1942: Britain at the Brink, by Taylor Downing

Reviewed by Basil Ransome-Davies

As E. H Carr’s masterly introduction to the study of history, What Is History?, explains, the idea of a fully objective, neutral and truthful history is a fool’s lantern. All written history is discursive. Serious historians stick to the facts, but the choice of facts, and their significance, are subject to a broad range of perspectives. Underlying every choice is a bias, world-view, thesis or King Charles’ Head. There, historians are far from unanimous. Historiography proceeds by revisionism as historians queue up to overtake and repudiate one another. Taylor Downing’s particular viewpoint is hinted at in his book’s subtitle, ‘Britain at the Brink’, and avowed forthrightly in his prologue.

 It is usually taken as read that if morale survived the onslaught of the Battle of Britain and the Blitz, it somehow survived intact for the rest of the war….  The point of this book is to challenge that timeline. In 1942 a series of military disasters created a political crisis…. Public morale nearly collapsed and there was a widespread feeling that Winston Churchill was no longer the right man to lead the nation. 

It’s actually a modest enough premise, more a contingent than a primary issue given the global dynamic since late 1941 of a formidable anti-Axis alliance. Also, conclusions based on a volatile public opinion, however measured, are notoriously disputable (more on this later), but what follows is a highly readable narrative history, delivered in a brisk, journalistic style with a sly eye for the informative or symptomatic detail.

Of captivating interest are the pages covering workaday life on the home front with all the emergency restrictions that fed the British appetite for moaning. The blackout, for example, that led to death on the roads but was quite needless as German bombers were guided to their targets by radar beams rather than the glowing lights of towns. And the rationing of staples such as food, clothes and fuel, operated by the ‘coupons’ system, grated. ‘Each garment required a number of coupons: a man’s suit needed twenty-five, a shirt five, vests and pants eight’. Food? More coupons, in the historic Ration Book everyone had. In 1941 so badly hit was the supply of Britain’s food imports that ‘the meat ration was reduced to a shilling’s worth [5p] of meat, per person, per week’. The Blitz motto of ‘Britain can take it’ was sorely tried. The nation looked to the man whom the historian A. J. P. Taylor called ‘the saviour of his country’.     

Inevitably, he is the supreme hero of this book, Winston Churchill. His is the profile adorning the dust jacket, teeth clenched around a cigar, pith helmet suggestive of the imperial dream he could never awake from, left hand raised either in salute or to shield his eyes from solar glare. A fuzzy, unfocussed background appears to be of tanks in the desert, redolent of the victory at El Alamein that blocked Rommel’s drive for the Middle East. Downing does not attempt to make a plaster saint of Churchill, who twice ‘crossed the floor’ in pursuit of political advancement, earning the reputation of a rogue elephant among many mainstream Tories – but a strongly anti=appeasement one, with a toff’s disdain for the upstart Hitler.  

That last fact alone qualified him to succeed the discredited Neville Chamberlain, and there is little doubt that he was the resolute, gung-ho man for the hour (even my mother, a Salvationist who denounced alcohol and tobacco use as disgusting vices, referred to the boozy smoker of Havana’s finest affectionately as ‘Winnie’). Nonetheless his conduct of the war was never faultless, and Downing is candid in itemising the failures and setbacks of 1942 including the fall of Singapore, the ‘Channel Dash’ and the huge tonnage of shipping lost to German submarine attacks. While recounting the disasters Downing does not stoop to excuse Churchill’s regular ruse when shit happened of shifting the blame for his own misjudgements. But the PM had always ample support in the Commons, and I feel that Downing exaggerates for dramatic effect the threat to his position from Stafford Cripps, an austere maverick from the other side of the House. 

So how far does Downing’s own general judgement of events stand up? I’ve always been an enthusiast for Mass Observation; for a number of years I was one of their observers, enjoying the stimulation of recording my experience, thoughts, and reaction to public events for their archive at my alma mater, Sussex University. It’s a major project. It helped me as a writer. I would encourage anyone who takes a thoughtful interest in the condition of things to participate. But mass observers are a self-selected body. Their opinions may be indicative but they do not amount to an aggregate record of the state of the nation, in peace or war. Downing’s central  dependence on Mass Observation reports catches an ebb and flow of individual reactions but may hide as much as it reveals. Whatever the fortunes of British and Commonwealth forces in World War 2, the big picture in 1942 is of a Britain no longer alone but a vital junior partner in alliance with the colossal wartime mobilisation of the USA and the Soviet Union. One might add: unwittingly aided by Adolf Hitler, a deranged and bellicose gambler with a suicidal addiction to making powerful enemies, the fascist death-wish incarnate.

However, even if you question Downing’s argument this is a book worth reading. Don’t worry about proof. History is full of hypotheses, and even the tenuous ones can be fruitful if they promote thought, knowledge and pleasure.  

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Before retirement Dr Basil Ransome-Davies taught American Literature & Film Studies at a number of institutions, finally at Edge Hill University. He is also a prizewinning poet & prose author & a recidivist crime fiction addict. He lives in Lancaster, walks for physical & mental health & visits France & Spain as often as possible.

Taylor Downing, 1942 (Little, Brown, 2022). 978-408713709, 423pp., hardback.

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