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#WavellReviews “Command: How the Allies learned to win the Second World War” by Al Murray

Available here from Headline Publishing.

The world is divided in many ways, and now there is another criterion for division worth talking about.  One, surprisingly, that pertains to Al Murray.

There are two types of people.  Those who know Al Murray as a comedian.  The beer-throwing, lager-loving, anglophile, imperialist pub landlord.  And those who know him as the astute, knowledgeable, curious and convivial historian, whose mastermind topic is undoubtedly the Second World War.

The latter of these two personas brings us Command: How the Allies learned to win the Second World War.  Not his first book, but by his own admission “his first serious book” and it covers a huge breadth of material, and everything expected of a WW2 history book.  Although the groans that usually accompany that sentence are in this case misplaced.  Murray is a compelling writer and his passion for this subject easily jumps off the page and keeps the reader interested and engaged.  Fans of his hit WW2 podcast ‘We Have Ways of Making You Talk’ will immediately recognise his enthusiasm for the topic.

Murray offers ten chapters each focusing on a different Allied Commander: from Patton and Slim to the lesser-known New-Zealander Freyburg (one of the few who had ‘a good First World War’ and earned himself a DSO with 3 bars and a VC).  The final chapter covers the unknown 2Lt Peter White, who Murray argues had visceral and critical experiences of command and commanding that are equally, if not more worthy of discussion than those of the starred officers.

The first of these chapters is naturally, the enigmatic Bernard Montgomery.  Now this may feel like well-trodden ground, but Murray deliberately avoids the trap of conflating this Bernard Montgomery with the ‘Monty’ that walks astride with Churchill inspecting the troops and wears two capbadges.  This chapter instead begins with a thorough introduction and assessment of a young Bernard Montgomery – the pre ‘Monty’ years – and a surprisingly readable digest on Venereal Disease and the crippling impact it had on combat effectiveness.

What follows is Murray’s assessment of the circumstances, events and experiences that shape Montgomery into the figure he ends up being.  All of this with a focus on the defeats, blunders and self-inflicted injuries that get him there.  Learning from failure then, is the central theme of the book told ten ways over.  The failures in the North Africa campaign that led to the fall of Tobruk and the ascension of Rommel to armoured manoeuvre demi-god myth, also set the ground for Monty to eventually prevail at El Alamein and ultimately the end of the campaign in the desert.  Wingate’s controversial Operation LONGCLOTH in the Burmese jungle with the Chindits set the ground for Slim’s resounding victory and ultimate defeat of the Japanese in Burma.  Murray is particularly scathing of Wingate in this book.  Most of the criticism deserved for a commander who reportedly held Orders Groups naked, and used to beat the men in his command.

Each chapter opens presenting a relevant military topic (desert warfare, intelligence, jungle warfare etc) introducing the reader to a new aspect of the war usually relevant to some Allied failure up until that point.  Many people have seen Benedict Cumberbatch successfully pit his version of Alan Turing against the Enigma code, but few give thought to the brutally inadequate Allied performances that gave away codebooks.  The poor radio discipline and open interceptions that bled information and key intelligence to the Axis forces.  Each of these chapter vignettes frames the circumstances and challenges of the comparable successes that followed, and where the namesake of each chapter fits within them.

Murray presents these arguments soundly and argues that Allied victory was not ultimately because of all these piecemeal successes; but also because of the many failures in command, leadership, intelligence, generalship and warfighting that usually preceded them.

Murray self-critically describes himself as ‘not a proper historian’, but he should not sell himself so short.  His first foray into “books without jokes in” has received widespread praise, and offers a unique, rich, and refreshing view of the Second World War from all theatres.  This book is not overly complex and is aimed at a mainstream audience, although die-hard fans of the genre will surely find enjoyment reading it as well.  Not just from his infectious enthusiasm and easy tone, but also from the large reading list that accompanies every chapter in the bibliography.

Chris

Chris is a British Army officer with experience in EW and CEMA across a few regimental and staff appointments.  Interested reader of military history, new and old.

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