on 16 October 2013
I found this to be an outstanding history book - it is crisply written, challenges orthodoxy, it is not biased and, above all, it educates. Prof. Buckley has written a first class addition to the WW2 Canon.
Prior to reading this book, I have to say that it always troubled me how often and how intensely the German army continued to receive the sobriquet of "being the best army" in the war yet lost, while the British army, by contrast, has been denigrated quite viciously, yet won where required.
In this book, Prof. Buckley tries, and in my opinion succeeds, in objectively assessing the British Army's performance in Western Europe, post D-Day. His conclusions are that Britain in fact ended the war with a well honed, highly professional army equipped with excellent and innovative tactical skills and an operational doctrine which brought victories, large and small, in varied conditions and terrain against, in many cases, highly organized and motivated opposition.
Prof. Buckley fluently addresses the basic criticisms leveled at the British Army - First, German interpretations of various battles were best served by focusing on the preponderance of resources, air superiority etc of the allies rather than their own tactical and operational weaknesses.... so to state the obvious point, not to have used those resources and the advantages they conferred would have been negligent indeed, and this holds true for all the allies. But what is clear though is that, in most instances, the British managed those resources very effectively.
Second, the British adapted well and fast to tactical situations, Prof. Buckley gives many examples of this as well as examples of the dire consequences if lessons were ignored. As a result the British Army wasn't the hidebound institution that some maintain, and in becoming more "professional" as combat wore on the British replicated the same learning experience as the Americans, a process which was been well addressed in Rick Atkinson's trilogy.
Third, operationally the British, and in reality the allies as a whole, were constrained by what was considered to be acceptable losses, yet for political reasons the Army had to be shown to be doing its bit, especially as the US commitment grew.... the operational doctrine which Montgomery developed was very well suited to this conundrum. It wasn't perfect, and opportunities were lost as a result of either the wrong strategic decisions as with regard to Market Garden / Scheldt Estuary or an overly conservative approach such as that of crossing the Rhine, yet the goal of beating the Germans in fraught and aggressive engagements without the blood letting of the first would war was ultimately very successfully achieved.
Fourth, the British were no slouches in a number of areas - artillery, engineering, medicine, logistics, intelligence to name some, and as Prof Buckley shows this institutional excellence greatly helped the fighting man achieve his goals without the slaughter seen on the Eastern Front.
Prof. Buckley goes into other aspects of the Army's performance in this excellent book, but rarely if ever does he show anything but appropriate critical analysis - I was surprised for example about his rather scathing assessment of Market Garden - I had always considered it to be a glorious failure rather than the end result of operational incompetence. Similarly, he expresses trenchant and cogent views on other operations as well as on specific generals. As a result one never feels like one is reading a eulogy or an apologia.
Which perhaps brings us on to the most interesting underlying question - exactly why had the British Army's reputation slipped so much with revisionist historians? Although perhaps not Prof Buckley's direct conclusion, my own view was that Montgomery, simply by being Montgomery, was largely responsible. There is a strong argument to suggest that he was the foremost Allied Army commander in the Western European Theatre and certainly the most successful and experienced, but he seems to have been a deeply flawed personality in many ways. It is evident he created a highly effective and efficient army, yet at the same time managed to upset and alienate vast swathes of the US and British High commands. As a result, it would appear that the criticism of Montgomery which erupted post war appears to have wrongly flowed through to criticism of the actual army he led, until such point as we were left with the received, but incorrect, wisdoms which Prof. Buckley so ably corrects.
To conclude, whether or not you agree with Prof. Buckley's positions, this really is a must read. Excellent scholarship, a plethora of new ideas to explore and a challenge to conventional thinking all make this a wonderful, stimulating history.