BOOK REVIEW – Britain’s War: Into Battle, 1937-1941

By Daniel Todman, Oxford University Press, New York, NY (2016)

Reviewed by Charles C. Kolb, Ph.D.

This massive volume represents a unique piece of research and chronologically covers a period of history that is of great interest to your reviewer: the background to and initial stages of World War II.  My own particular interests focus on intelligence and understanding the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a subject that I have researched since age twelve. I selected Britain’s War: Into Battle to review in order to learn more about this era and, especially, British perspectives on the United States prior to 7 December 1941.

This is a big book in many ways – it is the first of two projected volumes and is nearly 850 pages in length, with detailed acknowledgments, a useful list of abbreviations, and, uniquely, a section detailing money values in the UK in 1937-1940, and weights and measures. There are 28 black-and-white glossy illustrations (half situated between pp. 270-271 and the remainder between pp. 550-551), 12 maps and 6 tables. All of these are significant to the narrative. There is no separate bibliography or list of references cited – but these are incorporated within 1,580 thorough endnotes — and there is a very detailed index (pp. 793-827) covering both topics and proper nouns. The citations are well-chose and authoritative, ranging from newspapers, film and video to personal and private diaries, dissertations, official papers, materials on the Communist Party of Britain, collections at the Imperial War Museum and the National Archives (Kew), and, uniquely, results from “Gallup” public opinion polls. Todman also consulted widely among other historians. As readers would expect, there is a great deal in the narrative on Chamberlain, Churchill, Attlee, Baldwin, Eden, Lord Beaverbrook, lesser Cabinet officers, Roosevelt, and John Maynard Keynes. However, there is very little on the beginnings of code breaking, Enigma, and SOE (Special Operations Executive). Alas, much information on this era is yet classified and not publically available for scholars. For example: who knew what and when regarding the prelude to the Pearl Harbor attack.  The narrative and end notes in Todman’s magnum opus are packed with detailed information for the epoch, commencing with the coronation of George VI (12 May 1937) through Nazi Germany’s declaration of war on the United States (11 December 1941).

Daniel Todman completed his doctorate at Cambridge, and then taught at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, and since 2003 has been Senior Lecturer in the School of History at Queen Mary University of London. He is co-editor with Alex Danchev of War Diaries, 1939-1945: Field Marshall Lord Alanbrook, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001. Todman has previously focused writing and teaching on World War I (The First World War: Myth and Memory, London and New York: Hambledon and London, initially published in 2006, and editor and contributor to Command and Control on the Western Front: The British Army’s Experience, 1914-1918, Staplehurst: Spellmount, co-authored with G. D. Sheffield, and published in 2004.  He won the Times Higher Education Supplement Award for Best Young Academic Author in 2005 for The Great War: Myth and Memory, London: Hambledon and London, 2005.

Into Battle is a uniquely crafted narrative that documents the story of Britain’s long struggle initially alone against the forces of Nazi Germany. The author presents the British view on this subject and provides perspectives not ordinarily seen in books written by American authors. (Relevant bibliographic materials that I have examined in the past are listed at the end of this review. Some of the highlights of this book are cited below.

In the “Introduction: War Stories,” Todman notes that both of his paternal and material grandfathers were World War II veterans who influenced his interests in history. His approach to the subject centers on the United Kingdom but “within and part of a global system” and he indicates a wish to “join together histories that are usually told separately – strategic, political and economic, military, cultural and social” (pp. 3-4). He furthermore notes that the 1941 is not a “Finest Hour” but a decisive year in twentieth-century British history.

Part One: “Prelude” consists of eight chapters (pp. 9-116).  The narrative begins with the Coronation of George VI (12 May 1937) — following the abdication of Edward VIII — as an “international event. Details (typical throughout the entire volume) include the fact that there were 570 miles of viewing stands created with 1,400 tons of timber. More significant is that this was the first coronation broadcast on radio and on television, the latter for a radius of 63 miles from London. The Great Depression in the UK is well-documented and viewed as a swift and shallow economic “slump” during which the UK departed from the Gold Standard. The three-party political system (Labour, Conservative, and Liberal), the failure of extremism (Communism and Fascism), the 23% unemployment rate, and unionized working class are also detailed.  The Ottawa Conference of 1932 kept the Commonwealth together at a time of unrest in British India, while Churchill was “intransigent” over India and its campaign for national security. Chapter 5 reviews the history of the Depression, British foreign policy, the Royal Navy, Washington Conference of 1921-22, advent of the Soviet Union, and rise of Japanese and German nationalism between the wars.  British concerns about Hitler and Mussolini, the reoccupation of the Rhineland, and opening of the Spanish Civil War are documented, resulting in Britain’s “cautious rearmament and the  creation of the post of Minister for the Co-ordination of Defence with  responses to defending the Commonwealth in the Far East, notably the construction of a naval base at Singapore.

Part Two: “From Peace to War” contains two long, very detailed chapters covering this transitional period (pp. 119-196). Interventions by Japan in China and the German Anschluss and Sudetenland are documented. The political scene is dominated by the fear of Nazism and concerns expressed by Neville Chamberlain, Horace Wilson, and Anthony Eden lead ultimately to the British plan for armed forces expansion and the shift from deterrence to defense: notably, building fighter aircraft rather than seeking bomber parity with Germany. The Chamberlain-Hitler “shuttle diplomacy” is recounted as is the realization of British lack of readiness and military shortcomings in the Royal Navy (a lack of escort vessels and minesweepers) and the Army and Royal Air Force. The Munich Agreement created a “political quagmire” while Anglo-French cooperation in the Middle East (“Let us offend the Jews rather than the Arabs,” p 162) and the effects of the Sino-Japanese War in the Far East are recounted. The British naval base in Singapore opened in February 1938 and in June 1939 the British provided signal and code books to the United States which, in turn planned to dispatch the Pacific Fleet to Pearl Harbor (p. 174), while the Soviets began a counter-offensive versus Japan in Mongolia. The “slide to war” also features details on British munitions production (three ordinance factories were under construction and 12others approved), the construction of 158 airfields, air raid precautions, and “no shortage of volunteers or conscripts.” The narrative ends with the passage of the Emergence Powers (Defence) Act in late August 1939 and Winston Churchill joining the War Cabinet as First Lord of the Admiralty.

Part Three: “Being at War” has four chapters (pp. 199-357).  The first Briton was killed by enemy action on 3 September 1939. Although the “aerial apocalypse was markedly absent” (p. 199), the sinking of SS Athena by U-30 and the exploits of the Admiral Graf Spee are recounted along with discussions of the defeat of Poland, the composition of the War Cabinet, Supreme War Council, and Allied Military Committee (The UK and France). The latter planned a “long term military mobilization combined with economic disruption” (p. 201) and projected a three-year war with Germany. U-boats cause high-profile losses by the Royal Navy and the RAF, now organized into Fighter, Bomber, and Coastal Commands, was “ineffectual.” Industrial mobilization, tax increases, and the inability to fully equip Army units are also documented. “Britain’s declaration of war [against Nazi Germany] brought in the Commonwealth by choice and the Empire by definition” (p. 228). Hence, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, Ireland, Egypt, Iraq, and India began to mobilize and Britain planned to tap these for trained aircrews and munitions; at the same time Anglo-American relations “hedged around misunderstanding and suspicion.” For Britain this was a period of the “Bore War” — boredom – planned evacuation of civilians (only 40% of the evacuees actually turned up and among those who were evacuated many returned home in droves). Air raids, blackouts, price increases, rationing, and compulsory savings plans are detailed.  The escalation of the war during the Winter of 1939 through Spring 1940 witnessed the Russo-Finnish War, the invasion of Norway and German incursions into the Low Countries. “The Battle of France” (pp. 323-357) including the evacuation of troops from Dunkirk (190,000 British and 140,000 French with 100,000 Allied soldiers captured by the Germans), the crushing sudden collapse of France and the Armistice are recounted (1.5 million French soldiers were taken prisoner). Allied shortcomings are reviewed as are negotiations with Germany and Italy regarding the demilitarization of the French Navy and Mediterranean ports, and British attacks on French capital ships (3, 5, 6, and 8 June) to prevent them from falling into German control.

Part Four: “Battles of Britain” consists of nine chapters (pp. 363-649) and is, in reality, a book in itself. This is the period of the “Finest Hour” as Churchill assumed Premiership on 15 May 1940. Todman’s narrative focuses on politics beginning with descriptions and assessments of the new government, Churchill and his “crony’s,” unrealistic concerns about fifth columnists but fear of German paratroop invasion (as in Norway), and plans for defense of the homeland.  The planning began before Hitler asked his armed forces to start planning for a possible invasion (p. 381). Documented in detail are the Civil Defence Regions, Home Intelligence and propaganda, Enigma decrypts (pp. 404-405), German plans for attack (Operation Sea Lion is not mentioned by name, pp. 436-438), nationalism and radicalism, and emergency budget that featured tax increases, estate and duty taxes, and a luxury tax. The Fall of France witnessed the need for aircraft and convoy escorts, the complex issues of international diplomacy and imperial politics, and the Nazi-Soviet Pact and Japanese expansion in China. Concerns about the Italians in Africa and the vulnerability of Malta, schemes to defend the Suez Canal and Malaya, India’s demands for Dominion status, and Spanish alarm about Germany’s rapid victories are documented.  The chapter “The Battle of Britain” (pp. 439-457) characterizes pre-invasion attacks, British air defenses, pilot inefficiencies, overestimations of Luftwaffe losses, concentrated raids on London docks, and Germany’s lack of air superiority for an assault. In the meantime, the Anglo-British Destroyers for Bases deal (2 September 1940), the Tripartite Pact (Germany, Italy, and Japan), movement of the American Pacific Fleet to Pearl Harbor, British efforts to maintain the Burma Road and seizure of French ports in Africa, and Italian attacks from Libya into Egypt occurred within a brief period. The SOE (Special Operations Executive and Combined Operations are mentioned briefly (pp. 468-469).  Sobering details of the scale and intensity of the Blitz, focusing on London from September to October 1940, are presented; 150,000 persons per night sheltered in the Underground, homelessness and casualty figures documented, and by January, 41,000 homes were demolished and 680,000 homes damaged. U-boat and German raider successes and the inadequacies of the convoy system are recounted, as the Luftwaffe turned its attention to aircraft factories from November 1940 to April 1941 and Southampton and western ports. Nonetheless, the Germans were unable to cut off England from the rest of the world and there was no anti-war feeling in England and Churchill was at a height of popularity.

“The Battle of the British Empire” (pp. 525-587) begins with the reelection of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in November 1940 and his cautious polity toward Britain; Todman contends that the United States was unaware of the “acute” British economic and military position. We also learn that £200,000,000 in French gold had previously been transferred to Canada. The Lend Lease Act (11 March 1941) would provide some relief  and Coastal Command was reequipped with U.S.-built Catalina and Liberator aircraft while U.S. Marines were sent to Iceland so that British forces there could withdraw to the homeland. Another chapter focuses on the British economy, manpower demands, aircraft and shipbuilding, wartime sacrifices by civilians (food, clothing, and household goods), rationing and notable dietary changes, worker strikes, and the expansion of all armed services (yet there was a substantial desertion rate). The Nazi wars on Greece and Russia (after 18 December 1940) and Axis attacks in the Western Desert (Libya and Egypt), East Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East (the Levant, Iraq, and Syria) are reviewed.  He believes that “The fighting in the Middle East in 1940-41 was a milestone in the collapse of European empires” (p. 578). The final chapter focuses on production and reconstruction following the Blitz. Munitions and heavy bomber production remained below anticipated levels while artillery and poorly-designed tank met goals. The British made better use of mass production than Germany and reconstruction of factories and housing was reorganized and moved forward. Socially, a new middle-ground (anti-capitalist, pro-welfare, patriotic and Christian) was being created that would shape British politics for decades to come (p. 649).

Part Five: “Total War” consists of three chapters (pp. 655-718). The war widened with German attacks on Russia; the chronology and facts of this event, especially after the signing of an Anglo-Russian Alliance (12 July 1941) are well-documented. This coalition conducted a joint military action in occupying Persia so that Persian oil and supply routes to Russia could be maintained. Meanwhile, the United States was placing sanctions on Japan regarding war material, especially oil; which the Japanese had to import. An Anglo-American Conference on Supply took place during the Churchill-Roosevelt meeting on the Prince of Wales and USS Augusta at Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, 9-12 August. Todman details the prelude to the conference, the meeting itself, and the resulting eight-point Atlantic Charter announced on 14 August.  Indians, Burmese, and West Africans felt that Point three involving sovereign right and self-government applied to the “dark races” as well as others (p. 679) – perhaps the beginning of the end of Empire.  The 1941 Export White Paper (10 September) resulted from an American demand that Lend-Lease was not exploited for commercial purposes.  The United States did not declare war on Germany even after a U-boat attacked the U.S destroyer Greer off the Iceland coast. The British Communist Party was transformed by the Nazi attack on the USSR and Stalin campaigned for a second front. The British did provide under-gunned Matilda and Valentine tanks for Russia but Stalin was still angered and suspicious at the lack of British support. This resulted in The First Moscow Protocol whereby Britain and the United States, fearing the collapse of Russia without immediate aid, promised to provide 400 aircraft and 500 tanks per month to Russia. Meanwhile, the British continued heavy bomber attacks against German cities (Berlin, Cologne, and Manheim) in the face of improved German defenses (radar and night-fighters). In North Africa, the sinking of Axis supply convoys depriving Rommel’s advances toward Egypt while the British remained worried about King Farouk’s loyalty to Britain. Lastly, the British worked to make it clear to Japan and the English-speaking world that the British were still a great imperial power (p.710) and would safeguard the Indian Ocean from Japanese incursion. On 10 November, Churchill informed the Japanese that Britain would declare war if they attacked America. Force Z, the battleship Prince of Wales and battle cruiser Repulse arrived in Singapore on 2 December; meanwhile Canadian troops arrived in Hong Kong on 16 November. Churchill’s response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, 7 December 1941, was “In all the war I never received a more direct shock” (pp.714-715) stated in his The Second World War, Volume 3: The Hinge of Fate, 1950, p. 55.  Hitler was even more surprised – the Japanese had not informed Germany about the attack — but declared war on the United States on 11 December, one day after the Japanese had sunk Force Z.

There is voluminous literature for the period 1937-1941 focusing on political, diplomatic, and economic issues. Recent general histories include: Clayton Roberts, David Roberts, and Douglas R. Bisson (2009) History of England, Volume 2: 1688 to The Present, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, especially Ch. 29.  Among numerous political treatments are: William Manchester (1988) The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Alone, 1932-1940, Boston; Little Brown & Co.; Benny Morris (1991) The Roots of Appeasement: The British Weekly Press and Nazi Germany During the 1930s, London: Cass; Daniel Ritschel (1997)  The Politics of Planning: The Debate on Economic Planning in Britain in the 1930’s, Oxford: Clarendon; Brian J. C. McKercher (1999, 2006) Transition of Power: Britain’s Loss of Global Pre-eminence to the United States, 1930-1945, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Peijian Shen (2000)  The Age of Appeasement: The Evolution of British Foreign Policy in the 1930s, Stroud: Sutton; Christopher Price (2001)  Britain, America and Rearmament in the 1930s: The Cost of  Failure, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan; Lynne Olson (2008) Troublesome Young Men: The Rebels Who Brought Churchill to Power and Helped Save England, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Social and economic histories embrace: Correlli Barnett (1986, 2011) The Audit of War: The Illusion and Reality of Britain as a Great Nation, London: Macmillan. Sandra Koan Wing (ed.) (2009) Our Longest Days: a People’s History of the 2nd World War, London: Profile Books; and Robert Pearce (2010) 1930s Britain (Shire Living Histories), Oxford: Osprey – an 80-page delight. While military histories focusing on the 1930s include Gordon Corrigan (2006) Blood, Sweat and Arrogance: And the Myths of Churchill’s War, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson; and recent works by Peter Liddle (2011)  Captured Memories 1930-1945: Across the Threshold of War: The Thirties and the War, Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military; David Edgerton  (2011) Britain’s War Machine: Weapons, Resources, and Experts in the Second World War, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press; and Phillips Payson O’Brien  (2015) How the War Was Won: Air-Sea Power and Allied Victory in World War II, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Readers will likely agree that although Todman’s work focuses on Britain within and as a part of a global system and that he, indeed, joins together strategic, political and economic, military, cultural and social histories that are normally reported independently. His broad-based research and compelling narrative weave together diverse, complex information to relate the story of Britain’s resilience and survival during a unique period of world history. The text is almost overwhelmingly informative, carefully presented, and fully documented, and, to some readers, actually slights military aspects by heavily contextualizing them within political and social history. There may be fewer details on actual engagement between Britain and Nazi Germany, a less about the Italians in East Africa and the Mediterranean or the Japanese in China. British failures in Greece and Crete are less documented that the North African campaign. He does document the initial failures of the RAF strategic bombing campaign and the fact that during the Battle of Britain the numbers of British Fighter Command aircraft, pilots and aircrews outnumbered those of the Luftwaffe fighters. By late 1941 to British and Canadian battles against U-boats in the North Atlantic had not yet been seriously affected by Enigma code breaking and the use of Lend-Lease destroyers.

British intelligence is minimally represented and there is apparently much yet to be unclassified; readers should consider two publications: Sir William Samuel Stephenson (1999) The Secret History of British Intelligence in the Americas, 1940-45 (British Security Coordination), New York: Fromm International; H-NET REVIEWS/H-DIPLO (Diplomatic History), an electronic book review, 17 pp.  Published on 3 December 1999. Patrick Beasley (2015) Very Special Intelligence: The Story of the Admiralty’s Operational Intelligence Centre, 1939-1945, Barnsley, UK: Seaforth Publishing (Naval History Book Reviews 57, July 2016)

While the treatments by Corrigan, Edgerton, and O’Brien are extremely good, for a comprehensive assessment of the history of the era 1937-1941, I would, nonetheless, select Todman’s new book. It is extremely well-researched, indicates a mastery of resources for the period, contains quotable narratives from original sources, and holds the reader’s attention.  I await eagerly the publication of the second part.

One caveat regarding the volume: Alas, Oxford University Press made a decision to publish a hardcopy edition only, but the binding is made of hard paper not cloth.  The boards do not hold up well and are subject to cracks and tearing.

Dr. Kolb is an independent scholar residing in northern Virginia.

Spread the word. Share this post!

Leave Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *