What could you do to affect British policy, strategy, tactics and equipment?

Sunday, April 7th, 2019

Anthony Williams has written an alternative-history sci-fi book, The Foresight War, which sounds like something I just might have to get:

What if you went to sleep as usual in 2004 and woke up in 1934? What if you had vital knowledge about the forthcoming Second World War, and could prove that you came from the future? What could you do to affect British policy, strategy, tactics and equipment? How might the course of the conflict be changed?

And what if there was another throwback from the future — and he was working for the enemy?

The novel follows the story of these two ‘throwbacks’ as they pit their wits against each other. A very different Second World War rages across Europe, the Mediterranean, Russia, the North Atlantic and the Pacific, until its shocking conclusion.


I started to write The Foresight War in order to put down on paper — and thereby exorcise — thoughts which had been buzzing around in my head for years concerning the Second World War. As my primary interest is in military technology, ideas about how this aspect of the war might have developed differently formed the core of the novel. However, in order to turn these concepts into fiction the book clearly had to contain more, so I spent a lot of time researching the tactics, strategies, geography, events and key personalities. The structure of the novel was determined by the principal historical areas and phases of the conflict, as I did not want to depart too much from these. Once the scene was set, the story to a great extent wrote itself, occasionally veering off in directions I hadn’t expected. The main problem was the conclusion, which I didn’t decide on until just before I started the final chapter.


To sum up: if you are interested in the “what ifs” of World War 2, with particular emphasis on technology and tactics, you will probably enjoy this book. If you’re more interested in how being thrown back into the past might affect the personalities involved, you probably won’t.


  1. Sam J. says:

    I read this. I can’t remember all the particulars but I did find it enjoyable.

  2. Kirk says:

    I’ve been in discussions about this work over on other websites, and my take on it is that while it’s sorta somewhat thought-provoking, the average Wehraboo and other nutter takes much of this stuff waaaaaay too seriously–And, they hand-wave away far too much of the realities of things.

    There are too many pieces of the technical ecology you would have to take back with you. For example, it’s one thing to know that there are vast economies of scale to be had via containerization of logistics, but… Where are you going to get the necessary materials like Cor-Sten steel to build the corrosion-resistant containers out of? The high-pressure hydraulic lines you’d need for all the container handling gear you’d have to build…?

    Just like with the Soviets trying to build the AK47, the initial production idea didn’t work, because they simply did not have enough of the right people who were able to do the metal-stamping dies and supporting technology. So, they went back to what the arms production people were familiar with, the machined receiver, until they did have the supporting technology available to enable stamped-steel receivers being economically producible.

    Even if you know things, making them happen depends a great deal on an entirely unrecorded and unfathomed amount of “tribal knowledge”. HK is really the only company that ever managed to economically produce a roller-delayed weapon in 5.56mm NATO, and even they had to give up on the idea once all the “gnomes of Oberndorf” retired. Spain couldn’t manage it, and without HK giving extensive technical help, nobody else ever did, either–The necessary degree of precision, repeatable precision, is simply not economical. Too many rejects during production, too much money going in, and then if you dial back on the QC, well… That’s the Cetme “Modelo L”, all over again.

    People take technology way too lightly, thinking that if only they have the idea or the item, then they’re golden. Reality? Even with a full technical data package for something, putting it into production a few decades before it was actually realized is going to be a bitch. More of one than most realize–I think there’s a plausible story to be written that someone actually may have done this to the Germans in WWII, which is why they had all those flaky Wunderwaffen ideas that sucked up all their production capacity and money.

    It’d be ironic as hell–That some flaky-ass alternate future Wehraboo took all the “science-fictional” high tech toys the Germans bankrupted themselves trying to put into the field, and that’s why the Germans actually lost the damn war.

    It would explain soooo much…

  3. Alistair says:

    You can prove you are from the future in 1934? Is this even a problem?

    Britain and France immediately invade Germany. There’s nothing to stop them, really, at that point. Game over.

  4. Kirk says:

    I think establishing your bonafides and all that would be challenging as hell. More than likely, you’d wind up in a nice padded cell, somewhere.

    The other problem would come into play after convincing the “powers-that-be” that you knew what you were about–Because of security, they couldn’t just tell everybody that you were from the future. What would wind up happening would be a litany of frustration, as you tried to overcome the inertia of it all. Sure, you know all about how Enigma helped win the war, but how the hell do you convince the authorities to fast-track everything the Poles are telling them…?

    Then, there’s the itty-bitty problem of “What happens if the enemy gets wind of this deal…”.

    I think the whole thing rapidly begins to founder on the rocks and shoals of reality. You can’t just lift yourself up by your bootstraps as easily as everyone presumes–The ecology of technology is far less forgiving than we imagine. Look at all the interesting issues that arise when we go back to build new bits and pieces of old weapons, like that issue with the nuclear warhead refurbishment program that stemmed from the fact that nobody made that kind of foam any more…


    Now, imagine having to deal with a thousand-and-one iterations of similar problems with every single one of your “superweapons from the future”. It’s not just the materials and technologies, either–Where do you propose to come up with the men to work on these things, when the technology you’re trying to introduce has a half-dozen antecedents that are yet to become commonplace?

    Good grief–Imagine you happen to have a half-dozen laptops with you in whatever deus-ex-machina that takes you back. Sure, duplicating them ought to be ruled right the f**k out, but even handing them over to someone to use in bootstrapping other research programs, simply using them as tools: Imagine trying to explain Excel to someone doing aerodynamics, and oh-by-the-way, the calculations aren’t always accurate, ‘cos Microsoft shortcuts…

    It’d be a comedy of errors, and I think you’d stand a damn good chance of actually causing the defeat of whoever you were trying to help out.

  5. Kirk says:

    The other thing that strikes me about this idea is that were one to posit something similar, like just popping back a decade or two from, say… 2003 or so, to 1985. Imagine being the guy who does that, and then imagine what happens when he tries handing off the “what’s gonna happen” to the powers-that-were in ’85.

    That poor bastard would still be under the mental hospital where they buried his ass, classified as “clinically incurably insane”. Think about it: Try to tell people in ’85 that the Soviet Union was going to collapse without a nuclear war, that the Saudis would be begging the US to put troops on the ground inside Saudi Arabia to protect them from their long-term client/ally Iraq, and… Oh, and that there’d be some scion of a Saudi construction magnate who’d mastermind a worldwide terrorist conspiracy straight out of a really bad James Bond thriller, which would result in the destruction of the World Trade Center, a side of the Pentagon, and that the US’s longest war ever in history (so far, anyway…) would wind up being in Afghanistan…

    Yeah. You’d never see the light of day, ever again. Assuming anyone believed you were serious, that is… Had you written the actual history of the next 25 years as a work of fiction, and then tried selling it back in ’85? Oh, holy shit… You’d have been laughed out of every publishing house in the world. Nobody would have accepted the truth of things as a hypothetical course of events as even being slightly credible, let alone commercially viable.

    Similarly, in ’34? The idea that the French Army would be defeated by the Wehrmacht? LOL… That’s just nuts. Dunkirk? Battle of Britain…? Submarine warfare? The Japanese attacking Pearl Harbor? Gimme a break, buddy… That wouldn’t even sell as a penny-dreadful.

  6. ASM826 says:

    If I could prove it and was believed by high levels of government? There is no WWII. In 1934 the French could have taken Germany alone. Hitler is deposed and put in an asylum.

    What effects that has on history is pure speculation. What does Stalin do when there is no German (Nazi) war?

  7. Alistair says:


    Agreed. If you are believed by the powers that be, there’s no story. France and Britain invade Germany and depose Hitler in 1934 without significant resistance.

    Jump-starting tech is a fun conceit, but as Kirk said, it’s a uni-dimensional military history take on the situation: the sort of people who think amazing new technical capabilities can be summoned into existence at the drop of a hat. It shows a real ignorance of economic and technical and cultural and organisational constraints.

  8. Alistair says:

    “I think there’s a plausible story to be written that someone actually may have done this to the Germans in WWII…all those flaky Wunderwaffen ideas that sucked up all their production capacity and money… and that’s why the Germans actually lost the damn war.”

    Kirk, damnit, I had a similar notion a few years back. But I suppose it’s just a another take on time-engineering going wrong aka “Guns of The South.” Would make a good short story….

  9. Isegoria says:

    If you enjoy a good story about time-travel going awry, read Poul Anderson’s “The Man Who Came Early,” which is included in Call Me Joe. It inverts A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Not all simple ideas are ideas behind their time.

  10. Graham says:

    I agree with Kirk on a key point- way too much time travel fiction or alt hist fiction blithely assumes technology startup will be easy. Even the ones that take account of the fact that most modern kit will be near term non-functional and probably never again functional, usually don’t go as far as they should in limiting how much knowledge the travelers will really be able to apply.

    For an early, relatively plausible take, Lest Darkness Fall is good.

    The social and political convincing is always important, unless you luck out and travel with a whole community, fully kitted out and able to immediately demonstrate value to the downtime audience. Or conquer them. Mark Twain was a pioneer in recognizing some of the problems.

    Turtledove’s Guns of the South showed another problem. I am not myself entirely convinced of the political implications of his ending, but he’d hardly get that published today.

  11. Kirk says:

    I think the problems of doing a wholesale societal “tech upgrade” are hand-waved away far too much in most science fiction, and even fantasy.

    OK, great–You have your time travel, and you somehow manage to make the tech work. Now what? How are those technologies going to resonate through the social commons?

    Consider the car, as an example: We have a real-world example of cultural adaptation in Asia, with the way the car was taken up as a mass-market item in countries like Korea during the late 1980s and early ’90s. Even with the example of the rest of the developed world having had widespread civilian use of the automobile, that whole process in Korea was not at all pretty, nor was it easy. The traffic laws alone… Sweet baby babbling Jesus…

    I remember one event, where I was on a US Army shuttle bus on a highway between Kimpo Airport and downtown Seoul. Korean civilian driver merged into the side of the bus. Response? In the middle of traffic on a six-lane highway, both the bus and the car stopped, the police came, and they left the bus and the car sitting in the middle of the ‘effing highway! Waiting for “accident investigations” to show up… Meanwhile, traffic is going by on either side of us at 60mph, both drivers are arrested and taken away, and the passengers of both vehicles are sitting there going “WTF do we do, now…?”.

    The technology is relatively simple. The societal adaptations and uptake ain’t.

    We have a model for how things go, but try to imagine handing off fully-realized cell phone technology to, say, Americans of the 1830s, who’d no exposure to even the telegraph. Care to imagine the initial ramifications, then the second- and third-order effects?

    There’s probably stuff we haven’t even imagined, that the people of that period would find shocking. We got to cell phones relatively slowly, with plenty of time to adapt social mores and values. Same with the rest of the world–Even in deepest, darkest primitive nations where they never had landlines, they at least had exposure to the idea of telephony, and the cell is just a relatively obvious outgrowth of what they’d likely seen in movies and other cultural “stuff” from the first world. Try to imagine what a “first exposure” to that technology would look like, with no prior or parallel cultural adaptation to look at, a true “tabula rasa” deployment.

    Now, imagine an imperative where you have to have the technology taken up by the society you need to “update” for some existential crisis. The whole thing would be a hell of a lot more complicated and difficult than you’d think.

    Hell, imagine the implications for having foreknowledge of the general run of history, and trying to effect a change to it all. “Hey, Poland of the 1100s… In about a hundred years, the Mongols (who you know nothing about…) are gonna roll through here and wreck the place… Here’s what we need to do to get ready for that…”.

    Frankowski did a major Mary-Sue series on just that premise, called the Cross-Time Engineer, but I think he really outrageously underestimated the whole thing in the name of story-telling. Something as simple as taking 10th Century Poland to a state where the Mongols would have bounced off their frontiers is an exercise fraught with complexities that I don’t think he even imagined, and I seriously doubt that even “jump-grading” England of the 1930s by a few decades would be any easier. Or, more historically plausible.

  12. Phil B says:

    It has been done by the BBC who produced a series called Goodnight Sweetheart about a guy from the 2000′s going back and forth to a wartime Britain and trying to prevent events from happening. For example, he told an American in late 1941 “Make sure your aircraft carriers are away from Pearl harbour early December”. had the Americans lost their carriers at that time, then the Pacific war would have been a bit different. Personally, I believe that the USA would have achieved victory (Yamamoto was right — the industrial might of the USA prevailed) but the war would not have ended in 1945.

    It is on Youtube of you are interested:


  13. Graham says:

    I remember Leo Frankowski’s Cross Time Engineer- I enjoyed them as stories. Admittedly, I was a teenager and consumed anything in the alt hist or time travel vein, but his books were enjoyable. The three big weaknesses would be 1. The tech issues 2. His deep conviction that Polish socialism was the height of civilization, and 3. Underage girls mentioned a little too much.

    I early gravitated more to stories in which the timeline was being protected at all costs- from the clever silliness of Simon Hawke’s Timewars series to the more serious tales of the Time Patrol by Poul Anderson. I still think the latter’s Delenda Est and The Sorrows of Odin the Goth were quite poignant.

  14. Graham says:

    For a series that had similar problems although more about social and political manipulation than technology, I’d suggest Harry Harrison’s The Hammer and the Cross tetralogy.

    A Norse prince united the greater Norse world behind a sort of neo asgardian religion with overtones of druidism, hinduism and confucianism to defend wisdom and learning, a little bit against more trad pagans but mostly against horrid obscurantist Christianity. Eventually, his chief foe is a Holy Roman Empire soldier who possesses the holy lance.

    Harrison’s approach to the issues at play in the tenth century is idiosyncratic to say the least, and one definitely gets the message he really didn’t like Christianity, but the books were great yarns.

    It’s just that his purported new religion is one of the most unlikely historical contrivances I’ve ever seen. No time traveller though- that would have made it more plausible.

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