Military history

CHAPTER 3

APPEASEMENT AND PHONEY WAR

Thanks partly to a successful effort by some journalists and historians to portray appeasement as a sin to be visited solely on the British Conservative government, remarkably little attention has been given to the fact that European Communist and Socialist parties alike were adamantly opposed to rearmament until late 1936, while Communist parties continued to denounce the war and to sabotage the war effort until Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in 1941. The result has been an over-emphasis on the efforts of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain to avoid war at almost any price in 193739, with far too little importance attached to the isolationism of the USA and the fact that, without active Soviet connivance, Germany could never have rearmed. Britain and Trance certainly failed to show the united opposition that might have deterred Hitler and damaged him domestically while, crucially, at Munich in September 1938, they refused to support Czechoslovakia against German aggression, persuading Hitler that they were morally bankrupt and would be unlikely to resist an attack on Poland. Chamberlain may indeed deserve obloquy for proclaiming that a meaningless document signed at Munich guaranteed 'peace in our time', but in essence he was making the best of a bad job; his supporters argue that the fiasco did at least buy time for rearmament. Britain and Trance ultimately honoured their obligations when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, though there was nothing practical they could do to help the Poles. Thanks to its own agreement with Germany, the Soviet Union took the opportunity to seize a third of all Polish territory and later to massacre thousands of captured Polish officers. France was locked, into a defensive strategy behind the Maginot Line and Britain's principal military effort was invested in the Royal Navy and in what proved to be the false deterrent of the RAF's long-range bomber force. The Phoney War was a holding action to give time for an Allied blockade and economic warfare, including the failed intervention in Norway that brought Chamberlain down, to collapse the German economy while the Allied war effort reached full pitch. It was not an inherently foolish strategy, but it required time to reach fruition and Hitler had already shown that he was not a man for inaction.

DR GRIGORI TOKATY

Ossetian lecturer in Aeronautical Engineering at the Zhukovsky Academy of the Soviet Air Force

From about 1929 to 1933 the Soviet Union carried out two tragic campaigns. One was the liquidation of, the collapse of, our small-holder peasants; parallel to this and on the basis of this liquidation a forced collectivisation was carried out. I was a witness and a contemporary of both campaigns and I say that they created a tragic situation, famine, and the economy paralysed. And as the armed forces were fed from agriculture, and soldiers used to come from mainly peasantry, the moral and psychological effect of these tragedies demoralised in a degree the armed forces. Secondly in 1933–1934 there were Party purges aimed at one thing, to eliminate those who had some kind of critical, independent mind, who questioned the wisdom of the collectivisation and liquidation of the peasants. In 1939 the country was weakened; the economy grew but the growth was despite, not because of, the tragedies. It is also exceptionally important to remember that all the places freed by those purged were taken up by second- and third-raters, by yes-men, by inexperienced men.

DR PAUL SAMUELSON

American economist

You know, when Franklin Roosevelt took office in 1933 he said there's nothing to fear except fear itself and his brave words did help a lot. But you can't just lift an economy out of a depression by its bootstraps just by singing slogans. You've got to spend money, and it wasn't until 1938, five years after the bottom of the Great Depression, that we really had the determination and the knowledge to have large deficit spending.

ANTHONY EDEN

British Foreign Secretary 1935–38

I think that fundamentally the differences between Chamberlain and myself lay in our respective assessments of the amount of confidence we could place in the men we were dealing with. Chamberlain put that very well himself at one of our meetings when he said that I hadn't the same confidence as he had in Mussolini's entering the conversation with a serious intention of carrying out any agreement. Chamberlain himself was more and more sure that his view was correct. I couldn't share that confidence because I had had some negotiations with Mussolini already: I made an agreement with him after the Abyssinian War was over, about the Mediterranean; that was in 1936. We agreed to respect each other's rights, to take no steps which might injure each other's interests or spoil our relations. Mussolini called it a 'gentleman's agreement'. A few weeks later he broke it: he interfered with the Spanish Civil War, which he knew perfectly well must affect our relations, and the agreement didn't count.

JOHN COLVILLE

Assistant Private Secretary to the Prime Minister 1939–41

Neville Chamberlain was deeply devoted to the idea of peace, to him war was the ultimate horror, he'd seen his contemporaries the in Flanders in 1914–1918 and he felt that his life's work was to prevent a repetition of the appalling massacres of the First World War. He gave everything he had to that end, perhaps more than was justified in the circumstances.

ANTHONY EDEN

The one success we were able to register between the two wars was at Nyon, a conference [held in] September 1937 in a small town in Switzerland, which the French and we mounted because merchant ships of all countries were being torpedoed in the Mediterranean by submarines of unknown nationality. We knew they weren't Spanish submarines because we knew how many they had, and there was only one possible source: they were Italians, Mussolini's submarines. We decided this must be stopped so we called a conference, which we invited him to join, and we decided to patrol the Mediterranean with our joint destroyers, we and the French had produced over sixty destroyers to do it. We were going to give him a bit of sea. Yugoslavia, Greece and Turkey all played their part in the Adriatic and Russia also from the Black Sea area, so it was complete. We offered Mussolini a share, which didn't matter very much but was very large on the map, and invited him in. He wouldn't come to the conference. From that moment we patrolled the Mediterranean and the submarine sinkings stopped.

DR TOKATY

In 1937, in June, Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky's plot was uncovered. He was really the true backbone of the Soviet Armed Forces's reorganisation and reconstruction and he was shot as a German spy.*11 Every single assistant subordinate of Tukhachevsky was eliminated. Every single commander of a military district, every commander of an army division, every commander of a regiment, with some exceptions here, was eliminated. The Army was beheaded. The Army not yet equipped properly, the reorganisation was incomplete, the reconstruction technology was incomplete. We found ourselves in a state of complete weakness, a very dangerous weakness although the propaganda drums continued beating that we are united, we are good Russians, et cetera.

RAB BUTLER

British Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs 1938–40

There was no doubt that our defences were not as strong as they became a year later but, if I think, if you want to get the record straight the real reason for not standing up in 1938 was the absolute saturation of the country in peace propaganda. There'd been all this League of Nations business and Baldwin had never stood up as he should have done or rearmed in time. Baldwin told me Hitler would never do anything until 1942 and the defence hadn't been re-started and the public was pacifist-minded and the Commonwealth was divided, which it wasn't in 1939, and American opinion was not with us at the time of Munich.*12

PILOT OFFICER WILFRID OULTON

RAF Coastal Command

The real fault was that the nation as a whole had not faced up to the inevitability of war and prepared for it.

AMBASSADOR WAVE RE LL HARRIMAN

US diplomat and President Roosevelt's Special Envoy to Europe

After World War One there was a lot of isolationism, a feeling we had no reason to become involved in world war and had made a mistake. There were lots of debts owed by European countries and we had an embargo against the sale of arms abroad called the Neutrality Act. Some people claimed we got involved in the war because we'd been selling arms and there was also the talk of the businessmen, the munitions manufacturers, who brought us into war. In addition to which there was no attack on the United States, remember, and much of that period, the Phoney War, didn't become a crisis until the attack in the Low Countries in the spring of 1940.

CHARLES BOHLEN

US diplomat in Moscow

I think that the history of isolationism is very simple. When the colonies were first united into the United States of America they were very weak militarily, economically and politically throughout the country. It was a time when the Napoleonic wars were going on and George Washington in his farewell address admonished the people of this country not to get drawn into quarrels that were not their own, not to form political alliances with countries in Europe but to try and deal with trade and matters of that land equally with other countries. I think that, in the circumstances, made a good deal of sense. In addition, the United States government started with a strip of colonies along the east coast and then they found they had an entire continent to play with and they saw no particular reason for getting involved in quarrels in which they didn't feel their interests were directly involved. The United States was extremely fortunately located geographically with two wide oceans protecting either side and I think this just became a habit, an instinctive habit, on the part of American public opinion. When World War One came and we finally got into it in 1917, we fought that like a boxing match. We went into the ring, we helped to defeat the enemy, came back, hung up our gloves and went back to what we thought was the main task of developing this continent.

ANTHONY EDEN

In January 1938 President Roosevelt sent Chamberlain as Prime Minister a private message saying how disturbed he was with the state of the world and increasing disrespect for engagements and treaties, piling up of armament and so on. He wanted to make a great effort to try and stop this and he suggested that he should call together the diplomatic corps in Washington one day and they would try to produce a few suggestions for our various differences and difficulties and these were then to be discussed if they were thought reasonable by the larger, more important powers. Our ambassador in Washington was Lindsay, a very experienced diplomatist who'd been head of the Foreign Office and also our ambassador in Berlin before he went to Washington. He sent this message across endorsing it strongly and urging a quick and cordial response. Without consulting me or any of the Cabinet, Chamberlain returned a reply of cold water. The Foreign Office was much disturbed at this development and cabled me in the south of France to return. I was deeply disturbed because Lindsay, in one of his telegrams, had warned us that if we argue against this too much we might undo all the good work we'd done in the last two years, and to me the Anglo-American relations were capital. Just the one chance, I thought, that we can get closer together stage by stage, that we might avert the war. I telephoned to Lindsay and told him I was going to see the Prime Minister at Chequers, which I did the next day and then we had our first serious difference. He was more optimistic than I could be of the outcome of the present discussions with Hitler and Mussolini, and he felt the American proposals were woolly and that they would get in the way of his negotiations. I felt on the contrary that Roosevelt was trying to get into the business to try to help in the only way he could – with his strong isolationist lobby he couldn't do it any other way. I thought any American presence in Europe would be quite invaluable in that very difficult time so I couldn't agree. There's no doubt that Cadogan and I would have resigned had we been able to do so on that issue in January 1938, but we couldn't, obviously, without putting Roosevelt in the most embarrassing position, as it would have made public what he was trying to do. So after that it really was a question of waiting for the next issue because we knew it couldn't last.

RAB BUTLER

Our Chiefs of Staff, particularly General Ironside, expressed themselves in no uncertain terms about the paucity of our own armaments. There were not enough anti-aircraft guns and the radar, which a year later covered the whole country from Scotland to the south, was not really in existence.*13

ROBERT BOOTHBY

British Conservative MP

I think the final verdict lies with Churchill: he said there could have been no air Battle of Britain in 1938. We might have suffered some grievous casualties from being bombed for which we were lamentably unprepared, but those Germans would have had to fly from German bases with air-fighter protection which was quite inadequate and couldn't cover them all the way to these shores, and nothing like the Battle of Britain could have taken place until they'd occupied the coasts of Holland, Belgium and France. Munich was one of the greatest disasters in British and French history. We could have called his bluff and we could almost certainly have got rid of him and in my firm conviction if Beneš had stood firm and said, 'I'm going to fight, and you're going to support me,' we could either have beaten them in a matter of weeks or else there would have been no war and the German generals' plot would have been carried into execution.*14

The 'Peace in Our Time' document signed by Hitler and, Chamberlain on 30 September 1938

We, the German Führer and Chancellor and the British Prime Minister, have had a further meeting today and are agreed in recognising that the question of Anglo-German relations is of the first importance for the two countries and for Europe.

We regard the agreement signed last night and the Anglo-German Naval agreement as symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again.

We are resolved that the method of consultation shall be the method adopted to deal with any other questions that may concern our two countries, and we are determined to continue our efforts to remove possible sources of difference and thus to contribute to assure the peace of Europe.

ANTHONY EDEN

To put it bluntly, how much better it would have been if the Czech crisis had arisen a year later, at the time when [the] Polish crisis arose and we had to go to war. A much better military position from every other point of view. Therefore, whatever case can be made technically on the delay ground, what seems to me to be utterly wrong was the failure to gather the nation together for a supreme effort of rearmament after Munich to create a national government. Because the truth was, until we got Labour into the government, you cannot really do a full-out rearmament programme.

ROBERT BOOTHBY

There's absolutely no doubt that Germany gained enormously from the year's delay in the outbreak of war as a result of Munich and we have it on irrefutable authority from all the German generals and from various historical sources. The Czechs had the strongest fortified line in Europe on their northern frontier and they had thirty well-trained, well-armed divisions. Against which Germany could only put thirty-three or thirty-four. Two of the senior German generals said that the line was almost impregnable. On the west they had eight reserve divisions and five regular divisions against ninety French divisions, and a 'West Wall', which another German general described as purely a construction site. All the German generals were convinced that if war broke out over Czechoslovakia in September 1938 they would have been defeated in about three weeks and I think that has been borne out. They had intended to arrest Hitler and proclaim a military government and they were prevented from doing so by the sudden announcement of Neville Chamberlain's flight to see Hitler – and that's what stopped them, to wait and see what happened. And then events flowed and Munich was in fact the biggest bluff ever known in history. The German General Staff stood abashed because they knew they must be defeated if we'd gone to war then.

DR TOKATY

From about 1933 the vast Soviet propaganda machine advocated an idea, quite rightly, that the greatest danger to our country was growing Nazism. Parallel to this, especially from the mid-Thirties, the Soviet propaganda developed one idea, with which I agreed entirely, that Hitlerism represented the most barbaric form of social organisation of our times.

ALBERT SPEER

Hitler's Chief Architect 1934–42

The same day when we got the news that a pact was signed in Moscow between Germany and Russia, the armed forces showed to Hitler the movie of the last parade before the Kremlin in Moscow.*15 Hitler was very impressed and that this is a very strong army and was glad that since the signing of the pact this army was no more on the other side. Then after we had entered Poland and our troops met the Russian troops at their borderlines the officers came to Hitler and reported to him, said those Russian troops are very badly equipped and in poor condition; he first didn't believe it properly but then when the Russians started their attack against the Finns and they hadn't had any success Hitler remembered those facts which were told him from his officers, and he said obviously those reports were true – I had in this time the impression that Hitler was convinced that he has to deal with a weak army concerning Russia.

DR TOKATY

Here we are, we call ourselves a socialist country – we were told twenty-four hours a day without interruption that Nazism was the most barbaric social and political system and then suddenly we're declared to be progressive allies. We were told that Hitler, Mussolini and Japanese militarism represented nothing more than the vanguard of general capitalist front against the USSR. And then suddenly they become our ally, we were brothers. I found this more than my heart could swallow; I generally never hate anything but this is the one thing which I think really for the first time [I] use the word 'hate'. I couldn't accommodate myself any more with Stalin's system.

DINGLE FOOT

You must remember that in the early stages of the war, before the Nazis attacked Russia, the Daily Worker was thoroughly against the war effort, denounced it as an imperialist war. Their tune changed after 22nd June 1941.**2

RAB BUTLER

The Polish, as well as the Romanian and Greek undertakings, emerged from the rape of Czechoslovakia in March 1939 and the Foreign Office were absolutely determined to see that there would be a stop to Hitler at some point. I've often heard the Polish guarantee criticised because physically we really couldn't do anything about it and though it was a military guarantee, it was in essence political – it was really to show Hitler that if he decided to go on seizing one country after another we would have to come in. I know that [Foreign Secretary Lord] Halifax thought this would make war inevitable and he wasn't surprised when we got to 3rd September 1939.

COLONEL SIEGFRIED WESTPHAL

German Staff Officer

This was an absolute bluff. I cannot remember exactly the number of divisions, I think from Emden to Switzerland we had about seven or eight active divisions, and all other were jumbled up. We had no armoured cars; all other active divisions did fight in Poland. The whole Air Force was in Poland. If the French attacked during the September we had not been able to stem them longer than one or two weeks, and the war on the Western Front had been decided before the German division for Poland were able to help us. I think Hitler was very strengthened by this situation.

JOHN COLVILLE

When war broke out Chamberlain was a strong patriot. He realised that he'd done everything he could and nobody could say that he had not done the utmost to prevent the holocaust and he threw himself into the preparations for war. Deep down he still hoped that the major clash of armies could be avoided: he thought, misled by intelligence reports and reports from foreigners who had been in Germany, that Germany was on the brink of starvation or would be brought to starvation by economic warfare. He also thought the German people didn't support Hitler, that this was a clique, and if we did our propaganda properly there would be a revolt of the generals or somebody against Hitler. Dropping propaganda leaflets by Bomber Command of the RAF rather than bombs was a good way of conducting the war.

ROBERT BOOTHBY

The opening phase of the war was [one] of the most extraordinary periods through which I've lived. For a long time there was quite a lot of unemployment, while the Germans were manufacturing arms at full stretch, particularly in the Skoda works in Czechoslovakia where half the tanks that subsequently defeated France featured. All this time the Germans were a beehive of activity, we were doing absolutely nothing. We'd gone to war for the defence of Poland, we'd given a unilateral guarantee to Poland and in the event we did nothing to help Poland at all. For the first three months of the war the greatest number of casualties were in the blackout and we confined our war effort to dropping leaflets on the German people, telling them that it was a bad idea to go to war and that it was a pity that they had done it, and perhaps we might make peace. It affected even Churchill, who was First Lord of the Admiralty at the time. At lunch one day he said to me, 'I have the impression that Hitler's Germany is more brittle than the Kaiser's Germany, and that it will collapse more quickly.' And all the government were with the idea that we could fight this war without fighting it. And that's what happened – it was called the Phoney War and the Phoney War it was. All the time the Germans were building up their armaments. The whole object of the Munich agreement was to get the Russians out of Europe and give us time to build up our armaments and instead we gave the Germans time – we gave them nearly two years and by that time they were in a position to strike.

GEORGE HODGKINSON

Coventry town councillor

The members of our War Emergency Committee here felt that not enough attention had been given to the situation that would be created if a town was hit by saturation bombing. The suggestion to plaster up the windows with tape, for instance, in our view was futile and nonsensical. Impractical and it was useless. There was not enough appreciation that this was a total war and all our resources both locally and nationally, even politically, ought to have been organised in order to defeat Hitler completely and handsomely.

RAB BUTLER

Fundamentally, like the younger Pitt, Chamberlain was a man of peace and a good Chancellor of the Exchequer, and especially a good Health Minister. He wasn't used to the idea of war at all. He did have a go at foreign policy, it wasn't very easy for him, but he wasn't a great War Minister. I remember when the outbreak of war came and we were in the Cabinet Room at the moment the ultimatum expired and we were just beginning to congratulate the Prime Minister on his broadcast, when we heard a terrible wailing which was the first air-raid siren, and we all began to laugh. But Churchill and Chamberlain took it very seriously and his wife then appeared with an enormous basket full of things for the night and Thermos flasks, so we all went to the shelters. I went, after some delay, to the Foreign Office. The whole of Horse Guards was completely empty of people and I, when I got there, there was no furniture so I had to sit on the floor, and an air-raid warden said there would be no gas attack. But of course there wasn't really any war for some time, quite apart from there being no petrol.

JOHN COLVILLE

In the late winter of 1939 and the early part of 1940 the situation was a curious one. The great powers had declared war and absolutely nothing was happening, everybody was sitting biting their fingernails and expecting the bombs to fall. In this period storms brewed in teacups, storms which would certainly never have occurred at all if there'd been fighting taking place. And one of them was very much connected with the Secretary of State for War, Leslie Hore-Belisha, a remarkable man, extremely intelligent, ambitious, but unfortunately he had several defects. He was very publicity conscious and in those days that was looked upon with some suspicion by a great many people. His genuine desire was to make the Army a popular force; he wanted to get recruits and he thought by improving conditions of the ordinary soldiers, building new barracks, improving the food and by being photographed a lot with the troops he could help to improve the image of the Army. Secondly he had such a quick mind that he found it hard to tolerate those whose minds were moved slowly; he had a way of being brisk and sometimes bad-mannered with senior officers and civil servants. It was well known he was relying almost entirely for all his decisions on the advice of military theorist Captain Basil Liddell Hart. Captain Liddell Hart was a very remarkable and praiseworthy character – but he was the military correspondent of The Times newspaper and the generals found it hard to tolerate that a newspaper correspondent was running the War Office.

DR SAMUELSON

The US economy was converting to wartime before Pearl Harbor. Just as in World War One, when the belligerents in Europe sent us orders and that activated our economy, that was already happening from 1939. In the United States this happened through ordinary commercial channels but we were also sympathetic to the Allied side and were already beginning to give aid.

JOHN COLVILLE

The campaigns in Norway, British mining of Norwegian waters followed immediately by German invasion in April and Allied counter-attacks in May 1940, were acceptable to Chamberlain because it kept the war distant. It meant it would be localised and perhaps a miracle would happen, perhaps Hitler would the or be assassinated and the whole thing would end with the minimum of bloodshed.

RAB BUTLER

The idea was to save the iron deposits from the Germans and make an expedition to Norway which would also distract Germany from the overrunning of France. But the danger of it was first Norwegian neutrality and secondly we weren't fully prepared for it, and it was in fact a complete failure. It was a providential thing that Churchill, although having had a great part in it, was not blamed for it in the House of Commons. Chamberlain got the blame – and he was Prime Minister and he had approved the policy – but it meant that Churchill was then free in 1940, in May, to take over and become the great war leader that he was.

MAJOR MARTIN LINDSAY

Norway Expeditionary Force

I'm not suggesting it altered the course of history but I went straight up to see Labour leader Clement Attlee on the morning of the first day of the debate and I gave him a memorandum about the appalling improvisation and deficiencies in Norway because I was quite convinced that we should lose the war if we went on like that. He gave it to deputy Labour leader Herbert Morrison to help him open for the Opposition that afternoon.

ROBERT BOOTHBY

The Norway debate 7th–8th May 1940 was the only decisive debate I ever attended during my thirty-four years as a member of the House of Commons, because it was the only division which brought about the fall of the government. Gradually the temperature began to rise and when Herbert Morrison announced they were going to divide at the end of the debate against the government, there was an action group, of which Liberal Party leader Clement Davies was chairman and I was secretary, committed to pressing for more decisive action during the war. It was an enormously attended meeting, there were a great many Conservative Members of Parliament there and I felt something was happening. The meeting was passionate, and I felt that a great many Conservative members were not only prepared to abstain in the division but even to vote against the government.

MAJOR LINDSAY

At that particular time there were three main strands in political parties. First of all the large mass of Conservative supporters who were still mesmerised by Chamberlain's deadly decency. There were more than two dozen active Conservative opponents who included some of the greatest names in contemporary history and who were outright against the government and led mainly the service MPs into the Lobby against the government, because to Tory MPs in the Services it was quite obvious that we couldn't go on as we had been doing at that time. The third, of course, were the Labour and Liberal members, who right up to the outbreak of the war had opposed rearmament, most of them, and even complained that the existing effort was too great.

RAB BUTLER

There was a very passionate atmosphere because there had been all this bitterness piling up before the opening of the war, first against Munich and then against the delay after Munich. So for nearly a year before the debate there had been anguish in the breasts of people who wanted Britain to go all out and win the war against Hitler and so the debate was a fierce one. Not only the Labour opposition, who afterwards came in to support Churchill, but also Conservative. I remember Chamberlain going to his room afterwards and saying he wondered whether this could go on. It wasn't until the next day that he really realised that his number was up. On that day the Whips tried to explain to him that it might have been worse but those of us who were with him could see the writing on the wall by that time.

ROBERT BOOTHBY

Meanwhile Churchill had been putting up a great defence of the government and it was ironical again because the debate was about Norway and Norway had been a series of disasters which I think were avoidable. He was directly responsible as First Lord of the Admiralty. [Liberal MD Leo] Amery made a famous speech in which he quoted Cromwell's words: 'You have been here long enough for any good you have done – in the name of God go.' Lloyd George came down and made the most devastating speech, in which he concluded by saying to Chamberlain, 'You have asked the nation for sacrifices but there is the sacrifice of your own office,' and I saw Chamberlain blush when he said that. It was the last effective speech Lloyd George made in the House of Commons.*16 Meanwhile Churchill was looking more and more uncomfortable because hostility was concentrated on him, oddly enough, as well on the government as a whole. The Conservative majority fell to eighty and that meant the fall of the government. Chamberlain asked for friendship from those who were his friends and he hadn't got it and he walked out of the chamber a solitary figure and I felt very sorry for him at that moment – he knew he was done, and he was determined to resign.

RAB BUTLER

Halifax had led the country away from the appeasement policy during the summer at the beginning of the war, and he had proven himself, and indeed was in India as a Viceroy, a very able Minister. But being in the House of Lords he wasn't really very well known. I never thought that the National Government with Labour idea would work with Halifax and the Labour leaders came to realise in their own ways that Churchill would be better. I had a frank talk with Halifax and I came to the conclusion that he simply didn't want to do it, and under the circumstances, with crisis looming and virtually being in the war alone, it's no good to have a man as Prime Minister who doesn't want to do it. And if you've got somebody straining at the leash, you'll probably get a better deal from him. So I really agreed with Halifax's decision.*17

JOHN COLVILLE

Churchill was viewed with grave misgivings by the Establishment. Everybody at 10 Downing Street and Whitehall, the Cabinet Officers, among soldiers, sailors and airmen and in very large sectors of the Conservative Party and to some extent the Labour Party were frightened of Churchill, they thought he was an adventurer. They did not want to see the fortunes of the country at a most critical moment in its whole history handed over to somebody who might do the most extraordinary things and undertake the most astonishing adventures. They all realised that Norway, this fiasco from which we had just been saved in the nick of time, was largely the inspiration of Churchill. It was a very fine idea but it didn't work. Halifax was safe, he was clever, a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, a man of indisputable charm and absolute integrity, and it was hoped that he would perhaps be sent for by the King. Churchill would be a gamble and when you're in it, at a very serious moment of your lives, a gamble is not the thing to undertake.

ROBERT BOOTHBY

The Germans attacked the West on the 10th May 1940 as many of us had foreseen they would. I had spent a year and a half before in a little town in Switzerland watching their preparations across the Swiss frontier while we were doing nothing at all. I had received private warnings from friends in Belgium and Holland where I had been invited by Churchill to go and try and get some arms. I had no doubt that a German attack on a great scale was impending. And then Chamberlain thought in these circumstances, although he had made up his mind to resign, he ought to carry on. Political henchmen in the House of Commons told him that this was such an emergent' that only a National Government could met the occasion and he said he must resign. He sent for Churchill and Halifax who were the only possible alternatives. The Labour Party made it quite clear through Party leader Clement Attlee and [Deputy Leader] Arthur Greenwood that they would never serve in any government under Neville Chamberlain, but they would under Halifax or Churchill. Halifax refused on the ground that he was in the House of Lords and couldn't conduct a war as Prime Minister unless he was a member of the House of Commons – which he couldn't be in those days. And therefore the mantle fell upon Churchill. Despite the Norwegian fiasco and the debate in which he defended the government, he became Prime Minister and formed the National Government which steered us to victory.

RAB BUTLER

The decision was largely taken by Halifax who told me he had a pain in his stomach an hour or two before the meeting and did not really want to be Prime Minister; whereas the man who really did want to be Prime Minister was quite determined on it. Chamberlain was rather hesitant because he favoured Halifax: after the India controversy of the years before, Churchill was regarded as being unsound and a rogue element. It was only when he took over with his marvellous broadcasts and all that he gradually began to get control of the nation. The people saw what an absolutely perfect Prime Minister he was for these occasions.

JOHN COLVILLE

I remember Churchill telling us that the critical moment came when Chamberlain asked Halifax and the three of them were there. Chamberlain suddenly turned to Churchill and said, 'Tell me, Winston, do you see any reason why in the twentieth century a Prime Minister should not be in the House of Lords?' and Churchill thought that this was a trap because if he said no, he thought Chamberlain would turn up to Halifax and say, 'If the King were to ask my advice I could perhaps suggest you.' On the other hand it was very difficult for him to say yes because there could be no alternative but himself, and so he turned round and stood staring over Horse Guards Parade and did not reply to the question.

CHRISTABEL BIELENBERG

Englishwoman married to an anti-Nazi German lawyer

The German opposition always felt that they would have to have the bulk of the German people with them if they didn't want to turn Hitler into a martyr, but that would change if he proved himself to have led the Germans to destruction. And they certainly pinned their hopes on the fact that if he did declare war on the West – this was after the Polish war – if he did make an active war, if what was called in Germany the Phoney War ever became no longer phoney, then he would have to attack the Maginot line, and it was the opinion of the generality in Germany that it would cost the German Army five hundred thousand men at least, and the opposition felt that would be the moment to strike. Well, as one knows very well, the Maginot line was circumvented and that did not happen.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!