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An excellent, balanced, highly readable history of the Second World War
on 27 September 2009
An excellent, well balanced history of the Second World War. Roberts writes extremely well and has a gift for expressing himself concisely, which is just as well considering the scale of his subject. It's not a `new' history in the sense of making any fresh revelations, the few paragraphs drawn from previously unpublished material are interesting but mostly not of great significance, confirming what has been appearing in other recent work. The book is, rather, a welcome new history of the war written in light of the excellent scholarship that has been carried out in recent years. Roberts is much more comfortable with the major issues than with the minor details of how the war was fought, and it is a pity that the publishers did not include a military specialist amongst those checking the drafts. That would have saved Roberts from some pretty basic errors. `Hull-down' does not mean that a tank has its hull pointing down (why would you do that??) it means that the hull is hidden by the terrain or by some other protection while the turret is exposed. The western allies were not so much short of the small landing craft that Roberts describes but of the larger craft - Landing Ship Tanks (LSTs) particularly. The Panzerfaust was not "an anti-tank gun very accurate at short range" but an early RPG.
Does this sort of thing matter? Well, yes, in that if you don't know what you're talking about it is better to either write nothing or to check, which in these instances could easily have been done without going further than Wikipedia. The Panzerfaust was so devastating precisely because it was not a `gun' - that's why it could be mass-produced cheaply and in vast quantities to be effectively used by personnel with little training. It wasn't accurate at all - but at the range at which it was effective the target would have loomed so large that accuracy was not needed. Correctness in detail of this kind matters too in that if you know a little bit about the subject and discover obvious errors as you read, you naturally wonder about the reliability of research that has led to conclusions in the wider, more important areas that you perhaps do not know about. You lose some trust in the writer.
I feel mean in citing these small errors in what overall is a fine book, but there were other mistakes indicating a less than full mastery of his subject at this level of detail. It's worth noting that Max Hastings and Antony Beevor don't make mistakes like this. I would therefore argue with The Economist's view that Roberts is 'Britain's finest military historian', but not with the fact that he's damned good.