Always on the frontline but rarely actually threatened

A tank in Findon in 1940.
A tank in Findon in 1940.

Its coastal location has always put Sussex in the frontline when it comes to conflict, but only rarely has it actually been threatened.

Not even the Battle Of Britain was the turning point most people would claim it to be, argues military historian John Grehan.

John, who lives in Shoreham, is co-author with Storrington’s Martin Mace of Battleground Sussex: A Military History Of Sussex From The Iron Age To The Present Day (Pen & Sword Books Limited, £19.99, ISBN: 9781848846616).

It’s a book in which Sussex’ contribution to World War Two is explored in depth - but the conclusions may well surprise.

Sussex has invariably been the frontline: “That’s been the case right through history,” John says. “The geography does not change.”

But he argues that there was never the remotest possibility of the Germans invading Britain, even if the Battle of Britain had gone Germany’s way. John believes the Germans simply didn’t have the weaponry; and a German invasion fleet simply wouldn’t have got past the British Navy.

“The Battle of Britain was a non-event,” John argues. “Its significance was that it managed to rally the country behind a common goal and a common enemy.”

Its significance, however, was not military.

“You have to remember that apart from Churchill and a very few people, nobody wanted war. They had had a war 20 years before that had wiped out a generation. People wanted peace. People think that Chamberlain was weak-kneed and gave in to Hitler. But it was what people wanted.

“When war was declared and Britain was in danger of being invaded, then at last the nation pulled together and could stand behind the leader. The significance of the Battle of Britain was that the threat of invasion, which would never have happened, actually united the country.”

A far greater threat came during Napoleonic times: “Napoleon was gathering his force over at Boulogne. In those days, the wind was everything at sea. If the conditions had been right there was no reason why the French could not have sailed Napoleon’s forces across. There were fears that the French were going to dig a tunnel under the Channel or that they would send masses of balloons across to drop troops.”

But in truth the Channel has always been such a deterrent, John says. And in addition, Sussex has generally been prepared: “If you look along the coast, you can see the towers, the forts built by Henry VIII. You see all the castles built during the medieval period. We have always been well prepared, which has also had a deterrent effect.”

Battleground Sussex covers the complete history of Sussex from the Iron age to the present day, telling the story of one county from the earliest days of recorded history through to the dark days of the Second World War.

This book traces the various conflicts and military influences that have helped shape Sussex and its people. The detail takes you back in time with the conquerors, warriors and statesmen, alongside the struggles and sacrifices of the ordinary folk who have populated and defended the region throughout the ages, from the days of Celts, Romans and Saxons, to the Battle of Hastings; from the dawn of democracy to the English Civil War; from Napoleon to Hitler.