Most texts written about the Second World War tend to be linear. Whether the author focuses on a singular battle or campaign, or elects to take on the whole of the war 1939 to 1945, the regular student of the war soon becomes accustomed to the sequence of events, what comes next and how it ends. Only occasionally has anyone unearthed any new facet or facts to bring us something new.
In Victor David Hanson’s 2017 treatment of the topic we have a refreshing view of the event. How the Allies came to win is the central theme of the book and unlike earlier works on the topic the focus is not only upon the strategy and tactics but on the fundamentals which most warring nations encounter: Ideas that spark the conflict, then the confluence of Air, Water, Earth, Fire, and People and ultimately the Ends. We see how this conflict stacks up against others in history.
In pursuit of that comparison, we are treated to observations as to commonality with prior conflicts stretching back to the ancients and their experiences as well as some facts that continue to be true today. For example, notwithstanding air power, it is just as hard to conquer Italy from the south as it was two thousand years ago. The geography of the Earth is a constant in war.
As the title suggests, by referencing war in the plural – “Wars” – Hanson sees the experience as several wars held together by the commonality of the aggressor countries and those who responded to them. For example, his father, William F. Hanson was part of a B-29 bomber crew who flew on missions over Japan. His cousin, Victor Hanson died fighting in the dirt of Okinawa. The men had the same enemy, but vastly different experiences. Another cousin rolled across France as part of the Third Army commanded by General Patton, and finally another worked in logistics in Iran, ferrying American military freight to the Russians.
Measure the experiences of those American Hansons against the Russian’s at Stalingrad, the Italian experience in North Africa, the Norwegian experience in their home country and volunteering a merchant fleet intact to the British once their country fell, and the British experience virtually everywhere. A collection of wars, varying places and climates, altitudes, longitudes, latitudes, vehicles and weapons; several wars but one common experience forced by conflict due to hegemony.
Ideas, Water Reading The Second World Wars, one cannot get over the notion that the Axis powers really had no business undertaking the efforts they did, but were compelled, it seems, by Ideas – old grievances, envy, militarism and a sense of purpose that necessarily meant acquisition of territory by force.
Water has always played a role in war. Mussolini wanted to make his country great again, like Ancient Rome. Italy had a grand fleet, but never really had the oil reserves to sail. It’s conquests in North Africa could not be sustained if required to supply those forces in a Mediterranean Sea dominated by the Royal Navy, which they simply could not defeat.
Germany had the same problem supplying their Africa Corps, but they had also blundered into conquests which could not be sustained elsewhere out of sheer abstractions of their own superiority. It is this Idea that brought Hitler to power and largely promoted this folly.
Prompted by this dreamworld vision, strategic decisions such as the invasion of Russia were undertaken. This is well known now to have been a mistake, but Hanson takes us to Sevastopol on the Black Sea to describe how the ancient concept of “siege” was again in play.
Germany committed considerable resources to the capture of Sevastopol, only to find its value as a port for supplying the Axis forces in Russia works only when your supply ships exist and then can traverse the Water – the Mediterranean, the Bosporus, and then the Black Sea itself. This sort of mistake is repeated over and over by high command in Germany, which unfortunately was dominated by a cult of personality concerning Adolf Hitler and adherence to Nazism, an Idea of invincibility.
Man for man, the Germans were an excellent fighting force, but for all the talk of Blitzkrieg, that really only works with a weak or demoralized opponent, such as Poland in 1939 or France in 1940, and hides the reality that at the outset much of the German armor was inferior and their supplies were drawn into the conquered territories by horses and wagons.
Japan had been at war in China and briefly with Russia prior to commencing hostilities with the United States, again with the Idea of a greater economic sphere to benefit their country, stretching far into the Western Pacific and Indian oceans. The Soviets concluded a non-aggression pact with them which held up until right before the end of the war, oddly not coming to the aid of their allies, the British and Americans, in the Pacific. Hanson stresses the alliances were often this duplicitous out of necessity.
Earth and People Meanwhile several factors contributed to victory for the Allies. Early on, China had no alliances really, yet seemed to have much the same defensive capabilities of the Soviets, not in terms of superior hardware, but sheer land size. How could little Japan occupy so much space? There is the Earth playing that role again. And then there is People again; did Japan think it could control so many Chinese? The Japanese, like the Italians, lacked oil reserves to sail their fine navy and again, had to rely on over-the-Water transport for the fuel, which was ultimately crushed by American-innovated tactics with submarines. From the beginning until the end of the war the Japanese maintained a fleet of sailing ships to supply their far-flung empire because those vessels used no oil.
Even if they had secured adequate oil, Japan should have recognized they did not have sufficient metal to begin this conflict with the Untied States. Due to the Japanese conduct in east Asia, the United States suspended exports of oil and metal to the island nation. Hanson does not mention this, but it is worth remembering Tokyo was awarded the Olympic Games for 1940 but did not hold them because they wanted to use the metal to build warships instead of stadiums. We now know this sanction added justification for those who advocated expanding their empire by first neutralizing the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor. When Japan did build the warships, much of this important resource was poured into a few massive battleships which proved largely useless as the Fire of war had changed with the advent of the aircraft carrier. Few People in Japan seemed to grasp the ability of the Americans to industrialize the war in a fashion Japan could not match. Hitler also clearly did not grasp this when he declared war on the United States December 10, 1941. Neither nation had a plan to defeat the United States in their homeland. As with the Germans and the Italians, for the Japanese their Idea of what war would look like crippled them from recognizing what the Allies saw as practical and ultimately superior armament.
Fire Fire, in this work, refers to the ability to lay weapons upon one’s enemy. Hanson masterfully weaves into this narrative the technological shift of weaponry from the defensive to the offensive during this time, drawing on earlier examples in history as far back as the Greek foot soldiers to illustrate the game-changing developments of armor, speed, weapons and aircraft. For example, while the Germans generated a superior tank and the Japanese certainly created superior aircraft, neither ever seemed to grasp the necessity of a mass production greater than the opponent to overwhelm their enemies or the requirement that these devices be engineered for field repair and maintenance.
It is the British who fare best in Hanson’s treatment of the topic, the only country to be at war from start to finish, September 1, 1939 to September 2, 1945. He often points out how this nation fought on alone against the Axis from June 1940 to June 1941, with the Soviets actively supporting Germany until the later date. Britain’s success was not just due to their courage, but their industry, aptitude and superior leadership.
It is the British who developed radar, broke the German codes at Bletchley Park, and advanced on other scientifically-based fronts of military value. It is Hugh Downing who had the foresight to consider what aerial bombing would do to the countryside and how to best develop the means of defense that won the Battle of Britain. It is Churchill’s indomitable spirit and leadership in the darkest hours that sets this people apart.
Air For the first time in war Air played a critical role. None of the Axis powers seemed to grasp the necessity of preventing production of war material in the Allies’ homeland, or the fundamental necessity of keeping that material from arriving at the front. Here the prescient British shine again, working through several iterations of bomber to develop the AVRO Lancaster that had no equal until the Americans spent half again as much as they did on the Manhattan Project’s atomic bomb to develop the Boeing B-29 Superfortress. Meanwhile neither Germany nor Japan developed an operational four engine bomber which could cripple their adversary’s ability to fight. Instead they relied on wonder weapons which could not be developed adequately in the time they had, such as the V-1 and V-2 rockets, or the just plain suicidal as in the case of the kamikaze aircraft. Their Ideas got in the way of the practical.
Ends The book concludes, appropriately enough, talking about Ends. Unfortunately for the participants of the Second World War, in so many diverse venues death was the most common denominator. Hanson points out the losing side killed far more soldiers than the winners, and far more civilians died than soldiers. Here both sides seemed to target civilians such that their deaths outnumbered those of combatants, but Hanson also mentions the follow-on consequences of a war of this magnitude, such as the starvation that follows disruption of ordinary farming and commerce, or outright seizure of what there was to eat. The Soviets lost the most civilians, then China, and third and oddly Poland; odd until we factor in the systematic liquidation of the Jewish population there.
After a while, the reader wearies of the round numbers of death. During the conflict seventy thousand French civilians died, half of them during the first few weeks after the Normandy invasion. Fifty thousand British civilians died from German bombing and V-1 and V-2 attacks. Nearly as many Japanese died in the firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945 as in the nuclear attack on Hiroshima in August of that year. There are no accurate figures on the number of German or Chinese civilian dead.
All in all, between Sept. 1, 1939 and Sept. 2, 1945 somewhere between fifty and eighty-five million people died in the conflict worldwide. Hanson narrows the guess and settles on sixty to sixty-five million, or three percent of the world’s population. To put this in perspective, in the six years of WWII, half as many people died as in all 471 other wars the world witnessed between 1700 and 1988, a span of 288 years.
Hanson ends by raising the points brought forward by the latest postmodern generation concerning the moral objections to areal bombing and other conduct of the Allies. He says the efforts of the winning side were generally good, not perfect in a moral sense, and all revisionist commentary fails to grasp that the aggressors in this fight did not enter into any moral calculous before commencing hostilities. We did what we had to do.
If I were recommending one book on the WWII, The Second World Wars would be among my top recommendations.
(Cover photo is a cropped version of the Lancaster bomber photo included in the article.)