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uses some great illustrations, many from publications such as Home Guard handbooks, and many of which are previously unpublished.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.