“Total War. A People’s History of the Second World War” by Kate Clements, Paul Cornish and Vikki Hawkins (published by Thames & Hudson)

Human stories behind the mass carnage

War is sick, war is disgusting, but who cares? The last ones were disasters but let’s have another. There’s a bit of land to fight over, or national pride, or an ideology. War is waged by lunatics, macho men, cowards and bully boys with small thingummies. And to top it off there’s something called total war, and that’s what this book is about.
16. December 2021 16:37

Total war is seen here as one that reaches beyond the blood of the battlefields, in which economies and societies are mobilised as well as soldiers, sailors and airmen. Civilians play as vital a role and are likely to be targetted too. Little respect is paid to international laws and conventions, and the line between “lawful” killing and murder is blurred.

And the Second World War, from September 1939 to September 1945, was the deadliest ever, a total and global conflict on an unprecedented scale, with millions of both sexes called up, vast numbers of people moved around the world, economies at full tilt to fuel the war machine, and governments enlisting science and technology to defeat the enemy. WWII involved more than 30 nations and was the archtype of total war, fought in deserts, jungles, mountains and plains, in the air, on land and at sea.

Somewhere around 60 million people died, the majority of them not in uniform, and “Total War”, the book, presents both the big picture – a comprehensive history that covers the drift away from peace in the 1930s, the fighting not only in Europe and the Far East but in Africa and the Middle East, the Battles of Britain and the Atlantic, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the surrenders and so on – but also many small pictures of individuals whose lives were consumed by the conflict.

This “People’s History” brings stories and objects to in-your-face life. There is, for instance, Ben Cowburn, a British agent whose fluent French saw him sent to German-occupied France four times with fake ID that would have earned him a firing squad. He sabotaged a German submarine and six railway engines and once “caused chaos by putting itching powder in some German troops’ laundry”.

Or Fred Ham , a commando who took part in a raid in Norway that destroyed 800,000 gallons of valuable fish oil, took more than 200 German prisoners and captured important information. They returned to Britain with 300 Norwegians who had volunteered to fight the Axis of Germany, Italy, Japan and others (including Hungary).

As a member of the Women’s Land Army, Rosemary Thompson travelled the countryside around Devon in England pumping gas or poison into hedgerows of farms to kill rats that were eating crops. She would return the next day to collect the corpses but on one occasion her friend accidentally gassed five chickens.

Women were called into Britain’s factories and Louie White worked with a micrometer checking aircraft parts in Blackburn, Lancashire, from 7pm to 7.30am, then had a few hours sleep before doing the shopping or housework. In June 1943 her husband Jack, an air-gunner with the Royal Air Force (RAF), was killed and she was widowed at 25 years old.

A British national, Shelagh Brown, suffered malaria and near starvation in a Japanese camp in the Dutch East Indies for three and a half years. Women there  created a vocal orchestra that performed classical music by using their voices to imitate instruments. They gave three concerts before too many members died for the orchestra to continue.

At another Japanese camp, in Shanghai, Police Sergeant Robert Bulpin risked harsh punishments by secretly covering his jersey with the signatures of 382 British, US, Dutch, Belgian and Greek prisoners, a way of recording their existence if they failed to survive their ordeal.

More than 7000 West Indian men and women served with the wartime RAF, which, “unlike the other services, did not operate a ’colour bar’ and Billy Strachan attained the rank of flight lieutenant”. At 18, eager to fight, he had sold his beloved bicycle and saxophone to pay for the voyage from Jamaica to Britain. He became an air-gunner in Bomber Command and after completing his first “tour” of 30 missions he retrained as a pilot.

Poon Lim, a foreign seaman in the British Merchant Navy, survived four months alone on a raft catching seabirds, fish and even a shark for food after a German submarine sunk his ship. And Lucille Hollingdale risked her life cycling 120 kilometres a day with food and clothing to search for Allied airmen shot down over German-occupied France.

Animals too played a part – Rex, a German Shepherd, searched blitzed buildings in London and when he found someone would alert the Air Raid Precautions wardens by barking or digging with his paws. He saved 65 lives and received the Dickin Medal, a gallantry award for animals.

“Total War” has many such personal stories from across the globe. The book was produced in partnership with Britain’s Imperial War Museums, and Kate Clements, Paul Cornish and Vikki Hawkins are curators there. The book’s 390 illustrations include Cowburn’s ID, Ham’s knife, Bulpin’s jersey, Strachan’s flying helmet and goggles, Rex’s harness and lead and much much more of great interest.

Many are items not commonly seen, such as a sample box of goods declared as contraband if they were being shipped to Germany, and which were to be seized by the Royal Navy in an attempt to starve Germany of resources. The Morrison shelter was a steel cage that doubled as a table under which a family could sleep in. It was designed to withstand the upper floor of a house falling on it. And there is a suitcase radio, paintings, insignia, telegrams, weaponry, a prosthetic limb made from scrap meterials…

Another picture shows a shell-damaged cash box from Her Majesty’s Ship Exeter, one of the ships that hunted down and fought the German “pocket battleship” Graf Spee off the coast of South America in December 1939. Forced to seek refuge in Montevideo, Uruguay, a neutral harbour, the Graf Spee was scuttled to prevent her destruction by the Royal Navy. The British public hailed the first naval victory of the war.

Beautiful period posters entice women to serve in the Women’s Land Army, the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), the Women’s Royal Naval Serice (WRNS, the “Wrens”) and the factories, or urge them not to bring their children back to the cities from which they had been evacuated to escape Hitler’s bombing. The “Dig for Victory” campaign encouraged people to grow their own food on every available piece of land.

Heartbreaking letters, villages burned to the ground,, memorial certificates for the dead, a tattered Union Jack carried at the surrender of Singapore, civilian refugees fleeing brutality in Europe and Asia, inadequately dressed seamen on ice-covered Arctic convoys, concentration camp crematoriums, codebreaking machines –  all are seen in this fresh overview of a calamitous conflict.

“Total War” combines the global with the personal: maps, statistics and graphics alongside stories of human beings swept up in the most significant event of the 20th century. The cover photo tells it all in a way – an infirm old lady carrying two bags of possessions, probably all she has, amid the absolute wreckage of a blasted city and helped along by a soldier. But where will she go? What did she do to deserve this?

We already knew that the innocent suffer but “Total War” hammers home the story with its trove of tragedy and heroism.

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