Blood and Ruins
The Great Imperial War 1931 - 1945
Melbourne: Penguin (Allen Lane imprint), 2021
Hardback 1040pp RRP $75.00
Reviewer: Robert Dixon, June 2023
Blood and Ruins is written by a renowned historian of the Second World War and is, in my view, the best one-volume history of the war yet written, especially in relation to the war in Europe, North Africa and in South and East Asia. The author, Richard Overy, is a Professor of History at the University of Exeter and will be well-known as a result of his many books on World War 2 and his appearance in TV documentaries covering specific topics such as Hitler, Goering, the Air War, the Economy in the Third Reich and The Origins of the Second World War. He is clearly well placed to write a history of wars in the period he has chosen to cover, 1931 – 1945. This is a rather long book (878 pages excluding the very extensive notes and bibliography) but, as the author makes clear in the Introduction, it is conveniently divided into two parts.
The first part of the book is made up of four chapters exploring his ‘grand theme’ that the war must be viewed as an effort of three rising powers with imperial aspirations—Germany, Italy, and Japan—to gain new territory in continental Europe, the Mediterranean basin and in both East and Southeast Asia. This part takes up one-third of the book. Two of these chapters (accounting for over one-quarter of the book), describe in some detail events as they unfolded between 1940 and 1945 and it is in these chapters that we find relatively lengthy descriptions of what the author believes are the three key battles of the war: El Alamein, Guadalcanal and Stalingrad (but he does not limit his attention to these three battles, far from it). It is also in these chapters that Overy recasts the way in which we should view the Second World War, and especially its origins and its aftermath. Standard accounts explain the Second World War as a military reaction by peace-loving nations to the imperial ambitions of Hitler and Mussolini in Europe and the Japanese military in Asia and the Pacific. These accounts tend to neglect the political, economic, social and cultural context of war, and rarely incorporate into their accounts the violence that continued long after the formal end to hostilities in 1945 (the book ends with examination of the Korean War).
Overy contends that proper sense cannot be made of the Second World War and its consequences without understanding the broader historical forces that generated years of social, political and international instability worldwide from the opening decades of the 20th century, and which eventually prompted the Axis states to undertake programs of imperial territorial conquest. He argues that this was the 'great imperial war', a violent end to almost a century of global imperial expansion which reached its peak in the 1930s and early 1940s, before descending into the largest and costliest war in human history and the end, after 1945, of all territorial empires (excepting the USSR). Thinking along these lines yields a number of new propositions. First, that the conventional chronology of the war is no longer useful. The warfare between 1939 and 1945 must provide the heart of the narrative, but the history of the conflict goes back at least to the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in 1931 and forward to the insurgencies and civil wars prompted by the war, but unresolved in 1945. Secondly, that the war in Asia and its consequences were as important to the creation of the post-war world and the unravelling of the colonial empires as the defeat of Germany in Europe, arguably more so. Thirdly, that the Allies (and especially Britain, under Churchill), despite their rhetoric, were fighting more to protect and recover their empires than to introduce democracy and self-determination for their many subjects.
The second part, making up the other two-thirds of the book, is best seen as a reference Encyclopedia covering in some detail a very large number of specific topics which are often explored using a comparative approach. Examples of topics covered here are: Mobilising human and other resources; importance of women in civilian and military activities; military transformation in armoured capability and ground support aviation and in the doctrine linking the two; evolution of anti-tank weapons; radio and radar; intelligence and deception; blockades and bombing; How did the different states justify the war?; pacifism; civil defence; the many faces of wartime resistance; war crimes and punishment; gender violence and war; violating the laws and customs of war; race crimes; resistance of the Jews; maintaining morale; Bond drives, price controls and rationing; leasing and lending; problems maintaining food supply (with attention being given to war-time famines in Greece, China, Bengal and French Indochina which resulted in over seven million deaths).
The two parts of the book are sufficiently distinct that one can read any of the topics in the second part of the book without having read the chapters in the first part of the book and vice-versa. The length of the book is such that it might be best seen as a work of reference to be ‘dipped into’ rather than something to be read as we might read a novel, ‘from cover to cover’.
An Australian reader will obviously be interested in what the author has to say about such campaigns as: (i) the Siege of Tobruk - this eight-month siege marked the first major setback for the Axis forces in the North Africa Campaign not least because the capture of Tobruk was essential if the Axis forces were to take Alexandria and Suez; (ii) the Battle of Milne Bay – this was the first major battle of the war in the Pacific in which Allied troops decisively defeated Japanese land forces who were forced to withdraw completely and abandon their strategic objective; (iii) the Battle of the Coral Sea - the first ever naval action in which the opposing fleets neither saw nor attacked each other with naval gunfire, instead attacking each other over the horizon with carrier-borne aircraft, and; (iv) the Battle of Midway - a decisive victory for the US Navy and a major turning point in the War in the Pacific as the Japanese lost four carriers and more than 200 of their most experienced pilots.
With regard to all four battles the book is deficient in one way or another. To begin with the Battle of Milne Bay is not mentioned at all, not even a sentence or two. I think this is odd given its ‘historical’ significance’ mentioned above. Although the Battle of the Coral Sea does get a very brief mention (Overy writes on p 181 of the book ‘an effort to occupy Port Moresby … was only turned back when a Japanese carrier was sunk and another damaged by two American carriers in the Battle of the Coral Sea’), Overy omits to mention that during the battle one of the US Navy’s carriers (the Lexington) was sunk. This a strange omission as given the balance of naval forces at the time this left the US Pacific Fleet with only three carriers and even then one of those (Yorktown) was battle damaged and in need of repairs. On top of that there is no mention of the ‘historical significance’ of the battle, as stated above. Surely, even if the Battle of the Coral Sea could not be said to have the same standing as Midway in shaping the final outcome of the war in the Pacific, it is, none-the-less, a battle of historical significance?
The siege of Tobruk is mentioned a number of times - for example the reader is told (p 139) that on 8 April 1941 the town was besieged by Rommel and (on p 240f) that in June 1942 ‘Rommel stormed Tobruk’ capturing essential supplies and taking around 33,000 prisoners. However there is no mention of the defence of Tobruk itself as a military operation or campaign in its own right. As a result there is no mention of Morshead’s strategy of defence in depth and his emphasis on conducting offensive operations when these were possible consistent with his doctrine that ‘we should make no-man's land our land’. Further, there is no explicit discussion of the contribution of the siege to Allied success in North Africa (at least to the failure of Rommel to take Alexandria and Suez). As well as this error of omission, Overy also makes an error of commission in relation to Tobruk. In the one place where he remarks (at least implicitly) on the significance of the siege, Overy implies that it did not make a significant contribution to Allied success in North Africa. He writes (p 254) ‘The capture of Tobruk [by Axis forces in June 1942] … provided little relief to Rommel’s supply problems because the port could handle only 10,000 tons of cargo a month … when the axis armies needed 100,000 tons of cargo a month’ [my emphasis]. I have a number of problems with this. First, it is not obvious to me that preventing 1/10th of the required supplies from being landed at a port much closer to the front lines than Tripoli and Benghazi contribute only a ‘little’ to Rommel’s supply problems. But, more importantly, Overy makes a mistake when he reports a figure of 10,000 tons for the amount of cargo the port could handle a month. He refers to pages 218f of a book by Niall Barr titled Pendulum of War (Jonathan Cape, 2004) as the source of his 10,000 tons claim, but this is not what Barr says. Barr (p 218f) writes that ‘Tobruk could not process more than 20,000 tons of supplies out of the 100,000 tons needed every month’ [my emphasis]. I put it to the reader that preventing 1/5th of the needed supplies from being landed at a port so close to the front lines does not contribute only a ‘little’ to Rommel’s supply problems. Besides this, it should be noted that the successful defence of Tobruk contributed in other ways to Allied victory. One purpose served by preventing the Axis forces from taking Tobruk at the beginning of the siege was to provide time for defences on the Egyptian frontier to be prepared. Another purpose was to force Rommel to divert forces that could otherwise be used in the front line to instead be used to besiege Tobruk.
While close to one page of the book is devoted to a description of the Battle of Midway Overy dismisses claims that it was a significant strategic victory for the US Navy. He writes (p 239) that ‘The Battle of Midway … has always be seen as a turning point, but for all the intense drama of the day and the severe Japanese losses, it was less than that [as] Japan still had a formidable surface and submarine fleet’. I find this hard to follow. A surface fleet without adequate and integrated air cover (and/or an air cover lacking experienced aircrew) surely cannot be described as ‘formidable’ as it is restricted to operating in waters within range of land-based aircraft. Also, Japan’s submarine force was so small and played such an insignificant role that I don’t think the word ‘formidable’ is appropriate here either. Japanese naval doctrine did not see submarines as an important and strategic weapon in their own right and nor were they envisaged as operating independently of the fleet. This is in marked contrast to the role of submarines as seen by Germany and the USA.
One final comment. The list of Contents at the front of the book gives only the titles of the eleven chapters and at least one of these, ‘The Emotional Geography of War’, is hardly self-explanatory. The reader would be better served if the four or five section headings which appear in each chapter were also listed in the Table of Contents. This would help the reader better understand what each chapter is covering.
The book has an extremely comprehensive 34-page Index, over 78 pages of Notes, six tables and nine very informative and easy-to-read maps (two of which cover East Asia and the Pacific). Understandably given the amount of the text, the font size is small (10 pt). There are fifteen well-chosen but low-quality illustrations, one of which stands out for its composition (it is a first-rate example of the photographer’s art) and for evoking role of women in war production – the caption reads ‘A woman worker checks the dorsal fins of the US Boeing B-29 bomber’. A copy of the image may be found at Image of WORLD WAR II: AIRCRAFT. - Dorsal Fins For Boeing B-29 Superfortress Bomber Aircrafts In The Boeing Plant At Renton, Washington, C1944. From Granger - Historical Picture Archive.
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.