BOOK REVIEW – Towards a Wider War: British Strategic Decision-Making and Military Effectiveness in Scandinavia, 1939-1940

Joseph Moretz, Towards a Wider War: British Strategic Decision-Making and Military Effectiveness in Scandinavia, 1939-1940. West Midlands, UK: Helion & Company, 2017. 593 pp.

Review by Capt Jason Naaktgeboren,
Instructor, Department of History, USAF Academy

In Towards a Wider War: British Strategic Decision-Making and Military Effectiveness in Scandinavia, 1939-40, Joseph Moretz conducts a thorough investigation of how the United Kingdom attempted to counter the growing military threat posed by Germany following the invasion of Poland. Moretz breaks his book into two parts; the first primarily focused on England’s abortive plans to aid Finland in the Winter War and how those morphed into the British expedition into Norway in the spring of 1940. The second half of the book shifts its focus away from the battlefield to analyze the successes and failures experienced at each level of war: strategic, operational and tactical.

Moretz argues the early British war effort is in alignment with their traditional efforts; limited offensives backed by economic pressure. This approach was constrained, as Britain was virtually alone in declaring war on Germany and could not afford to offend neutral states. Despite this, the importance of the resource-rich Scandinavian states, particularly Swedish iron ore, could not be ignored, and preparations began to ensure these resources would aid the allied cause, or at least remain out of German hands. British plans included defending Finland in the Winter War by declaring war on the Soviet Union, mining of neutral waterways, and ultimately invading the then neutral nations of Norway and Sweden. Few of these initiatives were ever enacted for various reasons, such as Finland’s sudden capitulation to Stalin, or the risk of sinking neutral shipping and pushing additional nations to align with Germany.

The first four chapters offer solid historiography of events and the thought process behind them, while the second half of the book provides further analysis as to how the Germans outmaneuvered the British at each level of war. Strategically, the bureaucracy in London could not handle the multiple, simultaneous crises it faced due to an overreliance on too few individuals and a lack of support. Most damning is the assertion that British leadership lacked an appreciation for the importance of speed in the decision-making process. This led to Germany seizing the initiative, dooming British efforts in the region. Moretz argues that despite its flaws and the results in Norway, British strategic decision-making was not a total failure as the War Cabinet identified German weaknesses as well its own. Perhaps the greatest decision from this episode was the indeed the decision to cede the region to Germany and withdraw British forces, rather than reinforcing failure.

Moretz finds some positives at the strategic level but finds British performance at the operational level to be “critically deficient” (366). He highlights a variety of operational failures, including an overall lack of intelligence, specialized equipment, and dedicated means of command and control.  British efforts were also hindered by ‘amateurishness’ throughout its military branches, an inability to work in a combined environment, and inexplicably the failure to conduct a full-scale dress rehearsal of their proposed operations. All of these failures may have been overcome, were it not for the War Cabinet’s shortsightedness in regard to airpower. The failure to understand and respond to advances in aircraft capabilities led to planners ignoring the importance of airfields and yielding control of the skies to the Luftwaffe, making any surface actions in Norway too costly.

While British efforts in Scandinavia were all met with defeat, Moretz does not see British failure as a complete catastrophe. He argues that at the tactical level, all branches of the British military were fairly effective given the circumstances and fought well in a joint operating environment. The naval losses inflicted on the Kriegsmarine may have played a factor in Hitler’s decision to postpone Sea Lion and help shape the Battle of Britain. Finally, and most importantly, he argues that even though British forces faced an early defeat, their actions in Scandinavia were able to delay the Germans, buying time for the War Cabinet to learn from their losses and improve their decision-making for future campaigns.

Moretz uses a wide variety of primary sources, relying heavily on reports from the Air Ministry, Admiralty, and War Cabinet minutes. Personal papers, memoirs, and oral histories are also used.  Secondary sources consist of newspapers, journals, and numerous books and articles, however nearly all sources are British in origin. There is little that shows how the French, Norwegians, or even Germans interpreted or responded to British efforts and plans in this campaign. Maps and appendices help orient the reader to the area of operations and provide a cursory introduction of the key decision-makers of the War Council, Chiefs of Staff, and other military representatives.

The history provided in the first half of the book goes into great detail, it can be a bit dense, assuming the reader has an in-depth knowledge of the personalities and inner workings of the British war machine at the onset of World War II. In attempting to explain how and why the British came to the conclusions they did, Moretz occasionally gets bogged down in the same bureaucracy he attempts to explain. Additionally, his analysis is almost purely through a British lens, with little regard to allied, neutral, or belligerent state’s interpretations and responses to Britain’s maneuvering. Moretz’ attention to detail in the first half of the book pay dividends in later chapters, preparing the reader for an excellent breakdown of where and why British theories broke down when put into practice. His analysis of England’s failures at the operational level is truly compelling.

Towards a Wider War is not intended for the casual reader of World War Two literature or for those who have a passing interest in naval warfare. With its in-depth investigation into the factors and processes that drove London’s decision-making, it is better suited for those pursuing advanced degrees in Public Policy or Strategic Studies, or careers with government agencies, or the military. Additionally, it is a wonderful resource for anyone hoping to gain a better understanding of this often-overlooked period of the Second World War.

(Return to September 2018 Table of Contents)

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