The island fortress fallacy

Across the millennia, Britain's landscape, psyche and genetic makeup have been irrevocably altered by the threat, and the reality, of invasions. Sam Willis and David Coward investigate...

A British soldier uses a searchlight to spot German aircraft during the Second World War. Britain has lived with the fear of invasion for several centuries, a fact reflected in its architecture, its art and its people’s mental health. (Photo by David Savill/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the Christmas 2017 issue of BBC History Magazin

Imagine fearful eyes looking skywards, anxiously scanning the horizon for airborne invaders come to bring death and destruction to Britain. This is a scenario we tend to associate with 1940, when invasion fever anticipated skies heavy with Luftwaffe transport aircraft spewing out paratroops, or 1917, when Zeppelins and Gotha bombers launched modest yet deadly air raids over Britain. But it could also apply to 1803. For across the English Channel, Napoleon’s enormous Armée d’Angleterre was camped around Boulogne, poised to invade Britain. Rumours, even fanciful illustrations, of a balloon fleet carrying French troops over the Channel ran rife.

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