Book Review: Britain’s War: Into Battle 1937-1941

Britain’s War: Into Battle 1937-1941, a two–volume history of World War II reminds me a little of Trevor Wilson’s splendid The Myriad Faces of War: Britain and the Great War 1914–1918 (1986).

Todman confines himself to the British experience of the war (as Wilson did). Professor Wilson successfully explored myriad aspects of the war (as his title suggested) but naturally devoted much of his book to the British campaigns on land, at sea and in the air.

Todman, by contrast, barely sketches in the military campaigns on the dubious ground that these have been covered in detail in other books. The prime focus of his 800 plus pages is the Home Front, political, economic and social. He tries reasonably effectively to use Mass Observation reports, letters, diaries, etc to quit the corridors of power for the back streets, pubs and middle–class drawing–rooms to take the pulse of public opinion.

Into Battle stops at December 1941 with a further volume to come. Somewhat eccentrically it begins with the coronation of George VI in 1937 while the next volume will cover 1942 to 1947. Readers may be surprised at how consistently the author belittles Churchill and his part in events, although grudgingly acknowledging his popularity. (However, Australian readers may note that Churchill justified neglecting Malaya’s defenses because Japan would never attack for fear of causing a war with America they would be bound to lose!)

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Chamberlain comes off better. He was less devoted to appeasement than afraid paying for a war with Germany might be beyond Britain’s financial capacity even with the French Army heavily involved as in 1914–18. Had he known the French army would surrender in six weeks, one suspects he might not have declared war in the first place. Much to Chamberlain’s credit in May 1940, even before the ‘miracle’ of Dunkirk, he steadfastly backed Churchill’s decision to fight on (supported by Labour members Arthur Greenwood and Clement Atlee) against Foreign Secretary Halifax’s desire to negotiate.

However, the hero of Todman’s narrative is Ernest Bevin. The post–war Foreign Secretary was then the most formidable of Ministers of Labour, contending simultaneously with Conservatives smelling socialism and left– wing Labourites smelling an opportunity to nationalise all industry.

Along the way, Bevin helped to mobilise its industries for war much more completely than the Germans, including better use of mass production. As a result the British Army, a third of the German army’s size, had more heavy guns and would receive during 1941 a thousand more British–made tanks.

In the same year (1941), the Germans confined naval completions to 162 U–boats, British shipyards launched two battleships, two aircraft carriers, six cruisers and 109 destroyers and corvettes. Yet it was Germany that was invading Russia! This is a flawed but fascinating book.

Author: Daniel Todman
Publisher: Allen Lane

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