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Thursday, April 1, 2010


Andrew Robert's FINEST HOUR STORM OF WAR is magnificent, June 29, 2011

By Richard Munro (Bakersfield, California) - See all my reviews

(REAL NAME) This review is from: The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War (Hardcover)

Why did Hitler and the Axis lose the war? Read Andrew Robert's STORM OF WAR and you will receive a magnificent, comprehensive and enthralling analysis of WWII. Roberts has not merely written a history which is intellectually coherent but also a piece of literature that is a model for language. What is also amazing about this book is that it is complete yet concise; it is only about 600 pages. I have been reading and listening to military history books and World War II books for over 50 years. On the shortest roster of must read WWII history books I would include STORM OF WAR. It was informative -teaching me new angles and facts I did not know- but also very moving. I too have visited many American and Commonwealth Cemeteries and there lay many a man we could claim as kith, kin and Regimental comrades. All throughout STORM OF WAR, Roberts never lets us forget that war is not a story of big ships and big tanks but a struggle of mortal men; all gave some but NE OBLIVISCARIS do not forget some gave all. STORM OF WAR is a very entertaining read. I have read and re-read several parts two and three times. If Hanson Baldwin or Sir Winston Churchill or Ike were still living they would say THIS IS ANDREW ROBERT'S FINEST HOUR. If one wants to understand how the Colours of the Democracies endured -stained as the Allied cause was by its alliance with one of the "Great Dictators" who caused the war (Stalin)- a very good place to begin is by reading ANDREW ROBERT'S STORM OF WAR.

I was also very impressed by the extent of Robert's scholarship. He not only examines rare archives and private collections some never before investigated but the best of the Times Literary Supplement and of WWII novels (Kaput) and literature such as Viktor Frank's Man's Quest For Meaning probably the single greatest book dealing with the Holocaust experience and one of the greatest books of the 20th century. Robert's references, quotes and bibliography alone are worth the price of the book as they are a first class compendium of the most interesting and useful works dealing with WWII history from almost every aspect. There are 22 maps (all in the beginning of the book and over 50 photos. The maps on the Battle of Stalingrad, el Alamein, Monte Casino/Anzio, Kursk and the Normandy landings are extremely useful and elucidating. I found myself referring to them constantly.

STORM OF WAR is a must read for anyone who wants to understand the origins of WWII, the peculiar alliance against the totalitarian Fascism of the Axis of the Western Democracies and Soviet Russia. I read Timothy Snyder's NYT Review -a very positive one-"AFTER THE LIGHTNING" (June 19, 2011) ; one of the criticisms Snyder made was that Roberts "conflated Russia with the Soviet Union." I didn't feel that was a mistake merely an instrument to clarify that the Soviet Union or Soviet Russia were one in the same just as "England" is often used as a synonym for "Britain" or the "UK". Roberts was writing for the average reader as well as the historian. When Roberts wrote of Russia or the Soviet Union (USSR) or Soviet Russia I think it was clear that he mean the polity which continued the Russian Empire in a different form as the so-called USSR.

STORM OF WAR begins with a short prelude and then is divided into three parts. Part I (Onslaught) covers all the invasions of the Dictators who caused WWII (this includes Hitler's blitzkriegs but also Stalin's. It was Stalin who made a pact with Hitler, helped supply his armies and himself invaded Poland and Finland). Many WWII histories -particularly older ones- underplay the significance of Stalin's early alliance with Hitler and Stalin's aggression. Here is, in concise form the Fall of France, The Battle of Britain, the battles for the Atlantic, Mediterranean and North Africa, Hitler's catastrophic mistake of invading Russia in 1941 and the Tokyo Typhoon when the Japanese militarists made their gamble to crush the US Navy at Pearl Harbor. "Last Hope Island" deals with the crucial period when Britain "stood alone" from June 1940-1941. But Roberts makes it clear this overstates the case somewhat because Britain in 1940 had the entire vast resources of the British Empire and Commonwealth behind them as well as the goodwill of millions of Americans. Secretly FDR helped the British in June 1940 with 500,000 Enfield Rifles, 129 million rounds of ammunition, 895 guns of 75 mm, 316 mortars, 25,000 BAR's plus 20,000 revolvers and many thousands of rounds of ammunition. When one realizes the magnitude of the defeat in France and the near disaster of Dunkirk these figures take on tremendous significance. In February 1941 the US shipped 1.35 million more Enfield Rifles. They may have saved Britain and the Suez in 1940 as well as 1941.

But Hitler's campaign to conquer Britain was doomed, as Roberts shows us because he did not "grasp the fundamental principles of air warfare." As Roberts notes, Hitler failed to develop a large fleet of four engine strategic bombers, he did not build enough modern fighters (and his long range Me110 was useless), he did not train the Germany army for amphibious warfare and he did not put enough faith in landing huge numbers of paratroopers to capture air bases in the opening stages of the Battle of Britain. One of the decisive factors in the Battle of Britain was the invention of radar; Roberts rightly credits Chamberlain for contributing to the victory by his wise investment in radar stations and in beefing up Fighter Command. As they say in America, there is no I in team; Chamberlain was the shaky starting pitcher but he kept the game close; Churchill got the win but he built upon Chamberlain's wise decisions such as introducing military conscription in April 1939. Roberts makes it clear that WWII was a team effort. One realizes that Chamberlain should be remembered for more than just Munich. Churchill's leadership was vital in mobilizing the home front and especially in "mobilizing the English language and sending it into battle." Churchill boosted domestic production of food (arable land was increased by 43%) and industrial productivity. By the end of the war Britain grew enough sugar to meet 50% of its needs which as Roberts points out was remarkable under the circumstances. Roberts also gives a good background as to the financial crisis caused by the war; by 1945 almost all of Britain's foreign assets, gold and financial reserves had been wiped out. What 1914 started 1939-1945 completed. Germany played catch up with radar technology but in 1940 radar might have made the difference. Radar, of course, was not developed to kill people or even for military purposes. Radar was meant to make air travel in foggy Britain more safe. Robert's description of the Battle of Britain is technically and military excellent and I gained new insights. He does not forget the special advantage of the many international volunteers to the RAF especially the Poles and the New Zealanders. Nor does he forget the valor of the London firemen and the cool courage and devotion of duty to the bomb-disposal units. He seems to know everything about the capabilities of the aircraft involved and their weapons. The Me-109 for example had a fatal flaw; it could only carry enough fuel for ONE HOUR. It did not have fuel tanks; this meant it had only about 30 minutes air time over the south of England and less than 10 minutes over London. How many German pilots were killed in the English Channel or captured because their fighter's ran out of fuel? Roberts also give credit where it is due to the unsung Hurricane -which was decisive in the Battle of Britain because it was cheaper, easier to repair and sturdier that the Spitfire. The Hurricane was outmatched by the ME-109 but on the other hand downed more bombers than the Spitfire and to the German's surprise easily outclassed the heavily armed but clunky ME-110.

Roberts mentions penicillin of course being used to save Churchill's life but in a minor quibble I think he could have said more about the Allied advantages over the Axis in medical technology. They had better equipped medical units with sulfa drugs, plasma and transfusions. American know-how also contributed to the use, late in the war of portable refrigerators to be used (chiefly in the Pacific Theater) so that whole blood could be used on ships and right up to the front lines. In the USA the Red Cross collected blood from millions of volunteers, separated the plasma and had them shipped to pharmaceutical labs that could produce freeze-drying plasma en masse which was then flown to the front lines. This probably saved the lives of hundreds of thousands if not millions of American and Allied soldiers and helped keep up morale. I remember my grandfather -a British WWI combat vet- telling me that one of the most demoralizing things on soldiers in WWI was the high death rate of wounded soldiers. Soldiers would make heroic efforts to save comrades only to hear about their death hours, days or weeks later. In WWII however many wounded soldiers recovered to fight again with their original units. But Roberts is perfectly aware of all these things and alludes to them but I think the Allied blood banks were emblematic of one of the reasons the Allies won the war. Individual initiative by doctors and entrepreneurs spurred development of new medical technologies and then civic virtue by free peoples, not compulsion, contributed to a spirit of volunteerism which embodied all that was decent, modern and humane in contrast to Nazi brutality and racism. (Stephen Ambrose in CITIZEN SOLDIER reported German soldiers who refused blood transfusions from American medics on the basis they might receive tainted Jewish or Black blood and so died.).

Robert's depiction of the Mediterranean Campaign including Crete, Malta and El Alamein is magisterial. I have read dozens of books about the 8th Army and the Afrika Korps but STORM OF WAR provides the clearest and most exciting analysis of both stages of Battle of El Alamein yet. Roberts has visited many of the battlefields of the war personally and this adds to the color and interest of his descriptions of the key campaigns and battles of WWII. Roberts argues, quite convincingly, that Hitler made a crucial error by not taking Malta by parachute attack instead wasting his elite corps on Crete and that also Hitler should have invested all his resources to capture Suez and Britain's access to Middle Eastern oil; at the time 80% of Britain's oil came from there.

But Hitler's fanatical hatred of the Jews and the Bolsheviks caused him to be precipitous in his attack on Russia before Britain had been knocked out of the air or the Mediterranean. By 1942 Hitler seems to have realized his mistake but by then it was too late; Rommel was defeated not only by Ultra but also by enormous quantities of USA Lend Lease.

Today it seems automatic that the USA won the war against Japan but Roberts makes it clear that it was a very narrow margin in 1941-42 as the Japanese had 11 Air Craft Carriers to the 3 of the US (four others were in the Atlantic). Japan's failure to destroy America's pacific carrier force and its egregious error not to knock out Pearl Harbor's fueling station proved disastrous. Despite America's military inferiority in the early stages, it had the advantage of "Magic" the breaking of the Japanese cipher "Purple". Though "Magic" contributed mightily to the American victory at Midway ("five minutes at Midway" " in June 1942 Roberts puts to rest any conspiracy theories that FDR knew about the Pearl Harbor attack in advance. In fact, as at the Bulge in 1944, the Japanese very effectively hid their thrust to Hawaii by an "intricate deception operation."

Everyone knows that Churchill and the allies feared the U-boat and that the U-boat inflicted fearsome loses on Allied shipping. Britain imported over 80% of its oil and 70% of its food. Roberts highlights the fact that even in this area Hitler may have doomed his effort by spreading himself too thin by building "pocket battleships" like the Graf Spee and the gargantuan but obsolete Bismarck. Roberts wrote ""Had Hitler given first priority in terms of funding to his U-boat fleet...he might have built a force that would have strangled and starved Britain into surrender." Roberts notes that the Germany navy and its U-boat arm were very small in 1939 and it was not until 1944-45 that the Germans deployed as many as 400 U-boats but by that time it was too late to affect the outcome of the war. But the Germans did not only use torpedoes to sink ships they also used magnetic mines placed by U-boats , He-111 bombers and E-boats. One can only think what would have happened to Britain if Hitler had deployed more resources earlier in the Battle of the Atlantic including FW-200 Kondor (Condor) long range maritime reconnaissance plane (the Germans built relatively few only about 200).

Part II "Climacteric" deals with the both the Pacific Theater and the Atlantic Theater June 1942-October 1944. It gives an excellent account of the Russian Front and the Stalingrad disaster; likewise Roberts tells the story of Midway and Guadalcanal and the ferocity and sheer savageness of the fighting there as well as the logistical challenges. But most memorably "Climacteric" begins with an excellent short history of the Holocaust called "The Everlasting Shame of Mankind." Roberts makes it very clear that it makes no difference when Hitler decided to exterminate the Jews or if he had one single written order beginning "the industrialized use of the Vernichtungslager (extermination camp)." For vicious anti-Semitism and the "annihilation" of the "Jewish race" was the essence of Hitler and Nazism. It was in fact the raison d'etre of Nazism. Once again, I have read many books on the Holocaust but I learned stories and facts about the Final Solution that I did not know. I was very impressed by Roberts' understanding of the magnitude of the human suffering and loss such as the lucky survivors in one case of 600 orphaned children who did not even know their own names. The Jews of course were the primary object of Hitler's wrath but millions of others were killed or tortured as well. I was familiar with some of the sources Roberts used in this chapter such as Viktor Frankl's work but time and again Roberts brings our a new fact, a new anecdote or a new technical detail which I did have never encountered before such as the story of the sadism of SS Staff Sergeant Paul Grot at Sobior Some of these details came from recently discovered tin cans which had been hidden other came from an examination as recently as 2004 at Auschwitz-Birkenau of 43,000 pairs of shoes in which money was found tucked away but never recovered. Seven tons of human hair were there that would have been used by the German textile industry. Then there is the story of Levi Hafling(Prisoner) number 174517 who desired to drink from an icicle outside his hut; he said WARUM? (why) and the SS guard answered "HIER IST KEIN WARUM" (Here there is no why). Roberts also debunks the idea that FDR and Churchill were somehow complicit in the Holocaust because they knew all about it and could easily have bombed the Death Camps and their rail system. In fact, the negatives of the aerial photographs were not printed and examined until 1978 and during WWII they did not have the technology to enlarge them to the extent so that exact details of the camps could be made clear. A clear case of presentism. Roberts does not forget to mention Father (Saint)Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Roman Catholic priest who gave his life so that another prisoner who had a wife and children could live (the man's name Roberts tells us was Franciszek Gajownicnek). STORM OF WAR's brief account of the Holocaust alone is worth reading and re-reading for it tells of tells of heroism and also of man's inhumanity to his fellow man. Once again, NE OBLISIVCARIS. Do not forget.

Part III of STORM OF WAR is "Retribution" . There we see the final denouement of the Russian Front and the death of the Panzers at Kursk In "Cruel Reality" Roberts talks about the most controversial aspect of the allied war effort during WWII the use of the Atomic bomb and the mass bombing of civilians. Roberts is certainly right that few men and women of the WWII generation lost much sleep concerning the suffering of the Axis civilian populations because after all Japan and Germany had started it and deserved what they got. But he quotes Churchill saying "Are we beasts are we taking this too far?" I can't imagine Hitler (or Stalin ever saying anything like that). I believe it proved that Churchill was basically a humane and decent statesman. I learned the Paul Tibbets also bombed Germany in a B-17 (later of course he piloted the Enola Gay B-29 over Hiroshima). Was the bombing campaign effective? Roberts gives German figures that show it was. Albert Speer estimated that the bombing caused Germany to produce 35 % fewer tanks, 31 % fewer planes and 42% fewer trucks.

In any case 70% of German fighters were deployed to defend the home industry and 10,000 88's were deployed as Flak guns; and this weakened Wermacht and the Luftwaffe on the Russian Front contributing to the German defeat at Kursk. The D-Day invasion has been told and retold many times but Roberts gives a very good précis of the Normandy campaign and some of the great characters of the American Army such as General Patton and Eisenhower. STORM OF WAR closes with the fall of Nazi Germany and Hitler's suicide in the bunker. I believe Roberts is perhaps a little harsh on Col. Stauffenberg; he quotes a letter from 1939 that shows Stauffenberg in an arrogant anti-Polish and anti-Jewish light almost as a Nazi. In 2003 I had a chance to make the acquaintance of the daughter of Stauffenberg's nanny, who was employed as my father's private nurse. She indicated that Stauffenberg kept up a correspondence with her mother throughout his adult life only stopping completely in late 1943 so as to protect her. She also believed it was only later in the war that Stauffenberg really began to understand the true nature of Nazi Germany and that he went through what could only be described as a religious conversion transferring his loyalty from his Fatherland which he saw as captive to an anti-Christian maniac (she used the term "Anti-Christ") to Humanity, the Church and to a future "sacred Germany" he knew he would never live to see. Churchill himself, as Roberts recounts said of the 20 July plotters, they were the "bravest of the best." Perhaps when the myth meets history we choose to remember the myth? Perhaps. But I think we cannot discount entirely the testimony of people who knew Stauffenberg personally. I recall Hemingway said once "it's it pretty to think so"; I do not think this is a romanticized view of Stauffenberg but merely gives him the benefit of the doubt. His effort to kill Hitler and end the war in 1944 was certainly one of the most heroic acts of WWII; it he had succeeded he may have saved the lives of millions of Jews, Poles, Germans and Allied soldiers. Many others talked; Stauffenberg took action and it was only by merest chance that his wife and children were not massacred by Hitler himself (as luck would have it General Fromm had him summarily executed trying, ultimately vainly to save himself but in doing so he probably saved Stauffenberg's family.)

The very last part of Part III deals with the fall of Japan "The Land of the Setting Sun" and then a conclusion going over point by point why the Axis lost the war. Roberts demonstrates that the Germany First policy of Churchill and FDR was wise; Japan folded just within months of Germany's collapse. The defeat of Germany meant the Allies (especially the USA) could throw the full weight of their forces against Japan. At the time of course, few knew anything about the Atomic bomb and when it was used no one knew the USA had only two. There still were many bloody battles before the Allies particularly Iwo Jima, Kohima and Okinawa. At Iwo Jima the US Marines suffered 6, 891 killed and 18,070 wounded; but as Roberts pointed out about 24,761 US airmen were possibly saved by the air strip on the island. Roberts accurately describes Hiroshima as "hellish" and I think it is true that the A-bomb itself is the only thing that could possible be compared to the horror of the Holocaust. There are big differences however. Truman felt he had to used to bomb to SAVE lives both American and Japanese and end the war. If Truman had been Hitler like he would have refused negotiations, continued bombing Japan and letting her civilian population die of hunger. But instead, once the peace was signed and the occupation secured the Americans did everything they could to restore law and order and see that the civilian population was fed, received medical treatment and Japan began its reconstruction (which Roberts only alludes to during the surrender of September 2,1945 "six years and one day after Germany had invaded Poland". But honor is due to Nimitiz and especially to MacArthur and Truman. Roberts says it was only coincidence that the surrender took place on the USS Missouri (Truman's home state); I like many others have always assumed that Nimitz picked it as his flag ship to honor the president.

Why did Hitler and the Axis lose the war? I think Robert's main thesis is correct -Nazism (and fascism in general) was doomed by its fanatical worldview which distorted judgment and impaired the collaboration of effort that is necessary for war or any high organization or enterprise. The both before and after the Atlantic Charter shared technology and collaborated in their war effort. By contrast the Axis stragetgy was not cohesive. Mussolini made attacks without consulting Hitler; the Japanese attacked the USA without consulting Hitler and the Germans made no attempt to share jet technology or rockets until it was far too late. The Nazi Weltanschauung was like a fever of the mind; those whom the gods destroy they first make mad. And Nazism was noting else but feverish nightmare of greed, violence and racial arrogance. Over and over the Nazis were destroyed in large part by their own arrogance and hubris. Hitler refused to believe metrological reports of experts warning of the intense cold of the Russian winter; he seemed to think (insanely) sub-zero temperatures could be overcome by willpower. It seems made up but it is true that Hitler fantasized about SS troops able to endure the winter in lederhosen (short pants)! Churchill of course said "There is a winter, you know, in Russia." He probably could not believe his luck that Hitler had thrown his legions uselessly on the Russian front instead of against Alexandria and the Suez. The Germans had the best cipher and radio communications of any power but they believed the Enigma code was scientifically impossible to break. And so it was unless "subhuman" Poles happened to capture a working model, fake its destruction and spirit it along to the British which they did. I learned in STORM OF WAR that the Poles had in fact broken the German Enigma code independently for a time prior to September1939 and that Hitler shared a dozen Enigma machines with Franco. The Germans had magnificent war material. Their machine guns could fire at three times the rate of the Allie's guns. One of the best Air Forces in the world, the best submarine force, and without a doubt the greatest fighting Army in modern history the vaunted Wermacht. Despite being outnumbered time and again the Germany army triumphed and when it lost it inflicted far more causalities on its opponents than it lost itself. The Nazis also had the first operational Jet fighters (the ME-262) the first jet bombers (the Arado 234 Blitz bomber) and of course the V-1 and the V-2 rockets. But all these were too little and too late. Yet the Nazis under Hitler suffered from gigantism and a desire to have ever more advanced technological "wonder weapons." This led them to rush into production tank destroyers at Kursk without machine guns to protect them from Russian infantry and flame thrower attacks. The much vaunted Panthers and Tigers were hugely expensive and too few in numbers to make a real difference; and for all their armor they were extremely vulnerable to attacks from the air. And having so many different models of tanks was a logistical nightmare. In that sense the Russia t-34 and the Shermans were more successful tanks. Hence also the Bismarck and the Tirpitz capital ships that satisfied the prestige of Nazi Germany but were essentially useless though terrifying. Both were sunk by the British and neither inflicted much damage on Allied convoys. Roberts acknowledges the V-1 and V-2 were "horrific" weapons and he describes their capabilities and range with precision. Over 13,000 V-1's were launched on Britain and over 1,359 V-2 were fired at London at an immense cost (100,000 Reichmarks each). But as Roberts describes these terror weapons were ineffective militarily and he quotes Churchill who said "the damage and the casualties have not so far been heavy. There is no need to exaggerate the danger." The V-2 was another "prestige" Nazi weapon but without the Atomic bomb it had little bang for the buck (or Reichmark). But it is chilling to think how close Hitler came to achieve if not world conquest world domination. Roberts makes us remember how near a thing it was in 1939,1940, 1941 and 1942. I often ask my students if Hitler had won the war do they think their lives would be the same? It is something to think about. Robert Harris deals with this theme in his excellent novel FATHERLAND; in it Hitler is still alive in 1964 having won the war with rockets and the atomic bomb.

STORM OF WAR is technically and strategically very sound as a WWII history but Andrew Robert's triumph is that he captures the essence the human tragedy of millions and their suffering to stop the advent, in Churchill's words of Hitler's New Dark age "made more sinister and more protracted by the lights of perverted science." Books like STORM OF WAR are essential reading not just for historians but for all teachers, parents, citizens and students. One moving episode in the STORM OF WAR is Robert's recounting of the sacrifice of 25 year old Sergeant M. A. W. Rogers of the Wiltshire Regiment who won the Victoria Cross for Valour in Italy -read the story of his incredible and noble heroism and you also know why the Allies won because they had men like Rogers who were prepared to give their all -even their lives for the cause. But Roberts does not end the story there -he recalls the inscription on the gravestone in Italy put by Sergeant Roger's wife "in memory of my beloved husband. May we be together soon, dear, Peace at last." Other very moving parts of STORM OF WAR were when Roberts discusses the Holocaust and the Brave Fallen -he mentioned some by name and gives the circumstances of their death such as the story of Flying Officer Lt. J.B. Nicholson a whose feats of heroism during the Battle of Britain remain awe-inspiring; Roberts also recounts tragically that Nicholson was shot down May 2, 1945 thus never seeing the final victory. Books like ANDREW ROBERT'S STORM OF WAR leave the reader with the greatest desire never to forget the greatest war of all time and the people who worked and fought to see the Allies achieve victory. We remember now the young dead soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marine of so long ago and the Allied leaders who won not only the war but the peace as well. Their valiant struggle and their sacrifice must awaken in us a lasting remembrance and the deepest respect and appreciation for our liberty and our free lives. ANDREW ROBERT'S STORM OF WAR is destined to be the definitive one volume history of WWII.