Time of Hope
Allies of a Kind
The first of September 1944 marked the fifth anniversary of the German invasion of Poland, outbreak of the Second World War. The struggle had already continued for nine months longer than the earlier conflict, once called the Great War. The 1914-18 conflict cost the lives of a mere nine million people. Its successor would account for at least five times that number, the overwhelming majority of whom died in the Soviet Union or in China (where their passing remained largely unremarked by Westerners, then or since).
The British people somewhat flattered themselves about their own role. France, Britain and the dominion were the only belligerents voluntarily to have entered the conflict against totalitarianism as a matter of principle in support of Polish freedom, rather than as victims of aggression or in hopes of booty. Churchill's brilliant defiance in 1940 mitigated Hitler's triumph in western Europe that year. Without his genius, it is likely that Britain would have sued for peace. At no time after June 1940 was there a possibility that British arms could defeat Germany, or even play the principal part in doing so. Yet it was characteristic of British self-indulgence that, when Hitler invaded Russia in June 1941, some thoughtful people recoiled in disgust from the notion of fighting alongside the bloodstained Soviets, even though their participation opened up the first, perhaps only realistic, prospect of overcoming Hitler.
In Evelyn Waugh's great novel Sword of Honour, the British officer Guy Crouchback embraces war in 1939 as a crusade against the modern world in arms. His faith is lost, however, when he finds his country allied with the Russians. That was fiction, yet in cool reality the head of the British Army, Sir John Dill, said in 1941 that he considered the Russians "so foul that he hated the idea of any close association with them." Dill's successor as Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir Alan Brooke, initially regarded the Soviets with both moral and military contempt. Churchill's government embarked upon a huge propaganda campaign, to convince the British people that "Uncle Joe" Stalin and his nation were worthy friends of freedom. This was so successful that in 1945 it proved a painful task to shatter public delusions, to break the news that perhaps the Soviet Union was not quite such a good thing after all.
Yet if the accession of the Soviet Union as an ally prompted equivocal sentiments, that of the United States provided cause for unstinting celebration. "So we had won after all!" Winston Churchill exulted, on hearing news of Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Between that date and May 1945, the United States devoted 85 per cent of its entire war effort to the struggle against Germany. Yet, paradoxically, few Americans ever felt deep animosity towards the Germans, of the kind which they cherished towards the "yellow barbarians" who had attacked them at Pearl Harbor. "I didn't work up a great hate of the Germans," said Nicholas Kafkalas, a twenty-four-year-old captain commanding an armoured infantry company of 10th Armored Division in north-west Europe. "They were pretty good soldiers. A lot of Americans felt less engaged against the Germans than against the Japanese." By the autumn of 1944, largely armed and equipped by the industrial might of the United States, the Allies were in no doubt of victory. But the gratitude of the weary, battered, hungry British people was mingled with resentment as they watched Americans in their tens of thousands, brash and fresh, clean and rich, pour off the ships on their way to join Eisenhower's armies. The New World's soldiers came to harvest the fruits of victory without, as the British saw it, having endured their share of the Old World's pain.
A thirty-two-year-old academic serving as a combat historian with the U.S. Army in September 1944 read British newspapers. He noted the fears these expressed, that the Americans would claim to have won the war on their own. "Unfortunately [for the British], nothing can stop our people from claiming the victory," Forrest Pogue wrote presciently.
They believe the British slow, they over-emphasize their [own] total contribution. The British will never get full credit for their part in winning the war, since their greatest glory was holding on in the 1939-42 period. This was negative type of fighting, and will fade . . . Russia will be played down, perhaps, in later years at home . . . Hers was the positive sacrifice that broke Germany and made the landing [in Normandy] possible. However, ours was the voice and the helping hand that encouraged England to keep fighting, that replaced the terrific loss of matériel suffered by the Russians.
All this was true.
Winston Churchill, whose irrational stubbornness in 1940 had averted Hitler's triumph, enjoyed the years of victory much less than he had expected. Like his people he was weary, as well a man of sixty-nine might be. He suffered increasing ill-health. He was made wretched by consciousness of his shrinking power in the Grand Alliance of Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union. He was haunted by apprehension that Hitler's tyranny in eastern Europe would be supplanted by that of Stalin. In 1940, Britain's prime minister had been warlord of the sole bastion of resistance to the Nazis. In 1942, even if the Soviets treated him with the morbid suspicion due to an old imperialist and adversary of revolution, the Americans deferred to his greatness and to his nation's experience of war. From 1943 onwards, however, Churchill's influence upon the Grand Alliance dwindled almost to vanishing point. The Soviet Union displayed the icy arrogance it considered appropriate, as paymaster of the vast blood sacrifice necessary to bring Hitler's empire to bay. The United States made plain its intention to determine strategy in the west and invade Normandy in summer 1944-Operation Overlord-as its forces waxed in might while those of Britain waned.
"Up till Overlord," wrote Churchill's private secretary when it was all over, "he saw himself as the supreme authority to whom all military decisions were referred. Now, he is by force of circumstances little more than a spectator." Churchill himself acknowledged this: "Up to July 1944 England had a considerable say in things; after that I was conscious that it was America who made the big decisions." In 1944, the United States produced as many weapons as all the Axis powers together-40 per cent of the entire armaments employed by all the combatants on every front in the Second World War. Tensions grew between Britain's prime minister and America's president: "Roosevelt envied Churchill's genius, and Churchill increasingly envied Roosevelt's power," in the words of the historian John Grigg. The warmth of public exchanges between the two men masked a private coolness, and especially the consequences of Roosevelt's impatience with Churchill, which became ever more marked in the last months of the war.
While Roosevelt's life reflected the highest ideals, he was a much less sentimental and more ruthless man than Churchill. Roosevelt possessed, claims his most recent biographer, "a more perceptive and less romantic view of the world than Churchill." This proposition is justified insofar as Roosevelt recognized that the days of empires were done, while Churchill's heart refused to accept the signals of his brain that it was so. Yet any claim of Roosevelt's superior wisdom becomes hard to sustain convincingly in the light of the president's failure to perceive, as Churchill perceived, the depth of evil which Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union represented. It may be true that the Western allies lacked the military power to prevent the Soviet rape of eastern Europe, but posterity is entitled to wish that Roosevelt had allowed himself to appear less indifferent to it.
The British considered that neither the president nor the U.S. Army Chief of Staff George Marshall, for all his greatness as lead manager of America's war effort, exercised the mastery of strategy that was needed to finish the war quickly. "As [Roosevelt's] grip slackened during the last year of his life," argues one of the best historians of Anglo-American relations at this period, ". . . the President became in some ways a liability in terms of the effective conduct of United States and Allied business . . . his refusal to face the facts concerning his own state of health . . . suggest, not so much heroism, as is usually argued, but irresponsibility and an undue belief in his own indispensability, if not a love of power." Even if this verdict is too harsh and ignores the likelihood that an elected replacement president in January 1945 would have been less impressive than Harry S. Truman, it is hard to dispute the assertion that Roosevelt's judgement was flawed, his grasp upon events visibly slipping, from his 1944 re-election campaign until his death in April the following year.
Yet American vision about the most important strategic decision of the western war, the assault on the continent, had proved superior to that of the British. As late as the winter of 1943-44, Churchill continued to fight a rearguard action for his cherished Mediterranean strategy. He pursued the chimera of penetrating Germany through Italy and Yugoslavia. He remained instinctively anxious to defer an invasion of north-west Europe, which he feared could become a bloodbath reminiscent of the First World War. Painful experience of the limitations of Allied forces against those of the Wehrmacht, the greatest fighting machine the world had ever seen, dogg...
Revue de presse
"Hastings writes with authority, as well as humanity, about the realities of combat--the fear, smells, hunger, humiliation and the horrendous wounds inflicted. His range spans from the lowliest GI crouched in his foxhole in the dread Hurtgen forest to the commanders in charge. . . Every leader contemplating a military operation, for whatever reason, should read this book and take several deep breats. Armageddon is the name of the last stop on the line."--Alistair Horne, The Wall Street Journal
"Hastings does an excellent job of weaving together the war's multiple layers: from the high command and midlevel officers to infantry grunts and confused civilians. Readers get glimpses of the famous and infamous leaders--Churchill, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Hitler, Stalin . . . Rich descriptions of displaced families mix with fascinating details..." --Clint O'Connor, Cleveland Plain Dealer
Praise from Britain for Armageddon by Max Hastings
"Magnificent . . . Armageddon is not so much a narrative history as a series of set-piece sections filled with valuable insights and good judgement. . . Hastings in this grand overview of the end of the Second World War has yet again made a great contribution to our understanding of the period." --Anthony Beevor, The Sunday Telegraph
"Armaggedon is a magesterial history of the last year of the war in Europe and a much needed corrective, delivering firm judgments in crisp prose, its acerbic take on the military history is matched by a war correspondent's compassion for human suffering." --Christopher Silvester, Financial Times
"Masterly survey . . . panoramic... Hastings is exceptionally deft at explaining complicated strategy to the layman." --Craig Brown, The Mail on Sunday
"Gripping . . . Hastings, already a supreme exponent of important arguments in military history to a general readership, finds a new dimension." --Hew Strachan, Sunday Times
"Superb . . . Hastings's writing is a model of thoughtfulness and clarity. He conveys the pain, hunger and indignity of the battlefield with the same glittering precision with which he illuminates the plans and personalities of the commanders. Armageddon is deep and dark with the power to invade your dreams. A master historian is back and at the height of his powers." --Patrick Bishop, Telegraph