When it comes to the Second World War, the British historical imagination is defined by the image of 1940: a plucky little island, standing alone against the Nazi juggernaut that had just rolled over western Europe. The underdog status suggested by this image magnified both the heroism of the Battle of Britain and the subsequent victory scored over Germany five years later. Yet such a view, as David Edgerton stresses, is wildly inaccurate. Contrary to the popular myth, Britain stood at the head of an empire of nearly half a billion people, with the resources to wage war quite easily. Moreover, it was a war waged with an advanced and heavily mechanized military effort, one even more so than that possessed by their enemy. Edgerton details all of this in his revisionist analysis of the war, one that takes a bulldozer to many longstanding misconceptions to give readers a better understanding of how the British waged, and won, the war.
Edgerton begins by describing the considerable economic resources Britain possessed during the war. Theirs was an imperial economy capable of tapping a range of resources from foodstuffs to oil, as well as the manufactures and skills provided by the colonies. This was connected to the home country by a merchant fleet which also gave Britain access to the economic might of the United States and which actually grew over the course of the conflict. Edgerton describes the good use to which these goods were put, noting the improvements in diet for millions and arguing, again contrary to the popular myth, that the war materiel produced was of equal or even superior quality to that of their enemies and often of their allies as well. All of this was managed by a state that gave considerable support to its scientists and technicians, many of whom developed the advanced weaponry which Britain used to win the war.
Forcefully argued and backed by a wealth of statistics, Edgerton’s book provides a powerful corrective to many misconceptions about Britain’s war effort. Yet in some respects Edgerton deploys his arguments too broadly, often glossing over or ignoring the flaws that served as the basis of contemporary criticisms about the quality of British weapons (such as in naval air, which is mentioned only once and in passing). Moreover, his analysis raises an interesting question that is left unaddressed: if the British war machine outclassed that of the Germans in both quality and quantity, then why did the war last as long as it did? Edgerton suggest Japan’s entry (which deprived Britain of the resources of her east Asian colonies) as a key factor, but this is only a partial example and begs further analysis. Such an examination would have added greatly to the value of this already important book, which should be read by anyone with an interest in British history or the Second World War.