From Hobbits to H-bombs

Britain at Bay: The Epic Story of the
Second World War, 1938
by Alan Allport
608 pp., $35.00

"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 also the inspiration for a continued outpouring of national self-congratulation, affecting the way Britons see themselves and are seen, inflecting everything from Brexit to immigration, foreign policy to COVID.

The titanic 1939-1945 conflict is still surprisingly 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 historical event the left and right see eye-to-eye on—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.


above: British military propaganda poster c. 1939-45 (Shawshots / Alamy Stock Photo)

Syracuse University professor Alan Allport has already made noteworthy contributions to this overfull historiographical field. Browned Off and Bloody-Minded: The British Soldier Goes to War 1939-1945, published in 2015, 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 World War Two, which shows how those men came grumbling home, scarred mentally and physically, often never speaking of what they’d done or seen. Both books are united by a lack of sentimentality, and a Kiplingesque empathy with poor, put-upon “Tommy Atkins,” the generic name for a common British soldier.

Although the author was born in Liverpool and weaned on family stories about the war, that 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 he did right, or at least to understand why he did what he did. He finds time to interest himself in the tiniest of technical details, such as the shortcomings of particular weapons. The result is a bravura study of a brave story, one whose epic quality is not diminished by the author’s exceptionally clear-eyed comprehension of mythologized military and political episodes.

The British 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, must 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.” J. B. Priestley’s Postscripts BBC broadcasts of June 1940 emoted about the “kindness, humour and courage” of the British, as opposed to “the half-crazy, haunted, fearful” Germans. One of British television’s most successful sitcoms, Dad’s Army, which ran from 1968 to 1977, exemplifies this self-image, with its comical stories of the Home Guard, a civil defense unit of men too old or sick for frontline service, who spend more time getting into scrapes and worrying about social class than 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 20 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 who sometimes enjoyed it.

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. This allowed the Home Secretary—without resort to law courts—to detain, expel from, or prohibit entry into the U.K. to anyone accused of violent acts or even intentions.

All this occurred in a country that wrapped itself in Magna Carta and the “mother of parliaments” mystique. It was just a foretaste of far worse assaults on civil liberties to come across all of the UK. Winston Churchill was granted truly dictatorial powers for the duration of the war; luckily 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 teeming with the landed gentry. Allport contrasts life in Castle Howard, stately Yorkshire home of the Howards, 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.

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.

The political situation wasn’t clear-cut either. There was never any hard distinction between appeasers and non-appeasers, notwithstanding politic postwar rationalizations and reordering of memories. Supposedly steadfast anti-appeasers like Leo Amery—who in May 1940 famously told Neville 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 judgment, really meant well. Allport plainly detests him, but gamely gives him credit for his 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, realizing that even a victorious 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 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. Chamberlain’s reviled Munich deal with Hitler 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 that “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.

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 atrocious 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 U.S., and was furthermore allied with the USSR, as despicable a regime as that in Berlin.

Such noble scruples as there had ever been in British policy were receding rapidly into history, exemplified as Allport’s 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 began 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.”

Derek Turner

Derek Turner

Derek Turner is a novelist, reviewer, and editor of The Brazen Head, a quarterly journal.

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