Michael Kerrigan. World War II Plans That Never Happened, 1939-1945. London: Amber Books, 2011.
As a historian, I'm probably not supposed to like counterfactuals. There are very good reasons for this. It's hard enough to reconstruct what did happen without worrying about what didn't. There are no minutes from meetings which never took place, no diaries from people who didn't exist, no newspaper reports of events which never happened. The further you depart from our timeline, the more speculation you indulge in, the more pointless it seems: thinking about the Roman Empire undergoing a steam-powered industrial revolution is fun, but what does it tell us about, well, anything to do with reality? And if objectivity is impossible to achieve when doing history, alternative history is prone to wish fulfilment and outright fantasy.
And yet I think counterfactuals can be useful. There is so much we don't know about the past, so much that we cannot now recover, but in one important sense we know more than the people we study: we know what happened in their future. Our histories of the Soviet Union, for example, will forever have to take into account the fact that it dissolved in 1991, something which nobody knew in 1917, 1921, 1945 or 1968. That makes it hard for us to truly understand how people thought about the future and, crucially, how that affected their decisions and actions in the present. Considering counterfactual scenarios can help restore this sense of contingency, of uncertainty: what did happen was not necessarily what had to to happen. Or even likely to happen. Besides, historians implicitly indulge in counterfactual thinking all the time: whenever we single out some event or person or institution as important in whatever way, we are effectively saying that if it that event hadn't happened, or if that person hadn't existed, or if that institution hadn't been created, then history would have been significantly different (for whatever definition of 'significant' works for you).
So asking 'what if...?' can at least help to ease the tyranny of actuality. But that doesn't do away with the objections I mentioned earlier. If it is to be of any use, counterfactual speculation has to be anchored in reality in some way: it can't just be about making stuff up wholesale. One obvious place to start, then, is with the ideas people had about the future. That leads directly to paleofuturism. In my own work I find the scenarios dreamed up about future warfare, whether sensational or sober, to be particularly compelling. Another way in to useful counterfactual history is through military history. I don't mean the venerable but somewhat arid 'for want of a nail' mode of alternative history, but rather looking at what the military forces thought about doing in wartime but, for one reason or another, did not actually do. It's here that we can see their dreams and nightmares most clearly.
In truth, the book I'm reviewing here -- yes, this is a book review! -- is not framed as a work of alternate history. But that it could have been is why I chose to review it. In World War II Plans That Never Happened Michael Kerrigan argues that (7):
When we see World War II as following a single triumphant trajectory, disregarding the provisional plans, the improvisatory execution, the bright ideas that came to nothing, we're forgetting the very stuff of war.
He aims to demonstrate this by examining several dozen military operations planned -- but never executed -- by both Axis and Allies between 1939 and 1945. These range from the well-known, such as Operations Sea Lion and Downfall (the seaborne invasions of Britain and Japan respectively) to the obscure like Operation Culverin, a British plan to capture Aceh, in the Dutch East Indies, for use in attacking Japanese shipping. There are also a number of weapons and other technological research programmes: for example, attempts to weaponise biological toxins (this was a time when it seemed like a good idea to think about bombing Germany with ricin-tipped needles). Then there are few odd ones which don't quite seem to fit: Operation Pastorius, a German attempt to infiltrate saboteurs into the United States may have amounted to nothing in the end, but the agents were in fact landed on American soil (where they were soon rounded up), so this doesn't seem like a plan 'that never happened' to me.
To be clear, this is not an academic text. It's very much a light, popular book, heavily illustrated with large type. With only two pages for most of the entries, there isn't a lot of space for deep analysis. But Kerrigan's critical approach helps here, as he explains why the various operational plans were never put into effect. So the various pre-1944 plans for a Second Front fell foul of British memories of Dunkirk and the lack of sufficient landing craft; an Allied occupation of the Cape Verde Islands, a valuable base for protecting shipping, was judged to be not worth the risk of alienating Portugal and Spain. Sometimes, however, he seems to assume that just because a plan was drawn up that, at least at some point, there was an accompanying intention to carry it out. But some of these plans, like the German invasion of Switzerland, were surely more contingency planning than strategic desire. There's also a lot of repetition (though given that this book is probably intended to be dipped into rather than read cover to cover, that may be by design). Sometimes this is thanks to the planners themselves: there are no less than four potential invasions of Ireland described here (one British, three German, though one of the latter was more about fomenting resistance to a possible US occupation of Eire).
The other thing I like about this book are the many reproductions of documents from government (mostly British) archives. This gives readers an insight into the arguments and objections considered by the planners, adding greatly to its interest. (At least for a historian, it does!) It's fascinating to see the British Chiefs of Staff mulling over Operation Unthinkable, a war against the Soviet Union after the defeat of Germany, possibly over the fate of Poland: 'A quick success might induce the Russians to submit to our will at least for the time being; but it might not. That is for the Russians to decide. If they want total war, they are in a position to have it' (169). I do wonder if it was necessary to also transcribe most of these documents, given that they are typewritten and that space is already limited.
Unfortunately, there are quite a few factual errors throughout World War II Plans That Never Happened. Libya was conquered by the Italians in 1912, not 1934, for example, and oil was not discovered there until after the war. As well, there are oddly elliptical statements: Kerrigan writes that while USS Kitty Hawk 'literally [...] carried aircraft, she was not an aircraft carrier like the later vessels named after her' (116). Why not just explain that it was an aircraft transporter? In fact, why mention Kitty Hawk at all in a work of this scope? There is an index, which is helpful; but no table of contents to speak of (it just lists the chapters, '1939-1941', '1942', etc) which is not. A page-and-a-bit of bibliography is probably about right for this level, but without in-text references it's often hard to work out which book might relate to a particular operation.
I do find it difficult to recommend this book wholeheartedly, even to a popular audience. But perhaps the 'woah!' factor outweighs the scholarly flaws. As an example, consider this quote: 'It was at the beginning of July 1943 that Anthony Eden sent a memo to Prime Minister Winston Churchill' (110). The memo is reproduced on the opposite page (111), and while it does indeed say 'Foreign Secretary' near the bottom, it's obvious that this is a request for Eden's advice on the matter. The memo itself is initialled 'C.P. C.A.S.', which pretty clearly stands for Charles Portal, Chief of the Air Staff. Which makes sense since the impetus for the memo came from Bomber Command, not the Foreign Office. Knowing the author of a document is one of the fundamentals of research, and makes you wonder what else has been missed. But let's set that aside for a minute and look at the content of the memo, dated 15 July 1943, which is a proposal by Air Chief Marshal Harris, head of Bomber Command, for a precision air attack on Rome with the objective of killing Mussolini:
Harris would use the Squadron of Lancasters (No. 617) which made the attacks on the dams. It is manned by experts and is kept for special ventures of this kind. The attack would be made just above the rooftops and which give the only chance of destroying the two buildings [Mussolini's residence and his office] without much other damage [...] I suggest that if Mussolini were killed or even badly shaken at the present time this might greatly increase the chance of our knocking Italy out at an early date and I therefore ask your permission to lay the operation on.
For Harris to propose this is completely at odds with his rather better-known espousal of area bombing techniques. It suggests that he was not averse to precision bombing if a suitable target presented itself. To bring this back to my long excursion into counterfactual history, it suggests that there were roads which Bomber Command could have taken at this stage of the war, but chose not to. In the short term, however, Mussolini was deposed just days later which rendered this operation unnecessary.
I'd never heard of this plan for a decapitation strike before, and might never have without reading World War II Plans That Never Happened. And there's more where that came from. For that reason it could interest the jaded grognard as well as those just starting out in their studies of the Second World War. But it is most valuable for restoring that sense of how the war might not have been the one we know today.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://airminded.org/copyright/.