But Won't The Other Side Notice?

By David Flin

“So, if from 1933, Nazi Germany starts building up its surface fleet, with aircraft carriers, and building lots of landing craft. That means it will be able to carry out Operation Sealion.”

Anyone who has been involved in plausibility discussions about proposed alternate history timelines will recognise this sort of argument. There’s a problem preventing a change in our history, such as the Germans being plausibly able to carry out a successful invasion of Britain in September 1940. So, the author of the timeline changes something to eliminate that problem, and considers that an end to the matter. They often get quite upset when it’s pointed out that people might notice these preparations, and respond accordingly.

It’s one thing that makes plausible AH difficult to do well. Actions have consequences, and unless you’re writing with one side being constrained by terminal idiocy, these consequences can build up to create something quite unexpected. If you’re writing a timeline with an outcome that you haven’t decided upon, this isn’t a problem. It can be a problem if you’re trying to work towards a pre-determined outcome.

Let’s take the fictional example I’ve quoted above, trying to get Operation Sealion to work by increasing the naval muscle of the Kriegsmarine.

Let’s assume Germany embarks on an ambitious naval building plan, in excess even of that of Plan Z, and by some unexplained mechanism manages to do so without taking resources from other construction, and finds the necessary sailors. It’s likely that people might notice Germany launching ten battleships and four aircraft carriers, and Britain in particular might be concerned about this. We’ll also discount any problems Germany might have had in training pilots to operate from carriers.

It’s certainly the case that if Britain did nothing different in response to Germany’s massive naval construction programme, the German naval strength would be much closer to that of the RN. For that very reason, it’s highly unlikely that Britain would have acted as it did in OTL. There are many possible responses: increase the number of capital ships; increase the number of torpedo-carrying platforms (planes, torpedo boats, destroyers, submarines) which can be built much more quickly than capital ships; increase the strength of Coastal Command; increase the strength of the RN; make stronger alliances.

All of these, or others, are possible reactions. Inevitably, there will be a response to the response, and so on.

If you’re writing a timeline that doesn’t have a pre-determined outcome, this is not a problem. Actions have consequences, and they go wherever they might end up. Incidentally, if you don’t have an end-point in mind, decision-making is a lot closer to what the people at the time would have carried out. They would make decisions based on the information available, and without knowledge of the outcome.

If you have a pre-determined outcome, I’d suggest planning out in some detail in advance. It’s possible to get the result you want with some ingenuity, but you do need to be aware of the issues. Let’s take the example above. German undertakes a massive naval construction programme. Obviously, the British Government is going to respond. Let’s assume that it decides on the obvious course of action, and starts building capital ships. However, this would make the outcome we’re aiming for almost impossible, so it has got to be prevented.

If we introduce a major general strike, we can delay construction somewhat. Obviously, this is going to have consequences; it’s unlikely that the British Government would allow a general strike to block the building of ships during a time of national crisis. It’s almost inevitable that it will over-react, and that in turn will have consequences.

It’s not just Britain that would react. France and the Soviet Union and Norway are also likely to view this with varying degrees of concern.

Actions have consequences, and consequences have further consequences. It’s much harder for the author to think through all the possible consequences, but it ultimately makes the end result much more plausible.

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David Flin is the author of the SLP books How to Write Alternate History, Six East End Boys, Tales from Section D, The Return of King Arthur and Other Alternate Myths, and Bring Me My Bow