Tag Archives: 1940

Don’t Panic: Britain Prepares for Invasion, 1940 by Mark Rowe

Writing about the summer of 1940 in British History is, in many ways, attempting to write about something that did not, in the event, happen. It is hard for us, 70 years later, to fathom what it must have felt like to live under the threat of invasion. But this new book by Mark Rowe suggests that some of our ancestors might have been just as ambivelent at the time.

This is a very well researched book, based on primary and published sources, including some very useful personal diaries. Rowe also uses some great illustrations, many from publications such as Home Guard handbooks, and many of which are previously unpublished. It’s written from a clear perspective, without letting hindsight get in the way – Dunkirk spirit, the blitz, spitfires and ‘all that… Evidence does suggest that there WERE parts of the population who would have collaborated, and there WERE parts of the population who would have panicked in the event of invasion. False alarms such as the ‘Battle of Bewdley’ suggest that quaint views of British calm might be inaccurate.

With a clever use of case studies, the author makes some very pertinent points. Although the Home Guard attracts a fair degree of nostalgia value, in the summer of 1940 ‘Dads Army’ was ill-equipped, untrained, disorganised and ridden with a multitude of problems. The examples of local worthys assuming command simply based on being, say, the master of the local foxhunt, would be hilarious if they were not so shocking. Could a country resist invasion when class consciousness was so inhibiting?

There were also puzzling issues for many in those uncertain days. Should civil authorities, such as local councils, remain in place if occupied by the enemy, or evacuate to elsewhere? Should the Police force be armed? To what extent should the Police co-operate with the enemy in the event of occupation? Should civilians flee or stay put? As none of these dilemmas were ever put to the test it is hard to be certain. But what is certain, is that we should not allow hindsight and floklore to cloud or judgement.

Another point well made is how Churchill insisted on meddling on military affairs – his attempts to take charge of the local defences of Whitehall are a fine example of the interference, completely outside the chain of command, that bedevilled so many of his commanders. Many of whom were facing the prospect of fighting an invasion with an army bereft of much of its equipment, having to fend off numerous notes from the Prime Minister.

I found this a fun book to read. Which, to be fair, is unusual with history books. Think about it, why just because a book is about the past, does it have to be dry? As this book shows, plenty of amusing anecdotes take place even in the most tumultuous of times, so why not portray this in how they are written about?

What-if’s are a very dangerous territory to stray into where history is concerned. But reading this book, it is only natural to ponder how Britain would have fared had the German Army crossed the channel. And not just the Army, but also the Home Guard, the politicians, the civil authorities, and the population and society as a whole.

Don’t Panic: Britain Prepares for Invasion, 1940 is published by The History Press

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Dunkirk 1940: Whereabouts Unknown by Tim Lynch

One of the biggest probems with writing history is the danger of hindsight. Its often far too easy to look at a long-gone event, and for our understanding of it to be influenced by what came after. Dunkirk is certainly one of those events. Over the past 70 years it has become part of the British psyche that in 1940 the French turned tail and ran, while the BEF was gallantly rescued from Dunkirk to fight another day. While there are some elements of truth to this, there are also many more aspects to Dunkirk than we hear about. This book by Tim Lynch goes a long way to shedding new light on an often misunderstood campaign.

while the book is titled ‘Dunkirk’, the analysis goes much deeper. Lynch looks at the British Army’s preparations for war, and how these were inadequate and too little, too late. The Army’s leadership and organisation was also not up to the job of fighting a modern war. In particular Lynch looks at the men of several territorial divisions that were sent to France as labourers, but ended up fighting in the front line. They were seriously undertrained and unprepared for the task that fell to them.

Regarding the question of the French Army’s conduct in 1940, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the French Generals seriously let down their men. While there were many examples of French troops fighting hard – often in hopeless positions – Gamelin had virtually no grip on the battle, and Weygand was far too unstable. Among this unsatisfactory set-up the BEF’s commander, Lord Gort, was far too passive and was out of his depth. Unbelievably, it is generally agreed that Gort was only sent to France as the Secretary of War, Hore-Belisha, could not stand him and wanted him out of Whitehall. Whether he was right for the job does not seem to have mattered.

The fate of the Lines of Communication come in for special attention from Lynch – in particular, the Labour Divisions aforementioned. The manner in which the British and French allowed themselves to be turned, outflanked and cut off led to the vulnerable lines of communication being flayed open. Therefore many non-front line troops found themselves in the thick of the fighting. This turbulent situation also led to the loss of so much equipment. While some historians might criticise Montgomery as a materiel commander, this ‘insult’ holds no water, given Gort’s ignorance of logistics and the disasters that this caused.

Another misconception about Dunkirk is that the whole of the BEF was evacuated through the sand dunes of the channel port. On the one hand, much fighting went on elsewhere. And in terms of the lines of communications, they were forced to fall back on places such as Dieppe, Rouen and even the Brittany ports. A second BEF was also landed in Normandy, but swiftly evacuated.

Lynch also suggests that the 51st Highland Division was sacrificed at St Valery as a sop to encourage the French to keep on fighting. Given the evidence this assertion is clear. Furthermore, the authorities should have realised at that point that the battle was lost – another Division evacuated to Britain would have been a godsend. While Anglophobes in the French Government and society might hold to the contention that Dunkirk represented the British abandoning their allies, it is hard to see what else the BEF could have done.

This book is a credible effort. I found it very readable indeed – Lynch’s experience as a writer for Britain at War Magazine no doubt helps. Lynch makes a good balance between personal stories and strategy, has found some good illustrations, and has used a wealth of sources.

Dunkirk 1940: Whereabouts Unknown is published by The History Press

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