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on 2 May 2011
The marketing department at Allen Lane must have loved this book - or at least the title, beyond which point most marketing people in my experience lose all interest. The title - "Britain's War Machine" - probably seem ideally placed to draw from the fathomless well of British interest in everything to do with the Second World War. The title certainly works - it grabbed me. I bought it, hoping to learn more about the logistical and strategically vital economic and technological basis from which Britain fought this war. What I take from it, however, apart from many lists of names and titles, is a redundant claim that Britain was actually much stronger in the 1930s and 1940s than has been said before. Is this 'new'?
Edgerton sets up an Aunt Sally in his Introduction, asserting that "we have all grown up in the shadow of a relentless barrage of what I call declinist histories which indulged in inverted Whiggism, finding past failure to account for present decline...For all the mountains of writing that implied otherwise, Britain has been one of a handful of great scientific, industrial and military powers of the twentieth century and its history needs to be written with that firmly in mind. In this book I do so without troubling the reader with the older declinist picture." This is a bit like switching on the TV to watch a sporting event half way through - if Edgerton is correct, and the prism through which most of us have acquired our understanding of twentieth century British history is wrong, then we need to know how it is wrong, not simply have it asserted that it is wrong. But this statement of his is in any case largely vacuous; surely everyone grew up believing the reverse - that Britain was indeed a great power for much of the twentieth century?
I have problems with the way in which Edgerton sometimes seems to use statistics to suit his need to imply that Britain actually never really struggled during any point in the Second World War. On page 165 he writes that "[British] Losses at seas, while significant, need to be kept in proportion. In 1941, a bad year, 5 per cent of British food imports were lost at sea." It is almost as if he is asking us to adopt the view that, yes, of course, 5 per cent is actually very small, nugatory - almost nothing at all. Yet a moment's reflection will surely result in an entirely different view - 5 per cent losses for a country that is already being squeezed for shipping capacity in all directions is potentially highly damaging. The notion of a 'tipping point', or that it is always at the margins that the delicate balance between lavish supply and starvation can be found, finds no consideration here.
Edgerton's point about shipping not being under any real pressure is in any case undermined by what he writes on page 189, where he considers what Britain would have needed to feed itself during the war: "This would have needed a doubling of the agricultural workforce, to perhaps a million, though it is not clear there was enough land for them to work." The country clearly was unable to feed itself. Even if the worst year saw 'only' 5 per cent shipping losses, that put immense strain on capacity. And who at that time knew for certain that next year it might not be 10 per cent?
Sometimes the problem with this book is that Edgerton does not know where to stop. Thus on page 214 he makes an interesting comparison between "Two hundred Lancasters, roughly the establishment of an RAF group, cost about the same as a single battleship." He then goes on to explore the Lancaster/battleship parallel only to end in banality: "In the air force air crew were at great risk, while the erks at base, the cooks and medics were generally quite safe." The style is relentlessly list-compiling, yet lists are not enough, they must be made to do work. The muddled (and muddied) points he wishes to make are generally lost in a rather dull prose style. He obviously wanted to write an all-encompassing book, but some of the interesting characters who pop up really deserve longer treatment.
Probably the most controversial aspect of his analysis is his assertion that Britain was not inferior to Germany in terms of tanks, self-propelled guns, and other armoured fighting vehicles, either in quantity or quality. He bases himself on a 1959 history of the Royal Tank Regiment by Basil Liddell Hart. Surely there is later and more thoughtful (and perhaps more reliable) scholarly work than this? There is no doubt that British tank production grew fast during the war and the combined Allied forces eventually had many more tanks than the Germans - but in mechanical and fighting quality they always remained inferior, or where they matched the Germans (such as in the Sherman 'Firefly' tank) there were never enough. British memoirs of the war are full of comments about the relative inferiority of the Sherman versus more or less any German tank.
Occasionally the text does not internally cohere. Thus on page 263 we can read that Edward Terrell, a barrister, was awarded £10,000 in 1949 for his invention of plastic armour (an interesting tale this but rather buried), yet two pages later, in a list of those who received awards for their inventions (and the discrepancy in the sums involved is vast, and unexplained by Edgerton) we read that Terrell was awarded £9,500. A trivial point perhaps - but which is true? And are there similar but less obvious slips?
I hate giving a poor rating to a book. So many books appear that are not worth reviewing because they are so bad. The difficulty with a book like this is that it promises a great deal, and the topic is not well covered - so it's worth reviewing, even if ultimately it disappoints. I so wanted to like this, not least because the author's background (founding director of the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine at Imperial College) promised an authoritative insight. But ultimately I think it is a book where preconceptions - that Britain was much stronger than usually imagined, in the build up to and during the early years of the war - got in the way. Edgerton has an axe to grind, but he fails to grind it clearly and sharply, and in any case it really isn't an axe that needs grinding. I am going to read his Warfare State, Britain 1920-1970, and hope - because it is not aimed at a general audience - it is much better.