Osprey - The Second World War
Osprey's latest book is a hefty hardcover with a beautiful cover photo showing a US helmet on a beach. It evokes the memory of the millions who gave their lives in the Second World War in the fight against a rising tide of worldwide fascism. The book is the work of several authors led by Max Hastings, a well-known journalist. I'm a fan of much of Hastings' work, although he is a journalist rather than a professional historian. This is not a modeling reference, of course, but many modelers are deeply interested in military history.
I've long thought that a new overall history of the war is needed, given all we've learned in recent decades. There is no really good comprehensive work that covers military, political and economic aspects of the war in a balanced way. Unfortunately, this new Hastings book is not that book. Despite the length, there is nothing new here, and most of it could have been written in 1960.
The book is really more of a well-annotated chronology than a real history of the war. This is a work of 368 pages, with lavish illustrations and numerous maps. However, the organization and content is very British-centric, giving much space to British campaigns such as the North African campaign, while giving very short shrift to other, more important aspects of the war.
The chapters are as follows:
Introduction (easily the best part of the book)
Northwest Europe, 1939-43 (51 pp)
War At Sea (45 pp)
The Mediterranean Theater (45 pp)
The Pacific War (45 pp)
The Eastern Front (51 pp)
Northwest Europe (48 pp)
Aftermath (13 pp)
An egregious example of imbalance is the coverage of the Soviet-German fighting, in 51 pages. Over 80% of all German losses were inflicted on the eastern front - a fact that is noted in the introduction - and the largest and most important ground combat took place there. However, the section devoted to this fighting is a shallow summary of the scholarship as it was during the cold war. Since the collapse of the USSR, this historiography of the eastern front has been transformed for the better, but there is nothing here to reflect that.
Meanwhile, roughly equal space is taken by the Mediterranean theater, an area to which the US Chiefs of Staff did not want to commit a single US soldier. There is no coverage of the war in the Pacific included in the "War at Sea" chapter. The battle of the Atlantic was undoubtedly one of the most important western allied campaigns of the entire war, and probably should have its own section. The Indian ocean fighting was quite limited yet gets undue weight here, and the Mediterranean sea fighting was mostly a sideshow; vital to the North African campaign, but that itself was a minor aspect of the war.
The economic power of the allies, especially the US, compared to the axis is one of the decisive factors in the outcome of WW2. Hastings gives a bit less than two pages to economics, without a single table showing any aspect of the productive output of the warring nations. This is a remarkable and glaring omission. Works such as Richard Overy's Why The Allies Won do a much better job at this. The single photo of Chrysler's tank plant is the major shout out to allied economic strength. Again, this does not reflect the state of the field in 2018.
There are some other odd choices. The third paragraph of the book's introduction essentially scolds US students of the war for too much emphasis on the Holocaust. This is a bizarre statement with no context; one wonders why it is there, particularly since there is no other criticism of the historiography elsewhere in the book.
The fall of Singapore, which was the biggest defeat of British arms in the war against Japan, is covered in a single odd sentence. The paragraph on the Malaya campaign screams for explanation; the author acknowledges that the Japanese were outnumbered 2:1 yet "Singapore fell" without the slightest hint of why. One wonders.
The decisive US-Japanese battles at Coral Sea and Midway are covered in a single paragraph. These are inexcusable omissions. There is nothing on the role of colonialism and anti-colonialism; the war clearly changed the arc of colonial rule in much of Asia, yet this goes unrecognized here. It is impossible to understand the anti-colonial wars of the 1950s-60s without reference to the events of WW2.
The author correctly states that the war began gradually, yet places both the origin and the ending wholly in Europe. In fact, fighting began in China in the mid-1930s and raged more or less continuously until 1945. The Pacific war did not end until September 1945, yet this book concludes with the Germany surrender of May 1945.
Pros: Nice collection of photos. Very conventional 1960s-era view of the British role in WW2.
Cons: Deeply lopsided; undue weight given to minor events; major events glossed over; entire aspects of the war ignored. Does not reflect the current state of scholarship.
This is not a good overview, and I struggle to think of a good audience for it. Those with some knowledge of WW2 will find little new here, and much to criticize. Those newer to WW2, seeking an introduction, would do better to look elsewhere, because this book will lead a novice far astray. Despite coming from a great publisher and good author, I cannot recommend this to any reader.
Thanks goes out to Osprey for this review sample.
Reviewed by Danny Egan
If you liked this review, consider joining AMPS. Your annual membership
includes six copies of AMPS's magazine, Boresight,
and helps to support our ongoing reviews.
Click here for more information about joining AMPS