on 8 April 2005
I had previously read 'Overlord' by Max Hastings and found that he told that story (the battle of Normandy) very well. I read this book in hardback and found that it is similarly well told. As well as the pure facts of the allied & Russian advances and German counter-attacks, Max Hastings adds colour and interest from the personal accounts of many people he has interviewed (I contrast this with Berlin The Downfall - Beevor - which I found too dry in this respect). It also deals well with the problems faced by the allied leaders between themselves.
The book covers the western and eastern fronts and the concentration camps. It does not cover the war through Italy.
One thing I think could be much improved is the maps - there are a few, but not enough (e.g. one per chapter), they are very basic and don't tie in well with the text. There could be many more, illustrating the text, and use colour.
on 22 January 2010
Hastings' 'Armageddon' is one of the best WWII books I've read. Clearly he has undertaken painstaking desk and field research and the results show it. But it is not just the sheer details that make the book shine, it is Hastings' opinions and judgements - however camouflaged - that give the book its deserved plaudits. He does not shirk from telling the unpalatable truths that need airing if the history of the war is to be a full one.
Allied atrocities such as the shooting of German prisoners of war and the strafing of civilians are detailed, as are those by the Germans and Russians. He spends much time on the many episodes of rape by Russian soldiers - it is thought some 2m German women were raped - and clearly has strong views on it without expressing them. He finds time for pity for the German civilian, despite acknowledging the overwhelming case for collective guilt, and sometimes one suspects even for the dogged German soldier, who Hastings rightly describes as the best fighting professional of the war. Similarly he carefully awards professional respect for the Waffen-SS, whilst in no way condoning their sometimes atrocious battlefield behaviour. He reserves much criticism - supported by much evidence - of Montgomery and the American generals, Patton included. But despite Eisenhower's faults as a strategist, Hastings is fullsome in his regard for him as a leader and politician who held together what was becoming a fractious partnership between Great Britain and the USA.
I was surprised at the observation by Hastings that the Allied soldier was a factor in why the war did not end in 1944. All Allied generals wished for a more aggressive fighting man but Hastings explains the psychology of the civilian Allied soldier well and why he sometimes ran away or shirked his duty, and contrasts him with the professional German warrior who generally fought on because in the absence of a German surrender, he had nothing left to lose. But Hastings is critical of the cautious approach of the Allied generals and contrasts it with the penetrating advances by the Soviet armies. He explains this by the fact that the Soviet generals were able to fight much more boldly and aggressively because they cared little for the suffering of their own soldiers, as well as being under much greater pressure from Stalin for rapid victories.
One thing Hastings and various historians do not mention when discussing how long the war could have dragged on if we had not had Enigma intercepts, or greater manpower, or superior economies, or better leadership than the Nazis (which Hastings contemptuously exposes), is the fact that the US had developed the atom bomb. There is no doubt the Americans would have used it on the Germans if it had been ready for it would have saved thousands of lives, just as it did when used on Japan.
This is a fantastic tome and is highly recommended whether for officers and soldiers, historians or the man on the street. Anyone with a profound interest in WWII will find this a highly satisfying read.
on 25 July 2014
This is one of the most shocking books I have ever read. Brought up on 2nd WW films in which the British or Americans were invariably the heroes, having read Churchill's The Second World War, all six volumes, and having known a number of British serving soldiers it now all begins to make sense.
This is nothing like Beevor's Stalingrad, good as that is, but this is the real thing with no punches pulled. It takes you to the front lines in all their horror and is a mastery of strategic oversight. I also know now how some of the 2nd WW officers that I knew considered the whole thing a "cake walk", after the bloody D Day landings, it was because they were not doing the real fighting.
The observation of the military "top brass" is superb, the detail this book goes into is terrific, the mistakes the Anglo-American forces made horrendous, the lack of fighting spirit appalling. If it has done one thing more for me it has explained Putin's current belligerence with the West - OK the USA supplied the materiel but the Russians won the war. Not, at all as we have been brought up to believe, the Allies in the West. History is written by the victor but this rubbishes most of the 2nd WW history I have ever read. The British and Americans come out of this as a bunch of bungling amateurs, awfully nice you know but not really cut out for fighting, whereas the Germans and Russians come out as tough, professional and ruthless.
On the whole it is beautifully written, I have only found one typo, very engaging - you just want to plow on through because each page is a revelation. I read about a serious book a week (OK, War and Peace takes two) but I simply must say this is the best book I have read in a very long time.
This monumental work recounts the Allies' push for Berlin from D-Day onwards, in painstaking detail, the research for which is evident in the acknowledgements and notes at the end of the book. What comes across forcefully is a kind of `everyman' point of view of the astonishing courage, sacrifice and humanity of ordinary people required to do extraordinary things in the face of the kind of monstrous evil that, ordinarily, should defy belief. The equally monumental commission given to Eisenhower in order to procure victory is also stressed, given the sometimes seemingly impossible task of maintaining the Anglo-American alliance in the face of increasingly disuniting tendencies: the monstrous egos of Montgomery and Patton being just the most obvious examples. It is interesting to speculate what the outcome might have been had the axis powers had the benefit of similarly coordinated planning.
In rating the relative accomplishments of all of the armed forces concerned, Hastings, unashamedly reserves first spot on the podium for the forces of Germany, especially, elite groups such as those of the Waffen SS, panzergrenardiers and heavy armoured units. That is not to say that he ignores, or in the least way excuses, the accompanying atrocities they and the ordinary divisions of the Wehrmacht were sometimes guilty of and the sickening minutiae of these and those of the Red Army are outlined in all their horrific detail. The only units of the Western Allies that, in his opinion came close, were elite units such as the British Commandos and the American Parachute regiments, such as the 506th of the 101st Airborne Division, the so-called `Screaming Eagles' made famous by Stephen Ambrose in his sometimes, less than `even-handed' book, Band of Brothers.
This explains he says, the reason why, particularly by comparison to the Red Army, the Allies were decidedly sluggish in terms of the progress they made following the first few weeks after establishing the Normandy beachhead. But he tempers this view by comparing the armies of the Western democracies with those of the totalitarian Nazi and Soviet states who were not so squeamish when it came to killing. Equally, Nazi and Soviet commanders were not `hampered' by the demands of domestic public opinion having nothing with which to comply but the exorbitant and sometimes manic demands of their despotic rulers.
Although the reader is given an outstanding `birds-eye' view of the broad sweep of events the individual's `worm's-eye' view is always also provided by first-hand witness accounts from individuals on all sides of the conflict from fanatical Nazis and Russian peasants to American G.I.s from middle America.
There is one slight caveat: Hastings seemingly dismisses any French involvement in the liberation of their own country and while this was, admittedly, comparatively minor, it still seems to brush aside LeClerc's 2nd French Armoured Division's crucial contributions under the command of Patton, Patch and Hodge at various times. Thus, only 4 stars, I'm afraid!
Otherwise, thoroughly recommended!
...is a very appropriate title for a book about the battle for Germany if ever there was one. Especially at the Eastern Front. Hastings achieves a good balance between the wider picture - embracing the politics and military strategy of the campaign as a whole - with the experience of individuals who were in the thick of the action, whether they are soldiers, civilians, POWs or Hitler's concentration camp victims. This really is a very good book and I recommend it highly. I think this book is complemented particularly well by Norman Davies's "Rising '44: the Battle for Warsaw" and Anthony Beevor's "Berlin: The Downfall", both of which, incidentally, Hastings praises in his acknowledgements at the end of the book.
on 4 September 2013
Some of the more critical reviews of this book point out that the book is too anecdotal to be taken seriously as a (military) history. In the introduction Hasting clearly states that he intends the book to be a portrait, not a history. Also, Hastings is said to recount just those anecdotes that support his idea that had the western allies been more aggressive, the war would have ended sooner. I'm not sure there would be many anecdotes to tell that prove him wrong on this count.
I found the book a well written, properly balanced book, in which the heroism and plight of all concerned is given its due. He does make it abundantly clear whose side he is on, however. So while he cannot but admit to a certain admiration for the Russians' and Germans' fighting skills, which compared rather favourably (not a felicitous word in this context perhaps) with those of the western allies, he also makes no bones about it that the origin lay in the evil determination of their respective leaders, who revelled in the glory of dying for the fatherland (as long as it were others dying for them), a factor distinctly absent in Churchill and Roosevelt.
The anecdotes serve the purpose of giving the people who fought and suffered a voice, an identity, they put flesh on the bones of historical facts, which are often bad enough, but which seldom engage the reader by way of empathy. The fact that quite a few Allied commanders' reputations are put in a different, less positive light than most readers are perhaps used to, is, as far as I am concerned, proof of the fact that Hastings has tried to be as objective as possible. As a disinterested Dutchman, I couldn't detect a bias in favour of either the British or the Americans (Monty's and Patton's inherent weaknesses of character are evenly balanced; Ike comes out of the book as perhaps not the greatest soldier the world has ever seen, but he arguably was the ideal leader for the uneasy partnership between the Brits and the Americans). As such I think Hastings did an admirable job.
There are quite a few annoying typos ("corrected" 2005 paperback edition...), which Hastings obviously cannot be blamed for, but there was one factual glitch concerning Winifred Wagner, the great composer's granddaughter who, to the obvious surprise of an Allied soldier, spoke perfect English. Hastings should have done a little more homework here, for Winifred was an Englishwoman who was married to Wagner's son Siegfried.
Apart from these little niggles, I can heartily recommend the book to those who are not really interested in army movements, military objectives and tactics, and the politics behind decisions, but in the human side of this greatest conflagration the world has ever seen. Well done!
on 23 August 2014
I have read several of Hastings' books, all of them uniformly good, but I think that this is one of his very best. In this book Hastings proves beyond all reasonable doubt General Sherman's statement that war is Hell, and indeed it is. Hastings lets you see the absolute horror of war through the eyes of those who fought it on both sides and from all countries as well as of the civilians who got caught up in it. He is unsparing and many parts will sicken the average civilised person. I think that Hastings is extremely perceptive in his analysis of the civilian and military personnel who were the leaders in the war on both sides. I think he is thoroughly honest and forthright and calls a spade a spade and doesn't care whose toes he trods upon. I have read the negative reviews here and I wholly disagree with them. Those reviewers are, of course, entitled to their opinions. This is not a military history of WWII. Hastings' talk of the battles and troop movements are merely the background for his description of the war from the viewpoint of those who fought it, plus what I consider his excellent analysis of what it all meant. A real five-year work.
on 19 October 2009
Now on my second read and appreciating it just as much. Hastings effortlessly combines the all too often incompetent strategic level view with first hand cameos of what the fighting men experienced personally. Extremely illuminating and Highly recommended.
on 21 January 2005
The detail in this book is phenomenal, one minute you follow small groups of soldiers into battle and feel you are there,
the next you are reading a surgically accurate assessment of the big canvas: the failure to finish Hitler's western armies
Most allied generals come out badly, Montgomery especially.
Max Hastings is scathing about Operation Market Garden, partly on the grounds that it should never have taken place, but
more so on the grounds that Montgomery, in failing to capture the coastline north of Antwerp
when it was undefended, failed to open its vital port facilities, resulting in ever lengthening supply lines.
Worse, when its capture was perceived to be vital, it cost 18,000 casualties, and was not open until early November, by
which time victory in 1944 was no longer a possibility.
He is equally scathing about the necessity of the dreadful battle in the Hurtgen Forest, (so vividly portrayed in the film
"When Trumpets Fade") which has received so little attention in previous histories.
Finally, he is able to show the waning of British influence upon their American allies. This was partly due to the fact that
the UK was running short of manpower, and partly due to Montgomery's constant arrogance, particularly after the Battle of the Bulge.
Nowhere was this loss of influence underlined more clearly than in Eisenhower's personal message to Stalin in March 1945,
stating that Berlin was not a target for his armies.
Churchill's reaction, and Eisenhower's lack of "deference" to it, signalled that in future the US and the USSR would be
the big players.
(Churchill's policies in 1941 had been predicated on the assumption that the US would come to the rescue of a beleaguered
UK, but he failed to realise that they signalled the end of Britain's great power status. Was there an alternative? Probably not.)
Hastings book is also marked by a better balancing of accounts between the Eastern and Western Fronts than has perhaps
previously been the case.
The contrast between the cruelty of the fighting - and the treatment of civilians - is starkly emphasised. The conclusion
is inescapable: no Eastern Front, no victory!
on 18 December 2009
This is a war book with a difference, covering the last eight months of the Second World War in Europe. Unlike most of its peers it a story not just of generals and battles, but of the suffering that goes with modern warfare, and an assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the various armies.
If you want a blow-by-blow account of the various battles of this period, Arnhem, the Oder crossing, the Battle of the Bulge, and lesser known, but no less lethal affairs such as Hurtgen Forest, then this is not the book for you. If you want to get some idea of what it was like to live an fight in northern Europe in the last months of the war, then I can't recommend a better book.
The book makes extensive use of eyewitness accounts from the civilians, soldiers, airmen, and prisoners to build a portrait of suffering that I have rarely previously encountered. As a game designer who has previously had a war game published, I've always worried about the inability of computer games to give an indication of what modern warfare means in human terms. This book brings it home in no uncertain fashion.
The book also makes an interesting assessment of how the different armies fought, and why they fought in the fashion they did. I don't necessarily agree with the conclusions, but I think they represent an important contribution to a debate that deserves more airing. Having said that, there is a definate tendency to preach. Hastings has a very clear set of political views, and in this aspect of the book he is clearly wants his view to prevail. Even so, as long as the reader is aware of this, Hastings' contribution to the debate is very valuable.