How the Allies Learned to Win the Second World War
London, UK: Headline, 2022
Paperback 352pp RRP: $49.99
Reviewer: Rob Ellis, May 2023
The sub-title of this book states clearly what it is about. In the years leading up to the Second World War few people in both Britain and France knew war was coming, but neither had any plans or doctrines in place for the defeat of Germany. Both the Western Allies were developing defensive strategies, whereas Germany's stance was to re-arm with modern equipment, and with doctrines very different from those of the recent 1914-1918 war.
When war came, both countries faced the same problem – that of moving from a peace-time, under-strength and ill-equipped for 'modern warfare’ military, led by officers who had served in World War One, nearly a generation previously. They were all, from private to field marshal, thinking in terms of a quick war against an enemy they had defeated last time round. They were to find it would not be easy – largely because there was a lack of leadership among both political and military leaders.
But no one man can achieve victory in a war by his own effort. Winning, in war, and in many other fields of human endeavour, it requires the co-ordinated efforts of teams of men, each with skills and knowledge of a particular aspect of war, with the ability to use both from a defined place in that team, and in co-ordination with all the other teams that make up a military force. Each man and each team must be led towards the team's objectives, and the better the leadership, the better the probability of successfully achieving the team goals. It was this capability to lead that Allied generals had to acquire and put into practice.
Mr Murray puts it succinctly: In 1939, many British and French leaders didn't know how to win a war. Before they could, they had to learn to lead and to command their less-experienced subordinates. Later, when catapulted into a war that they would have preferred to avoid, the Americans faced exactly the same problem, on a larger scale, while unwilling to accept guidance from the British and unlikely to accept it from the French, in whom American political leaders had lost confidence.
To show how this was done, the author has selected nine senior officers, seven British and three American, who at least achieved the rank of major general or above, and one who, as a subaltern who made it to the war-temporary rank of captain, and who kept a personal diary of his time as a platoon (and later company) commander during World War 2.
Of the ten officers chosen, nine had served in both World Wars, almost all had been decorated for bravery at least once. Two held command of armoured units, two commanded airborne divisions, and six lead Infantry divisions and armies. One 'peaked' at captain and commanded a company in an elite Regular Army regiment – The King's Own Scottish Borderers.
The one common thread is that all ten were army officers. The other services, Navy, Air and Marine Corps, do not get mentioned, yet these services were also led by officers who faced the same problems as did senior army officers. There are limitations on the author, of both space and time, and to trace the career of any other officer's growth in both knowledge and skills as a leader would do little more than go over the same ground more than once. However, the inclusion of perhaps one Naval Flag Officer and one Air Officer, of senior rank may have rounded out his analysis and conclusions. This is perhaps the only criticism, except that the photographs appear to have been reproduced digitally, and consequently lack clear definition.
This is a book that should be read by all who have an interest in the study of personal leadership and management in either military or corporate areas, as there is much to be learned from it. The actual text is well-written, with a light touch and some wit, and is an easy read.
It appears that this book is Mr Murray's first on a military subject. If this is so, I eagerly await his next.
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.