The path to glory

Donald Cameron Watt applauds a new study of how a combination of technology and leadership won the War; Why the Allies Won Richard Overy Cape, pounds 20

Richard Overy has written a simple, but much needed book. To people of my own generation (60-plus), the experience and lessons of the war we grew up with were something we accepted as commanding general understanding and agreement, at least in this country. Recent outbreaks of revisionism, such as the suggestion that it would have been better or wiser to have accepted a compromise peace which would have left Hitler in control of Germany and continental Europe, struck us not so much as blasphemous, but simply incomprehensible. How could anyone familiar with the history of how people in Britain felt during the war years regard such a proposition as in any way realistic?

Overy has set out to confront the argument that, given the overwhelming strength of the British-Soviet-American coalition, its victory over Hitler's regime was inevitable. In so doing he is echoing the convictions of most British historians (other than residual Marxists) that in history the human factor outweighs economic factors, population statistics, production capacities, iron and steel outputs and so on. In this he should be applauded. Indeed, he has not gone far enough. If a British decision to allow Hitler his European empire was ever a possible choice, either in 1936-39, or in 1940-41, then how easy a choice would it have been for an American government to stand aside in 1935 or 1940, in the sort of stance recommended by the America First movement, former President Hoover and the isolationist and Anglophobe generation that commanded the two American armed services.

Overy has selected four vital areas of battle in which Allied victory was essential to the final overthrow of Germany and Japan; the battle for control of the Atlantic, the battles of Stalingrad and Kursk on the Eastern front, the bombing offensive against Germany, and the invasion and break-out from Normandy by the Anglo-American forces in June and July 1944. In each, he shows how victory was by no means assured; he swings between the errors made on the German side, and the uncertainties and sheer staying power which brought victory for their enemies. He shows too how Allied technological effort gave them the edge; without the inventive genius which gave the Allies the Mulberry harbours and the Pluto oil-lines across the Channel on D-Day, it would have proved impossible to maintain the Allied forces in France against the numerically superior German forces. Without the Fortitude deception plan which kept 15 German divisions watching the Pas-de-Calais beaches until the American break-out from Normandy was already in full swing, and which would have proved impossible without the Allied superiority in the codes and ciphers battle, the landing could have been defeated in the first two weeks, a disaster which would have taken even the Americans a year or more to surmount.

This thought leads Overy to four further chapters on the strengths and weaknesses of the rival war economies, on the rival technologies, on the nature of the leadership system on both sides and how it developed under the lessons of war, and on the moral contest between the sides.

He calls attention to two economic factors. One, still largely unknown in the West, was the extraordinary evacuation of Soviet war industry from the Ukraine across the Urals in the face of the German invasion of Russia in 1941, an operation so successful that Soviet war production outstripped that of Hitler's Europe within a year of its transplantation.

The other is the equally extraordinary conversion of the American industrial economy, which was still running at about 15 per cent of its capacity, to the production of the materials of war by what can only be described as a kind of voluntary and temporary capitalist corporativism. The US economy armed, fed, fuelled, and paid for not only a two-ocean war for its own armed forces, but a substantial part of the British and Russian war efforts. Soviet troops fought with Soviet guns and tanks; but they travelled to war on American jeeps and trucks, fuelled largely by American- produced oil. At the same time Americans enjoyed a consumer-goods boom and an enormous rise in the general standard of living.

By contrast, the German system of technological development and economic management squandered and under-used the control of the continental economy brought under Hitler's control by the victories of 1939-41. The German armed forces, with their insistence on technical perfection, prevented the mass-production techniques which enabled American factories to produce aircraft and ships and tanks as though they were Model T Fords. And apart from Todt and his successor Speer, Hitler's entourage could produce no- one even remotely familiar with the problems which crippled German productivity, let alone capable of forcing those involved to revolutionise their methods.

This brings Overy to the meat of his argument, the human differences. Regarding leadership, he argues that the anti-Hitler coalition learned from its mistakes. Even Stalin learned to leave to his generals the disposition and direction of the Soviet military forces, treating his followers, such as Voroshilov, with the same contempt he showed to the Soviet generals he purged in 1937-38. Roosevelt leant heavily on General Marshall, his chief of army staff, whose central role Overy, if anything, understates.

Hitler, by contrast, while not without his strengths, learned from the experience of war only what he wanted to learn: the total unreliability of his generals, his closest associates, his economic managers, everyone except Goebbels, Bormann and Himmler. Even the last, "loyal Heinie", ended up betraying him. If the creation of the Second World War was Hitler's responsibility, Germany's failure to make the most effective use of his victories was even more so.

Behind this lay a deeper paradox. The Soviet people, despite the defeats of 1941, despite the purges and the miseries of the famine, fought unshakeably for Stalin, as well as for Russia. Whatever the debunkers of today may say about the Churchill's (or Mrs Miniver's) depiction of British classlessness and unity in war, there was never more than the smallest suggestion of overt dissatisfaction with the British all-party leadership; even that was directed more at the survival of British Tory blimps rather than at Winston himself. The US managed to hold mid-term elections in 1942 and a full-dress Presidential election in 1944, without disrupting their military or industrial war-effort. In Germany in the same period, there were 42 attempts on Hitler's life.

There will be much in the detail of Overy's arguments that war buffs and experts alike will question. But there is no doubt that his general argument will command the support of a majority of his professional colleagues. He deserves the attention of a wider audience.

Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv'The Last Kingdom' embraces politics, religion, warfare, courage, love and loyalty, say creators
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

film
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
News
peopleThe Game of Thrones author said speculation about his health and death was 'offensive'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Arts and Entertainment
All-new couples 'Come Dine With Me'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne
musicReview: BST Hyde Park, London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart star in Almost Royal burning bright productions
tvTV comedy following British ‘aristos’ is accused of mocking the trusting nature of Americans
Arts and Entertainment
Sassoon threw his Military Cross into the Mersey
booksAn early draft of ‘Atrocities’ shows the anti-war sentiment was toned down before publication
Arts and Entertainment
Actors and technicians on the march against changes made by Hollande
theatreOpening performances of the Avignon theatre festival cancelled as actors and technicians walk out
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West performed in a chain mail mask at Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park
Rapper booed at Wireless over bizarre rant
Arts and Entertainment

They're back, they're big – and they're still spectacularly boring

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
    Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

    Hollywood targets Asian audiences

    The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

    Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
    Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

    Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

    Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
    10 best girls' summer dresses

    Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

    Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
    Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

    Westminster’s dark secret

    Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
    Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

    Naked censorship?

    The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
    Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil