M. R. D. Foot is an English historian, until recently professor of modern history at Manchester, whose contributions include the editing of the Gladstone Diaries and a collection of essays on War and Society. During World War II he was an operational member of SOE, Special Operations Executive, the British counterpart of the American OSS, and he has written the group’s official history, SOE in France. This served as background for the present ambitious work, which attempts to summarize what is known about the European resistance movements of World War II.
While resistance history is a recognized academic speciality in continental Europe, Foot laments the lack of attention accorded it by British and North American historians, for whom the resistance is a much less central feature of the war. The present work, he hopes, will encourage greater interest in the subject among English-speaking historians, but he also makes a special plea for the attention of military historians. Preoccupied with the conventional land, sea, and air forces, they have neglected what Foot calls the fourth dimension of warfare, that of resistance, partisan, and irregular forces, and have failed to perceive such activity as an integral part of the military struggle. Foot’s claim is a valid point. The various resistance forces were certainly supplied and coordinated from London and Moscow as part of the general war effort. Furthermore the years since World War II have provided enough evidence of the value of resistance-style operations to warrant a substantial broadening of our definitions of warfare.
The first half of the work is devoted to an analysis of the composition, aims, forms, and techniques of the resistance in general, while the remainder of the book is given over to a survey of the resistance in each occupied nation. Such an organizational scheme creates a certain amount of factual repetition, but taken together the two approaches offer a detailed historical mosaic which reminds us just how complex and how subject to local variation the European resistance was, and how difficult it is to make tenable generalizations about this facet of the war.
The quality of the promised analysis is uneven, however. Foot gives us no examination in depth, but rather a sometimes superficial commentary in which aphorism often takes the place of analysis. Yet his personalized and informal comments are often perceptive, and his many anecdotes are used deftly. The historical sources for the resistance are certainly fragmentary and one can understand Foot’s professional restraint, while at the same time wishing that his analysis was less sporadic and more probing.
Nevertheless, Foot has assembled a wealth of specific information that would be difficult to locate easily elsewhere. In expounding upon the technicalities of the resistance, for example, he explains the problems of clandestine shortwave communication, the operation of escape routes, the characteristics of the sten gun, and methods of supplying the underground by air. His survey of the forms of resistance, which included intelligence, deception, escape, sabotage, and subversion, is likewise peppered with specific information and example. Some striking intelligence successes were achieved. The Poles not only supplied the Enigma code machine, but also provided London with the vital parts of the V-2 before the first rocket fell on the city, while the French secured the blueprints for the Atlantic Wall even before construction had begun. Deception included elaborate procedures for spreading anti-German rumors into Europe using the unwitting resistance networks themselves. Escape routes were especially successful in the case of Allied airmen. By 1943-1944 the rate of return for downed aircrews in Western Europe was fifty percent.
The histories of the resistance in the individual occupied countries, which comprise most of the second half of the book, are often cursory and seem to have been compressed with violence. The career of Jean Moulin is reduced to an elongated encyclopedia article and the German resistance is dismissed in a few pages. In the case of eastern Europe some of the brevity is certainly due to a paucity of sources, but Foot even devotes some coverage to OSS and SOE activities in the Middle East and parts of Asia, thus using space that might have been devoted to European resistance movements. However, the book does...
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