Book review: If Hitler Comes By Gordon Barclay

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As German troops swept through Europe in 1940, it was reasonable to expect that the United Kingdom would be their next target. The main base of the British Home Fleet in Scapa Flow was, after all, only two hours’ flying time from Stavanger and the Nazi army was in Norway. Intelligence suggested that an invasion had already been planned.

If Hitler Comes By Gordon Barclay

Birlinn, 318pp, £20

Historians now believe that Hitler had no plans to invade this country but that hints of an invasion were an attempt to bring Britain to the negotiating table. Hitler was much more interested in the European mainland and might have traded that for leaving the British to their Empire.

It is easy to ridicule the elaborate measures to resist an invasion that never happened but that is hindsight. If the German forces had gained a foothold in this country, possibly in the far north of Scotland, it would have been a severe blow to morale and the US would almost certainly not have entered the war.

In 1940 and 1941, therefore, Britain was right to look to her defences, Gordon Barclay, formerly a Principal Inspector and Head of Policy at Historic Scotland, has produced a detailed account of the plans to fight off an invading army north of the Border. His book is an important contribution to military history.

Barclay is refreshing about his sources, confessing that “As an archaeologist I have a distrust of secondary sources.” He overcomes this problem by being diligent about recording his own research.

He also dismisses oral history. The contemporary and later accounts of “the lower end of the chain of command overemphasise apparent chaos, individual stupidity and inefficiency” although he does agree that the response to the threatened invasion did feature a measure of incompetence. The top brass involved in planning Scotland’s defences, he notes, “cannot avoid being at best centred on the self’”.

At the time, it seemed that the 181,000 troops and 169,000 Home Guard in Scotland should be enough to repel invaders but many of the soldiers were shaken by their retreat from Dunkirk There were so few military vehicles that buses and delivery vans were requisitioned. In May 1940, the Scottish Command was given the equivalent of £5 million for anti-invasion defences.

The problem was not only the external enemy. Some citizens said privately that they might be better off under the Germans as they were short of food. It was assumed that there would be an active fifth column to assist an invasion. There had been many highly placed supporters of Hitler’s government during the pre-war years and they might retain sympathies for a National Socialist style of government. Among these was the MP for Montrose who was supported by the Montrose Standard and the sons of the Duke in opposing the war. A vigilante group was formed in Edinburgh as a “sixth column” to hunt down the fifth columnists but the police were unhappy about that.

The Home Guard played an important role but as some of its members became officious within their communities, they resembled their Dad’s Army image. One commander inflated their self-importance by telling them “You – the Home Guard – are my eyes. I rely on you to hold and delay the enemy sufficiently long for me to attack and destroy him”. In due course, detachments of the Polish Army arrived and made an important contribution to Scotland’s defences. Pioneer companies composed of elderly First World War veterans, refugees and men in exempted medical categories were also formed to assist in building defences.

The most likely targets were believed to be Orkney for Scapa Flow, the Firth of Forth because of the Rosyth base and the ease of a route to Glasgow and the Clyde and somewhere between Aberdeen and Dundee. The Canadian Forestry Corps defended crossings of the River Dee.

False alarms were not unknown. On 8 September 1940, for example, the church bells rang in Stonehaven to announce sightings of German soldiers.

The defences themselves included farm carts, scrap metal distributed across fields, ditches, posts hammered into open spaces including golf courses, barbed wire, road blocks and steel scaffolding, the latter being a misuse of a scarce resource. There is still evidence around our coastlines of the concrete blocks known as dragon’s teeth and of pillboxes, designed to be bullet proof.

Even though they were never put to the test, he is adamant that it would be a mistake to dismiss Scotland’s defences as an irrelevance. “The level of risk in 1940-41,” he points out, “was exaggerated by circumstances – prejudices, unpreparedness, misinformation – that the modern reader, with perfect hindsight, might find difficult to understand.” His book successfully clarifies both the extent of the threat to Scotland and the response to it.