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 by John Kiszely

There is a common theme among modern military history books to focus, almost exclusively, on battles and campaigns from the perspective of those who are actually engaged in the fighting. While this is a perfectly acceptable genre, and one that has become particularly popular, it is also an approach which can easily fail to answer the important questions about the campaign itself. Not so much how a campaign was fought at the tactical level, a question that can be answered by studying the methods, training and equipment available to the opposing armies, but more about why it was fought in the first place, and its real purpose. The political decisions, the professional military advice, the application or lessons from previous wars, so often ignored or misinterpreted - these are all questions that can be overlooked by those authors who are too quick to get themselves down to the fighting itself.

In this masterful study of the disastrous Norway campaign of 1940, John Kiszely gets swiftly to the centre of the Whitehall machine and how it functioned, or failed to, in the early months of the Second World War. Following the outbreak of war in September 1939, there was that strange period known as the Phoney War when the British Expeditionary Force deployed to familiar places in France and Flanders, and with a certain air of déjà vu. Trenches were dug, the Army continued its training with inadequate forces and equipment, preparing for … nobody was quite sure. Back in London, it was almost a case of business as usual, with peacetime working hours still being observed and a War Cabinet presided over by Neville Chamberlain, a competent committee chairman but hardly a war leader. 

The dominant member of the War Cabinet at that time was, of course, Winston Churchill. Now back as First Lord of the Admiralty, the same post he had held in 1914, it did not take Churchill long to start proposing ideas aimed at relentlessly taking the war to the enemy, exactly as he had done 25 years earlier.  The problem, as John Kiszely demonstrates so clearly in this excellent book, is that Whitehall simply did not have a decision-making machine that could maximise Churchill’s qualities as an imaginative strategist while preventing his charismatic style and force of character from leading the War Cabinet to places it should not have gone.

There is, of course, a sense here of history repeating itself. Churchill argued persuasively for the Dardanelles Expedition in early 1915 as an alternative way of prosecuting the war, away from the stalemate of the trenches. Although the Dardanelles ended in disaster, the War Cabinet would have needed even less persuasion in 1940 for such an imaginative approach, and seemed more than capable of flawed decision-making, without asking the right questions or, crucially, receiving sound advice. Kiszely quotes Michael Howard’s observation that for those involved in the higher direction of the Second World War ‘‘never again’ was not just an epitaph; it had become a guiding principle of strategy’. It was certainly not the simplistic answer that was needed.

So, when Churchill proposed a daring operation to cut off the supply of Swedish iron ore shipped through Narvik to Germany, the War Cabinet was receptive, although it subsequently wavered and changed its mind on more than one occasion, losing much time and initiative in the process. Churchill’s stirring radio addresses had proved good for morale, and with the Royal Navy’s early success at the Battle of the River Plate, his star was in the ascendant. Churchill had opposed appeasement in the 1930s, had more military experience than other members of the War Cabinet, and a vision that looked way beyond the tactical level. He could not be ignored.

The problem at this stage, as the author explains so well, was that neither the Government nor its professional military advisors were ready or prepared for running a war. The three Service Chiefs of Staffs, all at the tail-end of their careers, seemed to be consumed with single-service issues and rivalries to the extent that these often overshadowed the higher direction of the war. The concept of combined operations involving the three Services was in its infancy, and the Chiefs of Staff were simply not capable of speaking with one voice on any issue of strategic importance. Clear military advice was so often lacking in clarity, leaving the War Cabinet at the mercy of its most forceful and talented member.

War Cabinet deliberations on Norway were soon overtaken by events, with the Germans managing to achieve complete strategic surprise by launching attacks along the Norwegian coastline in April 1940. The British and their French allies had now lost the initiative, and were soon embroiled in battles at sea and on land that were doomed from the outset. The Norwegian campaign failed most obviously at the tactical level, for many reasons, but the seeds of failure had been sown before the troops or ships had even left harbour. While the Germans were able to conduct their campaign as a series of coordinated military operations aimed at delivering a clear strategic objective, for the Allies it was nothing short of a muddle, from beginning to end. As just one of many examples, Kiszely cites the Germans’ coordinated logistical plan to deliver large numbers of troops, equipment, and combat supplies for the campaign, observing that it ‘is difficult to envisage their British opponents accomplishing this, even without an enemy’. It is quite an indictment, but is well-supported by the evidence.
The Germans did have some advantages over their enemy. They did not have to worry about public opinion back home, nor the more tiresome aspects of operating within a coalition. However, as the author describes so clearly, their strengths in no way explain the weaknesses in the British way of war in those early months of 1940. Churchill later wrote that ‘Considering the prominent part I played in these events, it is a miracle I survived’. He certainly did survive, and was soon to be Prime Minister, as a direct consequence of the failure of the Norway campaign.

This book is more than history because it has an enduring relevance which, perhaps alarmingly, will find parallels with recent campaigns. In writing the book, John Kiszely has applied all his experience as a commander at the tactical and higher level of commands, and as a senior staff officer in the Ministry of Defence. He has applied, throughout, a thorough and analytical approach, to produce a book which is both readable and incisive. He has sought to answer some difficult questions, and has not been tempted to blame the usual suspects such as lack of intelligence, the strength of German airpower, or the poor performance of the Allied forces assigned to the operation. The failure was much more fundamental than that. This disastrous campaign came early in the war, and might have been forgotten as gradually the British and their allies learnt from their mistakes. However, it is important that such failures are not forgotten.

Anatomy of a Campaign: The British Fiasco in Norway, 1940 is an excellent book which lives up splendidly to its title. While it will be of professional interest to serving personnel, providing a fascinating insight into campaign planning and the relationships between grand strategy and the employment of military resources, there is another obvious audience for this excellent analysis: politicians and civil servants.

The Editor

Anatomy of a Campaign: The British Fiasco in Norway, 1940. Cambridge University Press. www.cambridge.org/uk. £34.99


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