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Books: History in the making; The Hinge Factor - How Chance and Stupidity Have Changed History. By Erik Durschmied (Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 14.99). Reviewed by Ross Reyburn.

The theory sounds far-fetched but could a sacrifice attack by 74 British tanks in France in 1940 have proved the decisive moment of the Second World War?

Intriguingly Austrian-born war correspondent Eric Durschmied considers the brave action by the British tank force attacking the triumphant German panzers to protect the British Expeditionary Force's wide open flank as a key moment in the war.

The action, vividly chronicled in the book with a British tank brigade commander deciding "We've got a job to do and we're bloody well going to do it", provided only a temporary halt to the unstoppable German advance. But for the first time the triumphant panzers encountered a significant setback. The gifted German commander Rommel himself was not that far off death for shells fell around him with one explosion killing his ADC, who was reading a map for the general.

Vitally Hitler was unable to cope with the situation and it led to his command to halt the panzers. This decision enabled 338,226 trapped British and Allied troops to be evacuated across the Channel from Dunkirk in one of history's great rearguard actions.

"Never were German armies closer to crush England than on this May 24, 1940," writes Durschmied. "After the war, surviving generals present during the fateful hours of that morning stated unanimously that Germany lost the war the day Hitler issued the Halte Befehl order."

Historians have produced various explanations for Hitler's fatal indecisiveness. It has been argued that he was unable to handle his own success. His respect for Britain and reluctance to destroy the army of a country he wanted an alliance with is another theory. But Durschmied provides a convincing catalogue of facts to back the obvious explanation - Hitler wanted to preserve his Panzer tanks that had swept all before them.

"The sacrifice of the British tanks at Arras had pushed Hitler over the edge," writes the author. "For the next two days, he was extremely fidgety and nervous."

The most significant factor in the equation was Hitler's misplaced faith in the effectiveness of air attacks. How often has this mistake been made?

As soon as Air Marshal Herman Goring heard that the encirclement of the Allied armies had been completed, he asked to be put in contact with the Fuhrer.

"The over-ambitious Goring then went on to assure Hitler that his bomber pilots would annihilate the Tommies," writes Durschmied.

"The Air Marshal argued that the northern Allied armies were cut off from the rest of France and the Fuhrer needed his panzer force intact to crush Paris to avenge the humiliation of 1918. The Fuhrer need only to order the panzers to stop so that his Luftwaffe wouldn't strike at their own units.

"Hitler, still suffering from the aftershock of the tank encounter, readily agreed to Goring's proposal.

"At the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, a heated confrontation between General Halder and Field Marshal von Brauchitsch on the one side and Hitler, feebly supported by his yes men Keitel and Jodl on the other, ended with Hitler hysterically screaming: 'I order that all advance panzer formations are brought back to the Kanallinie. Any loss of Panzers will be strictly avoided. My Luftwaffe will finish off the English'."

Fatally Hitler issued his order to stop the panzers' advance on British troops on May 24, 1940, and Goring's planes utterly failed to prevent the British retreat across the sea.

Durschmied's book is somewhat clumsily and simplistically written. And his speculation does get a little out of hand at times. Life is full of "if onlys" and it tends to be forgotten that if an event had taken place in a different way, people would have reacted differently possibly obliterating the laws of logic.

At the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, the author makes the rather grand assumption that victory would have gone to Napoleon if his riders had been carrying nails to spike the enemy guns after the English artillery park had been overrun.

In the Gulf War, he raises the horrendous scenario that if the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had chosen to use his chemical weapons in rocket or artillery shells, "such an act would have brought an immediate Allied response of nuclear annihilation."

The book has some interesting statistics. While 20 million died in the Second World War, the death toll was 192 in the Gulf War. A minute of hell on the Somme in 1916 may well have produced more deaths than the entire "war" in the desert.

Despite its shortcomings, Durschmied's book does provide a fascinating examination of major historical events and his analysis of the immortal Charge of the Light Brigade offers a commendably clear account of the disaster.

The Light Brigade received all the glory being immortalised in Tennyson's poem. But Durschmied relates how earlier the Heavy Brigade under General James Scarlett facing 4,000 horsemen and outnumbered by at least ten to one had attacked the main advancing force of Russian cavalry.

Incredibly, they broke up the Russians and their success could have become a decisive triumph if the watching Light Brigade had given their support. But the incompetent Lord Cardigan refused to attack the enemy without an order from above.

Ironically, Cardigan's later refusal to either seek clarification or indeed disobey a misinterpreted order from high command led to the suicidal action of the Light Brigade and the famous charge into the Valley of Death.
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:May 8, 1999
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