Britain’s War Machine: Weapons, Resources and Experts in the Second World War, by David Edgerton, Oxford University Press, New York, 2011, $34.95
After the May 1940 fall of France, Britain was—as we all know—destitute and alone, clinging to life by its very fingertips. It was outmanned and outgunned by a superior German force and saved only by the English Channel, the Royal Air Force and Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s pugnacious rhetoric. We all know it. No need to discuss it. No need, that is, unless you’re David Edgerton, the Hans Rausing professor at Imperial College London.
Edgerton’s new book, Britain’s War Machine, takes exception to the notion the United Kingdom was isolated, defeatist or weak at any point in the six years of war. Edgerton’s well-researched volume bursts with data that reveal Britain’s true strength even when supposed to be in critical condition. For example, he destroys the idea that Britain and France were poorly armed at the time of Dunkirk. In the first half of 1940, he writes, France and Britain together produced 1,412 tanks, compared with 558 by Germany, and Anglo-French aircraft production was twice that of Germany.
Edgerton’s Britain was simply the flashpoint for a vast industrial network that included the Empire, Allies in exile and their colonies, and, of course, the United States. His data also tear down the legend of wartime rationing, showing that imports of many food commodities actually increased during the war. “In 1940 Britain’s economic strength was a matter not of faith but of calculation,” writes Edgerton. “Figures supported the view that Britain was strong and had a greater capacity to wage modern warfare than Germany.”
How convincing is his argument? Not completely. Edgerton has a few blind spots, in particular his tendency to overlook Britain’s horrendous fiscal position throughout the war—a budgetary crisis that prompted the United States’ Lend-Lease program. And he never fully addresses the despair that engulfed Britain after the February 1942 fall of Singapore or the mounting losses at sea.
What Britain’s War Machine does do successfully is challenge the notion that Britain was a 98-pound weakling in the early 1940s, demonstrating conclusively that it was far stronger economically, militarily and intellectually than many have realized.