Posted by: Tim | August 15, 2009

Summer Reading: WW2 and the Six Day War

I decided to take a break (almost) from theological reading on my holidays. So with help from Al Mohler’s summer reading list I bought a few historical war books. I enjoy reading war stories for the struggle and strategy, as well as understanding how battles and wars were won and lost.  I find WW2 to be interesting because it seems to me to be the pinnacle of mechanical, non digital age fighting – no guided missiles, no smart bombs, any aiming systems they had were mechanical, not digital. Most of all there was no atomic bomb until the end of it, so a country had to win conventionally, not by the threat of nukes. I also find anything about Israel interesting, and I have often heard stories about the Six Day War. So over the summer I read the following three books, summarized below:

“With Wings Like Eagles” by Michael Korda, about the Battle of Britain in 1940

Korda With Wings Like EaglesKorda describes the time leading up to the famous Battle of Britain, and the battle itself. Much of his narrative revolves around Air Chief Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding, who had the foresight to prepare Britain for battle in the air, years before the events where his system of defense would be needed. I found the internal politics between Dowding and the rest of the British leadership to be intriguing as they were constantly maneuvering for political position, even as they were united in fighting the Germans. Dowding was a brilliant strategist and he built a defense system, using newly invented radar and a central communications hub that allowed him to focus a relatively small numbers of British fighters where they were most needed, when they were needed. A humourous part of the book is that the Germans constantly thought the British were almost out of fighters, when in reality they had enough to continue defending their homeland. Dowding seems to have been a decent man but not overly personable (somewhat like Alan Brooke in Masters and Commanders summarized further below), and as a result he did not do so well in the internal political battles, eventually losing his command at the end of the Battle of Britain. In retrospect it seems a tremendous injustice that the man who arguably saved Britain from German invasion, and thus played a vital role in the preservation of freedom in the 20th century, was fired after achieving this great victory. Another interesting point is that while the British were full of political infighting over how to best achieve victory, the Germans had relatively little debate, since Hitler was a feared dictator and people did what he told them to do. The internal British debate produced better strategies while the one-man-rule often produced bad strategies. I found this book hard to put down – I finished it quickly. Highly Recommended!

“Six Days of War” by Michael Oren, about the 1967 Six Day War

Oren Six Days of WarBecause the Six Day War lasted for (you guessed it!) six days, it is possible to look at the strategies of both sides as well as the details of some of the key moments, all in good detail. Michael Oren has written a fascinating overview of the war. There is a lot of close up looks into the discussions of the Israeli government, and into the workings of the Egyptian government of Nasser. We see how the Six Day War happened and how it was overwhelmingly won by Israel.  Just as was the case with the Battle of Britain (and ultimately WW2), the strengths of democracy and weaknesses of dictatorship shine through. Israeli politicians and political leaders intensely fought and debated their decisions, while Egyptian, Jordanian and Syrian leaders did not have to do so. The result was good for Israel and bad for the others. In the opening days of the war, Egypt was claiming huge victories on their radio, while the reality was that they were losing badly, including the decimation of their air force, on the ground. Oren describes in some detail the recapture of the old city of Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount – a powerful moment. Other highlights are the political debates between Israel and the United States. Israel has been close with America for all of my life, so I was surprised to read of the relationship as it was then – not that they were enemies, but they weren’t allies in the way they are today. Six Days of War has been highly acclaimed as a definitive history of the Six Day War. I recommend it to anyone interested in better understanding this war, and the broader Middle East struggle that persists to this day.

“Masters and Commanders” by Andrew Roberts, about the Grand Allied Strategists of WW2

Roberts Masters and CommandersRoberts’ book was the longest and toughest of my summer reading, but it was also very rewarding as it takes you into the minds of some of the greatest military leaders of the 20th century: Franklin Roosevelt (US President), General George C. Marshall (US Army Commander), Winston Churchill (British PM), General Sir Alan Brooke (British Army Commander). Masters and Commanders describes the formulation of Allied ‘Grand Strategy’ for WW2, which refers to the big picture decisions of the war – such as when and should we attack North Africa?, when and should we return to Europe (D-Day)?, and should we focus on defeating Germany or Japan or both?. Through a series of communications and face-to-face meetings, the Americans and British made key decisions that shaped the course of the war. I had always (naively!) imagined them just generally agreeing with each other and coordinating like two old friends, but in reality they fought tooth and nail about most of the major decisions, making for tense meetings, accusations and plenty of politicking behind the scenes. As in the other two books I read, the strength of democratic government war deliberations over dictatorship is glaring – the fierce debates produce good results while the tyrant’s decisions are hit and miss, with more misses than hits. Roberts draws much of his material from diaries, and it is funny that although the British were not allowed to keep diaries for security reasons, it seems most all did anyways (thankfully for historians). Churchill and Roosevelt are giant figures in 20th century history, and Marshall is reasonably well known for formulating the Marshall Plan, but the figure who I found most intriguing was Sir Alan Brooke, who was Britain’s top military man and grand strategist. He always writes in his diary that the person he is talking with that day knows nothing about strategy – it seems he was the only one he trusted on strategy. But he was ultimately a good man who put the needs of his country ahead of his own interests. He could have had the command that made British General Montgomery famous, but he turned it down for the better of the country. He was promised to command the D-Day invasion by Churchill, but the Americans had more clout at that point and Eisenhower was eventually chosen. So although he was a key figure of WW2, he is relatively unknown. Marshall also could have had the command of the D-Day invasion, but he too felt it was for the better of his country to remain in his position. I really appreciated the sacrifice of personal fame and glory by both Brooke and Marshall, for the sake of the greater good.  I also enjoyed the constant attempts by Winston Churchill to shape things the way he wanted. It seemed to take everyone else in the book to counter the power of his personality. The saddest part of the book was when Roosevelt dies, with victory in sight but before it was achieved. Again, this book is long and not light reading, but it was well worth the effort and I recommend it. It will not be for everyone – if you are looking for heroic stories of soldiers storming the beaches, this is not the book for you. This is the story of leaders under immense pressure seeking to work together to defeat the Axis powers and preserve freedom in the world.

So there you have it, an overview of my summer reading. Anyone else read something interesting this summer? Feel free to post in the comments.

Note: I also read Christianity Today writer Colin Hansen’s Young, Restless Reformed, an overview of the resurgence of Calvinism in the American evangelical church in recent years. I may review it later, but in short it was interesting and an easy read, but I didn’t always enjoy the style of writing.


  1. So what is next? PS you will have to ask Ben about The Great War for Civilization by Robert Fisk…all 1286 pages of it – he said it has completely altered his view of the west.

    • What’s next? I’ll probably not have a chance to read much more war history for a little while… but I did read another book a couple of months ago about WW1. It wasn’t as good but was still interesting. The world was a lot different back then! PS 1286 pages is a long book! –About as long as Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology!!

  2. […] wrote brief reviews for the next three books HERE, which were all part of my summer […]

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