In the 1960s and 1970s, the British Government published its official history of the Second World War, edited by Sir James Butler. The fourth volume, covering the period from August 1942 to September 1943, was written by Professor Sir Michael Howard, then a Fellow of All Souls, Oxford. It is a stupendous work of scholarship, the product of ten years working in what he called “the catacombs of Whitehall.” He referenced no fewer than thirty-five sets of papers, such as those of the Chiefs of Staff, Anti-U-Boat Committee, Joint Intelligence Sub-Committee, and Allied Supply Executive, but crucially he was not allowed to mention that the codes produced by the German Enigma machines had been cracked, to produce the Ultra decrypts that contributed so effectively to the Allied victory. In that sense, if in no other, this book is therefore Hamlet without the prince.
The period covered by this volume saw what Howard calls “a rapid and total reversal in the fortunes” of the Allies. The Axis reached their furthest extent in the summer of 1942, approaching both the Nile Delta and the foothills of the Caucasus. Japanese forces meanwhile threatened northern Australia and virtually controlled the Bay of Bengal. Allied shipping losses were “critical and threatened to become desperate,” and, as Howard put it, “It was by no means certain that American military power could be deployed in time to save the Soviet Union from collapse, the entire Middle East from German conquest and the British Isles themselves from military impotence and near-starvation.”
Howard writes with authority and fluency, and covers the many great strategic controversies of the era with due fair-mindedness. Should aircraft bomb German cities or support Allied forces in the South-West Pacific? Ought naval escorts to protect convoys to Russia or to cover the North African landings? Should shipping be used to import food into Britain or for an amphibious attack in Burma? As Howard points out, “The process of reaching these decisions was complex and often bitter.”
By the end of the book—the 580 pages of which are lavishly supported by seventeen maps and twenty-one appendices—the Soviet Union was counterattacking “on a scale, and with a momentum, that the Axis powers were quote unable to withstand,” Italy had surrendered, the battle of the Atlantic was won, and Japan now on the defensive. This tremendous book does not cover the fighting itself, but instead the grand strategy of the war in those hinge-of-fate months; the decisions about where to attack, when, and with what forces. It is rightly considered one of the classic books on grand strategy, even though for reasons of state it could not divulge the Ultra secret.