Books: A date with destiny
Sunday 18 October 1998
by John Ellis, Cape pounds 25
John Ellis is one of our leading military historians and his rivals will no doubt kick themselves for not thinking of the simple but brilliant idea behind this excellent book: a look at one significant day in all theatres of World War Two. Ellis's historical camera sweeps over an area from the Atlantic seaboard of the USA eastward to Hawaii, panning, tracking and moving in for close-ups.
The first act of this drama begins with the Allies in Europe, nearly five months after D-Day. Scene One is the assault by British and Canadian troops on the Scheldt commanding the approaches to Antwerp, where troops fought chest-high in the polders. Then Ellis gives us snapshots of the British advance on Maas, and the slow-down in the American juggernaut, with 1st Army in the Hurtgen Forest, 3rd Army at Metz and 7th Army in the Vosges. After filling us in on the situation on the French Riviera, in Greece and in Italy (where the German general Kesselring conducted a masterly fighting retreat up the peninsula), Ellis moves to eastern Europe and the ferocious struggle between the Red Army and the Wehrmacht in Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Poland and eastern Prussia.
Although the author follows a strictly geographical chapter progression, he progressively layers in thematic material, and the overarching motif is the war in the air and the war at sea, viewed initially in a European context but later embracing the war in the Pacific. Ellis is particularly good on Allied bombing raids over Germany, and his minute description of what was involved in guiding Lancasters and Flying Fortresses to enemy targets has all the excitement of a good war novel. Later in the book, Ellis demonstrates clearly that military aviation is his forte by a splendid analysis of the Manhattan Project, the bombing raids on Japan and the advent of the B-29. The Superfortress, as it was better known, was so far ahead of the old B-17 (Flying Fortress) that it could carry 20,000lbs of bombs over a range of 1,600 miles, compared to the B-17's payload of 2,600lbs over a range of 950 miles.
In the second half of the book, Ellis moves away from Europe to Southeast Asia and the Pacific. There are sections on Chiang, Mao and General Stilwell in China; mopping-up operations by US infantry in Micronesia and Melanesia; submarine warfare in the Pacific; the British campaigns in southern Burma under the one undisputed British military genius of the Second World War, General William Slim; and the activities of the Australians in New Guinea. But the high point of Ellis's narrative is the battle of Leyte Gulf. Here we realise the artfulness of the author's choice of dates, for 25 October was the climactic day of the greatest naval battle (in terms of numbers engaged) ever fought. When the Americans began landing troops in the Philippines, Japan mobilised all that remained of its naval strength to stop them. It was a desperate gamble, for the Imperial Navy had just nine battleships, four aircraft carriers, 20 cruisers and 31 destroyers and 116 planes to pit against the Americans, who had 28 carriers and 1,000 planes. By this time, after the battle of Midway two years earlier, everyone knew that victory would go to the force with the greatest number of carrier-based planes.
The result was as predicted. During the three days 23-25 October, the US Navy won an overwhelming victory. However, the Japanese did manage to decoy Admiral Halsey north into the Pacific, enabling Admiral Kurita to approach dangerously close to the invading American infantry before being driven off by American destroyers (who were on paper hopelessly outgunned). Leyte turned out to be an appalling performance by the Japanese Navy. They lost four carriers, three battleships, eleven destroyers, 500 planes and 5,000 men; American losses were three carriers, three destroyers, 200 planes and some 2,800 men. Lack of planes, incompetent air attacks tactical ineptitude and general nervousness all contributed to the Japanese debacle. But Ellis underlines the point that behind the contingent reasons for Japanese failure at Leyte lay an overwhelming US technological superiority in aeroplane design and weapons delivery systems. The Japanese were so outclassed in the air that they never got close enough to American ships to unleash bombs or torpedoes before being overwhelmed by US interceptor planes. It was despair at their inability to put a dent in the US navy that led the Japanese to begin employing their pilots on Kamikaze suicide missions.
One can question some of Ellis's historical judgements. He downplays unacceptably the role of Tito and his partisans in Yugoslavia and blames the Russians unjustifiably for not supporting the rising in the Warsaw Ghetto. He is also much too charitable to certain Allied commanders whose reputations badly need taking down a peg, Montgomery and Patton, to name but two. He is lenient on MacArthur and the time he wasted taking the Philippines - an unnecessary strategic objective which the "American Caesar" insisted on simply to redeem the boastful pledge ("I shall return") he made when expelled from the island in 1942. And he fails to castigate Admiral "Bull" Halsey's useless performance at Leyte. Halsey, despite efforts by Hollywood to boost him (notably the impersonation by James Cagney in The Desperate Hours) was largely a "talking admiral" and as inferior to Raymond Spruance (victor of the battle of Midway) as "Monty" was to Slim.
If the wartime personalities do not come to vivid life in Ellis's narrative as clearly as in some other epics of the Second World War, this should not distract us from the panoramic scale of the author's achievement. This is a very fine slice of martial life from a military historian at the top of his form.
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