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
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The Independent Culture
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.