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Britain’s War 1937-1941: Into Battle (Oxford University Press), by Daniel Todman

Dec. 29, 2016
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Daniel Todman is no great fan of Winston Churchill. In volume one of his history of Great Britain’s war with the Axis, Todman sketches Churchill as instinctive rather than reasonable, exuberantly unconventional yet imbued with the prejudices of his age, a profoundly undemocratic politician who preferred to govern from smoky backrooms. Todman grants Churchill “a strong and creative imagination” while calling him “prey to peculiar obsessions.” And yet, Churchill’s boundless optimism carried the day at a time when World War II knew no certain victor.

Todman’s magisterial account is less about myth busting than exploring the context in which myths take hold. Of Churchill’s famous “Finest Hour” speech, he reports that most British radio listeners thought he sounded drunk, yet, in essence, they agreed with his message. Likewise, the oft-told story of Germany’s 1940 blitzkrieg through France: for Todman, the Nazi victory was less a matter of superior technology or strategy than the German army’s decentralization of authority by giving field commanders license to improvise. As was the case with Churchill, luck aided their success.

A historian at London’s Queen Mary University, Todman writes for the general public while maintaining scholarly rigor. As the book’s title suggests, he doesn’t begin with the 1939 declaration of war but sets the stage, drawing a panorama of Britain in the ‘30s as the world slid toward war. Less effected by the Great Depression than many other nations, Britain was a country with a growing middle class, prosperity was rising along with expectations of a society where power and wealth would be distributed more fairly.

His account of British society as well as wartime battlefields and strategy is lucid and achieves a good balance of high and low, presenting the perspectives of the voters as well as the politicians, the privates along with the generals. While a book of this scope will always give rise to quibbles, Britain’s War is a successful synthesis of social, political and military history from a time when the world hung in the balance. 

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