Thursday, 13 January 2011

The Second World War (Gordon Corrigan)

The Second World War
-Gordon Corrigan

There is a story, attributed to one of Winston Churchill’s political opponents, that says that someone, upon reading Churchill’s history books, exclaimed; “oh look – Winston has written a book about himself and called it The Second World War!”

Reading Corrigan’s largest piece of historical work, I am inclined to proclaim that Gordon Corrigan has written a book about Churchill and called it The Second World War. Throughout the book, Churchill is constantly put down by the author (although he does note some of Churchill’s successes) and treated as a meddling moron. Given that the book claims to be a military history of World War Two, there is a certain amount of cheek in that approach.

Gordon Corrigan is a revisionist historian in the truest possible sense. His earlier book, Mud, Blood and Poppycock, was a well-received piece of work that attempted to destroy many of the myths surrounding World War One – specifically, Britain’s role in the war. The loose sequel, however, was clearly that of a man with a drum to beat – specifically, proving that Churchill was not the great genius that he thought he was. Reading it, I wondered if Corrigan had a personal agenda in attacking Churchill; historians, even revisionist historians, are supposed to attempt to view their subjects dispassionately. Let’s face it; he wasn't writing about Hitler.

The Second World War is an attempt to produce an accessible book covering the entire war. That is not an easy task; the writer will find himself unsure of what to put in and what to leave out, leading to accusations that he didn’t put in the right material or pay the right amount of homage to certain historical figures. Corrigan does provide a good general overview of the conflict, but there are problems with balance. The writer spends as much time on the Battle of Hong Kong (a minor, if embarrassing, British defeat) as he does on the Battle of Poland (the first major encounter between the Germans and an opponent and an event of unquestionable significance.) In general terms, the writer concentrates on British ground forces and spends far less time with the air and naval side of the war. Certain parts of the war – China, for example – are simply glossed over. Other parts are ignored.

The writer attempts to write in a chatty style, including reminisces from his own life as a young (post-war) Ghurkha army officer. Sometimes this works; sometimes this comes across as a man biting away at an undeserving target. Corrigan’s pen drips with scorn for Churchill, Montgomery and various other senior British officers. The only non-British officer who comes in for heavy bashing is Macarthur – and even he gets favourable mentions. The suggestion that Monty was a suppressed homosexual, for example, was a new one for me. This rapidly becomes annoying; Corrigan chooses to make glib comments rather than conduct a proper analysis.

Corrigan’s desire to humiliate Churchill – a pointless exercise as the man died years ago - leads him to make factual mistakes. Churchill was, he claims, willing to override the Chiefs of Staff on a regular basis. He did, in reality, meet staunch resistance – not least from Brooke, who had a will of iron (and was generally fond of Churchill.) Further, Corrigan is unable to understand that Churchill not only lacked the benefit of hindsight – it is easy to say in 2011 that the Allies would win the war – but had to worry about politics. Attacking the French fleet in 1940, a decision Corrigan condemns, was seen very well in the USA. It convinced many that Britain was not about to throw in the towel and seek peace at any price.

This grinding axe leads to many odd points. Corrigan gives Percival, the commanding officer of Singapore, a surprisingly gentle treatment. Yes, Percival didn’t have the resources he needed; that is beyond dispute. At the same time, however, what he did have was sufficient to hold the base for some time (holding it permanently would have been impossible) and military incompetence certainly goes some way towards explaining that disaster.

There are also a number of odder interpretations. Corrigan asserts that no one ever suggested dropping an atomic bomb on Germany because they were white, civilised and Christian – a return to the old myth that dropping the atomic bomb on Japan was a racist decision. Unluckily for that myth, the atomic bomb did not enter service until Germany was effectively defeated and using them on the remains of Germany would have blown up a great many allied troops too – something that blowing up some or all of Japan’s cities would not have done. Had Germany held out for even a month or two longer, the first a-bomb might have been dropped on German soil. In short, although Corrigan does stumble over several genuine controversies, he is largely incapable of doing them full justice.

Reading the book again, there is an underlying claim; the armies of all nations (certainly Britain, Germany and America) were held back by their political masters and prevented from gaining the great victories they could have if they’d been allowed to operate freely. It is an attitude that befits a young army officer, but politics and war are always intermingled and battles are fought for political decisions, not purely for military reasons. Hitler certainly never learned not to meddle. As for Japan, the latitude given to military commanders in the field led to nothing, but disaster.

Corrigan appears to suggest that if he’d been in command of the war, he could have done a much better job. With the benefit of hindsight, he is probably right. Being an alternate historian myself, I know that there were many points in WW2 where a different decision could shorten the war. Even so, the people in WW2 lacked hindsight. They had to operate on the basis of what information they had at the time and it was often lacking.

There are also a number of funny points, mainly – I suspect – because Corrigan has a professional disdain for politics. Hitler’s demands on Poland were far from ‘mild.’ Taking the Polish Corridor would have made the Poles dependent on Germany. Furthermore, Poland’s long history is one where small surrenders led rapidly to partition and the eventual destruction of their country. He professes himself bemused why the Germans – morality aside – started the Holocaust without winning the war first. The answer was that racial war was part of Nazism and Hitler’s devotion to exterminating the Jews prevented him from taking a more practical – if no less evil – stance.

There is much to recommend this book, I should admit. It presents a reasonably comprehensible history of the war and it is often entertaining. On the other hand, the sound of grinding axes drowns out the sensible, sound narrative. Corrigan is after the quick judgement and the glib throwaway, not a sustained and detailed analysis of difficult and controversial times. If you want reasoned criticism, there are far better books. As a general history of World War Two, however, it reads fairly well.


  1. The author makes numerous factual mistakes as well.

    Examples: Pg 63: He says America had an army of 100 divisions in WWII. America never fielded more than 90 (some sources claim 89) & this was a major problem during the campaign in NW Europe; specifically after the attrition suffered in Normamndy & the Battle of the Bulge.

    Pg 65: He calls the Secretary of War the Secretary of Defense. That was not the case until after WWII.

    Pg 67: He states Huey P. Long was the governor of Arkansas. He was in fact, the governor of Louisiana.

    & I am only up to pg 69. I like the way he writes to a certain degree, but mistakes over simple facts as noted above, make me question his grasp of the topic. & as other reviews on the web have stated, he comes across as somewhat arrogant. Probably to be expected from a man of his generation & experience as an officer in the post-colonial British Army.

    1. I suppose by now you have gone past page 69. I got to Pearl Harbor and had to give up. If there are factual mistakes I can detect than there are probably more that i cannot. That, for me, destroys any interest in finishing the book.

  2. I would give the book a grade of C. It is generally quite readable, but he does not back up his claims, for exampe p 573: " was the Jewish Brigade in northern Italy that supervised the herding of Uzbeks in German uniform across the bridge from the British into the Russian zone, where they were shot as they arrived." No footnote on this, and in fact only 93 footnotes in a book of 600 pages.

    I wonder why the public library of Madison, WI bought the book.