Britain was long protected by her navy and the sea that surrounded the British Isles. What makes this book particularly important and worthwhile is that he has taken both threats and identified where they were similar and where they introduced unique aspects. In doing so, he has provided an extension of knowledge for those who concentrate on either Napoleonic or WWII history, bringing some fresh insights also into their favoured periods of history.
NAME: We shall fight on the Beaches – Defying Napoleon & Hitler, 1805 and 1940
CLASSIFICATION: Book Reviews
AUTHOR: Brian Lavery
BINDING: Hard back
PRICE: GB £16.99
GENRE: Non fiction
SUBJECT: Napoleonic Wars, WWII, invasion threats, defensive measures, civil population, Home Guard, resistance fighters, monuments, military architecture.
DESCRIPTION: Britain was long protected by her navy and the sea that surrounded the British Isles. To claim that no army invaded British soil after the Norman invasion of 1066 is not entirely accurate. Several minor incursions were made over the centuries, but no army came, conquered and remained. The Spanish posed a real threat until the defeat of the Armada in 1588 by a combination of the English fleet and the weather. The two most severe threats were posed by France under Napoleon and Germany under Hitler. The author has covered these two threats, comparing them and pointing out the differences. A well presented book that includes some good photographic illustration, drawings, maps and sketches. Although these two periods of danger have been stated many times as real, the prospects for success may never have been as strong as the perception of danger. In the Napoleonic period it is fair to say that the French army was formidable and the British had a relatively weak army, concentrating on the use of German and Dutch troops for long periods and on the Royal Navy. However, the French army was only a threat if it could be transported to the British coast in good order and with a supply train. That may never have been a real prospect. In the same way the Germany army had proved invincible in the beginning of WWII but was useless against Britain as an invasion force unless the means to transport it in adequate numbers and with continuing supplies could be found. Both the Germans and the French made apparently serious efforts to build invasion fleets as the Spanish had in 1588 but there were serious doubts amongst the military and political commands that victory was really possible. For Napoleon and Hitler invasion was a necessity because a failure to completely defeat Britain meant that British forces would always present a real danger of counter attack with allies. The defeat of Britain would have removed for generations any real threat of counter attack from outside Europe or revolt from within. Both leaders found the excuse to turn around and march east and on into eventual defeat, where Britain was to play a significant part in that final defeat, both by force of British arms and by providing a focus for European revolt. A similar situation exists in the start of the Twenty First Century where France and Germany must combine to defeat Britain to retain control of Europe. A failure to destroy Britain as a political force risks the eventual destruction of the Franco German domination of the European Union because Britain is always a potential beacon for revolt against tyranny in whatever European form it may take. In 1805 France stood at the point of victory or defeat. It may have taken further years and bloodshed to capture Napoleon and neutralize the French threat to Europe but 1805 was the real point of defeat. Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar removed any possibility that Napoleon could invade Britain with a viable invasion force but even had that event not taken place, there is no guarantee that the French would have been able to mount an effective invasion. The reminders of that past danger still survive. The Military Canal and fortifications inland have survived the years and would have presented a serious threat to any invader. The coastal network of Martello Towers provided overlapping fire from a heavy gun in each tower to support a mobile defence force reinforced by local militia. This approach to defence was to a large extent followed in 1940 against a German threat, updating old fortifications and introducing new defences in the form of pillboxes, coastal guns, anti-tank ditches, armoured trains, railway guns, mobile defence forces and committed militia. In both 1805 and 1940, there was no strong British army at home. Where in 1805 it simply did not exist as a home standing army and with its best units serving overseas, in 1940 the small British army had lost most of its weapons in the ill fated attempts to shore up the French army along the German Belgian border. However, the Royal Navy remained an effective defence force with a growing number of Coastal Forces warships and the RAF with its radar direction system posed a vastly more effective defence than Germany expected. Where Napoleon had required control of the waters around Britain, Hitler required the domination of air and sea to stand any real prospect of successful invasion. As with the French before even had Hitler achieved air and sea domination it is by no means certain that invasion would have been successful. The British have proved over the centuries that they fail to prepare adequately to face risks, but they become increasingly effective as they come under pressure. As in 1805, the British considered three levels of resistance. At the first level the Royal Navy and the land forces, and in 1940 the RAF, were expected to deter the enemy from even setting first foot on British soil. In the second level the army and militia were expected to make progress as costly as possible for an invader. In the third level plans and resources were already dedicated to fight a guerilla war. There was also a fourth level even stronger in 1940 where as many resources as possible could be evacuated to distant shores to enable the fight to go on and prepare for a counter invasion. In 1940 that latter possibility was very well planned with the establishment of offices in the US and Canada to which tons of documents and other key resources were evacuated. In the event neither dictator showed the will and determination to succeed. Both were focussed on their armies and their experience of land warfare in Europe. Having blinked, they both turned their attention to Russia as a target they thought they understood better and which did not require a strong navy to support invasion. The author has assembled his supporting facts and presented his view of the French and German threats. As is to be expected of an author of his reputation, research is solid. Taken alone, his review of the French threat and the German threat is traditional and has been presented before by equally eminent historians. What makes this book particularly important and worthwhile is that he has taken both threats and identified where they were similar and where they introduced unique aspects. In doing so, he has provided an extension of knowledge for those who concentrate on either Napoleonic or WWII history, bringing some fresh insights also into their favoured periods of history.