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Britain at Bay: The Epic Story of the Second World War, 1938-1941 Hardcover – Deckle Edge, November 3, 2020
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Here is the many-faceted, world-historically significant story of Britain at war. In looking closely at the military and political dimensions of the conflict's first crucial years, Alan Allport tackles questions such as: Could the war have been avoided? Could it have been lost? Were the strategic decisions 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 and other essential questions he focuses on the human contingencies of the war, weighing directly at the roles of individuals and the outcomes determined by luck or chance. Moreover, he looks intimately at the changes in wartime British society and culture. Britain at Bay draws on a large cast of characters--from the leading statesmen and military commanders who made the decisions, to the ordinary men, women, and children who carried them out and lived through their consequences--in a comprehensible and compelling single history of forty-six million people. For better or worse, much of Britain today is ultimately the product of the experiences of 1938-1941.
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From the Publisher
“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
About the Author
- Publisher : Knopf; First Edition (November 3, 2020)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 608 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0451494741
- ISBN-13 : 978-0451494740
- Item Weight : 2.05 pounds
- Dimensions : 6.49 x 1.48 x 9.56 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #615,220 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- #3,065 in Great Britain History (Books)
- #4,596 in Historical Study (Books)
- #6,009 in World War II History (Books)
- Customer Reviews:
About the author
Top reviews from the United States
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The author is especially hard on movies, both recent and from years ago, that may tell a good story, but end up giving an entirely wrong-headed picture of what actually happened. And even Winston Churchill's memoirs are often slanted or self-serving. Of course, after saving western civilization, he's entitled to be self-serving, but don't believe everything you read there.
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. I hope the author plans Volume 2 on 1942 to 1945 (or later).
Professor Allport takes delight in poking holes in long-held verities about the English and their heroic stand Hitler. Chamberlain is viewed more positively, Churchill discounted. The Maginot Line wasn't such a bad idea. The RAF made a lot of mistakes. Hooking up with the USSR compromised Britain's moral stance. And so forth.
Talking about the Blitz on page 337: " There were many reasons why the British people endured in 1940 that had nothing to do with any innate qualities of character." Personally, I still think character (and Churchill) had much to do with it.
This is certainly not the one and only book to read about the onset of World War II. But it is one that deserves a reading by those with have a deep interest in how Great Britain first confronted Germany many decades ago.
If you are unfamiliar with the many other books written on aspects of this period I suspect you will find this book a hard read and not enjoyable. For me it was a pleasure and one that I will read again at some point.
Throughout the narrative I see allusions to the work of other historians augmented by copious notes and an excellent bibliography. Professor Allport knows his history and the literature. Among other things in this book the much maligned Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain gets the fair evaluation he deserves. This book is far from definitive but it is a valuable contribution to the literature.
To be fair, hardly anything new can be said about the war so we are left mostly with spin. The spin in "Britain At Bay" is useful in that it hoses-off the treacle which journalists and popular historians vomit over any subject whether it be WW II or the latest "cause." This book under review does this well. It has also been done well elsewhere.
In 1939, three imperial powers -- France, Germany and the UK -- came to grief over Poland, a nation with a discreditable human rights policy, dictatorial polity and piratical attitude toward its neighbors. Of the three, Germany was incontestably the most loathsome. All the same, the cause of freedom was upheld, after the French collapse in Spring, 1940, by a kingdom that suppressed and exploited local populations worldwide. If American isolationism is inexplicable to our generation then consider that a majority of Americans, some eighty years ago, saw the start of the war as a falling-out among thieves.
Still, the UK was infinitely preferable to the Axis. The Brits were smug, imperialist, exploitative toward "lesser races without the law" but decent overall. (There was nothing to choose between Germany and the USSR.)
The author despises Chamberlain's personality but this is historically irrelevant. Chamberlain did recognize the menace of the Nazis and pushed the rearmament without which his country must have gone under. That PM's passivity during the first eight months of war did as much damage to the allies as his prior policy of appeasement.
Churchill is shown, accurately, as the Trump-like figure he was. Egotistical, duplicitous -- and frequently harebrained -- he was widely disliked. No one trusted him and with good reason. But, his piratical personality kept Britain in the war during its "Finest Hour." After that, he made one military mistake after the next. Unlike Chamberlain, he knew the the USA was Britain's potential savior.
The author, like historians before him, demonstrates how actual combat eviscerated the theories of the "Victory Through Airpower" crowd -- Douhet, Mitchell, Trenchard and Mitchell -- all of them full of hot air.
Few serious observers thought invasion likely in 1940. A single British cruiser maneuvering among German landing barges would have swamped one after the other. The Home Fleet, en masse, could have destroyed the lot. The Battle of Britain was great theater. Still, all credit to the British pilots.
In 1945 the American. public was shocked that "heroic" Brits turned Churchill out of office. But, the voters had endured six years of dreary wartime presided over by a grandstanding PM who generated one military fiasco after the next and, when VE Day finally came, offered little new or positive to an exhausted England. It was Labour's time.
World War Two is the greatest drama in human history. Those of us, however, who knew its veterans when they were still young men learned they would not talk about the war. For us young'uns, it was a heroic drama. For most of the vets, it was just squalor. The book under review is not wrong, then, in stressing that squalor.
Top reviews from other countries
It is well written and almost continuously engaging. The author sets the scene at start of each chapter, giving examples that all was not tranquil at home or in the empire, but was pretty stable, modern, relatively well led and democratic (at home if not necessarily the empire). It is written with brutal honesty and humour, the best example being the long analysis of Chamberlain and Allports views of him - I won't spoil it as I feel it needs to be read to be enjoyed to the full. Similarly, the paragraph on page 130 that puts into context for American audience what the war cost for Britain is superb.
As with anything, there are slight negatives and I found myself drifitng between pages 100 and 150 and although Allport was born in Britain, and the book published there, there were some Americanisms in the text (e.g. elementary school). In contrast, the maps, often a source of frustration, were original, easy to follow and hugely informative.
If I were to sum up this book in a sentence, I would describe it was a more populist history version of Todmans Britain's War but that the two complement each other perfectly. I eagerly anticipate the second volume.
The book is particularly strong on the RAF and the strengths and weaknesses of different aircraft. It also emphasises the lack of accuracy in bombing raids and the low hit ratio of ammunition from combat planes.
He is also good on politicians-particularly Chamberlain who is deftly and devastatingly captured and inevitably Churchill.
There is much to admire in his ability to provide overviews of the way the war was perceived via mass observation and the 'grain' of the period as he goes through major key events from Dunkirk to the blitz via the Battle of Britain. There is also room for grand strategy and micro examination of situations not just at home but in the Middle East and Ireland.
Overall a major book that should be widely read and one written with style and verve. Less dense than Dan Todmans statistic driven opus;(which could be read in parallel) readable but academically footnoted with a wide bibliography. I look forward to Volume two.