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Book Review: Anatomy of a Campaign: The British Fiasco in Norway, 1940

24 March 2021
Book review

 

John Kiszely, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2017, pp. 375, ISBN 978-1-107-19459-5.

 

Dr Al Palazzo adjacent to the book cover of Anatomy of a Campaign

 

Periodically, one is fortunate to read a book that ticks all the boxes. It is interesting, impeccably written, and professionally relevant — a page turner that you just can’t put down. The kind of book that when you reach the end you think, ‘why did I not read this sooner’ or ask ‘what else has this author written’? John Kiszely’s Anatomy of a Campaign: The British Fiasco in Norway, 1940, is such a rare and exceptional book.

Anatomy of a Campaign is about how to direct war, not how to fight it. Kiszely’s focus is on the British political and military leadership at the highest levels and the decision process the War Cabinet and Service Chiefs used to decided for and manage the 1940 campaign in
Norway
. It is a story of strategy and the nexus between the political and military spheres. Kiszely’s story is also one of hubris, incompetence and delusion, traits that were all too rampant among British decision-makers. The German preparation for and conquest of
Norway
is considered but only to demonstrate how a campaign should be planned and run. The book’s analysis of battle is limited to broad brush strokes and only sufficient to illustrate the results of higher decisions.

Kiszely identifies two main factors that determined the campaign’s outcome: the German dominance of the air and British lack of actionable intelligence. Indeed these were critical factors, but he goes further. Of equal importance to the German control of the air was the British failure to accept that the opening of the Third Dimension had changed the character of war. They simply did not appreciate the potential for airpower in a tactical role. On the intelligence front it was not a lack of reporting on enemy intentions but an absence of a body to coordinate all the intelligence sources and to provide timely analysis. A contributing factor to the intelligence failure was an inability to imagine what the enemy could or would do, an institutional complacency that reflected a complete disregard of the ‘other’ in war.

The Allied campaign in
Norway
was a coalition effort, but little in its conduct suggests an awareness of the necessity to coordinate actions. The governance between the British and French was hesitant the both Great Powers treated the Norwegians with disdain. But then, the British Service Chiefs also did not act in a joint manner with each service pursuing their own war. Today such coordination is taken for granted. It shouldn’t because the course of this campaign shows how easy it is for allies and services to advance their own organisations preferences when firm political direction is lacking.

The list of British incompetence identified is so extensive that even the most ardent anglophile will be forced to reassess their faith. The Chiefs, William Ironside (Army), Dudley Pound (Royal Navy) and Cyril Newall (Royal Air Force) consistently failed to provide honest advice to the War Cabinet and instead preferred to advance the interests of their services. When the War Cabinet advanced a hare-brained idea the Chiefs were not forthright in explaining the risks implementation. The Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, prioritised cabinet equanimity over effectiveness while avoiding hard decisions or the necessary reigning in of a manic Winston Churchill. War Cabinet meetings too often descended into politicians moving companies around maps with the Service Chiefs encouraging their fantasies. The result is a depiction of a broken government detached from reality, which also explains why the Chamberlain government was in its final days.

This is an important book for soldiers of any rank and its reading should be mandatory, and more than once. At staff colleges it should be featured as the basis of role playing workshops. Politicians, who aspire to the offices of the prime minister, treasury or defence, as well as their staffs, should also be provided with copies, as should senior bureaucrats. War is a serious business and all of the British mistakes were avoidable. An Anatomy of a Campaign demonstrates what can go wrong in war when it is run by amateurs. We should all take heed.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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