London during the Blitz Credit: Wikimedia Commons

How Britain really coped with the war

A monumental new history is full of telling details
March 29, 2020
The second volume of Daniel Todman’s monumental history of Britain during the Second World War takes the story from the fall of Singapore to the rise of the welfare state. Like its predecessor, this study provides a clear narrative inside a scholarly interpretative framework. It ranges across all aspects of the UK’s wartime experience, often drawing on the insights of Mass Observation. And it is filled with telling details: the BBC was so keen to replace “sloppy” songs with “virile” ones that for a time it took Vera Lynn off the air.  

Todman writes in a sometimes demotic style. He notes that British troops in Cairo sought “beer, egg and chips, a trip to the flicks, maybe a fuck and a fight.” Statistics are one of the book’s great strengths. In 1942, the Home Guard was issued with 250,000 pikes. In the same year Britain produced 1,976 heavy bombers, more than Germany did in the entire war. New and extended airfields, using rubble from blitzed cities, covered an area the size of Birmingham.  

Inevitably Todmantraverses well-worn territory, whether on the militarisation of civilian society during the war or the nationalisation of a fifth of Britain’s economy in its aftermath. His recital of Anglo-American disputes over strategy is typified by Anthony Eden’s remark that President Roosevelt’s knowledge of European political geography had apparently been learned from his stamp collection. Many quotations are familiar, like Churchill’s declaration that he would “rather have a cabinet of obedient mugwumps than of awkward freaks.”  

Todman’s work has a somewhat text-bookish feel, but it makes up in authority what it lacks in drama. This is well illustrated by his judicious account of Mountbatten’s precipitate ending of the Raj: it was not consistent with the “moral obligation to protect the millions of people who were at this point still subjects of the Indian Empire.”   

Britain’s War: A New World, 1942-1947by Daniel Todman (Allen Lane, £35)