war-long perspectives on critical topics. Chapter 7, "The Everlasting Shame of Mankind: 1939–1945," traces the origins and horrific execution of the Holocaust, and chapter 11, "The Waves of Air and Sea: 1939–1945," tells the story of the Battle of the Atlantic. Others describe pivotal actions in the Pacific—chapter 8, "Five Minutes at Midway: June 1942–October 1944"; the defeat of Axis forces in North Africa—chapter 9, "Midnight in the Devil's Gardens: July 1942–May 1943"; and the German advance into southern Russian, culminating in defeat at Stalingrad—chapter 10, "The Motherland Overwhelms the Fatherland: January 1942–February 1943." Finally, chapter 12, "Up the Wasp-Waist Peninsula: July 1943–May 1945," follows the Allied invasions of Sicily and Italy.

In the book's third part, entitled "Retribution," Roberts allocates his narrative of the Eastern Front to two chapters, 13 and 17. Chapter 13, "A Salient Reversal: March–August 1943," tracks shifts in initiative in the East with a stress on the Battle of Kursk, which set in motion the Russian steamroller the Germans could rarely slow thereafter. The balance of war in the East, all the way to the siege and capture of Berlin, is recounted in chapter 17, "Eastern Approaches: August 1943–May 1945." Chapter 14, "The Cruel Reality: 1939–1945," like chapter 11, spans the whole of the war in a discussion of the still controversial strategic bombing campaign in Europe.

Just as some historians have argued that the United States need not have used nuclear weapons at Hiroshima or Nagasaki, because Japan was near surrender anyway, others have contended that the destruction of Dresden served no significant strategic purpose. As a corrective, Roberts sets the Allied bombing of Dresden against Nazi air atrocities: "The brutality can be gauged by the fact that 17,000 Yugoslavs were killed by the Luftwaffe on a single day, almost as many certified deaths as the RAF were to cause in Dresden in February 1945" (124). He also identifies a military necessity for the Dresden firestorm—the need to disrupt German west-to-east troop movements directed against the Russians.

During the Yalta Conference of 4 to 11 February 1945 … Russian Deputy Chief of Staff Alexei Antonov and the Soviet air marshal Sergei Khudyakov "pressed the subject of [bombing German] lines of communication and entrainment, specifically via Berlin, Leipzig and Dresden." In the view of one of those present at Yalta, Hugh Lunghi, who translated for the British Chiefs of Staff during these meetings with the Russians, it was this urgent request "to stop Hitler transferring divisions from the west to reinforce his troops in Silesia, blocking the Russian advance on Berlin" that led to the bombing of Dresden only two days after the conference ended. (Of course this did not prevent the Soviets denouncing the bombing as an inhumane Anglo-American war crime forty years later during the Cold War, until it was pointed out to them that it had been they who had requested it.) (454)

The campaign in western Europe occupies two chapters. Chapter 15, "Norman Conquest: June–August 1944," tells the story of D-Day and the Normandy campaign. Chapter 16, "Western Approaches: August 1944–March 1945," recounts the rest of the crusade against Germany from the west. Chapter 18, "The Land of the Setting Sun: October 1944–September 1945," wraps up the book's third section with an account of the last days of the war in the Pacific.

In chapter 18, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings are treated like that of Dresden earlier in the volume. Roberts quotes George Macdonald Fraser, a Second World War veteran and author: "Armchair strategists can look at the last stages of a campaign and say there's nothing left but mopping up, but if you're holding the mop it's different. The last Jap in the last bunker on the last day can be as fatal to you personally as the biggest battle at the height of the campaign, and you don't look or think much beyond him—wherever he is" (564). Many Pacific war veterans have echoed that sentiment, in relief at not having had to invade the Japanese home islands for "mopping up" operations.[3]

The leaders of the American offensive in 1945 had good reason to believe that Japan was already defeated by any rational criteria, but they also knew that "The military clique that ran the Japanese Government felt no inclination to surrender, a course of action which they considered dishonourable" (571). Facing the prospect of hundreds of thousands of American and Japanese casualties, they were offered a new weapon that could obviate the slaughter. Roberts endorses the brutal calculus articulated by Max Hastings: "If the conflict had continued for even a few weeks longer, more people of all nations—and especially Japan—would have lost their lives than perished at Hiroshima and Nagasaki"[4] (573). According to this view, it would have been criminal not to use the new weapon, and the American people would have demanded to know why it had not been employed to save the lives of their loved ones.

The concluding chapter, "Why Did the Axis Lose the Second World War?" is interesting for its counterfactual speculations. Roberts discusses Hitler's relations with his corrupt generals, his propensity to gamble and overrule all others, and his failure to fully mobilize the German economy. He stresses, too, the demographic disadvantages of the Reich vis-à-vis its enemies. In the end, he writes, "Analyses of Hitler's defeat have tended to portray him as a strategic imbecile—'Corporal Hitler'—or otherwise as a madman, but these explanations are clearly not enough. The real reason why Hitler lost the Second World War was exactly the same one that caused him to unleash it in the first place: he was a Nazi" (608).

Roberts makes good use of private papers in British and US archives, but, as must be expected in any one-volume overview of this sort, most of his material comes from the voluminous secondary literature on the war. The true value of the book lies not in its revelation of new documentary material, but in its masterful narration of a transformative period in human history. As the last eyewitnesses depart the scene, readers desiring a clearly written, lively history of the Second World War will not be disappointed in Andrew Roberts's The Storm of War.

[1] Panzer Leader, trans. Constantine Fitzgibbon (1952; rpt. NY: Da Capo, 1996).

[2] Iain Dickie et al., Fighting Techniques of Naval Warfare, 1190 BC–Present: Strategy, Weapons, Commanders, and Ships (2009; rpt. NY: Metro Books, 2013) 245.

[3] See, e.g., Paul Fussell, Thank God for the Atom Bomb, and Other Essays (1988; rpt. NY: Ballantine, 1990).

[4] Retribution: The Battle for Japan (NY: Knopf, 2008) xix.

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