Britain at Bay
The epic story of the Second World War: 1938-1941
Gosford, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2020
Hardback 608pp RRP $49.99
Reviewer: Robert Ellis, February 2012
This book is the first of two volumes on the Second World War and covers the period from the early 1930s to the end of 1941. Its focus is on the social and political aspects of this period, leading up to the start of the war on 3rd September 1939, and then going through the first signs of some surety of Britain’s survival in the winter of 1941.
Allport cannot be said to have written a ‘military history’, although there is a broad coverage of the British and other European countries’ re-armament programs after 1935. The disastrous campaigns in Norway and in France led to the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Forces and French troops from Norway and Dunkirk. There is also concise coverage of the Battle of Britain, the great Battle of the Atlantic, and the war in North Africa and the Mediterranean Basin. These are covered adequately as to the military aspects of the campaigns, as are the British re-armament programs and the parallel development of its political and diplomatic policies.
The decision-making by both the political leaders and the military High Commands comes in for some justifiably sharp criticism. It appears that much of the planning and thinking was directed towards equipping the three Services to re-fight World War One, but without any clear conception how a war would be fought after 1939. It is noticeable that Allport attributes the same confused thinking to the French political and most of its military leaders, who should have known better.
Considerable space is given to the then Prime Minister of Britain, Neville Chamberlain, and his futile attempts to gain a peaceful settlement with Adolf Hitler. The author appears to have had access to Chamberlain’s private papers, to Government archives and private papers of some of his Cabinet colleagues. The consequent fumbling decision-making and the lack of clarity in formulation of policies are both covered in detail in Part 2 of the book, and also give an excellent understanding of the history of the period.
The author describes succinctly the uncertain relationships between the British and French political and military leaders from September 1939 until the Dunkirk evacuation. Given the lack of any coherent strategy between the large but poorly-led French forces trying to co-ordinate with the under-sized and ill-equipped BEF, it is clear that they all were unable to respond effectively to the fast-moving German forces, which were co-operating closely with the Luftwaffe, which was numerically superior in close air-to-ground co-operation between the more combat-experienced German troops and airmen.
After the French collapse there came a rather poisonous relationship caused by French belief that Britain had abandoned them in France, and then the Royal Navy’s attack on the French warships anchored at Mers-el-Kebir, in Algeria, to prevent them falling into German hands.
‘Sea Lion’, the planned German invasion of Britain, is mentioned only briefly. Resent research shows quite conclusively, that Hitler had little intention of ever going through with this difficult expedition, to the great relief of his military leaders, who had realized early in the planning stages that it would be an almost certain failure. Hitler’s objective was to use all his available military power for his long-held plan of invading the USSR despite the Non-Aggression Pact signed in August 1939.
The author took interesting, and what some may see as an unusual approach to his discussion of the attitudes of the British civilian population in the immediate pre-war period and during the first two years of the war. He relates them to the ’People of the Shire’, as they are described in J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic The Lord of the Rings, and endeavours to see their reactions in terms of how the Shire Folk would have seen the situations that developed between 1935 and 1941.
The author, Alan Allport, graduated in Physics from Liverpool Polytechnic. After migrating to the United States, he read for a PhD degree in History at the University of Pennsylvania. His two earlier works on the Second World War led him to becoming a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. The broad research skills he developed, linked to the precision that comes from his professional education as a physicist, makes this a very readable and well-constructed book, with an excellent and well-used bibliography. It whets one’s interest in Volume 2, when it appears.
The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.