Taking a break with Catastrophe: 1914 (2013), veteran military historian Hastings returns to World War II with the usual entirely satisfying results.
There are plenty of excellent accounts of the war’s espionage, codebreaking, and secret operations. Hastings mentions authors, including Stephen Budiansky and David Kahn, and warns that he will cover the same ground, adding that many popular histories and almost all memoirs and even official reports from the participants are largely fiction—including the recent acclaimed film about Alan Turing, The Imitation Game. The Red Army defeated Germany with modest help from the Allied Army, which, across the world, defeated Japan. Hastings disparages writers who describe a secret activity that turned the tide, but few readers will be able to resist his version of events. Hitler and Stalin scorned Britain’s armies, but, influenced by the work of Rudyard Kipling, Somerset Maugham, and John Buchan, they “viewed its spies with extravagant respect, indeed cherished a belief in their omniscience” that was entirely undeserved. Money was no object in Soviet espionage. Agents penetrated the Nazi high command and all Allied government, sending back an avalanche of information that was routinely ignored. Obsessed with finding conspiracies, the paranoid Stalin distrusted everyone, foreigners most of all, and rejected findings that contradicted his beliefs. Allied codebreakers deserve the praise lavished on them, but Hastings points out that the German codebreakers were no slouches. While Bletchley Park broke enemy naval codes intermittently, Germany read British naval codes throughout the war. Hastings has little quarrel with historians who agree that resistance fighters did more to promote postwar self-respect of occupied nations than hasten Allied victory. As he notes in closing, in the digital age, “the importance to national security of intelligence, eavesdropping, codebreaking and counter-insurgency has never been greater.”
A masterful account of wartime skulduggery that has relevance still today.