The Second World War: A Military History

The Second World War: A Military History

by Gordon Corrigan

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781429950565
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 11/08/2011
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 672
Sales rank: 686,772
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

GORDON CORRIGAN is a member of the British Commission for Military History and a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society. He is the author of Mud, Blood and Poppycock and Blood, Sweat and Arrogance.

Gordon Corrigan is a member of the British Commission for Military History and a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society. He is the author of Mud, Blood and Poppycock and Blood, Sweat and Arrogance.

Read an Excerpt

The Second World War

A Military History

By Gordon Corrigan

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2010 Gordon Corrigan
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-5056-5


On Your Marks ...

It would be quite unfair to blame the United States of America for starting the Second World War. Hitler did not come to power because of the Wall Street Crash, but, as the Great Depression sparked off by the crash affected the economies of the whole developed world and encouraged the rise of extreme politics, it certainly helped. Indeed, before the crash led indirectly to the collapse of a major Austrian bank in May 1931 – a collapse which brought down the entire German banking system with it – German liberal democracy might, just, have survived; after it, the rise of extreme German nationalism could not be contained.

Stock markets depend on confidence – confidence in the soundness of the market, confidence in the individual companies and utilities quoted on it, and confidence in its regulation. When any of these factors is absent, then it is only a question of time before financial chaos and collapse ensue. The Wall Street Crash was not the first such implosion, nor by any means the last. Economists still argue about the causes of the 1929 crash, but what actually happened is clear enough, even if the reasons for it are not. Democracies and controlled economies are mutually incompatible and in a free market occasional adjustment – recession even – is probably inevitable. The United States had been heading for recession in 1914 and the First World War had got her out of it. The slack in American industry was taken up by British and French contracts for war-making materiel, and indeed there were cynics who claimed (unfairly, in this author's view) that America only entered the war to make sure that the Allies won and she got paid. As the only participant that actually emerged from the war richer than she entered it, America was poised for a period of sustained economic growth after it, and, under the administrations of Presidents Calvin Coolidge from 1921 and Herbert Hoover from 1928, she got it. Among the results of this boom were very large amounts of cash looking for a home, and some of this surplus cash was absorbed by lending to overseas governments and financial institutions: by 1929, American banks had outstanding foreign loans of $8.5bn, about half of this total being to Germany. A proportion of these loans were undoubtedly dubious, but, as long as the lenders were happy to lend and the borrowers could service the loans at interest rates that were not onerous, nobody minded very much.

It was not just corporations and the US government that used overseas loans as a seemingly safe resting place for spare capital, but individuals too, and many not only bought into loans but piled into the stock market, which seemed as if it would go on rising for ever. By 1929 it was estimated that 9 million individuals were engaged in owning, buying and selling shares, which, if dependants are included, means that around 20 per cent of the entire US population (120 million in 1929) was involved with the stock market and directly affected by it. Many knew perfectly well that shares can go down as well as up, but there was an almost universal suspension of belief that for many years appeared to be justified as the market marched ever upwards.

America had never believed in the regulation of making money, and there was the usual crop of out-and-out swindlers who encouraged investment in companies that either did not exist or were set up purely to fleece the gullible. Most brokers – those who arranged for the purchase and sale of shares – were not dishonest, but too many of them were either incompetent or incurable optimists who encouraged the naive and the greedy to buy and to go on buying. By 1929 shares were changing hands at prices that could not possibly be justified by the underlying assets backing them, and between 1925 and 1929 the total of share prices on the New York exchange had trebled. The trouble about booms, though, is that they nearly always over-extend themselves and are followed by some sort of bust.

Matters were hardly improved by the fact that, alongside the straightforward investment in the Wall Street market, there was a great deal of buying on margin, which was effectively a way of buying shares with borrowed money, the collateral for the loan being the shares themselves. If the market went up, the profits could be enormous, but, if it went down, then the investor had to keep pumping more and more money in to back the loan, which now became increasingly greater than the value of the shares. As it was, by October 1929 a staggering total of $6.8bn was outstanding in loans to buy shares, most of it backed by the shares themselves. In short, Wall Street had become as much a medium for gambling, with many small investors sucked in by the lure of easy money, as it was a mechanism for economic growth. It had taken twenty years, from 1907 until 1927, for the Dow Jones industrial average – the measure of the total value of a representative basket of shares on the New York market – to double. It took only another two years – from 1927 to 1929 – for it to double again. The bubble could not go on expanding for ever, and eventually it burst.

The twenties had stopped roaring well before October 1929, although very few seemed to notice. On the 17th of that month, the committee of the Investment Bankers Association of New York warned that speculation in utilities (gas, electricity, water) had 'reached danger point and many stocks are selling far above their intrinsic value'. No one seemed to listen. On Wednesday, 23 October, New York prices started to drop and the second-highest number of shares in the history of the exchange was traded. The telegrams demanding increases in margin payments started to go out. The next day's opening saw more selling but there was a modest upturn in late trading when the banks and investment houses pumped money in to steady the market, and the morning's losses were halved. On Friday, 25 October, the Dow Jones closed marginally up, and on Saturday marginally down but in steady trading. Both the optimists and those who were in too deeply to get out without huge losses breathed again.

Their relief was short-lived. On Monday morning, a rumour-fuelled wave of selling saw Wall Street's biggest drop in share prices to date, with $14bn lopped off the value of shares. Worse was to come. On Tuesday, 29 October, massive selling, which was now panic selling, continued. By the close of trading that day, 16.4 million shares had been traded. The Dow, which on 1 October stood at 343, was at 230 and it would be another twenty-five years before it would reach its pre-crash levels again. In all, $10bn had been wiped off the market value. To put this sum into perspective, it was equal to the total cost to America of the first war, ten times the Union budget for the Civil War and twice all the money in circulation throughout the entire nation. It was now breathtakingly clear that this really was a crash: there would be no correction, no rally, no pumping in of money by the banks. By the time loans had not been repaid and banks and businesses had failed, the total cost has been estimated at $50bn or $559bn in today's money.

Manufacturing industries, which were slowing down anyway before the crash, now found themselves with warehouses full of goods that nobody could afford to buy, and employers began to lay off workers. Before the crash, there were 1.5 million Americans unemployed, or 3.3 per cent of a workforce of 45 million. By 1932, that had risen to 15 million, or a third of the workforce. Inevitably, recession in the wake of the crash and the collapse of the American domestic economy quickly began to affect the rest of the world. Overseas companies that sold to America found orders were cancelled or not renewed. If Detroit was not making cars, then it did not need rubber to make tyres, and so there was a slump in the rubber plantations of Malaya, then a British colony. Much the same applied to those exporters of tin, oil and European luxury items. One of the first things that people or companies do when faced with a liquidity crisis is to call in outstanding debts, and this is what American banks began to do.

In these days, when goods cross borders with ease, it is sometimes forgotten that free trade, now accepted by most advanced nations, was still hotly argued about in the interwar years. The USA was protectionist – that is, she imposed tariffs on goods imported from abroad, in order to protect domestic producers. Had tariffs not been imposed, then foreign goods might undercut those produced at home and would drive the price of the latter down, and the wages of those who made them down too. Up to the time of the crash, these tariffs were not a serious obstacle to international trade and even those imposed on goods in direct competition with those made at home were not onerous. All that was to change in 1930 with the imposition of the Smoot– Hawley Act, which imposed swingeing import duties on a wider range of foreign goods, raising some of them by an unprecedented 50 per cent.

Now foreign countries could no longer export with ease to the United States, and some began to impose retaliatory tariffs on US goods. If commodity producers could not export to the United States, then neither would they import American wheat and meat. Grain, unsold and so unharvested, rotted in the fields of the Midwest and cattle were slaughtered because it was not worth bringing them to market. Rightly or wrongly, America was widely blamed for exporting recession: foreign governments argued – with some reason – that, if they could only be allowed to export to America, they could earn dollars and thus repay loans owing to the USA, while American exporters argued that, even though US exports were but a very small part of GDP, foreigners were deliberately driving them out of business. Either way, a crisis of global proportions was in the making.

At home, while America was protectionist, she was also non-interventionist. It was unthinkable then for the federal government to finance a public works programme (which might have solved, or at least massively reduced, unemployment) and impossible for it to direct the banking system. There was a Federal Reserve, but it had little real influence and the plethora of banks, many of them badly managed and mainly confined to one state, were generally uncooperative with it. There was no strong central bank with the power to intervene and offer a lifeline to financial institutions in trouble. It was up to the private sector to get itself out of its own mess, and that the private sector was unable to do. Domestically, President Hoover got little thanks from his countrymen for his handling of the recession. Hard though he tried to stimulate recovery – against all his own principles and those of his party, which saw rescue as being the prerogative of the individual and not the state – he could not succeed, largely because the recession was worldwide and deepening, but also because the machinery whereby he could intervene decisively simply did not exist. Then, in the summer of 1931, Hoover announced a moratorium on foreign debts owed to the government, but it was beyond his – or anyone's – power to stay debts owed to private investors and private banks, and it was those non-public debts that would prove critical.

* * *

The first spark that would ultimately ignite the Second World War was struck when Kredit Anstalt collapsed in May 1931. The largest bank in Austria and probably the most important bank in Europe, or at least in Central and Eastern Europe, it had been in trouble in 1929, but such an institution could not then have been allowed to fail and it had been bailed out by a consortium of banks that included JP Morgan (America), Schroeder (UK) and Rothschild (Austria). Then, in March 1931, Austria turned to her natural ally, Germany, and formed a customs union or free trade area. To France, this was completely unacceptable – the enemies of 1914–18 were getting together again – and French loans to Germany and Austria were immediately called in. Two months later, in May, a run on the bank again brought support, this time from the Bank of England, the Austrian government and the Federal Reserve, but it was not enough. The bank collapsed and Austrian governmental credit had run out. Shortly afterwards came the collapse of virtually the entire German banking system – and this too had been underwritten by the Bank of England. Then, in September 1931, Britain went off the gold standard. Most of Europe went off it too, but for the Bank of England no longer to back sterling with a guarantee to change it into gold on demand inflicted far-reaching and chaotic effects on the global economy. The Bank of England had been effectively the world's banker, with sterling in wider use as an international currency than even the dollar. Many countries, including France along with most of Europe, kept their national reserves in sterling, which was regarded as totally safe and realizable against gold. Now there was no certainty that these reserves would keep their value.

In America, there was little interest in what was going on in Europe, at least from the general public. The country's own problems – economic, industrial, social – were quite sufficient without having to worry about what effects the slump might be having elsewhere. Besides, despite the fact that they showed a net profit from their involvement in the first war, many Americans had a sneaking suspicion that the wily British and the mercurial French had somehow conned them into entering it, and given that the United States had refused to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, which brought the war to an end, there was little incentive to become embroiled again in the doings of Europeans.

Across the Atlantic, however, the view was very different, and that France called in her loans to Germany and Austria in 1931 so peremptorily should have come as no surprise. Of all Germany's erstwhile opponents, France had more reason to fear and hate her than most. Prussia had played a major part in the downfall of Napoleon and she had defeated and humiliated the second Napoleon's empire in 1870: as a crowning insult, William of Prussia was declared emperor of a united Germany in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles. This, combined with the fact that France had to pay a very large indemnity and lost Alsace (which was largely German-speaking) and one third of Lorraine (with rather less justification), left no great love for the Germans in French hearts – indeed, they were probably disliked almost as much as the British, who at least were no threat to metropolitan France on land.

Almost half a century after the indignities of the Franco-Prussian War, France was to emerge on the winning side in 1918, but at fearful cost. With a population 7 million less than that of the United Kingdom, she had suffered twice as many military deaths, and as she already had a declining and ageing population, one in which men of military age comprised a much smaller percentage than they did in Britain, the effects were even worse than the bald statistic might indicate. It was France that was the moving spirit behind the harsh terms of the Versailles Treaty, and she was determined to brook no deviation from them. Suggestions by the British and Americans that payment of reparations might be modified cut no ice with successive French governments and, while Britain had some – even considerable – sympathy with the fledgling Weimar Republic, she was not prepared to break with France.

While Britain, and to a lesser extent the United States, had spent large sums in prosecuting the war, America herself suffered no damage to the homeland and, apart from the occasional air raid or shelling of a coastal town, neither did Britain. In France, however, at least 300,000 dwelling places were destroyed or damaged so badly that they had to be completely rebuilt and 20,000 factories or manufacturing establishments were rendered unusable. The country was faced with the huge problem of reconstruction while at the same time she could make few savings from disarmament as, unlike Britain, which rushed to get rid of her soldiers, sailors and airmen as quickly as possible, France, even with a defeated and disarmed Germany as a neighbour, felt unable to drop her guard completely. Furthermore, France, like Germany, had opted to finance the war from domestic and international loans rather than from increased taxation and these now had to be paid back. The cost of rebuilding and the repayment of international loans would, the French government hoped, be met from German reparations and any suggestion by the British or the Americans that Germany might not be able to pay were brusquely dismissed. To begin with, even with reparation money coming in, outgoings were only partly covered, and, when reparations lessened and then stopped altogether, serious currency inflation was inevitable. By 1925, the franc was worth only one tenth of its 1914 value, which meant that domestic investors found their wartime loans to the government repaid with a greatly reduced purchasing power. While French inflation was not nearly as bad as Germany's, it caused serious economic, social and political dislocation nevertheless.


Excerpted from The Second World War by Gordon Corrigan. Copyright © 2010 Gordon Corrigan. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
List of Maps,
Prelude February 1942,
1 On Your Marks ...,
2 Get Set ...,
3 Go!,
4 Interlude: Britain at War: May 1940–June 1941,
5 The Russian War: June–October 1941,
6 The Asian War: September–December 1941,
7 The Mediterranean War: June 1941–August 1942,
8 The Russian War: October 1941–November 1942,
9 The Asian War: December 1941–May 1942,
10 The Mediterranean War: August 1942–May 1943,
11 The Asian War: December 1941–November 1942,
12 The Russian War: November 1942–June 1944,
13 The Asian War: June 1942–August 1944,
14 The European War: May 1943–August 1944,
15 The Sea and Air War,
16 The Axis Retreat: August–November 1944,
17 The Home War,
18 End Game: December 1944–September 1945,
19 Checkmate: January 1945–December 1946,

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The Second World War: A Military History 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Belechannas More than 1 year ago
Compared to other narrative histories of the war, I found this book very disappointing and superficial. It is not really a "military" history, with any particularly deep insights on military operations, and the author stunned me with obviously counter-factual (and unsupported) claims at a number of places. One which sticks in my mind was in the introduction; while attempting to draw a dubious moral equivalence between genocide and strategic bombing, he says: "There was, too, a racial dimension: large amounts of high explosive dropped on Germans were one thing, but nobody ever suggested dropping an atomic bomb on them." It is hard to imagine how a professional historian, writing a supposedly learned book on the best-documented conflict in history could be so ignorant of the facts. The entire motivation for the atomic bomb, which was initially conceived by scientists driven out of Germany and its satellites by the fear of Hitler, and sold to the US government by a letter from Einstein raising the fear of the Nazis developing such a weapon, was exactly to drop it on Germany. Reviewing the initial proposal for what eventually became the Manhattan project, FDR summarized it as "So what you're after is to make sure the Nazis don't 'blow us up'" This is only one example, but it typifies the intellectual sloppiness and lack of professionalism that pervades this book.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
exelent history on world war 2. It really emphasizes the russian contribrution to victory in Europe.