The Second World War: A Military History

Evan Mawdsley reviews an interesting, though uneven, history of a global conflict

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Reviewed by: Evan Mawdsley
Author: Gordon Corrigan
Publisher: Atlantic
Price (RRP): £25

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Gordon Corrigan is the author of two somewhat contradictory works of revisionist military history. Mud, Blood, and Poppycock (2003), argued that Britain’s war effort in 1914–18 was not the muddle and tragedy of popular conception; Blood, Sweat and Arrogance (2006), on the other hand, criticised British conduct of war in 1940–45 under Winston Churchill’s leadership.

Corrigan’s new book, as its simpler title might suggest, has a more straightforward approach, but this is both a strength and a weakness. While the book is more balanced, the argument is less striking.

It is no simple task to write a history of the entire global war, but the balance in this book can sometimes be questioned. To take an extreme case, there is about as much in this volume about the fall of Hong Kong in December 1941 as there is about the 1940 campaign in France, and rather more than there is about the 1939 campaign in Poland (a paragraph on page 90).

As a rule the author is most interested in theatres where British empire ground forces were deployed, for example Hong Kong or Burma (which, for all the hardship suffered by British and Indian troops, was one of the most inconsequential of the war). The Russian front gets fair treatment, but despite four chapters entitled “The Asian War”, coverage of China is thin.

The operations of ground forces are much more fully discussed than those of air forces and navies; there is, for example, little on the battle of the Atlantic or the American contribution to the strategic air war over Germany. Signals intelligence is hardly mentioned, Bletchley Park has one entry in the index, and Harry Hinsley’s history of British Intelligence is not included in the bibliography.

There are some questionable interpretations, of which two examples might be taken from the discursive introduction.

First, “nobody ever suggested” dropping an atomic bomb on Germany, because they were “white, civilised and Christian”. In fact the whole point of the Manhattan Project was to beat Germany to the bomb.

A second example is the author’s perplexity about why the Nazis did not wait until after they had won the war before they began the mass murder of the Jews. Surely the explanation is that the Holocaust was to a large extent a product of the war.  

This is not meant to be an academic work, but the endnotes are very limited, and no page references are given. In a number of cases the author simply refers to the ten-volume Germany and the Second World War, without even specifying the volume used.

Having said that, however, Corrigan shows an impressive command of some of the new writing on the operational history of the war. Some of the maps give scant detail, but there is an intelligent selection of photographs.

The book has many other strengths. A lot of ground is covered. Gordon Corrigan knows a great deal about military history, and his experiences in the British army (he is a retired Gurkha officer) give him an inherent feel for the subject.

There are numerous interesting insights based on personal experience, and Corrigan is not afraid to challenge existing wisdom. He has a pleasantly rambling style – including asides dropped into the numerous footnotes – and, taken as a whole, this book makes for a thought-provoking read. 

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Evan Mawdsley is professor of international history at the University of Glasgow