I must confess I have read all of Mr Hastings past offerings concerning the Second World War, finding him to be consistently informative about the conflict that never ends - in publisher's eyes at least. In many ways a Hastings book is like your favourite grey cardigan, you slip it on, finding its feel both reassuring and comfy i.e you know what you will get. It is the same with this book, a general account of WW2 as seen by the grunt at the front or the person slaving away in a labour camp or factory. As ever, the usual suspects get a positive mention; the German army in retreat and Churchill as inspiring war leader. On the other hand, Mr Hastings 'controversial' views on the merits of the Australian armed forces also crop up again - a fact that will probably be picked up by some Aussie newspaper in the future.
Some real gems, however, are also to be found in this book, as Mr Hastings dips into aspects of the conflict often neglected in more precise histories of the war - for instance the partisan war that took place in Yugoslavia. Much of the book also concentrates on the Eastern Front struggle, correct in my view, given that 90% of German war deaths occurred in this theatre of war - a statistic that illustrates where the war was won and lost - although this does not diminish the sacrifices that other people made for freedom.
In short, most of the people who buy this will already be fans of Mr Hastings and thus will not be disappointed. To those who are not, I suggest this is a good starting point.
on 3 November 2011
It is hard to find a narrative theme through a world war lasting for almost six years.
Weighing in at a huge 768 pages All Hell Let Loose certainly isn't a whistle stop tour through the conflict, and it doesn't dwell overlong on any particular areas.
The author himself in the forward says that he has deliberately steered clear of delving too deeply into the subjects of his previous books, so the fall of Berlin, the Overlord landings and the final days of Japan are barely commented on.
His researchers have dug up some interesting accounts, particularly from the Eastern front, and even long serving students of the second world war will find much new in the first person testimonies. This battlefield is firmly at the centre of the book - after all 90 per cent of the German fatalities occurred there and it is in Russia where the war was won and lost.
In a book of this scope one isn't really searching for a single revelation or argument. The conclusions - that the Russians would have won on their own, the Axis war effort was very incompetently run and by far and away the biggest allied contribution to victory was through America's industrial might - have been discussed in much greater depth elsewhere.
I felt that the biggest success of the book was how Hastings managed to convey the brutal indifference which characterised the Russian approach to victory - happily accepting enormous piles of their own dead with unimaginative tactics to eventually wear down the Wehrmacht.
The British don't come out overly well - our `finest hour' was having the courage, bolstered by the rhetoric and bulldog spirit of Winston Churchill, to stay in the war alone in 1940. Otherwise our performance in the Western Desert, the Far East and Italy was dull and plodding and characterised by poor commanders. The RAF and Royal Navy are hailed as by far the most successful services. Perhaps controversially he equates the allowing of millions of deaths in the Indian sub continent from starvation during the war to the treatment by the Germans of their conquered countries. The Germans allowed some to starve so their people would have food. The British did the same, and it is hard to argue with the logic.
Overall, I found All Hell Let loose to be an enjoyable read, and I was pleased, as a Hastings fan, that he didn't go over areas his pervious works covered in too much detail. A very solid history of the Second World War, and I raced through it in pretty quick time.
Do we really need another general history of World War II? In recent years we have seen new studies by Evan Mawdsley, Martin Gilbert and in particular Andrew Roberts excellent populist history "The Storm of War" to name but a few. The years 1939 to 1945 are a very crowded field for historians and yet there is always a warm welcome for an historian of the calibre of Sir Max Hastings, recent chronicler of Churchill as a wartime leader and political commentator. Hastings is a conservative historian but what is interesting about "All hell let loose - the World at War 1939-45" is that employs the approach of producing an history from below drawn from eyewitness accounts of events. Accounts which in turn demonstrate and confirm William Sherman's maxim "that war is all hell" since we see an overwhelming view of very brave participants who are nonetheless generally terrified, demoralized and often beaten into a fossilised torpor. One British solider reflected in a letter to his wife that `I am absolutely fed up with everything. The dirt and filth, the flies - I'm having a hideous time and I wonder why I'm alive'. Another British soldier William Chappell "never ceased to ache for the civilian world from which he had been torn. He missed his home and his friends and bemoaned the loss of his career. His feet hurt, he was `sick of khaki, and all the monotonous, slow, fiddle-de-dee of Army life.' The fatalistic will of Russian soldiers is particularly well described not least the experience of Private Ivanov, of the 70th Army, who wrote despairingly to his family. `I shall never see you again because death, terrible, ruthless and merciless, is going to cut short my young life. Where shall I find strength and courage to live through all this?'
Those who have read Hastings previously on World War II will detect the ongoing preoccupations which he has developed over many years that have gradually become historical orthodoxy. He maintains in all his works that the best troops throughout the course of hostilities were Germans who were nevertheless effectively outdone by the crazed ambitions of a totalitarian monster particularly in sheer lunatic ambition of the Eastern theatre. Even as the German Army swept all in front of it during Operation Barbarossa key Generals like Halder and Hoepner were unnervingly aware that a nation with an almost limitless supply of manpower was stirring. Thus the war was won and lost in Stalin's Russia which despite the unbelievable ineptitude of its own leader particularly in almost destroying the whole of his own officer corps in purges had the crucial element of numbers on its side. This fact was readily accepted by Churchill at the time which in turn and his relationship to "Uncle Joe" has recently been chronicled with great detail by another British historian David Reynolds. Perhaps the most brutal statistic in the whole book is the fact that 750,000 Russians were shot by their own comrades for cowardice, desertion or simply to maintain army discipline, as it turns out this exceeds the total number of British dead in the entire war. The brutality of the Soviet invasion has been captured in a range of books not least Anthony Beevor's epic "Stalingrad" and the central thesis of Hastings book is equally located in the Soviet Union with its "hierarchy of cruelty" elevated beyond all other conflicts.
The sights and the smells of battle also infuse the book and the everyday acts of living are elevated into small horrors in their own right. As Hastings points out "Excretory processes became an obsession. In battlefield conditions, many never made it to a latrine. But as one soldier recalled: `No one said anything about how you smelt, because everyone smelled bad.' At over 700 pages this is a long book and your reviewer deliberately avoided the Kindle edition because of this since there were pages of text that needed to be reread and referred to for continuity purposes. Hastings however has the gift of writing an often-complex story in clear and understandable prose. He also cares deeply about the participants in his history and that humanity and gift for narrative shines through this excellent boo
on 15 May 2012
Most of what is to be said about this book has been said already both in customer and mainstream media reviews.
This is the book Hastings has been building up to write all his life. It is the best single volume WW2 history I have ever read by some distance, and he ties in all the themes and chronology really well. Quite a bit I didn't know as well especially about the brutality of the German/Russian aspect of the conflict. Genuinely peerless. Indeed it is quite possibly the best history book I've ever read. I suspect most people with even a vague interest in WW2 will have already read this, but if not just get it, simple as that.
on 23 October 2013
As someone who was living just outside a Nazi target area at senior school throughout WW2 I suffered little other than a very restricted working class diet during WW2, but was old enough to remember the fear of invasion in 1940 and the somewhat pathetic preparations that were made. Like everyone else I rejoiced in the positive outcome from what is now referred to as the 'Battle of Britain'.
The reality of our position then is revealed by Max Hastings book - yes not something that is new - but presented in a form that is digestible by anyone with reasonable mental stamina. It is a monumental work - although I do realise that it draws extensively on alot of material on other works by the same author.
It leaves me with an appreciation of tha true scale of the potential threat that we faced in 1940, our great good fortune that Hitler turned Eastwards, and the monumental contribution to the defeat of Nazism by the Russians and the Americans too. It also makes me more than ever in awe of the bravery and devotion to duty of our armed forces and those of our Allies.
In present day terms - although this is outside the scope - the scale of our current National significance in conventional armed conflict terms (i.e nuclear weapons apart) is laid bare for all to see.
Since the Japanese conflict was so predominantly an American affair it was difficult for the British public to appreciate what was going on there. But this book shows how that conflict was so often balanced on a knife edge and the tremendous significance of America's industrial effort as well as that of her armed forces. For me that was a real 'eye opener'.
Why then only 4 stars you may ask - the answer is that the text references to places in Russia (and on occasions elsewhere too)
were of little avail unless they appeared on the otherwise excellent maps provided.
But overall I believe that this conveniently sized book should make compelling reading for those who lived through WW2 and that younger people should have at least an understanding of a reality of this conflict to enable them to appreciate how it changed modern history so profoundly and just how lucky Britain was to escape the terror of occupation by a tyranical regime.
At the offered softback price it is a fantstic bargain which should not be missed.
on 10 January 2012
I am not a reader, nor am I that well educated. I have in many ways become a member of the 'zombie nation' and can sit and stare through some plasma screen for hours on end. I had to change. In-keeping with my gadget ways I compromised my subliminal mind and opted for a kindle to appease the button pressing and computer screen fix. I searched for my first book. I wanted it to be something that taught me something. Something that was factual that I thought I should know.
'All Hell Let Loose' is my one and only purchase on my kindle and I will not let myself buy another one until it is read.
Not only in the 10% I have read, (yes the kindle tracks your progress in %ages!), am I glued to the way Mr. Hastings makes this so easy to read but I am fascinated by what I am finally, at 35, learning.
The tales of war and written so cleverly you can see the colour of the blood in the pages. Or in the bombings it is as if smoke is coming up from the book and you can taste the dust. Diagrams of war fronts and how the Germans are slowly getting their strangle hold across central Europe lets you see how huge their army was.
Mr. Hastings brings you right back to the action whenever you find yourself drifting away with attentative references from people's diaries and the like, letting you know how things really were.
This book is not just a fine factual world war two coverall but it is an insight in to how people struggled and coped during this horrific time. Highly recommended for all readers.
This account of World War Two by Max Hastings is a towering work . It is superbly writen and epic in its scope . Why so many reviewers here find it necessary to find some point of detail to correct , or to disagree with some conclusion of Hastings , other than for some minor ego trip on their part I do not know . Just enjoy this book , it is a first-rate read .
on 19 March 2013
What to say about this offering from Mr Hastings.
A weighty tome this purports to be a full history of the experience of WW2 (this was my first kindle download as it was just too heavy to commute with!).
In his preface the author mentions that he will not plagiarise his own work and write about issues he has covered in depth elswhere. All vary proper from this scrupulous author. I have read most of his works on the period: Bomber Command, Das Reich, Overlord (a better book than Beavors D-Day I think), and his works on Germany and Japan in 1944/45.
By leaving these items out of this book it seems unbalanced somehow, and he does not cover off these key areas in other than cursory detail. Some of his books listed above were issued sometime ago so I would have thought the author would have had something fresh to say about these events.
I understand his next book will cover 1914 a period I don't think he has touched in detail before. It will be good to see him attacking new territory rather than raking over the same old same old.
Is there a need for another book on the Second World War? For those yet to read one, this will be a good choice, since it provides a synthesis of more than three decades of investigation, research and writing on this theme. Also, as a journalist, Max Hastings writes in a more engaging style than many academic historians.
Although the chapters trace the facts systematically from the invasion of Poland to the fall of Japan, Hastings's main focus is on human experience. The plentiful, often dramatic and moving photographs are of civilians rather than generals and political leaders. He also quotes movingly from the correspondence of ordinary people whose lives were cut short by the war, from the lieutenant who mused how the experience of commanding a battleship, even if it ended in death, was far more fulfilling than slaving in a dull London office, to the seventeen-year-old boy, begging his mother to do her utmost to get him released from service back into a safe job at home.
Hastings reminds us of the full extent of the war, in which fifteen million Chinese died at the hands of the Japanese, and a surprising range of countries suffered heavy casualties. He points out how the Germans lost far more soldiers to the Russians than to the other Allies, and how the demands made by soldiers for food from the civilian population added to the intense hardship of ordinary people. The unimaginable horror of war, until one has experienced it, the fear, fatalism and futility are demonstrated too powerfully for anyone to overlook. For instance, he describes how soldiers were forced to walk on the faces of dead colleagues squashed into the trench floor.
In what he sees as a just war, Hastings focuses on the fact that it was only partly won, since the price of victory was that Eastern Europe (including the Poland which ironically triggered the debacle), although wrested from Nazi control, remained in Soviet hands at the end. He provides fascinating evidence of Churchill's unrealistic desire to continue the struggle, even using defeated Wehrmacht soldiers, but the Russians simply had too many troops on the ground.
I was interested in the ambivalence of the Imperial subjects in India and the Far East, who only supported the British with reluctance since they knew that a Fascist victory would be even worse.
The one "imbalance" may be relatively too little space given to those who suffered in the Holocaust.
Overall, I am not sure that Hastings provides much that is not already known, but he succeeds in arousing our sympathy and respect for those forced to endure the War. Although he is now turning his attention further back to the First World War, it might be more beneficial if he were to apply his forensic skills to the issues of today, say the crisis in Europe, but perhaps there is a strange comfort in reviewing the past through modern eyes.
on 27 December 2011
Generally speaking, Hastings seems to be fairly sound on the broad issues. If I do have doubts, they arise from the treatment of individual incidents of which I already knew a little.
Take the notorious PQ17 convoy to the Soviet Union. Hastings refers to Captain Broome, the commander of the destroyer flotilla. Why doesn't he mention to the subsequent libel action brought by Broome against the historian David Irvine? The court proceedings threw a much stronger light on events.
Then there is the Arnhem operation. (A health warning. My late father was there, wounded and captured.) Throughout the book we are presented with a picture of German courage and competence, Russian courage and resilience and British, er, readiness to surrender. Hastings records that 200 men of the 1st Airborne had apparently surrendered too easily in Sicily in 1943. He does not tell us that at Arnhem the Waffen SS declared they had never met opposition like it, even on the Eastern front. (In the intervening year the Parachute Regiment had evidently learned.)
Another point about Arnhem. Hastings castigates poor British leadership throughout the war. He rightly highlights Montgomery's (uncharacteristic) impetuosity in launching Market Garden and carelessness in not securing Antwerp. He does not mention Montgomery's abandonment of the 1st Airborne once his blunder had become clear. This caused SS surprise and US outrage.
So, in all, 6/10. Not a bad mark for someone who may be more journalist than historian. Over to other people!