By the summer of 1940 Britain stood alone on the edge of Europe with nothing to protect her apart from the Channel.
This is an oft stated fact that has become entirely accepted by a large majority of the British population today. But is it true? Strictly speaking, yes. Geographically we stand on the edge of the European continent and always have done. There is nothing new in that claim. But the implication here when set in the context of the early summer of 1940 is that of plucky little Britain, with its population of 38 million, standing shoulder to shoulder to face the threat of a German invasion entirely alone and with no support from anyone. That is the bit that is not true and it does history a great disservice to ignore the massive contribution made by our friends and allies both that summer and in the subsequent springs, summers, autumns and winters that followed.
By the time the Battle of Britain took place, London was host to seven foreign governments-in-exile and the hot-headed French General, Charles de Gaulle, had arrived as well. None of them came empty handed.
The Norwegian government leant the British more than 1,300 vessels from their fleet, the fourth largest and most modern merchant fleet in the world, which sailed with the Atlantic convoys for the whole war. In 1941 a British official declared that the Norwegian merchant fleet was worth ‘more than an army of a million men’. That was an enormously valuable contribution and one that was not without risk. Many Norwegian sailors would lose their lives in the heaving seas of the submarine-infested waters of the North Atlantic. In addition, King Haakon of Norway brought 1400 soldiers, 1,000 sailors and a small number of pilots that grew rapidly over the next few months.
The Belgians donated their substantial gold reserves and over the course of the war shipped 1,375 tons of uranium from their stocks to the USA to fuel the Manhattan project.
The Dutch government and their magnificent Queen Wilhelmina, who was described by Churchill as the only real man among the governments-in-exile in London brought six hundred ships from its mercantile fleet and rich resources from the Dutch East Indies.
The Czechs’ contribution was brilliant intelligence from inside Nazi Germany. Their main agent, A54 as he was known, was a high-ranking Abwehr officer who divulged highly valuable secrets until his eventual capture in 1941. He told the Czechs about the build-up of Goering’s Luftwaffe, he gave them the code for German wirelesses in 1938. It was a sinister code: Heil 15 März and a week before Prague was invaded (on 15 March 1939) he told them that the Germans had been instructed to round up all intelligence officers and treat them with great harshness. His warnings helped the intelligence services to evacuate to London the night before the invasion. In 1942 two agents, one Czech, one Slovak, carried out the most audacious assassination of the highest-ranking Nazi to be murdered: Acting Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich. Jozef Gabčik and Jan Kubiš were trained in Britain and flown to Bohemia by the RAF to carry out the murder. Our past is inextricably linked to the former Czechoslovakia.
Charles de Gaulle’s contribution would take longer to materialise but his presence in London cannot be underestimated. Churchill, passionately supportive of the French, gave de Gaulle every encouragement as he gradually built up the Free French army and encouraged the development of the Resistance. Many of their agents were trained in Britain and used safe houses all over the country, including one in Sussex which features in Our Uninvited Guests, to stay while waiting for flights into occupied France.
The Poles brought fighter pilots to the Battle of Britain. They were among a total of 8,000 airmen and 20,000 soldiers as well as hundreds of sailors manning three destroyers, two submarines and a number of smaller vessels who arrived here after the Fall of France. By the end of the war the Polish was the fourth largest Allied Force after Russia, the USA and the British Empire. Critically they also sent an early decoded version of the Enigma machine for the British security services. It was the Poles in 1932 who first worked out how to use the German Enigma machines and they had been reading German messages for the greater part of seven years by the time the war broke out. I’m not saying the coders at Bletchley Park could not have done their work without Polish help but it might not have happened so quickly. We owe the Poles more than we ever imagine. That is why I have dedicated my book to them. They might have been Uninvited Guests but they were brilliant guests to have on our side.
Closer to home we had the Auxiliary Units, young men and women recruited in the summer of 1940 to act as a sabotage force to work behind the lines in the event of an invasion. They were told their work was so secret that they could not tell anyone about it outside the tiny groups of six or so who would man an observation post, underground, and plan their attacks on bridges, railway lines, petrol stores and so on. The life expectancy of an Auxilier had the Germans invaded was estimated to be no more than fourteen days. Their training centre was based at Coleshill House, home of the Pleydell-Bouverie family, just outside the village of Highworth in Wiltshire, close to the railway hub of Swindon, meaning that trainees from all over the country could reach Coleshill with relative ease. The man who developed the training programme to turn vicars, poachers, farmers and schoolteachers into saboteurs and silent killers was Brigadier Sir Colin McVean Gubbins, the man who would later be in charge of Special Operations Executive.
Julie Summers is a bestselling author and historian. Her books include: Fearless on Everest: The Quest for Sandy Irvine; The Colonel of Tamarkan, a biography of her grandfather, the man who built the ‘real’ bridge on the River Kwai; Stranger in the House, a social history of servicemen reuniting with their families after the Second World War, and When the Children Came Home, which tells the story of returning evacuees. Her book Jambusters was the inspiration for ITV’s hit drama series Home Fires, which ran for two seasons in 2015–16.
Julie will be speaking at Chalke Valley History Festival on Friday 28th June about Our Uninvited Guests: The Secret Lives of Britain’s Country Houses. Tickets are available here.