Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Fitting together Second World War's disparate events

  • Print

British military historian Anthony Beevor begins this comprehensive history of the Second World War with the amazing story of a young Korean, Yang Kyoungjong.

Drafted into the Japanese army in 1938 at age 18, Yang was sent to Manchuria where he fought in the border skirmishes between Soviet and Japanese troops and was taken prisoner by the Soviets.

After a spell in a Soviet labour camp he was drafted into the Soviet army and was sent to fight the German invaders in Ukraine. Taken prisoner by the Germans, he then served in the German army in Normandy where he was captured by U.S. troops shortly after D-Day, ending up in a prisoner-of-war camp in Britain.

Here, Beevor suggests, is the global dimension of the Second World War all tied up in experience of a single soldier. Yang's story illustrates Beevor's two main themes: the interconnection between the war in Asia and the war elsewhere and the ways in which the war engulfed so many men and women and shaped their lives.

Despite its length and its occasional tendency to get bogged down in unnecessary detail, the volume is highly readable. Better yet, combine Beevor with Max Hastings' All Hell Broke Loose, another new (2011) and comprehensive history of the Second World War that makes for equally absorbing reading.

The author of well-received studies of the battles of Stalingrad and Crete, of D-Day, and of the fall of Berlin in 1945, Beevor describes his latest work as his attempt to explain how the events of the war fit together.

In particular, he emphasizes the war's global interconnectedness, for example by taking the Asian battle of Khalkhin Gol, and not the Nazi invasion of Poland, as marking the war's beginning.

It is this inter-weaving of the Asian dimension of the war with the fighting on other fronts that distinguishes Beevor's history from many previous accounts.

Fought between Soviet and Japanese armies on the border of Soviet-controlled Mongolia and Japanese-controlled Manchuria in May 1939, the battle was a decisive Soviet victory.

As a result, Japan abandoned plans for expansion into Soviet Asia and turned south to the Pacific, a decision that eventually led to the attack on Pearl Harbor, bringing the U.S. into the war in both Asia and Europe.

Victory at Khalkhin Gol also relieved Stalin of the worry of having to fight Germany and Japan simultaneously, allowing him to move troops west to block the German invasion that began in mid-1941, and setting the stage for the coalition with the Western allies, including Canada, that led to Allied victory four years later.

From this beginning, Beevor takes us on a month-by-month examination of the various military campaigns that together constituted the Second World War. As in his other books, he successfully combines the decisions that shaped military strategy with vignettes that depict events through the eyes of the soldiers who did the actual fighting, while not neglecting the experience of the many millions of civilians who, while theoretically non-combatants, found the war on their doorstep anyway.

At the same time Beevor's many asides add interest to the story he has to tell. Who remembers that a Free French fighter group fought beside the Soviets on the Eastern front or that the Polish underground disassembled an experimental German V2 rocket so that the RAF could fly it out of Nazi-occupied Poland for Allied scientists to examine?

Who knew that fighter pilots often wore silk scarves, not for their flamboyance, but to prevent the neck chafing that resulted from ceaselessly scanning the skies for enemy planes?

Anyone looking for a comprehensive military history of the Second World War that combines high strategy and politics but also takes full account of the war's human dimensions need look no further.


Ken Osborne is a professor emeritus in the faculty of education at the University of Manitoba.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 14, 2012 J7

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes


  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.


Make text: Larger | Smaller


Paul Maurice addresses media at end of 13/14 season

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • June 25, 2013 - 130625  -  A storm lit up Winnipeg Tuesday, June 25, 2013. John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press - lightning
  • Goslings with some size head for cover Wednesday afternoon on Commerce Drive in Tuxedo Business Park - See Bryksa 30 Goose Challenge- Day 12- May 16, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

View More Gallery Photos


What are you most looking forward to this Easter weekend?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google