I am exploring an alternative history of a timeline if the centre of the British Empire is wiped off the map in the early 20th century.

The Tunguska event was believed to be an air burst comet or asteroid that occurred over Siberia, Russia in 1908.

In an alternate Earth-world, this event occurred over London at a time when Parliament was in full session, the destruction of London is total as it is across much of southern England, damage is even recorded in Edinburgh, Dublin and Paris - wiping out the British Parliament in session, the Monarchy and the centre of the British Empire.

What effect would this have had in the immediate aftermath and on the events or outcome of an alternate World War I in Europe and World?

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    $\begingroup$ You may be overestimating the destructive power of the Tunguska event. It flattened about 2000 km^2 of forest, or a circle about 25 km in radius. That would obliterate London itself (everything within the modern M25 ring road, and then some) but even nearby cities such as Oxford and Cambridge would remain intact. At the time about 16% of the UK population lived in London (6 million out of 38) so the UK would not be depopulated. Of course the economic and political impact would still be devastating. $\endgroup$ Oct 29, 2014 at 22:42
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    $\begingroup$ As a British voter, I hope for a similar event in the near future. Obviously with Her Maj. QE2 the other end of the country. She is excellent and must not be harmed. $\endgroup$
    – Gusdor
    Mar 19, 2015 at 8:20
  • $\begingroup$ NZ rulez!!! :-) $\endgroup$ Dec 4, 2019 at 2:56

7 Answers 7


The big unknown is the location of Prince Arthur, Edward VII's younger brother.

Assuming that he wasn't in London, you get interesting story possibility #1: King Arthur II (assuming he takes that as his regnal name) is busy trying to hold a disrupted British Empire together. Militarily, the Empire isn't much weakened: the Royal Navy is mostly in bases away from ground zero, and there isn't much of a standing army to harm. The country's economic center and leadership, however, have been almost entirely wiped out. It's anybody's guess as to whether the country joins the war, and whether it can draw on the colonies for manpower, or if it will be too busy dealing with rebellions.

Assuming he was, you get possibility #2: with the male-line descendants of Queen Victoria dead, succession passes through her eldest daughter, Victoria, wife of Emperor Frederick III, to her eldest son, Wilhelm II, Emperor of Germany.

With Wilhelm II holding both Germany and the United Kingdom in personal union, World War I becomes quite different. After the Balkan powderkeg goes off (the triggering event might be something other than the assassination of the Archduke), Russia declares war on Austria-Hungary. Austria-Hungary calls in its alliance with Germany, and at this point, things become very different.

France has Central Powers countries on three sides (Germany, Italy, and Britain) rather than just two. The Franco-Russian alliance is a defensive treaty; France likely takes advantage of the fact that Russia declared war to proclaim neutrality.

Without French or British support, there is no Treaty of London, and Italy probably remains neutral. Without a general conflagration or botched British diplomacy, there is no Ottoman-German alliance, and the Ottoman Empire focuses on internal reform.

At this point, the war looks very different. Germany and Austria-Hungary are facing Russia and Serbia. France and Belgium are neutral, so there is no Western Front; without Britain fighting Germany there is no submarine warfare in the Atlantic to draw the United States in. The likely winners are the Central Powers, and with victory, the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire is delayed, at least by a decade or two.

One interesting result is that instead of causing the collapse of nearly every European monarchy, the Austro-Russian War (it won't be called "The Great War" with half the participants missing) causes the collapse of just one, the Russian Empire.

  • $\begingroup$ and probably makes, given possibility #2, Germany insanely powerful $\endgroup$
    – kutschkem
    Oct 22, 2014 at 13:59
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    $\begingroup$ That's actually hard to say. In theory, the King has tremendous power in ruling the United Kingdom; in practice, this power is greatly limited by tradition (and, more practically, by the threat of civil war). I expect that having Parliament wiped out will tend to increase that power; having a foreign monarch will tend to decrease it, and it's uncertain where the balance will end up (if it happened today, I expect it would end up with the abolishment of the monarchy, but 1908 was a very different time). $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Oct 22, 2014 at 19:42
  • $\begingroup$ Even if France joins against Germany, it's arguably going to lose. British had basically saved France from a complete defeat several times in WWI, including the almost-capture of Paris in 1914; and pretty much financed the way, first themselves and then loaning from US. $\endgroup$ Jul 19, 2015 at 16:53
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    $\begingroup$ @kutschkem - But note that, if Germany wins, much of the social force which brought Hitler to power, such as reparations, never becomes apparent. $\endgroup$ Jul 20, 2015 at 21:11

TL;DR - Without Britain, Germany wins both World Wars and becomes the new world superpower, the British Empire slowly falls apart, and large-scale advanced radar development gets set back a few years.

I disagree with Scott as far as his response regarding what the world would perceive the cause to be. There's no reason why the world would suspect it to be anything other than what it was - a natural catastrophe. Part of the reason nobody knew much about what caused the Tunguska event (at least for a short while) was that it was in rural Russia - according to Wikipedia, it took 13 years for the first expedition to reach the site. Given the importance of the target - after all, London was the seat of one of the largest empires the world has ever seen - I would think there would be a comprehensive investigation within a few weeks. But you can never properly tell when it comes to bureaucracy. Not that there would be much of that left in London. . .

World War I

There would have been a sizable impact on World War I. Admittedly, Britain did not have as much a center-stage position as it did during the second world war. Without Britain, I have no doubt the assassination of Archduke would have taken place (it was due to tensions between Austria and Bosnia). The fighting by Serbian and anti-Serbian groups would surely have taken place. Britain joined in primarily because of an agreement with Russia, conveniently signed in 1907. As Wikipedia says, it laid the framework for the Triple Entente of Britain, France and Russia during World War I. But without Britain in the Entente, there might not have been an Entente. France could have been reluctant to join Russia in the fight, because they would clearly be joining a weaker side. Germany also did not want France to join in the war, as was very overt about it. We can follow a logical sequence of events here: A weaker Entente means Germany, Italy, and Austria have a good advantage, and could win the war. Sure, an early intervention by the US could have changed things, but it would have had to be early and fairly urgent.

World War II

So no Britain could mean the Triple Alliance wins the war. The big implication here is that there will be no Treaty of Versailles - at least not the same type of treaty that we are familiar with. This means that the seeds of anger in Germany that led in part to World War II would not be sown. Does this mean that there wouldn't be a World War II? Certainly not. Their ideologies would still develop. The Nazis would still have a fighting shot at taking power (although it would be difficult because many Germans wouldn't be angry at the result of World War I), and even though they might not be able to rally as much public support, I have no doubt the Holocaust would still have taken place. Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Poland all fall to Germany. There's no Neville Chamberlain to take the blame for letting things get out of hand, but they would still get out of hand.

It can be safely inferred that France will fall, as will Belgium and the Low Countries. Now, almost all Britons today remember the summer of 1940 and the Battle of Britain. But with no England, Hitler could roll right through. He could repurpose southern England as a military base. Edinburgh, Glasgow, and northern England wouldn't stand a chance. Wales and Ireland would also be in a tough spot. And so Germany would have a got shot at winning World War II (Although Russia would be a bit ticked at them, and they might not enter into a [shaky] alliance with Germany at the start of the war). And so Germany comes away very happy. The Pacific theater would still be interesting, but perhaps Japan could pull through and win with support from Germany.

It should be noted that Germany might not have gone through the infamous hyperinflation episode of the early 1920s, which has been attributed partly to the reparation payments in the Treaty of Versailles. Even if they had suffered through it, their economy would be stronger and would possibly have better taken the brunt of it, thus not laving Germany floundering economically.

Post-World War II

What about postwar? Well, Germany won't lose any of its top scientists to Russia, so the Soviet Union might not be as strong as they were. The US would also have a negligible rocket program (Werner von Braun would not be on the American side of the Atlantic) and Germany would have a decent nuclear weapons program. They could be the dominant power in the world.


As to what technology would not develop. . . Computers would be fine. ENIAC would probably exist (if the US entered the war), as would its German counterparts. Rockets would develop, although they would be German. I don't think a lack of Britain would hinder much other technological development, except for radar, which good old Hugh Dowding pushed so much for. Sure, it would have developed, but Robert Watson-Watt might never have lived.

As Mark pointed out, Britain was clearly not the only nation that was developing radar. However, Watson-Watt's work laid the groundwork for large-scale radar development. The Chain Home system was implemented in the mid-1930s, and proved to be crucial to the RAF's success in the Battle of Britain. This pioneered the usage of large-scale radar structures and advanced techniques.

British Empire

Finally, we get to the British Empire. It would not instantaneously collapse. After all, there were many British troops across the world, and many other people (primarily Britons or descendants of Britons) loyal to the Crown. Perhaps in a few months India would gain independence, as would many African nations. Australia, already on the verge of independence, would have become fully independent and become the country - continent - that we know today. But history would have changed a lot for pretty much every other British overseas territory. Oh, and Ireland would have had a lot more than Home Rule.

Does anyone remember the folks back in Scotland? I thought not. I think we all made the assumption that Britain would be completely floundering after losing essentially all of southern England, and we would be right. But Scotland (and Northern England, and Ireland, and Wales) would be relatively intact. Who takes power? In Scotland in 1908, there was still heavy influence from London, and the government was really just the overarching government of Great Britain. It is uncertain as to who would step up. Perhaps a semi-Cormwell-esque political figure would arise to try to take control and steer Scotland into a new non-monarchial direction. Scotland could also take control over all of Britain - although Wales would have a shot, too. I would guess the Irish would rather just live and let live, and stay out of it all.

In summary, Russia might have lost World War I, Germany would have won World War II, and the world would be a much different place, with Germany potentially being the number one superpower. And the very helpful webpage for context in this answer can be found here.


We actually discussed the link between WWI and WWII today, and why the Nazis got so out of hand. My history teacher mentioned that trench warfare was pretty bad, and - depending on your personal opinion - possibly the stupidest and/or worst idea in warfare since someone decided, back in the 16th or 17th centuries, to line up two opposing armies in the middle of a open field - with no cover - and have them shoot at each other. In trench warfare, you dug a large hole in the ground and hopped in, tried to avoid the shells and bombs being fired at you from artillery and airplanes, and sporadically charge out into a bleak no-man's land at a bunch of men armed with machine guns who could easily take you down. But I digress.

Anyway, trench warfare traumatized the world, and a lot of people wanted to avoid any war that even reeked of it. My teacher extended that to conclude that this was part of the reason why the Nazis were allowed to go so far - everyone wanted to avoid war as much as possible, and figured that if they gave Hitler small bits (although I think a lot of Czechs didn't consider themselves unimportant), he would eventually stop. Didn't work. So, if London got obliterated by a large body, Germany could have won WWI. The rest of the world (besides the other members of the Triple Alliance) would have been even more reluctant to face Germany because WWI would have been a pretty bad experience for everyone. More appeasement means Germany gets more land in less time, and things turn out fairly bad for most of the people involved.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm not convinced WW2 was inevitable with WW1 having gone to Germany, I agree with your assessment other than that though. $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Oct 16, 2014 at 8:38
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    $\begingroup$ Disagree with an inevitable wwII win by Germany. The implications of Versailles was directly responsible for the rise of Mussolini as they felt quite shorted in it leading to their capture of ethopia prior to WWII (Tojo in Japan as well as they were an ally in WWI that got nothing from Versailles). It was reperation payments put onto germany after WWI (somewhere in the range of 1/2 trillion dollars in todays scale) that ultimately put Hitler and his Nazi party at the helm. No humiliation of Versailles never would have seen the rise of the fringe Nazi's $\endgroup$
    – Twelfth
    Oct 16, 2014 at 20:19
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    $\begingroup$ @HDE226868 - Sorry, wasn't challenging that they did include reparation payments, the treaty definitely did...My issues is I'm having problems seeing a Nazi party rise in a Germany that wasn't suffering under Versailles to the extent they were. Nazi's were a fringe movement at best prior...In my opinion, no Versailles = no Nazi's = no hitler-esque WWII. $\endgroup$
    – Twelfth
    Oct 16, 2014 at 23:31
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    $\begingroup$ Don't forget the jet engine - Frank Whittle (a briton) started development of it in 1928, while Hans Von Ohain started development (apparently coincidentally) of a similar engine in 1935. Without Whittle, Allied jet engines would be set back, and without the opportunity afforded by the Allies to study Germany's jet engines after winning WWII, the Allied jet fighter development would have been decades behind Germany's. Considering how they were used after WWII, this would have made a huge difference to the balance of power. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_jet_engine $\endgroup$
    – jammypeach
    Oct 22, 2014 at 10:45
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    $\begingroup$ I see no chance of a Nazi takeover in Germany after a WWI victory. The Kaiser is a winner, not an exile, and the army is not humiliated by loss and Versailles. Germany might well have hegemony over the Low Countries and a slice of the East. There wouldn't even be a Poland or a broken up Austria Hungary. $\endgroup$
    – Oldcat
    Nov 13, 2014 at 17:40

Small quibble - the suggestion that 'the Monarchy' would be wiped out because of the deaths of Edward VII and his immediate family seems unlikely. Heirs to the throne are like sharks teeth; get rid of one and another takes its place. Even if all Victoria's male heirs died, her daughters and their heirs would come into the succession. Her eldest daughter (also Victoria) would be first in line, but she had died in 1901. Presumably that would leave her son as rightful heir to the throne of Britain and the Empire? That would be Kaiser Wilhelm.

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    $\begingroup$ That's a quite interesting point. If the German emperor had become King of England, that certainly would have affected history a lot. $\endgroup$
    – celtschk
    Oct 17, 2014 at 13:49
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    $\begingroup$ Keith Laumer had an alternate universe "Worlds of the Imperium" where Germany and England unified about that time and had a cross-time engine that found our timeline. $\endgroup$
    – Oldcat
    Jul 21, 2015 at 21:12

-) The death of any or even all of the Royal family would have little effect on British politics, as Britain is totally controlled by Parliament who can pick and choose Monarchs at will.

-) The bigger shift would happen with the deaths of the more progressive and worldly London urban elites and the reversion of political power to the country side and north. England would likely become more isolationist and conservative.

-) Economic destruction of the Empire. London of 1908 was like having Washington, New York and Philadelphia all in one city. Take that one city out and you lose the government, Wall street, all the major corporate headquarters and many of the ship yards. That immense concentration of knowledge and organization would get wiped out. The British economy would not so much collapse as shrink to a fraction of what it once was. The colonies would be of no help. By that time, the colonies were easily consuming more revenues than they produced.

-) Brief but possibly intense world wide depression from the sudden loss of British economic output and the destruction of its financial system. Huge amounts of European capital flowed through London and lot of that would be destroyed.

-) Collapse of British Naval power. The fleet might be largely intact but without it's economic and organization support, it would soon be worthless. Likely most of the fleet assets would be given away or sold to France or America.

-) Bringing America to Europe. American isolationism did not apply to trade and disaster relief. The destruction of southern England would likely bring and influx of American and Canadians into Britain to help rescue and rebuild. European would likely help as well but they would stay. The Americans and Canadians probably would. Americans might take over parts of the British navy and establish bases in Britain, first to help with relief but later with defense.

Likely, Americans would step in to defend some British outpost like Hong Kong but equally likely America's long opposition to colonialism would lead them to not intervene in India or Africa. America did not have a big enough Army to do so anyway.

Likely, the empire would fall apart in rebellions. Without financial support of Britain, the colonial administrations likely could not maintain themselves and those colonial peoples who wished for independence would rebel. India would likely do so but suffer horribly form internal conflict afterward. The other colonial powers would likely step in in Africa.

-) If the Germans tried to grab former British colonies, America would likely try to stop them. Americans had already developed an antipathy to German militarism and had taken steps to curb it outside of Europe e.g. the occupation of the Philippines occurred to keep the Germans form grabbing following the eviction of the Spanish.

-) The big shift in power would come from the sudden dominance of the German High fleet in the wake of the evaporation of the British navy. But the German High fleet was designed for short range, intense operations. It could remain at sea only a couple of weeks. The Germans had a few cruisers for world wide operations but not enough for dominance. Still the Germans could likely easily defeat the weakened British fleet and probably France. Combines with submarines and commerce raiders, they could control the European sea lanes cutting off Britain and Western Europe.

France was hopeful but never certain whether Britain would send troops to France if Germany invaded again. But they required Britain to keep the sea lanes open and provide financial support. Without that financial support and with German ships at her back. France would likely have to bow out of it's treaty with Russia, thus preventing the WWI we know from ever occurring. If Russia and Germany did come into conflict, Germany would defeat Russia within two years at most.

If Germany tried to occupy and colonize Russia, likely the rest of the world wouldn't intervene, really no one could, and that would absorb most of energies for a few decades. The whole European tension, at least on land in Europe, might just peter out.

With the Russian aristocracy destroyed displaced or subverted, the Serbian cowed and the Austrian-Hungarians marginalized, and the Germans occupied in Russia, the mad eastern european aristocrats that plunged the world into war in 1914 would not be in a position to do so. In that case WWI might never happen and no WWI likely means no WWII.

There would be no Soviet Union so no Communism of any significance.

-) Without the centralization of government power during WWI and without the need to pay off war debt, no gold depletion etc, America would have likely not have founded the Federal Reserve until a decade later. The Great Depression was likely caused by a premature and naive Federal Reserve raising the money supply to quickly in the 1920s causing real estate and stock bubbles. No WWI means no Great Depression.

-) Without the Great Depression and WWII, it's likely the Democrats would not have been as cohesive with the divisions between the north and south parts of the party arising earlier. Without the Great Depression, the Republicans would have been stronger. Likely the alliance of Republicans and Northern Democrats that fought through civil rights in the 60s might have fought through in the late 40s.

-) Without WWI, WWII and the Cold War, government, especially the militaries, would be smaller and less centralized, especially in America. Globalization would have accelerated and likely free trade would have accelerated. Without Fascism and Communism as alternatives, most of the world would look to liberal democracies for inspiration.

-) Technology: The biggest change would likely be a vast increase in interest in space and the threats it poised. Research into astronomy would likely explode as well as research into some means of deflecting future comets. The effect of this shift in emphasis would be research on rockets starting intensively over 20 years before the real timeline and on a vastly greater scale. Solid fuel rockets on par with those used in WWII would likely develop by the 1920s with liquid fuel rockets in the 1930s. Nuclear power might be developed first with an eye to powering rockets and nuclear weapons as a means of deflecting comets.

On the whole, manned space flight might start in the early 50s but it likely would be private.

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    $\begingroup$ Nice analysis, though one thing I've heard mentioned once comes to mind. I'm not 100% certain on this, but it's pretty persuasive: the invention and use of nuclear weapons to end the war in Japan is the best thing that could have possibly happened. Mankind has never created a weapon we did not end up using, but when we finally came up with one with doomsday potential (without knowing it) we used it to end a war, and then found out about the aftereffects in peacetime. If we had developed nukes in peacetime, they would have been used at the start of the next war, and used far more freely! $\endgroup$ Dec 1, 2014 at 14:13

That depends who has the hubris or gall to take credit for it, certainly the Central Powers could take credit for it (most likely Germany) but equally it could be seen as a Wrath of God-type occurrence so the religious aspect could dominate. It could go either way depending on the international reaction — with nations surrendering in case the 'weapon' is used on them or increasing their aggression to try to capture the 'weapon' themselves.

The global environmental impact would be minimal, with equivalent ecological damage to that the original Tunguska event caused though perhaps slightly smaller as houses require more energy to knock down than trees and the Thames would absorb quite a lot of the energy, converting it to steam.

The British Empire would most likely collapse with its armed forces surrendering to allies though its population would be okay with Edinburgh most likely to become the Capital of the remaining United Kingdom — surrendering or becoming more resolute depending on the presence of strong leaders and the international response.

Technological advancement would take a sizable hit with computers perhaps not being invented.

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    $\begingroup$ "Technological advancement would take a sizable hit with computers perhaps not being invented." <- why that? $\endgroup$
    – Philipp
    Oct 15, 2014 at 15:04
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    $\begingroup$ @ScottDowney While Turing is often (rightly, for the most part) credited with inventing computers, he certainly didn't work alone, and even the great Turing built upon the shoulders of giants who came before him. Without him the Computer Age might have come a few short years later, but it still would have come. Worst-case scenario really is that the first iPhone were being introduced this year, rather than the sixth. $\endgroup$
    – Kromey
    Oct 15, 2014 at 16:32
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    $\begingroup$ The first programmable computer was invented by Konrad Zuse in Germany. So I don't think there would have been much delay in computer technology without Alan Turing. But assuming World War II happened in the alternate world as well, him not decrypting the Enigma would certainly have had a great impact on that war. $\endgroup$
    – celtschk
    Oct 15, 2014 at 20:21
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    $\begingroup$ Don't forget Charles Babbage and the Ancient Greeks in all of this! Although Turing pioneered in the field of Computer Science, he didn't invent the computer. $\endgroup$
    – Beta Decay
    Oct 19, 2014 at 18:06
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    $\begingroup$ If WW2 didn't happen, Zuse might have found it easier to get funding and kicked off industrial computing solutions with his Z-series, which are rather interesting (more modern in some ways, alien in others). $\endgroup$ Apr 3, 2015 at 17:51

A much shorter answer:

In real life, the Germans were almost in Paris before the British really got mobilized. The British did eventually become more involved just before the Germans could make it to Paris, and the continual stream of reinforcements from that point did much to maintain the Western Front, just in the nick of time. If the British were preoccupied with rebuilding, you can bet the Germans would have taken France out of the war before Russia could've given them too many problems. WWI would have been won quickly and much more traditionally, and WWII would not have happened (either in the West or the East, it very loosely being an outburst of anger in both hemispheres over the first war's outcome and the Treaty of Versailles).

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    $\begingroup$ The British BEF had a minimal impact on the initial campaigns of WWI, or the rest of 1914 outside of holding Ypres. The entire flow of history would have been changed, and WWI would not have happened the same way or at the same time. In 1908, the French artillery was massively superior to the Germans - the French had a monopoly on recoilless technology - and what probably would have happened was that the Allies would have given Germany more of a "place in the Sun" with colonies and the like and lessened the drive to war. $\endgroup$
    – Oldcat
    Jul 20, 2015 at 21:39

Something else to consider: A blast like this, of mysterious origin could have created mass-hysteria in Britain. Where did this explosion come from? Will it happen again? We could see an exodus from larger cities in fear of another explosion. Religious leaders could seize on this and seek to turn it to their advantage.


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