All Hell Let Loose – Max Hastings

Posted: August 26, 2013 in nonfiction, Review

all hell let looseWorld War Two gets the Max Hastings treatment, which is a broad sweep military history with a light leavening of diplomatic history and background. This does not mean that battles and campaigns are analysed for the brilliance of their tactics, but rather he examines the flow of armies and comments on how certain battles or engagements affected the flow of the war. One is not buried under a welter of names and units scurrying across the landscape. Instead, one gets the impression Hastings is grading the campaign as a whole and noting outstanding successes or failures: Polish campaign, Wehrmacht B-, Polish D+, Britain and France DNS. Generally, Hastings mauls the performance of the British army, which rarely rose above inept until the end of 1941, while praising the performance of the German (and Japanese) soldiers. Hastings is no dictatorship fanboy, but notes that the Nazis and IJA extracted greater dedication and commitment from their soldiers than the democracies. Hastings also praises the US navy, which he feels more or less won the war in the Pacific.

All Hell Let Loose spans 26 chapters, 680 pages of text and over 750 pages total. There is enough war to fill them. It is not all bombs and bullets, and the civilian administration gets a bit of a once over too. Unfortunately, this is the weakest part of Hastings’ presentation: while we learn plenty about the iniquities of British, German and Japanese colonial administrations, Dutch, French and American are barely touched. Nobody should feel smug when it comes to military administration. Each nation’s military was entirely parochial when it came to the distribution of largesse and supplies. Barely a thought was given to occupied civilian populations.

That said, I had few complaints with Hastings’ analysis. He did tend to repeat the negative stereotypes concerning the Red Army, particularly concerning disregard of casualties. The Soviet leadership was well aware it didn’t have a bottomless barrel of manpower, and Soviet generals were continually exhorted to reduce losses and avoid costly frontal assaults. There is ample on British, German and the US decisions, but rather less on Italian, Japanese and the Soviet ones, while Vichy France and the Axis allies are given very cursory treatment. The Holocaust is allowed a chapter that explores the broader Holocaust that was Nazi racial policy.

In my opinion, he has managed to balance the themes correctly while not giving undue weight to any one facet or even personality. If Britain was given more weight than may appear reasonable, Hastings is British and the British had the largest empire to administer, defend, retreat from and ultimately grant freedom to, during World War Two.

Hastings declares in his introduction that while he’ll be generally following the events of WWII, he’ll not repeat anecdotes from previous histories, such as Bomber Command or Nemesis. He also promises to try and include the human angle. I’m not familiar with either title, but the anecdotes used seemed fresh and the human angle given worked well. Worth the read and not at all too military.


Supplied by HarperCollins New Zealand

Reviewed by Steve

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