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Britain's War Machine: Weapons, Resources and Experts in the Second World War Paperback – 29 Mar 2012

4.2 out of 5 stars 29 customer reviews

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Product details

  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin; First Paperback Edition edition (29 Mar. 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0141026103
  • ISBN-13: 978-0141026107
  • Product Dimensions: 12.7 x 2.2 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 259,125 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


Brilliant and thought-provoking ... There are moments of edgy humour, too ... This remarkable book shows that whatever the reasons for the length of time it took to bring Hitler to heel, the quantity and quality of British war material was not among them (Brendan Simms Sunday Telegraph)

Edgerton's book is a remarkable achievement. He re-envisions Britain's role in World War II and with it Britain's place in modernity. In place of a plucky island standing alone, he gives us a global empire of machines, not a welfare state, but a technocratic warfare state. The period will never look the same again (Adam Tooze, author of The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy)

Consistently lively, stimulating and authoritative (Observer)

Absolutely fascinating. This book will make you think differently about Britain's role in the Second World War (Laurence Rees, author of Auschwitz: The Nazis and The 'Final Solution')

This book has certainly changed my views ... It is a necessary and timely corrective to a great deal of loosely thought-through conventional wisdom, and makes a real contribution to our understanding of the war (Richard Holmes Literary Review)

For too long we have had a distorted view of Britain's position and role in the Second World War. David Edgerton has produced a stunning book that rectifies this misconception, and which is told with authority, clarity and compelling energy (James Holland, author of The Battle of Britain)

An important corrective to the black-and-white portrait of the period that still prevails (Financial Times)

A stimulating exercise in muscular revisionism ... Offers a fresh and provocative view of our much-loved and much-misunderstood "finest hour" (David Reynolds Guardian)

Accessibly written and deserves a wide audience. Above all, Edgerton demonstrates that the war is a subject we haven't yet heard nearly enough about. Britain's War Machine is a considerable achievement (Graham Farmelo Times Higher Education)

Edgerton has excelled himself with this highly revisionist account of Britain's national performance during the Second World War ... an unusually provocative book (Twentieth Century British History, 2011)

Edgerton has written what could prove to be one of the most influential books on the history of the Second World War ... majestic ... [he] has successfully shown us that we still have a lot to learn about the conflict ... it will become the required reading for all students wishing to study the Second World War (Reviews in History)

An astounding work of myth-busting ... Inspiring and unsettling in equal measure (Tom Holland Guardian)

Majestic ... a wonderful read. It has probably popped more myths than any other book on the war in recent years (Taylor Downing History Today)

Brilliant and iconoclastic ... debunks the myth that Britain was militarily and economically weak and intellectually parochial during the 1930s and 1940s (David Blackburn Spectator Book Blog)

Truly eye-opening ... Edgerton's carefully researched book will fundamentally change the way you think about World War II (Daily Beast)

Riveting ... a wonderfully rich book ... thoroughly stimulating (Richard Toye History)

A major new assessment of Britain's war effort from 1939 to 1945. Never again will some of the lazy assessments of how Britain performed over these years ... be acceptable. That's why this is such an important book (History Today)

Innovative and most important (Contemporary Review)

Compelling and engaging ... an excellent read (Soldier)

Edgerton's well-researched volume bursts with data that reveal Britain's true strength even when supposed to be in critical condition (Peter Moreira Military History)

Britain's War Machine offers the boldest revisionist argument that seeks to overturn some of our most treasured assumptions about Britain's role in the war ... Edgerton [is] an economic historian with an army of marshalled facts and figures at his fingertips ... This is truly an eye-opening book that explodes the masochistic myth of poor little Britain, revealing the island as a proud power with the resources needed to fight and win a world war (Nigel Jones Spectator)

Masterful Britain's War Machine promotes the notion that the United Kingdom of the Forties was a superpower, with access to millions of men across the globe, and forming the heart of a global production network (Mail on Sunday)

About the Author

David Edgerton is Hans Rausing Professor at Imperial College London, where he was the founding director of the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine. He is the author of a sequence of groundbreaking books on 20th century Britain: England and the Aeroplane: An Essay on a Militant and Technological Nation; Science, Technology and the British Industrial 'Decline', 1870-1970; and Warfare State: Britain, 1920-1970. He is also the author of the iconoclastic and brilliant The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900

Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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?
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is a good counter to the standard popular histories that posit a weak Britain struggling for survival against a far more powerful and ruthless enemy. This argument is not directed against any "straw man" - only this week Channel 4 television aired a documentary on the DeHavilland Mosquito subtitled "The Plane That Saved Britain". The myth of British weakness is extremely powerful and long-legged, and I doubt that even Edgerton's revisionism will fully eradicate it.

Edgerton has a thorough go at it, nevertheless, and convincingly demonstrates that the British Empire had a negligible chance of being beaten by Nazi Germany and its allies, largely thanks to the material wealth contained within the Empire, and the leverage it maintained over "neutral" suppliers. He also demonstrates that Britain was in many ways more technologically advanced, and had better supplied armed forces, than any of the Axis powers.

I suppose the question that the book begs is why the myth of British weakness and technological inferiority continues to have so much appeal. He suggests at the end of the book that the tendency to blame the standard of equipment for early British defeats deflected blame from the poor performance of the Army themselves - that it exposed their lack of resolve, resourcefulness and tenacity.

In essence, a more competent and powerful Britain must necessarily appear to be a comparatively less heroic one. The British themselves are attached to the myth of their own heroism, and the Americans are attached to the myth of "saving" an otherwise doomed Mother country. Against these irrationalities, the cogent arguments and statistical tables of even the most diligent historian are always going to struggle.
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Format: Paperback
The author very consciously sets out to disprove myths re. the British State and its alleged lack of military preparation for the Second World War and its ability to fight the war.

Some bits are good. As he points out, Britain was not alone in 1940. It had the undefeated Empire to support it. The big disaster was not Dunkirk but the fall of Singapore, economically, as he points out (but politically, too, which he doesn't highlight). He persuasively highlights the immense difficulties of the Germans invading the United Kingdom in the immediate aftermath of the retreat at Dunkirk. The same difficulties applied in 1944 for the Allies, travelling the other way to France.

His book is about the key British politicians - Churchill very much at the helm - the engineers and the scientists who were part of Britain's War Machine. Although the book starts off very promisingly I found myself getting lost in a fog of facts and figures that dilute, rather than reinforce a point he is making. This point is made too by a Three Star Amazon reviewer of the hardback version of the book.

Although he footnotes in twenty two lines (yes: twenty two!) the movements of one ship (in Chapter 7) to make a very small point, he gives virtually no Chapter and Verse and scant footnotes to British chemical warfare preparations, which he briefly mentions. In concluding pages he makes the astounding and unproven assertion that chemical warfare was used on the Eastern front, with no evidence! The expression he uses is 'improvised poison gases'. No evidence, no footnotes!

The 'Improvised poison gases' that this reviewer is aware of were those used by the Russians in their improvised mobile killing wagons - a lesson learnt by the German SS.
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