Thursday, November 29, 2012

Books I'm Reading: The Hinge of Fate (November 29, 2012)

The Hinge of Fate is the fourth volume in Winston Churchill's six-volume history of WWII The Second World War. It is much the fattest of the six volumes, at over 900 pages including the detailed appendices. This volume covers Japan's early victories, and, in the Mediterranean, the long string of defeats the allies suffered in North Africa. As in the preceding volumes, Churchill speaks in the first person and, naturally, from the perspective of the British experience. He again relies heavily on "directives, telegrams, and minutes upon the daily conduct of the war and of British affairs"--documents written by Churchill himself during the conflict, and on replies and responses to the many telegrams and reports he authored during the conflict. These are supplemented by the author's retrospective analysis. He again writes in minute detail and neglects no sphere of activity, even including a chapter on the situation in Madagascar. Madagascar is not a country I'd ever thought of as being involved in WWII, but I was wrong. A considerable amount of the writing involves political developments in England and there is a great deal of material that illuminates the personal characters of President Roosevelt and Stalin through Churchill's dealings with these men. It is particularly interesting to watch the development of Churchill's impatience with what he sees as Roosevelt's exaggerated opinion of the importance of the Chinese and with Roosevelt's somewhat naive approach to dealing with Stalin.

It's only at the very end of this long book that much hopeful news emerges. The allies finally stop the German advance in the deserts of North Africa at Alamein, and the US begins to have some success against the Japanese in the Pacific. Churchill says about the victory at Alamein that it will survive as "a glorious page in British military annals" because of the long odds against success the allied armies faced, but also because "it marked the turning of 'the hinge of fate.'" "It may almost be said," Churchill writes, "Before Alamein we never had a victory. After Alamein we never had a defeat." Hence the title.

Books about war often dwell on details of clashes of arms, creating the false impression that wars are won exclusively on the battlefield. Churchill sketches battles only broadly, while focusing as much or more on the decision-making behind strategy, on politics behind the scenes, and on such mundane issues as supply and logistics and how they affected planning and the outcomes of the physical struggles we normally think of as the activity of war. I felt a little overwhelmed by the end of The Hinge of Fate. In places it even felt a little tedious. However, while Churchill's insistence on covering all of his activity during the war can be challenging, it ultimately has the positive effect of bringing home very clearly just how important the details are, particularly getting supply and logistics right, and in Volume V, there will much more of this leading up to the invasion of Normandy, a project of unprecedented scale and one that involved a great deal of delicate diplomacy.

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