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.