Sunday 20 April 2014

Review - New Edition - "Blood, Tears & Folly" by Len Deighton

This new UK edition of Len's 1993 history of the major military strategies of World War Two is big in concept, scope and physical size. At nearly 800 pages, this is perhaps one of Len's most personal books, reflecting his long-standing research as an amateur historian and enthusiast for all things military material.

This book is not a complete history of the conflict. Rather it focuses on the early years of the war and the set piece battles that set the stage for the latter half of the conflict. In the same vein as Fighter, Len seeks to offer a perspective on the war - "an objective look" is in the subtitles - but also to challenge established tropes about the conflict. So, in looking at the early years of the war, he is not averse to directing criticism at Churchill for his botched Norway invasion, or the relative debacle that was the BEF's experiences in facing defeat during the Blitzkrieg and being forced to evacuate via Dunkirk.

Len spends a lot of the book looking at the origins in the pre-war alliances and appeasement that allowed Hitler the space in which to re-arm and prepare the Blitzkrieg strategy which proved crucial in the first couple of years of the war in shaping Germany's multiple military victories. This is very much a view of the war through set-piece battles: there are chapters on 'The Battle of the Atlantic', 'The Mediterranean War' and 'Barbarossa: the attack on Russia', all of which are looked at by Len with his customary eye for detail and interesting twist.

The rather nice thing about this book has been the use of illustrations to accompany the text, perhaps reflecting Len's former career as an illustrator. They provide a visual commentary that helps the reader understand the complexities of strategy and the advances in technology propelled by the war.

The introduction by Len
As an internationally renowned writer and historian of some note, Len was advantaged in this book by having had access to some of the major protagonists in the war. His introduction references conversations with Montgomery's Chief of Staff, the Luftwaffe Chief Adolf Galland, and Walter Nehring, Chief of Staff to tank ace Erwin Rommel! Fascinatingly, Len recalls also meeting Albert Speer, Hitler's favourite architect and later Armaments Minister, a man who was less than open after the war with his views on his role in Nazi Germany. With resources like that to draw on, Len was always going to present a story that looked at things from all sides, in detail.

Len touches on what he sees as the British tendency towards historical delusion, to exploit and sustain myths and to have a sympathetic view of the nation's role in world history; he chides his country for having a 'muddle through' approach to the world. But he also reminds the reader that historical delusions affect all nations involved in war. He also makes an interesting point about how after the War, the Cold War may have kept the peace in Europe but simply transferred the violence and conflict to other arenas. Ultimately, this history is his encouragement to people to better understand the origins of the last War to prevent future conflict.

The new cover
Another rather nice cover by his son, who's taken over cover duties. Following the theme set with Fighter, this mixes technical imagery with photography, bringing together the two elements which are to the fore in the book: the role of military technology in changing the odds on the battlefield - in this case, a U-Boot - and also the role of the individual, military or otherwise, represented by the group of Wrens practicing at a firing range. It's a great photograph, emphasising as this whole series does the unsung role of women in wartime.

See what you think:

If you've read this book before, what do you think of the themes Len addresses and how his history of the key battles compares with other historians' views?


  1. There seems to be an almost inexhaustible demand for books about the Second World War. The 'History' sections of most British book stores are dominated by war books. A German commentator suggested that to the British the 2nd World War has the same place in the culture has the Old West has to Americans. Germany has many writers producing critical texts but Britain has very few beyond Len. So I'm very fond of Fighter and Blood, Tears and Folly. (and I guess Blitzkreig is next to be reissued) as they are unusually critical for British books covering this era.

    In an alternate universe the Britain of the 1980s took a different turning. Len Deighton got together with the German film maker Edgar Reitz to produce Bomber as a coproduction between German and British TV. Reitz, who shares with Len an interest in the social consequences of technology, having just produced Heimat as a miniseries. Bomber followed the same format. Each episode follows Sam Lamberts Lancaster crew and Lowenhertz's night fighter squadron as they prepare for and finally engage in combat. The international public that had already enjoyed Das Boot as a TV series and feature film were ready to accept Bomber. German dialogue was in German with English subtitles where required and english dialogue in english with subtitles where required.

    The film technology of the day called for extensive use of practical models and flying replicas which allowed the production to continue without an American bankroll to pay for CGI. The series became a major artistic and popular success and changed, finally, perceptions in Britain regarding the 2nd war and Britain's role in it. The history sections of British bookshops ceased to be dominated by uncritical books 'celebrating' Britain's actions at war. By 2014 Britain was a trusted partner with the Germany that it is so alike in so many ways. And finally, and most important of all, Len Deighton's history of aero engines was afforded shelf space in the book shops of Britain!

  2. Fascinating concept - Edgar Reitz is one of my favourite directors, so I'm animated to think about how he'd adapt Bomber - would be very different from a Hollywood approach!

  3. ""There seems to be an almost inexhaustible demand for books about the Second World War. The 'History' sections of most British book stores are dominated by war books"
    I do not think the above is true. I have not seen the evidence of the above in major Waterstone bookshops. Yes, there are books about Second World War, but their numbers are not dramatically increasing. I agree that the Second World War still holds fascination among certain age group in Britain, but that has stayed constant or even declined over the years. This age group is the one that is interested in Deighton books.
    The young in Britain, even those who have studied History in GCSE and A levels, where the Second World War, and Britain during the war years formed their subject materials have moved on. In GCSE History exams, more students answer the Vietnam war questions these days.
    As for Americans, the Old West does not hold that fascination any more as the immigrant population has an increasing majority of Hispanics and Asians these days. My conversations with Americans do not elicit much enthusiasm for the Old West these days as compared to say in late 1960s and early 1970s, when one could find interest in the Old West in many. The Duke's ( John Wayne's ) and other similar movies exercised some influence then. Even then, in 1970s one could see the fascination fading.

    1. Sorry, it should be "material"