Thursday, 31 December 2015
Tuesday, 29 December 2015
Tuesday, 22 December 2015
Book Review - When Britain Saved the West: The Story of 1940 by Robin Prior; completed 18 December 2015
Australian author Robin Prior has written a masterpiece. This book was one of Dr Gary Sheffield’s History Books of 2015 (BBC History Magazine); I couldn’t put it down it is an excellent read. This is not just the story of ‘Britain Alone’ that has often been re-told as it examines how Britain, under Churchill’s leadership stood against Nazism and for the concept of Liberal Democracy. The author defines ‘The West’ not in geographic terms but in conceptual ones as that ‘group of countries where the state seeks to uphold the rule of law and the values of the Enlightenment – political diversity, freedom of speech , tolerance of minorities; secular in outlook’ . By this definition then, in Europe only Britain remained as part of ‘The West’ by July of 1940 as every country in Europe, except Sweden and Switzerland, was either occupied by or allied to Nazi Germany. 1940 was also the year that Nazi Germany lost the War, as Richard J Evans points out in ‘The Third Reich at War’, when Germany failed to knock Britain out of the war – ‘she was doomed from that moment’. Evans described the Battle of Britain as the 1st major turning point of the War. This book is not just about the Battle of Britain, however, as Prior identifies a number of key crises, as well as the Battle of Britain, within that fateful year that threatened Britain’s existence as a state, it is not a general history of all the military events of 1940 so the Norwegian and N African Campaigns are left out.
Prior’s narrative commences with the Parliamentary Crisis that led to the deposition of Chamberlain for Churchill in May 1940 at a point when Chamberlain had in fact just won a No Confidence vote and remained as leader of the Conservative party, which had a large majority in Parliament. The author is scathing of Chamberlains’ lethargic prosecution of the war , a result either of his belief that a negotiated peace with Hitler was still possible or, according to Prior, that once war was engaged the German peple would overthrow the Nazis. Both possibilities show a fundamental ignorance of the nature of the enemy on Chamberlain’s behalf.
The Parliamentary crisis, in spite of the result of the No Confidence vote, was precipitated by the abject failure in Norway and the resulting collapse of support from the opposition benches (led by Atlee and Goodwood in particular and by Bevan the Trade Unionist) for the war as well as from within the Conservative Party ranks (led by factions linked to Eden and Beaverbrook). Churchill’s wide cross party appeal, his long-standing record of opposition to Nazism and his good relations with opposition and Trade Union Leaders, led to Chamberlain to resign as PM and recommend Churchill to the King on 10 May. Now Britain had a leader prepared to do whatever was necessary to win the war (including offering a permanent political union with France to keep her in the war, and after the French defeat to take the distasteful but ruthless decision to sink the French fleet at Mers-el-Kébir (killing more than 1,200 men) to prevent it from falling into German hands).
Churchill’s accession was by no means smooth as the Parliamentary Crisis became the Cabinet Crisis. 10 May not only marked the accession of Churchill but also of the German attack kin the West. Not only did Churchill have to manage the war but he did not yet have a free political hand. With Chamberlain still leader of the Tories and the appeaser Lord Halifax still head of a powerful party faction these men had to be given War Cabinet posts at the expense of Eden and others who would have provided much needed backbone. To be inclusive Atlee and Goodwood had to come into the War cabinet to provide a national coalition to prosecute the war. Throughout the next few weeks Halifax in particular would work to undermine Churchill’s bellicosity by seeking Italian intervention for a negotiated peace. It was only firm leadership from Churchill and eventually the obvious intention of Italy of joining the war on the German side that defeated Halifax’s intent. Chamberlain’s death in November would eventually allow Churchill to get rid of Halifax but for now he would continue to be a thorn in the side.
The military defeat of the BEF and the later surrender of France is an oft told story but Prior makes a number of key observations that have been less well publicized. First among these was the intensity of the efforts that Churchill went to in order to keep France in the war. Although it is well known that Dowding refused to send additional fighters to France, Churchill committed far more than he needed to (and many French fighter ac were never committed). Prior shows, that contrary to common perception the BEF and supporting French Army immediately to its south fought determinedly and effectively though were left hanging by the collapse of the Belgians to the north that precipitated the retreat to Dunkirk and the evacuation. British commanders., particularly at Corps and Divisional level also performed well and it is a credit to the BEF commander, often maligned, and to the initiative of British Army leadership that Gort was willing to disobey Churchill (without repercussion) to order the retreat of the BEF to the coast , thereby saving it. An Army in being in Britain would later be a key piece of the jigsaw leading to the cancellation of Seelowe.
At Dunkirk, Prior’s major criticism is for the performance of the RAF whose fighters should have been able to establish air superiority over the beaches as its fighter bases were much closer to the battlefield than were the Luftwaffe’s. Dowding’s failure to provide air superiority over Dunkirk when he easily could have done so concludes Prior, put the evacuation at unnecessary risk and his parsimony was not justified.
A large part of the book now examines the Invasion threat and the Battle of Britain in its key phases including through the Blitz in the winter of 1940/41. Prior forensically examines the probability of success of any German Invasion and concludes categorically that any invasion would have been defeated, although he is very clear in reminding us that the Britons of 1940 could not see that as they were not in possession of the facts as we are today.
The Army in being, rescued from Dunkirk is a key factor in his calculations but the major determinants of his conclusions are the strength of the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. Prior concludes that RN, despite losses at Dunkirk, was always more than capable of intervening in any German invasion and that the removal of ships from Channel Ports to prevent further losses to the Luftwaffe was no more than an inconvenience.
For the RAF, Prior concludes that the Battle of Britain was not as close a run thing as is commonly perceived. At all times during the battle Dowding kept a large part of his force in reserve or supporting roles and the Germans, despite knowing the function of RDF, did not appreciate how it fed into the integrated C2 system of the command nor the importance of the Sector Airfields. This is not to say that AVM Park was not under extreme pressure. From his perspective the Battle was indeed a close run thing as his forces were limited and his Sector stations were those under attack but Prior highlights a note made by Dowding on one of Park’s despatches that Park was being, understandably, unduly pessimistic. Throughout the Battle the RAF maintained Air Superiority and Prior makes a convincing case that they never looked like losing it.
Of course the Battle did not end in 1940 but continued in the Night Blitz of British cities into May 1941 which is where the author now takes us. Night defence against the Luftwaffe was ineffective this early in the war and the civilian population suffered an unprecedented (to that time) attack as a result. Prior contends that he argues that the German bombing of London was always planned and not triggered as a result of RAF raids on Berlin the intention being to force Britain to conclude a disadvantageous peace. The attacks killed 40 000 people which is a lot but as it only represented 0.14% of the population of London in military terms this was insignificant. London, just as Berlin was later to prove, was just too big a target for the attacking capabilities of the Luftwaffe (never designed as a strategic force). Whilst the Blitz was indeed an ordeal for the civilians of Britiain in was never going to knock the country out of the war. German successes against the likes of Coventry, Liverpool and Glasgow were not followed up which allowed damaged manufacturing and port facilities to recover. Indeed Prior’s key points of the Blitz period are that the Luftwaffe was not equal to its task in either equipment or planning.
Throughout the book, Roosevelt’s presence is felt, initially through the attempts to engage Italian support for a peace settlement (Halifax) and then through Churchill’s increasingly strident appeals for support – not to save just Britain but Liberal Democracy. True he did allow Britain to purchase weapons form the US (initially for hard cash) but he only introduced ‘Lend/Lease’ once Britain appeared to be running out of Dollars. In return the US received Gold Bullion and a number of territories whilst US industry was bolstered by British orders for materiel. Prior presents the US as almost asset stripping Britain whilst Britain is standing up for all the values espoused by the Great Republic. In evidence, Prior presents a draft of one of Churchill’s letters the Roosevelt that seems to show Churchill in the same light! In the end Prior is no fan of Roosevelt who he contends did his best to stay out of the war even in the face of 70% of US public opinion (and his own Cabinet’s resolve) to get involved. He even concludes that it was Hitler (by unnecessarily declaring war on the USA) rather than Roosevelt who ensured that the USA would come fully to Britain’s aid.
The Hero of this book is undoubtedly Churchill. In seeing the war as a Manichean struggle between good and evil of ‘Christian Civilisation’ against Nazism he was the right man at the right time. The book concludes with part of the ‘Few’ speech that almost brought me to tears. It shows that Churchill was really fighting not just for Britain but for the values of ‘the West’, the vision that this speech shows when Britain was not only prepared to stand alone but saw herself as part of a much greater concept makes todays Little Englanders in the Conservative party, and the appeasers of the left seem as pygmies against the colossus that led the country in 1940:
“… our willingness at the darkest hour in French history to conclude a union of common citizenship in this struggle. However matters may go in France or with the French Government, or other French Governments, we in this Island and in the British Empire will never lose our sense of comradeship with the French people. If we are now called upon to endure what they have been suffering, we shall emulate their courage, and if final victory rewards our toils they shall share the gains, aye, and freedom shall be restored to all. We abate nothing of our just demands; not one jot or tittle do we recede. Czechs, Poles, Norwegians, Dutch, Belgians have joined their causes to our own. All these shall be restored.
What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, "This was their finest hour."
Prior’s conclusions are that Britain, and therefore Liberalism, was saved through Churchill’s leadership, the determination and skill of the BEF and its leaders and the power of the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy. In retrospect he sees that Britain could only have been defeated in 1940 had she chosen to have given up (as Halifax and some appeasers still proposed in the Cabinet crisis in May). One may not agree with all of the author’s conclusions but one should definitely read this book. It is Brilliant.