The is the second book in the planned trilogy. The first, The War in the West - A New History: Volume 1: Germany Ascendant 1939-1941 was published in 2015. This took the reader from July 1939 to the eve of Operation Barbarossa in June 1941.
- James Holland
Holland describes this work as a new history, combining elements not attempted before. In addition to the strategic and tactical levels of operations, he brings in the political and logistical elements to build a more complete and complex picture of what events were taking place which supported the military effort. Additionally, he has selected some key characters who were present at various points of history and uses their recollections to add the human face of war. Usefully, he also includes brief biographical details of these people, along with illustrations and maps of theatres of war and equipment.
In this second volume, published in May 2017, he takes the reader on a journey across operations and countries from the launch of Operation Barbarossa in June 1941 to May 1943. He focusses in this volume on a number of key areas; the entries of Russia and the United States of America into the war in Europe, the Battle of the Atlantic, and North Africa.
Many of these subjects have been covered in depth by other historians. In my opinion, where James Holland differs is in two ways. Firstly, by integrating accounts from a number of sources, he manages to create a narrative that is more compelling and is easily readable. To cover two years in the number of pages means that, inevitably, some things may be left out but it is enriched by what is there. For example, he gives a description of a Free French officer embarked for Egypt on 4 Oct 1941, eventually reaching Suez on 18 December 1941, via South Africa, eventually ending up with the First Free French Brigade. Here he learned that there was an English woman in the Brigade, who was the commanding General’s driver - and lover.
Secondly, unlike some other historians, James Holland is not afraid of expressing an opinion on the events of the time. Some will say that looking at the past is always done through today's prism and so it is acceptable. Others may say that judgements should only be made when looking at the facts available to decision makers at the time. Holland's position is a sort of Archimedian Point; the facts dictate an obvious course of action; what is sometimes not clear is whether those facts were known to the individuals concerned at the time. Holland demonstrates that sometimes they were, but fails to make a case at other times. Perhaps he believes that it is obvious, but sometimes it isn’t. An early example of this is General Ritchie’s alleged prevarication when the Africakorps was trapped in the cauldron in June 1941. Holland claims that the circumstances were clear, based on his reading of message logs. I think that, given the tactics being applied at the time, Ritchie was on the back foot and was more prepared for defence rather than offence.
Holland is very strong on the development of Air Power, and charts the evolution of the Desert Air Force to an attacking force which supported the land battle and beyond. He also is unafraid to tackle myths, such as the German forces had superior equipment in some respects.
Overall, the book is a very good read. There were some things in the book that I had not seen mentioned before in other literature. The language is everyday and the chapters are relatively short. He handles the shifting of the narrative from country and person to another theatre of war very well and it does not jar the narrative. I’d certainly recommend it as a very good primer on the Second World War, especially as those with living memory dwindle.
Penguin Random House May 2017 ISBN 9780593071670 cased 9780593071687 pbk
680 pages, plus index and illustrations.