Britain at Bay – The Epic Story of the Second World War: 1938-1941
Alan Allport, Profile Books, 2020, £25
‘The Second World War,’ says Britain at Bay’s flyleaf, ‘was the defining experience of modern British history. It is our founding myth, our Iliad.’ It is the inspiration for an ongoing outpouring of national (often justifiable) self-congratulation, affecting the way Britons – especially English Britons – see themselves and are seen, inflecting everything from Brexit to immigration, foreign policy to Covid.
The titanic 1939-1945 conflict is still often seen as a halcyon time of national cohesion, when millions of ‘ordinary’ people rose up in spontaneous indignation against undoubted evil, to the accompaniment of Vera Lynn singing, ‘There’ll Always be an England.’ It is the last event in history the Left and Right see eye to eye about – the last just cause, the last time Britain was Great. But if the war really is this island’s Iliad, it was one that ended in a Pyrrhic victory.
Syracuse professor Alan Allport has already made noteworthy contributions to this frankly over-full historiographical field, with two books that are united by a lack of sentimentality and a Kipling-esque empathy with poor put-upon ‘Tommy Atkins’. Browned Off and Bloody Minded: The British Soldier Goes to War 1939-1945 of 2017 shone searchlights on how men from all over Britain grumbled and slouched towards glory. Although published afterwards, it was essentially the prequel to 2010’s Demobbed: Coming Home After the Second World War – which shows how those men came grumbling home again, scarred mentally and physically, often never speaking of what they’d done or seen.
Although the author was born in Liverpool, and weaned on family stories about the war, this does not prevent him seeing things as they seem really to have been. Even where he clearly dislikes somebody, he is careful to acknowledge the things they did right, or at least understand why they did what they did. He finds time to interest himself in the tiniest of technical details, such as the shortcomings of particular weapons. It is a bravura study of a brave story, one whose epic quality is not diminished by the author’s exceptionally clear-eyed comprehension of mythologised military and political episodes.
The British, especially the English, see themselves as ‘Shire Folk,’ Allport notes – as kindly, modest and self-effacing as Tolkien’s hobbits, a people whose dearest wish is simply to be left alone, yet who can, when backed into a corner, band together and prevail against even the most powerful foes. The British, according to this fuzzy feeling, have to be forced into fighting, their frequent inefficiency less a lack of preparation than a lack of viciousness, even a proof of moral superiority. The British, wrote National Labour MP Harold Nicolson in 1939’s Why Britain is at War, ‘desire nothing on Earth except to retain their liberties, to enjoy their pleasures, and to go about their business in a tranquil frame of mind…They are not either warriors or heroes until they are forced to.’ In retirement, Churchill would write of how the ‘carelessness, and good nature’ of the English had allowed Germany to rearm. One of British television’s most successful sitcoms, Dad’s Army, which ran from 1969 to 1977 and is often repeated, exemplifies this self-image, with its comical stories of the Home Guard, a civil defence unit of men too old or sick for frontline service, who spend more time getting into scrapes and worrying about social class than on serious security duties.
Obviously, 1930s Britain was as capable of cruelty and injustice as anywhere. As George Orwell observed in Notes on Nationalism, ‘Those who “abjure” violence can only do so because others are committing violence on their behalf.’ Such ‘others’ arguably included men of the Royal Ulster Rifles, who in 1938 looted, machine-gunned and eventually razed the Palestinian village of al-Bassa in revenge for an insurgent bomb attack, leaving twenty villagers dead, some of whom had been tortured, and others forced onto a bus which was deliberately driven onto a landmine. The al-Bassa incident was controversial even at the time – Allport stresses that abuses were relatively rare, and the products of provocation rather than policy – but the uncomfortable fact remains that the Empire long lauded as a bringer of Christian civilization was ultimately held together by the tough unscrupulousness of soldiers not just willing to kill, but sometimes rather enjoying it. The coming war, so often portrayed as a moral crusade, was intended to prop up this unequal order.
The innate niceness of England would also have been news in Northern Ireland, where the Roman Catholic minority was treated as second-class, and elections were gerrymandered to maintain Unionist control. London generally pretended not to see, conniving in what Allport calls ‘apartheid’ and even ‘a Herrenvolk conception of Britishness.’ Occasional IRA bombings in England were used as an excuse to harass innocent Irish, and in July 1939 to force through the Prevention of Violence Act, which allowed the Home Secretary (without resort to law courts) to detain, expel from, or prohibit entry into, the UK to anyone accused of violent acts or even intentions. This was in a country that wrapped itself in Magna Carta and ‘Mother of parliaments’ mystique, and it was just a foretaste of far worse assaults on civil liberties to come across all of the UK. Churchill was granted truly dictatorial powers for the duration; luckily for the myth, he aristocratically opted not to exercise them.
English kindliness would also have been news in many poverty-stricken English inner cities, whose terrible sufferings were too often scanted by politicians, especially Conservatives, whose upper echelons were still overstocked with the landed gentry. Allport contrasts life in Castle Howard, stately Yorkshire home of the Howards – albeit undergoing retrenchment by the 1930s – with working-class districts of York, a third of whose residents could not afford healthy food, and lived in cramped and damp conditions, without the means to keep themselves clean. York was better off than many other cities; in the mid-1930s, two thirds of British wage-earners brought home under £2 10s each week, half the minimum requirement for a family of four. The working class was better off in the 1930s than ever before, but still millions of ‘Shire folk’ were living in goblin-like captivity. When the Blitz started, London’s wealthy instantly absented themselves from the danger zones. The East Enders who displayed such celebrated staying power couldn’t afford to go anywhere else anyway.
The political situation wasn’t clear-cut either. There was never any hard distinction between appeasers and non-appeasers, notwithstanding politic post-war rationalisations and reordering of memories. Supposedly steadfast anti-appeasers like Leo Amery – who in May 1940 famously told Chamberlain in the Commons ‘In the name of God, go!’ – and even Churchill were always more equivocal than Britons care to remember. On the other hand, Chamberlain, despite many personal defects and errors of judgement, really meant well. Allport plainly detests Chamberlain, but gamely gives him credit for decent instincts, and perfectly rational thinking. Unlike the often heedlessly boyish Churchill, Chamberlain loathed war, seeing it as ‘a barbaric folly that disrupted the virtues of free commerce and liberal progress.’ He was also in some ways more far-sighted than Churchill, realising that even a won war would mean the end of the empire it was supposed to safeguard. Chamberlain’s basic, cataclysmic mistake, of assuming Hitler to be a rational actor, is one that could have been made by many others, including a certain W. Churchill, who as late as 1937 authored articles positing that Germany’s leader could ‘rank in Valhalla with Pericles, Augustus and with Washington,’ and admiring his ‘patriotic achievement.’
Chamberlain’s errors about Hitler would soon be mirrored by Churchill’s misreading of Stalin. His reviled Munich deal even allowed Britain extra time to prepare militarily – as it had been doing during all the years of his supposedly lackadaisical leadership. It should also be remembered that appeasement was vastly popular with voters, especially the recently enfranchised distaff half – a point noted glumly by anti-appeasers like Harold Nicolson, who despaired ‘historians of our decline will say that we were done the moment we gave women the vote.’ Even at the war’s height, many Britons were more interested in their private lives than in public affairs, such as one clerk whose diary is quoted, for whom 1940 was chiefly notable for falling ‘really and truly in love,’ and getting a new job with St. Pancras Borough Council. Roosevelt’s Lend-Lease deal with Churchill came with such stringent and distrustful conditions that Churchill likened America’s actions to those of a bailiff.
As the war widened, the moral clarity of the months Britain had ‘stood alone’ was increasingly compromised. Britain had made a lethal attack on the French navy to avoid the vessels being commandeered by the Vichy regime, which although understandable strategically was seen as despicable by many French, who already felt the British had abandoned them in 1940. The UK was already starting to become a junior partner to the US, and was furthermore allied with the USSR, as despicable a regime as any in history. Such noble scruples as there had ever been in British policy were receding rapidly into history, exemplified as this book closes by a September 1941 ‘Most Secret’ meeting somewhere in Whitehall, during which Churchill and his chiefs of staff agreed to forge a new kind of weapon – the uranium bomb. Britain was the first country to commit itself to developing nuclear weapons, the gentle Shire Folk suddenly working in secret for Sauron. Allport ends his telling of the tale with very English understatement – ‘The war was going to be very different from this point onwards.’
This review first appeared in the November 2021 issue of Chronicles, and is reproduced with permission