The Second World War Explained

The Second World War Explained

Michael O'Kelly
ARRSE Rating
4 Mushroom Heads
The responsibility for explaining the Second World War is no light matter and to do so in less than 180 pages is more challenging still. When this book appeared on the review list, it was too intriguing to pass up the chance to have a look and discover whether Pen & Sword had indulged the author in the greatest act of literary hubris since the last greatest act of literary hubris. What I discovered was not at all what I expected, and not in a bad way.

'The Second World War Explained' is essentially an over-sized Ladybird Book and should be taken and read in that spirit. Though inevitably, given the size and scope of the book, great events flash past at great speed, all the important stuff is in there somewhere, which is a remarkable effort. Denizens of a website like Arrse, which can sustain an extended discourse on the relative loss rates of the Panther versus the Sherman, will find this book far too basic but, for anyone new to the subject and wanting a very quick and easy summary of the key events and the key players, this is a very accessible place to start, particularly for those in the older Primary School/younger Secondary School/BBC journalist bracket.

The book has a set of very clear maps at the front, some well chosen photographs in the middle and starts with a chapter on the background to war before taking the reader through methodically to 1945, generally with a paragraph on a given issue, though certain sections do reach further than their designated time block where necessary to make a continuity-based point. The result is a clear and easy read which is very fluent. Michael O'Kelly's style is easy on the eye and he unashamedly views the various goings on from a British perspective, with our chaps being gallant more often than not. Whilst this approach will undoubtedly cause a stampede towards safe spaces on our more progressive campuses, it's not intrusive or to the wider detriment of the text.

Despite where this book seems to be pitched, O'Kelly does not use it as an excuse to gloss over some of the nastier aspects of World War Two and nor is he one-eyed in his observations; whilst his criticism of German, Japanese and Russian behaviour is sustained, he is not afraid to discuss the Bomber Offensive or to point out that the Western Allies also shot prisoners on occasion. It remains balanced throughout.

Despite all of the above, the book is not without its flaws which, given the general command of the subject required to reduce it to such brevity whilst still being able to shoehorn episodes like Katyn Wood and Trent Park into the narrative, are actually quite bizarre. For example, Mussolini did not die in 1944 as captioned, Rommel didn't shoot himself and Admiral Darlan was not Hitler's appointed successor. Quite how these errors, and there are others, made it past the proofing process is a matter of speculation but it does have caveat emptor implications for the unknowledgeable who are this book's likely audience. For that reason, I've deducted a Mushroom Head.

Despite the efforts of Mr O'Kelly, the likes of Correlli Barnett and Antony Beevor will remain pre-eminent in the field of World War Two history but, all in all, this is not a bad little book to introduce the subject and set inquiring minds on the road to those other authors. Anyone with a working knowledge of World War Two will find this book too superficial, nonetheless it works within the boundaries it sets itself and it delivers very well in that space. For that reason, and with that caveat in mind, I'm very happy to give it four Mushroom Heads.

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