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Essential Histories Special, World War Two: The World in Flames

by Paul Collier, Dr. Alastair Finlan, Mark J. Grove, Philip D. Grove, Dr. Russell A. Hart, Dr. Stephen A. Hart, Dr. Robin Havers, David Horner and Geoffrey Jukes, with a foreword by Sir Max Hastings.

Published by Osprey Publishing Ltd. Soft covers, 480 pages, 7 x 9.75-inches, 220 B&W photos, 11 color photos and illustrations, 59 color maps, three charts chronology, index and bibliography. MBI order number: 137591AO. ISBN 1-84176-830-8. Price: $29.95 USD.


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Like many modelers, I have been fascinated with the history that’s related to our hobby. Therefore, I have read fairly widely on the technical and historic aspects of warfare. I always welcome any new book so that I can expand my knowledge of these fascinating events. So, I approached this book with high expectations, considering that the nine authors listed included several university professors and four PhDs. And, this book had the potential of being an outstanding bargain as it consists of six previously released titles, (which were originally priced at $19.95, USD, each) for only $29.99, USD. However, I rapidly became disappointed on several levels.

First and foremost, the editing of this book leaves very much to be desired. There is a lack of coherence, which could partly be the result of the differing styles of the authors, and the fact that this is a compendium of six different books. But, it seems to me that this book’s problems stem more from the lack of proper basic editing and the absence of an overall “guiding hand”.The six parts of this book are broken down as follows:
1. Europe 1939-1943.
2. The War at Sea.
3. The Mediterranean 1940-1945.
4. The Pacific.
5. The Eastern Front 1941-1945.
6. Northwest Europe 1944-1945.

The book opens with a Foreword written by the noted historian Sir Max Hastings, followed by an Introduction and then a Chronology. After the six parts listed above, the book closes with two more parts, which represent a rather fine (but possibly vain) effort to tie everything together. The first is entitled “The World Around War”, followed by “Conclusion and Consequences”.

The chronology is the first place where I noted some oddness. For instance, it lists the signing of the Tripartite Pact twice (in 1940 and 1941). The proper date of the liberation of Rome (June 4, 1944) is given, while later in the text it is said that the liberation was on June 6. This is poor editing.While mentioning Rome, the chronology does not mention the liberation of some other capitols, notably Paris. It mentions Hitler’s death but not the deaths of other wartime leaders such as Poland’s Sikorski, Italy’s Mussolini and America’s Roosevelt. This is where it is inconsistent.The July 20 attempt to assassinate Hitler is also ignored. The “Torch” invasion of North Africa is forgotten as are both the 1943 Jewish Ghetto Uprising and the 1944 Home Army Uprising in Warsaw. Additionally, the Russo-Finnish “Winter War” and the Spanish Civil War are not included. These lapses amount to an incomplete chronology. There are other things left out as well, but by now the reader will get the idea that in my opinion, the chronology is fairly incomplete as well as inconsistent. Furthermore, the chronology may add to the confusion of someone whose first introduction to this complex subject is via this book.

There are a number of errors (some absolutely bizarre) when it comes to the choices of photos and their captions. For instance, on page 190, the photo caption says that German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel is pictured, when in fact, the officers shown are certainly not in North Africa and aren’t even German! Surprisingly enough, Rommel is nowhere to be found. Page 116 has a color photo of a German Type II U-Boot, mislabeled as a Type VII. Page 192 has a photo caption stating that the HMS Barham was sunk one week prior to the sinking of the HMS Ark Royal, while the text says the Barham went down 11 days after the Ark Royal. To top it off, two different dates are given for the Ark Royal’s demise: November 14 and December 2!Some of the captions make no sense, especially in relation to the photo they are meant to enhance. For instance, on page 387, there is a well-known photo of US troops heading for the Normandy shore, as seen from a landing craft. However, the caption describes Montgomery’s Operation Goodwood. There is another photo on page 122, showing two British Royal Navy officers, wherein the caption describes the noted exploits of one of them. However, the caption does not tell the reader which man it refers to! There are also a few others like this, but again, I suppose you get the idea.

Several photos which really should be in a book of this type are nowhere to be found. For instance, there is no photo of the detonation of the Atomic Bomb and not a single photo depicting the inmates of a Concentration Camp. In the text it is mentioned that one of the most famous images of the war is the raising of the US flag on Iwo Jima by the US Marines. But, curiously, the photo is not included.The text, in general, is what I’d call “Anglo-centric”, although at least one author is apparently an American. But, since this book is from an English publisher and presumably directed primarily towards the domestic audience, this should be expected. Indeed, in one section of the text, an author finds it necessary to remind the reader several times that the UK provided the majority of the forces used in the operation described, as if there is some sort of inferiority complex hanging over the UK’s contribution to the war effort! In the book that deals with the Battle of The Atlantic, not a single photo of a US warship is included, and not much mention is made of the US Navy. Considering the vital contribution made by the US Navy’s hunter-killer anti-submarine groups to the eventual elimination of Germany’s U-Boat menace, this strange omission borders on historic revisionism.

Of all the “books” within this book, I found Part V, “The Eastern Front 1941-1945”, to be quite well-written. It covered the subject in a concise, sensible manner and was tied together with good maps and a fine, well-captioned photo selection. The parts dealing with sea warfare in the Mediterranean were also enlightening, as were the parts describing naval operations in the Indian Ocean and around the island of Madagascar, as well as ground operations in East Africa. But again, this is probably due to the book’s overall bias towards the UK’s contribution to the war effort. But in this case, that’s just fine, since the more I learn about obscure operations (to an American, at least), the better I feel.I also liked the closing section on the post-war world, which as I have said was a good attempt at tying the whole era neatly together. However, I think that “Uncle Joe” Stalin was given way too much credit for simply doing what was “right” for his country and not enough credit for being the conniving, murdering monster that history shows he truly was. Other sections detail the war as seen from the personal perspective of the individuals involved, both civilian and military. I found the stories of an Australian and a New Zealander’s exploits (both of whom won the Victoria Cross; one of them also received a bar for a second VC) to be quite inspiring. The story of a US woman that married a Japanese diplomat prior to the war, who then spent the war inside Japan was also quite interesting, as were the observations of a 12-year old boy during the epic siege of the island of Malta.

The other books left me scratching my head in several instances. For instance, the French Resistance and the Soviet use of Partisans is given coverage, as is the Polish Home Army, but the Philippine Guerilla movements are not mentioned at all. While there is some very good treatment of naval operations, especially in the Mediterranean, I feel that overall the use of air power was not emphasized enough. There was a separate book on the war at sea, why not one devoted to the air war alone as well?Several previously de-bunked myths about the 1939 Polish campaign are still perpetuated between these covers, such as the (false) notion that the Polish Air Force was destroyed on the ground and that the (supposedly “backward”) Poles purposely mounted vainglorious cavalry charges against the German Panzers. Nonsense! The Poles also fought in the battles in France and Norway in 1940, but no mention is made of that. There is no mention of the Soviet NKVD’s massacre of several tens of thousands of Polish officers and intelligentsia, at various times, in various places, collectively known as the Katyn Forest massacre. Furthermore, the text fails to mention the Polish contribution to Operation Market-Garden. I guess that’s what they (the publishers) get for allowing someone (yours truly) with a Polish-born wife, whose father was a cavalryman and Home Army soldier, the opportunity to review this book!

The Allied Invasion of Southern France, Patton’s victories against panzer Armee Afrika after Kasserine, and the “Big Week” air raids in 1944 are also absent from the text of the book. While the often debated Allied air raids on Dresden are mentioned (and as usual, greatly deplored), the near total destruction of Warsaw in 1944 by the Germans and their own terror raids on cities such as Rotterdam and Coventry receive no mention. As ye sow, so shall ye reap!In one section, it is said that the Germans first used airborne troops in the invasion of Crete. Apparently someone forgot about their earlier use in Norway, Holland and Belgium. In another place it is said that “Rommel’s forces were saved from complete annihilation by the Anglo-American landings in North West Africa.” Huh? Operation Torch was the final nail in their coffin, wouldn’t you say? Another good one is on page 81 where the text calls the German Kreigsmarine’s Bismarck a “Pocket Battleship”. Again I say, Huh?
The notion that the Japanese Emperor, Hirohito, had very little to do with Japan’s entry into the war is also still perpetuated. This, despite recent information where he is directly tied not only to the prosecution of the war, but to the atrocities committed in China, specifically the use of poison gas against the Chinese. Other things, such as the misspelling of the names of US Generals Simon Buckner (the book says “Buckler”) and Lucian Truscott (the book says “Lucius”) simply smack of poor basic research.

Inconsistent detail is provided regarding casualties related to the Holocaust. It is stated that approximately 5.5 million Jews were murdered, but no mention is made of the others, such as the Poles, who also were slaughtered in their millions. To put it all in perspective, it is normally accepted that between 11 and 12 million died, approximately half of whom were Jews. It is accepted that six million Poles were killed, approximately half of whom were not Jews. These things need to be in a book such as this, especially when the word “essential” is in the title of the series. In short, the Holocaust was no particular ethnic, religious or racial group’s personal property.

So, while the book can certainly be considered a bargain and does have many other interesting bits within the covers, it also leaves very much to be desired. It must also be said that the subject it has attempted to cover may simply be too big for the format, and that’s really nobody’s fault. Another point to consider is that the sections of the book are not attributed to any specific author, so I don’t know who to argue certain points with, who to blame for poor research or who to compliment for a job well done! In conclusion, I feel that if the reader is seeking a low-cost, comprehensive, accurate, balanced and well researched treatment of the subject, he or she might consider looking elsewhere.

Recommended with reservations.

Frank De Sisto

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