Gilbert, Martin. The Routledge Atlas of the Second World War. London: Routledge, 2008
xviii + 247 + xlv
Introduction; Acknowledgements; maps; Epilogue; Bibliography of Works Consulted; Index
Maps are required for serious study of World War II operations.
Atlases are collections of maps.
Therefore, it's a good idea to have an atlas at hand when studying World War II operations.
But not all atlases are created equal, and the new one from Martin Gilbert, highly regarded historian and Churchill biographer, proves the point.
Although it contains (according to the publisher) "247 new and illuminating" maps, this is not your typical atlas. Anyone, for example, looking for information about the positions and movements of armies or divisions or other military units or the terrain on which they maneuvered and fought will be sorely disappointed. In fact, the book might have been more appropriately titled "Vague, mostly disconnected, and not always accurate factoids about WWII illustrated with largely superfluous maps."
If that sounds like a harsh judgement, a good place to start exploring is page 114, "The Battle for Stalingrad, 2 September 1942 - 31 January 1943." There we find a full-page (as are they all) map in black white (likewise, as are they all) of Stalin's city and its immediate environs. The map itself is basically a sketch with the city shown as shaded blocks to indicate the built-up area. On the page, the following landmarks are identified:
- Orlovka creek
- Mokraya Mechtka creek
- Tractor factory
- Barrikady factory
- Krasnyi Oktyabr factory
- Matveyev Kurgan
- No. 1 Station
- Tsaritsa creek
- Grain elevator
- No. 2 Station
- Minina suburb
- Volga River
Superimposed on that background we see six wavy lines indicating the positions of German forces on 13 September 1942, but without any indication whatsoever of what units were in which positions. Along the river, a few tiny black polygons represent "the only part of the city in Soviet hands on 12 October 1942." Again, no Soviet units are identified. In addition to those positions, seventeen black arrows indicate "lines of German advance." These arrows bear so sign of dates or units or anything else.
Here's the caption:
On 2 September 1942 the German Army began what it believed would be its final assault on Stalingrad. Between 5 September and 5 October, 160,000 Soviet soldiers crossed the Volga into the city. On 18 September, Soviet Marines crossed the Volga by ferry and beat off ten German attacks on the grain elevator. In a German assault starting on 14 October, the defenders of the Tractor Factory were driven out. The Krasnyi Oktyabr (Red October) Factory was captured on 12 November. On 19 November the Soviet Army launched a counter-offensive north of the city, and on 21 November to the south: the Germans in Stalingrad were about to be besieged; they surrendered on 31 January 1943.
That's it. No mention of German 6th Army or Paulus. No mention of Soviet 62nd Army or Chuikov. No mention of German XI Korps continuing to hold out after the 31st. Not on the map itself, not in the key, not in the caption.
That's the only map dealing specifically with Stalingrad. Another map shows the outline of Operation Blue (which is never mentioned by name) but utterly fails to identify a single formation on either side. A third map sketches the basics of Operation Uranus (never mentioned by name) but likewise simply shows an approximate front with a few ambiguous arrows but without identifying any units or HQs. At least the Italian 8th Army and Rumanian 3rd Army and 4th Army are mentioned in captions, but their locations are never shown on the ground.
And this is no anomaly. In almost every single case, Gilbert's cartography simply shows a wavy front line plus a few generic arrows and fails to identify any units at all. No military symbols. Not even ugly little solider and tank icons for infantry and armor. In the same manner, almost without exception the underlying maps prove to be completely devoid of terrain features such as mountains, deserts, jungles, etc.
Perhaps that's an intentional design decision to make the maps cleaner and the information more accessible to non-specialists. If so, Gilbert should at least get the facts straight. Unfortunately, that's not always the case. On his page for Italy and the Italian empire, for example, the map completely leaves out some possessions (such as Castelrosso) and for no apparent reason shows Sardinia and Sicily with a different style of shading. In his caption for the Battle of the Coral Sea, Gilbert writes about "...the first naval battle in history in which neither side's ships sighted each other. Long-range gunnery was effective, halting the Japanese...." That part about long-range gunnery will probably come as a surprise to those historians who thought Coral Sea was a mostly a battle of carrier-based air strikes. On "V-2 Rocket Targets," the key and the map sometimes confuse "casualties per target" with "number of V-2 rockets falling per target." On page 207, one caption states "From 1941, Poles constituted the fourth largest Allied fighting force in Europe after the Soviet Union, the United States and Britain" but, depending on exact definitions, that probably understates the Canadian contribution. Three pages later, another caption tells us "The Canadian Army was the only entirely volunteer national army to fight in the Second World War." Not quite true. Canadian men were not only conscripted for domestic service, but beginning in late 1944 some 16,000 NRMA troops wererather controversiallyshipped overseas. On the other hand, wasn't the Indian Army entirely voluntary? (See, among others,
While mistakes don't clutter every page, sufficient abound to make us wary of relying on Gilbert's captions without cross-checking his facts. So, even setting aside for a moment the book's utility as an atlas, its overall accuracy needs to be questioned.
Nevertheless, some pages contain interesting material. For example, information about Operation XD on page 11 will be newsworthy to many readers. "The Capture of German Enigma Machines and Code Books" encapsulates some worthwhile data. "The Burma Railway" page makes good use of brief captions and a map. Other pages have useful statistics about numbers of people killed during the war on a nation-by-nation basis. For many pages, however, the maps are almost completely superfluous, and Gilbert's facts could have been presented just as wellor even betterin tabular format with no map at all. "War Dead: The Far East, 1937-1945" is a good example of a page where the data could stand alone perfectly well without a map, and exactly the same could be said of two other maps of "War Dead."
The author doesn't provide specific sources for any individual map or caption. He includes a "bibliography of works consulted" of eight pages, but, if it's to be believed, Gilbert neglected to utilize some of the most important map resources available, including the Zweite Weltkrieg im Kartenbild series, Wojna Obronna Polski 1939, Atlas des Situations Quotidiennes des Armees Alliees, Campagne 1939-1940, and the multitude of Russian Front map sets from David Glantz. Perhaps because of that oversight, or perhaps because the "atlas" part of the title was not a priority for him, Gilbert's own maps suffer accordingly.
Nevertheless, the maps themselves, it should be emphasized, have been executed with a very clean, legible style, although in truth the cartographers (three of them receive credit) have not been terribly challenged by the relative sparse amounts of information Gilbert chooses to impart visually.
Needless to say, we found this atlas to be very disappointing. As an introductory "fact book" some readers might find it satisfactory. However, we emphatically recommend that anyone in the market for a serious WWII atlas should not buy The Routledge Atlas of the Second World War sight unseen. Take a look around and compare it side-by-side with other atlases before purchasing anything.
Available from online booksellers, local bookshops, or directly from Routledge.
Read and submit feedback
Reviewed 25 January 2009
Copyright © 2009 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone