Britain at Bay: The Epic Story of the Second World War, 1938–1941, by Alan Allport, Knopf, New York, 2020, Approximately $22 on Amazon
Great Britain may have suffered during World War II, but readers of this book, the first of two volumes, will have no complaints apart from being slow at the start and pretty dry. Don’t expect a lot of action and drama. The factual material within the book is more than in a typical book about the war.
British historian Alan Allport delves into the personalities, politics, and economics of the Battle of Britain and has read a vast number of journals and letters of people involved in the conflict.
The book covers all the important events, with lots of surprising things that I didn’t know. Especially interesting was the description of Chamberlain’s character, and of what he was trying to achieve at Munich. And the book isn’t just about geopolitical and military matters: we get vivid eyewitness accounts from people who were in the midst of things.
Neville Chamberlain pours out his heart to his sister; Winston Churchill to everyone who would or would not listen. The result is a steady stream of well-documented analyses that may raise hackles.
Despite the absence of warfare, the author’s account of 1938 is not short of some splendid fireworks. Chamberlain’s bowler and umbrella give the impression of a milquetoast, but he saw himself as a hard bargainer “who could get anyone to say ‘yes,’ given enough time.”
Everyone denounces Chamberlain for having sold out Czechoslovakia at the Munich Accords, but as Allport emphasizes, the British dreaded repeating the horrors of World War I and thus many cheered the treaty. Anti-appeasers were a niche, upper-class gentleman with little popular support, including Churchill. Chamberlain ultimately regretted Munich—but so did Adolf Hitler. Unlike almost everyone throughout Europe (and his own officials), the Führer Adolf Hitler wanted war and, to the end of his life, looked on the Munich Agreement as a mistake.
Alan Allport repeats the universal praise for Churchill’s early attacks on Hitler, but under the delusion that mass bombing raids would decide future wars and that the French army could handle the Wehrmacht in Europe, he paid little attention to the British army. The date Parliament declared war, Sept. 3, 1939, was also the date it passed mass conscription.
Alan Allport tackles questions such as: Could World War II have been avoided? Could it have been lost? Were the strategic decisions made the rights ones? How well did the British organize and fight? How well did the British live up to their own values? What difference did the war make in the end to the fate of the nation?
In answering these questions he focuses on the human component of the war, weighing directly at the roles of individuals and the outcomes determined either by luck or chance. Moreover, he looks intimately at the changes in wartime British society and culture.
In their eagerness to recount Dunkirk and Britain’s “finest hour,” popular historians and history buffs often pass quickly over the September 1939 to May 1940 “Phony War” period. Alan Allport notes the French still believe Britain left them in the lurch after Germany’s invasion. Preparing to fight alone, Britain refused to commit its entire air force and, without prior consultation with France, instead opted to evacuate Dunkirk.
Although genuinely heroic, the Battle of Britain was more stalemate than victory. Hermann Goering himself stated so after the war and said the de-escalation of the conflict was due to having to withdraw forces from France to begin the assault on Russia. The next two years of the conflict saw a series of failures in Greece, Crete, Dieppe, and North Africa, frightening losses to U-boats in the Battle of the Atlantic, and a poor performance by Bomber Command over Germany. Hitler’s invasion of Russia thrilled a beleaguered Britain, but it was only America’s entry into the war (which is going to be in the forthcoming volume) that made victory certain.
A sweeping, groundbreaking epic that combines military with social history, to illuminate the ways in which Great Britain and its people were permanently transformed by the Second World War.
“Unusually informative and stimulating. . . . Quite a few received ideas are deftly skewered. . . . Valuable.” —Geoffrey Wheatcroft, The New York Times Book Review
“[Allport] moves with ease, wit and insight between the high political and diplomatic, the social and economic, the strategic and military, with biographical vignettes and anecdotes illustrating the lived experience of ordinary people. That it is an epic story there is no doubt. But the twist is that it is a tale of national decline on an epic scale.” —The Times Literary Supplement
“Expertly researched and marvelously written, this sterling history casts an oft-studied subject in a new light.” —Publishers Weekly (Starred review)
“Allport’s provocative view will intrigue American readers. . . . These are familiar events, but Allport’s interpretation is superb.” —Kirkus Reviews (Starred review)
“Britain at Bay is a welcome and highly readable retelling of the story of Britain’s entry into the Second World War and its initial survival against great odds. Weaving together grand strategy, high politics and the complexities of British society at the time, Alan Allport deftly demolishes some sacred cows along the way and makes the reader think again about the choices and the odds facing Britain.” —Margaret MacMillan, author of Paris 1919
“Original, compelling, timely. This is a history that reminds us of the Britain behind the myth of its Second World War. It’s a history that many will want to argue with. And that everyone should read.” —Lucy Noakes, Rab Butler Professor of Modern History, University of Essex
“Written with style and verve, Britain at Bay will make you think anew not just about the war, but about the Britain and the Britons that fought it. A book for anyone who wants to understand this crucial period in the nation’s history.” —Daniel Todman, author of Britain’s War
“The beautifully-written Britain at Bay is an impregnable fortress of good sense gallantly resisting the crass sentimentality, exaggeration, and naïve hindsight of so many accounts of Britain in the early second world war. With great élan, built on deep reserves of historical knowledge, it puts Chamberlain and Churchill in perspective, the Blitz, the Battle of Britain, and Battle of the Atlantic in true proportion, and the progress of the imperial war abroad in panoramic view. Its precise and pointed judgements on events, people, and arguments are a bracing reminder of the power of brilliant history to make us reconsider what we think we know about the most familiar part of the British past.” —David Edgerton, author of Britain’s War Machine and The Rise and Fall of the British Nation.
“Alan Allport’s Britain at Bay: The Epic Story of the Second World War, 1938–1941 is an extraordinary achievement. Written in lively prose, it tells and analyzes with great perception the story of Britain going to war and its first two years. He displays a deep mastery of the relevant primary and secondary sources and covers an amazing range of activities. He vividly depicts the period’s complicated political, military, domestic, imperial, and international aspects with a rich sense of the people involved. He provides convincing reassessments and revisions of the roles played by figures such as Winston Churchill and Neville Chamberlain, as well as other political and military leaders, both allies and enemies. This is an essential, wide-ranging, and compelling new history of these years.” —Peter Stansky, Stanford University
“A masterfully written and hugely convincing riposte to a host of popular assumptions about World War II, Britain at Bay confirms Alan Allport’s high rank among that select group of historians who can convey serious thought through engaging prose. Anyone interested in understanding the ambiguities and paradoxes of ‘The People’s War’ should read this highly readable and stimulating book.” —S. P. MacKenzie, McKissick-Dial Professor of History, University of South Carolina
“Simultaneously incisive but nuanced, and studded with sharp pen portraits, Britain at Bay offers a scholarly, invigorating, and beautifully constructed tour d’horizon of perhaps the four most crucial years in our island story.” —David Kynaston, author of Austerity Britain
“This extraordinary book punctures many of the myths that have become so influential about Britain in the Second World War without robbing the period of its spectacular drama.” —Professor Richard Vinen, author of The Long ’68 and A History in Fragments