September 30, 2011 5:35 pm

All Hell Let Loose

Ordinary soldiers and civilians take centre-stage in Max Hastings’ fine new history

No one could be better qualified than Sir Max Hastings to write a single-volume history that covers every aspect and every theatre of the second world war, from the German invasion of Poland on September 1 1939 right up to the Japanese surrender almost precisely six years later. He has written eight full-length books on different aspects of that war, during 35 years of researching and thinking about it. On one level, All Hell Let Loose is a continuation of this project, distilling many of Hastings’ most interesting theories on the grand strategies and great men at heart of the conflict.

On another level, this book concentrates very much on what the war felt like for the soldiers and civilians who had to pass through its 2,174 days of hell, during which an average of 27,000 people died per day. The focus is on the ordinary German stormtrooper, American GI, British female factory worker, Chinese peasant, Indian sepoy, Japanese civilian, French POW, and scores more representative types of people as they struggled to survive a conflict that killed between 60m and 70m people. Hastings has an extraordinary ability to throw a bucket into the ocean of wartime papers, diaries, letters and documents of every kind, and bring up something fascinating and worthwhile every time.

Hastings emphasises the global nature of the struggle – we sometimes forget that no fewer than 15m Chinese died, for example – and this inevitably puts the experience of the Western Allies into unfamiliar perspective. He is at pains to point out that for all the postwar mythologising of the British and American roles in the victory, the vast majority of German soldiers who died in combat were killed on the Eastern Front. If anything, indeed, his minimising of the Western Allies’ contribution might have gone too far now: the US Army in particular comes in for sustained criticism, and Americans in general are sweepingly described as having “cherished a hubristic belief in their own virtue, and consciousness of their own dominance”.

American generals get equally short shrift. “Eisenhower will never be celebrated as a strategist or tactician,” Hastings states, “Patton’s army fared no better than that of his peers,” and Douglas MacArthur was “distinguished by his self-image as a warlord, rather than by gifts as a battlefield commander”. The British do slightly better, especially the deserving William Slim, with Bernard Montgomery described as “a highly competent professional” who nonetheless “never achieved a masterstroke”. The Russian marshals are praised for their “raw aggression” but then commanders in Stalin’s Russia could ignore their huge losses. It is the German commanders who elicit Hastings’ unstinting admiration, especially Gerd von Rundstedt (a soldier of the “highest professionalism”), Erich von Manstein (a “superb professional”), Albert Kesselring (in “the front rank”) and Heinz Guderian (“the personification of the Wehrmacht’s skill in exploiting armour”). The ordinary German soldier is extolled as easily the best fighting man of the war.

Yet although this was all undoubtedly true for the first two-thirds of the conflict, it wasn’t by the latter half of 1944. Eisenhower had by then already demonstrated his strategic ability with Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of north-west Africa, and Patton had fared better than his peers in Sicily. Rome had fallen to the Americans before D-Day – which was another great success and the US Army won the Ardennes Offensive and crossed the Rhine and reached the Elbe. German soldiers were no longer out-fighting the Western Allies on a man-for-man basis after the Bulge, and Rommel and Rundstedt, for all their professionalism, lost badly in France, not least because they could not work together. Hastings’ assertion that “the British nation’s single greatest achievement of the war” was breaking the Enigma code similarly seems to underplay our undoubted victories in the Battle of Britain, the Battle of the Atlantic, the Combined Bomber Offensive and the 1944-45 Burma Campaign, and anyway the Poles had decrypted Ultra before our boffins at Bletchley. He is on far firmer ground when he gives well-deserved praise to Generals George Marshall, Alan Brooke and Lucien Truscott, and he is also fair to one of his old bugbears, Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris, whom he points out was “the enforcer of area bombing, not its architect”.

This book is packed with fascinating and surprising facts and statistics. “While 17,000 American combat casualties lost limbs, during the war years 100,000 workers became amputees as a result of industrial accidents,” Hastings writes. We learn that half the population of Britain moved home over the course of the war; and that the two countries able to mobilise the highest proportions of women for their war effort were Britain and the USSR, while the most sexist nations – Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan – were also the biggest losers. This book also has some of the most powerful photographs of any book I have read on the second world war. One can hardly look into the eyes of the man, presumably but not necessarily Jewish, who is about to be executed by an Einsatzgruppe in Russia. One asks oneself yet again: what possible perversion encouraged those murderers to permit photographers to record their deeds?

On September 7 1941, 19-year-old gunner Bob Grafton of east London wrote to his girlfriend Dot before embarking for the Far East: “Darling, I know that you will wait for me. I swear that as long as we are apart I will never touch another woman either physically or mentally. Yours ever, with Love and Devotion so deep that the fires burn even in sleep, Bob.” After being captured by the Japanese in Sumatra and working on the hellish Burma railway, he wrote to her on the way home four years later: “This I know, that it was you of the two of us who had the more difficult task. For I am a man (perhaps prematurely) and men must fight and women must weep. So my share was no exception, yours was.” Bob married Dot, and they lived happily ever after. If that kind of true story makes tears well up for you, as it did for me, you will love this splendid, if overly self-lacerating book. Monty might not have produced his “masterstroke”, but Max Hastings certainly has.

Andrew Roberts is author of ‘The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War’ (Allen Lane)

All Hell Let Loose: The World at War 1939-1945, by Max Hastings, HarperPress, RRP£30, 748 pages

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