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on July 25, 2006
John Keegan's World War II is a superb one volume history of the military aspects of World War II. There are three primary strenghts to Keegan's work: (1) his graceful style, which makes reading this work a pleasure, (2) his ability to use detail to illuminate broader themes, much like a talented newspaper reporter, and (3) the depth of his historical knowledge, which allows him to place the events and campaigns he is writing about into a broader and deeper context.

As other reviewers have noted, this is not the definitive shot-by-shot history of every battle. Rather, Keegan provides an overview, zeroing in on detail to make illustrative points; nevertheless he covers virtually every major theater of operations, including some peripheral ones. I don't regard his decision to summarize as a weakness; had he tried provide a more close-grained analysis, the book would have reached thousands of pages at the sacrifice of general readability. Keegan generously acknowledges, both in the text and in his notes, his reliance on narrower and more detailed explorations of many of his subjects and the notes contain many excellent suggestions for further reading.

Furthermore, to try to provide a day-by-day history of the war would have blunted the strength of his analysis and historical comparisons. And this is where Keegan truly excels, in helping the reader understand both Hitler and Nazism in the broader sweep of the aftermath of World War I, Bismarck and other European wars. Writing about Operation Barbarossa, Hitler's attempt to conquer Russia, for example, Keegan draws upon his knowledge of the campaigns of Frederick the Great and the Napoleonic wars. In discussing the Yugoslav partisan operations against the Nazis, Keegan makes the connection to Ottoman wars of independence fought by the Serbs. Other histories of World War II generally fail to provide the same measure of connected analysis, largely, I suspect, because their authors lack the depth of knowledge that Keegan has.

From the standpoint of an American reader, the book will appear to have something of a Euro-centric and British-centric feel, which is not surprising. Keegan was for many years a lecturer in military history at Sandhurst, the English equivalent of West Point. And for the English, World War II was overwhelmingly a European war. And for all his evident admiration for American efforts, it is clear that he regards Roosevelt as a mystifying and distant figure, and Eisenhower as a blunt but too-cool commander. If you think about Keegan's observations, his complaint appears to be that the American leaders weren't passionate enough, didn't hate the Nazis enough, a conclusion that is probably not shared by American scholars and readers.

But these quirks are also what makes this work so great: it is not simply a bland recitation of names and dates. It is writing infused with knowledge and a point of view, which is what makes this work so valuable.
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on August 30, 2005
Simply put, this is the best single volume history of the Second World War available. John Keegan was a Senior Lecturer at Sandhurst, the British equivalent of West Point. He produced a series of books on WW II and on other wars. This book is, in my opinion, his masterpiece.

The book is profusely illustrated, and the illustrations are carefully tied into the text. The text itself tells what happened and when, but is also expanded to cover what other activities might be going on at that time. It also relates how that particular incident ties into the rest of the war.

If there is any complaint you might make regarding this book, it would be that the war in the Pacific is not given as much coverage as the war against Germany. To be sure there are sections on the Pacific war, but they do not have nearly as many pages as the other.

John Keegan is a supurb writer and this book is excellent.
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on October 31, 2005
In his history of the Second World War, John Keegan manages to wrestle the global upheaval of 1939-1945 into a mere 608 pages. The concise, cohesive narrative arc of this work demonstrates not only Keegan's mastery of the endless particulars of the conflict that do not make their way into his description of it, but also his skill at plucking out of those myriad particulars those bits of information that are representative of the larger whole and arranging them into a compelling portrait of his subject.

Keegan's analysis is subtle, deft and administered with reverent restraint: where his hand is evident at all, it is almost always in the narrative structure, as in his treatment of the American and British bomber commands, rather than in the narrative itself.

The preceding notwithstanding, however, what may recommend this volume above all its many virtues is Keegan's mastery of the English language. It should surprise no one that a work of such depth and erudition is a "best-seller": Keegan's gift for language, coupled with his incisive analytical ability, make the causes, actors, events and outcomes of the Second World War accessible to all readers. The magnitude of this accomplishment cannot be overstated: the true gift of the pedagogue is his ability to play Prometheus, to grant his students, not entrée into the inner chambers of his subject, but rather passage through the door of first principles, giving them through that process enough knowledge to navigate their own way to a deeper understanding. What opens that door to understanding for Keegan's readers is his ability to communicate crucial and representative events effectively--in other words, his gift for storytelling. Keegan frames the war expertly, laying out its political, military and social dimensions like pieces on a tabletop battle map with great care and precision. The reader will likely put down this book with a sense of having engaged a great mind, and with a desire to peer more deeply into the events he has unfolded, if only partially, before him.
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on March 6, 2007
If I were to teach a class on WWII I would choose this as the textbook. It covers all the military, strategic and political aspects of the conflict in an accessable and readable narrative without sacrificing any essential detail. Clearly a landmark work the book is useful as a reference or as a cover to cover read. There is no better one volume treatment of the pivotal events of the last century to equal Keegan's work here.
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Like most of Keegan's histories, "The Second World War" is very easy to read and to understand. I found the history to be more of an outline of the events leading to the war and the war itself from a British perspective. There is really no in depth analysis of campaigns or events. If you are seeking information on the battle of Midway, the siege of Stalingrad, the Warsaw uprising, or the Holocaust, you will have to go elsewhere.

The book is a good starting point for people wanting a brief history of World War II. It touches the different phases of the War and moves back and forth from the European to the Pacific Theatres. I would reccommend it for high school and college readers who don't know much about the 30's and 40's who want to increase their knowledge.
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on April 2, 2015
The book reads well and its organization is creative and useful. Still, it is replete with errors of fact. Some are from poor editing. E.g. Rommel is to Hitler's right in the picture on p. 46, not Keitel. The picture of a machine gun in use in May, 1940, cannot show a machine gun not designed until 1942. Not the "enemy" but the germans would have been supplied from Bulgaria and Romania through the port of Tuapse had the Germans been able to capture it in 1942. It was not Japan's ability to keep away from the Soviet Union in 1945 that had a great cost to Japan but its inability to keep away. Other errors are more troubling. As a Japanese traditionalist, Tojo suffered no ignominy by the surprise attack on the U.S. In traditional Japanese culture, a surprise attach was regarded as merely clevel. Japan had started its war with Russia in 1905 with a surprise - a "sneak attack." The crushing dive bomber attack by the U.S. at Midway was by aircraft from the Enterprise AND the Yorktown, and Hiryu was sunk NOT by a U.S. submarine but by a Japanese destroyer to prevent capture. "Sonderkommando" were not German SS, who had their own horrid role to play, but Jewish thugs in the camps. Direct hits by battleship shells at Tarawa were capable of penetrating 30 ft. of concrete and so were full capable of penetrating a few feet of palm logs and sand bags. The Japanese defenders were famously short of materials and equipment to build first class defenses. The problem was not the power of the 16" MK 8 shell but the failure of most of the shells to hit the bunkers absent the specialised fire control ships whose need was one of the lessons of Tarawa. The U.S. MK III tank, and not the MK 1V Sherman was the first U.S. tank to match the German MK IV in gunpower. The two U.S> tanks fired the same main gun round and the MK II appeared on the battlefield months before the first MK IV Shermans. Montgomery did not succeed Auchinleck. Gott did, only to be killed. Then Montgomery took over. Alamein was not the first time number of men , tanks, and aircraft began turning towards Britain. That would have been at the time of Crusader when Auchinleck began with 700 tanks to Rommel's 400 (many almost useless Italian models). The Herman Goering Panzer Parachute Division was formed in April, 1944, and so could not have flown to Tunis in November, 1942. Freisner was not the commander of German 6th Army in August, n1844. He commanded HeersGrupe Sud, of wich 6th Army was only a part. The U.S. 30th Infantry Division, dismissed as a "quite average American infantry division," was regarded by the U.S. command and the German command as one of the very best U.S. infantry divisions.
The "Garden" of Operation Market Garden" was not the airborne landing on Arnheim but the planned relief of the three air bridgeheads by an armored thrust. German did not make 5200 heavy tanks in 1944. They made less than 1500. 5200 were not made in the entire war. The suggestion that WWII was the war to end all wars was dubious when written by Keegan in 1989 and sen as tragically wrong in 2015. No year has passed without war somewhere on our planet. "Even Homer nods."
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on October 30, 2014
For some reason most reviews are for Churchill's book. I am reviewing Keegan's view.

I am not impressed. Old school details about the military campaigns. Very weak on politics and diplomacy. I also dislike putting Hitler totally in charge. Even Stalin is initially as an add-on character. This benefit of hindsight is annoying. The book is not really academic, no references at all. I don't like when they author uses a lot of value laden words: "Hitler is raping Czechoslovakia", but "Stalin is just aiding Hitler in Poland".

The book also has a strong European focus. In fact Japan had started war before 1939.

I am not arguing with the facts in the book, just it's style. I cannot recommend the book, unless you want an overview military history of WW2.
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on January 14, 2009
When I first caught the World War II bug, about five years ago, I was in England and quickly bought the first book I could find that looked like it could give me a good overview of the conflict: the Penguin History of the Second World War. I quickly discovered that it was written for an audience with an advanced understanding of the subject matter and soon shelved it.

When my latest obsession emerged I sought out a more accessible read to get me up to speed on the basics. John Keegan's The Second World War fit the bill perfectly. It doesn't assume prior knowledge of the War. It opens with a brief discussion of some of the root causes, but quickly moves on to Hitler's rise to power, the Anschluss, and the invasions of Czechoslovakia and Poland. It spends just the right amount of time on each subject and includes enough maps and photographs to give some flavor without distracting the reader from the prose, which is compelling without being pulpy.

Keegan presents an epic narrative, focusing on the military campaigns and the soldiers' experiences but also addressing the impact on the lives of civilians. Highly recommended for a first-read foundation-level understanding of the conflict.
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on February 26, 2008
This is an excellent one volume telling of the Second World War, within its historical context, with a heavy emphasis on the strategic questions and decisions faced by the political and military high commands of the five major powers (Keegan doesn't consider Italy a major power). A long-time instructor at Sandhurst in Britain, Keegan brings to this work an ability to link the conflict within the historical flow of Europe and modern Asia, going as far back as time of Charlemagne, but especially emphasizing how the rise of Prussia in the 1700's led to the awful events of 1939 - 1945.

The center of the conflict, for Keegan, especially to the awful nature that led all sides to jump all in the worst war in human history, was with Hitler. While German militarism and its failure after World War I was the fuel for WWII, it simply would not have happened were it not for Hitler's fantasies of German expansion and superiority. Told in about 600 pages, the writing is tight and points, loaded with meaning are made so quickly and often so well, that the reader does not notice until later. That the Nazi's rose so quickly and led a populace so willing seemed surprising at the time, but in the context that Keegan puts it into, does not seem surprising at all.

The book is divided into five sections, with initial section chapters about the strategic dilemmas faced by the leaders of the five great powers at different phases of the war. As a result, Keegan places a heavy emphasis on strategy, command and control, supply chain management and home front economics and he makes all of that very interesting. So the reader will not get a shot by shot retelling of every battle. For example, the month long blood bath on Iwo Jima gets just a couple of paragraphs, but the reader will come away with a greater understanding of why Iwo Jima was fought, and what its fall to the Americans meant to the rest of the war.

Some reviewers have criticized Keegan for writing too much about the European War, in comparison to the Pacific War, and in a one volume, six hundred page book, choices did have to be made. But in this case, it seems a proportional emphasis on Europe, especially the Eastern front war between the Soviets and the Germans was right. Over 600 armed divisions fought between 1941 and 1945 in the east, with over 10 million dead. Excluding the Japanese military occupation of China, less than 20 total armed divisions fought the Pacific War, not including naval forces.

For a reader wanting a well-written, one volume account of World War II, where the conflict is placed in historical conflict, Keegan's book cannot be more highly recommended.
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on September 10, 2007
September 10, 2007
Ardsley, PA

Only after reading this excellent book can you really appreciate how difficult an undertaking a one volume history of WWII is. I can't imagine how anyone could do the job better than John Keegan.

The scope of this project is mind boggling. Battles were fought in Europe, Asia and Africa, across the whole of the Pacific and Atlantic. Fifty million people were killed and who knows how many were directly under arms.

The book begins with an outstanding Foreward and I believe it is essential that you read it carefully so that you can understand how Mr. Keegan has approached his subject.

The book is laid out roughly in two time periods; 1936 to 1943 and 1943 to 1945; and what events occurred during those periods in three separate theaters: western Europe, eastern Europe and the Pacific.

There are fascinating details regarding the political decisions which influenced the combatants and I founds chapters 28 and 29 on the Seige of Berlin and Roosevelt's Strategic Dilemma outstanding.

I would caution a reader not to expect too much detail regarding a specific battle. You will be disappointed if you are looking for great detail on one area. You will need a more specific book for that. You will get a real understanding though of how any specific battle fit into the broader flow of the war.

I found the photos captivating. The scenes of battle such as the Red Flag flying over a smoking Berlin and infamous figures like Hitler and Rommel walking together are worthy of careful study. There is also an incredible image of a B17 with its left horizontal tail ripped off by a bomb dropped from another friendly bomber above. As a military pilot I can feel the terror of that scene!

This book is worthy of a careful reading and study. I would recommend it more for the history student already familiar with the flow of the war; however, it is easy enough to read that any person would enjoy the experience.
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