The Armchair General: Can You Defeat The Nazis?

-John Buckley


If you were the decision-maker at the turning points of WW2, knowing what they knew at the time, could you do better?  Or worse?


One of the fundamental problems with writing alternate histories is that writers have the benefit of hindsight.  The mistakes of the past are laid bare, with all their disastrous consequences exposed, to the point it becomes very easy to condemn the people of the time for making them.  This is misleading, because the people who made the decisions didn’t have the advantage of hindsight.  They had to make decisions based on what they knew at the time, not on truths that seem self-evident to their descendents.  It is easy to say, for example, that Churchill should have made a major commitment to North Africa earlier than OTL, but Churchill could not be sure Operation Sealion was a non-starter until much later than any of his critics.  Indeed, most of the great mistakes of the past – studied without hindsight – start looking more like the best course of action at the time.


John Buckley has attempted to outline this by taking a new approach to alternate history.  Instead of picking a single POD and detailing the possible consequences – the approach taken by military alternate history writers such as Kenneth Macksey and Peter Tsouras – Buckley presents eight moments of WW2 history where the right or wrong choices would determine the course of history, outlines what the major players knew at the time (as best as can be determined) and invites you to consider what decisions you might make.  This may seem like a simplistic Choose Your Own Adventure game book, and indeed it does come across as something akin to it, but it is soundly grounded in real history and – to a very large extent – keeps the alternate outcomes very realistic (and discusses why the ‘right’ answer was not always evident at the time.)


For example, with the advantage of hindsight, Winston Churchill was the obvious man to lead Britain to victory in WW2.  This was not evident at the time, as Buckley makes clear; Churchill’s war record was something of a mixed bag (he successfully evaded much of the blame for the Norwegian disaster), he had enemies in high places and, worst of all, there was no obvious way for Britain to actually win.  The French had been crushed, the Italians were on the verge of entering the war ... was it not time, people asked, for Britain to fold its cards and seek peace with Adolf Hitler when Britain still had something to use as a bargaining tool?  Buckley makes a very good case that the decision to continue the war was nowhere near as inevitable as it might seem.  Halifax, as PM, might have decided to bring the war to an end before it was too late.


Even if Churchill becomes PM, there are still problems facing the reader.  Should Britain make a secret approach to Hitler through Mussolini’s good offices?  If Churchill agrees, he may find himself presented with terms he’d find it hard to refuse (although the idea of Hitler keeping any agreements he made was laughable after Munich) or face a revolt in the Cabinet as the doves force a leadership contest; if he refuses, he may face the leadership contest anyway. 


The book is at pains to note that while private discussions with Hitler were a bad idea, they weren’t outrageously bad.  Halifax – as either PM or Foreign Secretary – had a duty to explore all options, although one doesn’t need hindsight to know Hitler couldn’t be trusted.  (The book does reserve some scorn for Samuel Hoare, who clearly learnt nothing from the run-up to war.)


The book then shifts to North Africa and, in doing so, casts light on the very limited options available to Churchill and the Vichy French.  Was it a mistake to divert British troops to Greece in 1941?  The outcome of the troops remaining in North Africa, according to Buckley, suggests both yes and no.  On one hand, Italian Libya would have been crushed well before the Germans could move troops into position to support their allies; on the other, it would have set off a political firestorm in French North Africa and Vichy France.  The book points out that French options were, in some ways, the most limited of all.  If they supported the British, Germany would take revenge on mainland France; if they fought, they’d be drawn ever-further into collaboration and submission. 


The book moves from Britain to Russia and asks, grimly, what the Russians should have done after the Germans invaded?  Should they keep Stalin or take advantage of his momentary discomfort to overthrow him?  Regardless, should they fight to hold Moscow or seek peace with Germany, even one on unfavourable terms?  This is, in many ways, the hardest part of the book to follow.  Stalin was a monster, Hitler’s equal in mass genocide, yet without his iron will would Russia survive long enough for the tide to turn?  It is hard to say.  On one hand, Stalin was strong because he allowed no strong followers (ensuring his successor wouldn’t share his powers); on the other, Stalin’s mistakes in the run up to the war were disastrous.  What should you do?  Buckley presents a nuanced answer.


Even as the tide turns in Russia’s favour, there was still no guarantee of a Russian victory, raising the prospect of a somewhat more balanced peace.  What if the Russians signed a treaty with Germany in 1943 and bowed out of the war?  Unlikely?  Perhaps, perhaps not – Russia had suffered badly in the war and the prospect of a Second Front had been put back to 1944.  The book outlines the problems facing the Russians, then details what might have happened if the two sides agreed on a treaty.


This leads into another possibility – a Second Front in 1943.  The overall outlook for an invasion isn’t as bad as is often suggested, at least on paper, but Buckley is careful to make clear that there were good reasons to put the invasion off until 1944.  The defences were weak – true – but American troops weren’t ready to fight Germans and the British could not afford a major disaster.  The book suggests that an invasion in 1943 wouldn’t have been a complete disaster, but it wouldn’t have won the war as quickly as its proponents hoped and ended with the allies effectively trapped in a pocket, needing to break out before they could resume the advance.  But a solid lodgement in France would make it a great deal easier for the US to reinforce the troops, then take the offensive in 1944.  It would certainly improve logistics!


Having looked at overall strategy, the book also looks at two major battles – Operation Market Garden/Arnhem – and Midway – that might have gone differently, if the people involved had made different decisions.  This is, unfortunately, a less convincing pair of scenarios.  An American defeat at Midway would be embarrassing and painful, but the Japanese would find it incredibly costly to take Midway and they’d still be ground under by the sheer weight of American production in the next two years.  Market Garden, by contrast, might provide better results if the operation was more limited, but Buckley believes it would not have made a major difference.  He might well be right.  The planning for Market Garden was flawed right from the start.


The book also studies two technical POD, the decision to concentrate on aerial bombing and to fund atomic research.  The former, I think although I may be wrong, is a little over-optimistic.  Bomber Command never had the technology for precision bombing and, while there was something to be said for developing a dive-bomber capability to match Germany, I doubt improving the bombing fleet to the point it could do real damage was feasible.  Putting more resources to the naval war might work better, perhaps defeating the U-Boats earlier than OTL, but it hard to be sure because the Germans would still be deploying U-Boats.  I think this is probably the weakest part of the book.


The idea of not funding atomic research is a little vaguer than the rest of the possible outlines, but does suggest it might well have happened.  Atomic science was in its infancy and no one could be sure it was worth it.  If it wasn’t funded ... what then?  Buckley suggests Japan would have been invaded instead, followed by a possible war against Russia.  He also suggests the German program would never have produced a viable weapon, although – again – it is hard to be sure.  A Germany that didn’t drive most of its best minds into exile would, at least in theory, have a solid ground for atomic research.


Overall, the book does a decent job at presenting the background, including what the key players knew at the time, and outlining possible alternatives.  It is easy to say, of course, that the reader should always follow the ‘right’ path, but the book is good at making clear there was no obviously right path.  Buckley picks PODs where there is a surprising amount of ambiguity and it shows.  I think he was careful to avoid PODs where the right thing to do was obvious.


When presenting characters – historical figures – he also places them in context and makes it clear that they will benefit personally from their decisions (or perhaps not – a known backstabber, even with a good cause, will never be trusted again.)  This is fascinating, in that it sometimes shines light on minor figures who stood – for a brief moment – at a turning point in history.  He makes them come alive as men who could, if they made the wrong choice, doom both themselves and their countries.


It is possible, of course, to argue that his decision to limit the scope of his alternate outcomes was a bad one.  But, looking at history from decades in the future, it is clear the idea of a world-bestriding Reich was the stuff of fantasy rather than sober reality.  Few choices would have been completely disastrous (possibly the only real disaster would be Russia making peace in 1941) and Buckley, I think, made it clear. 


He also, for better or worse, shies away from assessing the enemy’s decisions.  It would be interesting to assess Hitler’s decisions (as well as his Italian and Japanese counterparts) and see how well they hold up based on what he actually knew, but it would be incredibly controversial.  He also makes a handful of notes about Churchill not being politically correct by today’s standards, a point that not only detracts from the text but also raises the issue of looking at the world through Stalin’s eyes.  (Although, to be fair, he does call Stalin a psychopath and suggests a Molotov-headed government would be better for Russia.)  While this may be true, and Churchill has been attacked recently by people who think modern values can be projected back into the past, they would not have any bearing on his contemporaries.  Being an imperialist, and believing the British Empire was a force for good in the world, was not regarded as a bad thing in 1940 and the idea it would have entered anyone’s calculations is absurd.


If you’re in to alternate history, or even history in general, I think you’ll like this book.