This is a very impressive, very well researched and very well written book, describing the World War II from a perspective very little treated. Although quite familiar with this period of history, I nevertheless learned a lot and saw many things I knew in a completely new light.
Ms Collingham described in her book the policies of production, distribution and consumption of food from 1939 to 1945 in five main fighting powers: United States, United Kingdom, Soviet Union, Third Reich and Japan. Her writing is excellent and this book is as easy to read as if it was a novel. She describes with great precision the deadly "hunger exportation" to the East by the Third Reich in order to feed German population and the huge armed forces. Even more incredible chapter is devoted to Japan, whose leaders didn't hesitate to risk the starvation of their own soldiers in the most distant campaigns (Burma, New Guinea). Hunger in Soviet Union is also described thanks to the effort of research, including sources known since long time ago, but left untreated. Finally, the much more succesful approach of the British and especially the war time boom of farming in United States bring some light in this otherwise extremely shocking and dark story.
Other than the amount of new information I was particularly impressed by the care for details, including the writing of names of people and towns. Being Polish, I couldn't help but notice that in most British and American publications names in Polish are almost always misspelled, even if they are not particularly difficult. In this book, when areas in Nazi occupied Poland are described, I couldn't find even one single error, not even when the good town of Szczebrzeszyn was mentioned - and with this name even we Poles have a lot of trouble...
I believe that this book should be recommended for anybody interested in World War II, for the amount of information it gives, the original and new approach to this period and for the rigourous research which is clearly behind this work.
As for the points which could be IMPROVED, they are few and they do not affect my five stars rating, but I still have to mention them.
The first one concerns the relation between Nazi food policy and the Holocaust. I believe that author should state clearly in the next edition of the book what is her opinion on this topic, because from the reading of this book one can deduce, that extermination of Jews of Europe was in part dictated by the desire of Nazi leaders to get rid of millions of people they were unable to feed. From what I know about history I believe that it would be a false conclusion. For me it is clear that the Holocaust was the result of Hitler's personal decision based on his irrational hatred of Jews and that it would be launched even if there was an abundance of food in Nazi controlled areas. Author does not take a definite position in the book and I think this ambiguity should be lifted - in one way or another - by a more decisive conclusion.
The second weak spot is a contradiction between two chapters describing the situation in Soviet Union during the war. In the chapter "Soviet collapse" on page 226, author concludes that "it was the loss of most fertile agricultural regions to the Germans that made the agricultural crisis so acute. Under these circumstances, collectivization was probably what saved the Soviet Union from spiralling into unsustainable food crisis". I believe that every single word in this statement is false and in another chapter on the same topic "The Soviet Union - Fighting on empty", author actually demonstrates something completely different, namely that the collectivization caused the Soviet agriculture to be completely inefficient even in time of peace.
Further on author also shows that MANY MILLIONS of Soviet citizens living in areas not occupied by Germans died of starvation and malnurishment caused diseases and that even in Moscow (which was not besieged at any moment) there were during war many people who simply died from hunger - which in my opinion is THE DEFINITION of "unsustainable food crisis". Author also clearly shows that what saved Soviet Union from collapse was first the massive food aid send from United States (for Red Army soldiers from 1942 to 1945 the basic food was American "corned beef"). But at least as important was the authorization given to the individuals to cultivate larger personal gardens and parcels, which immediately increased the food production - and therefore it was precisely by temporary SOFTENING of collectivisation that Stalin limited the damage and made sure that starvation killed only millions and not DOZENS OF MILLIONS!
My third remark concerns the points where author adventures herself in the less familiar territory of purely military history of World War II. I believe that for the next edition of this book it could be a good idea if a military historian read the script before publication, because in some places author is clearly mistaken.
I will focus here only on one major error, in the chapter "Starving for Emperor", devoted to Japan. On page 286 author wrote a very definite and very damning sentence: "The concentration on building battleships for the chimerical decisive battle with the United States meant that Japan had neither sufficient shipping nor enough escort vessels to withstand the onslaught (of submarine blocade) when it began in earnest in 1943".
The problem with this sentence is that exactly the contrary happened - after 7 December 1941 Japan didn't order or start the construction of any new battleships. Japan also started the construction of only one heavy (unnamed, second and last of "Ibuki" class) and one light ("Sakawa", fifth and last of "Agano" class) cruiser after Pearl Harbor, both of which were ordered already before the war - but in July 1942 the construction of the former was cancelled and finally only the latter was finished. It is true that in 1942 and 1943 Japanese Navy received 2 new battleships ("Yamato" in December 1941 and "Musashi" in August 1942), 4 aircraft carriers ("Ryuho", "Junyo", "Hiyo" and "Taiho") and 4 light cruisers ("Agano", "Yahagi", "Noshiro" and "Oyodo"), but they were ALL already under construction (or conversion in the case of "Ryuho") BEFORE the war (in the case of battleships "Yamato" and "Musashi" construction began in fact respectively in 1938 and 1939).
The only large surface warships which were ordered after 7 December 1941 were the seven (later reduced to six) carriers of "Unryu" class, of which only THREE were completed ("Unryu", "Amagi" and "Katsuragi"), with three others ("Kasagi", "Aso" and "Ikoma") remaining unfinished on 2 September 1945. Finally, Japan also converted two unfinished large warships (battleship "Shinano" and heavy cruiser "Ibuki") as well as seaplane tenders "Chitose" and "Chiyoda" into aircraft carriers. But even counting with those conversions, that still gives a grand total of only SIX (the conversion of "Ibuki" was never finished) large warships ORDERED and COMPLETED after the beginning of the war - which can hardly be considered as having exhausted the capacity of Japanese shipbuilding.
In fact from the beginning of the war Japanese naval industry focused more and more on merchant vessels and smaller warships destined to escort them (destroyers, destroyer-escorts, frigates, sub-chasers) and the highest priority given to those two areas already in the end of 1942 was so strictly enforced, that even the construction and conversion of some of the ships metioned above was reduced to a sluggish pace. The last three of the precious aircraft carriers of "Unryu" class were never completed, the conversion of unfinished heavy cruiser "Ibuki" into aircraft carrier was still in progress at the end of war and the light cruiser "Sakawa", although ordered in 1939 was commissioned only in November 1944! In the same time, between 1941 and 1945, Japanese Navy received a grand total of 31 destroyers, 32 destroyer-escorts, 187 frigates, 38 subchasers and 17 large minesweepers with anti-sumarine capacity - which gives a total of 305 (three hundred five) anti-submarine ships... And that doesn't even include all kind of ad hoc auxilliaries (like armed trawlers and tugs) and other miscellanous ships (obsolete destroyers, old torpedo boats, patrol ships, minelayers, etc.) pressed into anti-submarine service.
The real reason for Japanese defeat in the battle of sea communication lines was mostly the abysmal failure of Japanese anti-submarine strategy, tactics, training, technology and intelligence gathering - not the supposed fixation on construction of large warships. More can be found on this topic in the extraordinary book by Clay Blair "Silent victory".
Finally, still concerning this statement, the decisive battle with the United States was definitely not chimerical - winning such a battle was in fact the ONLY POSSIBLE STRATEGY for Japan when facing USA. Unable to fight a long war against the allies, Japanese leaders HAD TO force the Americans into a very big naval battle AND win it decisively to break American's will to fight, force USA to negotiate and obtain a satisfying peace. And they ultimately succeded in the first part of their strategy no less than six times - the only problem was that Japanese Navy lost decisively four of those major battles (Midway, Naval Guadalcanal, Marianas and Leyte), obtained a costly draw in another (Coral Sea) and achieved only limited victory in the remaining one (Santa Cruz).
Those three points notwithstanding I still consider this book as a major work and I am going to keep it preciously in my collection.