‘Britain at Bay’ – a conversation between Alan Allport and Dan Todman

Dan Todman

Dan Todman:  Hi Alan, thanks for agreeing to talk a bit about the process of writing ‘big books’ on Britain in the Second World War. Would you like to start by telling us a bit more about Britain at Bay?

Alan Allport: Britain at Bay is the first volume of a two-part history of Britain in the Second World War. It follows the story from the Appeasement years of the late 1930s to the outbreak of war itself in September 1939, and then through the Phoney War and the dramatic events of 1940 – Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, and the Blitz – through to September 1941.

DT: Why would anyone write another history of Britain in this period? Don’t we have enough already 😉 ?

AA: It hardly needs to be said that histories of the Second World War, and in particular Britain’s role in it, are ubiquitous, but I would say my book has two purposes. One is to help introduce general readers to a great deal of fantastic specialist academic work on the period which has overturned many of our previous assumptions but which remains unknown to a large audience. The other is to present some alternative perspectives on events which may provoke the reader to reflect a little on the traditional narrative of the war which exists in popular memory. In particular, I’m interested in thinking about the contingency of key events such as the Anglo-French disaster in May 1940 and the Battle of the Atlantic, as well as the what people in 1940s Britain thought they were fighting for and what their sense of their own “Britishness” was.

            But enough about my book for the moment. I wanted to talk about the process of writing. There are a number of narrative etc. decisions in Britain’s War that I’m intrigued by and would like to know more about the choices you made.

DT: Great question! In terms of choices: my books didn’t start off as two volumes. They were commissioned as a single, much shorter book on Britain’s war. I had several goes at writing that and produced a full draft, but one of the things that struck me in both the academic and more popular literature was how often chronology and causation were misunderstood or missing – trying to address those required length. I wanted to address what seem quite simple questions – why did Britain go to war in 1939, why did it keep fighting in 1940, how did it end up on the winning side, what did ‘victory’ mean? But the only answers I could come up with were complex!

I also wanted to restore a sense of contingency – as a First World War historian I’ve always felt that the trend in British histories of the Second is to read it backwards (the road to 1945… but no one knew that was when it would end in 1939!). Explaining the things that could have happened but didn‘t uses a lot of words. One of the many things that impresses me about your first volume is the way that you find the means to address that with the telling example – Dunkirk/Dunkerque or the Defiant – and that allows you both more economy in words and the freedom to take readers back and forward in time. It is a real feature of your writing – you do it so well in Demobbed as well – and I’d be interested to know if you’re consciously looking for those ways in during your research process? Or do you work out the argument, then go back to find the examples?

AA: I can’t claim any originality with regard to that – it’s an approach/ format/ gimmick I’ve copied from other historians I’ve admired, particularly I think David Kennedy, who wrote the Oxford History of the United States volumes on the FDR years. Using a ‘hook’ in this way to start things off with a detailed, attention-grabbing story before drawing larger conclusions from it – going from the specific to the general – has advantages I think for drawing the reader in in a trade-based history.

I’m not sure which came first in each case, although I did want to avoid trotting out one of the standard stories in each case – so in the chapter on the Battle of Britain for example I thought I would start off with a story about the B-P Defiant rather than say the Spitfire or Hurricane, which has advantages in that it’s a relatively unknown aspect of the Battle, and also because it is an entry point for thinking about the contingencies of the event. The idea of starting the ‘state of the nation’ chapters with, first, the IRA bombing in Coventry and then the 1935 Belfast Riots was, I admit, to jolt the reader a little by presenting a very different kind of pre-war Britain from what you might call the Noel Coward/In Which We Serve version. One might reasonably object that the Ulster story is not representative of Britain as a whole in the 1930s, but then no narrative is ever fully ‘representative’, and the point was to choose one that the reader would not be expecting, would probably be unfamiliar with, and might also force him or her to think about their assumptions about British political stability/passivity on the eve of the war.

The use of chronology involves a difficult set of choices. My book mucks around a lot more with the chronology than yours (and in fact the final version is tamer than earlier drafts in this regard!) and introduces a problem of simply following the train of events which I’m not sure I fully solved. It also forfeits one of the big advantages of Britain’s War in that it’s harder to see events as contemporaries saw them – I love the way you place events taking place near simultaneously in parallel with one another, so you can better understand (for example) how events in China in 1939 affected thinking about the Polish question. The drawback of a strictly chronological approach is, I suppose, keeping the analytical threads together. So, for instance, the story of the strategic bombing war is broken up into many different episodes often separated by large wedges of other text, and there’s a need for the reader to make some of the mental linkages back to earlier sections to see the bombing story’s evolution. I think ultimately it works fine in Britain’s War but I was wondering if you found this a challenge while writing.

DT: I want to hear about the earlier drafts now! Yes, I think you’re right about the problem of maintaining the thread when you patchwork as I did, and I was quite conscious with the final version that the scale of the book challenges that approach. As an author when you go back and try to follow the line through, or expend effort thinking ‘where should that go’, you can see how it all fits together. But it was mind melting at times trying to work out the jigsaw. And that doesn’t mean the reader can do! Particularly after 200,000 odd words. As it happens some of my favour chapters are the ones that are more self-contained.

AA: The mention of counterfactuals is interesting. I am a lot less restrained about these than you are which is no doubt is a bad habit, and there are a number of occasions in Britain at Bay which readers might reasonably complain I am speculating rather than narrating history – well, I am! But I think like you I wanted to lay stress on the contingency of events and to remind the reader that what is to us the past was to contemporaries the future, full of uncertainty. Many of the most popular causal questions of the war hinge ultimately on counterfactuals, such as whether SEA LION was ever feasible in 1940 – although curiously I don’t think either of us is hugely interested in that particular question. In general, what do you think about the uses and abuses of counterfactual sidebars, and were they something you consciously sought to introduce or to avoid?

DT: It’s not a bad habit: it means you can do contingency without excessive length. I like a bit of counter factual though I think helping readers work out which is plausible and why is where the value comes. But if I’d tried to do what didn’t happen as well as what did I’d never have got to the end – it’s a problem already in vol 2 for 1942, where a lot of strategy was about possibilities that never happened.

Back to mine – the biggest choice then was my editor at Penguin, Simon Winder, deciding that it had to be two volumes. I remember Simon saying, ‘if you try and fit this into one book, it is going to be just a list of things that happened, and people can get that anywhere’. That decision freed me up, not least because the physical structure of the two volumes could become part of the argument. Volume 1 pivots around 1940, and that makes it a UK centred book. Volume 2 has to be much more global, not least because of the expansion and escalation of the war. That requires a widening of the focus that makes the British home front less central.

Another choice was that there would be no discussion of historiography in the text. I was writing for two audiences, general readers and academics. It soon became apparent that in some areas the volume of existing literature is such that if you tried to discuss it, you’d never get finish. So I tried to create a style in which someone already familiar with the literature would be able to hear the engine running, but someone who wasn’t wouldn’t need to look under the bonnet to be carried along in the car.

Fundamentally both books are about complexity. I wanted them to be total histories – not in the sense of all-encompassing but in showing to the reader that you could not consider one aspect of the war in isolation. The challenge then was to organise and pick a line through that showed those connections – wherever possible I did not want separate thematic chapters but a chronological structure that would take you between different parts of the world, the military, social and economic, as seamlessly as possible. That made writing the books a bit like doing an enormous jigsaw puzzle or building a drystone wall – and some of my worst moments were trying to work out how to fit the pieces together. But the advantage in terms of writing – and I had much more confidence in this for volume 2 – was that once I had that structure I could concentrate on each subsection of a chapter at a time, rather than facing up to the enormity of the task as a whole.

In terms of your books – they were conceived from the start as two, weren’t they? It feels from the first one as though you already have a strong sense of the points you’ll carry through volume 2. Is that right?

AA: I think to be completely honest I originally thought about 3 volumes, although I’m relieved to say that publishing realities alone scotched that idea fairly early! The war for Britain does in a sense break into two halves, doesn’t it, although exactly where the second half begins is a matter of debate. My early intention was to make the break in mid-1942 around the time of the crisis in Egypt and (a little earlier) the decision to adopt a full-blooded area bombing strategy in the air war against Germany. In the end I never got there, and the book ends a little unsatisfactorily in September 1941, two years into the war, with Britain now no longer alone (sic) thanks to Barbarossa and the US leaning increasingly towards war. I found that the first couple of years of the war are a lot ‘busier’ in terms of narrative and dramatic twists of fate – simply explaining what’s happening takes up so much space that there’s not much time to reflect on broader structural change – while beyond 1942 the narrative slows down a bit and there’s a bit more elbow room to comment on larger societal/economic/cultural changes. At least that’s how it seems from the perspective of just planning a second volume. I am curious – which of the two volumes did you find the easiest/hardest to write, and why?

DT: 3 volumes would have finished me! But volume 2 was definitely easier. For a start I’d found my voice and my stride and I knew I could do it. There were a lot of long dark nights of the soul with volume 1 where I didn’t think it could be done. 1942 poses some of the challenges of 1937-41 in that there is so much going on. But the key for me was also realising that 1944 could be told differently – that you need to deal with India and Far Eastern strategy first, so you can carry the reader through the build-up to Normandy and through the summer, and then both can come back together with the post war and the A bomb at Quebec. That was quite a eureka moment and a time when you realise that everyone else has missed the story by concentrating on just one part of it.

Some more questions for you. One of the pleasures and challenges of a project like this is that it gives you an overview of the literature – and not just in one area but across the topic. Where do you think the strengths and weaknesses in terms of coverage are? What bits did you enjoy reading up on and what were a struggle? And where do you see the field of ‘Britain’s Second World War studies‘ going – what PhDs would you be advising people to write?

AA: I continue to be astounded by the historiographical depth of Britain’s War. A historian reverse-engineers a book by a colleague by examining the endnotes and figuring out where the material has come from (well I do anyway!), and I am full of professional admiration for the sheer mass of material you successfully synthesized in your two volumes. Far more than I attempted to deal with, either through lack of time or lack of patience. I think we would both agree that simply getting a grip on the ever-evolving mass of literature is quite a daunting challenge. So far as specific themes go, David Edgerton’s work has of course shaken up a lot of ideas on the economic/scientific front, not just specifically in terms of the SWW but also on the longer story of Britain’s 20th century. I wonder with the pendulum having swung so far away from the old Declinist position in recent years whether there’s a likelihood of some neo-Declinist pushback in years to come? Although I find David’s work fabulously provocative and inspirational, I did wonder when reading Britain’s War Machine how a country which ostensibly seemed so well-prepared for the SWW by 1939 managed none the less to do so badly in its first couple of years!

DT: Yes and that helps you restore the human element and understand how some narratives develop. If you were a tank crewmen stranded in your broken down Covenanter somewhere in England in 1942, I wonder how impressed you were that Britain was out producing German industry.

AA: One of the big potential growth areas it seems to me in new SWW research is applying some of the newer frameworks in things like the history of emotions to the period. I’m thinking for instance of Lucy Noakes’ recent book on the history of wartime grieving, and histories of fear in the Blitz. I also think that examining wartime memoirs and oral histories with a more investigative analytical eye has great potential too – Frances Houghton’s recent book on SWW memoir and Joel Morley’s writing on masculinity and memory offers a lot of scope for thought which I must reflect on more myself as I begin volume II!

DT: Agreed and in the military sphere particularly, including the strategic. I think that would help us understand ‘rational’ decisions in new ways.

AA: There are a ton of other questions I am tempted to bring up at this point, but I’ll just choose one – the problem of Churchill. What do you do with him in a book like Britain’s War? There’s a danger with any history of Britain’s SWW that what the book ends up being is really a history of Winston Churchill, which is problematic for a number of reasons, partly to do with reinforcing a Great Man narrative, partly because it’s hard to think of anything original to say about him, and partly because frankly it’s a bit old hat. I’m afraid I dealt with the problem mainly by pushing him somewhat to the side (I spent much more time on Neville Chamberlain, partly because I think he’s a much less well known or understood Prime Minister) which I suspect may have warped the narrative in some ways. How did you try to solve a problem like Winston?

DT: By treating him as a historical figure like any other. So in volume 1 showing that he wasn’t the person who single handedly saved the country in 1940 and in volume 2 showing his grappling with the post war – where he is more consequential I think. I got more interested in him in volume 2 – because the struggle and the guile and the weakness are all more apparent. But I think the challenge is to restore him to his setting rather than have him loom out of it. I think both our books do that in different ways.

AA: Thanks for this, it’s been fascinating.

DT: Let’s do it again when your volume 2 comes out. Best of luck for Britain at Bay, it’s a great book and a real achievement.

Britain at Bay is published by Profile Books.