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Fitting together Second World War's disparate events

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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

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