World War Two: 1939 to 1940

195 TUTOR: Robin Brodhurst

This is the first in a series of courses looking at the Second World War 80 years on. The structure of sessions will consist of a lecture, followed by a discussion based on an up-to-date bibliography. The course aims to look at the causes of the war, the various campaigns in the opening 12 months and political changes during this period. One central theme will be the creation of myths that have become central to our historical beliefs, such as Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. You will try to see what really happened, as opposed to what many people think must have happened. This course is open to all and provides a natural follow-on from David Du Croz's previous examinations of the First World War years.

3 PM
PM course

Course Notes

This course will focus on the initial twelve months of the Second World War. It will start with an examination of the immediate cause of the war, including the policies of rearmament in both Britain and Germany, and appeasement and its failure. It will then study the Poland campaign and the Phoney war, examining why the Allies did nothing to help the Poles. The campaign in the West in 1940 started with the German attack on Denmark and Norway and nearly led to the British going to war against the Soviet Union. The catastrophic management of that campaign led to the fall of the Chamberlain government and the unlikely choice of Churchill as Prime Minister on the day that the Germans struck against France, Holland and Belgium. That equally disastrous campaign led to the evacuation of Dunkirk, the first of a series of myths, which have become central to our national story, and will be one of the themes of this course.

A second myth is the Battle of Britain, with the "few” saving the "many”. Yes, Fighter Command did a wonderful job, but the Royal Navy had a hand in stopping an invasion too! It's also true to say that Fighter Command was bitterly divided over the correct tactics to be employed. We shall try to get to the truth! Similarly, it is important to grasp that the Royal Navy began its war very early and fought the Battle of the Atlantic right through until 1945. We will look at the use of Intelligence, the Ultra secret and the beginnings of Bletchley Park's work.

A third myth is the Blitz and the development of "The Blitz Spirit”, much encouraged by Churchill. We will examine what actually did happen, and how morale was maintained, contrasting that with the RAF's attempts to bomb Germany. We will conclude by looking at the diplomatic picture as 1940 drew to a close as Britain faced the world alone, although of course that is another myth, as she was supported by a large Empire around the world.


James Holland The War in the West: A New History. Volume 1: Germany Ascendant, 1939-41. Penguin 2015

The Battle of Britain: Five months that changed History, May-October 1940, Bantam, 2010.

Angus Calder The Myth of the Blitz, Jonathan Cape, 1991.

Brian Bond (ed.) The Battle for France and Flanders, Sixty Years On, Pen & Sword, 2001.

John Kiszley Anatomy of a Campaign: The British Fiasco in Norway, 1940. CUP, 2017.

John Keegan The Battle for History: Re-fighting World War Two, Hutchinson 1995.

Nicholas Harmon Dunkirk: The Necessary Myth, Hodder & Stoughton, 1980.

Nicholas Shakespeare Six Minutes in May. How Churchill Unexpectedly Became Prime Minister, Harvill Secker, 2017.

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All courses run for 5 days

WK 1 11 Jul - 15 Jul

WK 2 18 Jul - 22 Jul

WK 3 25 Jul - 29 Jul

WK 4 1 Aug - 5 Aug

Morning Courses

9.15AM to 12.15PM

Afternoon Courses

1.45PM to 4.30PM

All Day Courses

9.15AM to 4.30PM