This is England in November 1941 – the Germans have invaded and for us, the war is over. Against this bloody backdrop of executions, murder and cruelty life for the British people will never be the same again. If you have wondered what would have happened if we had lost the war then the answers can be seen in a thought-provoking five-part series on BBC One next week based on Len Deighton’s novel SS-GB.
It is fiction, of course. We can never know what might have happened if our brave pilots had not won the Battle of Britain, allowing Hitler’s invasion plans to go ahead unhindered. But Deighton’s meticulous research produced a scenario that was more than just speculation.
Secret wartime papers released more than 70 years after the war have revealed how accurate is his vision of Britain under the Nazi jackboot. When the BBC adaptation of his book opens London is a cowering satellite of Berlin run from Whitehall by the SS.
An image from the BBC SS-GB wherein Britain has lost the war and Nazi troops have overrun London
Princess Elizabeth and sister Margaret address the nation in 1940
Against this bloody backdrop of executions, murder and cruelty life for the British people will never be the same again
In 1940 the Luftwaffe had destroyed our air cover then blitzed our cities and the Channel was unguarded as Hitler’s storm troopers crossed to the White Cliffs of Dover. The Germans landed paratroopers near Ashford in Kent and soon Canterbury, with its symbolic cathedral, was declared a German city.
Across Norfolk, Dutch farm workers who had been evacuated from Holland were secretly working for the Germans, laying out hidden airfields on 2,000 acres of flat farmland around the Royal estate in Sandringham.
By cutting corn and ploughing fields in the shape of the swastika – even chicken coops were laid out that way – they created landing sites which could only be seen from the air. The Germans took full advantage and landed hundreds of gliders containing troops. Now a pincer movement on London began from Kent and East Anglia.
Adolf Hitler goes over a plan of attack with his generals
The German advance from Kent soon captured London but a spirited rearguard action around the Army garrison town of Colchester slowed the invaders long enough to enable a handful of Navy ships to escape from Harwich, taking with them Princess Elizabeth, then 14, her 10-year-old sister Margaret, and their mother. After a gruelling sea journey they went into exile in New Zealand.
As soon as the Nazis took control of London, after a bloody shoot-out with the Home Guard, King George VI and Winston Churchill were taken prisoner and British Forces were ordered to surrender. The King was thrown in the Tower of London where the propaganda turncoat Lord Haw-Haw mocked him in his nightly radio broadcasts to occupied Britain.
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Within days Churchill was flown to Berlin where he was tried by court martial for “war crimes” and was executed by firing squad. The Germans made sure the picture of the Prime Minister’s death was printed on the front page of every British newspaper.
BAFTA Award-winning Sam Riley is one of the leading castmembers
Politicians, professors, businessmen and celebrities who featured on a 104-page list of undesirables were rounded up and jailed – they included Noel Coward, HG Wells and Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Scouts, which Hitler believed was a secret spying organisation.
While the Navy still briefly controlled Harwich, Britain’s gold and foreign reserves were shipped to Canada. The Duke of Windsor, despite being a Nazi sympathiser, feared for his life and escaped to the Bahamas.
Meanwhile Rear Admiral Connolly formed a British government in exile in Washington DC and declared himself leader of Free Britain but struggled to gain diplomatic recognition.
By now it was 1941 and Hitler held a victory parade in London with more than 100,000 soldiers marching under their Nazi banners. Hitler tore up his planned Operation Barbarossa, which would have meant war with the Soviet Union. Instead, Stalin was now an ally and the Soviet fleet was handed bases in Scotland at Rosyth, Scapa Flow and Invergordon.
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A milkman delivering milk in a London street devastated during a German bombing raid
The US too was sitting on the sidelines and two of Hitler’s closest henchmen, Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering and propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, were on board the first non-stop Lufthansa flight from New York. An alliance across the Atlantic was vital to Hitler because under President Franklin D Roosevelt America was producing two thirds of the world’s supply.
Fact or fiction? You may be surprised to learn how much of Deighton’s work is the truth, supported by our national wartime archives. Dutch farm workers were indeed setting up secret airstrips around the royal estate. Nine hidden airfields were spotted by the RAF, the Dutch traitors were arrested and the makeshift aerodromes destroyed.
The Germans really did have a detailed plan to land troops dressed in British Army uniforms to seize control of the vital port of Dover. The cunning ruse, which was copied in the Jack Higgins thriller The Eagle Has Landed, is revealed in a top-secret MI5 file. Dover was to be the focal point of the invasion but troops would have landed elsewhere along the south coast and in Scotland and Ireland.
Another MI5 file reveals that hundreds of British Nazi sympathisers were working for the Gestapo, passing on secrets. According to the file, many of these sympathisers had been recruited from Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists.
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One further fact: Churchill ordered the setting-up of a guerrilla movement that would attack the German forces from behind their own lines and in the summer of 1940 began to recruit 3,500 men to spearhead a resistance movement.
The volunteers, who knew they were on a suicide mission, used the cover of the Dad’s Army Home Guard and were trained in using explosives and taught to become assassins.
Finally Churchill had scorched-earth plans including using the deadly disease anthrax as a weapon. He had also decided to evacuate himself and the survivors of his government to Canada and the US.
Len Deighton, 87, wrote SS-GB in 1978 and it is considered his finest work. It is not known if he will watch the BBC One series, which stars Sam Riley and Kate Bosworth, from his home in the Channel Islands but he will appreciate the irony that where he now lives was the only part of the British Isles to have been occupied by the Germans.
SS-GB, BBC One, Sunday February 19, 9pm.