Sunday, December 17, 2006

A Short History of World War II

A Short History of World War II by James Stokesbury (2001) provides, as its title suggests, a succinct history of World War II. It begins with the prologue to the war, and then covers the war in three subsequent sections: the expansion, the allied organization and confrontation, and the road to victory.

My Rating: Good (***). The book is well-suited as a text in a history class, or a simple refresher of World War II. It provides a good overview, and as the title states, a short history. The book reads well and the author does a good job of narrowing volumes of World War II history into one book that can be read in a reasonable time frame.

Interesting strategies or themes raised by the author include:

Aggressively conducting one's duties will raise conflict if counter positions are not exercised.

  • "For practical purposes, however, World War I and II can be considered part of one large struggle--the struggle of united Germany to claim its place as the dominant power on the European continent" (p. 15).
  • "France was well on the way to becoming a second-class power. The official view was that as long as Germany could be kept down, France would retain her primacy. The French therefore became the most obstinate supporters of the status quo as enacted a Versailles." (p. 22)
  • "... the French and British taxpayer chose to support governments whose policies led to military weakness rather than strength. Of course, it was not the fault of the civilian politicians if the money they did allocate to their military advisers and experts was misspent, as it generally was." (p. 32)
  • "Hitler had assessed Great Britain and France as weak; they were not disposed to challenge his reassertion of German power. Mussolini followed suit." (p. 47)
  • There was little difference between the duties and responsibilities of Hitler and Chamberlain (Britain) and Daladier (France). Hitler's over assertion of Germany's status combined with their under assertion of France and Britain's caused the war (see The Origins of the Second World War by A. Taylor). (p. 54)
  • In response to Germany's 1939 invasion of allied Poland, "... why did Britain and France not strike quickly and hard? ... They could, and should, have easily defeated Germany, and the Second World War would never have gotten off the ground. ... Facing the German frontier [the French] had eighty-five divisions. ... Against them the Germans had eight weak regular divisions. ... The French had 3,200 tanks; the Germans had none... The French and British together had 1,700 aircraft, the Germans had almost none." (pp. 75-76)

Strong leadership will beat weak leadership, even with fewer resources.

  • "[MacArthur] was reluctant to act when the news of Pearl Harbor came in. His air force people urged an immediate attack on Japanese bases on Formosa, well within range" (p. 208).
  • "It was not so much that the Americans were caught napping as that they were psychologically unprepared for what was happening." (p. 209)
  • "The Japanese general Homma was actually inferior in numbers to the Americans and Filipinos" (p. 210)
  • "[MacArthur] left on March 12, he and his family and staff going south on PT-boats, then flying to Australia. Many of the troops, though they accepted the logic of it all, felt bitterly betrayed, and MacArthur's famous 'I shall return' had a hollow ring to those who were not allowed to leave." (p. 211)

Interesting facts or positions raised by the author include:

  • The French felt that Britain failed to support them in stopping the German invasion of France and that "Britain was willing to fight to the last Frenchman." (p. 99).
  • Churchill was afraid the French navy would fall into German hands. The British "sank the battleship Bretagne and the new battle cruiser Kunkerque and several destroyers. They killed 1,300 French sailors and wounded another 350." (p. 104)
  • "When the first German Army units entered the Ukraine, they were greeted as liberators by the local inhabitants. ...[They] were treated to girls throwing flowers and men breaking out the wine bottles for them. ...Within weeks in the rear areas, the Jew-hunters and the political squads were at work, rounding up, exterminating, robbing, raping, and killing. Soon there were no more pretty girls by the side of the road throwing flowers; there were only bitter men throwing Molotov cocktails. The Master Race found that even it could not afford gratuitously to alienate several millions of people. ...Germany not only bled to death in Russia, she also made enemies of millions who might have bled for her." (pp. 156-157)
  • "De Gaulle was the prickliest of allies, Roosevelt thoroughly disliked and distrusted him and did his best to cut him off" (p. 183)
  • "Roosevelt therefore sprung [the idea of unconditional surrender] on a press conference, and the somewhat surprised Churcill quickly backed it." (p. 185) Some say this lengthened the war since it encouraged the Germans to fight to the bitter end. Also conditions were provided for Japan, or else they refused to surrender.
  • The British mounted a major raid on the port of Dieppe in August of 1942 with a force of 7,000 men which included 5,000 Canadians. It was a disaster with only 2,000 of the 5,000 Canadians escaping back to Britain. "It was a costly way to prove the Allies could not invade Europe in the immediate future, and the Canadians, who had been asking for action for two years, still have bitter memories of the way they got it." (p. 224)
  • "There is an old proverb that Russia has two unbeatable commanders: Generals January and February." (p. 232)
  • "Fighters had not been able to provide cover for the bombers all the way to the target. Ironically, the answer had existed long before the problem. The American Curtiss F11C-2, a short-lived fighter with the U.S. Navy in the mid-thirties, and the German Heinkel He51, a biplane fighter that served in the Spanish Civil War, had both been fitted with auxiliary gas tanks slung under the belly." (pp. 283-284)
  • "Hitler once remarked disgustedly, 'The Italians never lose a war; no matter what happens, they always end up on the winning side." (p. 292)
  • "It was Rommel who made the now famous remark that the first day of the invasion would be 'the longest day,' and he believed that if the battle were not fought and won in the first day, it would not be won at all." (p. 313)
  • "Many of the plotters [to kill Hitler] ended up hanging from meat hooks by wire nooses, strangling while movie cameras recorded their death agonies for the delectation of Hitler and his chosen circle." (p. 320)
  • General Bradley failed to close the "Falaise gap" which would have trapped the retreating German army in France. He was afraid of friendly fire with the Canadians coming from the north, and thought the gap was closing on its own. (p. 322)
  • "As long as they could, the Allies had stalled off de Gaulle's return to France, but when he finally got over the Channel, he immediately announced the establishment of a legal government, and began acting as if he were running the country." (p. 322)
  • "[The Canadians] were handed the unhappy task of clearing the Channel ports as the Allies pushed north, a job that cost them such high casualties as to cause a crisis at home in Canada over the issue of conscription for overseas service." (p. 324)
  • "Peleliu: it cost the highest casualty rate--nearly 40 percent--of any amphibious assault in American history." (p. 341)
  • "For the first two years of the war the Americans were plagued by faulty torpedoes that more often than not failed to detonate when they hit a target. ...It was late in 1943 before the faults were finally remedied" (p. 365).
  • "One of the great ironies of the American war effort was the way it was borne disproportionately by a relatively few people. ... only a limited number of people saw combat. Those who did saw probably far too much of it. ...For the vast majority of Americans it was a good war... People were more mobile and more prosperous than ever before." (p. 380)

Some inconsistencies presented by the author include:

  • The author contradicts himself regarding the Italian invasion of Greece. First, he states the British had to send troops to bail out the Greeks and that this would cost the British and eventually the United States, many months of fighting and many hard knocks (p. 141). Then he states "The Greeks fought; moreover, they won." He added "Through the winter of 1940-1941, the Greeks slowly pushed the Italians back through the mountains of the Greco-Albanian Frontier."

    The British decided to send in their troops to guard a possible German invasion. The Greeks did not want the British troops on their soil since they felt that would incite Hitler to attack. They were right. The Germans sent their armour into Greece and beat the British in every engagement. The British soon abandoned their Ally, Greece, and were evacuated by the Royal Navy. This is where they suffered their losses, when their own Navy could not protect the troop ships from attacks by the Luftwaffe. "...about 12,000 men and substantial amounts of equipment, almost all the casualties coming during the evacuation when ships were sunk and machine-gunned unremittingly by the Luftwaffe." (p. 144) This is further evidence that the British did not put up much resistance against the Germans in Greece, or their casualties would have been on land in the front lines, not when escaping on their Navy's ships. The author does add "In the end, Greece was not materially helped, and there are those who claim she would have been better off-or at least no worse off-without the British intervention." (p. 145)

  • The author again makes an error on the impact of the German invasion of Greece. He states it was not a factor in delaying the German attack of Russia (p. 146). This is a totally illogical argument since it is a fact that the Greek campaign cost the German's time from other campaigns and it also diverted their armour and troops. Anyone with a basic understanding of project management, can understand that the Greek invasion was a predecessor of the invasion of Russia, and therefore in the critical path. It caused a day for day slip. The Russian front was so vast, the resources used in Greece was critical for being available to the start of war with Russia, and that is what caused the delay which made the German's fight into a brutal winter which would cause their defeat.
  • The author states "The Americans knew something was going to happen. They had broken several of the Japanese codes" (p. 169) However, the author keeps with the standard surprise attack position regarding Pearl Harbor, and does not even suggest the conspiracy theory regarding FDR knowing in advance of the attack (because of the broken naval codes), but allowing it to occur to force the American public (who were most isolationists because of their experience in WWI) to fight the expansionist polices of the Japanese and Germans. It should be noted that FDR was also reelected to a third term by promising to keep the US out of the war.
  • The author stated (also see the Leadership topic) that the troops understood and accepted the logic of MacArthur's running from the battle, but felt bitterly betrayed (p. 211). How do you feel betrayed, yet agree with someones action? That is impossible and illogical. The reason many US officers were admired is that they led by example (see Band of Brothers for an excellent example). MacArthur led by running from the battle. No wonder the troops were discouraged and quick to surrender even though they outnumbered the enemy. What is even more remarkable, is strength is from a defensive position. The attacker often needs four times the troops to overcome the enemy who is dug-in and well-positioned. The author fails to suggest the fallibility of MacArthur as a commander and counter the myth of his leadership based on the facts.
  • The author states in the North Africa campaign, General Montgomery beat Rommel. "El Alamein was one of the great turning points of the war, fairly won and exploited to the full." (p. 223) This completely contradicts what the author previously states: "The British and Commonwealth troops, about 200,000 strong, outnumbered the Germans and Italians in men and tanks by two to one; they enjoyed complete air superiority." (p. 222) "Montgomery did have one startling advantage enjoyed by his predecessors: he had a copy of Rommel's operation order. The Germans were still unaware that the British code-breakers were reading their signals." (p. 221) Additionally, the author does not give much emphasis on Rommel's supply problems as a factor in his defeat when he was almost abandoned by the Germans without adequate supplies and reinforcements needed to win.

Click here to buy "A Short History of World War II"

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