My grandfather joined up when the Second World War broke out, but he was soon returned to civvy street as he was much more valuable employing his mechanic’s skills to fight the Nazis from a factory in Newcastle. He ended up making the parts of the spot lights that were used to guide anti-aircraft batteries (and my grandmother made parachutes, just over the River Tyne in Gateshead).
Although this was not half as exciting to find out about as a young boy as discovering that he was in fact a Commando or part of the Long Range Desert Group, what my grandfather was part of was vital to the defeat of Nazism. In his excellent book, Britain’s War Machine: Weapons, Resources and Experts in the Second World War (Oxford University Press, 2011), David Edgerton is all about this crucial non-military part of Britain’s war with Germany, and it sets about challenges perceptions almost from the front page.
His argument is that Britain was actually far more able and well resourced than commonly thought. It entered the war as the richest per-capita nation in the world, a ‘world island’ interconnected with markets across the globe. It had industry and it had a formidable military. Even after France fell, Britain still had its empire to fall back on, and that is before the economic (and then military) assistance of the USA is taken into account. It had the luxury of fighting a war that it was comfortable with, through Bomber Command and in North Africa and the Mediterranean: not for Britain the mass bloodshed that characterised the Eastern Front. Even by the end of the war, an exhausted Britain was still in enviable shape, although – especially in comparison to the USA – it did not seem to be.
The book is full of fascinating information, facts and arguments. I did not realise that (again, contrary to accepted opinion) British tanks were actually extremely highly rated, or that British units were extremely well equipped with armour. The bombing campaign was extremely well suited to statistical analysis. In 1939 the Admiralty was sent around a thousand letters a day from garden-shed inventors, each promising that his amateur tinkering had produced an invention that might win the war against the Germans.
I also appreciated that this book explained to me exactly how my grandfather (and grandmother) had done so much to win the war, without having to fire a shot. It was not risk free: I remember my grandfather telling me how a bomb had scored a direct hit on the factory’s toilet, just after one of his colleagues had disappeared inside with his morning newspaper. But it was also vital, and I thoroughly recommend the book, especially to those who want to know a little bit more about how war was fought, beyond the simple matter of bullets and blood.