‘The second world war lasted for 2,174 days, cost $1.5 trillion and claimed the lives of over 50 million people. That represents 23,000 lives lost every day, or more than six people killed every minute, for six long years.’ This neat summary is characteristic of the way Andrew Roberts uses statistics to bring home to the reader the enormity, the waste and the horror of that terrible conflict. The book is long, but it is tightly written, every page packed with terse comment, well-organised facts and, often, telling details.
It has a thesis: Hitler lost the war essentially because he was a Nazi, and allowed his race theories and ideological cruelty to get in the way of rational decision-taking. It is not true, Roberts says, that German atrocities began only in the closing stages of the war. On 27 May 1940, 97 British prisoners of war of the Royal Norfolks were massacred in cold blood by the SS, and the following day 90 POWs of the Warwickshire were slaughtered by grenades and rifles, the killers being from the Adolf Hitler Regiment. At the same time Hitler was allowing his political views to prevent the annihilation of the British Expeditionary Force. We originally calculated that the Dunkirk operation could save at most 45,000 troops. Thanks largely to Hitler’s interference, between dawn on Sunday 26 May and 03.30 on Tuesday 4 June 1940, 338,226 Allied soldiers were rescued, the largest military evacuation in history.
At the beginning of 1941, Hitler was master of Europe. By the end of the war he was doomed. He and his ideology were entirely responsible for his two greatest mistakes: to invade Russia, and to declare war on America. In both cases he hugely underestimated the power of the states he voluntarily made his mortal enemies. Russia seemed an easy target. The Germans destroyed 1,200 Soviet war-planes on the ground during the first morning of their invasion. They killed 27 million Russians, and took 5.7 prisoners, 3.3 million of whom (58 per cent) died in captivity. But the Russians kept on coming, and soon their production of tanks outstripped Germany’s. In the two-month battle of Kursk in 1943, the biggest and largest tank battle in history, the Germans lost 500,000 men, 3,000 tanks, 1,000 guns, 5,000 motor vehicles and 1,400 aircraft. The Russian losses were 50 per cent heavier, but could be absorbed, and the Germans lost the battle.
Hitler’s ideological underestimation of the US, which he saw as being controlled by Jews, was even more serious. ‘The entry of the United States into the war is of no consequence for Germany,’ Hitler said. He believed America could not be a threat ‘until 1970 or 1980’. In fact the speed with which America switched to, and accelerated, war production was astonishing. Soon all their aircraft losses at Pearl Harbor amounted to only two days’ production. By 1944 America was producing 98,000 war-planes a year, to Germany’s 44,000. By the war’s end, the USA had built 296,000 aircraft at $44 billion, 357 metric tonnes of bombs, 88,000 landing craft and 86,333 tanks. Her shipyards launched 147 aircraft carriers, 952 other warships and 5,200 merchant ships. America put nearly 15 million people into uniform and multiplied her prewar defence budget 20 times. Roberts summarises: ‘If Britain had provided the time and Russia the blood necessary to defeat the Axis, it was America that produced the money and the weapons.’
Hitler’s race theories also prevented him from close co-operation with the Japanese. Pearl Harbor came to him as a surprise. Hitler made no effort to urge upon Japan the vital importance of submarine warfare, and provide training. Japan lost the Pacific naval war in five minutes in 1942 at the Battle of Midway: four of their nine carriers sank, against only one American. At the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944, the largest naval engagement in history — 216 Allied warships and 64 Japanese took part — Japan lost four carriers, three battleships, six heavy and four light cruisers, whereas US losses were confined to a light carrier and two destroyers. Roberts gives some striking details of the air power America deployed against Japan. On 10 March 1945, 334 B-29s flattened 16 square miles of Tokyo, killed or wounded 183,000 people and made 1.5 million homeless. He calculates that the decision to make the A-bomb, made possible in part by Hitler’s persecution of Jewish scientists, saved the lives of 250,000 Americans alone. He says Sir Ian Jacob, Churchill’s military secretary, once said to him that the Allies won the war ‘because our German scientists were better than their German scientists’.
Roberts produces fascinating information on topics unrelated to the central issues. He is scathing about the French, quoting Jean Cocteau’s aphorism, ‘Long live the shameful peace’. Up to 400,000 French enrolled in various German military organisations. In 1941 it required only 30,000 German troops to hold down France. Vichy implemented anti-Jewish measures before it was even requested to do so by Berlin. When 600 boxes of files captured from the Abwehr were opened in 1999 it became clear that several thousand French volunteered to spy on their own countrymen for pitifully small amounts of money. The cruelty of the Vichy police was horrible: Roberts gives examples. Yet he tells us that when Pétain visited Paris in April 1944, bigger crowds turned out to cheer him than welcomed De Gaulle three months later. And I did not know that Vichy aircraft actually bombed Gibraltar.
Roberts also points out some shocking facts about the Soviets. Between Hitler’s invasion in June 1941 and October, Stalin had 26,000 Russians arrested, of whom 10,000 were shot. He still had 4 million in the Gulag even in 1942. During the Battle of Stalingard, the NKVD shot 13,500 Russian soldiers. The men were ordered to undress before execution so that their uniforms could be reissued ‘without too many discouraging bullet-holes’. Altogether, says Roberts, Stalin had 135,000 of his own soldiers shot, the equivalent of 12 divisions. A further 400,000 were in ‘punishment battalions’.
Roberts also has some sharp pen- portraits of leading war commanders, notably ‘Bomber’ Harris. He aroused much criticism, and when in 1994 the Queen Mother unveiled a statue to him outside St Clement Danes, there were angry demonstrations. His boss, Lord Portal, told the BBC correspondent, Chester Wilmot, in 1948: ‘The trouble with Harris was — off the record — that he was a cad, and would not hesitate to go behind your back to get something he wanted.’ Portal called him ‘a limelighter’, ‘a troublemaker’, ‘his own worst enemy’. Roberts says he was a loving father and ‘kind to his bull terrier Rastus’. He was loved by his men. I can confirm he was popular with the public, who liked him not least because he lacked humbug. He believed he could make a decisive contribution to winning the war with his heavy bombers. He said openly, ‘Kill the Boche, terrify the Boche’. If he met a civil servant, he would ask: ‘What are you doing to retard the war effort today?’ He had a huge Packard, which he drove at high speed to his HQ at High Wycombe. I heard the story that he was once stopped by a policeman, who warned: ‘Please be careful, Sir. You might kill someone.’ ‘Young man,’ said Harris, ‘I kill thousands every night.’ Yet even Harris admitted, two days after VE day, that he had been ‘borne down by the frightful inhumanities of war’. Roberts’s book is a powerful, well-documented sermon on these inhumanities. Engrossing to read. But will it do any good?