Saturday 17 May 2014

Review - New edition - "Blitzkrieg" by Len Deighton

Technology & humanity
Blitzkrieg: from the rise of Hitler to the fall of Dunkirk is the third of the recent reissues by Harper Collins' non-fiction arm, William Collins, and a great looking edition it is too. It is one of the books that added to Len's reputation not just as a great storyteller but a top-rate historian, who drew on his fascination with detail and technology to look at the impact of armaments and new weaponry on the conduct of war.

This book, originally published in 1979, is clearly a labour of love by Len who, as a figure of some note in the post-war period, was able to use his status as a writer to get access to top research material and speak with some of the individuals who were involved in the conduct of the German Blitzkrieg technique. So, for instance, the book still retains the foreword by General Nehring, Guderian's Chief of Staff and someone who was closely involved in the development of 'lightning war'. It's fascinating to read in this foreword how the German's sought to develop the "art of surprise" in warfare, and Guderian comes across as a driven man who was keen to exploit the speed of the Blitzkrieg technique but was often frustrated by the decision of senior staff, not least Hitler.

General Nehring in 1979 seemed convinced in his foreword that Hitler, "the amateur", made a great mistake in calling a halt to the Blitzkrieg attacks in northern France that allowed the British to evacuate from Dunkirk and retain sufficient forces which could be used again in 1944. The Germans, he thinks, were "robbed of an easy victory.

What I've always enjoyed about this book, which looks at the attacks on the west in 1940 in great detail, is the illustrations that accompany the text. These were not done by Len himself - though I think his training would have permitted him to do so - but rather by another illustrator, Denis Bishop, who is referenced at the end of the book in the acknowledgements. The best illustration in the book is right at the start: a two-page illustration of a "typical Panzer division". The reader can see on the page each type of tank, the number in each regiment, how the regiments lined up as a division, and also all the accompanying forces which made any tank division run effectively: the engineers, the motorcycle divisions, the reconnaissance teams, and the signallers. All there on one page: the collective might of a Panzer division, which led by military geniuses like Guderian, were such an effective fighting force in the first half of the Second World War.

This book, in painstaking - but fascinating - detail, explains how the Germans did it, what techniques they introduced and how it made a difference. But, like every war, often the key factor is not the technology but the human element, and Len's book explains how Hitler's decisions as overall Commander-in-Chief led to the Blitzkrieg ultimately being blunted.

The new preface by Len Deighton
Len talks first about his decision in the sixties to rent a farmhouse in France to write what became his first book, The Ipcress File. His foreword puts across his joy at listening to the wartime stories of the neighbours in the village. These conversations led to discussions about what happened in 1940, and Len explains that he was given access to maps and souvenirs that helped to address some of the "misunderstandings and distortions" about the 1940 battle. All these conversations and ideas remained in his head for some years, Len writes, and he methodically referenced it and collated it, clearly for future use.

This obsession with gathering in information and stories about the 1940 period, he writes, led to his decision to write two books about it: Fighter, which has also been reissued, and of course Blitzkrieg. A visit to the tank museum in Bovingdon in the seventies kindled again his interest in the development of tank technologies in the war and its impact in changing the tide of the early battles. Len writes of his decision following this visit to take his car to France and to follow the routes of the original Blitzkrieg invasion himself.

Len recalls that as well as drawing on the experiences of the French veterans he met, he needed to speak to many on the German side to get a balanced viewpoint (as he did with Fighter). Len recalls how out of the blue he received a letter from General Nehring, referring to something he'd written in Bomber. This led to what Len calls "some of the most interesting and challenging research I have ever done."

It's clear from his forward that, 25 years after writing this book, Len is still very proud of his achievements in presenting the facts about the developments of 1940 and giving the reader a sense that in these pages is the real story of what happened.

The new cover
Len's son Antoni completes the third cover in the series, which again follows the pattern of an image of women in the war contrasted against an illustration of one of the fighting machines which shaped the war - the contrast of technology and emotion, which features in all three of the reissued books.

Antoni Deighton consciously wanted to present a clear image of the importance of the female perspective of the war. He writes of his grandmother, who left her job as a chef to become an oxyacetylene welder building aeroplanes and tanks. In all the forces joined in the Second World War, the role of women was important and, still, often unrecognised. The covers seek to address that point, and I think this one particularly has great poignancy. The Daimler Benz half-track towing a flak gun sits behind an image - taken by a German soldier, probably seated in a similar vehicle as it drove into a captured town - of three women, all displaying different emotions as a result of the German invasion, "ranging from fear to stoic resistance". The human cost of war displayed well in one single cover.

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