Between 1939 and 1945 the British people had their second experience of total war. There were certain parallels with the First World War: all the military sinews were stretched to their fullest extent; effective political leadership emerged from unpromising beginnings; and there was an extensive, although varied economic and social impact.
There is no space in this section for a detailed account of Britain's military involvement. Instead, the theme which will be explored is the weakness of Britain in continental terms, contrasted with her strength on the periphery of Europe, at sea and in the air.
Britain's role during the First World War had, from the outset, been both continental and peripheral. This was because the German invasion in August was contained by the French and British armies, so that the conflict was sustained throughout the war in the trenches of the western front. During the Second World War, the opposite occurred. This time the Germans bypassed the Maginot Line, constructed between the wars for the defence of France, and punched a hole through the supposedly impenetrable Ardennes before racing to the Channel ports. The French armies were rapidly defeated and the British government took the decision to withdraw 325,000 troops-British and French-from Dunkirk. Although there has been an extensive debate on whether this decision was appropriate, R. Lamb sees the withdrawal from Dunkirk as a realistic assessment of what was needed.
Churchill appreciated correctly how poor the French army was in 1940 compared to its predecessor in 1918, and without hesitation