Britain Under Siege

This 1942 map of German-occupied Europe (with Allied countries in red and German-controlled-or-influenced countries in blue) dramatically depicts how isolated Britain was in the early years of World War II and how perilously close to its shores the Nazi threat had come.

Occupied Europe Map

When war was officially declared in September 1939, the conflict in Europe still seemed reassuringly far away to the British. At first, only eastern Europe was involved. In 1938, Germany had begun its occupation of Czechoslovakia, which was split into two sections and renamed Bohemia/Moravia and Slovakia. Then the Nazis conquered Poland, a chunk of which was absorbed into the German Empire and another chunk, called the General Government, put under German control.

It wasn’t until April 1940, when the Nazis swallowed up Norway and Denmark, that the German peril drew frighteningly nearer. Facing the UK across the North Sea, occupied Norway was a particular threat, since it provided Germany with a gateway to the North Atlantic. A month later, the danger became even more palpable when Hitler launched his blitzkrieg through western Europe, vanquishing Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and France. Within a matter of weeks, the UK was surrounded by a gauntlet of enemy submarines, warships and aircraft, most of them based in Norway and northern France, just a few dozen miles away from the UK across the English Channel.

When Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, the British found themselves with a new if reluctant ally. But Hitler’s onslaught against the Soviets didn’t appreciably diminish the threat of British defeat, particularly since the Germans, at least in the beginning, overran Soviet territory as swiftly as they had done in Poland and western Europe.

Five countries in western Europe (colored white on the map) were neutral — Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Sweden, and Ireland. During the war’s early years, when the Nazi advance seemed unstoppable, their governments tended to align themselves with German interests. During that period, the British were worried that Spain and Portugal might actually become allies of Germany, a situation that would have posed a major threat to the crucial British fortress at Gibraltar.

Winston Churchill was also greatly upset with Ireland, which would not allow Britain to use its ports to conduct operations against German submarines. At one point, Churchill ordered the British navy to draw up plans for the seizure of several Irish coastal towns, so that their harbors could be used for British naval bases — an operation that was never carried out.

Yet, at the same time, several of the neutral nations proved to be of great benefit to Britain and the exiled Europeans based in London during the war. Spain and Switzerland, for example, were used by the British government as avenues for the smuggling of agents and others into and out of occupied territory. Throughout the war, thousands of British, American and other Allied servicemen, most of them downed aircrews, were spirited out of Belgium, the Netherlands and France over the Pyrenees Mountains and into Spain, where they were returned to Britain and freedom.