Why the Allies Won
by Richard Overy
Norton. 396 pp $29.95

Why the Allies Won is a rarity among history books: difficult to simplify and a pleasure to read, it says many interesting things about a familiar topic without lapsing into banality or sophistry. To the question underlying the title of his book, Richard Overy, a professor of modern history at King’s College, London, offers many answers, some broad, others specific, all solidly grounded yet none alone sufficient to explain the outcome of World War II.

Overy takes for a starting point the view that “much of what we believe about the war is illusion.” By this, however, he does not mean to signal a revisionist account that will topple established verities. Rather, he is concerned that we have forgotten how narrow was our escape. Allied victory in the war is now commonly regarded as an inevitability, the only conceivable outcome for a cause whose superior moral claim was backed by equally superior might. Few today recall the alternative paths available to the Allies, which, had they been followed, might have led to a negotiated settlement, to a military stalemate, or to surrender.

As Overy shows, the facts did not augur well throughout the first years of the war. In 1941 alone, 1,300 British merchant ships were sunk, a number which the combined dockyards of the Allies could not possibly replace. In the East, Germany pulverized the Soviet Union’s four-million-man army in a matter of months, and by October, as Soviet documents now show, Stalin was contemplating capitulation. In Asia, Japan seized the oil fields of Borneo with ease, clobbered the British at Singapore, and was poised to sweep American forces out of the Pacific.

Contrary to what is now generally believed, this grim picture was not much improved by the entry of the United States into the war. However vast American resources, they could not be put to effective use so long as the sea lanes of the Atlantic remained vulnerable to German submarines. Nor would they have counted for very much if Hitler had defeated Russia and consolidated his grip on Europe and the Middle East. And even when it became clear the Russian line would hold, America’s productive capacity still did not give the Allies an overpowering advantage.

The extraordinary story of America’s domestic war effort—necessary for victory but not sufficient—is ably retold here. By 1943, Germany was being outproduced by the Allies by a ratio of three to one in tanks and aircraft, and six to one in artillery pieces. Indeed, many historians see in these figures the explanation for Allied victory. Yet this, according to Overy, is a fallacy. All of the war’s decisive engagements—Midway, the battle of the Atlantic, Stalingrad—were fought and won well before the balance of resources swung massively to the Allied side.

Similarly enlightening is Overy’s analysis of the condition of Japan’s military industries, which were far more backward than is commonly supposed. But what is really interesting is the contrast he draws between the economic performance of Germany and the USSR, the war’s two competing totalitarianisms.

Here was a field of contest where the Nazis might have been expected to prevail. Hitler had spent much of the 193 0’s methodically preparing an already advanced economy for war. His invasion of the USSR in June 1941 deprived the Soviets of everything from air and mechanized forces to aluminum, manganese, and grain. Yet against every expectation, the Russians were able to recover. How they did so must be counted among the most remarkable achievements, and certainly the greatest puzzle, of the war.

One paradoxical explanation suggested by Overy traces the Soviets’ turnaround directly to the magnitude of their initial losses. Extreme scarcity dictated the efficient use of resources, and central planning, however ill-suited to peacetime, proved well-suited for war. Soviet success was especially manifest in the development of new weaponry, where a premium was placed on simplicity of design, standardization of parts, and ease of maintenance, all of which proved crucial.

Standing above everything else, however, was the Herculean effort of the Soviet workforce. Hatred of the German invader; Stalin’s success in casting the war in a nationalist vein; and the way factories were made the sole dispensers of every human necessity, from food to companionship, are all adduced by Overy as motivating factors. The rest of the job seems to have been done by raw coercion:

Large sections of the workforce were placed under military law Absenteeism and lateness were treated like desertion. Repeated offenses meant the labor camp, though the conditions of everyday life were so drear for most workers that life in the camps and outside them became increasingly difficult to distinguish.

Thus were the “achievements of socialism” wrought, and thus, too, in no small measure, was World War II won.



In near-total contrast to the Soviet Union, Germany’s industrial strategy fell victim to a complacency born of early success. Though the Nazis well understood the connection between economic and military might, they displayed an ideological antipathy toward mass production, preferring instead the solid German virtues of individualized craftsmanship and technical sophistication. Initially this conferred an edge, but as time wore on, problems began to show. Under pressure from above, German arms manufacturers came out with an incredible array of models with few interchangeable parts, nightmares to maintain in the field. Later, after the initiative passed to the Allied side, Hitler pursued costly technologies that promised last-minute salvation, at the expense of replenishing stocks of weapons that had already proved their worth.

All the while, the German system was burdened by inefficiencies of every kind: poor coordination between industry and the military; an intrusive, arthritic, top-heavy bureaucracy; an inability fully to exploit available resources. The German economy, writes Overy,

fell between two stools. It was not enough of a command economy to do what the Soviet system could do; yet it was not capitalist enough to rely, as America did, on the recruitment of private enterprise.



Still, the crucial factor in the Allied victory, in Overy’s view, was not the economic or military balance sheet on either side, but always and everywhere the human element, both in the ranks and at the top.

Soldiers, Overy writes, “do not fight to prove the statistics right, but from an effort of will.” The supreme Allied commander, Dwight D. Eisenhower, put the same thought in different words. Hearing his civilian counterparts expatiate on a prospective “economic defeat” of the Axis, he complained that “not one man in twenty in the government realizes what a grisly, dirty, tough business we are in.” In writing about that business, Overy never loses sight of the courage, ingenuity, and resolve that contributed to Allied victory, or of the fatuity and arrogance that led to Axis defeat.

Paradoxically, though, perhaps the book’s weakest section is the one on political and military leadership. Although Overy recognizes the overwhelming impact of personality on the outcome of the war, his emphasis often seems strangely placed. Thus, he lavishes praise on U.S. Army chief-of-staff George Marshall but omits mention of his opposition to the Lend-Lease arrangements with Britain, no small misjudgment in a man of Marshall’s influence. By contrast, in a capsule biography of Churchill, Overy gives a curt nod to the British leader’s role in rallying England for the war effort, then derides his pretensions and shortcomings as a strategist. Though the evidence is partially persuasive, the point is picayune. Churchill’s advocacy of an invasion of Germany via Italy and the Balkans would almost certainly have been a failure—but it was Churchill’s decisions, not his enthusiasms, that ultimately mattered, and on the things that mattered most he consistently chose right.

But these flaws are in the end of small moment. Against the simplistic and nostalgic notion that the outcome of World War II was all but predetermined in the Allies’ favor, Overy’s analytical history offers a potent reminder of the perilous uncertainty that accompanied them at every step, and of the intelligence and brute will that made victory possible. Statesmen looking to the past for easy maxims will not find them in this book.

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