Photo by Universal History Archive
Artillery Row

Invisible hand

Did peace prevail in the World Wars thanks to providential deliverance, or just a number of very fortunate occurrences?

There were key turning points in the First and Second World Wars when Britain was saved from military disaster, and in some cases from national catastrophe, in circumstances that defied probabilities. There were sudden changes in the weather, inexplicable mistakes by the enemy and other extraordinary events. To understand these turning points it helps to know about the context of the events. How likely were the eventual outcomes given all the surrounding circumstances? Was there providential deliverance together with answers to prayer, or just a number of very fortunate occurrences?

Germany could have won the First World War in 1914 and in the Spring of 1918 when it had had overwhelming force to do so. In 1918 there had been cuts to the British forces in France (though this was denied at the time) after Prime Minister Lloyd George had lost confidence in Douglas Haig, the British Commander in Chief. French forces had mutinied, and the Germans had fresh divisions released from the Eastern front after the defeat of Russia. Fortunately, the German Generals failed to concentrate their forces, and British morale held up when it could have easily collapsed. 

But for the weather, the fall of France and the Battle of Britain could have taken place in 1939, when Britain’s air defences were much weaker than they were in the Battle of Britain in 1940. Alan Brooke, later the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, wrote: “What might have happened if the Germans had attacked before the winter [of 1939] makes me shudder to think.” 

It seemed certain that the BEF would be encircled and destroyed

Before the evacuation at Dunkirk in 1940, Brooke, then commanding II Corps of the British Expeditionary Force (the British army in France), wrote in his diary on the evening of the 23rd May: “Nothing but a miracle can save the BEF now and the end cannot be far off.” It seemed certain that the BEF would be encircled by the German armies and destroyed. After the National Day of Prayer called by King George VI for Sunday 26 May, 338,000 British and French troops were evacuated by naval and civilian craft. There were both natural and extraordinary circumstances. The C in C of the BEF Lord Gort refused to agree to the War Cabinet plan to break out to the south and unilaterally decided to evacuate. Generals Brooke and Montgomery stopped the BEF from being cut off from the coast in the north-east. The French held out at Lille and the British and French defended Calais, possibly gaining four extra days for the evacuation. There were sorties by the hard-pressed RAF and, during the retreat and on the Dunkirk perimeter, British and French troops fought on in hopeless positions long enough to delay the enemy, though they knew there was little chance of survival.

But there were other circumstances beyond the range of Allied action without which the evacuation would not have happened. There was the grounding of the Luftwaffe by bad weather as the troops headed for Dunkirk. There was the “halt order” given to the Panzers which the German commanders on the ground could not understand. And there was the calm sea in the Channel that enabled the “small boats” to rescue men from the shore. Later, Churchill commented that if the Germans had invaded immediately afterwards, “There would have been a terrible shambles, because we hardly had a weapon”, these having been left behind in France.

There was a silent minute in the BBC broadcasts

In the wartime generations of the First and Second World War, there was widespread acceptance of the Christian worldview. Callum Brown wrote in his book The Death of Christian Britain: “… what made Britain a Christian nation before 1950 was not the minority with a strong faith, but the majority with some faith.” From November 1940 through the war (and until the mid-fifties) there was a silent minute in the BBC broadcasts at 9pm every day following the chimes of Big Ben. Listeners were asked to “unite in meditation, prayer or focus (each according to their own belief) and consciously will for peace to prevail”. National Days of Prayer were called by the sovereign (nine in the Second World War) and there was concerted private prayer, such as at the Bible College of Wales. 

Many commanders in the Second World War were practising Christians or acknowledged divine providence. They include Alan Brooke (the Chief of the Imperial General Staff), Generals (later Field Marshals) Montgomery and Alexander, Air Vice Marshall Park and Air Chief Marshal Dowding (the key commanders in the Battle of Britain), Admiral Cunningham (who commanded the British Mediterranean Fleet), US General Eisenhower and General Morgan, the chief planner of D-Day. 

There were a number of extraordinary Christians might say miraculous escapes and successes in both World Wars. With or without a faith perspective, it is valuable to understand how the wartime generations, whom we still honour today, interpreted these events in their time.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover