In July an online talk by Philip Blood (probably this guy) and a pass through Keegan’s Six Armies in Normandy made me think of the old debate about the effectiveness of the American, British, and Commonwealth armies in the Second World War. I had not known that Six Armies in Normandy was just Keegan’s second book from 1982, and that my 1994 Penguin edition was a reprint (A.J.P. Taylor wrote a blurb!)
Keegan’s book shows his strengths and weaknesses as a historian: it is beautifully written, expresses his unique view of the world, but rarely acknowledges doubt or explains where his facts and interpretations come from. Keegan gives himself authority by dropping in French and German phrases and alluding to prestigious novelists and playwrights, but not by showing that he understands a mass of evidence and arguments and can argue why his interpretation is best. The maps are inadequate, the photos numerous but ornamental. Because Six Armies in Normandy rarely cites sources, and because I’m not a specialist in WW II, I will not try to review it. But I will use some quotes to show places where I might have been wrong or where I don’t know how to balance two ways of thinking.
After a war the winners start to argue about credit, whether the Athenians and the Spartans arguing about who saved Hellas from the Mede, or the Allies arguing about who did more to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. And while these debates are nominally about the past, the different positions tend to correspond to different views about who should be honoured and respected in the present. Within Athens there was a debate about the contribution of leisured hoplites and working-class rowers at the same time that advocates of a narrow democracy and a wide democracy were fighting. After the collapse of the USSR, the Soviet contribution became better acknowledged in the North Atlantic world (although Soviet failures which had been covered up were also uncovered after the archives opened and the censors had to get real jobs). In the past ten years, a new view has emerged which argues that the US, UK, Germany, and Japan all put a majority of their manufacturing capacity into air forces and gave ground forces second or third priority. To them:
The Germans lost more infantry on the Eastern Front, but they lost far, far more of their equipment (and best trained forces) fighting the British and Americans. This is because the German Army as I have pointed out, received relatively little German production compared to the Air Force/Navy. Basically, because the Germans could afford to send so little equipment to the Eastern Front, they tried to get by using unsupported soldiers. Actually, the ‘vast bulk’ of German losses were caused fighting the western Allies, and its not close.
Ian W. Walker, Iron Hulls, Iron Hearts: Mussolini’s Elite Armoured Divisions in North Africa (The Crowood Press: Ramsbury, UK, 2003)
Even during the war, nobody wanted to tell the truth about the Italian army. The fascist government and their pet generals did not want to admit that they had entered the war on a whim and sent soldiers with too little training and equipment into battle. German soldiers often disliked the Italians for good old ethnocentric reasons, and found that it was very convenient to blame them for everything which went wrong. And as they suffered defeat after defeat in 1940, 1941, and 1942, the British leaned on their own stereotypes to depict the one Axis power they could beat as frivolous and cowardly. The Italian army did not always fight its unjust wars enthusiastically, and did not keep fighting for two years after the war had been lost, but it is rarely praised for this. Ian W. Walker’s Iron Hulls, Iron Hearts is a good summary of the reassessment by an amateur historian who can read English and Italian. It has basic sketch maps and handy line drawings of key Italian equipment such as the M11, M13, and M14 series of medium tanks. Rather than a traditional review, this week I will post three things I learned from this book.
Robert Engen, Canadians Under Fire: Infantry Effectiveness in the Second World War (McGill-Queen’s University Press: Montreal, QC and Kingston, ON, 2009) ISBN 978-0-7735-3626-5 [Bookfinder][Biblio]
In this plague time, zombie ideas walk the earth, for all our attempts to call down academic fire on them. One of those is S.L.A. Marshall’s assertion that only 15-25% of American infantry in WW II fired their weapons in the direction of the enemy. Although Marshall’s trustworthiness had been undermined by the 1980s, and he left no records of the interviews where he claimed to have learned this embarrassing truth, the idea gained a new life after it was popularized by writers like columnist Gwynne Dyer and the smooth smiling David Grossman. Engen’s book focuses on another body of evidence which exists today: surveys mailed to Canadian infantry captains, majors, and lieutenant-colonels returning to Britain after fighting on the continent. Anyone can go and read the original documents in Ottawa, and they were filled out within a few weeks of leaving combat for an internal military audience. While Engen dutifully reminds readers that combat is confusing, memories are maleable, and people don’t always say exactly what they remember, these surveys are better sources than anecdotes or the opinions of one amateur historian with a gift for self-publicity.
Robert M. Citino, Death of the Wehrmacht: The German Campaigns of 1942 (University Press of Kansas: Lawrence, KA, 2007) ISBN-13 978-0-7006-1791-3 [Bookfinder]
Robert Citino’s Death of the Wehrmacht (2007) is a third type of history book. Rather than a journalistic history drawing on interviews or a monograph with carefully limited scope, it is a book with a big idea inspired by experience lecturing. He believes that the kind of land war which Germany waged from 1939 to 1945 was not just a product of a bad strategic situation or Nazi ideology but a particular way of fighting wars which went back to Frederick the Great’s Prussia. This type of warfare focused on throwing the army against the largest concentration of enemy troops from an unexpected direction and relying on highly trained officers and men to overcome larger, better-funded armies in a few weeks of fighting. He then uses this way of thinking to explain the major German offensives of 1942: in the Crimea, at Kharkov in Ukraine (where the Soviets attacked first), against the oil fields of the South Caucasus and to the lower Volga, and against the Nile Delta to close the Suez Canal. This is a book about the Prussian and then German officer corps as an institution, anchored in several centuries of history rather than the Third Reich.
The Second World War created the world that I grew up in, and the central event of that war was the Nazi-Soviet struggle. 80% of the Germans and Austrians killed or captured in the war were killed or captured by the Soviets (Glantz, The Soviet-German War 1941-1945: Myths and Realities: A Survey Essay ). My standby reference on the war, R.A.C. Parker’s brilliantly concise The Second World War: A Short History (Oxford University Press, 1989), was written too early to take advantage of the opening of the Soviet archives and the deconstruction of the German generals’ memoirs. Two recent English books represent two major approaches to writing about this unspeakably terrible conflict.
If you know the ancient writers, you must be puzzled why moderns often pronounce that ancient Greek armies were highly skilled and rigorously disciplined. Those writers make it clear that getting high-status Greek men to accept any kind of training and discipline was like getting them to pick a day to have a tooth pulled. Spartans accepted commands and corporal punishment and did a bit of drill, but no ancient writer describes them practising marching or fighting in peacetime. One reason why people say things which are contradicted by so many ancient texts is that they are using the ancient Greeks as an excuse to talk about their own culture, so they project things they love or fear about their own culture on the ancients.
Have a look at this quote from Professor Emeritus, Colonel (retired), Dr. Jonathan House who is talking about how the proud professionals of the German army got themselves spanked by the Red Army.
Germany, in fact, is the poster child for what we like to call the Western Way of War, the idea that a well-trained force can achieve rapid offensive decisive victory by superior discipline, manoeuvre, and equipment. Well, that works part of the time, but if you encounter somebody who is not willing to say he’s defeated, as the Soviets were not, and then you encounter somebody who in addition to that has all this vast terrain, then eventually your plan gets thwarted.