Alan John Percivale Taylor, the only son of Percy Lees Taylor, a cotton merchant, and his wife, Constance Sumner Thompson, a schoolmistress, was born at Birkdale on 25th March, 1906. His parents were supporters of the Labour Party and he grew up with left-wing views.
Taylor was educated at Bootham School in York and Oriel College. A talented student he graduated from Oxford University with a first class degree in modern history in 1927. He considered the possibility of a career as a lawyer but in 1928 he decided to study diplomatic history in Vienna.
In 1930 he was appointed as a lecturer at Manchester University. Taylor also contributed regularly as reviewer and leader writer on the Manchester Guardian, where he expressed his views as a left-wing pacifist. His first book, The Italian Problem in European Diplomacy, 1847–1849, appeared in 1934.
Taylor was a strong opponent of Adolf Hitler and his government in Nazi Germany. In 1936 he resigned from the Manchester Peace Council and began to urge British rearmament. He criticised the policy of appeasement and argued for an Anglo-Soviet alliance to contain fascism. In 1938 he published Germany's First Bid for Colonies, 1884–1885 .
With the support of Lewis Namier, Taylor returned to Oxford University in 1938 as a fellow of Magdalen College. According to A.F. Thompson, one of his students: "He schooled himself to lecture (and speak publicly) without notes, a craft he later brought to perfection... Soon established as an outstanding tutor of responsive undergraduates and a charismatic, early-morning lecturer, he began to make a wider name for himself as an incisive speaker on current affairs, in person and on the radio."
During the Second World War he was a member of the Home Guard. He continued to teach history and published The Habsburg Monarchy (1941) and The Course of German History (1945). Although he was sympathetic to the plight of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, he remained a staunch critic of the rule of Joseph Stalin and in 1948 created a stir at a Stalinist cultural congress in Wrocław, when he argued that everyone had the right to hold different views from those in power.
In 1957, Taylor joined forces with J. B. Priestley, Kingsley Martin, Bertrand Russell, Fenner Brockway, Wilfred Wellock, Ernest Bader, Frank Allaun, Donald Soper, Vera Brittain, E. P. Thompson, Sydney Silverman, James Cameron, Jennie Lee, Victor Gollancz, Konni Zilliacus, Richard Acland, Stuart Hall, Ralph Miliband, Frank Cousins, Canon John Collins and Michael Foot to establish the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
Taylor published a large number of books on history including The Struggle for Mastery in Europe 1848-1918 (1954), The Trouble Makers: Dissent over Foreign Policy, 1792–1939 (1957), The Origins of the Second World War (1961), The First World War (1963), Politics In Wartime (1964) English History 1914-1945 (1965), From Sarajevo to Potsdam (1966), Churchill Revised: A Critical Assessment (1969) and Beaverbrook (1972). Taylor's autobiography,A Personal History, was published in 1983.
His biographer, A.F. Thompson, has argued: "Taylor emerged as a national figure with the advent of television. On In the News and Free Speech he caught the viewers' fancy as a quick-witted debater, a Cobbett-like scourge of the establishment... First of the television dons, he retained this primacy into old age as he delivered unscripted lectures direct to the camera on historical themes to a vast audience."
Operation Dynamo succeeded beyond all expectations. The forces of fighter command were thrown in without reserve and tempered the weight of German bombing on the beaches. Destroyers, which brought off most of the men were aided by every sort of vessel - pleasure boats, river ferries, fishing smacks. Altogether 860 ships took part. As a further advantage, the weather was uniformly benign. On 31 May Gort, as his force shrank, handed over to General Alexander, the senior divisional commander, in accordance with orders. On 3 June the last men were moved. In all, 338,236 men were brought to England from Dunkirk, of whom 139,097 were French. Dunkirk was a great deliverance and a great disaster. Almost the entire B.E.F. was saved. It had lost virtually all its guns, tanks, and other heavy equipment. Many of the men had abandoned their rifles. Six destroyers had been sunk and nineteen damaged. The R.A.F. had lost 474 aeroplanes.
The Germans struck their most dramatic, though not their most dangerous, blow with night bombing, soon to be known in popular English parlance as 'the Blitz'. This grew by accident out of Hitler's earlier attempt to secure immediate surrender and went on in retaliation for British bombing as much as for any other reason. It was an improvised affair. The Germans had no aeroplanes specifically designed for independent long-range bombing, no pilots trained for it (particularly at night), and no clear picture of what they were attempting to do. At first they concentrated on London which was bombed every night from 7 September to 2 November. Then they switched mainly to industrial centres in the provinces and finally to the western ports. 16 May 1941 saw the last heavy German attack on Birmingham. Thereafter the Luftwaffe was busy preparing to cooperate with the army against Soviet Russia, and in England precautions against air raids became more of a burden than the air raids themselves.
At the outset the British were as ill-equipped for defence as the Germans were for attack. Their fighters were almost useless at night, and the anti-aircraft guns, too few in any case, nearly as ineffective. Techniques were gradually improved as the winter wore on. Physicists, sustained by Professor Lindemann, Churchill's personal adviser, invented radar assistance both for the fighters and the guns. When the Germans began to navigate by radio beams instead of by the stars, the British were already prepared to divert the beams, and many German bombs fell harmlessly in the open country. The Germans erred by failing to repeat their attacks on a chosen target, such as Coventry. They could not bomb with any precision and thus failed, for instance, to destroy vital railway junctions. Most of all, their attack lacked weight. A major raid meant 100 tons of bombs. Three years later the British were dropping 1,600 tons a night on Germany - and even then not with decisive effect. Fifty-seven raids brought 13,561 tons of bombs on London. Later the British often exceeded this total in a single week.