The Peril of Invasion
by The Editor
In this, the 75th anniversary year of the Battle of Britain, and 210 years after the Battle of Trafalgar, Stuart Millson asks: is our country still in peril?
There is a famous military painting from 1804 depicting the French channel port of Boulogne, on a day during an inspection visit by the Emperor Napoleon who, at this time, seemed poised for an invasion of England. The foreground of the painting shows the Emperor and his entourage, with local people raising their hats and cheering – whilst the background is one of an array of masts in the harbour and a line of warships at sea.
At about the same time on the other side of the Channel, an illustration (actually, an engraving – unsigned) was causing a degree of panic – the artist’s imagination running wild as French invasion barges, supported by an air armada of hot-air balloons massed against the English coast. However, what is particularly notable about this panorama is the depiction of French infantry and artillery marching with ease through a Channel tunnel; a devilish subterranean passage offering the invader a sealed, protected route to the very heart of England.
One wonders what the early-19th-century British subject, clambering aboard a time machine, would make of that engineering wonder made real: today’s Channel Tunnel, through which high-speed express and car-trains run, making the crossing of the sea to continental Europe a mere half-an-hour commute. Travelling via the “Chunnel”, however, is not quite as simple as it may seem… If, for example, you are a British citizen taking your car across to France for the day, you have to make a formal booking – ensuring that you keep your booking number available in order to pass through the barriers at Folkestone.
A number of Tunnel staff (in high-visibility jackets) are on hand to wave you into line, and then the passenger has to pass through the UK’s Border Agency post – the officers checking your passport details, and then allowing you to proceed to the train. And at the point of embarkation, another official is on hand to make sure that you are safely aboard, in the right carriage and in the right space. How strange, therefore, that we witness the almost daily spectacle of hundreds of people from the Calais side (without a booking number or valid documentation) simply clambering aboard Channel Tunnel trains, heading to Britain – and (inevitably) claiming asylum. The system and the rules of passage clearly do not apply equally to everyone.
It is, perhaps, reassuring that the Channel Tunnel was not completed in the August of 1939 – opened to great acclaim by the then Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain! A month later, and we were (again) at war with Germany – the Tunnel possibly enabling an invasion force to avoid the bad weather associated with Operation Sea Lion (the code-name of the Wehrmacht’s invasion plan). Had the structure existed then, it is likely that the Battle of Britain would have been a battle fought at tunnel entrances, with hand-to-hand fighting in the town of Folkestone – although one would hope that the British Government had the sense to block the entrance with as much concrete or high-explosive, or both, as possible.
Of course, the fault is not with the Channel Tunnel, or with any other man-made structure – including our airports. The fault is with politicians and governments who fail to protect such facilities properly, or use them for the benefit of the country. As we survey the chaotic situation at our borders today, I am reminded of the immortal words uttered by John of Gaunt in Shakespeare’s Richard ll:
‘This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.’
Stuart Millson is a freelance writer based in Kent.