Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Monday, 27 December 2010

Should an Eco-warrior like Avatar?


Having refused to succumb to the hype and see it in the cinema, it's taken me a year to watch Avatar, but thanks to a cheap one month trial with Sky Movies I've finally managed to see it.

I doubt I'll watch it again.

However as the bad guys have giant bulldozers and hate trees it does suggest it should be the sort of film eco-warriors ought to like, but then the same was said of Steven Seagal's On Deadly Ground, and that was just a load of juvenile rubbish.

However Avatar is certainly a phenomena, so it deserves analysis. Millions of otherwise sane people paid good money to view it and, although they mainly went for the special effects, they certainly didn't complain too much about a plot that seemingly takes to pieces the culture they come from and spits it back at them.

Appearances though can be deceptive, and Avatar I suspect is not what it at first appears.

Firstly it's not that contemporary. Despite the reference to Shock and Awe, we're not in the War on Terror here, we're in Vietnam. We have a jungle, we have helicopters, we have a mad colonel, we have something resembling napalm. Nobody says "Charlie don't surf", but pretty much all the other cliches are there.

Secondly it's not that liberal. Sigourney Weaver's character makes the case for a rational study of the forest but she is brushed aside, first by the Na'vi and then by the military to eventually, like the Headmaster in If, die pointlessly for her trouble. Liberals are clearly loosers.

Instead the Na'vi befriend Sully, an ex-marine who can shoot, fight and perform outlandish macho stunts with the best of them, and eventually leads The People to a Battle of Omdurman style slaughter in the best Hollywood tradition.

I originally called it Aliens meets Fern Gully, but really it's Apocalypse Now meets Dances With Wolves (or rather A Man Called Horse, the film that kick started the genre).

Not that we can blame America too much for this. Imperial England always preferred natives primitive and warlike to the cultured and peaceful. Scottish Highlanders, Zulus and Afghans have of course very interesting cultures, but the Victorians saw them as simple warriors who, despite their intransigence, were far preferable to the peaceful but complex Irishman, Hausa or Hindu.

This is of course a highly reactionary view, and one with a few disturbing parallels that Cameron probably didn't intend.

The corporation with it's giant bulldozers and utter disregard for anything except money is clearly meant to represent Capitalism. However Cameron also appears to lump in science and anything resembling human society as the 'bad stuff' that must be opposed.

The idea that the excesses of Neoliberalism can only be tamed by a rejection of science and a return to a simpler society is one that attracts a few on the fringes of the environment movement, but they generally steer clear of fetishising the violence of the archetypal warrior. New Agers and Primitivists are usually peaceful people.

However the Neoconservative movement in America, of which George W Bush was the puppet, were heavily into the idea. True, they hated trees as much as anyone, but they want to replace reason with the Bible and loved wars. They also idealise a make-believe past, in their case a 1950s America of the white, the straight and the middle class, which is just as anachronistic in the modern world as the society of Na'vi.

Looking further back you can even see similarities to the Nazis, who banned 'Jewish' science, hated Capitalists , dabbled in magic, idolised ancient pagan warriors and supposedly loved their native oak forests.

The sleep of reason brings forth monsters.

So should eco-warriors like Avatar?

Err, no.

The special effects are good though.

p.s. in case anyone things I'm the sort of boring old git who hates all modern films I should add I watched District 9 last week and loved it!

The Day Hitler Ran Away

Halloween 1914 was a horrible time. Military historians call it The First Battle of Ypres, but that dry name does little to convey the horrors that were taking place in Flanders. The German name for the battle, Kindermord bei Ypern ("The Massacre of the Innocents") speaks much more eloquently. However if events had taken a very slightly different turn that Samhain the world may have been spared worse horrors to come.

The First World War was fought with offensive weapons from the nineteenth century - the bayonet and the cavalry sword, and defensive weapons from the twentieth - quick-firing artillery and machine guns. It was fought between industrial nations who, with steam technology and miles of railways, could support armies of millions in the field all year round. The result were battles longer and bloodier than before or since.

In October 1914 no trenches had yet been dug, and at the northern edge of the line British and German soldiers fought each other in the open in what became known as the Race To The Sea. As each side tried to outflank the other, a series of bloody and confused battles took place.

On 31st October the Germans attacked and destroyed the 1st Battalion of the South Wales Borders guarding the town of Gheluvelt. By a twist of fate this was the same infantry battalion that had been wiped out nearly 36 years earlier by the Zulus at the battle of Isandhlwana.

The victorious Germans, consisting of the 16th, 244th and 245th Bavarian Regiments had broken through the British line and could have turned the battle. Instead they settled down for a rest in the grounds of the Chateau and a bit of looting in the village.

British Generals of the Great War don't have a terrific reputation, but one who definitely wasn't a Colonel Bogey was Brigadier General Charles FitzClarence. He'd already won a Victoria Cross serving with Baden-Powell in Mafeking and he was about to make a valiant attempt to win another one.


Rounding up the only men he could find, the 2nd Battalion of the Worcester Regiment, he launched a counter attack. He was outnumbered, and German artillery killed or injured a quarter of his men before the attack started, but surprise and pluck carried the day and the Bavarians were routed. The gap was plugged and the day saved.


The Germans had had their chance and blown it. It was to be four long and bloody years before they got another. Fitzclarence though was not there then. Eleven days after the Battle of Gheluvelt he was shot dead whilst leading another counterattack.

The victory restored the status quo, allowed a fixed front line to form and paved the way to four years of murderous and intransigent trench warfare. Perhaps it might have been better if Fitzclarence had been a coward and a duffer, as the war might well have ended up being over by Christmas. But the what ifs of the battle extend well beyond this, and concern the fate of a certain private in the 16th Bavarian Regiment.


On 8th October 1914 Adolf Hitler (seated rather appropriately on the extreme right in the picture) took his oath to the King of Bavaria and went straight off to the front. His job was as a messenger, carrying messages to and from headquarters. Tradition has him braving shell fire at the front, but new research suggests that most of the time he was several miles back with the top brass. He probably also used the telephone as often as his own feet.

Never-the-less the 16th was his regiment and, unless he had been posted somewhere else, we would expect him to be with it. Historians can't definitely place him on the battlefield (the Wikipedia entry is tellingly blank) but he wasn't wounded and there's no record of him being anywhere else. I suspect Hitler's own silence on the matter is revealing. A vain man, if he'd had an excuse not to be associated with the defeat, he'd surely have told someone.

19,530 German's died in the First Battle of Ypres. That one of them wasn't Hitler is surely one of fate's bitterest ironies. Fitzclarence not only saved the First World War for Britain, he also came close to preventing the Second.

But if Hitler was present when his regiment turned tail and ran for their lives, what effect did it have on him? "Who knows?" is probably the best answer, but as this is a blog and not a text book, I'll have a punt.

As most people know, at the end of May 1940 the British Expeditionary Force was trapped in Dunkirk. The German tanks halted allowing the Royal Navy evacuated them by sea. Why?

First this was a act of omission not commission. The Panzers had arrived at the edge of the town with no infantry support. To advance further before they arrived would have been to risk heavy casualties and Field Marshal von Rundstedt's decision, which Hitler endorsed, was tactically a sensible one.

Strategically though, it was a major blunder. Destroying the BEF, Britain's only serious soldiers, would have been worth any losses. Von Rundstudt should have been ordered to press the attack.

The most likely explanation is that the Germans didn't think the Brits were going anywhere. They had their minds on other things and were happy to let the Luftwaffe bomb the Tommies into submission.

But could the ghosts of Gheluvelt had come back to haunt Hitler?

A week before the Dunkirk evacuation began, a British armoured counter attack at Arras had unsettled General Rommel, smashing much of his Division and almost breaking through.

Did this incident bring back bad memories for the Fuhrer?

Did Hitler fear what might happen if he pressed the BEF too hard?

Did he perhaps see the ghosts of his former comrades fleeing from Chateau at Gheluvelt?

Sunday, 26 December 2010

Doctor Who Christmas Special


Writing a Doctor Who Christmas special must be a pretty thankless task.

It has to topical (not that easy really), different from the previous however-many-there-have-been and feature a guest celebrity who may not be able to act much as has to be shown in a good light.

I imagine when Steven Moffat asked round the office to see who'd like to pen it he found everyone had to go home early.

Within those limitiations though I enjoyed it. A bit obvious, but the jokes carried it over. The kids were a bit bored because there was no alien invasion, but the grown ups appreciated it.

Yes it would have helped if it had been realised a bit less literally; if the sets had suggested Dickensian London rather than looking like the back lot form a BBC costume drama, if 'Clive' had been a flying alien monster that suggested a shark and not a literal CGI shark and so on, but I'll pass on that. This sort of absurdist set design has worked before, such as in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy.

Finally though the Moffat-Smith-Gillian combination don't really need a script at all. The best stories of the last season (The Dream Master one, the Prisoner Zero one, the Van Gogh one etc) had minimal plots and were character led.

Hopefully Moffat will pen a Genesis of the Daleks or similar that will crown Matt Smith's incarnation in the blue box, but whilst we're waiting these character led adventures are great fun.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

My Top 5 Literary Dads

This list turned out to be harder list than I thought.

I never realised until I thought about it how many fools, tyrants and just plain absent Dads there are around. Really, we do get a pretty bum deal from the great writers.

King Lear as a Model Parent? Get away. Heathcliff as your Dad? Sign junior up for an ASBO and counselling ASAP. The father in Swallows and Amazons? His sole contribution to the books is to respond to his children's requests to go sailing with "If not duffers, won't drown. If duffers, better off drowned." I doubt event then you could pass that off as a thorough risk assessment.

So here we go with my top (pretty much only) five fathers in literature.

No.5 Odysseus in the Odyssey


Lets be frank, as a father Odysseus has a few shortcomings. To miss your son's birthday once is sometimes inevitable for a working Dad. But to miss the first 20 is going a bit far, especially when you've spent the best part of the last decade hanging around with nymphs and doing drugs.

When he does get home Odysseus does go a bit OTT as well, murdering all the house guests and stringing up most of the servants. However these things happen in military families, so I'm told.

However at least he gets there in the end, which is what counts I suppose.

4. Prospero in The Tempest


Prospero stands as a literary reminder of the virtues, and pitfalls, of home schooling.

Although I suspect Ariel did all the cooking and Caliban all the nappies, Prospero does seem to have given little Miranda a fairly decent grounding in most of the necessary skills in life, although he does seem to have neglected one rather important area.

Not that this would have mattered if he hadn't ensured that a ship load of lusty Italian sailors would wash on their little island, probably with their shirts sticking to their chests.

Perhaps not the best way to teach your daughter the facts of life, but what teenage girl would really object?

3. Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mocking Bird


Shakespeare may have written "First thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers", but he may have made an exception for Atticus.

The epitome of upright virtue, who shields his children from the worst of the racist society he lives in whilst ensuring they have the values to challenge it, Atticus is also a dead shot with a rifle, which must come in useful at Fun Fairs.

However for all his liberal values, you suspect it was the late Mrs Finch who got her hands dirty when Jem and Scout were little.

The worst that can be said against him is that his example has caused many otherwise harmless young men to take up careers in Law. Personally I'm with Shakespeare.

2. Mr Bennett from Pride and Prejudice


Having children means having to put your Hell Raising years behind you - or at least postpone them until they go off to University. It's therefore vitally important for a Dad to be able to entertain himself close to home, and Mr Bennett, the philosopher with a fondness for books and nature, does just that.

Laughing at his sillier children, he is never-the-less a best friend to his brighter ones. In a time when parents were supposed to be ogres, Mr Bennett was an early practitioner of the theories of Dr Spock, allowing his daughters the freedom to learn from their own mistakes.

Alas, like many hippy parents, his values didn't entirely rub off on his off-spring, and his second daughter eventually chooses to marry the man with the largest country estate in Derbyshire.

1. The Father in The Road


In a blasted future in which the death of Nature is equated to the death of God, the unnamed man and his son travelling through a Nuclear Winter (or whatever) are clearly going nowhere geographically, but spiritually it's another matter. The man has the map, but the boy has the moral compass.

George Monbiot believes the power of this book is that it shows that although we can survive without civilisation, we cannot survive without a biosphere, and if nothing else it certainly makes you value the cornucopia that is your fridge.

But surgically remove from the story the Mad Max elements, and it is still powerful stuff. As a father, how do you cope with the idea that one day you won't be around to look after your children in a cruel and dangerous world? Can you really claim to be one of the 'good guys' when the way your food gets to the table may not be terribly moral?

Finally, how as parents do we deal with passing on to our children a world which is in considerably worse shape than the one we inherited? Difficult, but important questions.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Military Intelligence Blunders and Climate Change Denial: Lessons to Learn


1. "Well, don't worry about it."
The Failure of Imagination.


Early in the morning of the 7th September 1941 a technician monitoring a radar on the northern tip of Hawaii noticed some unexplained blips. As a good soldier he reported it to the Duty Officer, Lieutenant Kermit Tyler. "Well, don't worry about it," the officer replied. Forty minutes later bombs were raining down on Pearl Harbour, most of the US Pacific Fleet was on fire or underwater and over 2000 people dead.

The attack has become synonymous for the failure of military intelligence. Famously an oxymoron, intelligence failures are generally responsible for worst disasters in military history, from Lord Chelmsford going off to chase phantom Zulus and leaving his camp at Isandhlwana poorly defended, to the USA blundering into Vietnam thinking they were only facing a few foreign infiltrators.

But if failure to spot the warning signs in war can lead to the deaths of thousands, being ambushed by Climate Change could lead to the deaths of millions, and we are being bigger Muppets than the unfortunate Lieutenant Kermit.

Military intelligence failures don't just happen because someone is being dense, they happen because one bunch of people has outsmarted another, and this is a lesson that those of us who want to do something about Climate Change, especially scientists, often forget.

Figuring out relativity was easy by comparison, as there was no Cavorite industry hacking Einstein's emails and claiming it was all down to Ether. Darwin met a bit of resistance on Evolution, but it took the Creationist nearly a hundred years come up with Intelligent Design, by which time the science was settled.

But back to 1941. Tyler wasn't to blame, he was on his second day in the job and nobody had told him anything, but the authorities in Honolulu most definitely were. Tensions were rising and intercepted radio messages told the Americans an attack was coming. The response though was just to bunch the aeroplanes more closely together on the tarmac.

This may sound daft, but it meant they could be more easily guarded by sentries. This was because the only attack the commanders could imagine was a sabotage by secret agents. That the entire Japanese Fleet would silently steam half way across the Pacific to bomb them was something they just couldn't envisage. It didn't matter that the Royal Navy had pulled a similar trick on the Italians the year before, in their world this sort of thing was unimaginable.

And that I suspect is where most people are with Climate Change. It is too big to imagine. The blips on the radar screen are getting bigger, but we'd rather not worry about it.


2. "I'm not worried because he's not worried"
The Denial Loop


Egypt's surprise attack across the Suez Canal in October 1973 was one of the great coup's of all time. The Egyptians crossed the canal by surprise, dug in, and fought off counter-attacks by the hitherto invincible Israeli Army. Only an intemperate advance brought on by the collapse of their Syrian allies prevented the first Arab victory in war over Israel.

Egypt had been planning the operation for six years, and had ran exercise after exercise, sometimes mobilising of thousands of civilians as well as tens of thousands of soldiers. The result was that when the actual assault came, even the Egyptian soldiers involved were taken by surprise, not believing it was the real thing until they were actually ordered to put their boats into the water.

But it still shouldn't have worked. Against them was the combined intelligence might of MOSSAD and the CIA. Israel had the agents on the ground and the Americans had the spy planes and satellites. Together they should have seen it coming.

What went wrong instead was that each agency looked at the other and, seeing no reaction, assumed they knew something they didn't. MOSSAD didn't panic because the CIA didn't panic, and the CIA didn't panic because MOSSAD didn't panic, and so on.

Campaigners trying to convince a sceptical public know the problem only too well. If Climate Change was a real threat the government would do something about it, says Joe Public. Whilst in the corridors of power the green lobbyists are told that the government would love to do something to limited our fossil fuel consumption, only the public won't allow them to you see......


3. "I'm not lying, he is"
Bluff and counter bluff.


If you want to point to where it all went wrong for America in Vietnam most historians will point you to the Tet Offensive in February 1968. For three years Westmoreland and the military had been telling the public that the war was as good as won. Then suddenly there were thousands of guys in black pyjamas running around South Vietnam's major cities and blowing things up. No matter that by the end of the week most of them were dead, the damage had been done.

The shock the American public felt after Tet was similar to that felt by scientists and activists after Climategate. Despite the well documented funding of dubious Climate Change denying lobby groups by the fossil fuel industry, and not withstanding the rather obvious fact that lots of rich people are going to loose a lot of money if we give up on fossil fuels, when a few stolen emails are quoted out of context a surprisingly large number of otherwise sensible people choose to believe that there really is a scientific conspiracy. Why? Are people really that stupid?

The CIA aren't stupid, and although they get a lot of the blame for Vietnam, mostly they did a good job. The agency base in Saigon had been telling Washington for years that this was a full blown insurgency and not just a bit of cross border raiding, but the top brass at Langley hadn't believed them, and by the start of 1968 they were signally back to America that something big was in the pipeline.

Something big was indeed brewing; a major offensive involving attacks in every major southern city. Insurgencies by their very nature are secret, but the Vietnamese knew they couldn't keep something this size secret, so instead they went for an elaborate bluff.

The spot they chose was Khe Sanh, a US marine base on the border. It was no threat to the Viet Cong, who could easily bypass it, but at the end of 1967 the Vietnamese started moving large forces up to Khe Sanh. At the same time they planted documents which said the plans for a national offensive were just a bluff and that Khe Sanh was the real objective.

The trick worked better than they could have expected. France had quit Vietnam fifteen years earlier when their outpost at Dien Bien Phu fell, and President Johnson was terrified of a similar debacle. Ignoring the numerous intelligence reports which suggested Khe Sanh was the bluff, he ordered a model of the base constructed in the White House basement. So whilst he was busy watching a struggle for a few square metres of worthless jungle, the Viet Cong overran huge chunks of South Vietnam.

Poor old Johnson. He wasn't a bad bloke, and the chants of "Hey, Hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" really hurt him. But in the end the demonstrators were right and he was wrong. The Americans were taken by surprise, lots of people died, and it was all pointless from then on.

But the world of bluff and double bluff can be confusing, and in the end, like Johnson, we can just end up seeing what we're most afraid of and not what's really out there.

Why did so many people fall for Climategate? Maybe they don't like clever clogs, maybe they like idea that a lot of self-righteous beardy people have got it wrong, or maybe they just like their cars and foreign holidays. Either way the deniers found that the easiest way to protect an extremely plausible conspiracy is to suggest an utterly implausible one.


4. "None so blind as those who don't wish to see."
When all else fails, ignore the inconvenient facts.


General Montgomery had a brilliant plan, one that would definitely end the war by Christmas. It involved a desperate race to reach a bridge captured by paratroopers before they were overrun by the Germans. True, the relief force would be advancing down a single road where one German with a panzerfaust could hold up the entire army, and true, to date the only race Monty had looked likely to win was onto a pedestal, but it might just work.

The Dutch resistance weren't so sure and brought back worrying reports of German tanks refitting in the woods. They were ignored. Major Urquhart, the intelligence officer, wasn't too impressed either and kept producing aeriel photographs of said panzers in the woods. He was sent on sick leave. Nothing was to stop the master plan.

The result was heroic, but pointless.

But it was a really good plan, and that's the problem. If only our climate wasn't so sensitive to pesky carbon molecules, then we could build paradise. Whether it's Social Democracy 2.0, the cutthroat world of the Neoliberals or even a Marxist workers paradise, it all depends on using cheap energy with no consequences.

There are no easy answer to stupidity, and the only solution to bad intelligence is better intelligence.

Perhaps though we could take heart from the biggest military intelligence disaster of this decade; the Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction. We couldn't stop the war, but at least most of us saw through the deceit. You can fool all of the military all of the time, but you can only fool all of the people some of the time.

Monday, 8 November 2010

My Ten Favourite English Villages

The English village, a place that exists more in myth than reality today, where paternalistic squires guide the simple folks in their charming rustic ways, and Mr Darcy baths in the pond once a year. Formerly the home of wise yeomen and stout women, today the village is more likely to be the home of the simple stockbroker and his greedy wife.

Whilst many English villages are no doubt lovely places to live, provided you don't mind driving ten miles just to buy a pint of milk, they mostly have very little to detain the visitor.

This, extremely subjective, list is of places I, someone who can't afford to live properly in the country, like to visit.

10. Lacock, Wiltshire


A village owned by the National Trust has to go into any top ten of English villages, but Lacock is real thing and not just a tourist honeypot. The village is mostly eighteenth century but the church, a pub and the magnificent tithe barn are Medieval. Merrie England at its best, you can even incarcerate yourself in the lock up. It was also apparently the inspiration for Godrics Hollow, the home of James and Lily Potter and the place has appeared so often in BBC Costume Dramas it deserves its own Equity card.

9. Mobberley, Cheshire


Mobberley barely counts as a village, being a small town now or even a suburb of Wilmslow.

In legend it was the home of the farmer who sold his white stallion to a mysterious wizard and this story starts Alan Garner's The Weirdstone of Brisingamen.

Surprisingly, considering it is set in one of the flattest parts of the country, it was also home to one of our most famous mountaineers, George Mallory, who when he wasn't streaking through Swiss Hotel lobbies or hiking in the nip was a pioneering 'Everester',climbing the mountain "Because it was there". He disappeared 8 June 1924 near the summit and his body was found on 1 May 1999. Whether in between he had been to the top is unknown, although a photo he had planned to leave there was not on him.

My connection with Mobberley was in 1997 when, after three months camped out of the site of the new runway at Manchetser airport I was rudely evicted and so shifted my tent to a paddock in the village. There I discovered the advantages of squatting a posh post code and started to rub shoulders with the rich and famous. I met Terry Waite, was interviewed by Davina McCall, bumped into Neil and Christina Hamilton at a Vicar's tea party and got myself invited to Westminster by Martin Bell.

Rather more interesting though, Mobberley is adjacent to Lindow Moss, the place where nearly 2000 years ago the unfortunate Pete Marsh (as he's know) died a triple death. The Moss is now just soggy fields, but when the mist comes down (as it likes to do) you can still feel yourself between the worlds. It's a pity about the jumbo jets though.

8. Hurst Green, Lancashire

What can you say about a village that boast the magnificent Jacobean pile of Stoneyhurst College and Tolkien's favourite pub?

JRR was a frequent visitor to the village and some people have traced the entire geography of the Shire in the local area, from the Brandywine Bridge (pictured) to the Barrow Downs. The village can also claim that the weather station at the college has been in continuous use for longer than any other, and has been charting our warming climate since 1846.

7. Little Salkeld, Cumbria


Little the place certainly is, but it has two big attractions; the Long Meg stone circle, and the Organic Watermill.

The former is one of the biggest and best circles in the country, and also one of the least known. Wordsworth may have eulogised it, but when it's standing room only at nearby Castlerigg, you can often have the place to yourself.

The Organic Watermill not only produces some of the best organic flour in the country (and definitely the best porridge oats) but also has an excellent cafe. Although it has fairly stiff competition in the form of the nearby Organic Bakery at Melmerby, it wins by a wafer thin slice of rye bread.

6. Edensor, Derbyshire


Edensor is an estate village of Chatsworth, so this is really a proxy award for the Devonshire's little pad in the country.

However the place has it's own charms, from a magnificent Weeping Willow on the green to a modest teashop. The church has the graves of Sir Joseph Paxton, the genius behind the Crystal Palace, and Lord Frederick Cavendish who was assassinated by Irish Nationalist in 1882 (by accident - they were going for the chap he was standing next to).

The most famous current resident is the Dowager Duchess herself, last survivor, and most normal, of Mitford sisters and one of the few people left alive to have taken tea with Hitler. If you walk up the hill towards Bakewell at the right time of the year you get a chance to scrump some of her blackberries.

5. Ribchester, Lancashire


"It is written upon a wall in Rome; Ribchester was as rich as any town in Christendom".

Actually it isn't, but Ribchester is interesting for being a two street village sat on top of one of the most important Roman towns in the north of England. The remains of the Bath House are easily visible next to the river, and a small museum has some of the items found on the site, including replicas of the magnificent parade helmet and cavalryman relief.

Other bits of the old fort are scattered through the village, like the two pillars in front of the White Bull pub (pictured) and once a year the Romans return for the annual festival.

Ribchester also has a double, if rather tenuous on both counts, King Arthur connection.

As principle northern cavalry barracks Ribchester is the most likely base for the Sarmatian Cataphracts sent to Britain in 175AD. The Sarmatians would have brought with them their dragon banners and stories of swords in stones and may for a while have been commanded by one Lucius Artorius Castus. Then, after the Romans left, Ribchester may have become the southern capital of Rheged, whose leader was Urien, another Arthur candidate, and chief bard was Taliesin.

4. Cropredy, Oxfordshire


Cropredy is a pleasant enough place in its own right, with the river Churwell, the bridge that was the scene of a Civil War battle and a brace of decent pubs. However for one long weekend a year it turns into the Cropredy Festival.

Cropredy Festival is an institution in itself. Originally the annual reunion of the band Fairport Convention whose members have included singer-songwriting legend Richard Thompson and the immortal Sandy Denny, the success of the festival led to the band reforming. The music takes place in the field across which the King's cavalry charged to victory in 1644 and has now been the scene of more released live recordings than the Royal Albert Hall.

The village itself has adopted the festival as its own. Whilst the residents of Pilton man the barricades during Glastonbury, Cropredy village becomes an extension of the festival, a mixture of bazaar, outdoor kitchen, chill out zone and festival fringe. Indeed, before the festival became a four day event I, like many people, used to turn up a day early to spend the Thursday night in either the Brassnose or the Red Lion.

With the village full of aging folk fans high on Wadsworth 6X it is perhaps a scene rather more Hoggarth than Constable, but Cropredy has always been the friendly festival and whilst there you are always aware that you are still in a English village, whereas Glastonbury these days reminds me rather more of the Trafford Centre.

3. Asford-in-the-Water


Ashford sneaks in at number three as it's currently our favourite picnic spot. Ashford is practical as well as pretty as I can sit myself down on one of the park benches in Hall Orchard Playing Fields, under a pair of magnificent English elm trees, whilst my boys play football with real goalposts.

A short walk away is also the best shop in Derbyshire; Ibbotson's, where you can buy the best home made chutney in Derbyshire, cakes and fresh coffee. The village also has one of the most scenic cricket grounds in the country, where my father-in-law played his last match for the illustrious Midland Bank Sheffield Branch team, and is of course home to the annual Derbyshire ritual of well dressings. Nearby are Monsal and Miller's Dales and also Fin Cop - the sight of one of the Iron Age forts that guarded the valleys that led into the Peak.

The area is a regular drive out for car clubs and it's not unusual to see a dozen or so identical vehicles heading in convoy through the village. Last time I was there it was the turn of the Aston Martin owners. Unfortunately one of the elderly would-be James Bond's missed the right turn in the centre of the village and threw the party into chaos. For the next hour it was like the last scene in The Pink Panther as Aston Martin's of various vintages arrived from random directions, circled a few times, and then disappeared a different way to search for their mates.

2. Avebury, Wiltshire

I could have done a Top Ten of villages with stone circles attached, but instead I'll limit myself to Avebury, the stone circle with a village attached.If you arrive in mid summer it seems that Avebury is more of a National Trust exhibit than a village, but a village indeed it is. This Lammas the local cricket team could be seen bravely trying to finish their game amidst the throngs of Druids and New Agers, and rumour has it that the place can even be quite quiet in the middle of winter.

It would be nice to say the village and the circle exist in perfect harmony, but that wouldn't be true. In conserving the latter Alexander Keiller not only knocked down a fair proportion of the former, but he also shut off the villagers supply of cheap stone.

Avebury though isn't just a village and a stone circle, it is the center of a ritual landscape that can only be fully appreciated on foot. When you walk over a rise and suddenly find yourself staring at the might of Silbury Hill, or discover a hawthorn tree bedecked with ribbons, you learn a little of how this spiritual landscape has been lived in for 4000 years.

And then afterwards you can retire to the Red Lion, drinking in which is a necessary, but not sufficient, requirement to call yourself a Druid.

1. Bamburgh, Northumberland


The picture almost says it all, but when you discover that on the far side of castle is one of Northumberland's finest beaches you realise why Bamburgh gets my Number One.

The castle has stood there since the time of the Gododdin. Mallory besieged the place and it may have been the inspiration for Lancelot's Joyous Garde. In Anglo-Saxon times it was the court of one of the most civilised kingdoms in Europe, and it may even have been here that the poem Beowolf was first recited. Just across the water is Lindisfarne and viewing the holy island from the castle you realise just how daring the Vikings were in 793 to sack the monastery right under the noses of the warriors in the fortress.

Add in the Crastor kippers served up for breakfast in the local B&Bs and you have the perfect destination for a weekend away. Anyone planning a bit of romance though (which doesn't go terribly well with kippers - or so my wife says) may wish to consider the story of King Oswiu and Queen Eanfled, whose failure to co-ordinate their love-making at the castle led to the demise of the Celtic Church.

Friday, 5 November 2010

By the Rocket's Red Glare

The Bombardment of Fort McHenry

Britain has given America some great gifts: democracy, the English language and Catherine Zeta Jones come immediately to mind. All three may have been well and truly ****ed by the Yanks since, but at least they acknowledge where they came from.

However I feel we never really get the credit we deserve for giving them the most famous line in their national anthem.

The rocket's being referred to are not those that are currently illuminating the night sky here, but those being fired at Fort McHenry by the Royal Navy at the Battle of Baltimore during the War of 1812. Britain's military was at that time in the middle of a love affair with rockets that had started with a bang 34 years previously in India, and was to eventually fizzle out over South Africa 79 years later.

Gunpowder appears to have reached India from China in the Fourteenth century, although references in Vedic literature to "weapons of fire" may indicate the previous use of some other type of fiery missile. They had first been fired at the British in 1755, but had been dismissed as a fairly useless gimmick.

The Battle of Pollilur
That view was hastily revised in 1780 when the army of the East India Company fought the Kingdom of Mysore at the Battle of Pollilur. A barrage of rockets blew up the ammunition wagons and John Company's army, which included elite Scottish Highlanders, surrendered. The battle was the first British defeat suffered on the sub-continent.

Thanks to the rockets the reverse was not seen as being the result of Indian, or Moslem, pluck, but fiendish oriental ingenuity. It helped that Tipu Sultan, who ascended to the throne of Mysore two years after Pollilur, was a bit of a gadget-man. A mechanical tiger of his, powered by bellows and depicted savaging a East India Company soldier, who moans realistically, is on display in the V&A museum. His reputation carried on past his eventual defeat into the nineteenth century, and Jules Verne even made him the uncle of that ultimate gadget-man, Captain Nemo.

Rocket practise
Meanwhile the army's greatest brains were set to work on rocketry, and the result was the Congreve War Rockets that Francis Key Scott saw being fired in 1814. (Yes I know I said this was 'The War of 1812', but that was just it's name. It actually lasted until 1815.) The rocket was lighter and longer ranged than conventional artillery and was employed smiting the King's enemies around the world. 25,000 of them were fired at the peaceful Danes in 1807 and a rocket battery was the sole British unit present at the 'Battle of the Nations' that defeated Napoleon for the first time in 1813. The rocket as a weapon had just one drawback, one that will be familiar to anyone who has had to flee from an errant firework - they were so inaccurate it was almost impossible to hit anything with them.

This didn't put the military off and indeed they clung to their Congreve rockets even after a (slightly) improved version, the Hale's spin-stabilised War Rocket, was invented. Mr Hale was unable to sell them to his own country and it was actually the Americans who debuted the new missile, against the Mexicans in 1847.

The Assault on Magdala
The Russian, Italian and Austrian armies all adopted it, to little effect. The German army was meanwhile busy showing the world that breech loading rifles and artillery were the future and that fireworks had no place on the modern battlefield. Never-the-less the British Army and Royal Navy eventually bought Hale's toy and carried it with them on various colonial wars from Ethiopia to Afghanistan.

In 1879 an unfortunate Major Russell found himself in charge of a rocket battery at the Battle of Isandhlwana. As a Zulu Impi descended on him he managed to fire off just one rocket - which missed, before having to resort to his sword. This just about summed up the performance of the war rocket. Two years later when a battery of Navy rockets went off to fight the Boers where they were similarly ineffective.

That was pretty much it for the gunpowder war rocket. They remained on the official inventory until 1919, before finally being pensioned off along with the cavalry lance and other relics of the previous century.

It was not the end for rockets. Twenty five years later chemical fueled V2s were falling on London. This time though nobody felt like turning the result into poetry.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Dressed to Kill


The famed 'flag march', where Indian and Pakistani soldiers engage in a competitive display of high-camp macho posturing, is to be toned down, tragic collateral damage from improving relations between the two nuclear armed states.

This is bad news for tourists, who loved the spectacle, but somewhat indifferent news for military pundits, for whom a rule of thumb is that the more a nation postures in peacetime, the less effective it is in time of war.

To be fair to the Indian and Pakistani armies, the guys doing the high kicking with fans on their heads are only border guards: had things kicked off on the sub-continent the real fighting would have been carried out by scruffier soldiers.

The stereotype of the army that is all trouser and no mouth, so to speak, is that of the African 'banana republic'. These soldiers, with their paratrooper berets, starched camouflage gear and shades, used to be a feature of the evening news when I was growing up - every dictator worth his salt had division or so. You knew just by looking at them that the only operation they could carry out even semi-competently was the Military Coup. By contrast the soldiers that did the real fighting: the Viet Cong, the SAS, the Taliban, always looked like sh*t by comparison.

Historically the supreme prize for show over substance goes though to the Romanian army of the
First World War. The Romanians, at that time, has a reputation of being 'the Neapolitans of Eastern Europe' and under the leadership of General Ion Emanuel Florescu their army's drab Khaki became a work of art. Uniforms were enlivened with commemorative plaques and emblems, and special get-up was designed for engineers, brewers, baggage handlers and every other hanger-on in the army. The General's Orders of the Day usually included a dress code as well. So fastidious was the Romanian grunt about his appearance that a rule had be enacted that banned the use of make up to all except commissioned officers.

Whatever amorous thoughts the suited-and-booted Romanian soldier inspired in the ladies, it certainly wasn't matched by a lust for combat. When Romania entered the war on the Allies side in 1916, their army put on rather a poor show. Indeed stories abound of whole Romania units mistaking their frustrated Russian allies for their Austro-Hungarian enemies and trying to surrender to them.

All of which suggests that if we want peace, rather than toning down their flag ceremony, India and Pakistan should be spicing it up a bit, perhaps even letting the rest of the world take part.

So perhaps we should dream of a world where combat troops have been replaced by combat troupes and where we can all sleep safer in our beds?

Monday, 25 October 2010

ISOF: How to make a torturer


When Greece was finally restored to the principles of democracy it helped found, the inner working of one of Europe's most brutal military regimes was revealed. For seven years The Colonels had used their security services to suppress behavior they considered socially unacceptable. With no civil rights to speak of, torture was routine for political dissidents and rock music fans alike.

Once sanity and human rights were restored the Greeks launched one of the most thorough investigations ever into how torturers operate. One result was the award winning film Your Neighbour's Son. In the film we get to meet Michalis Petrou, a recruit to the ESA who rose to become one of the country's top two torturers. The other one was apparently a Grade A psychopath, but even Petrou's victims acknowledge that he was really just a regular guy made into a monster by the system.

The recent Wikileaks Iraq War Diaries have showed how US approved torture didn't end in 1974. A repeating meme in the logs is how US and British forces repeatedly turned a blind eye, and even handed suspects over for interrogation to known abusers.

Key operators in this brutal trade were the Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF). A US trained unit distinguished by their balaclavas and US equipment, recruited solely for the purpose of internal security. This article by Shane Bauer in The Nation last year was written before the War Logs were released, but in it shows how the same techniques used by the ESA have been used in making the ISOF.

Firstly recruits are taken in young and naive. The ESA recruited from the Greek countryside and the ISOF, it seems, from the Iraqi desert. We don't now how exactly they were trained, but we can have a guess that similar dehumanising and desensitising techniques were used. Certainly when the ISOF were released onto the streets they were subsequently given the same direct political control, and freedom from all legal controls, as the ESA. The Colonels ran their agents directly, as do the Iraqi politicians.

So seven years after Saddam Hussein was toppled from power Iraq seems to be back where it began, under the control of politically controlled torture squads. The only difference appears to be that, compared with the ISOF, Saddam's lot were amateurs.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Less than Astute



HMS Astute is certainly not the first British sub to crash into something it shouldn't. In recent years subs have hit everything from the bottom of the Red Sea to a French ballistic missile submarine. However coming in the week that the government took the axe to local government jobs it does make you wonder whether they really need their expensive toys.

Once upon a time the military strength of a nation was easy to calculate; you had so many ships and so many soldiers. Then at the end of the nineteenth century there was an explosion in military technology. On land it wasn't just enough to count noses, you also needed to know how many rifles, artillery piece and machine guns an army had.

At sea things were even more complicated. Armored Battleships were so expensive that the race was on to find something cheaper that could sink them. The result was the Torpedo Boat, a barely seaworthy vessel that had a mathematical chance of sinking an ironclad - and a somewhat better chance of sinking itself. To counter this navies invented the Torpedo Boat Destroyer. At the same time the Cruiser was invented, a less heavily armoured version of the ironclad Battleship could patrol the oceans without requiring a fleet of colliers to follow it.

Comparing these different ships was like playing paper-wraps-stone. A Battleship couldn't catch a Cruiser and a Cruiser couldn't outfight a Battleship. The result was to leave naval planners utterly baffled, a condition that got even worse in the twentieth century when the naval mine and the submarine arrived. Every navy worth its salt had to have a bit of everything because everyone else did too.

When was came in 1914 the result was not what people expected. The Royal Navy went to war expecting a second Trafalgar, but instead its Battleships spent almost the entire war hiding in harbour. The submarine meanwhile proved utterly devastating to a land power like Germany, but almost useless to a naval power like us.

The twentieth century ended much like the previous one, with any serious navy having something of everything, including seriously expensive Hunter-Killer submarines. We have the Astute class because the Russians have the Akula class because the Americans have the Seawolf class and so on.

To make matters worse unlike Aircraft Carriers, which can at least be used to land marines or evacuate refugees, and Frigates and Destroyers which can at a pinch be turned on Somalian pirates or Caribbean drug runners, nuclear submarines can't really do much except play with other subs.

True they can sink surface ships, but 28 years after Maggie torpedo the Belgrano this doesn't seem like the sort of thing nice nations do. They can also fire cruise missiles at land targets but that would be, as Pitt the Younger said about an earlier naval operation, "like breaking windows with golden guineas". When the War on Terror started an imaginative US defence contractor came up with the idea of using them to fire Special Forces out of the torpedo tubes, but funnily enough the troops didn't seem too keen.

Council workers on the Isle of Skye wondering if their P45s are in the post may well look out at the Navy trying to rescue its newest ship and wonder whether that really is the best way to spend £1.3 billion.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Great Hostage Rescues of US Military History


As the USA hastily amends it's account of its failure to rescue the British aid worker Linda Norgrove, perhaps we should remember some of the previous occasions when real life turned out to be a bit different to Rambo.

The most famous failure was Operation Eagle's Claw in 1980, the attempt to rescue the hostages held in the former US Embassy in Tehran. The operation was supposed to begin with a night rendezvous between eight helicopters and six transport planes at a secret place called Desert One. This wasn't quite the remote spot it was supposed to be and the first thing the US special forces had to do was detain a bus load of Iranians who'd been driving past.

The bus was followed by another lorry which refused to stop. The Americans decided to stop it
anyway by firing an anti-tank rocket at it. Unfortunately it turned out to be a petrol tanker and the resulting explosion lit up the desert from horizon to horizon. The driver, a smuggler probably, miraculously survived and legged it into the desert.

Undaunted the team planned to carry on, but they were already two helicopters down due to mechanical failure and the pilots, having flown through a sand storm at ultra low level, were bushed. They all agreed to call it a day, but as one of the choppers took off it stuck a tanker plane resulting in another huge explosion and the death of eight men. The surviving Americans quickly skedaddled in the surviving aircraft leaving debris scattered across the desert and a party of extremely confused bus passengers.

Had it not all gone wrong so quickly the plan was to fly the assault force 1000 miles to Tehran where they would sneak into town, rescue the hostages, bus them across the city to a sports stadium to be picked up by the choppers again, flown another 400 miles to an Iranian air base that had hopefully been captured by paratroopers and then finally fly out. The Iranians were, presumably, just going to stand by and watch. When told of the plan after his eventual release one hostage remarked "Thank God for the sandstorm."

For the elite of the US armed forces the rest of the 1980s was not a great decade either. Delta Force, the hostage rescue team at the heart of Eagle's Claw, was soon mired in financial scandal including the purchase of a number of sports cars, supposedly for the purposes of covert reconnaissance. That might have been a bit of fun at the tax payers expense, but more serious stuff was going wrong. When Reagan decided to invade Grenada a team of Navy SEALs parachuted into the sea to help - and all drowned. It turned out the week they'd been due to practise this insertion technique they'd all bunked off.

The 'hostages' on Grenada, the students at the medical school, all came through more or less unscathed. They actually never saw a Grenadan soldier and the only danger came from the US Navy who decide to shoot up their campus before the troops landed.

The 1990s weren't a startling success either. There were no famous hostage rescues, but a group of Rangers and Delta Force almost became hostages themselves when their mission to kidnap Somalian warlords went wrong. The story has since been Hollywoodised, but the opinion of America's greatest infantryman, David H Hackworth, of the plan was that there wasn't one things wrong with it - there was everything wrong with it.

Quite how the War on Terror has been going this last decade or so is somewhat harder to say. The most famous hostage rescue of the Iraq War was that of Private Jessica Lynch. Allegedly captured, and raped, by dastardly towel heads after putting up a heroic resistance and being horribly wounded, she was liberated by brave special forces before the wicked Arabs could do anything worse to her.

Eventually the truth came out. Lynch had been in a convoy that got lost, and she had been in a minor road accident. The battle she allegedly fought in, and won a medal for, happened whilst she was out cold and the hospital she was sprung from was not only unguarded, but the medics had been trying to hand her back to the US Army for two days.

What else the cream of the US army has been up to is a little unclear given the secretive nature of their work, but what we do know is that Osama Bin Laden is very much alive and Linda Norgrove isn't.

None of this means that US Special Forces are incompetent (although many of their officers certainly have been) it's just that war tends to be more Laurel and Hardy than Rambo. Laughing at men who put their lives on the line may be a little mean, but it's generally a better strategy than believing the Hollywood hype and sending in the Marines.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Could Britain have lost in 1940?

British police watch German soldiers in occupied Jersey
Druids planning outdoor rituals know that the weather in these Isles can be a little fickle. This autumn we had a mild weekend for our, now officially 'religious' rites, but this time of year you can't always guarantee that.

Seventy years ago though it wasn't Druids who were hoping for mild weather over the equinox. In fact,if there were any around, they were wishing for exactly the opposite as across the Channel, in occupied France, German Generals were wondering whether a rag-tag fleet of requisition Rhine barges would really be able to transport their army across the sea to England.


Requisitioned Rhine barges
In the event Operation Sea Lion was called off at the end of August. The weather, unusually mild for the time of year in 1940, would have been the least of Germany's worries. An undefeated RAF, a rapidly reforming Army, a fully mobilised Royal Navy, and an unyielding Winston Churchill stood waiting for them and Hitler chose to strike east at Russia rather than risk a Channel crossing.

But could things have been different? If just one of these factors could be changed, could Germany have won the war in 1940? In the frustrating and occasionally illuminating world of Counter-Factual History, anything is possible.

Firstly there's the weather. The invasion was scheduled for the period 19th - 26th September, when the tide was right to allow the invasion barges to land at high tide and avoid the improvised defences on the beaches (made from builders scaffolding - a far cry from the concrete of the Atlantic Wall that faced the Allies on D-Day.) A low pressure suddenly turned left and headed for Norway leaving calm seas for the barges. Hindsight tells us the invaders would have crossed safely, but the German planners didn't have hindsight. An accurate seven day forecast was impossible with 1940s technology. In 1944 the Allies had ships at sea to help, but it was still a bit of a gamble. It would have been a brave man who launched his flat bottomed barges into the English Channel that September.

But it wasn't the weather that led to Sea Lion being cancelled, but the failure of the Luftwaffe to defeat the RAF in the Battle of Britain. Could they have won? On the face of it, no. Contrary to some myths, the RAF never came close to loosing. In 1940 we had the best air defence system in the world and the Germans barely dented it.

Eagle Day by Geoff Nutkins
However the RAF was quite capable of defeating itself. Dowding used his planes as aerial guerrillas, attacking the Luftwaffe by surprise in small groups, disrupting their formations and disappearing into thin air. It worked, but was unpopular. Dowding had devised the system, but it was the individual squadron leaders who carried it out. It takes a selfless leader to delegate such responsibility, and few of Dowding's colleagues shared his gift. The rival 'Big Wing' tactics were ineffective when tried, shooting down just a single German fighter in ten massive sorties, but it was popular with such charismatic fliers as Douglas Barder.

In November 1940 Dowding was ousted from the top of the RAF by the 'Big Winger' Leigh-Mallory. Leigh-Mallory was eventually to use his ideas in battle over occupied France, where the Germans shot his planes out of the sky at four times the rate they were downing Luftwaffe aircraft. Fortunately by this stage of the war it didn't really matter.


So with a favourable weather forecast and the RAF immolating itself with the wrong tactics, the German Army could well have set forth on the invasion of England. In May 1940 they had sent the British Expeditionary Force packing from Belgium, and morale would have been sky high. But the army that struggled ashore from its rickety barges would not have been the force that had overrun Poland and France, whilst the British Army it faced was not the bedraggled and demoralised one that had limped home from Dunkirk four months earlier.

Improvised armoured vehicles
Only a handful of tanks would have accompanied the invaders, whilst the defenders, under the command of possibly Britain's best General of the war, had assembled a small number of motorised brigades to oppose them. General Brooke only had a few tanks himself, but they would probably have been enough to at least hold the Germans. The invaders would also have found that Britain's renowned sense of fair play has temporarily gone on strike, and there were plans to set fire to the sea, carry out sabotage in the German's rear areas and even drop mustard gas on the Germans. Unless reinforcements could be brought up quickly, the Germans would have been unlikely to have captured more than a few square miles of England.

The Home Fleet
Whether or not the second wave would have made it would depend on the Royal Navy. The Navy was aware of the danger, and had been recalling cruisers and destroyers from all over the world. Later experience in the Pacific would suggest that warships could be defeated by air power, but at this stage of the war that might not be true. The Luftwaffe had very little experience of attacking ships and if the worst came to the worst the Royal Navy would have brought out its Battleships - and the Germans simply didn't have a bomb big enough to destroy a Battleship. Maybe if their own Battleships the Tirpitz and the Bismark, or the aircraft carrier Graf Zeppelin, had been finished they might have had a chance, but as things stood in September 1940, they didn't.

All this though assumes though that Britain still wanted to fight. The crucial decisions were made in a series of War Cabinet meetings held between 25th and 28th May 1940. The French Army was collapsing and the Royal Navy were desperately trying to evacuate the BEF from Dunkirk. Things looked grim.

Churchill (left) and Hastings (right)
The War Cabinet consisted of Churchill, the affable Tory Peer Lord Halifax, former Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, and the Labour men Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood. Later in the war Cabinet meetings would become mere formalities as nobody would dare challenge Churchill, but only two weeks into the job, Winston did not at this time have the authority he later earned.

Churchill wanted to fight on regardless, Halifax meanwhile wanted to open negotiations using the Italians as intermediaries, something that Churchill thought would destroy the countries fragile morale when the news inevitably leaked out. Attlee favoured Churchill's position, whilst Greenwood appears to have been on the fence, but in any event the Labour men would probably have been unwilling to challenge the Conservatives at this point in the Coalition Government. The balance was therefore held by Chamberlain.

History has not been kind to Neville Chamberlain. He was not a great Prime Minister, but neither was he all that bad. A One Nation Tory more interested in reform at home than war abroad, he was the wrong man for the job in such troubled times. He usually gets the blame for Munich, but in 1938 the Opposition, and the country as a whole, were not ready to fight. He also appeased the fascists in the Spanish Civil War, but Churchill was right behind him on that one. In 1940 though, despite his instincts for peace, he came down on the side of war. Bolstered by a favourable report from the Navy he backed Churchill and Britain fought on.

Top men; Churchill and Chamberlain
But what if the people present at those fateful meetings had been sat in different seats? Perhaps here we have nearest to a possible alliterative history.

Wind the clock back a fortnight to another meeting at Westminster, this time between Chamberlain, Halifax, Churchill and Chief Whip David Margesson. Margesson has just told Chamberlain that Attlee will not enter a coalition whilst he is Prime Minister. Chamberlain then bluntly turned to Halifax and Churchill and asked who should succeed him. There then followed a very long pause indeed before Halifax ruled himself out.

Had he not done so he would probably have become Prime Minister. He was most likely Chamberlain's preferred choice. Churchill, although he had been right about Hitler, had been responsible for the disaster of Gallipoli in the First World War and Narvik in this one. A maverick and a rebel, who annoyed the Conservatives by joining the Liberals and had wound up the Trade Unions by using armoured cars during General Strike, he was hardly the ideal choice to lead a Government of National Unity.

Whilst Churchill had been turing up in the House of Commons drunk to defend the pro-Nazi King Edward VIII and railing against "the twin dangers of Hitler and Ghandi", Halifax meanwhile had been Governor of India, where he had actually released the Mahatma from jail and invited him to private talks. Politically they were chalk and cheese.

Churchill would have continued to serve under Halifax, but as the latter was one of the architects of Appeasement there is little doubt what Prime Minister Halifax would have done on 25th May. Britain would have made peace and Germany would have given terms that Halifax could not refuse.

There would not have been a Battle of Britain and no need for an Operation Sea Lion but there would also have been no D Day. It's difficult to say who would have won the war, but the result would be that either Hitler or Stalin would have become master of the whole of Europe.

There would probably have still been a Cold War between a totalitarian Europe and a democratic America, but without British nuclear physicists there may not have been a Manhattan Project. The first atomic bomb might have been built by Heissenberg or Kurchatov and fitted to one of Wernher von Braun's rockets - the man almost certainly having no qualms about serving whoever would let him play with his dangerous toys.

And so history turned. Churchill, the warmonger, became the hero and Halifax, the peacemaker, was forgotten. Britain fought on, Brooke's soldiers and the Royal Navy waited for an enemy that never came, the RAF won the Battle of Britain and whilst the weather remained calm, the German barges stayed in port. Hitler turned East and the rest is history. Real history.

Bibliography
Operation Sea Lion Richard Cox
Fateful Choices Ian Kershaw
More What If? Robert Cowley (editor)