Books History

To Read: ‘Britain’s War’ by Daniel Todman

I find that no matter how many books I read on the second world war, there’s always something new to discover, usually the result of a fresh perspective on old facts. Daniel Todman’s dual volume work on Britain’s War looks well worth adding to the ‘to-read’ pile:

.. historians of Todman’s generation are right to move on beyond triumphalism and to speak to the times in which we live today. For Britain’s role in the world is now nothing like what it was before Hitler invaded Poland, when the British empire comprised a quarter of the global population. Thus there were really two wars: one against the Nazi threat to the whole of Europe and the other to protect the British empire, most crucially in Asia. Broadly speaking, the first of these wars proved to be a moral and military success; the other turned out to be a failure. And in each case it had needed the intervention of the new superpowers, the USSR and the US, to retrieve the British from embarrassment.

Baldly put, this is the frame for the story as Todman tells it. However magnificent Churchill appeared in his commitment to saving Europe, the futile war to preserve the British empire mattered to him fully as much. Hence the searing impact of the sudden fall of Singapore to the Japanese in February 1942, exposing Churchill’s naive illusion that because this island port and naval base was always called “a fortress”, it was one that could withstand a siege. Todman’s comment elsewhere that Churchill was a “man who liked to make big plans on small maps” captures some of his frailty in formulating grand strategy.

I think it reveals a lot about the post-war British mentality, and rhetoric you still hear today – the myth is they won *both* wars. Should be an interesting read.

Also, interestingly, it would seem that designating something a fortress is always a bad idea for anyone left in it, Churchill was evidently as guilty of that as anyone else (‘Gilbraltar of the East’ (US loses Corregidor to Japan), any number of ‘festung’ designations thrown out by Hitler (Stalingrad, Breslau…), Eban-Emael (Belgium), and of course, the Maginot Line (although it was more a defensive shoulder than a fortress in reality).