Many of the themes developed in this book will be familiar to regular readers of Hitchens’ blog. It is probably best understood as a series of linked essays criticising various aspects of what he has elsewhere called the “Finest Hour Myth”, the popular view of Britain’s role in the Second World War. They touch on, inter alia:
- ·The wrongness of the (supposedly) popular conception that WW2 was an idealistic war begun with the intent of “defeating fascism” or “saving the Jews”.
- The failures and inconsistencies of pre-war British diplomacy and war planning, which led us (in PH’s view) into the wrong war at the wrong time, for foolish grandstanding reasons.
- Our incompetent conduct of the actual war, especially the war at sea (this is ascribed to, among other things, cuts to the navy in the inter-war years implemented by one Winston Churchill). Other incidents cited as evidence for Hitchens’ thesis here are the ill-conceived and largely pointless Norwegian operation, which took a harsh toll on the RN destroyer fleet, the Dunkirk disaster (which likewise cost us many fine ships), the chaotic evacuations of Greece and Crete, and the loss of Singapore – in this connection, Hitchens directs particular scorn at those responsible for uselessly sending into danger Prince of Wales and Repulse. He also questions whether it was wise for us to devote huge resources to maintaining control of the Mediterranean and North Africa during 1940, 1941 and 1942, when the Battle of the Atlantic still hung in the balance, and when our forces in the Far East were crying out for reinforcements.
- The true nature of the “Special Relationship” with the USA; Hitchens has little time for the view that the Anglo-American alliance was an idealistic partnership of equals. Instead, he paints a picture in which the two countries were long-standing rivals, with the USA not only committed to undermining and ending Britain’s Empire and our naval dominance, but resentful at our high-handed attitude to our former colony, and our defaulting on WW1 loans. PH notes that the US made us pay back every last penny of the WW2 loans, which were finally settled in 2006. He emphasises our role as a supplicant during the early war years, noting that we handed over huge amounts of gold as collateral for Lend-Lease and had to plead privately for help in rather embarrassing ways.
- The purportedly little-known dark underside of British participation in the war; the terror bombing of German civilians, our co-operation with and tolerance of the monstrous Stalin, the attacks on French ships which remained loyal to Vichy, and our disgraceful acquiescence with the post-war Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, notably the deportation back to the USSR of groups such as the Cossacks and the ethnic cleansing of German-speaking minorities.
- The way in which WW2 was the final nail in the coffin of Britain’s status as a true global power, a status which had been severely undermined by WW1.
The central thesis – that folk memory of the Second World War paints the conflict in a golden hue only partly justified by the facts, and that its status as The Good War distorts our politics and our national self-image to this day – is, in my view, essentially correct. PH’s description of how he came first to believe in, and then question, the “myth of the Second World War” is actually rather moving. The book starts with his recollection of making a model of HMS Cossack as a small boy, and thrilling at those immortal words, “The Navy’s here!” (if you don’t know the story of Cossack's attack on the Altmark, do read it). I think I know exactly what he means when he says that the phrase “sent through [his] whole being” a “mixture of thrill and comfort…an entire world of safety, honour, justice and warmth”. I too was raised on stirring tales of brave, decent, honourable British heroes risking life and limb to defeat the wicked Nazis, and thanks to my father’s taste in history books it was very often the exploits of the Royal Navy that grabbed my attention.
I concur with PH’s justly furious and well-informed critique of the deliberate targeting of German civilians by area bombing (see also AC Grayling's Among The Dead Cities), and share his horror at our compliant attitude to Stalin. It is likely true, and bad, that most people, even well-educated and well-informed ones, know little or nothing of our appalling complicity with the expulsion of millions of ethnic Germans from their homes after the war. I agree that our overall conduct of the war was significantly worse than is popularly thought. It is, I think, accepted among historians that the British Army in particular was relatively poorly led in WW2 – due in no small part to the horrific casualty rates of junior officers in the first war – and that its battlefield performance was generally mediocre, with the exception of certain units, such as the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division and the 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division.
It is plainly true that the war hastened our decline into the second rank of world powers, and that the “Special Relationship” was and is a much stranger and more complicated thing than some of its proponents would have us believe. I don’t think many informed people would quibble with the view that Britain’s contribution to final victory – as distinct from her vital role in keeping the free world in the fight and providing a jumping-off point for the second front – was relatively modest compared to that of the Red Army and the US Army, the US Navy (including the USMC) and the USAAF.
Nevertheless PH, never one to hold back from lamenting decline, overstates his case. For example, he claims that our fears of an Axis strike through Egypt to the Middle Eastern and Caucasian oilfields were groundless, and so there was little reason to contest North Africa as vigorously as we did. Similarly, he states that London overrated the importance of access to Suez, and so wasted precious men and materiel seeking control of the Med. These suggestions both seem to me to be debatable, to say the least. It is surely correct, as he says, that we were wasting our time in Greece and Crete, and that the men and arms thrown away in those places might more profitably have been used to strengthen Singapore, an eminently defensible spot given the political will. But the broader argument about the futility of the Mediterranean theatre as a whole seems much more questionable, and PH noticeably declines to defend it in depth.
Similarly questionable is PH’s consistently hyper-critical attitude to our pre-war diplomacy. No doubt it was far from brilliant, and many of his blows do land, but his assertion that the Chamberlain government decided to actively pursue war for self-aggrandising reasons of national glory is not, as far as I am aware, widely shared among historians. As with the assertions about the Med, there is an element of Monday-morning quarterbacking. This is also true of his lament for our abandoned alliance with Japan. Viewed through the prism of Singapore and the Burma Railway, that abandoned alliance indeed looks foolish – but, as we should always ask when judging political or diplomatic decisions, compared to what? If we had maintained an alliance with Japan and declined to sign the Washington Naval Treaty, who is to say what ill consequences might have followed? It is far from inconceivable that an increasingly powerful and chauvinistic Japan, seeking to expand in east and south-east Asia, would have simply repudiated the alliance themselves.
PH makes great hay of the fact that British forces were not in contact with the main body of the enemy, i.e. the Wehrmacht's best fighting divisions, between Dunkirk and D-Day, and that this should be taken as evidence of our minor contribution to the wider war, and our status as a junior partner in the US-Soviet victory over Germany. Again, however, I think this is a partial presentation of the facts.
It ignores Burma, where imperial troops fought and eventually defeated formidable Japanese formations in a harsh climate and very difficult terrain. It depends for some of its force on his assertions about the uselessness of the North African and Italian campaigns, which are, as I noted above, disputable. Whatever their strategic use, those campaigns had significant additional value in maintaining military and civilian morale and providing propaganda, in providing British soldiers with valuable combat experience, and in helping military planners and technicians hone new weapons, tactics and approaches. It also underplays the British (and imperial) contribution to the logistics and manpower for D-Day. Three of the five Overlord beaches were all-imperial affairs, and the campaign in North-West Europe, though increasingly dominated by the Americans as time went on, could not have succeeded without Brits, Saffas, Aussies, Kiwis, Canucks, Indians and the rest.
This is already too long for a mini-review, but I’ll finish by saying that my instinctive reaction to PH’s near-total cynicism about the Anglo-American alliance is that he is overegging the pudding, partly because of the ways in which his views about Western interventionism have developed since the Cold War ended (his overreaching to make somewhat tenuous points about present day geopolitics is a mildly irritating aspect of the book).