When Hitler Invaded Britain

Sunday, July 4, 2004 by

23 years after he hung up Kessler’s jackboots for good, the magnificent Clifford Rose returned to the role of a German World War II officer in this odd contribution to the current vogue for all things war from ITV1. Following the numerous programmes celebrating D-Day, the war in Iraq and abundant SAS-style shows comes a semi-fictitious docudrama covering Hitler’s plans for Operation Sea Lion, or, to give it a more familiar name, the invasion of Britain.

Judging from the title of the programme, it would not be unreasonable for the viewer to expect to see a fabricated account of what would have happened if Britain really had been invaded by Germany, rather than what we did get. For the first hour or so, what is depicted is a notional history of the planning for the invasion with only the last five minutes showing a few brief scenes of swastika flags flying from Buckingham Palace and British civilians being shot by stormtroopers. Told through personal accounts of people affected by the “invasion” from both sides, the story begins with the attack on the Netherlands by German forces on 10 May, 1940 and builds up to “S-Day” which we are told was planned for 15 September of the same year. The Germans planned to make their assault via Romney Marsh and Rye on the south coast of England, and the shots in the German war rooms showing the maps of the south coast immediately brings to mind the opening titles of Dad’s Army.

The programme is certainly very well made, but the indication from the title is that a Fatherland-style scenario is going to unfold. It doesn’t. It would have made a much more interesting drama had the story been about what took place after the invasion. Rather than spending most of the screen time dealing with the preparation for it, occupation would have been a much more appealing subject to cover. Much of what is told to the viewer in Charles Dance’s sombre narration is purely historical fact that most people will already be familiar with. It would have been more attention-grabbing had the story focused on what everyday life for ordinary people would have been like under the rule of the Germans. How would people have coped? Would things have been like they were on the Channel Islands on the mainland? How would the resistance have worked? None of these issues are posed, and it seems like a missed opportunity to cover a subject that has never really been exploited to the full, other than in books.

The aforementioned Rose plays Admiral Erich Raeder, and looks barely a day older than he did when playing Kessler in the 1981 series of the same name. Unfortunately, he appears in only a couple of brief scenes and does not get the chance to really show off his acting talents. Real historical figures appear in the programme as well: General Sir Edmund Ironside, General Alan Brooke, Ambassador Joseph Kennedy and the novelist Margery Allingham are all brought to life by actors in short scenes in which they relate their experiences of the events in 1940. The most chilling of these is that of Benedict Taylor’s ruthless Reinhard Heydrich. Had he lived, the programme indicates that Heydrich would have been the person in charge of organising the occupation of Britain. He would have employed many of the tactics he did elsewhere in Europe, and we see him coldly dictating plans to close down British institutions, plunder art and other treasures, take and murder hostages and suppress any opposition through brutal tactics. The British too, we are informed, would not have been averse to employing illegal tactics with General Brooke preparing to authorise the use of banned mustard gas against the invading force as they made their assault.

Following the historical events that actually happened, writer and director Steven Clarke speculates that on 15 September there would have been a massive air battle above the skies of southern England, and the Buckingham Palace and the Cabinet War Bunker would have been hit, with Churchill being killed as a result. One part of the drama that works quite well is when we hear the BBC announcer informing the public via a radio broadcast that the British government has surrendered to the invading forces. Had such an declaration ever really have been made, it would undoubtedly have become as familiar as Neville Chamberlain’s announcement to the nation prior to the commencement of the war.

Towards the end of the programme, after we have seen the few brief scenes of the German army in London, the tone suddenly changes and everything is back to normal, with more real history being related to the audience. The bubble of fiction is burst and it all feels a little like a Dallas-style “it was all a dream” scenario in the end. Combining genuine archive footage, CGI battle scenes, dramatised radio broadcasts and straight-to-camera addresses from the actors, When Hitler Invaded Britain is a top idea for a programme (albeit not a particularly original one), but lets itself down by not dealing fully with the subject suggested by its title.


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