David Frum

02.10.13

Rethink Everything You Think You Know About World War II

Nearly 65 years after the fact, David Frum says it's amazing how much of what we think we know about Britain's 'finest' hour is just plumb wrong.

Nearly 65 years after the fact, it's amazing how much of what we think we know about Britain's "finest" hour is just plumb wrong.

* Did Britain go to war in 1939 dangerously unprepared compared to her Nazi German adversary? No. 1930s Britain was the leading arms producer on earth. The British army of 1939, although small, was the most mechanized in the world, with many more tanks per unit than the German Wehrmacht. Germany never attempted to challenge British naval supremacy. By September 1, 1939, Germany was already losing the contest for air superiority over Britain.

* Did the defeat of France in 1940 leave Britain "alone"? Only if commanding a global alliance that included all of South Asia, Malaya, the future Indonesia, Singapore, Hong Kong, most of the Middle East, most of Africa, not to mention the dominions of Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand is "alone."

* Was Britain close to surrender in 1940? On the contrary, its leaders never doubted that Britain would eventually win the war against Germany. They envisioned an air war in which Britain's economic and technological superiority would slowly pulverize Germany. As Germany collapsed, revolts in the conquered nations would open the door to a British expeditionary force - more or less the strategy that defeated Napoleon.

* Did German submarine warfare nearly starve out Britain? It would be much closer to the truth to say that the British naval blockade nearly starved out continental Europe.

* Was Britain rescued by Pearl Harbor? No. The Wehrmacht had already lost the war against the Soviet Union by December 7, 1941, and the German high command knew it. The rest was just a matter of time. On the other hand, the Japanese conquest of British and Dutch possessions in Southeast Asia not only subtracted enormously from British resources, but forced Britain into a two-front war across half the planet. Britain now had to maintain and supply an army to protect India - and lost the possibility of using Australian troops in Europe.

These insights - and many more like them - are found in the pages of a truly eye-opening history of the British war effort in World War II: Britain's War Machine by David Edgerton.

Britain's War Machine might be considered the anti-Gosford Park view of Britain. Edgerton's Britain is not a quaint land of outdated traditions, left behind by the surging modernity of its rivals. It is the richest and most urbanized country in Europe, a country that can commit far more of its manpower to war than Germany because its agriculture has been both mechanized and globalized. It is a country that began arming for war as early as 1935, boldly experimenting with technologies of the future: radar, television, and atomic energy.

Ironically, the most famous image of Britain's unreadiness - Territorial militia training with broomsticks because they lacked rifles - perversely testifies to Britain's ultra-modernity: Britain had left it to its French ally, the strongest conventional army in Europe, to invest in small arms while the British built bombers, tanks, and aircraft carriers.

An image from the movie "Dad's Army" - not real life! ()

After the disaster in France exposed the British rifle shortage, however, Britain swiftly recouped, building millions of guns at factories in England, India, and Canada. As Edgerton again and again insists, the post-1945 decision to shed the Empire distorted British memories of the war, by causing British writers to treat as the totality of the British war effort the output of the island of Britain only. In 1940, however, more than ever before or after in history, Kipling's famous question was exactly on point: "What should they know of England who only England know?"

The great forgetting of Britain's material and technological accomplishments had another source, more urgent than Little Englandism.

From the Norway campaign of April 1940 through to the battle of El Alamein in July 1942, British arms suffered the worst series of disasters in the nation's history: not only in France, but in Hong Kong and Singapore as well. Even after the tide of war turned in 1942, the performance of British and Imperial forces compared sadly to their triumphant record of 1917-1918.

How to explain this sorry contrast? The inadequacy of equipment and technology offered a comfortable answer. The experience of postwar Britain - which actually was economically overtaken by West Germany - made the comfortable answer also a plausible answer. An English historian who had lived through the (relative) decline that commenced after 1947 might naturally backdate the beginning of that decline to the 1930s or before, especially when encouraged by contemporary (mis)reporting.

Edgerton's carefully researched book will fundamentally change the way you think about World War II, especially if read in tandem with a congruent history of the Nazi war economy, Adam Tooze's The Wages of Destruction.

Wages of Destruction is a book so rich in ideas and information as almost to overwhelm discussion. But if there's one central idea in this dense work, it is perhaps this: Hitler's stupidest mistake was not invading Russia. It was invading France. But because Hitler got lucky that time - rolled a six in a game where a roll of one through five would have meant sure defeat - history has tended to overlook the military folly of his war.

As Tooze painstakingly demonstrates, the Germany that went to war in 1939 against Britain and France in 1939 was in every respect a weaker and poorer country than the Germany that lost to Britain and France in 1918. Unlike the Germany of 1914, the Germany of 1939 could have no illusions about the likely actions of the United States: If Germany looked likely to win, the U.S. would join the war against it.

Germany could not afford to build an army to equal France's and also an air force to equal Britain's. It lacked oil, rubber, aluminum and other crucial resources. According to Tooze, the United States in its first year of war mobilization, 1942, produced more aircraft than the Nazi regime produced over its entire existence. At its peak in December 1944, the Luftwaffe fielded 5,000 combat aircraft, as compared to 8,300 British planes by that same point. By war's end, April 1945, the Soviet Union commanded 17,000 planes. The United States stood on a different level again: the US Army Air Force alone tallied 21,000 planes by war's end, with abundant naval aviation on top of that.

Most fundamentally of all: Germany could not feed itself. Genocide, argues Tooze, was built into the German war plan from the very start. Hitler's strategic math required him to starve to death millions of urban eastern Europeans in order to extract the grain to feed a war-fighting Germany cut off from world trade. When Hitler failed to destroy the Red Army before winter 1941, he lost his basic economic gamble - and then turned to the systematic mass murder of the Jews as a horrific but simultaneously futile consolation prize. Here was one war he could win: a war against defenseless civilians.

(Tooze makes a point about the German war plan against the Soviet Union that came as news to me, but that - if accurate - makes the operation seem even more hopeless. Russian railways used a different gauge from railways in western Europe. Any heavy goods to support the invading force must therefore have moved either by truck or by horse and cart. This limit had special implications for moving motor fuel. Horse and cart could never move fuel in the quantities needed to sustain a modern mechanized army; and after 500 miles, German trucks burned more fuel than they could carry. Hitler thus not only had to destroy the Red Army before winter set in, but had to perform the destruction within 500 miles of the German jump-off point - or else lose the use of his tanks and planes.)

There's an old debate over whether the Nazi regime can be considered "rational." An unfortunate National Review contributor stumbled into the old debate last month.

To the extent we are talking about "instrumental rationality" - identifying means that can effectively achieve specified ends - the Nazi regime was wildly irrational. It had no strategic plan for winning the war against Britain, and could have none. Theoretically, it might have been imagined that a Nazi-dominated united Europe could mobilize resources approaching those of the US and UK. As a practical matter, however, the economies of western Europe collapsed under Nazi occupation. Even before the invasion of the Soviet Union, the Germans had discovered the delusion of their hopes of achieving superpower status by colonial exploitation of western Europe. The outright murderousness of their occupation of eastern Europe produced even less than for them.

Which meant that in 1941, much more than in 1917, Germany simply lacked the military power to force the submission of Britain, much less the United States. Tooze offers a verdict on the war that still resonates with me three years after reading the book on paper: Germany could conquer a continent, but Britain had made a world. The old advice about nuclear war applied as well to the Nazi project: the only way to win was not to play.