02 October 2005

Book Review: Liddell Hart's History of the Second World War

History of the Second World War
by Sir Basil Liddell Hart

The author

Sir Basil H. Liddell Hart (his surname is "Liddell Hart") was, if memory serves, a guy who went through WWI and came out of it wondering how things could have been done better, without, for example, all the people being sent to inevitable deaths in pointless hopeless assaults against entrenched machine gun positions. Quite possibly he was inspired by other people who also wondered such things such as Australia's General Sir John Monash, the pioneer of combined arms warfare who was famous for innovative ideas such as actually thinking hard about what he was doing and not getting his men killed (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Monash).

Liddell Hart ended up becoming a pioneer of armoured warfare or manoeuvre warfare, writing some books that were ignored in England but read by such figures as the legendary Guderian (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guderian) who thought he'd try out some of Liddell Hart's ideas in the Ardennes forest and the rest is history.

For an excellent discussion of this important military thinker, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liddell_Hart.

The book

This book is awesome. It goes through the entire war in some depth looking at each major front in roughly chronological order. It looks at the politics and strategy as well as the strategy at the front level and goes into tactics at the higher level.

Sometimes it gets a bit tedious because it is full of blow-by-blow accounts of entire fronts for a period. For example, you read about how the Brits chased the Italians across North Africa, Rommel chased the Brits back, and the Brits chased him back again, skirmish by skirmish. This was really rather boring.

However, the good flip side of this was that, in its thoroughness, it covered parts of the war I, due to my Anglo-centric education, was otherwise ignorant of.

For example, I had only had a vague inkling that the Americans had invaded Vichy French North Africa.

There is probably a reason for the silence of my world-class education: none of the "good guys" comes out looking good.

Although I vaguely knew that the Brits were in Norway early on in the war, I never realised that Hitler, that supposed perfidious violator of neutrality left right and centre, did not want to violate Norway's neutrality but feared (correctly) that the British would, and eventually, reluctuantly, gave the order. As it turned out, he made this decision not a moment too soon: Germany and Britain invaded Norway on the same day; the Norwegians were too busy defending against the British to defend against the Germans and then the Germans kicked the Britons' butts out of Norway. They never teach you that in an Australian high school Modern History class!

Also, we learn that when Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, poor didums Poland took advantage of the Czechoslovaks' plight to help herself to a slice of their territory.

The Warsaw Uprising (not the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising you've heard of) also gets a mention, but I'll discuss that in detail another time.

The best bit was Liddell Hart's post mortem of the war in the Epilogue. He was very critical of the Allies before the war, as per conventional wisdom, but he was also very critical of Churchill for insisting on the unconditional surrender of Germany. When the British government was contacted by Germans who wanted to know what peace terms the British would accept if they staged a coup and killed Hitler, the Brits said they would only accept Germany's unconditional surrender. As this was inevitably unacceptable to the patriotic Germans involved, the coup never went ahead and millions of lives [including probably most of the victims of the Holocaust - PH] were unnecessarily lost as a result.

[Think this through: if the British had accepted some sort of deal, they could have eliminated Fascism and left Germany fighting her other enemy Communism in one master stroke. This probably would have been not so hot a result for Poland, but at least the Poles wouldn't have Hitler's holocaustic plan for them to look forward too. It seems likely to me that the Germans would even have made a deal with the Polish nationalists to fight the Soviets and establish an independent Poland after the conclusion of the war. As it was, after much suffering Britain ruined herself crushing Fascism the hard way and left a rampant Soviet Union with half of Europe. - PH]

Liddell Hart was also critical of area bombing, an idea now fashionable, judging that it was immoral and brought no strategic benefit.

He was similarly critical of the dropping of the atomic bombs, which he considered both immoral and unnecessary, as Japan was already asking for peace behind the scenes, requesting only a few token concessions in return for an otherwise unconditional surrender, which token concessions they later got. Liddell Hart says that the bombs were dropped for domestic political reasons - the Manhattan Project had cost an astronomical sum and thus not using the Bomb after such expense may have become a political headache for the Administration.

Another result of not accepting Japan's peace terms earlier was that the Soviet Union had time to declare war on Japan [which they so gallantly did after Hiroshima, and, since they were the "neutral" conveyors of Japan's peace feelers, when they knew Japan was already suing for peace - PH] and wound up with Manchuria [leading to the Communist victory in the Chinese civil war - PH], North Korea [leading to the Korean War, today's geopolitical problems and the endless suffering of the people of northern Korea - PH], and the Kurile Islands [leading to today's dispute between Japan and Russia - PH].

The book is worth buying just for this short Epilogue.

A must read.

**** Four stars.


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