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Leadership and Responsibility in the Second World War.

Leadership and Responsibility in the Second World War, edited by Brian P. Farrell. Montreal, Quebec and Kingston, Ontario, McGill-Queen's University Press, 2004. xvii, 273 pp. $80.00 Cdn (cloth), $29.95 Cdn (paper).

This collection is a festschrift in honour of the late Professor Robert Vogel of McGill University. The case studies provided, except for one, look primarily at various aspects of the British war effort from 1939 to 1945. The theme of the collection is to provide a number of case studies that point out when various political, military, and civilian decision-makers demonstrated sound leadership in their chosen areas, or not, and why. As is the case with most collections, the contributions vary in quality, but for the most part the contributors have done a good job in sticking to the focus provided by the editor. His introduction outlines clearly the objectives of the collection and the historical need for such a collection.

The best chapters in the collection are those of Aaron Krishtalka, Neil Cameron, Sidney Aster, Paul D. Dickson, and Brian Farrell's own assessment of Field Marshal Earl Wavell. Kilshtalka's chapter is a plunge into the internal dynamics of the Tory backbenches of Neville Chamberlain's wartime government. His chapter traces various individual Tories and their support for Chamberlain's appeasement policy, highlighting the legacy of the First World War on this group and their continued attempts to provide a genuine Tory flavor to the government's agenda, focusing on domestic and imperial issues, tinged with an overriding suspicion of most things German. In these ways, argues Krishtalka, they were atone with Chamberlain in most respects. The chapter uses the medium of generations, or generationalism, a methodology made best use of in the work of Zara Steiner and Keith Neilson, to explore how the British foreign-policy making elite arrived at point it did in the autumn of 1939. But when war broke upon the British Empire, these "old Toiles" were not content merely to acquiesce to government decisions. Instead, they made crucial and constructive criticisms to ensure that the British war effort was vigorous and determined, two elements which most historiography points out the Chamberlain war leadership was lacking.

Neil Cameron's chapter on Churchill's scientists concentrates on the leadership of the Nobel Laureate A.V. Hill in the role of scientific statesman. The chapter traces the battle for influence and power within the scientific community, as conflicting agendas and colourful personalities within the scientific community vied for prominence. Calling for a more holistic approach and a need to move away from the standard accounts of Tizard and Lindemann's dominance of this area of the war effort, Cameron reveals the fallacy behind two conventionally held beliefs: that British scientific prowess was the result of substantial funding, and having "the best man" doing the job. Cameron argues that if one is to truly understand the monumental work of British scientist in the era of total war historians must give credit to Hill and the Royal Society for establishing a discipline of rigour and excellence that could, in an ad hoc fashion, be effectively integrated into a modern, industrialized war effort.

Sidney Aster, one of the leading Canadian scholars of international history, contributes an analysis of the diplomatic efforts of Sir William Seeds, the British ambassador to Stalin's Russia in the period from January 1939 to January 1940. Working with previously unused Seeds papers and other primary sources, Aster redeems what has most often been characterized as a failed mission by Seeds to establish an Anglo-Soviet-French alliance to deter Hitler. Aster points out rightly that there was no better man qualified to deal with the Soviet Union. However, due to the indecision of the decision-making elite in London, and the lack of willingness on the part of the British government to commit to a realpolitik agreement with the Soviets, no diplomat could have procured success in such conditions. Seeds's advice to London was responsible and showed diplomatic leadership and courage, but his was an unworkable position. Aster concludes that Seeds was unjustly used as a scapegoat and that no fault can be found in his quest to forge a "peace front."

Brian Farrell's chapter on Wavell does not attempt to argue that Wavell could have saved Singapore from its eventual capitulation in 1942. What he does show, in a detailed and rigorously researched chapter, is that Wavell did not perform some of the key duties of supreme commander in Southeast Asia to the best of his abilities in preparing the defences of that key Far Eastern outpost. This lack of attention to the job at hand contributed to the speed and finality with which Singapore fell, making it the worst military disaster in British history. But, most importantly in Farrell's eyes, is the fact that Wavell refused to take responsibility for his role in that defeat and, indeed, worked to present his time in command in as favourable a light possible, often to the unfair detriment of others. Wavell's mistakes of command were reflective of the misconceptions of others under his command, but as the supreme commander it was his responsibility in such a challenging circumstance to use the resources at his disposal more effectively.

Paul Dickson gives a lucid and well-researched account of Canadian and British command relations during the Northwestern European Scheldt campaign of 1944. Here, the focus is the relationship between General Harry Crerar and his British superior, Field Marshal Montomery. Crerar, argues Dickson, was forced to choose between the political importance of his army's performance for Canadian needs within the political realm of Anglo-Canadian relations, the operational demands on that force to clear the Antwerp approaches with the expectation of heavy casualties, and the pressures brought to bear on the Canadians to do the job quickly in order that the larger alliance strategy for the use of that port in the final push on Germany could be achieved. Dickson supports Crerar's decisions to husband his force in the face of pressure to achieve alliance objectives that would have crippled its sustainability, even if those decisions impaired the overall strategic goals. Crerar's first responsibility was to his men and country.

There is one non-British chapter, by Peter Hoffman, which recounts the dilemma of Claus von Stauffenberg as a regular German army officer in Hitler's war. The remainder of the contributions include a work by Vogel himself, finished by others after his death, on Neville Chamberlain and his appeasement strategy; and a chapter by Trevor Burridge on the strengths and weaknesses of Clement Attlee as a wartime and peacetime Labour Party leader. These last three chapters are not as rigorous in their research, nor as informative on the issues of leadership and responsibility, as the other rive, but they are sound nonetheless.

The collection would have benefited from a selected bibliography and an index. However, at $29.95 Canadian for the paperback version, this collection of essays is one worth having on the shelf, for those interested in the vagaries and pitfalls that loom before politicians, diplomats, civil servants, and military commanders who wish to lead.

Greg Kennedy

King's College London
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Author:Kennedy, Greg
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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