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When Britain Saved the West by Robin Prior

ARRSE Rating
4 Mushroom Heads
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.
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