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The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War Paperback – May 29, 2012
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“Gripping. . . . splendid history. A brilliantly clear and accessible account of the war in all its theaters. Roberts’s prose is unerringly precise and strikingly vivid. It is hard to imagine a better-told military history of World War II.” (Timothy Snyder, The New York Times Book Review)
“Elegantly balances fact, thought and fresh, clear prose. . . . Roberts has set a high bar for future historians of mankind’s greatest bloodbath; Roberts splendidly weaves a human tragedy into a story of war’s remorseless statistics.” (The Wall Street Journal)
“With his new book on the Second World War, British historian Andrew Roberts has not only written the single best history of that conflict but has also claimed his place as one of our top historians.” (Michael Korda, The Daily Beast)
“A magnificent book;It manages to be distinctive but not eccentric, comprehensive in scope but not cramped by detail, giving due weight both to the extraordinary personalities and to the blind economic and physical forces involved.” (The Economist)
“Roberts’s narrative gifts are such that it is almost impossible to read his retelling of these nightmares without some feeling of encountering the new. No history book can ever truly be definitive, but this comes close. Roberts never loses sight of the human side of this epic.” (National Review)
“Roberts is a great historian because of a rare triune mastery: of the movement of history, in both its broad sweep and particular revelatory detail; a felicitous prose style and gift for narrative; and a commanding moral vision.” (Roger Kimball, The Daily)
“Andrew Roberts achieves a marvel of concision in producing a splendidly written, comprehensive new history of the greatest conflict in history, The Storm of War—particularly good in its insights into Axis strategy.” (Sir Ian Kershaw, The Guardian, Books of the Year)
“In what might be his best book yet, Roberts gives us the war as seen from the other side of the hill. He has the knack of making complex military operations comprehensible and salting the grand strategic sweep with vignettes of how it felt to be a soldier.” (Nigel Jones, The Sunday Telegraph)
“Roberts is a first-rate historian. He has a sharp eye for a good subject and a knack of getting to its heart. The second world war, which cost more than 50 million lives, has a perennial fascination that Roberts conveys through an admirably lucid narrative.” (Piers Brendon, The Sunday Times)
“In one irresistibly readable book, Roberts has done what I thought was impossible--given us the whole bloody second world war from the brass buttons of the generals down to the mud-filled trenches and stretching across the globe.” (Tina Brown, Newsweek)
“The best full history of World War II yet written.” (Simon Sebag Montefiore, The Wall Street Journal)
From the Back Cover
Andrew Roberts's acclaimed new history has been hailed as the finest single-volume account of this epic conflict. From the western front to North Africa, from the Baltic to the Far East, he tells the story of the war—the grand strategy and the individual experience, the brutality and the heroism—as never before.
Meticulously researched and masterfully written, The Storm of War illuminates the war's principal actors, revealing how their decisions shaped the course of the conflict. Along the way, Roberts presents tales of the many lesser-known individuals whose experiences form a panoply of the courage and self-sacrifice, as well as the depravity and cruelty, of the Second World War.
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Top Customer Reviews
This book is a Euro-centric history of the war by design and I notice that many of the other reviewers overlooked that point. However, while "The Storm of War" is a good and interesting read it is quite marginal on its major promise: to analyze the decision points and alternate courses of the war (p.11). On this goal the relevant sections run the gamut from mostly casual to almost superficial. I will elaborate my point by describing a few of the more tendentious passages in the book, how Mr. Roberts dealt with them, and how he might have made them better.
"If, on coming to power in 1933, Hitler had developed long-range heavy bombers, built more fighters than he did and trained the Wehrmacht for amphibious operations; if he had not dissipated his naval forces by invading Norway; and if had attacked much earlier to give himself months of better weather in the Channel, then the always risky Sealion would have stood far greater chance of success. If he had landed large numbers of well-supplied paratroopers on the major British airfields of southern England during the opening stages of the battle of Britain, though such an operation would undoubtedly have been risky, it might have paid off." (page 91)
Superficially these assertions are true and one could not reasonably disagree: "Sealion would have stood far greater chance of success..." and paratroop landings "...might have paid off." But upon more analysis, one realizes how casually flippant they are. Consider the opportunity costs for Germany to develop a long-range heavy bomber force.
The Germans rearmed during the 1930s by systematically managing their economy and husbanding foreign exchange in order to buy the critical raw materials they themselves did not possess. Rearmament proceeded apace and by the latter half of the 1930s there was an arms race among the major powers. Under such conditions allocating, for example, more steel, copper, or fuel to one branch of the German military meant that some other branch would have less - there was typically never enough to satisfy the demands of each. Should the Luftwaffe build a heavy bomber force, it would have meant building less of other types of aircraft. Heavy bombers were a very cost-intensive proposition, approximately equivalent to that of 3-4 fighters. So if the war started in September 1939 and Germany did have a heavy bomber force, but considerably fewer fighters, could they have successfully fought the Battle of France in 1940 where the Luftwaffe fighter arm fought for and ultimately dominated the airspace? That is highly unlikely. But let us assume that more resources were provided to the pre-war Luftwaffe so that it might build up a heavy bomber forces and a large fighter force. That would come at what cost to the other services, for they must then have less than what they did - less artillery, less munitions, fewer tanks, fewer vehicles, or fewer naval vessels.
It is necessary to consider the opportunity costs of the choices made during German rearmament. Of course, the Germans could have siphoned off resources directed toward civilian consumption, yet here too they balanced political and military considerations. There was no easy answer because there was never enough to satisfy all demands: civilian versus military, Luftwaffe versus Wehrmacht versus Kriegsmarine!
When these considerations are laid out, then asserting that had the Wehrmacht been trained for amphibious operations, beyond river crossings, an invasion would have been less risky, is true but fanciful. Is Mr. Roberts proposing that Germany should have had the foresight to build a fleet of landing craft and then trained the Wehrmacht for amphibious operations!?! No, that is nonsense. Again consider the opportunity costs, and the unlikely scenario that Germany found itself in June of 1940: they had defeated their enemies on the continent yet England would not be "reasonable" and agree to a negotiated peace.
The author references the Germans "dissipating" their naval forces by invading Norway. True, the successful German invasion of Norway in April 1940 cost the Germans a number of destroyers and vessels of other types. However, the concurrent British plan was to invade Norway and interdict Swedish iron ore exports to Germany -- an idea quite good in conception but poor in execution. Should the Germans have allowed this and the establishment of enemy air bases in Norway and perhaps an even more effective naval blockade of Germany? Of course not! But Britain was willing fight to the last Norwegian, Dutchman, Belgian and Frenchman to defeat Germany. So a widening of the war to Norway was something the Germans, excepting Doenitz, reluctantly came to accept in early 1940. And though the German naval campaign for Norway was relatively costly for the Germans in terms of sunk and damaged ships, the size and quality of the Royal Navy in the numbers, types, training and equipment in 1940 outclassed and outnumbered the Kriegsmarine in every respect. The German losses in Norway, though relatively considerable for them, meant that they had even fewer critical naval forces to deploy for any ill-fated cross-Channel invasion, but still the losses were insignificant in the overall development and outcome of the war.
In this context to say that Operation Sealion, the proposed German invasion of Britain in 1940, would have been less risky had the Germans more naval forces is facetious. Even without the losses in Norway the Kriegsmarine was dwarfed by size of the Royal Navy stationed just in home waters, with reserves available in the Mediterranean and elsewhere. Consider that in September 1939 the Royal Navy had 15 battleships and 5 planned, 7 carriers and 6 under construction, 66 cruisers and 23 new ones started, 184 destroyers of all types, and even 60 submarines with 9 more under construction. The Kriegsmarine was a small fraction of the size of the Royal Navy and even in submarines the British had fifty percent more than the Germans. And no German ship-building program could ever challenge the naval assets of British even if war had not started in 1939!!
Paratroop landings on the airfields of southern England likewise do not hold up very well to examination. I am sure the Germans could have initially dropped a considerable number of paratroopers had they been determined to do so, yet their resupply and reinforcement is where this proposition breaks down. With the Royal Army, Navy and Air Force deploying and engaging with all their energies to contest any such invasion, such drops would have ultimately been a waste of men and materiel.
In a soon to follow section the author deals with the decision point(s) surrounding Dunkirk (pp. 59-68). Here the analysis of alternatives is more balanced and reasonable. The Wehrmacht and panzers briefly held back while the Luftwaffe tried to dominate the air space over this evacuation route. I agree with the author's assertion that a decisive German victory at Dunkirk (capture of the bulk of the B.E.F and a failed evacuation) would have provided the means to a possible political solution, i.e., a negotiated peace between Great Britain and Germany. In fact, in the week before "The Miracle at Dunkirk" the British War Cabinent did discuss such a prospect, as the author acknowledges.
In Chapter 11 - The Wave of Air and Sea: 1939-1945, I find similar problems. Here the author points out that if Hitler had listened to U-boat proponents and built up the submarine fleet, starting "no later than 1937," and had Germany started the war with 300 U-boats instead of the 43 they had, then this could have had a decisive impact early in the war. I agree, but again consider the required opportunity cost, which Roberts fails to do, and the needed prescience for Germany to have pursued that alternative in 1937. To follow this line of thought, perhaps instead of devoting resources to building an aircraft carrier -- whose construction was halted in Sept 1939 -- and battleships such as the Bismarck and Tirpitz -- Germany instead builds several dozens more U-boats during 1938-39. Yes, this offers intriguing possibilities. But, then again, prevailing thought in all countries placed undue emphasis on the importance and potential impact of capital ships. Their vulnerability from the air was a lesson yet to be fully and properly appreciated by all the combatant countries. So Germany's lack of prescience is less of a factor than evaluating the opportunity costs of such alternatives. But this sort of consideration is precisely how Roberts fails to take his analysis beyond the initial, first-level.
The reader of this review begins to appreciate why I find many of these casual counter-factual scenarios so tendentious: they are insufficiently developed or thought out. In fact, much better ones could have been employed, and I will discuss those as I revise my review. Aside from events in 1940, the underlying facts of the situation are that Germany was unprepared and ill-equipped to fight a long war, a fact the British certainly understood and appreciated in September 1939!!!
I have finally slogged my way to the "Conclusion: Why Did the Axis Lose the Second World War?" It's an enjoyable thirty-one pages of historical alternatives and analysis amply foreshadowed by sections in earlier chapters. On his principal points here and earlier I am in agreement with the author. What the author does not quite baldly state I will: the Ultra decrypts of German communications during much of the war were decisive in precluding significant German success after 1940, perhaps most notably in the Battle of the Atlantic. The decisive defeat of the German U-boats in 1943 allowed the massive Allied build-up of men and materiel in England in preparation for the Normandy invasion in 1944.
But, assuming the Germans had better communications security, could they have established a more effective "Festung Europa" from attack in the west. I answer "yes," though I am unsure where the author stands. They could have accomplished this by expanding and modernizing the Luftwaffe after the Battle of Britain. A 10,000 fighter force with improved models, which Hitler ordered in early December 1941 -- at least a year later than he should have -- could have initially blunted the Allied air offensive had such a force been in place by 1943. Thus 1944 might have seen titanic air battles over occupied Europe and, more importantly, it would have put numerous other factors in play. But opportunity costs, poor strategic planning and indecisiveness doomed this aspiration and path to the future.
But then what of the War on the Eastern Front? Roberts correctly identifies this, too, as a fatal mistake. Either go all-out for Moscow and succeed in 1941, or not attack at all in 1941. That Japan should have attacked the Soviet Union in 1941 and tied down Russia's Siberian divisions, later redeployed to the Moscow front, is an intriguing alternative. However, resource poor Japan critically needed oil after August 1941, and thus their "Southern Strategy" made the most sense for them.
The author's proposed alternative Mediterranean strategy for the Germans did offer some tantalizing alternatives. Yes, by all means, capture Malta. But dislocating the British from Egypt and destroying the British Mediterranean fleet would still have presented a daunting challenge. Had the Germans avoided a war with the Soviets in 1941 and redeployed their forces and focus to the Mediterranean then this opens up some interesting possibilities, as the author observes, but without sufficient supporting analysis.
So I must conclude that the author took the simple, easy and ultimately superficial way to fulfill his promise to re-analyze the critical decision points and alternate courses of the war. Still it was a stimulating and informative book and one I would recommend to all those interested in the war.
The book's preface acknowledges a debt to an impressive list of Britain's finest minds on the Second World War, and some additional, less recognizable, names of those who were readers of various chapters. I wish more of the former had done the latter in order to flesh out those passages that I found to be deficient.
What about some of its relatively minor flaws? As far as I can tell, these stem from the simple fact that the author can't escape a certain old-school (and, depressingly, apparently modern) Britishness in his identity. For example, pp. 274-5: "In protecting the Indian sub-continent from the ravages of Japanese rule...the British Empire performed its greatest service to the people of India." One should be clear that Britain was trying to preserve its empire: it really did not care much about the colonized peoples, wherever they were, except insofar as they helped enrich the mother country. Roberts then goes on to quote, approvingly and rather bizarrely, no less an authority than Adolf Hitler on Anglo-Saxon determination. Ireland's neutrality is discussed pp. 114-5. There's a lot to be said on this subject, and an excellent discusion can be found in "Ireland: A History" by Thomas Bartlett (pp. 452-67). If one had to characterize it in a word, you might not do better than blowback, which Roberts seems to glimpse, dimly. His discussion, however, reveals the old familiar myopia-from-identity problem. For example, he characterizes the long awful history between Ireland and England as "mutual antagonism". This, from such an accomplished historian, is simply stunning. Earlier, he states in good colonial fashion that returning Irish ports to Irish sovereignty was "a disastrous error by the British." What he misses is that the ports - apart from once upon a time being stolen real estate - were never Britain's to begin with. The only way you could be a highly accomplished historian and yet display such deep historical ignorance is if your identity politics got in the way of your intellect. It is sad that at this late stage one has to be careful with British historians when it comes to discussing Ireland. Some of them can't help themselves.
Roberts is at pains to emphasize the magnitude and importance of the Bagration offensive, stressing that it dwarfed the contemporaneous Operation Overlord, while noting that it has been given scant treatment in history books. Still, though "it was on the Eastern Front that the war against Germany was won", Overlord gets the lion's share of discussion here too.
Having read this one, go on to Max Hasting's "Inferno". However, a WWII book like Adam Hochschild's WWI "To End All Wars" is yet to be written.