When Britain Saved the West by Robin Prior

Average User Rating:
  • 1940 was a heck of a year for Great Britain. After declaring war on German in September 1939 the country actually did very little about it. Chamberlain forbad the RAF’s plans to bomb Germany, although they did drop a few leaflets. The armed forces were increasing in size and the British Expeditionary force had deployed to the Franco-Belgian border. The German pocket battleship Graf Spee had been forced to scuttle and that was about it. The author’s contention is that the next year was the most momentous in British history and that it alone saved the West, by which he means the age of enlightenment.

    The account actually starts in May 1940 in the political crisis following the Norway campaign, which is not covered. The replacement of Chamberlain by Churchill and the latter’s subsequent battles with arch appeaser Lord Halifax are well described. The battle for France and the retreat of the BEF to Dunkirk is covered in the next chapter which is an excellent synopsis of a campaign that has been written about in great detail countless times before. The interweaving of the military action with Churchill’s desperate attempts to persuade the French to fight is well executed and the maps are good and plentiful. This naturally leads into the evacuation, which again is another excellent synopsis.

    The author then covers Hitler’s options for the invasion of the UK and the British responses. He produces the evidence that the planning was serious, although the tensions between the Kriegsmarine and the Wehrmacht were never resolved and the fundamental requirement was air superiority. The next three chapters cover the Battle of Britain. Again, this has been covered exhaustively by others in far more detail. The author departs slightly from the straight narrative style of earlier chapters and starts getting into some fairly detailed analysis. While this does not read as easily it does throw up the odd gem - 0.3% of RAF pilots shot down 30% of all the Luftwaffe planes destroyed in the period. He is rightly harsh on the Luftwaffe’s lack of strategic direction, appalling lack of intelligence and technical failures.

    He is also very interesting on the blitz and the development of strategic bombing of civilians to shatter morale and the will to fight. As he notes, other than Guernica and Warsaw this had not been tried before. His comparisons on the effects of the Coventry raids in 1941 with bombing of the East End in 1940 is interesting and thought provoking. The book ends with Churchill’s continued but unsuccessful efforts to entice the United States into the war – a campaign only ended by Hitler’s declaration of war on the US after Pearl Harbour.

    Was 1940 the most momentous in the United Kingdom’s history? Does it matter? What this book certainly does show is that to a Briton in June 1940 with no allies, not much of an army left and two defeats in two campaigns the world was a pretty lonely place and the outlook grim. To continue to fight against a regime that controlled Europe from the Vistula to the Atlantic and that had a pact with Russia is not the most obvious decision as the outcome was far from certain.

    This well written book casts light on an extraordinary period and is well worth reading.

User Comments

To post comments, simply sign up and become a member!
  1. Condottiere
    Interesting review, makes me want to get the book.
    Anything more on the Polish Air Force contribution to the Battle of Britain in it?
    1. Cynical
      Probably nothing that you didn't already know. But that, of course, is one of the challenges of the period.
      That said, the author has gone to original sources, so you may find a nugget of new knowledge.
      Cynical, May 26, 2015
    2. Condottiere
      Condottiere, May 26, 2015
  2. Goatman
    will seek out a copy on the basis of this review ,thanks.

    Slight eyebrow raised at this?

    The German pocket battleship Graf Spee had been forced to scuttle and that was about it.


    14 Oct 1939

    HMS Royal Oak sunk by U.47 inside Scapa Flow

    The loss of 786 men demonstrated the inadequacy of the defences of the fleet anchorage : ironically the long-awaited blockships arrived the next day.

    1. Cynical
      Fair comment and he does mention it. I really meant British Actions, excluding Norway.

      Shortcoming is in my review. I plead time, space and stupidity.
      Cynical, May 21, 2015
  3. Filthy Fifth
    Does he mention the flattening of Rotterdam as well as Guernica and Warsaw? That above all caused the Dutch to surrender
    1. Cynical
      I think so, although of course all 3 were bombing raids in conjunction with land operations.
      Cynical, May 19, 2015