The Battle of Romford: Churchill’s nightmare WWI vision
We remember Winston Churchill as the grand old war leader of 1940.
But he began in his long career as a bold young politician, asking questions others did not want to answer.
In 1913, Churchill was Britain’s navy minister. As he had also served as an army officer, he fancied himself as a strategist.
If war broke out, Britain had pledged to send our small army to France. The French were outnumbered by the Germans, and they needed British troops to hold their left flank.
But, asked Churchill, suppose the Germans struck without warning?
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His paper, “Time Table of a Nightmare”, sketched a scary scenario.
On April 1 1913 (and this was no April Fool’s joke), Germany suddenly attacked France. Plans to despatch the British Army cross-Channel swung into action.
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But that afternoon, German cruisers captured Harwich. Most of the Royal Navy was training off southern Ireland, leaving the Essex coast open to a small German force.
Zeppelin raids on Chatham stopped the nearest British warships from sailing to Harwich.
With millions in their armies, the Germans could easily spare the 50,000 men they landed at Harwich.
Our navy chased the German ships from Harwich late on April 3, but with heavy losses.
On the fourth, the German soldiers began to move inland. Next day, they seized Colchester.
Most of our trained soldiers were on their way to France. 6,000 regulars backed by 65,000 territorials were routed defending Chelmsford on April 6.
There were riots in London on the 7, as people attacked trains to stop troops leaving for France.
On April 8, the German front line ran from Ongar to Billericay. Next day the government resigned, and the new prime minister promised to “save London”.
But the French refused to send back the troops already in France. All remaining British forces were concentrated on defending the capital.
On the ninth, the German advance guard entered Romford, springboard for a thrust to capture Woolwich Arsenal. (Churchill seems to have forgotten the Thames!)
But late on April 10, the German advance was halted on a front line from Dagenham to Tottenham.
Outflanking the invaders, British troops counterattacked in the rear from Romford. Street fighting was vicious.
Meanwhile German warships rampaged in the North Sea, while the British Army in France was too weak to stop the Germans breaking through and attacking Paris.
On April 19, the German commander at Romford offered to surrender if promised free passage out of England.
He threatened to shoot 10,000 prisoners if his terms were refused. They were accepted.
Britain’s most senior admiral sniffily dismissed Churchill’s fantasy as “sensational” and “alarmist”.
But if the Kaiser had decided to gamble 50,000 men from his vast armies, the First World War might have begun with the Battle of Romford. And modern-day Havering would certainly look very different.