Sunday, February 5, 2017

Review: Britain's War Machine: Weapons, Resources and Experts in the Second World War, by David Edgerton

New York: Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 445.

In his book Warfare State, David Edgerton made the case that British historiography has tended to overlook the fact of a military-industrial complex as a massive presence in the country's life at mid-century, distorting understandings of matters like government support for industry and science, and the welfare state that gets far more attention.

Edgerton followed up this study with a book concentrating on the British warfare state in the World War II period, Britain's war machine.

Rather than a comprehensive history of Britain's war effort, the book focuses on particular aspects of that effort, and makes a number of contentions, among the most important the following:

* Far from being finished as an economic power by Victorian decline, World War I and Depression, Britain remained a considerable economic power in the 1930s, a central element of which was its still being a considerable industrial power. Moreover, that industrial base was not just a matter of strength in old, "declining" sectors like coal, iron, steel and shipbuilding, but also the emergence of major British players in the new high-tech sectors; while in contrast with the derisory view of British productivity, the country was actually quite up-to-date in this respect--often superior to Germany, and in respects on a level with the U.S..

* British technological prowess extended beyond the civilian sphere to the military. Moreover, military innovation was not, as is often imagined, largely a matter of civilians (e.g. inspired individual outsiders) who had to fight against conservative authorities. Rather there was a vast military establishment actively initiating programs seen through by state scientists. Indeed, even those thought of as outsiders fighting the establishment, like jet engine pioneer Frank Whittle, were often insiders--Whittle "an air force officer" sent to Cambridge by his service which then seconded him to a company set up specifically to develop his idea. If anything, British decisionmakers may have been too quick to place their faith in technical fixes for the problems they faced. That we think otherwise is due to the civilian academics having been in a better position to tell their story.

* More generally, Britain translated its considerable economic, industrial, technological strength into commensurate military strength. Far from being disarmed, Britain had the world's largest navy, a first-rank air force with an unmatched bombing arm and defensive radar system, and the world's most thoroughly mechanized and motorized army through the interwar period. Reflecting the strength of its military-industrial base, it was also the world's largest arms exporter of the interwar years--while this base was massively expanded in the years of rearmament, beginning at the relatively early date of 1935 (the same time as Germany's rearmament from a much weaker position and smaller economic base).

* To the extent that Britain was bent on appeasement during the 1930s, it was not a matter of an anti-military left, but a pro-military right which rearmed while conciliating Hitler, even as the normally more pacifistic left sought a harder line in dealings with him.

* When Britain did finally enter the fight, the initial expectation was not one of a hopeless conflict, but that its superior wealth and techno-industrial capability, in contact with the larger world's resources by way of the sea, gave it confidence of eventual victory. This is not belied but affirmed by the manner in which Britain went to war: partnering with continental allies backed up by a British contingent, while relying on its naval and economic instrument to bring the aggressor to heel.

* This confidence was not extirpated by the fall of France, in part because of Britain's considerable resources; and in part because at the time Britain never considered itself alone, even in the June 1940-June 1941 period--having as it did an empire covering a quarter of the world, the backing of exiled governments which brought over significant assets (like Norway's huge fleet of merchant ships), and access to the production and resources of the Americas. (The most that could be said was that it was the only great power directly engaging the Nazis.)

* Rather than a period of national unity (or leftist triumph) which unprecedentedly brought Labor into government, and the Left more generally, the war was largely an affair of the conservative political Establishment and its military-industrial complex.

* When the war ended, Britain--validating the optimism about its ability to win its war--was less damaged than is widely appreciated. Certainly it suffered far less loss of blood and treasure than its continental counterparts, even at the height of the war. (In the 1940-1943 period when the U-boat war was raging, Britain, despite the U-boats, actually managed to get by fairly well by enlarging domestic production and making more effective use of its shipping.) Rather its position relative to the rest of the world was diminished mainly by the extraordinary rebound of the U.S. from the Depression, combined with the decision of the U.S. to remain engaged in Eurasian and world affairs in the way it had opted not to be after World War I.

I see little room for argument with many of these claims. As Edgerton argues, Britain did remain a substantial economic, industrial and military power that went into the war very well-armed rather than unprepared, thanks in part to an inventive and highly productive military-industrial complex. Appeasement was more a reflection of the will of the right than the left, and the country then went to war not under the anti-Hitler left but an essentially Establishment regime. Utilizing its traditional military approach, there was wide expectation that the country would see the war through to victory with its allies (Britain was never alone even after the fall of France), the country was never more than a long way from being broken by the U-boat attacks, and its economic-military capacity came out of the war less diminished in absolute terms than in relative ones, thanks to the extraordinary American growth of the 1930s.

Indeed, to the extent that Edgerton sets the record straight on the "While Britain Slept" image of a country that could have avoided the war but for its failure to rearm; on the actuality and weight of a military-industrial complex in British political life; on just who was really promoting appeasement; on the consistency in Britain's pattern of war-making; and on the real limits of the Left's influence and accomplishments in this era; he does the historiography a considerable service. To a lesser extent, one may say the same for his putting the British experience during the war into perspective. (Others had it far, far worse.)

However, his study also has its weaknesses. His characterization of the strategic situation is particularly flawed. While he compares how Britain and Germany stacked up against one another, in the 1930s that was far from the only relevant balance of power. For British planners, the concern was Britain and Germany in Europe, Britain and Italy in the Mediterranean, and Japan in the Far East, with the nightmare scenario Britain having to fight all three at the same time--as was actually the case by December 1941.1

Still more significant is his often superficial treatment of the macroeconomic picture, and the way that side of the situation evolved during the conflict. Edgerton seems to me correct about the country's large, sophisticated military-industrial complex--but slights the important matter of the rest of the industrial base. As it happens, he actually makes favorable comparison of the arms factories with the coal mines, cotton mills and civilian shipyards that he himself notes had received little investment since the early 1920s--but avoids drawing the conclusion about that lack of investment. Equally, he shows very little sense of nuance in discussing the country's newer, high-tech sectors, taking no interest in whether Britain's firms were world-class companies, or mere second-stringers unable to compete outside a protected home and sterling area market; for whether the British divisions of foreign firms were low-end assembly units putting together imported parts as a way of circumventing the tariff barrier, or genuine high-end production capacity testifying to and developing a broader and deeper British know-how.

Still less does the book consider what any or all of these facts meant for even the narrower question of the military-industrial complex, let alone the larger matter of financing the war. After all, a robust defense sector still needs metal products, machine tools and other goods not strictly in its line, so that a really first-class military-industrial capacity requires a first-class industrial capacity generally--and Britain's position was problematic there. To a very great degree the steel and the machine tools it needed to make its weapons had to be imported from the United States (and even the Germans), while many of the components of successes like the Supermarine Spitfire had to be imported also (the plane not just made with American tools, but packing American instruments and machine guns). And as it was ultimately the civilian economy that had to pay for such efforts, all of this meant that, coming on top of an already deteriorating export position, trade balance, balance of payments, the country's economy was under serious strain before the war even began (less severe than Germany's, but an unsustainable strain all the same).

The war, of course, made matters much worse--a fact again given short shrift in the book. The section of Chapter Three considering the matter is headed "SAVED BY THE U.S.A.?" with the question mark conspicuous and significant. He emphasizes that Britain paid its way up to that point in dollars and declares that "it was buying from the USA without heed to its longer-term economic needs . . . because it knew from the end of 1940 that U.S.-financed help was likely to be available for the future." However, there is no way to take this as anything but a slighting of the hard fact of British bankruptcy a year and a half into the war, when the country's hard currency reserve was down to nearly nothing while the conflict was far from won. There is also no conclusion other than that had it not been for America's turning on the money spigot, Britain would have had to make peace with the Axis powers in early 1941, a peace that would have left the Nazis dominant in Western Europe, and free to turn east, after which the Soviet Union really would have been alone. Still less does this refute the equally hard fact of Britain's weakened financial condition after the war, when it was dependent on massive U.S. backing (a billion-pound loan in 1946, support for its currency and outright bail-outs for decades, techno-military transfers like the nuclear submarine and Polaris missile), which at times came at high cost (like the painful post-war devaluation of sterling), despite which it consistently fell short of realizing its governments' schemes for reinvigorating its economy, expanding its welfare state or retaining its world political and military role.

All of this testified to a very real weakness on Britain's part, specifically the deficiency of its manufacturing sector when broadly approached, with all its economic consequences, not least for its ability to bear the stresses of war as well as not only the larger U.S., but as well as the country had done in the World War I era. The result is that what Edgerton really does in this part of the discussion is remind the reader that Britain had strengths as well as weaknesses, successes as well as failures in its economic life in the interwar era, and its economic effort during the war, rather than integrate the two to create a more satisfying whole. As a result Britain's War Machine works less well as a new history than a corrective to some of the conventional wisdom--needed as that may be.

1. This is, of course, the more important because of the implications of Japan's military victories for the endurance of Britain's south and east Asian empire--and that, in turn, for its standing as a world power.

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