Book Review: How Britain Saved the West
The Story of 1940
by Robin Prior
Yale University Press, 2015
“X Saved Y” books are generally trials to the patience. Anybody with even a moderate familiarity with history spots them instantly for the marketing gimmick that they are, and once something is found out as a marketing gimmick it’s very difficult for that something to change its name, move to another town, and take up life as something respectable. In Micheal Gates Gill’s How Starbucks Saved My Life, Starbucks does no such thing for the insufferable author who slums there for a couple of work shifts; Thomas DiLorenzo’s How Capitalism Saved America would give Noam Chomsky fits with the way it blithely ignores the benefits of the US being the world’s strongest and most aggressive superpower for 150 years; David Shields’ loathsome How Literature Saved My Life actually tells the story of how literature endangered the author’s life, until he wised up and stopped reading boring old books; and the groundbreaker of them all, Thomas Cahill’s 1995 bestseller How the Irish Saved Civilization, gives medieval Irish monks the credit for things mostly done by Arab scholars – the Irish didn’t save civilization, although they’re the main thing that makes it bearable.
So Robin Prior’s new book When Britain Saved the West is to be greeted with a certain measure – let’s say a slopping bucket – of skepticism. Prior is an experienced historian with a number of books to his credit, but it’s immediately obvious that he’s going here at least as much for flag-waving simplifications as he is for dispassionate history:
In  Stalin was supplying Hitler with enormous quantities of war materiel, the United States was steadfastly neutral, and the atomic bomb existed only as an equation on the back of an envelope. In 1940 the only major power fighting Germany was Britain. Had Britain collapsed and Europe become Nazified, the future of the West would have been very bleak. This book, then, deals with that period when Allied victory looked anything but inevitable, a period indeed when the war might have been lost.
Prior lives and writes in Australia, and the contributions the Dominions made to Britain’s struggle in 1940 are given several nods throughout the book, but no amount of patriotism can save a summary like the one above from the hint of soft soap salesmanship. The amount of war materiel Stalin was supplying Nazi Germany was never even at its peak “enormous” (and was in any case being supplied simultaneous with a feverish military build-up that had Germany as its objective); the United States might have been neutral in 1940 but it was hardly “steadfastly” so – as Prior himself later points out, anti-Nazi sentiment in the country was very strong and growing stronger every day (and although Prior characterizes the “war materiel” supplied to Britain by the US as “crumbs,” it amounted to a bit more than that); the mention of the atomic bomb is mysterious, since it was never used against Germany; but the key problem-lines are the final two, which are clearly intended to refer to the same thing even though they don’t. Had Britain collapsed in her valiant, isolated stand against Nazi Germany, the present of the West would have been very bleak – but that doesn’t mean the war might have been lost. Britain’s war might have been lost in 1940, but America’s war against Germany hadn’t yet begun and couldn’t have been lost once it started. Once the factories and assembly lines of the New World swung into round-the-clock war footing, both Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan were doomed. For every single wartime implement Hitler’s Germany produced during the war – from bullets to tanks to planes to fighters – the United States produced ten, with production rates rising all the time. When you have 90,000 warplanes and your enemy has 300,000 and knows just as well as you do how to use them, you’re going to lose. The fall of Britain would have been a brutal setback (and not just materially – the imagination shudders even more at the thought of swastikas flying in Piccadilly than it does at photographs of Hitler and his minions posing in front of their Eiffel Tower), but “the West” would have gone on to win the war even so.
But Prior nevertheless has a grand story to tell, and he’s certainly up to the task. He hits all the usual salient points, from the appeasement attempts of Neville Chamberlain (here characterized as little short of cowardice) to the hasty evacuation of British forces from Dunkirk to the Blitz and the Battle of Britain. Predictably, one figure hovers over the whole narrative like a particularly gassy dirigible, powered by whiskey and bulldog tenacity. And perhaps also predictably, the subject of Winston Churchill prompts Prior to telling some prime examples of what his countrymen would call porky pies. Take the famous “blood, toil, tears and sweat” speech of 13 May 1940, which gets this highly amusing analysis:
Some regard this speech as merely windy rhetoric, others as bravado – necessary in the circumstances but bravado nonetheless. These interpretations fundamentally misread Churchill’s purpose. At times in 1940 he might use exaggerated language, especially if he was speaking to a foreign audience and especially if that audience was the United States. But when he was speaking to his own people, which is what he was doing here, he spoke the truth.
And then there’s the crucial question of the entire book: how did Britain “save the West”? In 1940 Hitler had well-developed plans to invade England, crush her air bases and naval depots, and occupy her from Plymouth to Inverness, and he drew back from these designs only reluctantly, convinced by his generals that the overwhelming strength of the Royal Navy would make the transport of troops and tanks impossible. Prior recognizes it for the pivotal moment it was:
If the German army had been able to cross to Britain and land in sufficient numbers in 1940, the outlook would have been grim. The British army had to some extent recovered from Dunkirk but whether it was equipped to fight Panzer divisions is another matter. Fortunately for Britain the strength of the Royal Navy and the RAF acted as a sufficient deterrent to Hitler. It must, however, be said that in this instance the hesitations shown by Hitler were well founded. An invasion along the lines of that planned by the Germans would almost certainly have come to grief.
By the end of Prior’s story, the United States is poised to enter the war (entirely reluctantly in his telling, and entirely for mercenary reasons – Churchill in his darker moods would have loved that openly resentful strand running through this book) and held shoulder the burden Britain had been carrying alone for so long. Every aspect of the story told in When Britain Saved the West will be familiar to readers of popular WWII histories, and there’s no scholarship here on such individual subjects as Dunkirk or appeasement sufficient to challenge the several excellent scholarly works devoted to them. But for the Father’s Day summer history bookstore tables, Prior’s book will be – like its subject – tough to beat.