I have written All Hell Let Loose (published in the US as Inferno) with two ideas in mind: first, to try to offer some of my own thoughts about great issues which I haven’t discussed in earlier books, and about which I hope that I may have something new to bring to the party- to complete my personal cycle about the Second World War, if you like. To give a few examples: it seems to me a remarkable paradox, that while the German army fought most of its battles brilliantly well- much better than the allies- its efforts were entirely set at naught by the stunning incompetence with which Germany’s leadership conducted the war, fortunately for us. Meanwhile, whatever the limitations of the British Army, Britain’s war machine was superbly organised, especially in mobilizing its best civilian brains, an achievement exemplified by Bletchley Park, in a fashion the Axis never remotely matched. For years, the turning point of the war was seen as coming at the end of 1942, with German defeat at Stalingrad. Yet it seems a critical historical reality, that as early as December 1941, even before Pearl Harbor, senior functionaries of the Third Reich realised- and even dared to tell Hitler- that failure to defeat Russia before winter meant that military victory in the conflict had become unattainable.
Counter-factuals, might have beens, must be treated with caution, but some can be fascinating. For instance, I suggest that Hitler might have done far more towards persuading the British people to surrender in 1940 by not sending the Luftwaffe to bomb them than by doing so. Before the war, many people feared an annihilatory air attack which would destroy British society. The unfulfilled threat of such an assault might have done much more to intimate the public than the reality, which turned out to be nowhere near as bad as everybody had feared. If the British had simply been left to stew while Hitler seized Malta and drove the British out of the Middle East, Churchill might have found it very hard to retain the premiership. The old Tory appeasers might have gained traction for a peace negotiation with Germany.
My other, I believe more important purpose in this book is to address the question so often asked by people of generations which have been fortunate enough not to be there: ‘Daddy or grandpapa: what was the war like ?’. The answer, of course, is that it was vastly different in kind for people in different circumstances: British tank crews and Chinese comfort women, American paratroopers and Leningrad housewives, German panzer officers and Polish Jews, all of whose predicaments I explore. I have tried to create not so much a history as a global portrait from the bottom up, a story of little people rather than warlords. You will find no photographs in the text of generals or dictators, only of men, women and children of embattled societies.
Men and women from scores of nations struggled to find words to describe what happened to them in the war, transcending anything they had known in their past lives. Many resorted to a cliché: ‘all hell broke loose’. Because the phrase is common in eyewitness descriptions of battles, air raids, massacres and ship sinkings, later generations are tempted to shrug at its banality. Yet I have chosen it as my title because the words capture so vividly what the struggle meant to hundreds of millions of people, plucked from their ordered existences to face ordeals that in many cases lasted for years, and for at least sixty millions ended in death. Each day of the conflict, an average of 27,000 human beings perished around the world by violence, starvation or war-induced disease.
We sometimes read memoirs written by or books written about heroes who make the whole experience sound a romp, a great romantic adventure. For instance, Lt.Robert Hichens of the Royal Navy wrote in his diary in July 1940: ‘I suppose our position is about as dangerous as is possible in view of the threatened invasion, but I couldn’t help being full of joy…Being on the bridge of one of HM ships, being talked to by the captain as an equal, and knowing that she was to be in my sole care for the next few hours. Who would not rather die like that than live as so many poor people have to, in crowded cities at some sweating indoor job ?’. Hichens was killed in action in 1942, but he was a happy warrior.