Dying in 2014, he fell two years short of his hundredth birthday. Right until the end his mind was as sharp as ever, reflective, analytical, principled. A regular soldier, he had joined the British army in 1937 and had served until the 1950s, fighting in North Africa and in the campaigns northward through Italy. His recollections of the Second World War were carefully considered and articulated in the manner of an historian.
Sitting drinking tea in his elegant farmhouse one afternoon, I asked him, “was there any point where you thought Britain might lose the war?”
“No,” he replied firmly. “We did think it might take a long time to win, but once Hitler invaded Russia, we knew there was no prospect of ever losing.”
The opinion confirmed what had been taught in the A-Level history lessons at sixth form college where the tutor explained that once Hitler had lost the Battle of Britain, once he had lost the campaign for the control of the air, there was no prospect of there ever being an invasion. “The Royal Navy would simply have blasted an invasion fleet out of the water,” he stated with the certainty of a man who had lived through the times.
Only after the war did the weakness of Hitler’s invasion plans emerge. One of the places designated for invasion forces to land was Lyme Regis. Anyone who has visited that most pleasant of all seaside towns will know how steep is the climb up from the harbour at the Cobb to the countryside beyond. The first panzers to land would have failed to climb the steep road and the entire force would have trapped and easily picked off.
Growing up believing that an invasion was an impossibility, it was a surprise only yesterday to discover the extent to which Britain had prepared for such an eventuality. Somerset Live carried a feature on Somerset’s seven wartime airfields.
The feature refers to the “Taunton stop line,” a term I had never heard before, despite growing up on tales of the Second World War. A search for the stop line revealed that it had stretched from Axminster to Highbridge and that it was one of more than fifty similar defensive lines that had stretched across the country.
An entire element of wartime history seems to have been omitted from our education. Of course, we would have known of pill boxes and fortifications, but there was always an assumption that these were about protecting railways and bridges and important installations against parachutists, there was never a thought that such structures dotted around the country formed a coherent whole. Perhaps we should not have been so sanguine about there being no invasion.