All Hell Let Loose (Max Hastings)

I wrote a wide ranging piece on Max Hastings latest historical narrative earlier this year, discussing the segments aimed towards Ireland’s neutrality in the Second World War. As promised, I’ve finally gotten round to reviewing it properly.

All Hell Let Loose is Hastings attempt at covering the total history of World War Two, beyond the specific vision of several of his earlier books. In doing so he has decided to focus largely on the stories of individuals within the great crisis, set within a basic chronological approach to the conflict as a whole.

Hastings has written an incredibly comprehensive book, that covers just about every aspect of the conflict, from the well known battles and campaigns, to the lesser known skirmishes and background events. Hastings brings a sort of life and vigour to what is a very overdone subject matter.

This is nothing that other authors have not achieved, but Hastings has a way with words and narrative flair that makes for an enthralling read over a path well travelled. This is the story of a war told from the perspectives of those that fought it, politicked during it, supplied it, lived through it and died in it. Hastings is able to meld his own analysis and commentary pretty seamlessly with the first-hand accounts he has been able to unearth and bring to light, with a language that is both accessible to the layman and interesting to the expert.

The human stories that Hasting relates are the core, evoking emotions of horror, pity, scorn and respect in equal measure. Some examples will suffice to make the point: the awful experience of Asian “comfort women” serving the military of Japan, perhaps better at making the point regards Japan’s war crimes then any diatribe about the massacre of Nanking. The rock and roll lifestyle of RAF pilots throughout the war, a flashy cover to an extremely dangerous, depressing and too often fatal profession. The citizens of Leningrad, who begin to turn on the party faithful who dine well while they starve. The pitiful image of a frozen German soldier, deliberating burning his hands on a stove in a deranged attempt to get warm in Russia.

This is All Hell Let Loose’s great strength, the individual characters it is able to bring to life, letting them tell the nuances of the story while Hastings limits himself and his own narrative to the larger events. But I suppose it is also a sort of weakness too, as such a microscopic view of certain aspects, especially colonial affairs in Britain’s empire during the war, presents a viewpoint that might not be as clear cut as Hastings imagines it to be. It is easy to skew things in a certain direction and provoke the desired reaction in the reader if you choose to push only a handful of personal accounts to the fore.

Related to that is the poor grasp of some subjects that Hastings displays, which I already covered in regards to Ireland. If he got that so monumentally wrong, consciously or not, the danger is that the same problem is repeated elsewhere in the text. There are certain instances and comments that will raise eyebrows, where one might wonder whether Hastings would have been better off saying nothing at all.

And it is long winded. It is enjoyable to read certainly, but it is a large book where Hastings takes his time over certain aspects of the war, especially the Eastern Front, the war in south-east Asia and non-military activities. The war in Europe ends alarmingly fast in Hastings narrative, with the majority of the text devoted to the period of 1939-43, especially in terms of the European fight.

All Hell Let Loose is also concerned, perhaps overly concerned, with the dispelling of “myths” of the war. For example, Hastings spends much time talking about the apparent disregard Britain and France had for Poling in 1939, the political and social dissension within Britain during the war, the amount of war crimes that were carried out by the Allies throughout the duration. The thing is, none of what Hastings says on those kind of scores in unknown or especially surprising to anyone who has studied the war in any detail and betrays an over enthusiasm for “debunking” and going against the grain more than anything else.

O the more notable points Hastings makes, some immediately caught my attention:

He is unrelenting critical of the British administration outside of the country, devoting large amounts of space to the failures in south-east Asia, India and Africa. The depiction of an outright racist organisation, that arrogantly assumed victory would be a foregone conclusion then ran for the hills is startling, not least for the manner in which it explodes the notion of colonial feudalism – that the people of the colonies would serve the British as a lower class in return for protection and sound leadership. From the headlong retreat in the early days of Japanese offensives, to the anarchy in India, to the famine in Bengal, Hastings succeeds in laying a huge amount of awful acts at the feet of the British government, more concerned with what was, more or less, a sideshow of a campaign in North Africa then actually feeding the people they continued to consider subjects of the British Empire. The “mother-nation” failed many of its charges completely, and the collapse of the Empire in the aftermath was the reward.

Hastings, like most of the more modern historians, writes mostly on the Eastern Front, which was where the war was decided. This was warfare at its most bestial, most ruthless, most awful. Hastings is to be commended for unearthing as many first-hand accounts from Soviet peasantry as he could, considering the problems that have arisen finding such accounts in the past.

Hastings is surprisingly critical of the German armed forces in terms of their combat performance, something you don’t often here from historians. Everything above the tactical level is brought in for severe criticism, for waste of resources and cluttered command structures. It is good to hear a different viewpoint occasionally, this one indicating that the German army up to 1941 benefited from a great degree of luck in the opponents they faced on the battlefield, allowing what may not have been such an amazing ground force to outmanoeuvre armies led by idiots and win entire countries at a stroke as a result.

The author gives the respective navies of the Allies most of the praise in terms of military performance, particularly singling out the American fleets in the Pacific for their sterling work in upgrading damage control protocols as the war went on, essentially making their ships much harder to destroy. Such things go underreported in the history of the conflict, yet they must have had a huge effect in later battles, not just in keeping ships floating (and firing) but in saving lives. The British Navy too get their share of praise, most notably the forsaken ships of the Arctic conveys, too often left adrift to face the deadly precision of the Luftwaffe in an icy wasteland far from home.

But while Hastings comments favourably on the performance of the US Navy, he is actually extremely critical of the grand strategy is was employed in carrying out, joining the chorus of voices that have repeatedly slammed General Doubles MacArthur for the campaigns he approved and spearheaded, based more on personal pride and a desire for publicity then in making sure Allied lives were not thrown away needlessly when alternatives were available. The “island hopping” of 43-45 is harshly criticised, as an unnecessary waste of manpower and resources, expending too many young men on taking meaningless objectives.

The final thing that caught my eye was the well argued assertion that the war was over as a contest in 1941, usually a year or two earlier then most others would place that point. Hastings argues, successfully in my opinion, that the German invasion of Russia was  doomed to failure, not after Stalingrad, but within a few months of its beginning, when the German Army failed to make the “rotten structure” of the USSR collapse with one big powerful blow at the start. Even many high ranking officials in the German army thought the same, resigning themselves to a doomed fight with the Russian colossus by the end of the 1941. With the USSR not willing to accept anything other than the smashing of the Nazi threat, the war in Europe was just a countdown from that point, with the western Allies speeding the process up by a not-inconsiderable degree, tying down vital German resources in Italy, France, the low countries and at home fighting bombing campaigns.

Over in the Pacific, Japan lost the war with America the moment they started it, the second the first bombs were dropped in Pearl Harbour. The Empire of Hirohito went into the conflict operating under an extremely flawed perception: that the USA could be brought to table. The entire strategy revolved around the idea that, following a lightning campaign around the Pacific rim, the US would accept defeat and come to the table to negotiate a settlement.

The Japanese mis-underestimated American resolve, to a disastrous extent. The country would not be brought to table, not after suffering so brazen an attack on its own home soil. Since the US operated under such parameters, the only option for the Empire was to conquer America – impossible – or die. Lacking the resources for any kind of sustained combat with the United States, Japan survived only as long as it did due to the callous disregard for their own people and those that fell under their yoke in the early days of the war.

Thus, the war was not in doubt in terms of its result – at least with hindsight –  by the end of 1941. Hastings argues this point extremely well, leaving the reader in no doubt about its accuracy.

All Hell Let Loose is an entertaining read, one I would recommend, even if it is far from flawless. Hastings has become one of the preeminent historians of the world’s greatest clash of arms, and this book, in line with his other works, merely continues this trend.

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