In 1942 and Hitler’s Soft Underbelly, Professor David Reynolds re-examines the North African and Italian campaigns of WW2. He starts by posing a question. “Why did we and the Americans spend a lot of the Second World War in the Mediterranean, rather than crossing the Channel?”
If the main battleground was Russia, they surely the next key area was to be found in occupied Europe – so why was Churchill obsessed with campaigns in North Africa and Italy? Reynolds is able to produce a number of convincing arguments. As a man of Empire, Churchill understood the importance of Egypt – if the Suez Canal was lost, then Britain faced ruin. But there were also more pragmatic reasons – neither the British or the Americans had the capability to launch a full-scale assault across the English Channel and into France in 1942. But Churchill needed a victory, any victory, in order to shore up morale.
Given that defeat had already followed defeat for the British since 1939, another failure (he envisaged a bloodbath of the scale of the Somme if they attempted a landing in France) might have spelled the end. Possibly not for the British war effort but certainly for him as leader, as the likes of Sir Stafford Cripps and Anthony Eden were circling. The perilous state of Churchill’s own personal standing during this period is a matter of historical fact, but since it often gets overlooked it’s an interesting area to explore.
So once Monty scored a victory at El Alamein, Tunisia and Italy began to look like tempting prospects – offfering the British and Americans chances to score what should have been easy victories. Surely Hitler would be too occupied with Russia to be able to adequately defend these theatres of war?
It wasn’t to be and Reynolds declares that Churchill’s bright idea would become a dark obsession. Partly this was because Churchill underestimated Hitler, but the British prime minister also received faulty intelligence. The work of the codebreakers at Bletchley Park has become well known during the last few decades, but Reynolds shows that they weren’t infallible. Often this was because they didn’t have access to the top level of German high command and given the chaotic nature of the German command structure (thanks to Hitler’s knack of micro-managing) the information they received, whilst not deliberately inaccurate, wasn’t correct either.
David Reynolds is an engaging guide. You get the sense that he relishes being away from his day job (as a professor of International History at Cambridge) and that he also enjoys throwing some quirky scenes into what otherwise might be a fairly dry viewing experience.
He opens the first episode with a fairly conventional piece to camera, except that he’s walking along a beach, his trousers rolled up and the waves lapping at his feet! He also can’t resist doing the voices of the various players (his conversation between Monty and Churchill is one such amusing moment) and another comic touch occurs when he describes an interesting meeting between Churchill and Roosevelt.
Churchill was a guest in the White House and, returning to his bedroom after a visit to the bathroom, was slightly surprised to find the president in his room. Dressed in only a towel, Churchill told Roosevelt that “the Prime Minister of Great Britain has nothing to conceal from the President of the United States” and promptly dropped the towel. Reynolds re-enacts this scene although thankfully he was fully clothed.
The occasional moments of levity don’t detract from the fact that Reynolds is an authoritative historian who seems to delight in reaching out to a wide audience. Across the two 45 minute episodes he’s able to succinctly sketch out all of the key points from this period of the war, sometimes offering a fresh outlook on familiar topics (but always giving well argued reasons for his statements).
A ninety minute television documentary can never hope to have the same scope as a reasonably detailed book (and Reynolds’ own writings are recommended for those who want to dig a little deeper) but 1942 and Hitler’s Soft Underbelly (like his other documentaries available on DVD – 1941 and the Man of Steel and Long Shadow) are all fine examples of popular history documentaries.
1942 and Hitler’s Soft Underbelly is released by Simply Media on the 5th of September 2016. RRP £19.99.