Why the Allies Won

2008-01-08

in Bombs and rockets, Books and literature, Politics, Security

Vancouver grafitti, in an alley off Seymour Street

Among the hundreds of books I read at Oxford, Richard Overy’s Why the Allies Won stood out as an especially engaging piece of historical argumentation. It is one of a handful of books I was determined to re-read when I had more time available. Given the fundamental importance of the Second World War in the establishment of the contemporary international system, the question is a rather important one. Overy’s explanation is well-argued, convincing, and consistently interesting.

This complex book has a number of general themes, each of which is based around a necessary but insufficient cause for the victory of Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union over Germany, Italy, and Japan. Overy goes into detail on the Battle of the Atlantic – particularly the importance of American supplies for Britain, the U-boat menace, and the tactics that turned the tide in that theatre. He likewise covers the war on the eastern front: from early German successes to the battles at Stalingrad and Kursk that marked the watershed point of the war. In the Pacific theatre, he does an excellent job of explaining the significance of the Battle of Midway, including the considerable role luck played in the victory. The outcome was largely decided by ten bombs in ten minutes that struck Japanese aircraft carriers while they were refueling their air wings.

An entire chapter is devoted to the cross-channel invasion from Britain into occupied France. Of particular interest is the role played by intelligence, a subject Overy arguably neglects to some extent in other circumstances. The ways in which the Allies kept German defences spread out through misdirection make for especially interesting reading.

Overy also covers more thematic reasons for the Allied victory: mass production, especially in the United States and Soviet Union; technology, especially air power; the surprising unity between the Allies; and the moral contest between the Allied and Axis states. Unlike many historians, he highlights Allied bombing as an effective military strategy. He remains ambiguous about whether the military utility justified the bombing of German and Japanese civilians, but argues relatively persuasively that attacks on oil facilities and other key bits of industrial infrastructure served an important strategic purpose.

Midway is not the only example of good fortune Overy highlights – partially in an attempt to undermine the argument that the war could only have ended the way it did. Adding external fuel tanks to the fighters escorting bombers into German airspace dramatically reduced losses, substantially bolstering the effectiveness of the strategic bombing campaign. Likewise, equipping a few aircraft to close a small ‘Atlantic gap’ helped secure the end of the U-boat threat. Even the devastating trap sprung by the Soviets upon the German supply lines approaching Stalingrad could not have succeeded without the incredible success of a few thousand isolated troops occupying the entire German 6th army.

This book is enthusiastically recommended to anyone with an interest in military history generally or the Second World War in particular. It is also a good general disproof of the idea that the outcome of wars is decided by basic material facts like the relative sizes of economies, or the idea that there aren’t decisive turning points in history where the world is pressed along one path as another is closed off.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan January 6, 2008 at 2:14 am

On the issue of strategic bombing during WWII, see:

A closer look at the War Museum controversy
Thursday, August 30th, 2007

The ugliness of war
Tuesday, August 28th, 2007

Edward January 11, 2008 at 1:09 am

I bought this book many years ago (when I was in England, ironically), but I never got around to reading it. Hearing someone give it such good reviews will mean that I’ll need to dust it off and finally have a look!

Not having read the book and having a limited knowledge on the subject, I’m hardly an expert on this matter; however, I disagree with the premise that there are “decisive turning points in history where the world is pressed along one path as another is closed off.” Decisive events in history may change its course, but I don’t think that history has shown that it would necessarily change its overall trajectory. Consider, for example, a scenario where Einstein might’ve been killed in an accident. It might’ve taken longer for the world to discover nuclear energy, but someone would’ve eventually figured it out. Similarly, dictator’s victory in battle may delay human progress, but I believe that the world can converge to a similar point in history – even if the path it takes is circumferential.

Milan January 11, 2008 at 8:53 am

Edward,

I think war provides some of the best examples of “decisive turning points in history.” Chasing Napoleon, Admiral Lord Nelson missed him in Malta by three days. If he had caught him in Valetta harbour – instead of finding his fleet at anchor at the mouth of the Nile – it’s fair to say that history could have turned out rather differently.

Overy’s book provides a number of compelling examples of this phenomenon from WWII.

Edward January 11, 2008 at 7:14 pm

I don’t dispute that history would’ve changed if Nelson had missed Napoleon. But I question whether the state of today’s world would’ve changed much. Or would some kind of correcting event have occurred to set us back on the same path?

Of course, nobody can prove it either way since parallel universes are still mostly fantasy (and/or theoretical). But it is an interesting thought nonetheless.

pugsville January 16, 2008 at 7:14 pm

I however found overy shallow, illconsidered, occasionally inaccurate. (though his spelling is better than mine) far to many bland sweeping generalizations without much arguement to back them up. Sure the germans didnt mechanizse fully, ddint build a lot of trucks and tanks but if they didnt have the fuel to drive them around isnt it a mute point?

. September 18, 2011 at 9:15 pm

The first concerns the question of why the Germans never took the city. The answer, Ms Reid suggests, is that they did not really try. Soon after the siege began, the military focus switched to Moscow and then moved south. The Germans dropped fewer bombs on Leningrad than on London, and never offered terms for surrender. They did not want the responsibility of feeding 2.5m people. It was easier to let Leningrad’s inhabitants starve.

The second is that the terrible suffering of Leningrad owed as much to Soviet errors as to Nazi aggression. This goes beyond Stalin’s wilful refusal to prepare for an invasion, despite countless warnings. Ms Reid lists a string of catastrophic blunders: the delayed evacuation of Tallinn, which led to the worst-ever Soviet naval disaster, with 65 ships sunk; the deaths of thousands of young conscripts in the “People’s Levy”, who were thrown into the front-line with no training; the failure to evacuate Leningrad until too late; the criminal negligence in not stockpiling food.

The crunch came when Leningrad’s last land link was cut in early September. But the real pain began that winter, one of the coldest on record. This period, up to March 1942, forms the heart of the book. Famine set in early, as the daily individual ration fell to 125 grams or less of “bread” (often bulked out with sawdust or wallpaper paste). The personal diaries quoted by Ms Reid, many written by middle-class academics, artists, doctors and their families, offer a relentless drumroll of deaths, often attributed to “dystrophy”, not starvation. Entire families were wiped out. Dogs, cats and rats went too. A 12-year-old girl poignantly notes in her diary, “only Tanya is left”. Cannibalism was widespread, first of the dead and then of the living.

. August 24, 2012 at 3:41 pm

The statistics of the war are almost mind-numbing. Estimates differ, but up to 70m people died as a direct consequence of the fighting between 1939 and 1945, about two-thirds of them non-combatants, making it in absolute terms the deadliest conflict ever. Nearly one in ten Germans died and 30% of their army. About 15m Chinese perished and 27m Soviets. Squeezed between two totalitarian neighbours, Poland lost 16% of its population, about half of them Jews who were part of Hitler’s final solution. On average, nearly 30,000 people were being killed every day.

. October 7, 2013 at 2:59 pm

Strategic bombing, 1939-45
A costly, brutal failure
A damning verdict on the bombing campaign in Europe during the second world war

The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945. By Richard Overy

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