FOR SEVEN MONTHS after the Second World War began in September 1939, many British people deluded themselves that it might gutter out before there was a bloodbath in the west. On April 5, 1940, while the armed but passive confrontation between the Wehrmacht and Anglo-French forces which had persisted since the fall of Poland still prevailed on the Franco-German border, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain told a Conservative Party meeting: “Hitler has missed the bus.” Less than five weeks later, however, on May 7, he addressed the House of Commons, to explain the disastrous outcome of Britain’s campaign to frustrate the German occupation of Norway. Beginning with a tribute to British troops who had “carried out their task with magnificent gallantry,” in halting tones he continued:
I hope that we shall not exaggerate the extent or the importance of the check we have received. The withdrawal from southern Norway is not comparable to the withdrawal from Gallipoli … There were no large forces involved. Not much more than a single division … Still, I am quite aware … that some discouragement has been caused to our friends, and that our enemies are crowing. … I want to ask hon. Members not to form any hasty opinions on the result of the Norwegian campaign so far as it has gone … A minister who shows any sign of confidence is always called complacent. If he fails to do so, he is labelled defeatist. For my part I try to steer a middle course [Interruption]—neither raising undue expectations [Hon. Members: “Hitler missed the bus”] which are unlikely to be fulfilled, nor making people’s flesh creep by painting pictures of unmitigated gloom. A great many times some hon. Members have repeated the phrase “Hitler missed the bus”—[Hon. Members: “You said it”] … While I retain my complete confidence in our ultimate victory, I do not think that the people of this country yet realise the extent or the imminence of the threat which is impending against us [An Hon. Member: “We said that five years ago”].
When the debate ended the following night, thirty-three Tories voted against their own party, and a further sixty abstained. Though Chamberlain retained a parliamentary majority, it was plain that his Conservative government had lost the nation’s confidence. This was not merely the consequence of the Norway campaign, but because through eight fumbling months it had exposed its lack of stomach for war. An all-party coalition was indispensable. Labour would not serve under Chamberlain. Winston Churchill became Britain’s prime minister following a meeting between himself, Chamberlain, Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax and Tory chief whip David Margesson on the afternoon of May 9, at which Halifax declared his own unsuitability for the post, as a member of the House of Lords who would be obliged to delegate direction of the war to Churchill in the Commons. In truth, some expedient could have been adopted to allow the foreign secretary to return to the Commons. But Halifax possessed sufficient self-knowledge to recognise that no more than Neville Chamberlain did he possess the stuff of a war leader.
While much of the ruling class disliked and mistrusted the new premier, he was the overwhelming choice of the British people. With remarkably sure instinct, they perceived that if they must wage war, the leadership of a warrior was needed. David Reynolds has observed that when the Gallipoli campaign failed in 1915, many people wished to blame Churchill—then, as in 1940, first lord of the Admiralty—while after Norway nobody did. “It was a marvel,”11 Churchill wrote in an unpublished draft of his war memoirs. “I really do not know how—I survived and maintained my position in public esteem while all the blame was thrown on poor Mr. Chamberlain.” He may also have perceived his own good fortune in not having achieved the highest office in earlier years, or even in the earlier months of the war. Had he done so, it is likely that by May 1940 his country would have tired of the excesses which he would surely have committed, while being no more capable than Chamberlain of stemming the tide of fate on the continent. Back in 1935, Stanley Baldwin explained to a friend his unwillingness to appoint Churchill to his own Cabinet: “If there is going to be a war12—and who can say there is not—we must keep him fresh to be our war Prime Minister.” Baldwin’s tone was jocular and patronising, yet there proved to be something in what he said.
In May 1940 only generals and admirals knew the extent of Churchill’s responsibility for Britain’s ill-starred Scandinavian deployments. Nonetheless the familiar view, that he was the sole architect of disaster, seems overstated. Had British troops been better trained, motivated and led, they would have made a better showing against Hitler’s forces, which repeatedly worsted them in Norway while often inferior in numbers. The British Army’s failure reflected decades of neglect, together with institutional weaknesses which would influence the fortunes of British arms through the years which followed. These were symbolically attested to by a colonel who noticed among officers’ baggage being landed at Namsos, on the central Norwegian coast, “several fishing rods13 and many sporting guns.” No German officer would have gone to war with such frivolous accoutrements.
Now, Halifax wrote disdainfully to a friend, “I don’t think WSC will be14 a very good PM though … the country will think he gives them a fillip.” The foreign secretary told his junior minister R. A. Butler, when they discussed his own refusal to offer himself for the premiership: “It’s all a great pity15. You know my reasons, it’s no use discussing that—but the gangsters will shortly be in complete control.” Humbler folk disagreed. Lancashire housewife Nella Last wrote in her diary on May 11: “If I had to spend my whole life16 with a man, I’d choose Mr. Chamberlain, but I think I would sooner have Mr. Churchill if there was a storm and I was shipwrecked. He has a funny face, like a bulldog living in our street who has done more to drive out unwanted dogs and cats … than all the complaints of householders.” London correspondent Mollie Panter-Downes told New Yorker readers: “Events are moving so fast17 that England acquired a new Premier almost absent-mindedly … It’s paradoxical but true that the British, for all their suspicious dislike of brilliance, are beginning to think they’d be safer with a bit of dynamite around.” National Labour MP Harold Nicolson, a poor politician but fine journalist and diarist, wrote in the Spectator of Churchill’s “Elizabethan zest for life18 … His wit … rises high in the air like some strong fountain, flashing in every sunbeam, and renewing itself with ever-increasing jets and gusts of image and association.”
Though Churchill’s appointment was made by the king on the advice of Chamberlain, rather than following any elective process, popular acclaim bore him to the premiership—and to the role as minister of defence which he also appropriated. Tory MP Leo Amery was among those sceptical that Churchill could play so many parts: “How Winston thinks that he can be Prime Minister19, co-ordinator of defence and leader of the House all at once, is puzzling, and confirms my belief that he really means the present arrangement to be temporary. Certainly no one can coordinate defence properly who is not prepared to be active head of the three Chiefs of Staff and in fact directly responsible for plans.” Critics were still expressing dismay about Churchill’s joint role as national leader and defence minister three years later. Yet Churchill’s dispositions were prompted not by mere personal conceit, but by dismay at the shocking lack of coordination between the services which characterised the Norway campaign. And posterity perceives, as did he at the time, that beyond his own eagerness to run Britain’s war machine, there was no other political or military figure to whom delegation of such power would have been appropriate.
In one of the most famous and moving passages of his memoirs, Churchill declared himself on May 10 “conscious of a profound20 sense of relief. At last I had the authority to give directions over the whole scene. I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and this trial.” He thrilled to his own ascent to Britain’s leadership. Perhaps he allowed himself a twitch of satisfaction, now that he could at last with impunity smoke cigars through Cabinet meetings, a habit which had annoyed his predecessor. If, however, he cherished a belief that it would be in his gift to shape strategy, events immediately disabused him.
At dawn on May 10, a few hours before Churchill was summoned to Buckingham Palace, Hitler’s armies stormed across the frontiers of neutral Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg. Capt. David Strangeways, serving with the British Expeditionary Force near Lille, just inside the French border, bridled at the impertinence of an orderly-room clerk who rushed into the quarters where he lay abed shouting: “David, sir, David!”21 Then the officer realised that the clerk was passing the order for Operation David, the BEF’s advance from the fortified line which it had held since the previous autumn deep into Belgium to meet the advancing Germans. Though the Belgians since 1936 had declared themselves neutrals, Allied war planning felt obliged to anticipate an imperative need to offer them aid if Germany violated their territory.
Operation David perfectly fulfilled Hitler’s predictions and wishes. On May 10 the British, together with the French First and Seventh armies, hastened to abandon laboriously prepared defensive positions. They mounted their trucks and armoured vehicles, then set off in long columns eastward towards the proffered “matador’s cloak,” in Basil Liddell Hart’s phrase, which the Germans flourished before them in Belgium. Farther south, in the Ardennes forest, panzer columns thrashed forward to launch one of the war’s great surprises, a thrust at the centre of the Allied line, left inexcusably weak by the deployments of the Allied supreme commander, France’s General Maurice Gamelin. Heinz Guderian’s and Georg Reinhardt’s tanks, racing for the Meuse, easily brushed aside French cavalry posturing in their path. Luftwaffe paratroops and glider-borne forces burst upon the Dutch and Belgian frontier fortresses. Stukas and Messerschmitts poured bombs and machine-gun fire upon bewildered formations of four armies.
No more than his nation did the prime minister grasp the speed of approaching catastrophe. The Allied leaders supposed themselves at the beginning of a long campaign. The war was already eight months old, but thus far neither side had displayed impatience for a decisive confrontation. The German descent on Scandinavia was a sideshow. Hitler’s assault on France promised the French and British armies the opportunity, so they supposed, to confront his legions on level terms. The paper strengths of the two sides in the west were similar—about 140 divisions apiece, of which just ten on the Allied side were British. Allied commanders and governments believed that weeks, if not months, would elapse before the critical clash came. Churchill retired to bed on the night of May 10 knowing that the Allies’ strategic predicament was grave, but bursting with thoughts and plans, and believing that he had time to implement them.
Events which tower in the perception of posterity must at the time compete for attention with trifles. The BBC radio announcer who told the nation of the German invasion of Belgium and Holland followed this by reporting, “British troops have landed in Iceland,”22 as if the second news item atoned for the first. The Times of May 11, 1940, reported the issue of an arrest warrant at Brighton bankruptcy court for a playwright named Walter Hackett, said to have fled to America. An army court-martial was described, at which a colonel was charged with “undue familiarity” with a sergeant in his searchlight unit. What would soldiers think, demanded the prosecutor, on hearing a commanding officer address a sergeant as “Eric”? Advertisements for Player’s cigarettes exhorted smokers: “When cheerfulness is in danger of disturbance, light a Player … with a few puffs put trouble in its proper place.” The Irish Tourist Association promised, “Ireland will welcome you.” On the front page, a blue Persian cat was offered for sale at £2 10.s: “house-trained; grandsire Ch. Laughton Laurel; age 7 weeks—Bachelor, Grove Place, Aldenham.” Among “Business Offers,” a “Gentleman with extensive experience wishes join established business, Town or Country, capital available.” A golf report on the sports page was headed, “What the public want.” There was a poem by Walter de la Mare: “O lovely England, whose ancient peace / War’s woful dangers strain and fret.”
The German blitzkrieg was reported under a double-column headline: HITLER STRIKES AT THE LOW COUNTRIES. Commentaries variously asserted: BELGIANS CONFIDENT OF VICTORY; TEN TIMES AS STRONG AS IN 1914; THE SIDE OF HOLLAND’S ECONOMIC LIFE OF GREATEST INTEREST TO HITLER IS DOUBTLESS HER AGRICULTURAL AND ALLIED ACTIVITIES; THE MILITARY OUTLOOK: NO SURPRISE THIS TIME. The Times’s editorial column declared: “It may be taken as certain that every detail has been prepared for an instant strategic reply … The Grand Alliance of our time for the destruction of the forces of treachery and oppression is being steadily marshalled.”
A single column at the right of the main news, proclaimed: NEW PRIME MINISTER. MR. CHURCHILL ACCEPTS. The newspaper’s correspondence was dominated by discussion of parliament’s Norway debate three days earlier, which had precipitated the fall of Chamberlain. Mr. Geoffrey Vickers urged that Lord Halifax was by far the best-qualified minister to lead a national government, assisted by a Labour leader of the Commons. Mr. Quintin Hogg, Tory MP for Oxford, noted that many of those who had voted against the government were serving officers. Mr. Henry Morris-Jones, Liberal MP for Denbigh, deplored the vote that had taken place, observing complacently that he himself had abstained. The news from France was mocked by a beautiful spring day, with bluebells and primroses everywhere in flower.
Henry “Chips” Channon, American-born Tory MP, diarist, millionaire and consummate ass, wrote on May 10: “Perhaps the darkest day in English history23 … We were all sad, angry and felt cheated and outwitted.” His distress was inspired by the fall of Chamberlain, not the blitzkrieg in France. Churchill himself knew better than anyone how grudgingly he had been offered the premiership, and how tenuous was his grasp on power. Much of the Conservative Party hated him, not least because he had twice in his life “ratted”—changed sides in the House of Commons. He was remembered as the architect of the disastrous 1915 Gallipoli campaign, the 1919 sponsor of war against the Bolsheviks in Russia, the 1933–34 opponent of Indian self-government, the 1936 supporter of King Edward VIII in the abdication crisis, and the savage backbench critic of both Baldwin and Chamberlain, Tory prime ministers through his own “wilderness years.”
In May 1940, while few influential figures24 questioned Churchill’s brilliance or oratorical genius, they perceived his career as wreathed in misjudgements. Robert Rhodes James subtitled his biography of Churchill before he ascended to the premiership A Study in Failure. As early as 1914, the historian A. G. Gardiner wrote an extraordinarily shrewd and admiring assessment, which concluded equivocally: “‘Keep your eye on Churchill’25 should be the watchword of these days. Remember, he is a soldier first, last and always. He will write his name big on our future. Let us take care he does not write it in blood.”
Now, amid the crisis precipitated by Hitler’s blitzkrieg, Churchill’s contemporaries could not forget that he had been wrong about much even in the recent past, and even in the military sphere in which he professed expertise. During the approach to war, he described the presence of aircraft over the battlefield as a mere “additional complication.”26 He claimed that modern antitank weapons neutered the powers of “the poor tank,”27 and that “the submarine will be mastered28 … There will be losses, but nothing to affect the scale of events.” On Christmas Day 1939, he wrote to Sir Dudley Pound, the first sea lord: “I feel we may compare the position29 now very favourably with that of 1914.” He had doubted that the Germans would invade Scandinavia. When they did so, Churchill told the Commons on April 11: “In my view, which is shared by my skilled advisers, Herr Hitler has committed a grave strategic error in spreading the war so far to the north … We shall take all we want of this Norwegian coast now, with an enormous increase in the facility and the efficiency of our blockade.” Even if some of Churchill’s false prophecies and mistaken expressions of confidence were unknown to the public, they were common currency among ministers and commanders.
His claim upon his country’s leadership rested not upon his contribution to the war since September 1939, which was equivocal, but upon his personal character and his record as a foe of appeasement. He was a warrior to the roots of his soul, who found his being upon battlefields. He was one of the few British prime ministers to have killed men with his own hand—at Omdurman in 1898. Now, he wielded a sword symbolically, if no longer physically, amid a body politic dominated by men of paper, creatures of committees and conference rooms. “It may well be,”30 he enthused, six years before the war, “that the most glorious chapters of our history have yet to be written. Indeed, the very problems and dangers that encompass us and our country ought to make English men and women of this generation glad to be here at such a time. We ought to rejoice at the responsibilities with which destiny has honoured us, and be proud that we are guardians of our country in an age when her life is at stake.” Leo Amery had written back in March 1940: “I am beginning to come round31 to the idea that Winston with all his failings is the one man with real war drive and love of battle.” So he was, of course. But widespread fears persisted that this erratic genius might lead Britain in a rush towards military disaster.
Few of the ministers whom he invited to join his all-party coalition were equal to the magnitude of their tasks. If this is true of all governments at all times, it was notably unfortunate now. Twenty-one out of thirty-six senior officeholders were, like Halifax, David Margesson, Kingsley Wood and Chamberlain himself, veterans of the previous discredited administration. “Winston has not been nearly bold32 enough with his changes and is much too afraid of the [Conservative] Party,” wrote Amery, who had led the Commons charge against Chamberlain.
Of the Labour recruits—notably Clement Attlee, A. V. Alexander, Hugh Dalton, Arthur Greenwood and Ernest Bevin—only Bevin was a personality of the first rank, though Attlee as deputy prime minister would provide a solid bulwark. Sir Archibald Sinclair, the Liberal leader who had served as an officer under Churchill in France in 1916 and now became secretary for air, was described by those contemptuous of his subservience to the new prime minister as “head of school’s fag.”33 Churchill’s personal supporters who received office or promotion, led by Anthony Eden, Lord Beaverbrook, Brendan Bracken and Amery, were balefully regarded not only by Chamberlain loyalists but also by many sensible and informed people who were willing to support the new prime minister but remained sceptical of his associates.
Much of the political class thought Churchill’s administration would be short-lived. “So at last that man34 has gained his ambition,” an elderly Tory MP, Cuthbert Headlam, noted sourly. “I never thought he would. Well—let us hope that he makes good. I have never believed in him. I only hope that my judgement … will be proved wrong.” The well-known military writer Captain Basil Liddell Hart wrote gloomily on May 11: “The new War Cabinet35 appears to be a group devoted to “victory” without regard to its practical possibility.” Lord Hankey, veteran Whitehall éminence grise and a member of the new government, thought it “perfectly futile for war36” and Churchill himself a “rogue elephant.”
Even as Hitler’s panzer columns drove for Sedan and pushed onwards through Holland and Belgium, Churchill was filling lesser government posts, interviewing new ministers, meeting officials. On the evening of May 10 Sir Edward Bridges, the shy, austere Cabinet secretary, called at Admiralty House, where Churchill still occupied the desk from which he had presided as first lord. Bridges decided that it would be unbecoming for an official who until that afternoon had been serving a deposed prime minister obsequiously to welcome the new one. He merely said cautiously: “May I wish you every possible37 good fortune?” Churchill grunted, gazed intently at Bridges for a moment, then said: “Hum. ‘Every good fortune!’ I like that! These other people have all been congratulating me. Every good fortune!”
At Churchill’s first meeting with the Chiefs of Staff as prime minister on May 11, he made two interventions, both trifling: he asked whether the police should be armed when sent to arrest enemy aliens; and he pondered the likelihood of Sweden joining the war on the Allied side. Even this most bellicose of men did not immediately attempt to tinker with the movements of Britain’s army on the Continent. When Eden, the new secretary for war, called on the prime minister that day, he noted in his diary that Churchill “seemed well satisfied38 with the way events were shaping.” If these words reflected a failure to perceive the prime minister’s inner doubts, it is also certainly true that he did not perceive the imminence of disaster.
Churchill cherished a faith in the greatness of France, the might of her armed forces, most touching in a statesman of a nation traditionally wary of its Gallic neighbour. “In Winston’s eyes,”39 wrote his doctor later, “France is civilisation.” Even after witnessing the German conquest of Poland, Norway and Denmark, Churchill understood little about the disparity between the relative fighting powers of Hitler’s Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe, and those of the French and British armies and air forces. He, like almost all his advisers, deemed it unthinkable that the Germans could achieve a breakthrough against France’s Maginot Line and the combined mass of French, British, Dutch and Belgian forces.
In the days that followed his ascent to Downing Street on May 10, Churchill set about galvanising the British machinery of war and government for a long haul. As war leader, he expected to preside over Britain’s part in a massive and protracted clash on the Continent. His foremost hope was that this would entail no such slaughter as that which characterised the 1914–18 conflict. If he cherished no expectation of swift victory, he harboured no fear of decisive defeat. On May 13, headlines in the Times asserted confidently: BRITISH FORCES MOVING ACROSS BELGIUM—SUCCESSFUL ENCOUNTERS WITH ENEMY—RAF STRIKES AGAIN.
Addressing the Commons that day, the prime minister apologised for his brevity: “I hope that … my friends … will make allowance, all allowance, for any lack of ceremony with which it has been necessary to act … We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering … But I take up my task with buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men. At this time I feel entitled to claim the aid of all, and I say: ‘Come then, let us go forward together with our united strength.’”
Churchill’s war speeches are usually quoted in isolation. This obscures the bathos of remarks by backbench MPs which followed those of the prime minister. On May 13, Maj. Sir Philip Colfox, West Dorset, said that although the country must now pursue national unity, he himself much regretted that Neville Chamberlain had been removed from the premiership. Sir Irving Albery, Gravesend, recalled the new prime minister’s assertion: “My policy is a policy of war.” Albery said he thought it right to praise his predecessor’s commitment to the cause of peace. Col. John Gretton, Burton, injected a rare note of realism by urging the House not to waste words, when “the enemy is almost battering at our gates.” The bleakest indication of the Conservative Party’s temper came from the fact that while Neville Chamberlain was cheered as he entered the chamber that day, Churchill’s appearance was greeted with resentful Tory silence.
This, his first important statement, received more applause from abroad than it did from some MPs. The Philadelphia Inquirer editorialised: “He proved in this one short speech40 that he was not afraid to face the truth and tell it. He proved himself an honest man as well as a man of action. Britain has reason to be enheartened by his brevity, his bluntness and his courage.” Time magazine wrote: “That smart, tough, dumpy little man41, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, knows how to face facts … Great Britain’s tireless old firebrand has changed the character of Allied warmongering.”
That day, May 13, the threat of German air attack on Britain caused Churchill to make his first significant military decision: he rejected a proposal for further fighter squadrons to be sent to France, to reinforce the ten already committed. But, while the news from the Continent was obviously bleak, he asserted that he was “by no means sure that the great battle was developing.” He still cherished hopes of turning the tide in Norway, signalling to Admiral Lord Cork and Orrery on May 14: “I hope you will get Narvik cleaned up as soon as possible, and then work southward with increasing force.”
Yet the Germans were already bridging the Meuse at Sedan and Dinant, south of Brussels, for their armoured columns emerging from the Ardennes’s forests. A huge gap was opening between the French Ninth Army, which was collapsing, and the Second, on its left. Though the BEF, in Belgium, was still not seriously engaged, its C-in-C, Lord Gort, appealed for air reinforcements. Gort commanded limited confidence. Like all British generals, he lacked training and instincts for the handling of large forces. One of the army’s cleverest staff officers, Col. Ian Jacob of the War Cabinet Secretariat, wrote: “We have for twenty years42 thought little about how to win big campaigns on land; we have been immersed in our day-to-day imperial police activities.”
This deficiency, of plausible “big battlefield” commanders, would dog British arms throughout the war. Gort was a famously brave officer who had won a Victoria Cross in World War I, and he still carried himself with a boyish enthusiasm. Maj. Gen. John Kennedy, soon to become director of military operations at the War Office, described the BEF’s C-in-C as “a fine fighting soldier”—a useful testimonial for a platoon commander. In blunter words, the general lacked brains, as do most men possessed of the suicidal courage necessary to gain a Victoria Cross or Medal of Honor. A shrewd American categorized both Gort and the chief of the Imperial General Staff, Sir William Edmund Ironside, as “purely physical soldiers43 who had no business in such high places.” Yet Sir Alan Brooke or Sir Bernard Montgomery would have been no more capable of averting disaster in 1940, with the small forces available to the BEF. Unlike most of continental Europe, Britain had no peacetime conscription for military service until 1939, and thus no large potential reserves for mobilisation. The army Gort commanded was, in spirit, the imperial constabulary of the interwar years, starved of resources for a generation.
On May 14, for the first time Churchill glimpsed the immensity of the Allies’ peril. Paul Reynaud, France’s prime minister, telephoned from Paris, reporting the German breakthrough and asking for the immediate dispatch of a further ten RAF fighter squadrons. The Chiefs of Staff Committee and the War Cabinet, which met successively at six and seven o’clock, agreed that Britain’s home defences should not be thus weakened. At seven the next morning, May 15, Reynaud telephoned personally to Churchill. The Frenchman spoke emotionally, asserting in English: “the battle is lost.” Churchill urged him to steady himself, pointing out that only a small part of the French army was engaged, while the German spearheads were now far extended and thus should be vulnerable to flank attack.
When Churchill reported the conversation to his political and military chiefs, the question of further air support was raised once more. Churchill was briefly minded to accede to Reynaud’s pleas. But Chamberlain sided with Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, C-in-C of Fighter Command, who passionately demurred. No further fighters were committed. That day Jock Colville, the prime minister’s twenty-five-year-old junior private secretary and an aspiring Pepys, noted in his diary the understated concerns of Maj. Gen. Hastings “Pug” Ismay, chief of staff to Churchill in his capacity as minister of defence. Ismay was “not too happy about the military44 situation. He says the French are not fighting properly: they are, he points out, a volatile race and it may take them some time to get into a warlike mood.”
Sluggish perception lagged behind dreadful reality. Churchill cabled to President Franklin Roosevelt: “I think myself that the battle45 on land has only just begun, and I should like to see the masses engage. Up to the present, Hitler is working with specialized units in tanks and air.” He appealed for American aid, and for the first time begged the loan of fifty old destroyers. Washington had already vetoed a request that a British aircraft carrier should dock at an American port to embark fully assembled, battle-ready fighters. This would breach the U.S. Neutrality Act, said the president. So, too, he decided, would the dispatch of destroyers.
In France on May 15, the RAF’s inadequate Battle and Blenheim bombers suffered devastating losses while attempting to break the Germans’ Meuse pontoon bridges. A watching panzer officer wrote: “The summer landscape46 with the quietly flowing river, the light green of the meadows bordered by the darker summits of the more distant heights, spanned by a brilliantly blue sky, is filled with the racket of war … Again and again an enemy aircraft crashes out of the sky, dragging a long black plume of smoke behind it … Occasionally from the falling machines one or two white parachutes release themselves and float slowly to earth.” The RAF’s sacrifice was anyway too late. Much of the German armour was already across the Meuse, and racing westward.
On the morning of the sixteenth, it was learned in London that the Germans had breached the Maginot Line. The War Cabinet agreed to deploy four further fighter squadrons to operate over the battlefield. At three o’clock that afternoon, the prime minister flew to Paris, accompanied by Ismay and Gen. Sir John Dill, Ironside’s vice chief of the Imperial General Staff (CIGS). Landing at Le Bourget, for the first time they perceived the desperation of their ally. France’s generals and politicians were waiting upon defeat. As the leaders of the two nations conferred at the Quai d’Orsay, officials burned files in the garden. When Churchill asked about French reserves for a counterattack, he was told that these had already been committed piecemeal. Reynaud’s colleagues did not conceal their bitterness at Britain’s refusal to dispatch further fighters. At every turn of the debate, French shoulders shrugged. From the British embassy that evening, Churchill cabled the War Cabinet, urging the dispatch of six more squadrons. “I … emphasise the mortal gravity of the hour,” he wrote. The chief of the Air Staff, Sir Cyril Newall, proposed a compromise: six further squadrons should operate over France from their British airfields. At two a.m., Churchill drove to Reynaud’s flat to communicate the news. The prime minister thereafter returned to the embassy, slept soundly despite occasional distant gunfire, then flew home via Hendon, where he landed before nine a.m. on May 17.
He wore a mask of good cheer, but was no longer in doubt about the catastrophe threatening the Allies. He understood that it had become essential for the BEF to withdraw from its outflanked positions in Belgium. Back in Downing Street, after reporting to the War Cabinet, he set about filling further minor posts in his government, telephoning briskly to prospective appointees, twelve that day in all. Harold Nicolson recorded a typical conversation:
“Harold, I think it would be wise47 if you joined the Government and helped Duff [Cooper] at the Ministry of Information.”
“There is nothing I should like better.”
“Well, fall in tomorrow. The list will be out tonight. That all right?”
“Very much all right.”
Sir Edward Bridges and other Whitehall officials were impressed by Churchill’s “superb confidence,”48 the “unhurried calm with which he set about forming his government.” At the outset, this reflected failure to perceive the immediacy of disaster. Within days, however, there was instead a majestic determination that his own conduct should be seen to match the magnitude of the challenge he and his nation faced. From the moment Churchill gained the premiership, he displayed a self-discipline which had been conspicuously absent from most of his career. In small things as in great, he won the hearts of those who became his intimates at Downing Street. “What a beautiful handwriting,”49 he told Jock Colville when the private secretary showed him a dictated telegram, “but, my dear boy, when I say stop you must write stop and not just put a blob.” Embracing his staff as50 an extension of his family, it never occurred to him to warn them against repeating his confidences. He took it for granted that they would not do so—and was rewarded accordingly.
Churchill lunched on May 17 at the Japanese embassy. Even in such circumstances, diplomatic imperatives pressed. Japan’s militarist expansionism was manifest. Everything possible had to be done to promote its quiescence. That afternoon, he dispatched into exile former foreign secretary Sir Samuel Hoare, most detested of the old appeasers, to become ambassador to Spain. He also established economic committees to address trade, food and transport. A series of telegrams arrived from France, reporting further German advances. Churchill asked Chamberlain, as lord president, to assess the implications of the fall of Paris—and of the BEF’s possible withdrawal from the continent through the Channel ports. His day, which had begun in Paris, ended with dinner at Admiralty House in the company of Lord Beaverbrook and Brendan Bracken.
Posterity owes little to Churchill’s wayward son, Randolph, but a debt is due for his account of a visit to Admiralty House on the morning of May 18:
I went up to my father’s bedroom51. He was standing in front of his basin and shaving with his old-fashioned Valet razor …
“Sit down, dear boy, and read the papers while I finish shaving.” I did as told. After two or three minutes of hacking away, he half turned and said: “I think I see my way through.” He resumed his shaving. I was astounded, and said: “Do you mean that we can avoid defeat?” (which seemed credible) “or beat the bastards?” (which seemed incredible).
He flung his Valet razor into the basin, swung around and said:—“Of course I mean we can beat them.”
Me: “Well, I’m all for it, but I don’t see how you can do it.”
By this time he had dried and sponged his face and turning round to me, said with great intensity: “I shall drag the United States in.”
Here was a characteristic Churchillian flash of revelation. The prospect of American belligerence was remote. For years, Neville Chamberlain had repeatedly and indeed rudely rebuffed advances from Franklin Roosevelt. Yet already the new prime minister recognised that U.S. aid alone might make Allied victory possible. He was obliged to acknowledge the probability—though, unlike France’s generals, he refused to bow to its inevitability—of German victory on the Continent. Reports from the battlefield grew steadily graver. Churchill urged the Chiefs of Staff to consider bringing large reinforcements from India and Palestine, and holding back some tank units then in transit from Britain to the BEF. The threat of a sudden German descent on England, spearheaded by paratroops, seized his imagination, unrealistic though it was.
A Home Intelligence report suggested to the government that national morale was badly shaken: “It must be remembered that the defence52 of the Low Countries had been continually built up in the press … Not one person in a thousand could visualise the Germans breaking through into France … A relieved acceptance of Mr. Churchill as prime minister allowed people to believe that a change of leadership would, in itself, solve the consequences of Mr. Chamberlain. Reports sent in yesterday and this morning show that disquiet and personal fear have returned.”
On the evening of May 18, the War Cabinet agreed that Churchill should broadcast to the nation, making plain the gravity of the emergency. Ministers were told that Mussolini had rejected Britain’s proposal for an Italian declaration of neutrality. This prompted Navy Minister A. V. Alexander to urge the immediate occupation of Crete, as a base for operations against Italy in the Mediterranean. Churchill dismissed the idea out of hand, saying that Britain was much too committed elsewhere to embark upon gratuitous adventures.
On the morning of Sunday, May 19, it was learned that the BEF had evacuated Arras, increasing the peril of its isolation from the main French forces. Emerging together from a meeting, Ironside said to Eden: “This is the end of the British Empire.” The secretary for war noted: “Militarily, I did not see how53 he could be gainsaid.” Yet it was hard for colleagues to succumb to despair, when their leader marvellously sustained his wit. That same bleak Sunday, the prime minister said to Eden: “About time number 1754 turned up, isn’t it?” The two of them, at a Cannes casino’s roulette wheel in 1938, had backed the number and won twice.
At noon, Churchill was driven across Kent to Chartwell, his beloved old home, shuttered for the duration. He sought an interlude of tranquillity in which to prepare his broadcast to the nation. But he had been feeding his goldfish for only a few minutes when he was interrupted by a telephone call. Gort, in France, was seeking sanction to fall back on the sea at Dunkirk if his predicament worsened. The C-in-C was told instead to seek to reestablish contact with the French army, on his right; German spearheads were in between. The French, in their turn, would be urged to counterattack towards him. The Belgians were pleading for the BEF to hold a more northerly line beside their own troops. The War Cabinet determined, however, that the vital priority was to reestablish a common front with the main French armies. The Belgians must be left to their fate, while British forces redeployed southwestwards towards Arras and Amiens.
Broadcasting to the British people that night, Churchill asserted a confidence which he did not feel, saying that the line in France would be stabilised, but he also warned of the peril the nation faced. “This is one of the most awe-striking periods in the long history of France and Britain. It is also beyond doubt the most sublime. Centuries ago words were written to be a call and a spur to the faithful servants of Truth and Justice: ‘Arm yourselves, and be ye men of valour … for it is better for us to perish in battle than to look upon the outrage of our nation and our altar. As the will of God is in Heaven, even so let it be.’”
This was the first of his great clarion calls to the nation. It is impossible to overstate its impact upon the British people, and indeed upon the listening world. He asserted his resolve, and his listeners responded. That night, he dispatched a minute to Ismay reasserting his refusal to send further RAF squadrons to France. Every fighter would be needed “if it becomes necessary to evacuate the BEF.” It was obvious that this decision would be received badly by the French, and not all his subordinates supported it. His personal scientific and economic adviser, Frederick Lindemann—“the Prof”—penned a note of protest.
Britain’s forces could exert only a marginal influence on the outcome of the battle for France. Even if every aircraft the RAF possessed had been dispatched to the Continent, such a commitment would not have averted Allied defeat. It would merely have sacrificed the squadrons that later won the Battle of Britain. In May 1940, however, such things were much less plain. As France tottered on the brink of collapse, with eight million terrified refugees clogging roads in a fevered exodus southwards, the bitterness of her politicians and generals mounted against an ally that matched extravagant rhetoric with refusal to provide the only important aid in its gift. France’s leaders certainly responded feebly to Hitler’s blitzkrieg. But their rancour towards Britain merits understanding. Churchill’s perception of British self-interest has been vindicated by history, but scarcely deserved the gratitude of Frenchmen.
He sent an unashamedly desperate message to Roosevelt, regretting America’s refusal to lend destroyers. More, he warned that while his own government would never surrender, a successor administration might parley with Germany, using the Royal Navy as its “sole remaining bargaining counter55 … If this country was left by the United States to its fate, no one would have the right to blame those men responsible if they made the best terms they could for the surviving inhabitants. Excuse me, Mr. President, putting this nightmare bluntly.” In Hitler’s hands, Britain’s fleet would pose a grave threat to the United States.
If this was a brutal prospect to lay before Roosevelt, it was by no means a bluff. At that moment, Churchill could not know that Parliament and the British people would stick with him to the end. Chamberlain remained leader of the Conservative Party. Even before the crisis in France, a significant part of Britain’s ruling class was susceptible to a compromise peace. Following military catastrophe, it was entirely plausible that Churchill’s government would fall, just as Chamberlain’s had done, to be replaced by an administration which sought terms from Hitler. Only in the months which followed would the world, and Churchill himself, gradually come to perceive that the people of Britain were willing to risk everything under his leadership.
On May 20, he told the Chiefs of Staff that the time had come to consider whether residual Norwegian operations around Narvik should be sustained, when troops and ships were urgently needed elsewhere. On the Continent, the Germans were driving south and west so fast that it seemed doubtful whether the BEF could regain touch with the main French armies. Gort was still striving to pull back forces from the Scheldt. That night, German units passed Amiens on the hot, dusty road to Abbeville, cutting off the BEF from its supply bases. Still Churchill declined to despair. He told the War Cabinet late on the morning of the twenty-first that “the situation was more favourable than certain of the more obvious symptoms would indicate.” In the north, the British still had local superiority of numbers. Fears focused on the perceived pusillanimity of the French, both politicians and soldiers. That day, a British armoured thrust south from Arras failed to break through. The BEF was isolated, along with elements of the French First Army. Calais and Boulogne remained in British hands, but inaccessible by land.
The House of Commons on May 20, with the kind of inspired madness that contributed to the legend of 1940, debated a Colonial Welfare Bill. Many people in Britain lacked understanding of the full horror of the Allies’ predicament. Newspaper readers continued to receive encouraging tidings. The Evening News headlined on May 17: BRITISH TROOPS SUCCESS. On the nineteenth, the Sunday Dispatch headline read: ATTACKS LESS POWERFUL. Even two days later, the Evening News front page proclaimed: ENEMY ATTACKS BEATEN OFF. An editorial in the New Statesman urged that “the government should at once56 grapple with the minor, but important problem of Anglo-Mexican relations.”
Gort’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Henry Pownall, complained bitterly on May 20 about the absence of clear instructions from London: “Nobody minds going down57 fighting, but the long and many days of indigence and recently the entire lack of higher direction … have been terribly wearing on the nerves of all of us.” But when orders did come from the prime minister three days later—for a counterattack south-eastwards by the entire BEF—Pownall was even angrier: “Can nobody prevent him58 trying to conduct operations himself as a super Commander-in-Chief? How does he think we are to collect eight divisions and attack as he suggests? Have we no front to hold? He can have no conception of our situation and condition … The man’s mad.”
Only the port of Dunkirk still offered an avenue of escape from the Continent, and escape now seemed the BEF’s highest credible aspiration. On May 22 and 23, the British awaited tidings of the promised French counteroffensive northeastward towards Gort. Gen. Maxime Weygand, who had supplanted the sacked Gamelin as Allied supreme commander, declared this to be in progress. In the absence of visible movement Churchill remained sceptical. If Weygand’s thrust failed, evacuation would become the only British option. Churchill reported as much to the king on the night of May 23, as Boulogne was evacuated. On the night of the twenty-fourth, he fumed to Ismay about Gort’s failure to launch a force towards Calais, to link up with its garrison. He demanded to know how men and guns could be better used. He concluded, in the first overtly bitter and histrionic words he had deployed against Britain’s soldiers since the campaign began: “Of course, if one side fights and the other does not, the war is apt to become somewhat unequal.” Ironside, the CIGS, told the Defence Committee that evening that if the BEF was indeed evacuated by sea from France, a large proportion of its men might be lost.
Churchill was now preoccupied with three issues: rescue of Gort’s men from Dunkirk; deployment of further units of the British Army to renew the battle in France, following the BEF’s withdrawal; and defence of the home island against invasion. Reynaud dispatched a bitter message to London on May 24, denouncing the British retreat to the sea and blaming this for the failure of Weygand’s counteroffensive—which in truth had never taken place. “Everything is complete confusion,”59 Sir Alexander Cadogan, permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office, noted in his diary on the twenty-fifth, “no communications and no one knows what’s going on, except that everything’s black as black.”
Churchill cabled to the dominion prime ministers, warning that an invasion of Britain might be imminent. He rejoiced that reinforcements from the Empire were on their way, and asserted his confidence that the Royal Navy and RAF should be able to frustrate an assault, following which “our land defence will deal with any sea-borne survivors after some rough work.” He rejected the notion of a public appeal to the United States. He feared, surely correctly, that such a message would have scant appeal to a nation already disposed to dismiss aid to Britain as wasted motion. In this, as in his judgement of shifting American moods through the months that followed, he displayed deep wisdom. A Gallup poll showed Americans60 still overwhelmingly opposed, by thirteen to one, to participation in the European conflict.
On May 25, Churchill dispatched a personal message to Brig. Claude Nicholson, commanding the British force in Calais, ordering that his men must fight to the end. The Belgians were collapsing. Gort cancelled his last planned counterattack southwards, instead sending north the two divisions earmarked for it to plug the gap between British and Belgian forces. That evening, at a meeting of the Defence Committee, Churchill accepted the conclusion which Gort, now out of contact with London, had already reached and begun to act upon. The BEF must withdraw to the coast for evacuation. The commander-in-chief’s order, issued in advance of consent from Britain, represented his most notable contribution to the campaign, and by no means a negligible one. The prime minister ordered that six skeleton divisions in Britain should be urgently prepared for active service, though scant means existed to accomplish this. Artillery, antitank weapons, transport, even small arms were lacking. He acknowledged that France’s leaders, resigned to defeat, would probably depose Reynaud and make terms with Hitler. Henceforward, the future of the French fleet was much in his mind. In German hands, these warships might drastically improve the odds favouring a successful invasion of Britain. That night, Ironside resigned as CIGS, to become commander-in-chief Home Forces. The general had never commanded Churchill’s confidence, while Sir John Dill, Ironside’s vice chief, did. Next day Dill, fifty-nine years old, clever and sensitive though seldom in good health, became head of the British Army.
At nine o’clock on the morning of May 26, Churchill told the War Cabinet that there was a good chance of “getting off a considerable proportion of the British Expeditionary Force.” Paul Reynaud arrived in London. He warned the prime minister over lunch that if Germany occupied a large part of France, the nation’s old hero Marshal Philippe Pétain would probably call for an armistice. Reynaud dismissed British fears that the Germans were bent on an immediate invasion of their island. Hitler would strike for Paris, he said, and of course he was right. Churchill told Reynaud that Britain would fight on, whatever transpired. Following a break while Churchill met the War Cabinet, the two leaders resumed their talks. Churchill pressed for Weygand to issue an order for the BEF to fall back on the coast. This was designed to frustrate charges of British betrayal. Reynaud duly requested such a message, to endorse the reality of what was already taking place.
At a four-hour Cabinet meeting that afternoon, following Reynaud’s departure, the merits of seeking a settlement with Hitler were discussed. Churchill hoped that France might receive terms that precluded her occupation by the Germans. Halifax, the foreign secretary, expressed his desire to seek Italian mediation with Hitler to secure terms for Britain. He had held preliminary talks with Mussolini’s ambassador in London about such a course. Churchill was sceptical, saying this presupposed that a deal might be made merely by returning Germany’s old colonies and making concessions in the Mediterranean. “No such option was open to us,” said the prime minister.
Six Alexander Cadogan, who joined the meeting after half an hour, found Churchill “too rambling and romantic61 and sentimental and temperamental.” This was harsh. The prime minister bore vast burdens. It behoved him to be circumspect in all dealings with the old appeasers among his colleagues. There were those in Whitehall who, rather than being stirred by Churchill’s appeals to recognise a great historic moment, curled their lips. Chamberlain’s private secretary, Arthur Rucker, responded contemptuously to the ringing phrases in one of the prime minister’s missives: “He is still thinking of his books.”62 Eric Seal, the only one of Churchill’s private secretaries who established no close rapport with him, muttered about “blasted rhetoric.”
A substantial part of the British ruling class, MPs and peers alike, had since September 1939 lacked faith in the possibility of military victory. Although Churchill was himself an aristocrat, he was widely mistrusted by his own kind. Since the 1917 Russian Revolution, many British grandees, including such dukes as Westminster, Wellington and Buccleuch and such lesser peers as Lord Phillimore, had shown themselves much more hostile to Soviet Communism than to European Fascism. Their patriotism was never in doubt. However, their enthusiasm for a fight to the finish with Hitler, which they feared would end in rubble and ruin, was less assured. Lord Hankey observed acidly before making a speech to the House of Lords early in May that he “would be addressing63 most of the members of the Fifth Column.”
Lord Tavistock, soon to become Duke of Bedford, a pacifist and plausible Nazi collaborator, wrote to former prime minister David Lloyd George that Hitler’s strength was “so great … it is madness64 to suppose we can beat him by war on the continent.” On May 15, Tavistock urged Lloyd George that peace should be made “now rather than later … if the Germans received fair peace terms a dozen Hitlers could never start another war on an inadequate … pretext.” Harold Nicolson wrote: “It is not the descendants65 of the old governing classes who display the greatest enthusiasm for their leader.” Likewise, some financial magnates were sceptical of any possibility of British victory, and thus of the new prime minister: “Mr. Chamberlain is the idol of the business men … They do not have the same personal feelings for Mr. Churchill … There are awful moments when they feel that Mr. Churchill does not find them interesting.”
There were also defeatists lower down the social scale. Muriel Green, who worked at her family’s garage in Norfolk, recorded a conversation at a local tennis match with a grocer’s roundsman and a schoolmaster on May 23. “I think they’re going to beat us66, don’t you,” said the roundsman. “Yes,” said the schoolmaster. He added that, as the Nazis were very keen on sport, he expected “we’d still be able to play tennis if they did win.” Muriel Green wrote: “J said Mr. M. was saying we should paint a swastika under the door knocker [sic] ready. We all agreed we shouldn’t know what to do if they invade. After that we played tennis, very hard exciting play for 2 hrs, and forgot all about the war.”
In those last days of May, the prime minister must have perceived a real possibility, even a likelihood, that if he himself appeared irrationally intransigent, the old Conservative grandees would reassert themselves. Amid the collapse of all the hopes on which Britain’s military struggle against Hitler were founded, it was not fanciful to suppose that a peace party might gain control in Britain. Some historians have made much of the fact that at this War Cabinet meeting, Churchill failed to dismiss out of hand an approach to Mussolini. He did not flatly contradict Halifax when the foreign secretary said that if the Duce offered terms for a general settlement “which did not postulate the destruction of our independence … we should be foolish if we did not accept them.” Churchill conceded that “if we could get out of this jam by giving up Malta and Gibraltar and some African colonies, he would jump at it.” At the following day’s War Cabinet meeting, he indicated that if Hitler was prepared to offer peace in exchange for the restoration of his old colonies and the overlordship of central Europe, a negotiation could be possible.
It seems essential to consider Churchill’s words in context. First, they were made in the midst of long, weary discussions, during which he was taking elaborate pains to appear reasonable. Halifax spoke with the voice of logic. Amid shattering military defeat, even Churchill dared not offer his colleagues a vision of British victory. In those Dunkirk days, the director of military intelligence told a BBC correspondent: “We’re finished. We’ve lost the army and we’ll never have time or strength to build another.” Churchill did not challenge the view of those who assumed that the war would end, sooner or later, with a negotiated settlement rather than with a British army marching into Berlin. He pitched his case low, because there was no alternative. A display of exaggerated confidence would have invited ridicule. He relied solely upon the argument that there was no more to lose by fighting on, than by throwing in the hand.
How would his colleagues, or even posterity, have assessed his judgement had he sought, at those meetings, to offer the prospect of military triumph? To understand what happened in Britain in the summer of 1940, it is essential to acknowledge the logic of impending defeat. This was what created tensions between the hearts and minds even of staunch and patriotic British people. The best aspiration they and their prime minister could entertain was a manly determination to survive today, and pray for a better tomorrow. The War Cabinet discussions between May 26 and 28 took place while it was still doubtful that any significant portion of the BEF could be saved from France.
At the meeting of May 26, with the support of Attlee, Greenwood and eventually Chamberlain, Churchill summed up for the view that there was nothing to be lost by fighting on, because no terms which Hitler might offer in the future were likely to be worse than those now available. Having discussed the case for a parley, he dismissed it, even if Halifax refused to do so. At seven o’clock that evening, an hour after the War Cabinet meeting ended, the Admiralty signalled the flag officer Dover, Vice Adm. Bertram Ramsay: “Operation Dynamo is to commence.” Destroyers of the Royal Navy, aided by a fleet of small craft, began to evacuate the BEF from Dunkirk.
That night yet another painful order was forced upon Churchill. The small British force at Calais, drawn from the Rifle Brigade, possessed only nuisance value. But everything possible had to be done to distract German forces from the Dunkirk perimeter. The Rifles must resist to the last. Ismay wrote: “The decision affected us all67 very deeply, especially perhaps Churchill. He was unusually silent during dinner that evening, and ate and drank with evident distaste.” He asked a private secretary, John Martin, to find for him a passage in George Borrow’s 1843 prayer for England. Martin identified the lines next day: “Fear not the result, for either thy end be a majestic and an enviable one, or God shall perpetuate thy reign upon the waters.”
On the morning of May 27, even as British troops were beginning to embark at Dunkirk, Churchill asked the leaders of the armed forces to prepare a memorandum, setting out the nation’s prospects for resisting invasion if France fell. Within a couple of hours, the Chiefs of Staff submitted an eleven-paragraph response, which identified the key issues with notable insight. As long as the RAF was “in being,” they wrote, its aircraft together with the warships of the Royal Navy should be able to prevent an invasion. If air superiority was lost, however, the navy could not indefinitely hold the Channel. Should the Germans secure a beachhead in southeast England, British home forces would be incapable of evicting them. The Chiefs pinpointed the air battle, Britain’s ability to defend its key installations and especially aircraft factories, as the decisive factor in determining the future course of the war. They concluded with heartening words: “the real test is whether the morale of our fighting personnel and civil population will counter-balance the numerical and material advantages which Germany enjoys. We believe it will.”
The War Cabinet debated at length, and finally accepted, the Chiefs’ report. It was agreed that further efforts should be made to induce the Americans to provide substantial aid. An important message arrived from Lord Lothian, British ambassador in Washington, suggesting that Britain should invite the United States to lease basing facilities in Trinidad, Newfoundland and Bermuda. Churchill opposed any such unilateral offer. America had “given us practically no help in the war,” he said. “Now that they saw how great was the danger, their attitude was that they wanted to keep everything that would help us for their own defence.” This would remain the case until the end of the battle for France. There was no doubt of Roosevelt’s desire to help, but he was constrained by the terms of the Neutrality Act imposed by Congress. On May 17 Gen. George Marshall, chief of staff of the army, expounded to Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau his objections to shipping American arms to the Allies: “It is a drop in the bucket68 on the other side and it is a very vital necessity on this side and that is that. Tragic as it is, that is it.” Between May 23 and June 3 Secretary of War Harry Woodring, an ardent isolationist, deliberately delayed shipment to Britain of war matériel condemned as surplus. He insisted that there must be prior public advertisement before such equipment was sold to the Allies. On June 5, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee rejected an administration proposal to sell ships and planes to Britain. The U.S. War Department declined to supply bombs to fit dive-bombers which the French had already bought and paid for.
In the last days of May, a deal for Britain to purchase twenty U.S. patrol torpedo boats was scuttled when news of it leaked to isolationist Senator David Walsh of Massachusetts. As chairman of the Senate’s Navy Affairs Committee, Walsh referred the plan to the attorney general—who declared it illegal. In mid-June, the U.S. chiefs of staff recommended that no further war matériel should be sent to Britain, and that no private contractor should be allowed to accept an order which might compromise the needs of the U.S. armed forces. None of this directly influenced the campaign in France. But it spoke volumes, all unwelcome in London and Paris, about the prevailing American mood towards Europe’s war.
It was a small consolation that other powerful voices across the Atlantic were urging Britain’s cause. The New York Times attacked Col. Charles Lindbergh, America’s arch-isolationist flying hero, and asserted the mutuality of Anglo-American interests. Lindbergh, said the Times, was “an ignorant young man if he trusts his own premise that it makes no difference to us whether we are deprived of the historic defense of British sea power in the Atlantic Ocean.” The Republican New York Herald Tribuneastonished many Americans by declaring boldly, “The least costly solution in both life69 and welfare would be to declare war on Germany at once.” Yet even if President Roosevelt had wished to heed the urgings of such interventionists and offer assistance to the Allies, he had before him the example of Woodrow Wilson, in whose administration he had served. Wilson was renounced by his own legislature in 1919 for making commitments abroad—in the Versailles Treaty—which outreached the will of the American people. Roosevelt had no intention of emulating him.
Chamberlain reported on May 27 that he had spoken the previous evening to Stanley Bruce, Australian high commissioner in London, who argued that Britain’s position would be bleak if France surrendered. Bruce, a shrewd and respected spokesman for his dominion, urged seeking American or Italian mediation with Hitler. Australia’s prime minister, Robert Menzies, was fortunately made of sterner stuff. From Canberra, Menzies merely enquired what assistance his country’s troops could provide. By autumn, three Australian divisions were deployed in the Middle East. Churchill told Chamberlain to make plain to Bruce that France’s surrender would not influence Britain’s determination to fight on. He urged ministers—and emphasised the message in writing a few days later—to present bold faces to the world. Likewise, a little later, he instructed Britain’s missions abroad to entertain lavishly, prompting embassy parties in Madrid and Berne. In Churchill’s house, even amid disaster there was no place for glum countenances.
At a further War Cabinet meeting that afternoon, Halifax found himself unsupported when he returned to his theme of the previous day, seeking agreement that Britain should solicit Mussolini’s help in exploring terms from Hitler. Churchill said that, at that moment, British prestige in Europe was very low. It could be revived only by defiance. “If, after two or three months, we could show that we were still unbeaten, we should be no worse off than we should be if we were now to abandon the struggle. Let us therefore avoid being dragged down the slippery slope with France.” If terms were offered, he would be prepared to consider them. But if the British were invited to send a delegate to Paris to join with the French in suing for peace with Germany, the answer must be no. The War Cabinet agreed.
Halifax wrote in his diary: “I thought Winston talked70 the most frightful rot. I said exactly what I thought of [the foreign secretary’s opponents in the War Cabinet], adding that if that was really their view, our ways must part.” In the garden afterwards, when he repeated his threat of resignation, Churchill soothed him with soft words. Halifax concluded in his diary record: “It does drive one to despair when he works himself up into a passion of emotion when he ought to make his brain think and reason.” He and Chamberlain recoiled from Churchill’s “theatricality,” as Cadogan described it. Cold men both, they failed to perceive in such circumstances the necessity for at least a semblance of boldness. But Chamberlain’s eventual support for Churchill’s stance was critically important in deflecting the foreign secretary’s proposals.
Whichever narratives of these exchanges are consulted, the facts seem plain. Halifax believed that Britain should explore terms. Churchill must have been deeply alarmed by the prospect of the foreign secretary, the man whom only three weeks earlier most of the Conservative Party wanted as prime minister, quitting his government. It was vital, at this moment of supreme crisis, that Britain should present a united face to the world. Churchill could never thereafter have had private confidence in Halifax. He continued to endure him as a colleague, however, because he needed to sustain the support of the Tories. It was a measure of Churchill’s apprehension about the resolve of Britain’s ruling class that it would be another seven months before he felt strong enough to consign “the Holy Fox” to exile.
The legend of Britain in the summer of 1940 as a nation united in defiance of Hitler is rooted in reality. It is not diminished by asserting that if another man had been prime minister, the political faction resigned to seeking a negotiated peace would probably have prevailed. What Churchill grasped, and Halifax and others did not, was that the mere gesture of exploring peace terms would have impacted disastrously upon Britain’s position. Even if Hitler’s response proved unacceptable to a British government, the clear, simple Churchillian posture of rejecting any parley with the forces of evil would be irretrievably compromised.
It is impossible to declare with confidence at what moment during the summer of 1940 Churchill’s grip upon power, as well as his hold upon the loyalties of the British people, became secure. What is plain is that, in the last days of May, he did not perceive himself proof against domestic foes. He survived in office not because he overcame the private doubts of ministerial and military sceptics, which he did not, but by the face of courage and defiance that he presented to the nation. He appealed over the heads of those who knew too much, to those who were willing to sustain a visceral stubbornness. “His world is built upon the primacy71 of public over private relationships,” wrote the philosopher Isaiah Berlin in a fine essay on Churchill, “upon the supreme value of action, of the battle between simple good and simple evil, between life and death; but above all battle. He has always fought.” The simplicity of Churchill’s commitment, matched by the grandeur of the language in which he expressed this, seized popular imagination. In the press, in the pubs and everywhere that Churchill himself appeared on his travels across the country, the British people passionately applauded his defiance. Conservative seekers after truce were left beached and isolated; sullenly resentful, but impotent.
Evelyn Waugh’s fictional Halberdier officer, the fastidious Guy Crouchback, was among many members of the British upper classes who were slow to abandon their disdain for the prime minister, displaying an attitude common among real-life counterparts such as Waugh himself:
Some of Mr. Churchill’s broadcasts72 had been played on the mess wireless-set. Guy had found them painfully boastful and they had, most of them, been immediately followed by the news of some disaster … Guy knew of Mr. Churchill only as a professional politician, a master of sham-Augustan prose, an advocate of the Popular Front in Europe, an associate of the press-lords and Lloyd George. He was asked: “Uncle, what sort of fellow is this Winston Churchill?” “Like Hore-Belisha [a sacked secretary for war, widely considered a charlatan], except that for some reason his hats are thought to be funny” … Here Major Erskine leant across the table. “Churchill is about the only man who may save us from losing this war,” he said. It was the first time that Guy had heard a Halberdier suggest that any result, other than complete victory, was possible.
Some years before the war, the diplomat Lord D’Abernon observed with patrician complacency that “an Englishman’s mind works best when it is almost too late.” In May 1940, he might have perceived Churchill as an exemplar.