Exploding depth charges surround a German U-boat under attack from aircraft off the USS Bogue. North Atlantic Ocean. World War II. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Decline, fall and rise again

A masterly account of Britain’s fortunes in the Second World War

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Daniel Todman certainly can write. Academic historians have handed down a raft of doorstopper volumes on Britain’s role in destroying Nazism but too often in a clotted style that defies readability. Todman, by contrast, is a natural storyteller. Presented with a bewildering array of disparate events, he creates a narrative that is at once comprehensible and enlightening. Foregoing blow-by-blow accounts of the set-piece battles, the distinctive contribution of this book is to interweave the military successes (too few) and setbacks (too many) with the political and economic manoeuvrings between London, Washington and Moscow, and within the Churchill-led coalition of ideological opposites.

And what a tale there is to be told. Britain in 1942 was at a point where survival, let alone victory, was a prospect so distant as to be beyond speculation. The nadir was defeat in Malaya and the fall of Singapore, the result of military incompetence on a monumental scale.

Britain’s War: A New World, 1942-1947, By Daniel Todman Allen Lane, £35

With Australia, New Zealand and India under threat from Japan, the death knell of the British Empire was widely anticipated. Meanwhile, German U-boats were roaming the Atlantic bent on destroying the American lifeline to Britain and coming close to doing so. At home, austerity was beginning to bite, with petrol no longer on sale for private use and tougher rationing of food and other essentials such as soap.

When the tide turned it was with Britain as part of a powerful Atlantic triangle built on the US and Canada. Following the massive increase in American war production, the Soviet alliance and victory in the Western Desert, a debate opened up on postwar reconstruction, the lead coming from the Beveridge Report with its promise of comprehensive social reform.

Churchill comes across as an inspirational maverick dependent on, though failing to acknowledge, those like his chief of general staff, General Alan Brooke, for keeping the show on the road. The prime minister, says Todman, was adept at absorbing arguments he would later claim as his own.

Todman has produced a masterly account of the fall and rise in the country’s fortunes

Fascinating snippets catch our attention. Who would have thought, given the effusive tributes to the recently-departed Dame Vera Lynn, that in 1942 she was taken off the airwaves for 18 months as the BBC tried cutting down on “sloppy” songs in favour of more upbeat “virile” numbers? It is often said that food rationing helped towards a healthier society but Todman points out that while children benefited from a fat-free diet, it made little difference to adults. There was no change in the death rate from heart disease.

Antisemitism, with sections of the press giving undue emphasis to Jewish criminality, remained widespread even after it became common knowledge that Hitler was intent on destroying Europe’s Jewish population. Todman has an eye for spearing popular myths.

In the afterglow of victory, Churchill’s biggest mistake was to take for granted that popular admiration for him as a war leader would automatically carry over to giving him a free rein on rebuilding Britain. As it turned out, the underestimated Clement Attlee had a much better grasp of what the voters would expect.

Together with the first volume of Britain’s War, covering the period 1937 to 1941, Todman has produced a masterly account of a catastrophic fall and almost miraculous rise in the country’s fortunes. While Britain’s postwar decline as a world power is often lamented, it would be more fitting to give thanks that it survived at all.

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