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The Second World War: A World in Flames by…

The Second World War: A World in Flames

by Max Hastings, Max Hastings (Foreword)

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The Second World War
A World in Flames

Osprey, Paperback, 2004.

8vo. 480 pp. Foreword by Sir Max Hastings. Essential Histories Special 3. Contains Essential Histories 18, 24, 30, 32, 35 & 48.

First published thus in 2004.
Previously published as:
- Essential Histories 18: The Second World War (1) The Pacific by David Horner
- Essential Histories 24: The Second World War (2) Europe 1939–1943 by Robin Havers
- Essential Histories 30: The Second World War (3) The War at Sea by Alastair Finlan, Mark J. Grove and Philip D. Grove
- Essential Histories 32: The Second World War (4) The Mediterranean 1940–1945 by Paul Collier
- Essential Histories 35: The Second World War (5) The Eastern Front 1941–1945 by Geoffrey Jukes
- Essential Histories 48: The Second World War (6) Northwest Europe 1944–1945 by Russell Hart and Stephen A. Hart

Table of contents

Foreword by Sir Max Hastings

Part I: Europe 1939–1943
Background to war - The gathering storm
Warring sides - The road to war
Outbreak - 'I have determined on a solution by force'
The fighting - Hitler strikes
Portrait of a soldier - Donald Edgar
Portrait of a civilian - Colin Perry
How the period ended - The end of the beginning

Part II: The war at sea
Background to war - The Second World War
Warring sides - Reluctant adversaries
Outbreak - Opening moves
The fighting - Across the world's seas
Portrait of a soldier - Peter Herbert Owen, Royal Navy midshipman
Portrait of a civilian - John Delaney-Nash, merchant mariner How the period ended - The German fleet is scuttled

Part III: The Mediterranean 1940–1945
Background to war - Italian imperialism
Warring sides - Italian propaganda, German professionalism, and Allied industrialization
Outbreak - A parallel war
The fighting - In all directions at once
Portrait of a soldier - A modest hero
Portrait of a civilian - A child in the siege of annihilation: Malta 1940–43
How the period ended: Not necessarily in peace

Part IV: The Eastern Front 1941–1945
Background to war - A dictators' deal and a double-cross
Warring sides - Germany gambles on a quick win
Outbreak - Germany achieves surprise
The fighting - Red Army battered but not beaten
Portrait of a soldier - The German and the Russian view
Portrait of a civilian - 'We were as mobilised as the soldiers'
How the period ended - Germany surrenders, Stalin joins the war on Japan

Part V: The Pacific
Background to war - The expansion of Imperial Japan, 1891-1941
Warring sides - Powerful Japan faced certain defeat
Outbreak - The slide towards inevitable war
The fighting - The course of the Pacific War
Portrait of a soldier - Thomas Currie Derrick, an Australian soldier
Portrait of a civilian - Gwen Harold Terasaki, an American in Japan
How the period ended - Not necessarily to Japan's advantage

Part VI: Northwest Europe 1944–1945
Background to war - The road to D-Day
Warring sides - A military audit
Outbreak - The Allies invade France
The fighting - From D-Day to victory
Portrait of a soldier - Donald Burgett
Portrait of a civilian - Brenda McBryde
How the period ended: The road to VE Day

The world around war
Conclusion and consequences
Further reading


One of my most cherished high school memories is a history class in which our ''teacher'' told us the following unforgettable gem: ''Strange as it may seem to you, we are not going to study the Second World War. This is because you know it.'' Now, what exactly does a teenager from the 1990s know about the largest military conflict in human history which took no one knows how many lives, but at least 50 000 000, and just over half a century after its end may certainly be regarded as the most thoroughly researched event since history and historians exist? The answer is simple: absolutely nothing. That's why laymen in the field who are anxious to explore it but daunted by its complexity - such as myself - are fortunate that publishers like Osprey exist.

The Osprey catalogue of books on military history is stupendously vast: hundreds of titles, encompassing a time scale from ancient Egypt to the Gulf War, beautifully organised into numerous series of which my favourite definitely is Essential Histories. The volumes in this particular series are dedicated to a single war conflict - there are quite a number of them in human history - which is discussed from as many points of view as possible in a very limited space and in a manner suitable for lay public. I have often read criticisms of Osprey books for being too short and superficial. Like opinions prove yet again what I have been convinced of for quite some time: the majority of people have a truly amazing ability to miss the point. The Osprey books are short, certainly, and give only a brief idea of the wars they discuss, especially when the adjective ''essential'' is part of series' name. But they are such by design. I daresay they are superficial too - for professional historians or military history buffs; I venture to claim that for the layman they are not. Moreover, they are written by different authors who are professionals in their different fields. On the whole, though my experience is naturally quite limited, I have always found Osprey books beautifully written, lavishly illustrated, extremely absorbing, very entertaining and certainly worth every minute of my time. This impression has been confirmed after my reading The Second World War: A World in Flames.

One of the very commendable features of Osprey, though open to criticism as we shall presently see, is their habit of combining several titles dedicated to the same topic in one volume. Thus the series Essential Histories Special was born; and thus is explained why this is the tiniest of all series: only seven volumes have been published so far. The Second World War: A World in Flames is the third book of this series and is really, not a single book, but six separate books, written by nine different authors and collected in one volume. To the best of my belief no other conflict has taken more volumes, quite as expected of course, but it is nevertheless disconcerting to observe how much the scale of war has grown since the antiquity: massive as the wars of ancient Greeks and Romans may have been, they look like quarrels in a kindergarten in comparison with the Napoleonic wars which in turn were rather less disastrous than the First World War, until we reach the crowning jewel of human folly and human madness. Let us hope that it will never be surpassed by Third World War because the Fourth afterwards, as noted by Einstein, ''will be fought with sticks and stones'' - provided that there is anything left of the mankind of course. Coming back to the book which is being reviewed here, it is interesting to note that when the six parts were published separately in 2002, they did not really appear in the right order, number one being ''The Pacific'' which here rightly appears as ''Part IV''. It goes without saying that such republishing in one volume of books which belong together is wonderful, for it makes them easier to obtain and more enjoyable to read. But it does raise some suspicions, too.

The important question which is invariably asked in such cases of merging books is of course the most obvious one: are all separate volumes complete? Now, as far as I can judge from other such instances, and as should be expected of course, these volumes from the Essential Histories Special are exact reprints of the original books. But this does not quite seem to be the case with The Second World War: A World in Flames. The Introduction and the Chronology are apparently merged versions of the six separate items originally written, with at most very minor modifications in the text and, regrettably, several omitted photographs, and so, probably, is the case with the section ''Conclusion and consequences'', though it must be said that the different parts fit each other so well that they might have been written together and by one author. The part ''The world around war'', however, is much too short and obviously reprints neither the whole text nor all of the illustrations from the six original volumes. A great and inexplicable pity indeed, for this is my only serious complaint about the book. Otherwise the six parts of The Second World War: A World in Flames seem to reprint the six early volumes without omissions and they do make for a fascinating read.

The first thing about this book I am greatly impressed with is its amazing brevity and scope. The text is clear, succinct and informative, but also admirably written and surprisingly engrossing. I certainly didn't expect to find detailed strategic descriptions of battles so absorbing, yet I did, at least for the most part. Occasionally, as in the case of Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union for instance, the narrative may degenerate into listing divisions and commanders for paragraph or two, but it is by no means so terrible a thing. It certainly shows that the books, though identical in structure, were actually written by different people: Hitler's astonishing string of successes in the beginning of the war does read like a novel.

It has to be pointed out, however, that the book is by no means just an index of the battles during the Second World War. Far from it. Considering the very limited space, I am quite surprised that it indeed covers so vast a number of topics about the most enormous and the most horrifying war in all history. Speaking of battle grounds, there is here a great deal about some I had barely heard before, like the sea battles in the Mediterranean, the Red sea and the Indian ocean, or the land operations in Africa and such exotic locations in the Pacific like Guadalcanal or New Guinea; obviously, the adjective ''world'' is much more appropriate to this war than I thought.

The historical background is probably the most absorbing part of the book. It is extensively discussed and the reasons for each major event are explained with clarity, lucidity and precision, and so are the numerous consequences from the war for each of the countries who actively participated in it.

Nor is the personal aspect neglected. The parts ''Portrait of a civilian'' and ''Portrait of a soldier'' are among the best in the book. They make for a riveting and poignant read, offering a view of the war through the eyes of those who really did take part in it, actively or passively. These people sure don't have the wisdom of hindsight, but their memories and diaries do compensate in vividness. Personally, I was touched, deeply touched, by that 18 years old youth during the bombings of London who was so eager to fight the Germans but too shy to speak to the girl he fancied. Even more affecting was the story about the German soldiers on the Eastern front who were granted one month home leave but were first fed more than usual for two weeks so as they should make a better impression at home. Once they got there, they were appalled by the ridiculous German propaganda and preferred to listen to BBC instead. This was illegal of course, but since they were soon to be back on the Soviet front and most probably killed, they didn't particularly care. Such stories really make one aware of the real social and psychological dimensions of the war; frightening though they are, it is extremely important to consider them, because otherwise an interest in military history may easily degenerate into a pathologically morbid obsession.

Indeed, one of the best things about The Second World War: A World in Flames, and about the Osprey books in general, is that they always look inside the heads of the people, from the ordinary soldier and civilian all the way up to Hitler, Stalin and Churchill themselves. This is of immense importance for it does give the lie to the common misconception that history is a dull listing of events. Nothing could possibly be further from the truth. History is not made by events, it is made by people: ordinary or extraordinary, heroic or hideous, politicians or pilots, but human beings with human passions all the same. To my mind, the good historical non-fiction books, such as those published by Osprey, give you at least as many answers to the questions ''what?'' and ''how?'' as to the most important of all questions: ''why?''

A word about the illustrations. Osprey have always taken a great pride in them - and rightly so, for they are excellent. In addition to many colour schemes dissecting battles in terms of commanders, fighting units and tactics, the book is full of original black-and-white photographs: from portraits of Stalin and Hitler to armies stuck in the mud and cities ruined completely by bombing. The selection and the quality of the photographs are generally impeccable. Small caveats to be considered: sometimes colour schemes are missing at crucial places and sometimes your favourite photograph might be missing too. The best example for the former is perhaps the aforementioned invasion of the Soviet Union; Hitler's plans are given full three illustrations and the late stages around Moscow and Stalingrad are also supplied with lavish schemes, but the very beginning of the campaign has only one drab map which doesn't really do justice to the details in the text. One of my favourite photographs from the period which I remember quite well form my history textbook - infinitely superior to our ''teacher'' - and which I am missing here is the one showing the map of Poland divided between Nazis and Soviets by one thick black line. This memorable photograph bears the signatures of Ribbentrop and Stalin; the latter signed it twice indeed, the second time he was so pleased with himself that his signature has a half meter long tail. But these complaints about the illustrations are very insignificant ones and certainly do not in the least detract from the value of the book.

Clearly, those who are looking for detailed accounts of the Holocaust, the Nuremberg trial, the conspiracy theory about Pearl Harbor, the uniforms of the soldiers or the tanks, planes and guns they used in the Second World War, should look elsewhere. There is something about all these matters in the book, but just enough to keep the big picture sharp and coherent. The learned historians and the WWII maniacs may sneer at the apparent superficiality of the volume as much as they like; that's their own business. I have no doubt that those common mortals who know next to nothing about the most devastating military conflict in the human history and especially those who regard the study of history, not as a tedious school subject which tells us how others lived in bygone eras, but as an important asset to the personality of every reasonably intelligent man and an indispensable guide how we should live today, will find this book perfectly compelling and extremely stimulating.

There is no better conclusion of these few words about The Second World War: A World in Flames than a few words about the preface by Sir Max Hastings written especially for this edition. This is a pure masterpiece. Sir Max has achieved the impossible: he has summarised the whole Second World War in two and a half pages! I know it is hard to believe but the fellow really has done it. He even has space for some fascinating speculations how Hitler might well have won the war, and why - mercifully - he did not; a more complete alternative is, of course, province of works of fiction, like The Man in the High Castle for instance.

Even more perceptive, and certainly a great deal more thought-provoking, are the remarks of Sir Max about some of the main bones of contention which divide people to the present day. Among these highly debatable matters is the remarkable duplicity of the Soviet Union which entered the war as Hitler's ally and actively participated in the dismemberment of Poland, but finished as a part from the Grand Alliance, one of the major factors in the defeat of the Axis powers and, most lastingly, with a carte blanche to spread totalitarian regimes over all of Eastern Europe, not to mention that Stalin's regime had created horrors quite on par with the ''final solution'' of the Nazis. This matter in itself enormously complicates another issue raised by Sir Max - which is complicated enough anyway - namely the phenomenon of Nazi Germany, or how supposedly educated and cultured people could consciously and deliberately embark upon a genocide. There really is no better conclusion than the last few sentences of this outstanding foreword:

Will the world's fascination with the period ever diminish? We should hope not. First, there are inexhaustible lessons to be learned from it - military, political and moral. Second, we should pray fervently that no future event in the history of the world will supplant the Second World War as the supreme catastrophe to befall mankind in his experience thus far.

PS Just by the way, the subtitle of the book - A World in Flames - comes from words of Adolf Hitler quoted on the back cover:

We shall not capitulate... no, never. We may be destroyed, but if we are, we shall drag a world with us... a world in flames. ( )
2 vote Waldstein | Sep 30, 2010 |
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