Two Books about World War II: Endgame 1945 and A Man Called Intrepid

by John Johnson

Stephenson, William. A Man Called Intrepid. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press, 1976.

Stafford, David. Endgame, 1945. New York: Little, Brown, and Company. 2007.

As far as history books go, A Man Called Intrepid by William Stephenson is a bit of a popcorn read. And like movie popcorn, it’s more enjoyable when you don’t question the contents of its faux-buttery goodness. But also like popcorn at a film you’ve already seen (to completely exhaust this metaphor), the questionable ingredients become impossible to ignore about halfway through.

Intrepid tells the story of British intelligence during World War II. It structures this narrative around the life of one William “Bill” Stephenson (no relation to the author). Bill Stephenson was a Canadian who lived a truly remarkable life. As a young infantry officer in the First World War he survived a gas attack, which earned him a safe desk job. Dissatisfied with this, he finagled his way into the fledgling air force where he achieved distinction as an ace—downing 26 aircraft. He survived a crash landing, and escaped a German POW camp after three months of detainment. After the war, he became a self-made millionaire through investments in radio companies.

More importantly, Stephenson became an associate of Winston Churchill. The book follows the activities of a far-sighted clique of businessmen, intelligence analysts, and a handful of politicians who worked with Churchill during his “wilderness years” of the 1930s to monitor the Third Reich’s rise. Once the war began, this group coalesced into an intelligence and secret warfare organization under the moniker Baker Street Irregulars (referencing Sherlock Holmes’ rag-tag group of street-smart operatives). This group was headed by Stephenson who often functioned as a go-between for Churchill and Roosevelt. Once the United States entered the war, Stephenson also worked with Bill Donovan of the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and attempted to negotiate turf wars with J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI.

Some of the most interesting aspects of the book deal with the British intelligence community prior to Pearl Harbor. The depth of isolationist sentiment in the United States during this period is frequently under-emphasized in Ameri-centric histories. However, even the U.S. Ambassador to the UK, Joseph Kennedy (father of JFK), was wholly opposed to U.S. intervention on behalf of Great Britain. In fact, “A few days after the British declared war in September 1939, Kennedy…toasted the Germans, who ‘would badly thrash the British.’”

Even more surprising, if Intrepid’s narrative is to be believed, is the extent of Roosevelt’s clandestine involvement with a foreign intelligence operation—one which even operated in New York City offices provided by a sympathetic Nelson Rockefeller. Apparently, British agents even carried out assassinations on American soil of British sailors believed to be providing German U-boats with the coordinates of Allied convoys.

The book does acknowledge some of the difficult decisions made by Churchill and Roosevelt—namely, refusing to evacuate Coventry, bombing the Vichy French Fleet, and manipulating Hitler into viciously attacking the Balkans in order to delay Operation Barbarossa. However, Stephenson comes down firmly on the side of the Allied leaders in every instance. Much of the book feels like a polemical defense of a particular Great Man interpretation of the conflict. Leaving aside these more basic issues of historiography, other individuals involved in the British intelligence services have seriously questioned some of the factual elements of the book. In any case, A Man Called Intrepid provides a serious of amusing and intriguing anecdotes but fails to fit this into the bigger story of World War II. Even though I have a solid grounding in the war’s history, I found it difficult to connect the events of the book with the timeline of the conventional military conflict.

David Stafford’s Endgame, 1945 is about as different a history book from A Man Called Intrepid as possible. Incidentally, Stafford is the author of a much more acclaimed book on Allied intelligence, Roosevelt and Churchill: Men of Secrets, which I hope to read and review in the near future. In Endgame, however, Stafford eschews the Great Man approach and writes would could best be called a micro-history.

The book begins on April 1945 and ends with the Potsdam Conference that autumn. However, Stafford does not focus on the activities of elites during that period. Rather, he tells the stories of a handful of individuals whose experiences during the last months of the war he was able to track down through letters, journals, and interviews. The diverse cast of characters he assembled included an American infantryman and a New Zealander in Italy, a British humanitarian aid worker, a soldier from Nova Scotia, a very young British commando, a BBC correspondent who was one of the first visitors to the concentration camps, and a young German woman of aristocratic origin who was imprisoned by the SS alongside Leon Blum, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and other elites after her father was executed for his role in the Valkyrie plot.

Adolf Hitler killed himself on April 30, 1945. In many birds eye accounts the rest of the war is just a postscript. The great achievement of Stafford’s work is his success in dispelling this perspective. For the many soldiers still slogging through northern Italy and eastern Germany, Hitler’s death did not make the bullets fly any slower or the explosions less deafening. And for the journalists and aid workers, the full horrors of the Holocaust were only just becoming apparent.

Stafford surmounts the greatest challenge of micro-histories in seamlessly weaving his disparate individual narratives into a comprehensible macro-history account of the end of the war. The reader experiences the intimate terror of a skirmish near the German border while also understanding the broader context of that particular campaign.

Endgame strips away the comfortable narrative of triumph from the end of the war in Europe. Death continued almost unabated and even hastened in some places, the Pacific Theatre loomed, and the plight of millions of starving displaced people increased in urgency as winter approached. More than anything else, the reader is left with a sense of the adrenaline and then emotional and physical exhaustion which accompanied the war’s end for those lucky enough to survive it.