What if? Building an alternate history
Last week I had dinner with a friend who asked me a “what if?” question that set me thinking about building an alternate history for a game and a story. We were talking about SOE in the spring and summer of 1944. The period is rich in possibilities and decisions for players on a game. However there’s an awful lot of hindsight getting in the way of being able to properly game the period.
The Problem with Hindsight
The invasion is inevitable, and even when previous games have given the allies latitude over where and when the German players don’t act the way the Germans did. It’s impossible to create the same uncertainty in the German High Command because modern people know about the strategic deception, and they know the allies only had enough troops for one landing. So nothing gets kept in reserve because the Germans know the allies must be swiftly attacked to drive them into the sea before they can establish themselves.
What if we don’t follow history?
The lightbulb came from Rob, he asked if I’d thought about a disguised scenario, an alternate history? I hadn’t even begun to think of that, although I’ve read some good ones (SS-GB and Dominion to name two). With an alternate history I could take the situation in France in 1944 and translate it into an occupied UK. That’d give the Axis side a real uncertainty about what the Allied intentions might be. It’d also allow me to change and fudge other factors to make the game more interesting.
So what if the UK was occupied? How could that have happened? I believe that Operation Sealion would never have worked. So there has to be another reason why Britain would be occupied by the Germans. Rob’s other bit of advice was that I’d need a convincing back story for it to help people see it credibly.
Making my What if credible
I spent a few train journeys to and from work thinking about my what if, and it’s point of departure from history. The best change I could think of was the same departure point C.J. Sansom used in Dominion. That is, Lord Halifax succeeds Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister in May 1940.
The significance of this as a departure point is the different stance Halifax had from Churchill. Halifax was a diplomat, and he had a strong desire not to see another war like the Great War. So a British government under Halifax would be very likely to seek a peace when France falls.
The 1940 General Election
The next factor is who succeeds Halifax. Britain was due a general election in the Autumn of 1940. This got postponed until 1945 because of the war. If a peace had been signed, or at least was in the process of being signed, then there would be no cause to postpone the 1940 General Election.
So who would have won this General Election? I’m pretty sure it would have been inconclusive, and hotly fought over. Some of the big papers might have supported peace candidates, including those advocating alliance with Germany.
Either way I’m suggesting that this would have spilled out into political violence, some of it stirred up by Nazi sympathisers and some from the anti-fascist groups. Like Cable Street but writ larger.
This, combined with German diplomatic pressure, and terms of a peace agreement to pay reparations might lead to fascists and sympathisers in the Cabinet. It might also lead to arrests of anti-fascist activists using the emergency powers that were used to lock up the BUF in our timeline.
Consequences of British Defeat
Before the war Britain is the world’s superpower. It has a global empire with hundreds of millions of people. No other nation is as large or as powerful. But there are cracks in the Empire. Several colonies have nascent independence movements, most notably in India and the Jews in Palestine. Others are there, or will bubble up if Britain begins to look weak.
This is a problem for both the British and the Nazis. On one hand the Nazis will expect Britain to demobilise, yet they’ll see the need to maintain the Empire. It’ll probably manifest as reinforcements for the colonies to keep a lid on the civil unrest. This will be combined with demobilisation of troops in the UK, especially armoured and artillery units that are less useful for colonial policing. There probably wouldn’t be enough demobilisation to completely stop conscription, but there might be more exemptions and deferrals. This will lead to only the poorer and less educated folk serving.
If the political violence gets out of hand I don’t expect that the army will be keen on suppressing it. It would look like taking sides, something the army has avoided since the 17th century.
So that leads to the police needing more special constables to help with public order. Enter here the BUF Blackshirts and their friends. More repression and arrests of anti-fascists. After a bit this has the effect of driving down support for other parties and making it easier for the BUF and sympathisers to campaign. So they’ll win the next election, which will also be rigged.
This takes us into a government that can ask the Germans for military assistance to crack down on civil disorder and a mutiny in the British Army when inevitably a unit refuses to provide military assistance to the civil power.
Move from that to a full on occupation of the Southern part of the UK, giving a parallel to Northern France’s occupation.
Building an Alternate History
The first step was acquiring a good background on the actual history. Fortunately I’ve got about thirty years of having WW2 as my most read about period of history.
The second step was to look at the decision points, like Chamberlain stepping aside and the options and see what could tip the balance the right way for the outcome in mind. The trick was to be able to explain these as plausible rational outcomes. I think I just about managed that. Once I had done that I thought about the logical consequences of that outcome and where the next decision points would come.
The last thing was to look at the overall timeline and see what was independent of those decisions. For example the Germans had already planned and decided to launch their attack in the West. So the Battle of France would probably play out exactly the way it did historically.
The next key decision after that is what to do when France falls. Churchill kept us reinforcing the British Army in France, and was instrumental in pushing for continued resistance. Halifax wouldn’t have done that, he’d have looked for a ceasefire around the end of May when the outcome became clear. The French would most likely have jumped on this too to avoid Paris being captured.