The Allies Strike Back, 1941-1943
The War in the West, Volume Two
Atlantic Monthly Press, New York, 2017, 720 pages
Book Review published on: February 23, 2018
With movies such as Darkest Hour (2017) and Dunkirk (2017) garnering attention for their gripping portrayals of Great Britain’s bleakest days in World War II, The Allies Strike Back serves as a natural sequel as it tells the story of the subsequent turning point in the European theater of operations. While written in an easy-to-read style so that novices to this time period can digest it, readers well versed in World War II will likely learn a few things. James Holland’s writing is wide-ranging in some ways, not only focusing on the major political, economic, and military strategic issues but also the operational, tactical, and personal perspectives of the participants both at the front and also at home. Regarding other topics, he is narrower in his treatment; while the Russian Front and the Pacific War are mentioned, Holland deliberately confines his tale to Western Europe. This is no mere exercise in dramatic storytelling; he informs the reader in his introduction that he hopes to “alter long-held views of the war” from the period of May 1941 to May 1943.
And so Holland does, particularly regarding a number of myths perpetuated in popular histories. For example, Britain has long been excoriated for not rearming its land forces prior to the war. Holland demonstrates why this could not be done given the mood of the public, competing requirements for the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, and a very logical British reliance on French landpower. He also focuses on what had gone right that buoyed British determination to stick it out, even after the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk and the subsequent fall of France in June 1940.
A major part of The Allies Strike Back deals with war economics and contains a few surprises for those not deeply immersed in the historical record. British agricultural reorganization reaped a significantly improved harvest of foodstuffs in 1941, going a long way toward mitigating the strategic impact of the U-boat offensive that year. In attacking the Soviet Union, Germany had cut itself off from significant food, raw materials, and energy imports that it would need if the war could not be won quickly. Holland makes it very clear at the outset of his book that by mid-1941, “Germany’s future hung by a string,” contradicting the commonly held perceptions that Allied fortunes in Europe only began to look up after Pearl Harbor and the German defeat in front of Moscow that December.
As someone who considers himself well read in World War II history, this reviewer was pleasantly surprised to discover how much he did not know, and, moreover, how much of what he thought he knew was simply not true. This second volume in Holland’s trilogy is even better than his first, The Rise of Germany, for this reason. It is a fascinating story of how the fortunes of war changed in obvious—and particularly not so obvious—ways, so that the eventual outcome was no longer in doubt by late spring in 1943.
The Allies Strike Back is certainly a long read, but an easy one, given the author’s flair for exciting writing. The text is adequately supported with a series of well-rendered black-and-white maps, indispensable in following the military action. The appendices contain statistical tables and a much-appreciated timeline of the major actions for the period. Holland has done well in writing a thoroughly researched and very accessible account of this phase of the World War II in the West.
Book Review written by: Col. Eric M. Walters, U.S. Marine Corps, Retired, Fort Lee, Virginia