Britain’s War Machine: Weapons, Resources and Experts in the Second World War by David Edgerton - review by Richard Holmes

Richard Holmes

The Whole Five Hundred Million of Us

Britain’s War Machine: Weapons, Resources and Experts in the Second World War


Allen Lane/The Penguin Press 445pp £25 order from our bookshop

This book is opinionated, iconoclastic and very often right. David Edgerton begins by pointing out that Britain’s victory in the Second World War is ‘hardly commemorated’. In 2010 the government launched its plans to celebrate the sixty-fifth anniversary of victory in Europe so late that some veterans’ groups had too little time to assemble a contingent, and BBC Radio News put ‘extensive European and small British ceremonies’ seventh in its running order that day. In contrast, ‘Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, the Blitz, being “alone” – all are at the centre of national narratives of the war’. In place of the ‘declinist’ history that portrays a weakening imperial power making a last heroic stand and bankrupting itself to save the world, Edgerton offers instead the image of a ‘first-class power’ that was ‘confident, with good reason, in its capacity to wage a devastating war of machines’.

Edgerton rejects the notion that Britain stood alone in 1940. He maintains that ‘one of the most misleading images in British history’ is the celebrated Low cartoon showing a lone British soldier on a storm-wracked headland, shaking his fist at the elements and declaring: ‘Very well, alone.’ Instead,

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