For four hundred years, that is to say throughout the entire era of 'conventional' warfare based on firepower, Britain survived the threat of successful invasion. The novelist ‘Saki’ (H.H. Munro) described in When William Came the worst fears of the island defenders, fears which were never to be actualised and which remained forever in the realm of the might-have-been:

Our ships were good against their ships, our seamen better than their seamen, but our ships were not able to cope with their ships plus their superiority in aircraft. Our trained men were good against their trained men but they could not be in several places at once and the enemy could.

Surveying all the invasion attempts against the British Isles from the Armada to ‘Sea Lion’, one is struck more by their similarity than by their differences. The same fundamental problems taxed all putative invaders. The invader must always protect his transports and his lines of communication. He must keep his army of invasion fed and supplied with ammunition: Napoleon, for example, intended to take across three million cartridges for his infantry alone (artillery excluded) and two hundred sheep per thousand soldiers as a meat supply. He must also keep the sea lanes clear so that successive waves can cross to reinforce the bridgehead.

Even the advent of air power, a greater technological leap forward than the introduction of the steamship, did not revolutionise the technique of invasion. The same strategic principles governed the German air force in 1940 as had constricted armies and navies for time out of mind. Although air power opened up a new dimension on which the problems could be approached, they remained the same problems. Air power was important only at the margin: it allowed the invaders, for example, to ensure that the fusillade that covered the landings came from the air rather than from battleships. Because of the dominance of the Royal Navy in the Channel it was never possible for Germany in World War Two to experiment with any of the sea-air tactics (‘shuttle-bombing’, for instance) employed by the Japanese in the Pacific which might have complicated defence strategies.

Defence thinking about invasions remained basically unchanged in England over four centuries. The same principles were always adhered to. If large enough land forces were on the defensive in England, an enemy would never be able to slip across the Channel unnoticed but would always have to come in such numbers that the invincible Royal Navy was alerted. Even the weather remained a constant factor working against a successful invasion. In 1940 the weather was as important in its effect on the Luftwaffe as on the German navy.

The other aspect of continuity from 1588 to 1940 is that all the vain attempts made to invade the British Isles in the historic period of sea power derived ultimately from Britain’s position as a colonial or imperial power. It was English incursions into the Spanish empire that provoked the wrath of Philip II. It was the struggle for global mastery that inspired the numerous French attempts between 1688 and 1815. Finally it was the imperial factor, albeit in transmogrified form, that led to an unlooked-for and unintentional war between Great Britain and Hitler’s Germany. With the passing of Britain’s imperial splendour the motive for an invasion of England would seem to have passed. What keeps these islands in the forefront of global military thinking is their geopolitical position between the superpowers. It is a supreme irony that America, so often the cockpit of the colonial rivalries of the past that provoked Britain’s enemies to plan a descent on these islands, should now be the occasion for keeping Britain in the forefront of world strategic thinking when her imperial role is no more. If ever an invasion, even a hit-and-run raid, were to be launched at England again, it would not be because of her position as a great imperial or military power but because of her role as ‘America’s aircraft carrier'.

This is perhaps the final irony in a story not short on ironies. The last great threat to England, from ‘Sea Lion’, saw also the striking of the hour when many of the fantasies of previous invasion theorists were realised. Diederichs’s dreams of an invasion across the Atlantic were finally carried out, though in a reverse direction, when General Patton led US troops 3,000 miles across the Atlantic to invade Vichy Morocco in ‘Operation Torch’. And after having been threatened with invasion for four centuries, England was itself the springboard from which the greatest invasion fleet of all time was launched. In June 1944, in the early stages of ‘Overlord’, Britain provided not just the base of operations but the greatest numerical component in the Allied landing forces. By the same ironical twist the other great island power, Japan, which had protected itself from invasion during the great period of European expansionism by sealing itself off from the outside world, found itself faced the following year with the threat of an even more vastly conceived invasion. 1945 closes our story in more ways than one.

What effect, we may ask, has Britain’s island position and its historical security from invasion had on the evolution of its political society? The reason any nation’s history evolved in the peculiar way it did is to be explained ultimately in terms of its distinctive political culture. The fact that Britain is an island has been a crucial element in the formation of that unique culture. For the immense difficulties confronting a would-be invader have ensured that politics in this island have followed the path of continuity and reform rather than radical discontinuity and revolution. Since the English Civil War nearly 350 years ago there has been no major dislocation of the political system. The basic constitution that existed in 1689 is still in force today. The coming of a mass electorate has been accommodated to that constitution by a series of electoral reform acts and a subtle process of socialisation.

This is in no way to sound a note of complacency but simply to point up the immense differences between Britain and other European societies. Germany as a united nation lasted some seventy-five years; Italy united 125 years ago and then experienced the radical discontinuity of Mussolini’s Fascism; Spain was torn apart by a civil war just fifty years ago. Perhaps the most revealing contrast is with France, where political discontinuity is especially marked. The French experienced revolution from 1789 to 1794 and again in 1848 and 1871. Since the great Revolution two hundred years ago there have been two imperial regimes and five different republican constitutions (the Fifth Republic dates only from 1958).

If one seeks for a general explanation for political dislocation in Europe, the common factor most frequently encountered is war. In continental Europe war means military invasion. Between 1870 and 1940 France was invaded three times by Germany. On each occasion military defeat led to a change of political system. Yet aside from the direct consequences of war, there is its even more devastating indirect impact. The destruction of a society in war provides revolutionary opportunities unthinkable in peacetime. When social cohesion has broken down and the old regime is discredited, the hour of the revolutionary has struck. The close correlation of warfare and internal revolution cannot be doubted. The Franco-Prussian War gave birth to the Paris Commune of 1871. The military defeat of Russia in 1917 made the Bolshevik seizure of power possible. And it was the Japanese invasion of China in 1937 that shattered the Kuomintang and gave Mao Tse-tung and the Red Army their chance.

Yet the consequences of war do not even stop there. The necessity to fight continental wars means that the army has had an importance in Europe it never had in Britain. Prussian militarism is of course a cliché, but there are other, better examples. The army's decision to stage a coup d’état in Spain in 1936 triggered the Spanish Civil War. And because of the opposition of the French army to de Gaulle’s Algerian policy, France in 1958-62 teetered on the edge of civil war.

Because of Britain’s island position, the army never had the importance in British society that the navy enjoyed. As we have remarked, it was possible for the fool of an aristocratic family to enter the army, but not the navy. Moreover, opposition to a standing army was one of the most deeply rooted elements in traditional British political ideology. The absence of the military as a serious political factor means a relative freedom from the threat of coup d’état. This point should not be exaggerated, however. Even in England the army has to be taken seriously as a political force at the limit, as the Curragh Mutiny of 1914 demonstrated.

Naturally, the argument from geographical factors cannot be pushed too far. Ultimately the political stability of a particular society is explicable only in cultural terms. But it is undoubtedly the case that an island location on the fringes of mighty continental powers produces interesting results. Japan, in a similar position to Britain’s vis-à-vis its continental neighbours, also never experienced a successful invasion. Not even the mighty Mongol empire that stretched from the Danube to the Pacific managed that feat. In 1274 and 1281 (the latter principally through the agency of the winds of storm – the kamikaze or divine wind) Mongol invasion attempts came to an inglorious end. Here too we can see that geographical factors act as a necessary but not sufficient reason for the peculiar evolution of island societies. Japan’s historical invulnerability to invasion prevented the dislocating impact of external forces. Yet the peculiar native political culture produced militarism and the cult of busbido. It is not good enough, then, to say that an island location is ipso facto a guarantee against the military’s playing a role in politics. This is a possibility inherent in an island situation, a luxury not open to continental powers, but is by no means a necessary consequence of geographical insularity.

Discussion of Japan brings us neatly to the final point about the invasion of Britain. Although NATO exercises are still carried on which presuppose the rationality of a conventional Russian invasion of these islands, even if only on the 1779 model of seizure of a military enclave, the Japanese example shows this scenario to be chimerical. When the USA in 1945 faced the certainty of one million casualties if it followed the tactic of a seaborne invasion of Japan, the decision was taken to drop the Atom Bomb. Only the most purblind optimist would imagine that the Russians would behave any differently if the time ever came when it was necessary to take out America’s aircraft carrier’. It can be stated as a near-certain proposition that there will never be an invasion of Britain. If ever the evil hour of World War Three comes, the anxious watchers on the white cliffs of Dover are likely to see not the approach of an invasion flotilla but the spreading mushroom cloud of the day of Armageddon.


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