Liddell Hart's History of the Second World War

published Jan 14, 2005, last modified May 18, 2007

I have just finished reading a book by Captain B.H. Liddell Hart. It's his History of the Second World War. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in warfare. It offers a strategic insight into all the major battles. Why were they fought? How clever or stupid was that? What errors were made in the execution? Which unexpected event made every plan useless? What brilliant moves were made? What would have been better? Here are some general remarks and examples based on that book.


There were lots of opportunities to stop Hitler. Relatively peacefully he captured Austria, Sudetenland and Czecho-Slovakia. The British and French kept hoping after each step that this would be the last one. Chamberlain's motto was: Peace for our time. After Czecho-Slovakia they saw the danger of Hitler invading Poland. Immediately they vowed that they would protect that country. In practice they had no means whatsoever to put meaning to those words. Russia could intervene, but Hitler saw that and started successful negotiations. The sudden strong language from the Western powers forced him to invading Poland or lose face. We know his choice. The Allies didn't realize that they could have easily invaded Western Germany after the invasion of Poland as the bulk of the German forces was massed in the East. Britain and France wanted to keep the Germans in check and keep Eastern Europe out of foreign hands. The result after six years was that Eastern Europe was in the clutches of the only European superpower left: Russia. The Poles that helped liberate Western Europe came home to a country that was to be suppressed for another half century. So much for protection.


Chamberlain was replaced by Churchill, but he didn't handle things so well either in the beginning. At first he wanted to make sure that no coals and steel from Swedish mines could go to Germany. So what did he do, with the help of France? He planned on invading Norway. This would give them the opportunity to secure the Swedish mines. Their excuse was that they would help Finland expel their Russian invaders. In practice they were too late for that. Norway wasn't asked anything. Meanwhile, Hitler didn't really want to invade Norway. But when he found out about the plans, he took Norway by surprise, one day before the Allies would land. Britain and France drew Norway (and Denmark) into the fight.

Something similar happened around the Mediterranean Sea. Churchill decided that the Balkan needed reinforcements. And Greece too. So he sent some small groups that couldn't really make a difference. So Hitler was again provoked into occupying a few other countries that he hadn't planned to invade at all until an English threat arose there. It was Hitler's choice to invade all those countries, but it was the Allies that pushed him.

Dunkirk and after

In May 1940 the onslaught on the West began. The Allies were slow to react and failed to check the German tanks. Simply dropping mines in their path - or even felling trees - would have severely slowed them down. The French could have met this Panzer menace head on with their own tanks, but they were spread out across the front, in 1918 style, guarding infantry. So the German Panzers rushed relatively unopposed to the Channel coast. No one could stop them, except...: Hitler! Several causes have been named. He feared a French counter thrust; the Luftwaffe wanted to defeat the British on the beach by themselves; and Hitler thought Britain would sue for peace after their near escape. Being stubborn, the English wouldn't think of it of course. That could have gone wrong. There were few divisions available for the defence of England. The Battle of Britain could have had grave consequences for the military. And the U-boat war had the possibility of strangling British economy. Britain suffered great losses, but survived.


Meanwhile, the popular General Erwin Rommel headed the Afrika Korps and started beating the British out of North Africa. That front had many faces. The tide of war swung from one side to the other. After a prolonged period of struggle either side would have maybe several dozen tanks. Then reinforcements came and both sides suddenly had hundreds of them. Officially, the Far East (Singapore) was considered more important for Britain, and it should receive reinforcements now that Japan was stirring. But Churchill diverted enormous amounts of material and men to the African scene. On the other side of the hill, Hitler was much more reluctant to supply Rommel with fresh troops, tanks and supplies, as he was about to invade Russia. Throughout the book Liddell Hart tells us that we shouldn't look at the number of divisions on either side, which showed the Allies to be a little ahead. Instead we should look at the number of men and tanks. That usually meant that any idiot could see that Germany was completely lost. But, especially in the case of Rommel's Afrika Korps, the Germans were tough and Rommel was a good general. He understood how to fight with tanks in the desert. When the British had literally ten times as much men, they were only just able to force a German retreat. Or they would split their army up into smaller groups, wide apart, so the Germans could attack one of those groups at roughly equal terms. In short: most of the British commanders didn't handle it very well. Then Montgomery came along. Much can be said against him. He wasted a lot of time, mostly in stockpiling his men. He wasted quite some opportunities for a quick kill. But in his own time, he got the job done, without major errors or setbacks. Hitler suddenly decided to pour more men into Africa. Frustratingly for the Germans, this was far too late. Many men were killed on transport across the Mediterranean Sea, which was by now dominated by the Allied fighters. When they entered Africa, they disembarked in a cramped spot in Tunisia, where they could only delay the German defeat, not avoid it.


In the summer of 1941 America put an oil embargo on Japan. They were joined by England and also the Netherlands, who had lots of oil in the Dutch East Indies. The ban was only to be lifted if Japan retreated their occupying armies from the mainland of Asia, mostly China. This meant a choice between losing face and starting all out war, the same choice that Germany had faced with Poland. Four months later they struck. They didn't give a declaration of war in time, but it would have been foolish of the Allies not to suspect an attack. There was public outcry of course. But let's note a few things. The British Admiral Nelson defeated the Danish fleet without declaration of war. The British had similar plans for the German fleet before the First World War. And when Japan attacked the Russian fleet in 1904 without warning, this was hailed as a masterstroke by their British allies. Much more can be said about the East. Let me just mention the huge naval battles of Midway and Leyte Gulf, where luck, blunders and lack of information decided the outcome.


On June 22nd 1941 the German invasion of Russia was launched. As Liddell Hart says in his epilogue: "They reckoned on meeting 200 divisions, and by mid-August had beaten these. But by then a further 160 had appeared on the scene. By the time these in turn had been overcome, autumn had arrived, and when the Germans pushed on towards Moscow in the mud, they again found fresh armies blocking the route." In short, Russia was simply too vast, as Napoleon could have told them. There were more factors. The great Panzer theorist Guderian wasn't allowed to drive his tanks directly to Moscow without waiting for the infantry. And not only Moscow was targeted, but also Leningrad in the North and the Caucasus and Stalingrad in the South. The extremely long front line was too much for the Germans to hold. Hitler refused any withdrawal to a line more easily held. And that ultimately spelt his doom. All the time at every front early withdrawals were forbidden. Then the Allies would crush the defenders. Then they were forced to withdraw anyway under heavy losses.

In all the Russians did the most heavy fighting. When you look at numbers from the fight in Africa and Italy you get the feeling it is child's play compared to the enormous number of divisions employed on both sides in Russia. Under Zhukov - a very good general, especially at Stalingrad - the Russians pushed the Germans back for hundreds of miles. But during that time the Germans still showed their resilience. Their defence was overall good, their retreats mostly orderly and when possible they continued to strike back. But the situation was doomed.


The Allied landing in Normandy sealed the fate of Nazi-Germany even more, though it took about six weeks to break out of that province. After that it went faster: a month later they were in Paris and a week after that they entered Belgium. Here the advance mostly stopped as the generals, the planners and the logistics weren't prepared for such a fast breakthrough. If they could have continued, the war would have been over much sooner. Now the Germans were given time to prepare their counter stroke: the Battle of the Bulge. This caused quite a stir and made the Allies cautious. But this thrust didn't break through far enough to make a difference. Hitler didn't provide enough divisions for it anyway, as he desperately needed most of them on the Eastern front to meet the Russian onslaught.


The Allies weren't particularly good at negotiating with the enemy. It already started with putting the choice before both Germany and Japan to either lose face or start a war. It didn't end there. When planning to invade French Morocco, there were talks with French generals who they wanted to enlist on the Allied side, but several things went wrong and they ended up fighting the French for a while.

In Italy after Sicily was conquered Mussolini was overthrown by his own people. This provided opportunities for the Allies to push the Germans out quickly with the help of the Italian people, but they only entered Italy six weeks later. The Allies had made it clear that they wanted an unconditional surrender, which hindered any negotiations. The new Italian government wanted to talk. This had to be done secretly so the Germans wouldn't know about it. This was more difficult than expected, because the British ambassador didn't trust his secret key and the American didn't even have any. Meanwhile the Germans acted without delay and had completely taken over control of the country. The opportunity for a fast collapse of the German hold on Italy was lost. Now the advance was much slower than anticipated. The lucky good side to that was that Hitler now felt forced to really try to defend Italy, sending troops there that were badly needed at the Russian front.

The Allies demanded unconditional surrender of the German troops. This had the effect that most Germans, including the generals, didn't want to surrender, as they feared the punishment that would follow. Had the Allies lessened their demands, the war could have been over sooner.

In the East several Japanese, later even the government and the Emperor, had indicated that they wanted peace. Due to several factors negotiations never started in earnest. Most on the allied side only wanted to accept an unconditional surrender, even when it was clear that a lessening of this demand would bring peace sooner. The Japanese economy was in ruins and they had no hope of repelling an Allied landing.

Human toll

Liddell Hart doesn't say anything - as far as I remember - about concentration camps, as that is beyond the scope of the book. He does talk about the strategic bombing by the Germans (Battle of Britain), the British (raids on German cities, mostly in the last two years) and the Americans (two atomic bombs, but also equally devastating attacks with incendiary bombs on several cities in Japan). The bombing of military complexes, factories, fuel dumps, communication and transportation facilities were quite effective - once the bombers got accurate and didn't have to worry about enemy aircraft. But the indiscriminate bombing of people, of cities, were uncalled for. They didn't bring victory closer, not even the atomic bombs. At the end the economies of Germany and Japan were already so badly crippled that defeat was inevitable.