Review of Britain’s War Machine: Weapons, Resources and Experts in the Second World War by David Edgerton
Myths are cherished most intensely in academic disciplines that perpetually protest too much that they despise them. One does well to recall that even in modern physics seasoned warriors such as Werner Heisenberg and Max Planck were moved to recall with mouth-agape astonishment their encounters with the infinitely wily obstructions, diligent deviousness and ‘circling of the wagons’ with which smug yet desperate opponents of the quantum revolution resisted it. There isn’t much cause for back-patting in the sciences or in the social sciences about their publicly ballyhooed openness to new ideas or revelatory evidence that shake up received wisdoms, the kind accompanied by a wry smile or world-weary shrug indicating that this matter or that axiom brooks no challenge. Nobody, of course, likes to be shaken up, especially not those ensconced in comfortably fitting doctrines and institutions.
Mainstream journals (especially those demanding unanimous referee reports for publication) tend to operate to enforce peer group opinions, and have remarkably little to do with searching out data or controversial truths that depart from the editorial canon. One must always look elsewhere for cutting edge work that over decades will seep out from less orthodox venues and be absorbed tacitly into the orthodox scholarly universe, with no admission any resistance was ever mounted. So it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut used to sigh. The reason such resistances are mounted is because embraced myths uphold certain patterns of thought, and patterns of thought (ideologies, frameworks, models) acquire the backing of organized interests and organizations who take a mighty dim view of nay-sayers. Do not underestimate the inertial power of intellectual laziness either.
In the field of International Relations, which is the most ironically inward-looking of political science sub-disciplines, the moral specter of ‘appeasement’ possesses the status of Holy Scripture. Around the ritualized shame of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s Munich appeasement in 1938 revolve a host of intimately interconnected historical assumptions and lessons, which no IR specialist dared until very recently even to question, and then in the mildest of manners. The lessons that a rising postwar superpower like the US should draw from this appeasement tale were all too terribly obvious and convenient. Britain, out of pure cowardice or criminally stupid lack of preparedness, bowed to Adolf because it foolishly left itself no choice. After the hideous First World War’s bloodbath, so the seamless story goes, Britain virtually disarmed itself, fell prey to pacifist movements, and ‘gentlemanly amateurs’, instead of trained technical experts or at least hard-nosed realists, ran the nation befuddledly into the ground.
As Britain’s successor, the ultra-virile United States, nurturing a military-industrial complex and a self-servingly paranoid security apparatus, would make damned sure that this dire history would not repeat itself. Popular culture reflects and reinforces this version of 20th century events, which suits economic and political elites just fine. Well, the interwar era is indeed dire history but not in quite the way we have been jollied along to believe, for, as British historian David Edgerton, observes “interwar Britain was a military superpower both at sea and in the air, supporting the largest arms industry in the world.” You’d never guess it from reading the American IR scholarly literature, let alone the press.
Edgerton, a noted historian of technology, is a leader of a revolution in British military historiography, stripping away cant and groundless denigration from depictions of the British state, especially since the interwar years. Britain’s War Machine is, by my reckoning anyway, the third of his insolently myth-busting books on the plight of the sceptred little isle standing gallantly alone against Nazi might (about which Adam Tooze’s Wages of Destruction also has iconoclastic things to say) after Dunkirk and up until Operation Barbarossa in June 1941. Dangerous it all doubtless was. But a 1940 cartoon – parodying an earlier hyper-patriotic newspaper cartoon – that Edgerton reprints sums up the blunt reality. A British soldier in June 1940 regards Hitler across the Channel and vows, “So our poor old empire is alone in the world. Aye, we are – the whole 500 million of us.’ The immense resources of empire – manpower, industry, and money – drop out of de rigueur sentimental portraits of teensy-weensy Britain at bay. Edgerton first burst the myth of British wartime aerial inferiority – as others have since – in his England and The Aeroplane (1991) and then, among other key works, launched his major assault on received opinion about British preparedness with his 2007 book Warfare State. The latter book predictably made few waves in resistant or oblivious American IR circles, though some of his findings are beginning to register in journals without anyone bothering to cite a British historian. Academics are very crafty about who they cite, and citing a left wing historian won’t help any of their careers in a devoutly right wing trade. Anyway, Edgerton’s latest volume deepens the Warfare State’s heterodox themes and research.
What does the new book argue and accomplish? Edgerton masterfully musters archival research to demonstrate that imperial Britain was an unsurpassed militarily technological power during the interwar years too. British elites in 1939 and 1940, Edgerton points out, were justifiably sanguine about the UK’s ability to defeat Germany because of their nation’s and the empire’s superior industrial and economic strength. The estimate held true even after France shockingly fell. Only the United States could be said to rival British scientific and engineering talents, and their talents were adroitly applied to both inventive activities and in the management of production.
No amateurs need apply. The ‘boffins’ (slang for experts) were largely in charge or heeded in every realm that mattered during the total ruthless mobilization of this potent multi-national economy. IR experts to this day love to point at the apparently abysmally low level of Army personnel in both the UK and US at the start of the Second World War, as though it were an assured invitation to tyrants to attack. Yet both the UK and US were “island nations” whose elites pragmatically poured vast resources instead into world–leading Navies and Air Forces. Armies were largely intended for colonial patrol duties and, anyway, from a veteran nucleus they could be rapidly expanded when needed. Alliance choices saw that mass land armies were accessed elsewhere: France for the UK, and then the Soviet Union for both the UK and US as the war unfolded. (The Soviets eventually inflicted more than 80% of Wehrmacht casualties against horrendous losses themselves.) The British never “envisaged fighting a Great power alone” – which was an accurate enough appraisal as events played out, Therefore, a strategy emphasizing technological power (naval and aerial) based on superior wealth and productive capacity was an entirely sensible one. “Ships may be dear, but to man them is far less costly than the upkeep of great armies,” a Field Marshall, of all people, typically advised a Cabinet member in 1939.
Edgerton notes that Churchill afterward admitted that he exaggerated British military weakness throughout the 1930s in order to further fortify an already unsurpassed machine with yet more resources. The Pentagon and American arms dealers have taken the same venerable tack with alacrity ever since, with no imaginable comparable threat like the Axis anywhere in sight. A map of Britain’s vast and profitable (and cheaply conducted) global trade illuminates the great resource pool this most modern and rich of European nations could and did tap, U-boats or not. British-owned and managed production facilities stretched around the world: factories, plantations, refineries, anything and everything. Yet in no way was domestic Britain bereft of productive might. Mighty military manufacturers like Vickers were intimately associated not only with the State but with engineering and other technical departments at outstanding Universities, which, contrary to many a wistful literary portrait, actually taught subjects other than Latin, Greek and alcoholism. What’s more, Edgerton point out that research laboratories were a standard feature of behemoth manufacturers like Vickers, Imperial Chemical, Bristol, GEC, United Steel and Hawker-Siddeley.
Speaking of arms, there never ever was the widely lamented run-down of arms production in the 1930s. In fact massive increases in weapons spending surged and surged from 1935 onward, exactly as one might expect with a new Nazi regime looking like it would stick around. By 1939 defense expenditures accounted for half of all government spending. It didn’t happen overnight. If a few highly publicized pacifists bemoaned militarization in the mid-1930s it is because there was an awful lot of it careening all around them. Until the Nazi-Soviet Pact the common wisdom among elites, especially of the Right, was to appease and rearm, in hope of driving Hitler against Stalin in the meantime. Churchill was an exception. Until the same moment the Left – vilified as pacifists in the standard account- almost unanimously opposed appeasement and, much less so, rearmament.
The book is strewn with wonderfully provocative details of both underplayed and obscured developments: radar, air defense, engine technology, (overestimated) bomber appraisals, gun-aiming mechanisms, and even the clever use of decoys. The commitment to defend faraway Poland, which surprised Hitler when war was declared after his invasion, actually was a sign of the relative strength of the Anglo-French alliance, which calculated a distinct advantage in an early engagement with Germany. The “phony war” period witnessed a vast success for the Royal Navy, which drove German shipping from the seas and instituted a strangling blockade, exactly as authorities wanted to fight the war.
Even after the fall of France, Britain was by no means alone. Edgerton cites many media sources of the day acknowledging that happy reality. Churchill’s famous speeches portraying Britain as the sole significant opponent against the Axis seems to have been shaped mostly for consumption by US audiences, whom he obviously wanted to sway. Over 40% of Bomber Command consisted of personnel from the Dominions and other volunteers – a figure that reflected the proportions in the rest of the armed services. And, contrary to innumerable ‘echo chamber’ accounts that lay the blame for defeat in France on sheer technological inferiority, “in the first half of 1940 the combined Anglo-French production of tanks was 1,412 and the Germans 558; between January and May 1940 Anglo-French aircraft production was twice the Germans.” The Germans were astonished at the enviably sophisticated mechanized equipment that was abandoned by the British in retreat. Even so, Britain retained a large enough tank force to be able to dispatch a large number to the Middle East soon after.
As for the Battle of Britain and after, it was the RAF, not the Luftwaffe, that “was organized with Teutonic efficiency and regimentation.” The British bombing offensive against Germany did not arise in retaliation but rather preceded German attacks, and was always part of the war-fighting strategy. Churchill, to his ambiguous credit, even noted that after Germany drove the Jews out (those who were not caught and killed), it “lowered its technical standards, our science is definitely ahead of theirs.” So it was not Germany’s actions but rather Japan’s attack on British colonies and bases in December 1941 that upset the initial grand war-fighting plans. Yet of course the Japanese brought the US into the War as well. Britain was never alone or outgunned. Despite the U-boat threat, even at its fleeting apex in 1942, British trade – notwithstanding the loss of as many merchant seamen as Bomber Command lost crew – was never so seriously affected as to induce a restriction of activities. The essential role of the overlooked British scientific civil service, brilliantly illuminated in Warfare State, is reprised in a chapter here. Britain’s War Machine is chock full of well-integrated and telling data that I cannot begin to convey in the limited space of a review. Lend-Lease, for another argumentative example, was a sign of strength rather than weakness, enabling wealthy Britain to purchase goods it needed and allocate its own personnel and materials to other essential wartime purposes.
After the war the colossal role of the empire in victory was downplayed. The systematically misleading figures bandied about in woeful finger-pointing accounts ever afterward were those for national production, excluding the Commonwealth, and even then were usually underestimated. A “full global picture”, as Edgerton calls it, of the British war effort and attendant strategizing were rendered impossible. Regarding the often tongue-clucking tales of Britain’s supposed postwar rush from warfare to welfare state, Edgerton notes that ‘in welfare the 1940s taken as a whole were an era of disinvestment.” The warfare state was as safe and sound as it was before the war. Edgerton’s book smartly steamrollers almost every sacred cow in the international relations realm. It’ll take at least another decade to catch up. The sorry picture of underprepared Britain just begging Hitler to pick it off exerted enormous propaganda appeal both for those anglers lobbying for their already well-funded arms rackets and for those ‘realist’ scholars who felt vindicated in their pugnacious view of the globe. British reliance on defense (if that is the word) through naval and air power plus a slim high tech army is ironically enshrined in US policy today, though under vastly different conditions, and to very little avail. Pity.
Kurt Jacobsen, Logos book review editor, is a research associate in Political Science at the University of Chicago. His recent books include Freud’s Foes (Rowman & Littlefield 2009), Pacification and Its Discontents (Prickly Paradigm 2010) and Parables of Permanent War (Lexington 2012). His latest documentary “Milagro Man: The Irrepressible Multicultural Life and Literary Times of John Nichols” premiered at the Albuquerque Film Festival in August (www.milagroman.yolasite.com).