By David Rogers.
I have been writing books for Helion and Company for a number of years now. In most cases these books have explored the infrastructure of war, that is to say the process of government and the effect of the war on civilians in Britain. Defending Island Britain is no different. I wanted to understand how the civil and military authorities interacted in the complex issues of defending Britain, and the preparations needed to ensure minimal casualties and disruption to civilian life should the unthinkable happen. In keeping with some of my other books the preparations for war started well before war was declared in 1939. There were still buildings bought or requisitioned during the war in government hands in 1950. The defence of Britain, at least the administration and infrastructure, lasted well over ten years, which is interesting in itself.
Relocating the young and vulnerable was a significant part of these preparations. Fortunately, I know a couple of people directly involved. Now 96 a near neighbour was a student teacher at the outbreak of the Second World War and found himself knocking on parent’s doors asking them if they wanted their child or children evacuated. I am also having lunch later in the year with a lady now in her mid to late 70s who was evacuated from the East End and relocated to my north west London Borough. Their personal experiences helped to shape my thinking on the whole issue of evacuation.
There was a complex debate concerning the need to evacuate the young and the vulnerable early in the war, yet the policy later was that those remaining in coastal areas were asked to stay put should the enemy come. Indeed, a leaflet was produced to that effect.
Part of the rationale for this was that of keeping the road network free of evacuees. The experiences gleaned from France showed that vital roads were sometimes ‘clogged up’ with evacuees. In addition, evacuees moving to new areas invariably spread unrest when they relocated.
Whilst these and other preparations were invoked there was also the need to strengthen, and in some cases initiate defences, particularly along the coast and at vulnerable targets. These preparations took many forms. Mines, sea defences and barbed wire were standard in places of likely invasion, lookouts, RADAR, barrage balloons, AA guns etc for airborne attacks.
There are also sections of Defending Island Britain concerning the Blitz and the Battle of Britain. Where available, comments from those in the know who wrote up their work during the war, proved a valuable insight. In some cases, small sections of these documents are reproduced with references to their National Archives folios. In the case of the Battle of Britain, Air Chief Marshal Lord Dowding, the head of Fight Command at the time, wrote a comprehensive account. If you get the chance it is well worth reading the 40-50 page document in its entirety, the National Archives reference for which is in the book. The Few, as Churchill called those who fought in the Battle of Britain, have a fitting memorial on the north bank of the Thames in London.
The 75th anniversary of the Battle which included some 20 Spitfire and Hurricanes was a sight and sound I will never forget.
Vulnerable targets took many forms. In some cases, they were factories the whereabouts of which were kept a secret for as long as possible. This was easier for factories not producing aircraft as it was obvious when new planes took to the skies! Other vulnerable targets were government buildings where vital war work was undertaken. There were literally thousands of vulnerable targets listed in a register, one of which was the Tower of London. Such is the nature of this and other ancient buildings that they were thought to be at risk of stray bombs if not a targeted sortie. For that and other reasons the Crown Jewels were removed to Windsor Castle for the duration of the war. Little was known concerning their movement to the Castle, however there were reports in the press in 1947 of their return to the Tower via the Bank of England. In the early weeks of 2018 a documentary concerning the Queen’s coronation was broadcast which detailed the Jewels storage in the Castle, of which the Queen knew nothing until that program was made. Documents detailing the removal of the Jewels from the Tower to the Castle are stored in the Royal Archives in the Round Tower of Windsor Castle and are not available to the general public. If only a copy of my book were available to the Queen, she would have known ahead of the program!
In keeping with my other books, I have spent a long time in the National Archives trawling through seemingly countless folios trying to piece together these and some of the other issues. I always enjoy the challenge of research, indeed my nine-year university ‘career’ involved six years of academic research during which I obtained a PhD in chemistry and a further three years as a postdoctoral demonstrator. Little did I realise at the time the literature searches would be of use to this extent in later life.
Defending Island Britain in the Second World War is now available to order here.