Book Review: Britain’s War, 1937-1941: Into Battle
by Daniel Todman
Oxford University Press, 2016
For historian Daniel Todman, the Second World War was first a set of familiar stories told by his grandparents when he was a small boy, and this is instructive in two ways when it comes to his riveting new book, Britain’s War, 1937-1941: Into Battle – first, as a reminder that for its new generation of historians, the war is right on the verge of passing out of even the most distant living memory, and second, as a reminder that war stories have always been a vital part of war histories. This book – the first half of a projected two-volume account of Great Britain’s war against Nazi Germany – benefits in curious and mutually reinforcing ways from both these points.
Todman begins his story not with declarations of war but with the tensions of war’s long imminence, with Britain reacting warily and fitfully to the renewed build-up in German arms and German territorial aggression. As was the case with Germany, Britain’s war began well before the first shots were fired; as the nation’s economy slowly shifted footing, her statesmen worried that the degree of militarization necessary to match the Nazis would necessitate fundamental changes in the way civilian government worked. Chancellor Sir John Simon wasn’t the only person to worry that such a shift would turn Britain into “a different kind of nation,” and such worries were surely justified.
And when the furtive Continental negotiations of Prime Minister Neville Chamblerlain failed and war was finally declared, that different kind of nation fractured into multiple narratives. Todman traces these narratives through the corridors of Whitehall and also through the accounts of ordinary folk, as when he lays out two very different reactions to wartime rationing as 1939’s bleak Christmas came around, whether it be commonsensical:
Heaven knows, we can’t afford it these days. I’ve told the kiddies some story or other about Father Christmas being a German, so he can’t come over this year. We won’t be able to afford all those little things – what with butter going up and one thing and another, we’ve got to save a bit.
“Well,” I says to him, ‘well, we ain’t got much money, but what we have got will go a longer way now than it will next year,’ I says. ‘Particularly,’ I says, ‘if we’re all dead. So we might as well have a proper do for Christmas and spend the money while we’ve got it, and while we’re here to have it.’
Todman’s always keen for the sharp ironies attending war narratives, and he has more and more of these ironies to relate as hostilities continue to increase, as when he adds a little stinger to the end of his summing up of bombings in Britain in 1941:
Things became no easier after the bombers had gone. At the end of its blitz, Swansea had suffered 230 people killed, but it had also lost its telephone system, its water and gas supply, its entire shopping centre and market – including 171 food shops and butchers serving more than 22,000 people – and the Food Office, with all its ration records. Six-and-a-half thousand people were homeless. The port and docks, the target of the raid, escaped all but unscathed.
Britain’s War, 1937-1941: Into Battle ends with the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and the long-awaited entrance of the United States into war against the Axis Powers. Into Battle tells the story of Britain’s long, dark struggle alone against the forces of Nazi Germany, and it tells that admittedly familiar story with an energy that makes it fresh again. In the subsequent volume, Britain will simultaneously reap the benefits of a military partnership with the most powerful nation on the planet and begin to experience all the subtle new dangers that arise from the fact that this partnership was designed to be uneven. In a simpler treatment, the two halves of this book’s project would fall neatly on either side of a primary-color dividing line, the first volume reveling in “their finest hour” and the second chronicling American victories and the beginning of British decline. But this first volume ripples with uncertainties and anthem-muffling complexities; the heroism of earlier accounts is here in full measure, but it’s very rewardingly mixed in with a searching skepticism that’s always looking for the hard-edged realities behind familiar grandfatherly fireside stories. If the second volume follows suit, this will be a revelatory new history of Britain’s war.