The first volume of Daniel Todman’s history of Britain at war (reviewed in MHM September 2016) began not in September 1939, nor even in 1938 at Munich and the beginning of the final countdown to war. It began with the coronation of George VI in May 1937 and the debate about how Britain should rearm for war. It ended with Pearl Harbor and Churchill’s trip to Washington to court the US President. I liked it very much, as I do this follow-on.
Todman’s second volume picks up where the first left off and it ends not in 1945, with victory in Europe or Asia, but with the independence of India in 1947. He includes the problems of demobilisation, the violence surrounding the end of empire, and the transition to a new Cold War.
Like the first volume, Britain’s War is not a military history, although the great battles of the war are described in some detail. It is not a political history either, though there is much analysis of political arguments. Nor is it an economic history, although it includes much economics.
It is a combination of all these, in what Todman rightly describes as a history of one country’s experience of a total war. And like the first volume, he draws deeply on the magnificent Mass Observation archives, giving voice throughout his narrative to the ordinary man and woman in the street.
The first few chapters are a powerful reminder of how catastrophic the situation was in the first half of 1942. Although Britain was now fighting a world war with the Soviet Union and the United States as partners, the military situation drifted from one disaster to another. The fall of Singapore was not only evidence of terrible military failure, but also came to symbolise imperial decline. Churchill called it ‘the worst disaster and the biggest capitulation in British history’.
TIME OF DISASTER
Also, there was the ‘Channel Dash’, when three German capital ships and their escorts succeeded in sailing right up the Channel and through the Straits of Dover. British air, naval, and shore defences were appallingly badly coordinated, and this marked another point of national humiliation.
In June 1942, the fall of Tobruk represented yet another calamity. A despairing Churchill demanded of his army chief, ‘Have you not got a single general in that army who can win battles?’
Military fiascos led to political crises and a growing sense in the press and, according to Mass Observation, among many people that Churchill was no longer up to the task of leading the nation. Todman shows how Sir Stafford Cripps emerged as a possible rival, but after two votes of no-confidence had been defeated, his role as unofficial leader of the opposition slowly fell away.
Churchill badly needed a military victory and, of course, in November 1942 finally got one at El Alamein. And with landings in North Africa, the Americans at last began to flex their military muscle – although it still took some time for them to prove militarily effective.
The summit at Casablanca provided a high spot for Britain, as Churchill and the British military leaders largely got their way over the Americans. Britain was in many ways still leader of the Grand Alliance.
But, as American military and industrial might grew, so Britain’s influence waned. Todman is strong on the victory in Tunisia in May 1943, when more Axis prisoners were captured (240,000) than at Stalingrad, and the Luftwaffe was destroyed in the Mediterranean. And he describes the defeat of the U-boat threat in the Atlantic in the spring of 1943 as the single most important victory won by forces under British command in the whole war.
At the centre of his book are three chapters on the experience of fighting the war for the 8 million men and women who served in the armed forces and the 4 million who were drafted into the war factories.
This section ranges from reactions to rationing (mostly positive, as people thought it was a fair system) and the black market (strongly negative) to the reaction to overseas soldiers in Britain (initially Poles, then Italian POWs, and later, of course, Americans, both black and white).
There is much more besides – such as a (frustratingly brief) look at the cinema. Up to 30 million people a week went to the cinema during wartime, and it proved a major opportunity to escape from exhausting and boring work.
The next section, ‘Victory’, feels more familiar, dealing with the great battles from September 1943 (the Salerno landings) onwards. As the editor of the diaries of Alan Brooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Todman is very good on the furious rows Brooke had with Churchill. And there is much fine writing, like the account of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen.
Todman argues that July 1945 was the wrong time for a general election. The war was still raging in the Pacific. Crucial decisions about the future of India were effectively postponed because Churchill would not relax his imperial attitude. Too much was going on for electioneering to fire the imagination.
But, despite the problems of updating the electoral register for the first time since the last election in 1935 and incorporating the service vote, he sees it as a reflection that Britain was a stable, democratic country with its institutions probably strengthened by six years of war (which could not be said of most European nations that summer).
And, of course, the election delivered a monumental shock. Three million working-class voters still cast their ballot for the Conservatives. But it was the lower-middle and professional classes who had been won over by the wartime sense of collectivism, offers of radical post-war reconstruction, and the slogan ‘Let Us Face the Future’. And servicemen and -women voted strongly for Labour.
The result was a landslide of titanic proportions – Labour won 393 seats, Conservatives 213. The Liberals were wiped out as a postwar party, left with just 12 seats. Even Anthony Eden admitted ‘there is much gratitude to W[inston] as a war leader, [but] there is not the same enthusiasm for him as PM of the peace. And who shall say that the British people were wrong in this?’
I am not convinced that Todman’s final section, ‘Resolutions’, covering the two years following the end of the war, really does bring any resolution. The new Labour government launched an avalanche of new policies.
Within 18 months, about a fifth of the economy was brought into the public sector. By the middle of 1947, cable and wireless communications, civil aviation, the coal industry, electricity, the roads, and the railways had all been nationalised. Eighty-three statutes had been passed in Parliament: 1,390 pages of legislation.
It was a monumental achievement. And that was before the establishment of the National Health Service. Meanwhile, internationally, Britain faced a host of problems. In Burma, Indonesia, Greece, Egypt, and Palestine, British troops confronted various forms of nationalist movement and lives were lost.
Todman ends his narrative with British withdrawal from India in the summer of 1947. But this was no endpoint to Britain’s post-war problems. His narrative leaves India in civil war and insoluble Arab-Zionist tensions in Palestine, a situation that would shortly bring about full-scale war there.
Additionally, there was the ongoing transformation from World War to Cold War, with a crisis about to erupt in Berlin. Underlying all was the economic austerity suffered by a nation which was essentially bankrupt and forced to accept tough terms from American financiers to get along.
The book ends with a sterling crisis, the beginnings of the Marshall Plan, and Britain failing to play the leading role in a newly unified Western Europe. Nothing is settled. The consequences of war were still working through. The most frustrating part of this book is its ending.
Todman’s coverage is certainly encyclopaedic, ranging from the role of operational research ‘boffins’ in one chapter to the trauma suffered by night crews in Bomber Command in another; from the volume of shipping needed to sustain Britain’s imports to how the Army helped soldiers whose wives had been unfaithful. He takes a fresh look at so many aspects of the war.
This is a big book, well over 800 pages of text and 100 of notes. And it is the second, concluding volume of Todman’s wartime history. But everyone who is interested in World War II will find something new and something to fascinate in these two volumes.
They are so much more than simple textbooks. They provide narrative history at its best, written with verve and pace throughout, by a leading scholar with lots to say and the ability to communicate it well. Britain’s War is a major achievement and much to be admired.
Review by Taylor Downing
This article was published in the August/September 2020 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.