On the evening of 31 August 1939, an unknown prisoner in one of Hitler’s concentration camps was dressed in a Polish uniform, taken to the German frontier town of Gliewitz, and shot in a fake ‘Polish attack’ that was meant to make Germany appear the target of Polish aggression. He was the first casualty of a war that would claim the lives of more than 46 million soldiers and civilians. In this history, Martin Gilbert goes behind the statistics to uncover a multitude of tragic stories: soldiers, sailors and airmen; partisans, spies and resistance fighters; men, women and children, bombed in their homes or sent starving and defenceless to their deaths.
A truly epic history, The Second World War covers all the fronts on which this deadly six-year conflict was fought: on land, at sea and in the air, from Finland and Norway to Burma and Japan. Interwoven with this overview are the often heroic actions of individuals. There was the German Major General Friedrich Mieth, who spoke out against the crimes of the SS in Poland and was dismissed from his post and Mary Linde ll, who parachuted into France to establish an escape line for Allied airmen and prisoners of war and saved hundreds of lives. Gilbert is eloquent on the ‘war within the war’ waged by the Nazis against the Jews, the mentally ill, Gypsies and other ‘sub-humans’. The most memorable stories of courage and cruelty are found here, from the sailors who rowed almost the whole Jewish population of Denmark to safety in Sweden, to the six-year-old boy who was one of the first Italian Jews to be murdered in Auschwitz.
As Churchill’s biographer, Martin Gilbert had complete access to all of his papers, giving him an unrivalled insight into Britain’s perspective. He reveals Churchill’s discovery, the evening after he delivered his famous ‘blood , toil, tears and sweat’ speech on 13 May 1940, that the Allied situation was dire and that Britain had only 39 fighter squadrons when 60 were needed to defend it. Nevertheless by the autumn, the RAF, with airmen from Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa, among other countries, had won the Battle of Britain, marking a crucial turning-point. The theatre of war grew ever wider, from North Africa to the Philippines, and the fighting nations were joined by Japan and the United States. Stretched to breaking point, the Axis powers began to suffer a series of losses: at Stalingrad, El Alamein and the Battle of Midway.
The war officially ended in 1945 with the surrender of Germany and Japan. Yet, as the final chapter ‘Unfinished Business’ reminds us, the relics of war lingered, from the remains of American bombers found in the Libyan desert to the controversy that raged in 1989 over the funeral of Emperor Hirohito of Japan, who had been accused of war crimes. As Gilbert puts it, ‘How else could it be with an event, lasting for nearly six years, in which courage and cruelty, hope and horror, violence and virtue, massacre and survival, were so closely intertwined?’
Read more about the life and work of Martin Gilbert
Martin Gilbert was born in London in 1936. He was educated at Highgate School in London, where several of his teachers had fought in the First World War, including Geoffrey Bell and A. P. White. After doing his National Military Service, he travelled in the Balkans and Turkey, then studied History at Magdalen College, Oxford, under A. J. P. Taylor, who was then writing his Origins of the Second World War. In 1968 he became the official biographer of Winston Churchill. He is the author of over 80 books and is a Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford.
Review by pedro7 on 25th Apr 2012
"I have just finished reading this and have to say what a superb book it is.I bought the First World War by the same author and i didnt think he would match that but these 2 volumes are their equal.Ver..." [read more]