And We Shall Shock Them by David Fraser

The British Army in the Second World War.

Sceptre, 1983, 431 p, plus ii p Contents, iii p Author’s Preface, i p Acnowledgements, i p List of maps.

 And We Shall Shock Them cover

The essence of this book is that it was written by a military historian who was an army man. It leans more towards a reader who has a similar background than to a wider readership.

Fraser starts on November 11th, 1918, at the end of a previous war for which the British Army had been totally unprepared (at least in terms of numbers of men) when it broke out. Yet by the Armistice the Army had turned itself into the best in the world at that time, surpassing even the Germans, who still remained formidable opponents until the last shots were fired. But during the peace all that expertise was lost, the military lessons of the Great War forgotten, and the Army became a kind of Cinderella organisation, unloved, underfunded, underequipped, and – crucially – undertrained. (That there were understandable reasons for this in a lack of public willingness to contemplate the horrors of war again so soon after what was such a massive disruption affecting so many, not to mention a political realm not keen to go against the prevailing mood, Fraser seems to discount.) It should be noted, though, that in Germany and Japan no such considerations obtained.

Seen in that context, however, the defeats the British Army endured in all theatres of war in World War 2’s early stages are not at all surprising. The mild alarm the Germans experienced at Arras in 1940, the triumphs in Somalia and Abyssinia and at Beda Fomm against the Italians (far from the fight-shy caricature of British popular myth,) speak well of the Army’s efforts to overcome its disadvantages, as does the initial victory over Rommel of Operation Crusader in the Western Desert before that instinctive military gambler turned things round again and pushed the Desert Army all the way back to El Alamein. Yet here Rommel was stopped – and could not force a way through. The less said about Malaya the better, a catalogue of bad administration, bad decisions and faulty deployments.

The book’s subtitle is The British Army in the Second World War and deals exclusively with what was called the British Army yet brought out the curious fact that for four years between mid-1940 and mid-1944 very few actual British soldiers fought the Germans or Japanese. The campaigns in Greece, Crete, the Western Desert and subsequently Italy were conducted mainly by Australian, New Zealand, South African but above all Indian, Divisions. While there were some British and Australian soldiers involved this last is especially true, with the addition of Burmese troops, of the war against the Japanese in the Far East.

The book is relentlessly focused on the military aspects of the war – wider strategic or political considerations are totally absent – and suffused with the usual military jargon and alphabet soup of Corps, Divisions, Brigades etc. If a little too concentrated on the war’s early phases, as an overview of the “British” Army from 1939-1945 it serves well.

In the Author’s Preface he says, “the taking of Rangoon redeemed Singapore, as Dunkirk was avenged by the crossing of the Rhine.” This may be true in a purely military sense (the sight of a Japanese army streaming back in defeat in dribs and drabs through the jungles of Burma represented an undoubted victory over notoriously tenacious opponents) but politically, strategically, and in terms of prestige nothing could redeem Singapore. Its fall in 1941 signalled the end of Britain as a world power – and the end of Empire – even if that was not fully confirmed until the Suez Crisis of 1956.

Pedant’s corner:- “against one of the most efficient and competently led war machines that have ever taken the field” (that has ever taken the field,) “the raiding party parachuted in, achieved their objective” (its objective.) “Men began to believe, in Britain, that the ultimate challenge was not going to be thrown down after all – that England would not be trod by the foot of the invader.” (England? In a narrow sense I suppose so, but it is still irritating,) “while the Italian were well furnished with pack companies” (Italians,) “a large number of anti-tank guns were deployed” (a large number of anti-tank guns was deployed,) lefthand (left hand,) Corps’ (this varied with Corps’s throughout the book, though the former usually prevailed,) “the whole of 11th Division were behind the Perak River” (the whole was behind.) “This was the route the enemy were to take” (the route the enemy was to take,) “in the most important equipments” (equipments? Normal usage sees “equipment” as encompassing plural items,) “armed with 75mm gun” (with a 75 mm gun.) “A number of small German counter-attacks were defeated” (strictly; a number was,) Scoones’ (Scoones’s,) “the British Army’s contribution to the great adventure – thirteen divisions – were being blooded for the first time,” (the British Army’s contribution to the great adventure – thirteen divisions – was being blooded,) Horrocks’ (Horrocks’s.) “Facing Second Army, as far as was known, were a hotchpotch of” (was a hotchpotch,) “25th Division were only secure at Kangaw” (25th Division was only secure at Kangaw.)

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