The Two Dunkirks

ON MAY 28, Churchill learned that the Belgians had surrendered at dawn. He observed that it was not for him to pass judgement on King Leopold’s decision. He repressed until much later his private bitterness, though this was unjustified when Belgium had no rational prospect of sustaining the fight. Overnight a few thousand British troops had been retrieved from Dunkirk, but Gort was pessimistic about the fate of more than 200,000 who remained, in the face of overwhelming German airpower. “And so here we are back73 on the shores of France on which we landed with such high hearts over eight months ago,” Pownall, Gort’s chief of staff, wrote that day. “I think we were a gallant band who little deserve this ignominious end to our efforts … If our skill be not so great, our courage and endurance are certainly greater than that of the Germans.” The stab of self-knowledge reflected in Pownall’s phrase about the inferior professionalism of the British Army lingered in the hearts of its intelligent soldiers until 1945.

That afternoon at a War Cabinet meeting in Churchill’s room at the Commons, the prime minister again—and for the last time—rejected Halifax’s urgings that the government could obtain better peace terms before France surrendered and British aircraft factories were destroyed. Chamberlain, as ever a waverer, now supported the foreign secretary in urging that Britain should consider “decent terms if such were offered to us.” Churchill said that the odds were a thousand to one against any such Hitlerian generosity, and warned that “nations which went down fighting rose again, but those which surrendered tamely were finished.” Attlee and Greenwood, the Labour members, endorsed Churchill’s view. This was the last stand of the old appeasers. Privately, they adhered to the view, shared by former prime minister Lloyd George, that sooner or later negotiation with Germany would be essential. As late as June 17, the Swedish ambassador reported Halifax and his junior minister R. A. Butler declaring that no “diehards” would be allowed to stand in the way of peace “on reasonable conditions.”74 It remains extraordinary that some historians have sought to qualify verdicts on the foreign secretary’s behaviour through the summer of 1940. It was not dishonourable—the lofty eminence could never have been that. But it was craven.

Immediately following the May 28 meeting, some twenty-five other ministers—all those who were not members of the War Cabinet—filed into the room, to be briefed by the prime minister. He described the situation at Dunkirk, anticipated the French collapse and expressed his conviction that Britain must fight on. “He was quite magnificent,”75 wrote Hugh Dalton, the minister of economic warfare, “the man, and the only man we have, for this hour … He was determined to prepare public opinion for bad tidings … Attempts to invade us would no doubt be made.” Churchill told the ministers that he had considered the case for negotiating with “that man”—and rejected it. Britain’s position, with its fleet and air force, remained strong. He concluded with a magnificent peroration: “I am convinced that every man of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate parley or surrender. If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.”

He was greeted with acclamation extraordinary at any assembly of ministers. No word of dissent was uttered. The meeting represented an absolute personal triumph. He reported its outcome to the War Cabinet. That night, the British government informed Reynaud in Paris of its refusal of Italian mediation for peace terms. A further suggestion by Halifax of a direct call upon the United States was dismissed. A bold stand against Germany, Churchill reiterated, would carry vastly more weight than “a grovelling appeal” at such a moment. At the following day’s War Cabinet meeting, new instructions to Gort were discussed. Halifax favoured giving the C-in-C discretion to capitulate. Churchill would hear of no such thing. Gort was told to fight on at least until further evacuation from Dunkirk became impossible. Mindful of Allied reproaches, he told the War Office that French troops in the perimeter must be allowed access to British ships. He informed Reynaud of his determination to create a new British Expeditionary Force, based on the Atlantic port of St.-Nazaire, to fight alongside the French army in the west.

All through those days, the evacuation from the port and beaches continued, much hampered by lack of small craft to ferry troops out to the larger ships, a deficiency which the Admiralty strove to make good by a public appeal for suitable vessels. History has invested the saga of Dunkirk with a dignity less conspicuous to those present. John Horsfall, a company commander of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, told a young fellow officer: “I hope you realise your distinction76. You are now taking part in the greatest military shambles ever achieved by the British Army.” Many rank-and-file soldiers returned from France nursing a lasting resentment towards the military hierarchy that had exposed them to such a predicament. Horsfall noticed that in the last phase of the march to the beaches, his men fell unnaturally silent: “There was a limit to what any of us77 could absorb, with those red fireballs flaming skywards every few minutes, and I suppose we just reached the point where there was little left to say.” They were joined by a horse artillery major, superb in Savile Row riding breeches and scarlet-and-gold forage cap, who said, “I’m a double blue at this, old boy—I was at Mons [in 1914].” A young Grenadier Guards officer, Edward Ford, passed the long hours of waiting for a ship reading a copy of Chapman’s Homer which he found in the sands. For the rest of his days, Ford was nagged by unsatisfied curiosity about who had abandoned his Chapman amid the detritus of the beaches.

Though the Royal Navy’s achievement at Dunkirk embraced its highest traditions, many men noted only the chaos. “It does seem to me incredible78 that the organisation of the beach work should have been so bad,” wrote Lt. Robert Hichens of the minesweeperNiger, though he admired the absence of panic among embarking soldiers.

We were told that there would be lots of boats and that the embarkation of the troops would all be organised … That was what all the little shore boats were being brought over from England for … One can only come to the conclusion that the civilians and small boats packed up and went home with a few chaps instead of staying there to ferry to the big ships which was their proper job. As for the shore organisation, it simply did not exist … It makes one a bit sick when one hears the organisers of the beach show being cracked up to the skies on the wireless and having DSOs showered upon them, because a more disgraceful muddle and lack of organisation I have never seen … If a few officers had been put ashore with a couple of hundred sailors … the beach evacuation would have been a different thing … When the boats were finally hoisted I found that I was very tired and very hoarse as well as soaking wet. So I had a drink and then changed. I had an artillery officer in my cabin who was very interesting. They all seem to have been very impressed by the dive bombers and the vast number of them, and by the general efficiency of the German forces. The soldiers are not very encouraging, but they were very tired which always makes one pessimistic, and they had been out of touch for a long time. This officer did not even know that Churchill had replaced Chamberlain as Premier.

Pownall arrived in London from France to describe to the Defence Committee on May 30 Gort’s plans for holding the Dunkirk perimeter. “No one in the room,”79 wrote Ian Jacob of the War Cabinet Secretariat, “imagined that they could be successful if the German armoured divisions supported by the Luftwaffe pressed their attack.” It was, of course, a decisive mercy that no such attack was “pressed.” In the course of the Second World War, victorious German armies displayed a far more consistent commitment to completing the destruction of their enemies when opportunity offered than did the Allies in similarly advantageous circumstances. Dunkirk was an exception. Most of the BEF escaped not as a consequence of Hitler’s forbearance, but through a miscellany of fortuities and misjudgements. Success beyond German imagination created huge problems of its own. Commanders’ attention was fixed upon completing the defeat of Weygand’s forces, of which large elements remained intact. The broken country around Dunkirk was well-suited to defence. The French First Army, south of the port, engaged important German forces through the critical period for the BEF’s escape, a stand which received less credit from the British than it deserved.

On May 24 Karl Rudolf Gerd von Rundstedt, commanding Army Group A, ordered his panzers, badly in need of a logistical pause, not to cross the Aa Canal and entangle themselves with British “remnants,” as Gort’s army was now perceived. Hitler supported his decision. He was amenable to Hermann Göring’s eagerness to show that his aircraft could complete the destruction of the BEF. Yet, in the words of the most authoritative German history, “the Luftwaffe, badly weakened80 by earlier operations, was unable to meet the demands made on it.” In the course of May, Göring’s force lost 1,044 aircraft, a quarter of them fighters. Thanks to the efforts of the RAF’s Fighter Command over Dunkirk, the German Fourth Army’s war diary recorded on May 25: “The enemy has had air superiority. This is something new for us in this campaign.” On June 3, the German air effort was diverted from Dunkirk to increase pressure on the French by bombing targets around Paris.

Almost the entire RAF Air Striking Force was reduced to charred wreckage, strewn the length of northern France. It scarcely seemed to the Germans to matter if a few thousand British troops escaped in salt-stained battle dress, when they left behind every tool of a modern army—tanks, guns, trucks, machine guns and equipment. Hitler’s failure to complete the demolition of the BEF represented a historic blunder, but an unsurprising one amid the magnitude of German triumphs and dilemmas in the last days of May 1940. The Allies, with much greater superiority, indulged far more culpable strategic omissions when they returned to the Continent for the campaigns of 1943–45.

Ian Jacob was among those impressed by the calm with which Churchill received Pownall’s Dunkirk situation report of May 30. Thereafter, the War Cabinet addressed another budget of French requests: for troops to support them on the Somme front; more aircraft; concessions to Italy; and a joint appeal to Washington. Churchill interpreted these demands as establishing a context for French surrender, once Britain had refused them. The decision was taken to withdraw residual British forces from northern Norway. The prime minister determined to fly again to Paris to press France to stay in the war, and to make plain that Britain would dissociate itself from any parley with Germany mediated by the Italians. The next morning, as Churchill’s Flamingo took off from Northolt, he knew that 133,878 British and 11,666 Allied troops had been evacuated from Dunkirk.

The prime minister’s old friend Sir Edward Spears was serving as a British liaison officer with the French, a role he had also filled in World War I. Spears, waiting at Villacoublay airfield to meet the party, was impressed by the prime minister’s imposture of gaiety. Churchill poked the British officer playfully in the stomach with his stick, and as ever appeared stimulated by finding himself upon the scene of great events. He beamed upon the pilots of the escorting Hurricanes which had landed behind him, was driven into Paris for lunch at the British embassy, then went to see Reynaud at the Ministry of War.

Amid the gloom that beset all of France’s leaders, gathered with her prime minister, Pétain and Admiral Jean-François Darlan showed themselves foremost in despair. As Ismay described it: “A dejected-looking old man81 in plain clothes shuffled towards me, stretched out his hand and said: ‘Pétain.’ It was hard to believe that this was the great Marshal of France.” The rationalists, as they saw themselves, listened unmoved to Churchill’s outpouring of rhetoric. He spoke of the two British divisions already in northwestern France, which he hoped could be further reinforced to assist in the defence of Paris. He described in dramatic terms the events at Dunkirk. He declared in his extraordinary franglais, reinforced by gestures, that French and British soldiers would leave arm in arm—“partage—bras dessus, bras dessous.” On Cabinet orders, Gort was to quit Dunkirk that night. If, as expected, Italy entered the war, British bomber squadrons would at once strike at her industries. Churchill beamed once more. If only France could hold out through the summer, he said, all manner of possibilities would open. In a final surge of emotion, he declared his conviction that American help would come. Thus this thirteenth meeting of the Allied Supreme War Council concluded its agenda.

Reynaud and two other ministers were guests for dinner that night at the palatial British embassy, in the Rue St.-Honoré. Churchill waxed lyrical about the possibility of launching striking forces against German tank columns. He left Paris the next morning knowing he had done all that force of personality could achieve to breathe inspiration into the hearts of the men charged with saving France. Yet few believed a word of it. The Allies’ military predicament was irretrievably dire. It was impossible to conceive any plausible scenario in which Hitler’s armies might be thrown back, given the collapse of French national will.

Paul Reynaud was among a handful of Frenchmen who, momentarily at least, remained susceptible to Churchill’s verbiage. To logical minds, there was an absurdity about almost everything the Englishman said to ministers and commanders in Paris. Britain’s prime minister paraded before his ally his own extravagant sense of honour. He promised military gestures which might further weaken his own country, but could not conceivably save France. He made wildly fanciful pledges of further military aid, though its impact would have been insignificant. Britain’s two divisions in the northwest were irrelevant to the outcome of the battle, and were desperately needed to defend the home island. But Churchill told the War Cabinet in London on June 1 that more troops must be dispatched across the Channel, with a suitable air component. Even as the miracle of Dunkirk unfolded, he continued to waver about dispatching further fighters to the Continent. He trumpeted the success of the RAF in preventing the Luftwaffe from frustrating the evacuation, which he declared a splendid omen for the future.

Chamberlain and Halifax urged against sending more men to France, but Churchill dissented. He felt obliged to respond to fresh appeals from Reynaud. He envisaged a British enclave in Brittany, a base from which the French might be inspired and supported to maintain “a gigantic guerrilla … The B.E.F. in France must immediately be reconstituted, otherwise the French will not continue in the war.” Amid the dire shortage of troops, he committed to France the 1st Canadian Division, which had arrived in Britain virtually untrained and unequipped. The prime minister told one of the British generals who would be responsible for sustaining the defence of northwest France that “he could count on no artillery.”82 An impromptu new “division” was created around Rouen from lines-of-communications personnel equipped with a few Bren and antitank guns which they had never fired, and a single battery of field artillery that lacked dial sights for its guns. Until Lt. Gen. Alan Brooke, recently landed from Dunkirk, returned to France on June 12, British forces there remained under French command, with no national C-in-C on the spot.

By insisting upon resumption of an utterly doomed campaign, Churchill made his worst mistake of 1940. It is unsurprising that his critics in the inner circle of power were dismayed. The strength of Churchill’s emotions was wonderful to behold. But when sentiment drove him to make deployments with no possibility of success, he appalled his generals, as well as the old Chamberlainite umbrella men. Almost every senior civilian and uniformed figure in Whitehall recognised that the Battle of France was lost. Further British commitments threatened to negate the extraordinary deliverance of Dunkirk. The Air Staff closed ranks with Halifax, Chamberlain and others to resist Churchill’s demands that more fighters should be sent to France, in addition to the three British squadrons still operating there. On the air issue, Churchill himself havered, then reluctantly gave way. This was the first of many occasions on which he mercifully subordinated his instincts to the advice of service chiefs and colleagues. Chamberlain and Halifax were not wrong about everything. The moral grandeur of Churchill’s gestures towards his ally in the first days of June was entirely subsumed by the magnitude of France’s tragedy and Britain’s peril.

The Dunkirk evacuation approached a conclusion on June 4, by which time 224,328 British troops had been evacuated, along with 111,172 Allied troops, most of whom subsequently elected to be repatriated to France rather than fight on in exile. For thirty-five minutes that afternoon, Churchill described the operation to the Commons, concluding with some of his greatest phrases: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills, we shall never surrender.”

That evening he found time to dispatch brief notes, thanking the king for withdrawing his character objections to Brendan Bracken’s membership of the Privy Council and expressing appreciation to former prime minister Stanley Baldwin for a letter offering good wishes. Churchill apologised for having taken a fortnight to respond. “We are going through v[er]y hard times & I expect worse to come,” he wrote; “but I feel quite sure better days will come; though whether we shall live to see them is more doubtful. I do not feel the burden weigh too heavily, but I cannot say that I have enjoyed being Prime Minister v[er]y much so far.”

The German drive on Paris began on June 5. Anglo-French exchanges in the days that followed were dominated by increasingly passionate appeals from Reynaud for fighters. Five RAF squadrons were still based in France, while four more were operating over France from British bases. The War Cabinet and Chiefs of Staff were united in their determination to weaken Britain’s home defence no further. On June 9, Churchill cabled to South African premier Jan Smuts, who had urged the dispatch of more aircraft, saying: “I see only one sure way through now, to wit, that Hitler should attack this country, and in so doing break his air weapon. If this happens he will be left to face the winter with Europe writhing under his heel, and probably with the United States against him after the Presidential election is over.” The Royal Navy was preoccupied with fears about the future of the French fleet. Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, the first sea lord, declared that only its sinking could ensure that it would not be used by the Germans.

Yet perversely and indeed indefensibly, Churchill continued to dispatch more troops to France. The draft operation order for the 1st Canadian Division, drawn up as it embarked on June 11, said: “The political object of the re-constituted BEF83 is to give moral support to the French Government by showing the determination of the British Empire to assist her ally with all available forces … It is the intention … to concentrate … in the area North and South of Rennes … A division may have to hold 50 miles of front.” At a meeting of ministers in London that day, Dill was informed that a study was being undertaken for the maintenance of a bridgehead in Brittany, “the Breton redoubt.”84 As late as June 13, Royal Engineers were preparing reception points and transit camps on the Brittany coast, to receive further reinforcements from Britain.

Churchill recognised the overwhelming likelihood of French surrender, yet still cherished hopes of maintaining a foothold across the Channel. It seemed to him preferable to face the difficulties of clinging on in France, rather than those of mounting from Britain a return to a German-defended coast. He sought to sustain French faith in the alliance by the deployment of a mere three British divisions. He seemed unmoved by Mussolini’s long-expected declaration of war on June 10, merely remarking to Jock Colville: “People who go to Italy85 to look at ruins won’t have to go as far as Naples and Pompeii again.” The private secretary noted his master’s bitter mood that day. On the afternoon of June 11, Churchill flew with Eden, Dill, Ismay and Spears to the new French army headquarters at Briare, on the Loire, seventy miles from Paris, to meet the French government once again. The colonel who met their plane, wrote Spears, might have been greeting poor relations at a funeral. At their destination, the Château du Muguet, there was no sense of welcome. At that evening’s meeting of the Supreme War Council, after the French had unfolded a chronicle of doom, Churchill summoned all his powers. He spoke with passion and eloquence about the forces which Britain could deploy in France in 1941—twenty, even twenty-five divisions. Weygand said dismissively that the outcome of the war would be determined in hours, not days or weeks. Dill, pathetically, invited the supreme commander to use the makeshift British forces now in France wherever and however he saw fit.

The French, with the Germans at the gates of Paris, could scarcely be blamed for thinking themselves mocked. Eden wrote: “Reynaud was inscrutable86 and Weygand polite, concealing with difficulty his scepticism. Marshal Pétain was overtly incredulous. Though he said nothing, his attitude was obviously c’est de la blague”—“it’s a joke.” The harshest confrontation came when Weygand asserted that the decisive point had been reached, that the British should commit every fighter they had to the battle. Churchill replied: “This is not the decisive point. This is not the decisive moment. The decisive moment will come when Hitler hurls his Luftwaffe against Britain. If we can keep command of the air over our own island—that is all I ask—we will win it all back for you.” Britain would fight on “for ever and ever and ever.”

Reynaud seemed moved. The newly appointed army minister, Brig. Gen. Charles de Gaulle, was much more impressed by the prime minister’s representation of himself as an Englishman than as an ally: “Mr. Churchill appeared imperturbable87, full of buoyancy. Yet he seemed to be confining himself to a cordial reserve towards the French at bay, being already seized—not, perhaps, without an obscure satisfaction—with the terrible and magnificent prospect of an England left alone in her island, with himself to lead her struggle towards salvation.” The other Frenchmen present made nothing of the prime minister’s words. Though courtesies were sustained through a difficult dinner that night, Reynaud told Britain’s leader over brandy that Pétain considered it essential to seek an armistice.

To his staff, Churchill fumed at the influence upon Reynaud of his mistress, the Comtesse de Portes, an impassioned advocate of surrender: “That woman … will undo88 everything during the night that I do during the day. But of course she can furnish him with facilities that I cannot afford him. I can reason with him, but I cannot sleep with him.” For all the hopes which Churchill reposed in Reynaud, even at his best the French prime minister never shared the Englishman’s zest for war à l’outrance. The American undersecretary of state, Sumner Welles, reported a conversation with France’s leader earlier that summer: “M. Reynaud felt that while Mr. C89[hurchill] was a brilliant and most entertaining man with a great capacity for organization, his kind has lost elasticity. He felt that Mr. C could conceive of no possibility other than war to the finish—whether that resulted in utter chaos and destruction or not. That, he felt sure, was not true statesmanship.” This seems a convincing representation of Reynaud’s view in June 1940. Like a significant number of British politicians in respect of their own society, the French prime minister perceived, as Churchill did not, a limit to the injury to the fabric and people of France which might be acceptable in the cause of sustaining the struggle against Nazism.

The next morning, June 12, Churchill told Spears to stay with the French, and to do everything possible to sustain them: “We will carry those who will let themselves be carried.” Yet Britain had no power to “carry” France. Pétain absented himself from the ensuing meeting of the Supreme War Council. His own decision was reached. Churchill raged at news that a planned RAF bombing mission to Italy the previous night had been frustrated by farm carts pushed across the runway by French airmen. Reynaud said that any further such missions must be launched from England. At the Briare airfield, Ismay observed encouragingly that with no more allies to worry about, “we’ll win the Battle of Britain.” Churchill stared hard at him and said: “You and I will be dead in three months’ time.” There is no reason to doubt this exchange. Churchill claimed later that he had always believed Britain would come through. He certainly had a mystical faith in destiny, however vague his attachment to a deity. But it is plain that in the summer of 1940 he suffered cruel moments of rationality, when defeat seemed far more plausible than victory, when the huge effort of will necessary to sustain the fight was almost too much for him. Six months later, Eden confessed to the prime minister that during the summer he and Pound, the first sea lord, had privately acknowledged despair to each other. Churchill said: “Normally I wake up buoyant to face90 the new day. Then, I awoke with dread in my heart.”

When so many others were dying, he could scarcely take for granted his own survival. A German bomb, a paratroop landing in Whitehall, an accident by land, sea or air—such as befell many other prominent wartime figures—could extinguish him at any time. His courage, and that of those who followed and served him, lay in defying probability, sweeping aside all thought of the most plausible outcome of the struggle, and addressing each day’s battles with a spirit undaunted by the misfortunes of the last. That Wednesday morning of June 12, his Flamingo hedgehopped home over the lovely countryside of Brittany. Near the smoking docks of Le Havre, the pilot dived suddenly to avoid the attentions of two German planes which were strafing fishing boats. The Flamingo escaped unseen, landing safely at Hendon, but this was one of Churchill’s closest. Later in the afternoon, he told the War Cabinet that it was obvious French resistance was approaching an end. He spoke admiringly of de Gaulle, whose resolution had made a strong impression on him.

Churchill had been back in London less than thirty-six hours when Reynaud telephoned, soon after midnight, demanding a new and urgent meeting at Tours, to which he had now retreated. The prime minister left the next morning, accompanied by Halifax and Beaverbrook, driving through the incongruous London summer shopping crowds. He was greeted at Hendon with news that bad weather required a takeoff postponement. “To hell with that,” he growled. “I’m going, whatever happens. This is too serious a situation to bother about the weather!” They landed at Tours amid a thunderstorm, on an airfield which had been heavily bombed the previous night, and solicited transport from a jaded rabble of French airmen. Churchill, Beaverbrook and Halifax crowded with difficulty into a small car which took them to the local prefecture, where they wandered unrecognised through the corridors. At last a staff officer escorted them to a nearby restaurant for cold chicken and cheese. This was black comedy. It is not difficult to imagine Halifax’s disdain for the ordeal to which Churchill had exposed him.

Back at the prefecture, the British waited impatiently for Reynaud. It was essential that they take off again in daylight, because the bomb-cratered and unlit runway was unfit for night operations. At last the French prime minister arrived, with Spears. He told the English party that, while Weygand was ready to surrender, it was still possible that he could persuade his colleagues to fight on—if he received a firm assurance that the Americans would enter the war. Otherwise, would Britain concede that it was now impossible for France to continue the war? Churchill responded with expressions of sympathy for France’s agony. He concluded simply, however, that Britain would fight on: no terms, no surrender. Reynaud said that the prime minister had not answered his question. Churchill said he could not accede to a French capitulation. He urged that Reynaud’s government should make a direct appeal to President Roosevelt before taking any other action. Some of the British party were dismayed that nothing was said about continuing the fight from France’s North African empire. They were fearful that Reynaud’s nation would not only cease to be their ally, but might join Germany as their foe. They were acutely aware that, even though the French leader still had some heart, his generals, excepting only de Gaulle, had none.

In the courtyard below, a throng of French politicians and officials, emotional and despairing, milled around Churchill as he left. Hands were wrung, tears shed. The prime minister murmured to de Gaulle: “L’homme du destin.” He ignored an impassioned intervention by the Comtesse de Portes, who pushed forward crying out that her country was bleeding to death, and that she must be heard. French officials told the assembled politicians that Churchill at this last meeting of the Supreme War Council had shown full understanding of France’s position, and was resigned to her capitulation. Reynaud did not invite Churchill to meet his ministers, as they themselves wished. They felt snubbed in consequence, though the omission changed nothing.

Churchill landed back at Hendon after a two-and-a-half-hour flight. At Downing Street, he learned that President Roosevelt had responded to an earlier French appeal with private promises of more matériel aid, and declared himself impressed that Reynaud was committed to fight on. Churchill told the War Cabinet that such a message came as close to an American declaration of war as was possible without Congress. This was, of course, wildly wishful thinking. Roosevelt, on Secretary of State Cordell Hull’s advice, rejected Churchill’s plea that he should allow his cable to be published.

On June 12, the 51st Highland Division at St.-Valéry-en-Caux was forced to join a local capitulation by troops of the French Tenth Army, to which the British formation was attached. Had an order been given a few days earlier, it is plausible that the troops could have been evacuated to Britain through Le Havre. Instead, they became a sacrifice to Churchill’s commitment to be seen to sustain the campaign. That same day, Gen. Sir Alan Brooke arrived with orders to lead British forces to the aid of the French. Reinforcements were still landing at the Brittany ports on the thirteenth.

When Ismay suggested that British units moving to France should hasten slowly, Churchill said: “Certainly not. It would look very bad in history if we were to do any such thing.” This was of a piece with his response to Chancellor of the Exchequer Kingsley Wood’s suggestion a few weeks later, that since Britain was financially supporting the Dutch administration in exile, in return the government should demand an increased stake in the Royal Dutch Shell oil company. “Churchill, who objected91 to taking advantage of another country’s misfortunes, said that he never again wished to hear such a suggestion.” At every turn, he perceived his own words and actions through the prism of posterity. He was determined that historians should say: “He nothing common did or mean upon that memorable scene.” Indeed, in those days Andrew Marvell’s lines on King Charles I’s execution were much in his mind. He recited them repeatedly to his staff, and then to the House of Commons. Seldom has a great actor on the stage of human affairs been so mindful of the verdict of future ages, even as he played out his own part and delivered his lines.

On June 14, the Germans entered Paris unopposed. Yet illusions persisted in London that a British foothold on the Continent might even now be maintained. Jock Colville wrote from Downing Street that day: “If the French will go on fighting92, we must now fall back on the Atlantic, creating new lines of Torres Vedras behind which British divisions and American supplies can be concentrated. Paris is not France, and … there is no reason to suppose the Germans will be able to subdue the whole country.” Colville himself was a very junior civil servant, but his fantasies were fed by more important people. That evening, Churchill spoke by telephone to Brooke in France. The prime minister deplored the fact that the remaining British formations were in retreat. He wanted to make the French feel that they were being supported. Brooke, with an Ulster bluntness of which Churchill would gain much more experience in the course of the war, retorted that “it was impossible to make a corpse feel.”93 After what seemed to the soldier an interminable and absurd wrangle, Churchill said: “All right, I agree with you.”

In that conversation, Brooke saved almost 200,000 men from death or captivity. By sheer force of personality, not much in evidence among British generals, he persuaded Churchill to allow his forces to be removed from French command and evacuated. On June 15, orders were rushed to the Canadians en route by rail from the Normandy coast to what passed for the battlefront. Locomotives were shunted from the front to the rear of their trains, which then set off once more for the ports. At Brest, embarking troops were ordered to destroy all vehicles and equipment. However, some determined and imaginative officers laboured defiantly and successfully to evacuate precious artillery. For the French, Weygand was further embittered by tidings of another British withdrawal. It seems astonishing that his compatriots did nothing to impede the operation, and even something to assist it.

Much has been written about Churchill’s prudence in declining to reinforce defeat by dispatching further fighter squadrons to France in 1940. The contrary misjudgement is often passed over. Alan Brooke understood the prime minister’s motive—to demonstrate to the French that the British Army was still committed to the fight. But he rightly deplored its futility. If Dunkirk represented a miracle, it was scarcely a lesser one that two weeks later it proved possible to evacuate almost all of Brooke’s force to Britain through the northwestern French ports. There were, in effect, two Dunkirks, though the latter is much less noticed by history. Churchill was able to escape the potentially brutal consequences of his last rash gesture to Reynaud, because of Brooke’s resolution and the Germans’ preoccupation with completing the destruction of the French army. Had not providence been merciful, all Brooke’s men might have been lost, a shattering blow to the British Army’s prospects of reconstitution.

On June 15, at Churchill’s behest Dill telephoned Brooke on a weak, crackling line, and told him to delay evacuation of the 52nd Division from Cherbourg. In London, there were renewed hopes of clinging to a foothold in France, though these had no visible foundation in reality. The French anyway discounted all such British aspirations. Brooke was exasperated. He told the CIGS: “It is a desperate job being faced94 with over 150,000 men and a mass of material, ammunition, petrol, supplies etc, to try to evacuate or dispose of, and nothing to cover this operation except the crumbling French army … We are wasting shipping and precious hours.” The next day, London grudgingly agreed that the 52nd Division could continue returning to Britain. Yet administrative confusion persisted. Some troops were embarked at Le Havre for Portsmouth, only to be off-loaded at Cherbourg and entrained for Rennes. A ship arrived at Brest on the morning of June 18, bearing artillery and ammunition from England. At a dozen northwest French ports, tens of thousands of British troops milled in chaos, many of them lacking orders and officers.

German preoccupation with the French army alone made it possible to get the men and a few heavy weapons away, amid chaos and mismanagement. There were skirmishes between British and enemy forces, but no fatal clash. Between June 14 and 25, from Brest, St.-Nazaire, Cherbourg and lesser western French ports, 144,171 British troops were successfully rescued and brought home, along with 24,352 Poles and 42,000 other Allied soldiers. There were losses, notably the sinking of the liner Lancastria at a cost of at least 3,000 lives; but these were negligible in proportion to the forces at risk, which amounted to two-thirds of the numbers brought back from Dunkirk.

It is hard to overstate the chaos of British command arrangements in France during the last three weeks of the campaign, even in areas where formations were not much threatened by the Germans. Two trainloads of invaluable and undamaged British tanks were gratuitously abandoned in Normandy. “Much equipment had been95 unnecessarily destroyed,” in the angry words of Maj. Gen. Andrew McNaughton, commanding the 1st Canadian Division. Though the war had been in progress for almost nine months, Lt. Gen. Sir Henry Karslake, commanding at Le Mans until Brooke’s arrival, wrote in a report: “The lack of previous training96 for our formations showed itself in many ways.” Men of the 52nd Division arrived in France in June with equipment issued two days earlier, never having fired their antitank guns or indeed seen a tank. Karslake was appalled by the perceived indiscipline of some regular units, even before they were engaged: “Their behaviour was terrible!”97 Far more vehicles, stores and equipment could have been evacuated but for administrative disorder prevailing at the ports, where some ships from England were still being unloaded, while, at nearby quays, units embarked for home. The commitment to northwest France represented a serious misjudgement by Churchill, which won no gratitude from the French, and could have cost the Allies as many soldiers as the later disasters in Greece, Crete, Singapore and Tobruk put together.

While the horror of Britain’s predicament was now apparent to all those in high places and to many in low, Churchill was visibly exalted by it. At Chequers on the warm summer night of June 15, Jock Colville described how tidings of gloom were constantly telephoned through, while sentries with steel helmets and fixed bayonets encircled the house. The prime minister, however, displayed the highest spirits, “repeating poetry, dilating on the drama98 of the present situation … offering everybody cigars, and spasmodically murmuring: ‘Bang, bang, bang, goes the farmer’s gun, run rabbit, run rabbit, run, run, run.’” In the early hours of the morning, when U.S. ambassador Joseph Kennedy telephoned, the prime minister unleashed upon him a torrent of rhetoric about America’s opportunity to save civilisation. Then he held forth to his staff about Britain’s growing fighter strength, “told one or two dirty stories,”99 and departed for bed at 1:30, saying, “Goodnight, my children.” At least some part of this must have been masquerade. But it was a masquerade of awesome nobility. Churchill’s private secretary Eric Seal thought him much changed since May 10, more sober, “less violent, less wild100, less impetuous.” If this was overstated, there had certainly been an extraordinary accession of self-control.

On June 16, the War Cabinet dispatched a message to Reynaud, now in Bordeaux, offering to release France from its obligation as an ally to forswear negotiations with Germany, on the sole condition that the French fleet should be sailed to British harbours. De Gaulle, having arrived in London, was invited to lunch with Churchill and Eden at the Carlton Club. He told the prime minister that only the most dramatic British initiative might stave off French surrender. He urged formalising a proposal for political union between France and Britain, over which the Cabinet had been dallying for days. Amid crisis, these desperate men briefly embraced this fanciful idea. An appropriate message, setting forth the offer in momentous terms, was dispatched to Reynaud. Churchill prepared to set forth once more for France, this time by sea, to discuss a draft “Proclamation of Union.” He was already aboard a train at Waterloo Station with Clement Attlee, Archibald Sinclair and the Chiefs of Staff, bound for embarkation on a destroyer, when word was brought that Reynaud could not receive them. With a heavy heart, the prime minister returned to Downing Street. It was for the best. The proposal for union was wholly unrealistic, and could have changed nothing. France’s battle was over. Reynaud’s government performed one last service to its ally: that day in Washington, all the French nation’s American arms contracts were formally transferred to Britain.

During the night, it was learned at Downing Street that Reynaud had resigned as prime minister and been replaced by Marshal Pétain, who was seeking an armistice. Pétain’s prestige among the French people rested, first, upon his defence of Verdun in 1916, and, second, upon an ill-founded belief that he possessed a humanity unique among generals, manifested in his merciful handling of the French army during its 1917 mutinies. In June 1940, there is little doubt that Pétain’s commitment to peace at any price reflected the wishes of most French people. Reynaud, however, probably committed a historic blunder by agreeing to forsake his office. Had he and his ministerial colleagues chosen instead to accept exile, as did the Norwegian, Polish, Belgian and Dutch governments, he could have prevented his nation’s surrender of democratic legitimacy and established French resistance to tyranny on strong foundations in London. As it was, he allowed himself to be overborne by the military defeatists, led by Pétain and Weygand, and denied himself a famous political martyrdom.

De Gaulle, Reynaud’s army minister, almost alone among prominent Frenchmen, chose to pitch camp in London, and secured the evacuation of his wife. The War Cabinet opposed his request that he should be permitted to broadcast to his people on the BBC. Churchill, however, urged on by Spears, insisted that the renegade—for so de Gaulle was perceived by many of his own people—should be given access to a microphone. De Gaulle’s legal adviser, Professor Cassin, enquired of his new chief what the status was of his embryo movement in Britain. De Gaulle answered magnificently: “We are France!101 … The defeated are those who accept defeat.” The general had an answer, too, to the problem of establishing his own stature: “Churchill will launch me like a new brand of soap.” The British government indeed hired an advertising agency, Richmond Temple, to promote Free France. De Gaulle would need all the help he could get. Few Frenchmen, even those evacuated to Britain from the battlefield, were willing to fight on if their government quit. While travelling as a passenger on the French destroyer Milan, de Gaulle asked its captain if he would serve under British colours. The naval officer answered that he would not. Most of his compatriots proved like-minded. “Mr. Churchill finds that there are not enough French102 and German bodies to satisfy him,” declared a sulphurous front-page editorial in the Paris paper Le Matin, in one of its first issues after the surrender. “We ask if the British prime minister has lost his head. If so, what a pity that our ministers did not perceive it sooner.” The paper went on to denounce de Gaulle, and to accuse the British of fomenting revolt in France’s overseas empire.

In 1941 and 1942, the prime minister would be obliged to preside over many British defeats and, indeed, humiliations. Yet no trauma was as profound, no shock as far-reaching, as that which befell him in his first weeks of office, when the German army destroyed France as a military power and swept the British from the Continent. Henceforward, the character of the war became fundamentally different from that of 1914–18. All assumptions were set at naught upon which Allied war policy, and Churchill’s personal defiance of Hitler, had been founded. Whatever Britain’s continuing capabilities at sea and in the air, since September 1939 it had been taken for granted that the British Army would confront the Nazi legions alongside the French, in the frankly subordinate role demanded by its inferiority of numbers—just ten divisions to ninety-four French on the Western Front. The British Army could never alone aspire to dispute a battlefield with the Wehrmacht, and this knowledge dominated British strategy.

It was hard for many people, even the highest in the land, to absorb the scale of the disaster which had befallen Allied arms, and which now threatened to overwhelm Britain. Alan Brooke was struck by a Churchillian observation about human nature. The prime minister said that the receptive capacity of a man’s mind was like a three-inch pipe running under a culvert. “When a flood comes the water flows over103 the culvert whilst the pipe goes on handling its 3 inches. Similarly the human brain will register emotions up to its ‘3 inch limit’ and subsequent additional emotions flow past unregistered.” So it now seemed to Brooke himself, and to a host of others. They perceived that a catastrophe was unfolding, but their hearts could not keep pace with the signals from their brains about its significance. Harold Nicolson wrote in his diary on June 15: “My reason tells me that it will now be104 almost impossible to beat the Germans, and that the probability is that France will surrender and that we shall be bombed and invaded … Yet these probabilities do not fill me with despair. I seem to be impervious both to pleasure and pain. For the moment we are all anaesthetised.”

Another eyewitness, the writer Peter Fleming, then serving as an army staff officer, identified the same emotional confusion: “This period was one of carefree105 improvisation as far as most civilians were concerned. It was as though the whole country had been invited to a fancy-dress ball and everybody was asking everybody else ‘What are you going as?’ A latent incredulity, and the fact that almost everybody had more than enough to do already, combined to give problems connected with invasion the status of engrossing digressions from the main business of life … The British, when their ally was pole-axed on their doorstep, became both gayer and more serene than they had been at any time since the overture to Munich struck up in 1937.”

British casualties in France were large in relation to the size of the BEF, but trifling by comparison with those of the French, and with the infinitely more intense struggles that would take place later in the war. The army lost just 11,000 killed and missing, against more than 50,000 French dead. In addition, 14,070 British wounded were evacuated, and 41,030 BEF prisoners fell into German hands. The loss of tanks, artillery and weapons of all kinds was, of course, calamitous. It is a familiar and ill-founded cliché that the 1940 British Expeditionary Force was ill-equipped. In reality, it was much better supplied with vehicles than the Germans, and the quality of its tanks was good enough, had they been imaginatively employed. When Hitler’s Field Marshal Fedor von Bock saw the wreckage at Dunkirk, he wrote in astonishment: “Here lies the material of a whole army106, so incredibly well-equipped that we poor devils can only look on with envy and amazement.” The BEF was driven from Dunkirk after relatively light fighting and very heavy retreating because it lacked enough mass to change the outcome of the campaign once the French front was broken, and was outfought by German formations with better leadership, motivation, and air support. The British Army was now, for all practical purposes, disarmed. Almost a thousand RAF aircraft were gone, half of these fighters.

But Britain had human material to forge a new army—though not one that alone could ever be large enough to face the Germans in a continental war—if only time was granted before it must fight again. An American correspondent reported home107 that Londoners received news of the French surrender in grim silence rather than with jokes or protestations of defiance. The Battle of France was over, Churchill told the British people on the following night. The Battle of Britain was about to begin. The position of Churchill’s nation on June 17 was scarcely enviable. But it was vastly better than had seemed possible a month earlier, when the BEF had faced annihilation.

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