World War II Military History Reviews, October 1, 2011

By Daniel K. Blewett

The majority of military history books coming out this fall (many publishing on Veterans Day) are on World War II topics. Fourteen are reviewed below, with more coming in our next issue (LJ 10/15/11), which will cover earlier and later wars as well.

Arthur, Max. Last of the Few: The Battle of Britain in the Words of the Pilots Who Won It. Skyhorse, dist. by Norton. 2011. c.304p. illus. index. ISBN 9781616083083. $24.95. HIST
British oral historian Arthur (Forgotten Voices of the Second World War) has gathered the personal remembrances of many Battle of Britain vets. The recollections are not arranged by veteran (although each memory is attributed) but by the chronology of experience from learning to fly, to signing up, to actual battle experiences. Because the entries are so short, readers will feel that they are missing many more details from each oral history. There are no source notes, but most of these memories evidently come from recorded interviews held by the Imperial War Museum, not just of flying veterans but of ground crew members and radio and warning networks, as well as a few Germans. With many photos of particular veterans in uniform. A chronology and organizational charts would have been nice additions. VERDICT A readable complement to James Holland’s The Battle of Britain, this will reward readers in search of primary sources on the subject.

Douds, Stephen. The Belfast Blitz: The People’s Story. Blackstaff. Oct. 2011. c.174p. illus. index. ISBN 9780856408632. pap. $26.95. HIST
The London Blitz is well-known, but in April and May 1941, this port city of Northern Ireland suffered its own aerial assault from the Luftwaffe, losing at least 1000 people. To mark the 70th anniversary of the Belfast Blitz, Douds (BBC Northern Ireland) has culled over 150 personal remembrances from newspapers, taped interviews, and other archival material. Each piece summons up a particular location and experience, although there is not much big-picture narrative. The story is from the individuals, offering fragments of memory of hiding, running, cleaning up the mess, and trying to survive amid loss. Unfortunately, there are no maps, bibliography, or end notes, but simply a list of names and the sources of their stories in the acknowledgements. VERDICT These witness stories of this lesser-known blitz will especially interest readers of personal war memoirs and of Northern Ireland’s history.

Ford, Brian J. Secret Weapons: Technology, Science & the Race To Win World War II. Osprey. 2011. c.288p. illus. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781849083904. $25.95. HIST
The author of German Secret Weapons (1969) and Allied Secret Weapons (1971) now presents an entirely new book. World War II prompted more scientific and industrial development than any war prior. UK research scientist and journalist Ford pulls together a lot of information to give an overview of tanks, gigantic guns, powerful bombs, and chemical and biological warfare created by all sides, from Germany’s weapons and planes to the Allies’ atomic bomb and early computers. Ford writes with a light touch, providing obscure details as he describes inventing and producing weapons to fulfill a particular need, evaluates their effectiveness, and notes postwar applications of the equipment or techniques (e.g., think microwave ovens and stealth bombers). There’s a chapter on spectacular failures. He sees TV programs about these weapons largely as hype and not accurate. VERDICT With plenty of photos, this will be lots of fun for military history fans, including younger history buffs.

Fritz, Stephen G. Ostkrieg: Hitler’s War of Extermination in the East. Univ. Pr. of Kentucky. Oct. 2011. c.664p. illus. maps. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780813134161. $39.95. HIST
Integrating a variety of factors, Fritz (history, East Tennessee State Univ.; Frontsoldaten: The German Soldier in World War II) writes that the Eastern Front was fiercer than other theaters of war because Hitler saw it as an ideological/racial war that required the physical elimination of Jews, Communists, and Slavs to allow for Lebensraum and the exploitation of resources. He considers the German army as not as innocent as has been portrayed but complicit in the Holocaust and related atrocities; career German officers should have stood up to Hitler. Not based on primary research, this is a synthesis of many secondary sources. Fritz’s aim is to study the German perspective on the Eastern Front, touching on the irony, paradox, and complexity of the war. The führer, who did not always appreciate irony or complexity, is the main actor here. VERDICT Serious readers and specialists will most appreciate this book, owing to its analysis and extensive documentation.

Hammel, Eric. Always Faithful: U.S. Marines in World War II Combat; The 100 Best Photos. Osprey. Oct. 2011. c.208p. designed by Tom Heffron. photogs. ISBN 9781849085380. $40. HIST
This oversized book contains 50 color and 50 black-and-white photos of Marines during the Pacific War. Some of the pictures that military historian Hammel has selected will be familiar, but most are not. All are powerful portraits of war in all its aspects, arranged thematically. Each image takes up one page, with the opposite page presenting a fuzzy enlargement of part of the photo. This seems a waste of space that could have been better used to offer more images for an even greater impact on our emotions as we take in these Marine’s faces and the hellish days they lived through or died from. Hammel, a well-known historian of Marine operations, is correct when he writes in his Introduction that the photos speak for themselves. VERDICT For World War II history buffs who prefer a visual approach.

Hitler’s Armies: A History of the German War Machine 1939‚ 45. Osprey. Oct. 2011. c.424p. ed. by Chris McNab. illus. maps. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781849086479. $40. HIST
This is a repackaging of 13 illustrated Osprey softcovers by a number of authors into one sturdy volume ideal for library use. McNab edits the books into one chronological text covering the organization, tactics, equipment, weapons, campaigns, and operations of the Nazi land forces. VERDICT A good book for World War II collections in high school and public libraries. (Index not seen.)

Milton, Giles. The Boy Who Went to War: The Story of a Reluctant German Soldier in WW II. Thomas Dunne: St. Martin’s. Oct. 2011. c.320p. photogs. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780312590796. $25.99. HIST
One of the millions of ordinary people whose lives were warped and stolen by the war, Wolfram A√Øchele served Germany’s National Labor Force in the Ukraine then was assigned to a unit in Normandy, where he surrendered to Americans and was sent to a POW camp in Oklahoma. British author Milton (Nathaniel’s Nutmeg: Or the True and Incredible Adventure of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History), who is married to Wolfram’s daughter, tells three main stories here: of Wolfram, who became an artist in Paris after the war, of Wolfram’s friend Rodi’s wartime experiences, and of Wolfram’s family struggling through life under Allied bombing in 1945. VERDICT The narratives of everyday wartime survival by ordinary German families are what make this a distinctive book for those interested in history told through personal experiences. (Photos not seen.)

Murray, Sylvie with commentary by Robert D. Johnston. Writing World War II: A Student’s Guide. Hill & Wang: Farrar. 2011. c.208p. index. ISBN 9780809085491. pap. $15.95. HIST
Murray (history, Univ. of the Fraser Valley, B.C.) examines primary and secondary works to show how writers on World War II have made choices in selecting and presenting information. To show alternative ways of looking at the war, she covers three subjects‚ before Pearl Harbor, government efforts to maintain a fighting spirit, and personal experiences of the war‚ evaluating how particular authors utilized certain resources for a specific interpretation. In other words, there is no One True Story, and generalities such as the Greatest Generation and nationalist approaches to World War II history may instead be mere myth making. Murray reminds us that variations and viewpoints abound, that history, like life, is complicated and messy. Johnston (history, Univ. of Illinois‚ Chicago) provides expert commentary on the author’s criticisms. VERDICT An instructive choice for those teaching, writing, or studying history, whether or not specifically World War II.

Nez, Chester with Judith Schiess Avila. Code Talker. Berkley Caliber: Penguin. 2011. c.320p. photogs. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780425244234. $26.95. HIST
While the Japanese could figure out many World War II American codes and transmissions, they could not crack the Navajo Code Talkers. Nez was one of the original Code Talkers serving with the Marines. Here, with Avila (New Mexico Endowment for the Humanities Chautauqua Program), a Code Talker scholar, he tells of a hard New Mexico childhood in the Great Depression; the discrimination against Native Americans; how the code was developed from a language with no written background; his dangerous wartime experiences on Guadalcanal, Bougainville, Guam, and Peleliu; and his postwar life. The big picture of the Pacific Campaign is only selectively mentioned; instead there’s lots of detail of personal effort, suffering, and boredom, summoning the true flavor of the war and a portrait of those who made a valuable contribution to the war effort. The appendix is a 1945 Navajo Code Talkers Dictionary from the U.S. Navy, also available online. VERDICT Accessible and compelling, this is recommended for general readers as well as World War II history buffs.

Reid, Anna. Leningrad: The Epic Seige of World War II, 1941‚ 1944. Walker. 2011. c.512p. photogs. maps. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780802715944. $30. HIST
Some 750,000 people of Leningrad died, primarily of starvation, during Hitler’s two and a half year siege of the city, the deadliest siege in history. For the core of her book, Reid (The Shaman’s Coat: A Native History of Siberia) accesses diaries of and interviews (many previously unavailable) with those who suffered. She focuses on the coldest and deadliest months of the winter of 1941‚ 42 and also includes select German accounts for a view from the other side. Reid shows how human willpower triumphed in a desperate situation. Leningrad did not collapse, despite Hitler’s desire to erase it and cruel Soviet mismanagement and oppression. The mental strain among the survivors was perhaps greater than the physical toll. VERDICT Especially well researched in Russian sources, this is an agonizing tale that belongs alongside Harrison Salisbury’s classic The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad. (Maps, photos, and index not seen.)

Rickard, John Nelson. Advance and Destroy: Patton as Commander in the Bulge. Univ. Pr. of Kentucky. (American Warriors). Oct. 2011. c.472p. illus. maps. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780813134550. $34.95. HIST
This is a detailed operational study of Patton’s Third Army during the German counter-offensive in the Winter of 1944‚ 45, Patton’s finest hour. In this sequel to his Patton at Bay, Rickard examines Patton’s decisions based on what was known at the time, force levels in action on both sides, terrain, weather, and directions from Eisenhower and Bradley. Patton successfully shifted the direction of his army and relieved the troops besieged in Bastogne. Rickard assesses Patton’s command style as inspiring at the personal level. While Patton did make some mistakes, overall he is judged in this well-documented book as very effective tactically, given the difficult circumstances. VERDICT For specialists, who will love the detailed discussions of formations and fighting and the critical analysis of a complex battle. With excellent appendixes. (Index not seen.)

Symonds, Craig L. The Battle of Midway. Oxford Univ. (Pivotal Moments in American History). Oct. 2011. c.464p. photogs. maps. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780195397932. $27.95. HIST
History’s second aircraft carrier battle certainly deserves a place in this Pivotal Moments series. Through expert analysis of the details behind the battle, Symonds (history, emeritus, U.S. Naval Academy; Decision at Sea) illuminates American commanders’ errors that could have lost the battle, and which were later downplayed. Japanese overconfidence and American cryptographic intelligence and luck proved decisive. VERDICT Well documented through interviews, official records, and secondary sources, the book will show readers that Midway was, as Wellington would have said, a close-run thing. General military history enthusiasts will be fascinated, and specialists will revel in the careful dissection of the action.

Weintraub, Stanley. Pearl Harbor Christmas: A World at War, December 1941. Da Capo. Dec. 2011. c.224p. photogs. ISBN 9780306820618. $24. HIST
Prolific historian Weintraub (Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce) again ties an epic piece of history to its holiday season. The period immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, when the country was still in shock, has not been well covered. The primary story here is of Prime Minister Churchill sailing across the U-boat-infested North Atlantic to confer with President Roosevelt to map out the general strategy that would win the war. Americans were finding it hard to transition to a wartime status: there were still traditional celebrations, such as the lighting of the national Christmas tree, despite new blackout regulations. This is a more human World War II book, not of policy details, but of people trying to figure out how to proceed, with the focus on two titans of the Western Alliance (who both enjoyed a good smoke and a drink). VERDICT A chronology and maps would be helpful, but this stirring book is recommended for all history buffs and general readers interested in this human‚ and holiday‚ take on the war.

Yeide, Harry. Fighting Patton: George S. Patton Jr. Through the Eyes of His Enemies. Zenith. 2011. c.528p. photogs. maps. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780760341285. $30. HIST
This book offers a detailed perspective on the German and Italian armies as they worked with smaller forces and crippling shortages to counter Patton. Yeide (The Tank Killers: A History of America’s World War II Tank Destroyer Force) deepens the story by describing the military background of the commanders, e.g., in World War I and the interwar years, as well as their actions early in the war before facing Patton. VERDICT Well documented from official reports and personal accounts and with extensive endnotes. Useful for its perspective from the other side, for both interested general readers and specialists. (Index and photos not seen.)

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