Britain at Bay: The Epic Story of the Second World War, 1938-1941

Here are some highlights of this fantastic 2020 book by professor Alan Allport:

* Lewis wondered, though, if critics would interpret The Lord of the Rings as a political satire about contemporary Europe, rather than as the timeless mythopoeic fantasy that Tolkien had intended to write. ‘By accident, a great deal of it can be read topically,’ Lewis thought, ‘the Shire standing for England, Rohan for France, Gondor the Germany of the future, Sauron for Stalin.’ He even wondered if the ‘egregious’ Lewis Silkin, the minister of town and country planning in Clement Attlee’s Labour government, would be identified as the vandal wizard Saruman, destroyer of the novel’s pastoral idyll, the Shire…

Tolkien had, after all, never made any secret of the fact that the Shire, the setting of the first four and final two chapters of The Lord of the Rings, was modelled on the rural Warwickshire he half-remembered from his childhood in the 1890s.3 Even the Shire’s location, on the north-western edge of Middle Earth, correlated with the usual placement of the British Isles on the map of Europe. The Shire, with its drystone walls, hay wains, country alehouses and sheriffs, was an affectionate parody of the pre-industrial ‘Deep England’ already central to conservative (especially Catholic conservative) conceptions of English identity at the beginning of the twentieth century, through the writings of authors such as G. K. Chesterton, H. J. Massingham and H. V. Morton.4

And the Shire’s diminutive inhabitants, hobbits – ‘charming, absurd, helpless hobbits’, as Gandalf the Wizard calls them – corresponded very neatly with the gentle and unassuming self-image that the English people had adopted for themselves in the years after the First World War…

Now they saw themselves exemplified by the ‘Little Man’ – ‘small, kindly, bewildered, modest, obstinate, and very loveable’, as the writer and MP Harold Nicolson described him, and most famously depicted by the cartoonist Sidney Strube, in the Daily Express, with bowler hat, umbrella, bow tie, high collar, pince-nez glasses and bushy white moustache.6 Strube’s Little Man offered an Englishman for a new, milder, altogether more quotidian age.

Writing in 1934, the conservative historian Arthur Bryant argued that this modern Little Englishman was a ‘stolid, tolerant, good-humoured, reliable kind of person, so strong withal (because he is so much at peace with himself) so gentle’.7 W. R. Inge, a former dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, said of him that he was ‘humane; cruelty excites him to violent indignation. He is a bad hater, and has a short memory for injuries.’ His chief vices were intemperance (‘in eating more than drinking’) and a ‘disinclination for hard and steady work’. But he made up for these faults by ‘a peculiar sense of humour […] preserving him from fierce and cruel fanaticisms’.8 Tolkien, writing a few years later, would describe his hobbits as ‘an unobtrusive but very ancient people’ who loved ‘peace and quiet and good tilled earth’, whose faces ‘were as a rule good-natured rather than beautiful, broad, bright-eyed, red-cheeked’ and who found pleasure mainly in ‘eating and drinking’ and ‘simple jests’.9 Clearly, the English were the close cousins of these artless, introverted and complacent people of the Shire.

Too complacent, perhaps. Tolkien’s affection for his hobbits was unreserved. But The Lord of the Rings can be understood, among other things, as a warning about the dangers of languorous detachment from the evils of the world.

* Frodo’s initial preference is to turn away from the threat emerging from Mordor rather than openly to confront it: to hide away the dangerous magical ring that he possesses, to speak nothing of it and to hope that the storm will pass by his sleepy homeland and that better times will follow. Gandalf, frustrated at this guileless wishful thinking, must chivvy him into action, force Frodo to accept that, whether he likes it or not, the destructive forces that threaten to overwhelm Middle Earth will not spare the Shire simply because it appears harmless.

* As early as the winter of 1939, in his Penguin Special paperback Why Britain is at War, Harold Nicolson had insisted that ‘the British people are by nature peaceful and kindly’, a nation of hobbits who “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 have no ambition for honour and glory, and they regard wars, and even victories, as silly, ugly, wasteful things. They are not either warriors or heroes until they are forced to; they are sensible and gentle men and women.”

‘Somewhat indolent by temperament’, this ‘sleepy, decent and most pacific race’ had regrettably ignored Nazi Germany’s ambitions for too long, Nicolson admitted, for ‘only by dire necessity’ could they ever be ‘stirred to do unpleasant things’. But in the end they had been provoked once too often. Hitler, Nicolson declared, would now discover to his cost the conviction and tenacity of the mild-mannered islanders whom he had so rashly underestimated.

* In June 1940, when the Allied armies on the continent collapsed in the face of the German Blitzkrieg, France fell and Britain seemed on the brink of invasion and defeat, the left-wing novelist J. B. Priestley mobilised the same myth to even more influential effect in his series of ‘Postscript’ broadcasts on the BBC. Priestley described to his listeners how the ‘kindness, humour and courage’ of the British people would inevitably overcome the ‘half-crazy, haunted, fearful minds’ set against them… Christopher Nolan’s 2017 blockbuster Dunkirk is basically one of Priestley’s Postscripts illustrated with twenty-first-century special effects. Its central character is not some brawny uniformed Achilles but the mild-mannered, middle-class, middle-aged Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance), the skipper of a diminutive pleasure yacht, a Dorset Frodo sailing into battle in knitted pullover, armed with nothing more martial than a hot, sweet cup of tea.

* What writers such as Nicolson and Priestley had begun, Winston Churchill continued and confirmed in his six-volume The Second World War, a history which, after its completion in 1954 (the same year that the first volume of The Lord of the Rings was published), would become the most influential narrative of the conflict in the English-speaking world. The moral Churchill offers for Britain’s war is of a Shire Folk almost undone ‘through their unwisdom, carelessness, and good nature’ in allowing Hitler to rearm and conquer the West. Churchill cast himself in the early chapters of his first volume, The Gathering Storm, published in 1948, as a Gandalfian seer whose warnings about the threat from Germany in the 1930s had been ignored almost until it was too late. ‘Poor England! Leading her free, careless life from day to day [… behaving] as though all the world was as easy, uncalculating, and well-meaning as herself.’18

What made the Shire Folk narrative so persuasive to the British, whether it was told by a man of the left such as Priestley or a conservative patriarch like Churchill, was that it explained the nation’s early wartime failures, as well its subsequent successes. Those failures and successes were products of the same unchanging national characteristics. The British had been gulled into almost catastrophic carelessness in the 1930s by the cunning of their enemies. But what the Germans, in their hubris, had failed to guess at were the inner reserves of fortitude such a modest island race possessed – a stubborn unwillingness to be bullied, and an indomitable pluck even in the face of as grotesque and triumphant a Moloch as Hitler. The Shire Folk, it turned out, were a people of brilliant ‘muddlers-through’, inspired amateurs in an emergency…

* If we want to really understand the British experience of the Second World War, we need to acknowledge the Shire Folk myth, salute it and then set it aside. Because the British people who fought and defeated Hitler from 1939 to 1945 were not nearly as innocent as hobbits. Nor as unprepared for the viciousness of total war. Nor anything like as nice.

* By the 1930s the British were heavily invested in the Little Man conception of themselves. Key to this was the idea of their nation as a uniquely gentle, domesticated and consensual place, a ‘peaceable kingdom’ in which belligerence was rare, moderation the norm and reasonableness celebrated.13 The Broadgate bombing represented everything that was supposedly inimical to British civilisation in the 1930s: a resort to terror rather than persuasion; an indifference to the suffering of innocents; a contempt for constitutional process. Britain, according to the Little Man view of the world, was an offshore haven of tranquillity, mercifully detached by geography from the cruel and quarrelsome mainland of Europe. The techniques of political terror commonplace on the continent – pogroms, purges, assassinations – were unknown on the English-speaking side of the Channel. ‘Our methods,’ the military commentator J. F. C. Fuller pointed out, ‘are not of the stiletto, the bomb, and the cup of bad coffee.’ Thinking of the collapse of parliamentary democracy across Europe in 1935, the historian J. E. Neale sought consolation in his own nation’s exceptionalism. ‘We may thank God,’ he said, ‘we are not as other men are.’

* The Great Britain of the 1930s had a stable and moderate political system, no small thing in an age of totalitarianism. Its three main political parties all sought to govern from the centre rather than the margins and did not challenge the validity of election results even in defeat. Extremists who rejected this constitutional order, like the Communists and Blackshirts, could boast noisy antics which got a lot of press attention and a handful of well-placed sympathisers, but so far as the masses were concerned they never occupied anything more than a tiny and contemptible niche in political life.

* By the late 1930s most Britons had come to terms with the idea that the Irish were a fundamentally different people from themselves. Few people in mainland Great Britain regretted any longer the fissuring of the Free State from the rest of the UK.

* The Irish, it was whispered in Britain, were constitutionally inclined to violence. Their fecundity and fecklessness were said to be at odds with sober Anglo-Saxon values. They sponged off Britain’s taxpayers by demanding public assistance (‘it has been truly said that Ireland has discovered how to make England pay for its poor’, the Times suggested archly in 193643). A Catholic’s real loyalty was surely to Rome rather than to the British Crown. The Irish spoke differently. They dressed differently. They behaved differently. Many English people in the 1930s continued to think of the Irish, deep down, as ‘duplicitous peasants’.

* The Britain that went to war in 1939 was, arguably, a much more unified country than it is today. The Second World War would strengthen its unities further still. It is natural, eighty years later, to feel pangs of nostalgia about such cohesion. It is understandable to wonder where the self-confidence and sense of place that the British once seemed to possess has gone. But these feelings should be treated with caution. National unity came at a price. Creating a sense of inclusiveness for the many meant excluding the few.

* The war was going to be a stress-test of how committed people in the United Kingdom were to civil liberty as a core principle of Britishness.

* Appeasement was a hugely popular policy. It was a product of democracy.

* In April 1938 the chancellor of the exchequer, Sir John Simon, warned the Cabinet that the growth of rearmament spending could not continue for much longer ‘unless we turned ourselves into a different kind of nation’ – one that abandoned for ever the liberal-capitalist axioms of balanced budgets, low taxation, minimal inflation and non-state interference in wage and price levels.61 Expanding the military-manufacturing sector any further would necessitate drastic new government powers. Millions of workers in the munitions factories would become government employees in all but name. Their demands would have to be appeased in the name of industrial peace. Militant Britain would become a centralised Jacobin state, socialist in practice if not in principle.

* The idea of Empire just did not sit well with the new, dominant Shire Folk conception of Britishness, which emphasised parochialism, domesticity and meek ambition. This is why Britons found it so easy to forget about the Empire altogether during their ‘finest hour’ of 1940. After the fall of France they accepted, indeed embraced, the idea that they were fighting on alone against the Nazis. This was pure fiction. The Empire was a crucial source of manpower and matériel keeping the British war effort going in 1940. The belief in ‘aloneness’ was, however, compelling. Consciousness of Empire only complicated that belief, so it was sloughed off.18

Those who did think about Empire between the wars had to answer two questions. One was whether the Empire still represented a net asset to British power or whether it had become a distraction and a deficit.

* Measured by area, resources and human capital, the British Empire appeared to compare favourably even with the sprawling hinterland empires of the United States and the Soviet Union. Its total population of 491 million in 1931 dwarfed that of the 161 million of the USSR and America’s 122 million. Even its white population, though significantly smaller at 71.5 million (about two-thirds of it in the United Kingdom), was not so far off the United States’ 109 million, and larger anyway than Germany’s.

* Seventeen out of twenty of the imperial populace lived in India and the tropics, almost all of them penurious, illiterate peasants scratching a living at a medieval level of subsistence. The Empire’s poverty and underdevelopment greatly limited the United Kingdom’s ability to mobilise its resources. Most of it was quite incapable of defending itself.

The exceptions to this were the white settler peoples in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Newfoundland, South Africa and the plantation colonies of east and central Africa – migrants who had built imitation Britains across the globe, expropriating or exterminating the local populations along the way. Here were prosperous, well-educated communities, some with nascent industrial economies. Most of them maintained a deeply felt, if somewhat imprecise, allegiance to the Empire and the global ‘British race’.

* Dominion opinion now had to be considered in Britain’s foreign policymaking, a great complication to its diplomacy. Neville Chamberlain knew as he travelled to Munich in September 1938 that if Britain went to war to defend Czechoslovakia, there was no guarantee that Canada and Australia would automatically follow suit. Defence expenditure in the United Kingdom as a percentage of national income was over five times that of Canada and Australia.27 Ottawa and Canberra expected to be consulted on military matters; they did not expect to pay for the privilege. The British taxpayer had to pick up the cost of keeping the Empire secure.

The problem that Britain faced in the 1930s was that the conditions that had once made its imperial ambitions relatively effortless and cost-efficient no longer applied to anything like the same degree. Britain’s inward turn towards imperial trade reflected economic weakness, not vigorous autarkic health. The Empire it had built was a curate’s egg. A few bits of it were very valuable indeed; a lot of it had occasional, if limited, worth; and great swathes of it were no use at all, and represented nothing but a wearying, yet undiscardable burden to the Mother Country.

* Then there was the question of what it was all about. What did the British Empire stand for by the 1930s? When people said they ‘believed’ in it, were even willing to die for it, what did they mean? Did they believe in the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon racial stock? The truth of the Protestant faith? Western civilisation? British ideals and institutions? Was the Empire’s purpose to secure the power of the metropole? To serve as a model for international peace and co-operation?

…The nineteenth century had been a century of empire-building: of exploration, conquest and great moral crusades, such as the suppression of the slave trade. The new century was a century of empire management: worthy, but dull. Imperialism had entered its prosaic age. The Victorians had celebrated their bellicosity in gleeful and unapologetically bloodthirsty terms appropriate to an age of Social Darwinist triumphalism. Many imperialists continued to nurse the same feelings in the 1930s. Across the white communities of the Empire, there were plenty of people who still adhered unembarrassedly to the view that the British race’s world-historical task was to rule other, less fortunate races – benevolently, to be sure, but with a firm hand, and with no complicating nonsense about one day transferring power from imperial master to native subject. In 1937 Churchill spoke unblushingly of the right of ‘a stronger race, a higher grade of race’ to replace other, lesser, peoples.28 Lord Halifax believed that there was nothing ‘unnatural nor immoral’ about the idea of superior and inferior races.29 Anthony Eden spoke of ‘reasserting white-race authority’ in East Asia.30

The problem was that such views were becoming increasingly impolite by the 1930s. And they were embarrassing at a time when the British government was trying to claim the moral high ground in its dealings with Hitler. There were some uncomfortable parallels between the blood-and-soil rhetoric of National Socialism and the language of Anglo-Saxon empire. Hitler had always lathered praise on the white supremacism that underpinned British rule in Africa and Asia. ‘The Englishman has always understood,’ he wrote in 1920, ‘that he must be master, and not brother.’31 When the Nazi court philosopher Alfred Rosenberg suggested in 1933 that Germany’s new anti-Semitic laws were not incompatible with Anglophone traditions because ‘the British Empire too is based on a racially defined claim of dominance’, he struck a sensitive nerve.32 The Canadian poet Wilfrid Campbell had proclaimed in 1914 that ‘to serve Empire and race’ was the ‘great thought, great hope and desire’. This had been received well enough at the time. By the 1930s it had started to sound a little too much like a quotation from Mein Kampf.33

…Empire by the 1930s had been rebranded to suit the age of Shire Folk: conquest and annexation were out, benign guardianship in. In an era in which the signature values had become the self-determination of peoples and international concord, it was necessary to think of the Empire as a mild and benevolent force in world affairs, a guarantor of progress and stability.35 It was to be understood as a kind of grand philanthropic gesture, distributing valuable knowledge (sacred and profane) and the benefits of industrial civilisation to the darkest and most benighted corners of the world – a mission school here, an irrigation scheme or institute of tropical medicine there.

Above all, the British Empire by the 1930s was an instrument of peace in a disorderly and unhappy world, ‘a great force for good,’ according to Baldwin.36 ‘Our business in the years to come,’ wrote historian Arthur Bryant, ‘is not so much to govern, as in the past, as to give the world a lead in the business of living wisely and peacefully and nobly.’37 And to educate its peoples towards happy and responsible self-government. Empire’s official mission statement was now to put itself out of business one day – even if that day was a long way off.

On the whole, the British people between the wars had no quarrel with this new way of thinking about their Empire. It suited their milder, more amiable conception of themselves. They rarely thought about Empire much at all. But in so far as they did think about it, most of them were convinced that it was a good thing, that its subject peoples were much the happier for its existence and that the rest of the world looked upon it – and them – with envy and admiration.38

Yet, as we have seen, governing an empire was always going to be an exercise in violence. Its dirty work would go on just as it had always gone on, no matter how much Kampf.33

The British denied, of course, that the parallel was fair. ‘Enemy propaganda has always striven to represent Britain as grabbing land all over the globe, stealing other people’s “possessions”, exploiting them exclusively for our own benefit, repressing them by force […] the truth is in reality quite the reverse,’ insisted Major W. E. Simnett in The British Way and Purpose:

We no longer regard the Colonial Empire as a ‘possession’, but as a trust or responsibility. ‘Imperialism’ in the less reputable sense of that term is dead […] it has been superseded by the principle of trusteeship for colonial peoples, in which the interests and welfare of the native peoples are regarded as paramount.34

Empire by the 1930s had been rebranded to suit the age of Shire Folk: conquest and annexation were out, benign guardianship in. In an era in which the signature values had become the self-determination of peoples and international concord, it was necessary to think of the Empire as a mild and benevolent force in world affairs, a guarantor of progress and stability.35 It was to be understood as a kind of grand philanthropic gesture, distributing valuable knowledge (sacred and profane) and the benefits of industrial civilisation to the darkest and most benighted corners of the world – a mission school here, an irrigation scheme or institute of tropical medicine there.

Above all, the British Empire by the 1930s was an instrument of peace in a disorderly and unhappy world, ‘a great force for good,’ according to Baldwin.36 ‘Our business in the years to come,’ wrote historian Arthur Bryant, ‘is not so much to govern, as in the past, as to give the world a lead in the business of living wisely and peacefully and nobly.’37 And to educate its peoples towards happy and responsible self-government. Empire’s official mission statement was now to put itself out of business one day – even if that day was a long way off.

On the whole, the British people between the wars had no quarrel with this new way of thinking about their Empire. It suited their milder, more amiable conception of themselves. They rarely thought about Empire much at all. But in so far as they did think about it, most of them were convinced that it was a good thing, that its subject peoples were much the happier for its existence and that the rest of the world looked upon it – and them – with envy and admiration.38

Yet, as we have seen, governing an empire was always going to be an exercise in violence. Its dirty work would go on just as it had always gone on, no matter how much this jarred with the idea of enlightened trustee-ship. But by the 1930s this was a greater problem than it had once been, because the British had convinced themselves that brutality was inimical to their character – ‘frightfulness,’ Churchill said, was not ‘a remedy known to the British pharmacopoeia’ – and because twentieth-century mass communications were making it harder and harder to keep such brutality quiet.39 If the only way to keep the Empire stable was to betray the values of the imperial centre, then people might start to wonder whether there was any point to keeping it at all.

* Upon the assumption of control in 1920, a flood of imperial officials, professionals and proselytisers arrived – civil servants, soldiers, policemen, teachers, doctors, engineers, businessmen, missionaries – many of them straight from India and Africa, and bearing all of the worthy, self-assured assumptions about a civilising mission that they had first acquired in the Serengeti and Peshawar. Schools and hospitals were built, bridges constructed, marshes drained, irrigation systems dug. By the time the British left in 1948, the life-expectancy of the typical Palestinian peasant (fellah) had risen by fifteen years. Rates of infection for malaria, trachoma, smallpox, typhoid and other infectious diseases had plummeted. Most Arab boys were receiving at least a few years of formal schooling. Tireless and largely forgotten altruists of Empire had achieved these things, and more besides.

* Leo Amery, the secretary-of-state for the colonies from 1924 to 1929, thought that Jewish immigrants to Palestine, with their ‘robust physique and virile appearance’ and Western mores, might create a quasi-British civilisation in the wilderness that one day could become a fully participating imperial dominion.47 ‘Our ultimate end,’ he wrote in his diary at the time, ‘is clearly to make Palestine the centre of a western influence, using the Jews as we have used the Scots, to carry the English ideal through the Middle East.’

* The number of Jews migrating from central and eastern Europe was not very great throughout the 1920s – in 1928, barely 2,000 arrived. All that changed with Hitler’s ascent to power in Germany. Over 30,000 Jews came to Palestine in 1933. By 1935 it was twice that. Jews, who had constituted 16 per cent of the Mandate’s population in 1931, now made up over a quarter of its people.50 The concomitant wave of land purchases from Arabs (many of them absentee brokers who did not consult their own tenants during the negotiations) greatly disturbed the fragile balance of ethnic-commercial power.

* The spectacle of Palestine’s native people rising up to confront British imperial power had excited the sympathies of people across the Arab and Islamic world. The Empire counted 50 million Muslims among its subjects, most of them in what is today Pakistan.59 The prospect of a substantial portion of the global Ummah rising up in sympathy with the Palestinians did not bear thinking about. As a Government of India report warned: if Britain did not bring the Arab Rising to a quick end, ‘the Moslems of India will look upon Britain as the enemy of Islam.’

* The essential rule was not to get caught red-handed doing anything too barbarous. No British soldier doling out rough justice to one of the ‘oozl-barts’ had to fear the attentions of social media in 1938. ‘Running over an Arab is the same as a dog in England except we do not report it,’ Sydney Burr confessed matter-of-factly to his parents in a letter home.

* Nobody in London was under any illusion that Palestine had returned to lasting stability. The surge had been no more than a temporary demonstration of imperial power. The War Office needed those troops elsewhere now. Imperial prestige had demanded that the Arab rebels be crushed. But with the end of the Revolt it was time to revisit the whole question of Palestine’s future. At the heart of the issue was Jewish immigration and Britain’s continued commitment to the Balfour Declaration. Unless the Palestinians themselves could be satisfied on this point, Sir Miles Lampson, the British ambassador in Egypt, warned the Cabinet: ‘if war comes, we shall have to take on the Arabs as well as the Italians and Germans. What would our position then be in the Near East? I shudder to think.’72

Facing such a grim prospect, Chamberlain was blunt. ‘If we must offend one side, let us offend the Jews rather than the Arabs,’ he told the Cabinet.73

Charles Bateman, Lampson’s deputy in Cairo, wrote: ‘I can’t see any justification for the loss of a single British soldier in the faction fight between those damned Semites.’ As for the Jews: ‘let us be practical,’ he continued:

They are anybody’s game these days […] we have not done badly by them so far and they should be made to realise that crying for the moon won’t get them anywhere – especially if we are the only friends they have left in the world.74

In May 1939 the government published a White Paper on Palestine which proposed to heavily restrict Jewish immigration for the next five years, and bring it virtually to an end thereafter. The news was greeted with anger and dismay in the international Jewish community. In London, Moshe Shertok, head of the Palestine Jewish Agency’s political department, was approached by an Oxford undergraduate who wanted permission to murder Neville Chamberlain on the floor of the House of Commons before killing herself.75 The Irgun, a radical breakaway faction of the main Jewish paramilitary defence force, the Haganah, began terrorist operations of its own against the British authorities. But these were extreme responses. The British had calculated correctly. Mainstream Jewish organisations, for all their frustration, felt themselves in no position to mount any resistance to an empire that, at that moment, was one of the few things standing between themselves and Nazi Germany.

In addition to hundreds of British lives, the Arab Revolt resulted in the deaths of over 300 Palestinian Jews and at least 5,000 Arabs.76 It demonstrated, in a thousand quotidian ways, all of the squalor and cruelty that inevitably end up accompanying a ‘police action’ led by bored and frustrated colonial troops stranded in the midst of a sullen and hostile local population. It was a nasty, unrewarding war of shadows, fought in side-streets with cudgels and pick-axe helves and broken bottles as often as rifles.

It had shown that the Shire Folk could be ruthless when necessary – ruthless in the way with which they had crushed the Arabs, but ruthless too in the way they had then coolly betrayed the Mandate’s Jews. By sharply limiting any further migration to Palestine, the 1939 White Paper closed off one of the last remaining escape routes for the Jews of central and eastern Europe in the final months before Hitler’s conquests and genocidal fantasies made flight impossible. Such was the pitiless moral calculus essential to the maintenance of empire.

* Most politicians and public figures who took a position on appeasement, for or against, agreed about far more than they disagreed. They wanted to avoid another war. But they accepted that there were certain vital interests for which Britain might have to fight, no matter what.

* Neville Chamberlain is exactly the kind of leader people wish for when they say that they want to see a businessman from the ‘real world’ running the country, rather than the world of career politics. Chamberlain saw himself as a down-to-earth pragmatist bringing bluff commercial know-how to statecraft. He believed he had a special relationship with the masses and could speak to their hopes and fears over the heads of the political elite and the media chattering class.

* Like other businessmen who have turned to politics, he seems to have envied Hitler and Mussolini’s freedom to act without tiresome constitutional restrictions. He had, Eden noted, ‘a certain fondness for dictators, whose efficiency appealed to him’.31 Chamberlain was not above behaving ruthlessly, even illegally, to get his way. He had no compunction about bypassing and misleading his own ministers. He employed the mysterious and sinister Sir Joseph Ball, Director of the Conservative Research Department and former MI5 man, to spy on the Opposition, tap the phones and bug the houses of his rivals and rubbish his enemies in Ball’s grotesque anti-Semitic journal Truth.

* High diplomacy, for Chamberlain, was the art of the deal. He saw himself as a fixer who could get anyone to say ‘yes’ given enough time. His years in the world of commerce had made him, he believed, an acute judge of character and a sharp negotiator. His theatrical descent by aeroplane on Hitler’s Berghof in September 1938 to meet with the German dictator face to face was entirely characteristic of this personal, media-driven approach to crisis management, one that showed an acute consciousness of the power of words and images in the new age of cinema and radio. Chamberlain ‘attached great importance to the dramatic side of the visit’…

* Britain had, after all, gone to war in August 1914 to prevent France from being overwhelmed by Germany. It had been such a controversial decision at the time that it had had to be dressed up as a quite different kind of decision, a decision to protect Belgium.

* In a piece for the Evening Standard the same year Churchill argued that ‘one may dislike Hitler’s system and yet admire his patriotic achievement. If our country were defeated, I hope we should find a champion as indomitable.’22 (Compare this with Neville Chamberlain’s statement three years earlier that ‘[I] hate Nazism and all its works with a greater loathing than ever.’23)

* Hitler, for his part, had been uncharacteristically mute and sullen throughout the whole conference. He was getting almost everything he ostensibly wanted for almost no cost. But the Sudetenland was not really what he wanted at all. Hitler wanted war. He lived in the mental world of the fin de siècle , of imperial German writers like von Treitschke and von Bernhardi, for whom war was the supreme expression of the living spirit, the ennobling stimulus necessary for the healthy progress of race and nation. War, for Hitler, was a pure good for its own sake, the ‘essence of human activity’. 1 Yet he had baulked at the opportunity to begin a war because of a last-minute failure of nerve – something that was especially humiliating once he concluded (probably wrongly) that Britain and France would not, in the end, have intervened to save Czechoslovakia. Hitler had been forced to haggle over policy details like one of the bourgeois politicians he so despised.

* Czechoslovakia had disintegrated without any of its citizens firing a shot in its defence. This did not speak well of its viability as a state. Perhaps what this showed was that it had not been wise to create it at Versailles in the first place, still less ever to consider fighting for it.

* Three things had changed since Munich that help to explain Chamberlain’s more belligerent response to Hitler in March 1939. The first was that the chiefs of staff’s Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) had begun to offer the Cabinet more optimistic assessments of Britain’s military situation. The JIC was now more confident that Britain would be able to withstand an initial German aerial onslaught thanks to early-warning radar and the fast monoplane fighters going into service with the RAF. Moreover it now believed that Britain, in alliance with France, would enjoy better staying power than Germany over the course of a war lasting three or more years. The JIC appreciation still recommended avoiding any major conflict until at least 1940, when the situation would be more favourable still. But its new advice stiffened the resolve of Cabinet members who wanted to take a tougher line with Hitler.

The second thing was Halifax’s growing independence from Chamberlain…The third thing that had changed was a growing sense among Cabinet members that the public now wanted a tougher line towards Germany.

* All of this helps to explain Chamberlain’s sudden and remarkable decision to offer an unconditional guarantee of support to Poland on 31 March 1939. The replacement of the Czech question by the Polish question had come about almost accidentally.

* Nor was the Polish Republic a very noble object of sympathy. Whatever Czechoslovakia’s problems, it had at least been a reasonably functional democratic state. Poland had been a military dictatorship in all but name since 1933. Its parliamentary elections were rigged, its opposition politicians routinely hounded. The government maintained its own concentration camp for alleged enemies of the state. Anti-Semitism, much of it officially sanctioned, flourished enthusiastically in Polish public life. It was the Poles who had first floated the idea of exiling unwanted Jews to Madagascar, later a Nazi flight of fancy.

* All of this seemed to suggest that the democracy itself could not be trusted in a crisis.44 Only by abandoning the ‘present rather easy-going methods’ of national life and adopting a set of restrictions ‘which would approach the totalitarian’ could Britain survive a Nazi onslaught, the Cabinet was warned by Chamberlain on 18 May.45 The legal apparatus for such a siege dictatorship was established four days later, when a new Emergency Powers (Defence) Act was passed by the Commons in its entirety in just two hours. This was an extension of the existing emergency legislation passed at the outbreak of war which now gave the government almost unlimited authority to regulate people, property and capital without the need for parliamentary scrutiny. As the new minister for labour later observed, it made him ‘a kind of Führer with powers to order anybody anywhere’.46 A Treachery Act passed the same day made it a capital offence to assist the enemy’s military operations or to hamper Britain’s own.

As the Times put it, the Emergency Powers Act ‘comes near to suspending the very essence of the Constitution as it has been built up in a thousand years. Our ancient liberties are placed in pawn for victory.’47 A slew of regulations soon circumscribed even the most quotidian features of the British citizen’s life. It was unlawful to ‘endeavour to influence […] public opinion in a manner likely to be prejudicial’ to the war effort, to take part in a strike, to withhold information about an invention or patent if the state demanded it, to hold an unauthorised procession, to put out flags, to operate a car radio or to put icing on a cake (wickedly wasteful of sugar). Chamberlain hoped that public opinion would back these restrictions; but if not, recalcitrant non-cooperators could be drafted into a compulsory labour corps under prison discipline.48

The creation in mid-May 1940 of the Local Defence Volunteers (LDV), later renamed the Home Guard, ought to be seen in this context of government nervousness. Private citizens had responded to news of the German parachute landings in the Netherlands and Belgium by announcing the formation of ad hoc militia companies to defend their homeland. Whitehall felt it had to act quickly to control the process.49 One quarter of a million men aged between seventeen and sixty-five registered to join the new auxiliary force within the first week of its announcement, and by July 1940 its nominal strength stood at 1.5 million.

Decades after the war, the gentle BBC sitcom Dad’s Army would absorb the Home Guard into cosy Shire Folk memory. But the prospect of 1½ million armed men roaming the country, barely trained and operating under only the loosest military discipline, was a source of official anxiety at the time. ‘The creation of private armies […] has often proved fatal to the stability of the state,’ the War Office’s permanent under-secretary, Sir Edward Grigg, warned.

* Ordinary Britons were in much greater physical danger by July 1940 than they had been during the Phoney War. Their morale seemed paradoxically all the better for it. The New Yorker’s London correspondent Mollie Panter-Downes wrote that ‘this country appears to be asking for and getting the self-sacrificing gestures of everyday life which the totalitarian governments have enforced on their people for years.’63 The drama of air attack and possible invasion had at last given the war a revivifying psychological intensity absent throughout the dreariness of its first eight months: every man his own Achilles now, every woman her own Hippolyta. Wartime sacrifices and restrictions ceased to irritate as they had previously done with the sense people now had of being characters in a great national epic – something that might be frightening in the immediate moment, but which they would be able to look back on with pride.

* The experience of the roughly 26,000 ‘enemy aliens’ of German and Italian citizenship arrested between May and July 1940 offers a rather different kind of story, one in which the government’s instincts, for once, were more liberal than those of the public.

* But plenty of popular resentment survived even Kristallnacht. A month after the Nazi pogroms the home secretary received a delegation of back-bench Tory MPs unhappy about the volume of Jewish refugees entering Britain.122 In February 1939 the king, disturbed by reports that German émigrés were illegally entering Palestine, wrote to Lord Halifax expressing the hope that ‘steps are being taken to prevent these people leaving their country of origin’. The foreign secretary promptly asked the British ambassador in Berlin to urge Hitler’s government to prevent the ‘unauthorised emigration’ of Jews.123 Halifax himself later admitted that he had ‘always been rather anti-Semitic’.124 An attempt to start an imperial settlement scheme for German Jews outside of Palestine got nowhere thanks to problems with cost and objections from colonial administrators (Kenya’s governor was willing to accept the ‘right type’ of Jew, but thought their presence on a large scale would be an ‘undesirable feature’ in his colony).125

In June 1939 the scurrilous anti-Semitic magazine Truth, surreptitiously run by Chamberlain’s party fixer Sir Joseph Ball, was still complaining that London was ‘crawling with foreign undesirables’ and that ‘one of the mysteries of this present time is how the refugees who are pouring into Great Britain manage to present such a well-fed, well-dressed, and cheerful – not to say arrogant – appearance’.126 By July, with the Danzig crisis deepening and charity organisations running out of money, Chamberlain reluctantly announced that the government was willing to re-examine the question of whether it should defray costs of emigration and settlement (though ‘I don’t care about [Jews] myself’, he reminded his sister.)127 On the brink of war, according to a Gallup survey, seven out of ten Britons thought that refugees ought to be allowed to enter the UK. But almost all of those who agreed added the proviso that there ought to be ‘restrictions designed to safeguard British workers and taxpayers’, making the commitment a rather shallow one.128

The invasion of Poland might have been expected to increase sympathy for Hitler’s victims. If anything, the opposite was true. All Germans, no matter their religion or political views, were now the enemy. ‘You cannot trust any Boche at any time,’ suggested the Tory MP Gilbert AclandTroyte.129 By April 1940, according to a Foreign Office minute, ‘the hatred of Jews among the middle and lower strata of London’s population’ had ‘increased greatly’.130 Mass Observation agreed: popular anti-Semitism, always widespread but hitherto too impolite to be expressed too loudly in public, had been given a new respectability by the press’s obsession with the Fifth Column. It had become ‘quite the done thing’ to speak your dislike of Jews out loud.131 On the day the Germans invaded Belgium, a London County Council alderman complained that

the idea of Germans taking charge of Britons in an air raid is grotesque, particularly as it is ten chances to one that the man dropping bombs is his cousin or some relative […] these people are nationals of an enemy country, however much they may dislike the government now in power, and deep down they must have a love for their native land.132

Almost two-thirds of people polled by Gallup felt that the government had been too lenient with aliens up to this point in the war. Only 2 per cent thought it had been too strict.133

* If the RAF had got the aircraft it originally wanted, it probably would have been beaten by the Luftwaffe in the summer of 1940.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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