IN THE MONTHS after September 1939, Britain found itself in the bleak—indeed, in some eyes absurd—position of having declared war on Germany while lacking means to undertake any substantial military initiative, least of all to save Poland. The passivity of the “Phoney War” ate deeply into the morale of the British people. By contrast, the events of May and June 1940 had at least the merit, brilliantly exploited by Churchill, that they thrust before the nation a clear and readily comprehended purpose: to defend itself against assault by an overwhelmingly powerful foe. The Royal Irish Fusiliers, back from Dunkirk, staged a mess party to celebrate news that the French had surrendered. “Thank heavens they have,”108 said an officer gaily. “Now at last we can get on with the war.” A middle-aged court reporter named George King, living in Surrey, wrote in a diary letter intended for his gunner son, left behind in France and on his way to captivity in Germany: “Winston Churchill has told us109 just exactly where we stand. We are on our own, and have got to see this thing through; and we can do it, properly led. Goodness knows what the swines will try, but somehow we’ve got to stick it.”
Naval officer Robert Hichens wrote on June 17: “Now we know that we have got to110 look to ourselves only, I have an idea that England will respond wonderfully to this setback. She is always greatest in taking reverses.” After Churchill addressed the Commons on the eighteenth, a Labour backbencher, Dr. Hastings Lees-Smith of Keighley, stood up: “My hon. friends on these benches have asked me on their behalf to say one or two sentences. They wish to say to the PM that in their experience among the broad masses of the people of this country never in their lives has the country been more united than it is today in its support of the PM’s assertion that we shall carry on right to the end. One sentence can summarise what we feel. Whatever the country is asked for in the months and, if necessary, in the years to come, the PM may be confident that the people will rise to their responsibilities.”
Yet, while the grit displayed by King, Hichens and Lees-Smith was real enough, it would be mistaken to suppose that it was universal. Not all sceptics about Britain’s chances of survival were elderly politicians or businessmen. An RAF Hurricane pilot, Paul Mayhew, wrote in a family newsletter:
Now I suppose it’s our turn111 and though my morale is now pretty good … I can’t believe that there’s much hope for us, at any rate in Europe. Against a ferocious and relentless attack, the Channel’s not much of an obstacle and with the army presumably un-equipped, I don’t give much for our chances. Personally I have only two hopes; first that Churchill is more reliable than Reynaud and that we will go on fighting if England is conquered, and secondly that Russia, in spite of our blunders, will now be sufficiently scared to stage a distraction in the East. In America I have little faith; I suppose in God’s own time God’s own country will fight. But at present their army is smaller than the Swiss, their Air Force is puny and rather “playboy,” and I doubt whether we need their Navy.
A week later, Mayhew apologised to his family for being “ludicrously defeatist.” But here was a young airman voicing fears widely shared among his elders.
The summer and autumn of 1940 were poor seasons for truth-telling in Britain. That is to say, it was hard for even good, brave and honourable men to know whether they better served their country by voicing their private thoughts, allowing their brains to function, or by keeping silent. Logic decreed that Britain had not the smallest chance of winning the war in the absence of American participation, which remained implausible. Churchill knew this as well as anyone. Yet he and his supporters believed that the cause of freedom, the defiance of tyranny, made it essential that the British people should fight on regardless, sweeping aside all calculations of relative strengths and strategic disabilities. Posterity has heaped admiration upon the grandeur of this commitment. Yet, at the time, it demanded from intelligent men and women a suspension of reason which some rejected.
For instance, Captain Ralph Edwards, director of naval operations at the Admiralty, was an almost unwavering sceptic. On June 17, he noted in his diary: “[Captain] Bill Tennant came in112 to say that he’d told Sir Walter Monckton of all our misgivings about the higher direction of the war.” And again on the twenty-third: “Our cabinet with that idiot Winston in charge changes its mind every 24 hours … I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that we’re so inept we don’t deserve to win & indeed are almost certain to be defeated. We never do anything right.” Through the lonely eighteen months ahead, Churchill was galled that such scourges as Aneurin Bevan, MP, taxed him in the Commons with unwelcome facts of which he was thoroughly aware, painful realities such as he confronted every hour. From the outset, while he always insisted that victory would come, his personal prestige rested upon the honesty with which he acknowledged to the British people the gravity of the ordeal they faced.
Churchill told the MPs on June 4: “Our thankfulness at the escape of our Army and so many men, whose loved ones have passed through an agonising week, must not blind us to the fact that what has happened in France and Belgium is a colossal military disaster. I have myself full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone. That is the resolve of His Majesty’s Government.”
Churchill’s conduct after the fall of France exasperated some sceptics who perceived themselves as clear thinkers. His supreme achievement in 1940 was to mobilise Britain’s warriors, to shame into silence its doubters, and to stir the passions of the nation, so that for a season the British people faced the world united and exalted. The “Dunkirk spirit” was not spontaneous. It was created by the rhetoric and bearing of one man, displaying powers that will define political leadership for the rest of time. Under a different prime minister, the British people in their shock and bewilderment could as readily have been led in another direction. Nor was the mood long-lived. It persisted only until winter, when it was replaced by a more dogged, doubtful and less exuberant national spirit. But that first period was decisive: “If we can get through the next three months, we can get through the next three years,” Churchill told the Commons on June 20.
Kingsley Martin argued in that week’s New Statesman that Churchill’s June 18 “finest hour” broadcast to the nation was too simplistic: “He misunderstood [the British people’s] feelings when he talked of this as the finest moment of their history. Our feelings are more complex than that. To talk to common people in or out of uniform is to discover that determination to defend this island is coupled with a deep and almost universal bitterness that we have been reduced to such a pass.” Yet the prime minister judged the predominant mood much more shrewdly than the veteran socialist. In 1938, the British had not been what Churchill wanted them to be. In 1941 and thereafter, they would often disappoint his hopes. But in 1940, to an extraordinary degree, he was able to shape and elevate the nation to fulfil his aspirations.
Mollie Panter-Downes wrote in the New Yorker of June 29:
It would be difficult for an impartial observer to decide today whether the British are the bravest or merely the most stupid people in the world. The way they are acting in the present situation could be used to support either claim. The individual Englishman seems to be singularly unimpressed by the fact that there is now nothing between him and the undivided attention of a war machine such as the world has never seen before. Possibly it’s lack of imagination; possibly again it’s the same species of dogged resolution which occasionally produces an epic like Dunkirk. Millions of British families, sitting at their well-stocked breakfast tables eating excellent British eggs and bacon, can still talk calmly of the horrors across the Channel, perhaps without fully comprehending even now that anything like that could ever happen in England’s green and pleasant land.
Many Americans, by contrast, thought it unlikely that Britain would survive. In New York, “one thing that strikes me113 is the amount of defeatist talk,” wrote U.S. general Raymond Lee, “the almost pathological assumption that it is all over bar the shouting … that it is too late for the United States to do anything.” Key Pittman, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called on Churchill to send the British fleet to the New World: “It is no secret that Great Britain114 is totally unprepared for defense and that nothing the US has to give can do more than delay the result … It is to be hoped that this plan will not be too delayed by futile encouragement to fight on. It is conclusively evident that Congress will not authorize intervention in the European war.” Timemagazine reported on July 1: “So scared was many a US citizen last week that he wanted to shut off aid to Britain for fear that the US would weaken its own defenses, wanted to have the US wash its hands of help for Britain, for fear of getting involved on the losing side.”
A Fortune opinion survey showed that, even before France collapsed, most Americans believed that Germany would win the war. Only 30.3 percent saw any hope for the Allies. A correspondent named Herbert Jones wrote a letter to the Philadelphia Inquirerwhich reflected widespread sentiment: “The great majority of Americans115 are not pacifists or isolationists, but, after the experience of the last war and Versailles, have no desire to pull Britain’s chestnuts out of the fire for her, under the slogan of ‘Save the World for Democracy.’ They rightly feel that little is to be gained by pouring out our money and the lives of our young men for the cause of either the oppressor of the Jews and Czechs or the oppressor of the Irish and of India …” Richard E. Taylor of Apponaugh116, Rhode Island, wrote to a friend in England, urging him to draw the attention of the authorities to the danger that the Germans might tunnel under the Channel.
Yet some Americans did not despair. An “aid to Britain” committee gathered three million signatures on petitions to the White House. The organisation spawned a Historians’ Committee, under Charles Seymour of Yale; a Scientists’ Committee, under Nobel Prize winner Harold Urey; a Theatre Committee, under playwright and Roosevelt speechwriter Robert Sherwood. Americans were invited to set aside their caricatured view of Britain as a nation of stuffed-shirt sleepyheads, and to perceive instead battling champions of freedom. Novelist Somerset Maugham, arriving in New York, predicted a vastly different postwar Britain, and hinted at the beginnings of one more sympathetic to an American social vision: “I have a feeling … that in the England117 of the future evening dress will be less important than it has been in the past.” America was still far, far from belligerence, but forces favouring intervention were stirring.
In 1941, Churchill devoted immense energy to wooing the United States. But in 1940, once his June appeals to Roosevelt had failed, for several weeks he did not write to the president at all, and dismissed suggestions for a British propaganda offensive. “Propaganda is all very well,”118 he said, “but it is events that make the world. If we smash the Huns here, we shall need no propaganda in the United States … Now we must live. Next year we shall be winning. The year after that we shall triumph. But if we can hold the Germans in this coming month of July … our position will be quite different from today.”
Yet how to “hold them”? U.S. general Raymond Lee, military attaché at the London embassy, wrote: “One queer thing119 about the present situation is that it is one which has never been studied at the Staff College. For years [British officers] had studied our [U.S. Civil War] Valley campaign, operations in India, Afghanistan, Egypt and Europe, had done landings on a hostile shore, but it had never occurred to them that some day they might have to defend the non-combatants of a country at war.” An MP recounted Churchill saying at this time: “I don’t know what we’ll fight120 them with—we shall have to slosh them on the head with bottles—empty ones, of course.” This joke was almost certainly apocryphal, but as the prime minister himself observed of the manner in which spurious Churchilliana accrued, he became “a magnet for iron filings.”
On June 8, Britain’s Home Forces boasted an inventory of just 54 2-pounder antitank guns; 420 field guns, with 200 rounds of ammunition apiece; 613 medium and heavy guns, with 150 rounds for each; and 105 medium and heavy tanks and 395 light tanks. There were only 2,300 Bren light machine guns and 70,000 rifles. Visiting beach defences at St. Margaret’s Bay, in Kent, on June 26, Churchill was told by the local brigadier that he had three antitank guns, with six rounds of ammunition apiece. Not one shot must be wasted on practise, said the prime minister. He dismissed a suggestion that London might, like Paris, be declared an open city. The British capital’s dense streets, he said, offered peerless opportunities for local defence. So dire was the shortage of small arms that, when a consignment of World War I–vintage rifles arrived from the United States on July 10, Churchill decreed that they must be distributed within forty-eight hours. He rejected a proposal that Britain should try to deter Spain from entering the war by promising talks about the disputed sovereignty of Gibraltar as soon as peace returned. The Spanish, he said, would know full well that if Britain won, there would be no deal.
His wit never faltered. When he heard that six people had suffered heart failure following an air-raid warning, he observed that he himself was more likely to die of overeating. Yet he did not want to perish quite yet, “when so many interesting things121 were happening.” Told that the Luftwaffe had bombed ironworks owned by the family of Stanley Baldwin, the archappeasing thirties prime minister, he muttered, “very ungrateful of them.” When his wife, Clementine, described how she had marched disgusted out of a service at St. Martin-in-the-Field after hearing its preacher deliver a pacifist sermon, Churchill said, “You ought to have cried ‘Shame,’122 desecrating the House of God with lies.” He turned to Jock Colville and said, “Tell the Minister of Information with a view to having the man pilloried.” General Sir Bernard Paget exclaimed to Colville: “What a wonderful tonic he is!”
Between June and September 1940, and to a lessening degree for eighteen months thereafter, the minds of the British government and people were fixed upon the threat that Hitler would dispatch an army to invade their island. It is a perennially fascinating question, how far such a peril was ever realistic—or perceived as such by Winston Churchill. The collapse of France and expulsion of the British Army from the Continent represented the destruction of the strategic foundations upon which British policy was founded. Yet if the German victory in France had been less swift, if the Allies had become engaged in more protracted fighting, the cost in British and French blood would have been vastly greater, while it is hard to imagine any different outcome. John Kennedy was among the senior British soldiers who perceived this: “We should have had an enormous army123 in France if we had been allowed to go on long enough, and it would have lost its equip[men]t all the same.” Sir Hugh Dowding, C-in-C of Fighter Command, claimed that on news of the French surrender “I went on my knees124 and thanked God,” because no further British fighters need be vainly destroyed on the Continent. Only German perceptions of the BEF’s marginal role permitted so many of Britain’s soldiers to escape from the battlefield by sea not once, but twice, in June 1940. No staff college war game would have allowed so indulgent an outcome. Though it was hard to see matters in such terms at the time, if French defeat had been inevitable, Britain escaped from its consequences astonishingly lightly.
The British in June 1940 believed that they were threatened by imminent invasion followed by likely annihilation. Unsurprisingly, they thought themselves the focus of Hitler’s ambitions. Few comprehended his obsession with the east. They could not know that Germany was neither militarily prepared nor psychologically committed to launch a massive amphibious operation across the Channel. The Wehrmacht needed months to digest the conquest of France and the Low Countries. The Nazis’ perception of Britain and its ruling class was distorted by prewar acquaintance with so many aristocratic appeasers. Now, they confidently awaited the displacement of Churchill’s government by one which acknowledged realities. “Are the English giving in? No sure signs visible yet,” Goebbels wrote in his diary on June 26. “Churchill still talks big. But then he is not England.” Some historians have expressed surprise that Hitler prevaricated about invasion. Yet his equivocation was matched by the Allies later in the war. For all the aggressive rhetoric of Churchill, the British for years nursed hopes that Germany would collapse without an Allied landing in France. The Americans were much relieved that Japan surrendered without being invaded. No belligerent nation risks a massive amphibious operation on a hostile shore until all other options have been exhausted. Germany in 1940 proved no exception.
Churchill’s people might have slept a little easier through that summer had they perceived that they were more happily placed to withstand the siege and bombardment of their island than any other conceivable strategic scenario. Their army had been delivered from the need to face the Wehrmacht on the battlefield, and indeed would not conduct major operations on the Continent for more than three years. The Royal Navy, despite its Norwegian and Dunkirk losses, remained an immensely powerful force. A German fleet of towed barges moving across the Channel at a speed of only three or four knots would have remained within range of warship guns for many hours. On July 1, the German navy had only one heavy and two light cruisers, together with four destroyers and some E-boats, available for duty as escorts. The Royal Air Force was better organised and equipped to defend Britain against bomber attack than for any other operation of war. If a German army secured a beachhead, Churchill’s land forces were unfit to expel it. But in the summer of 1940 England’s moat, those twenty-one miles of choppy sea between rival chalk cliffs, represented a formidable, probably decisive obstacle to Hitler’s landlubbing army.
Among the government’s first concerns was that of ensuring that the Vichy French fleet did not become available to Hitler. During days of Cabinet argument on this issue, Churchill at one moment raised the possibility that the Americans might be persuaded to purchase the warships. In the event, however, a more direct and brutal option was adopted. Horace Walpole wrote two centuries earlier: “No great country was ever saved by good men, because good men will not go to the lengths that may be necessary.” At Mers el-Kébir, Oran, on July 3, French commanders rejected an ultimatum from Admiral Sir James Somerville, commanding the Royal Navy’s Force H offshore, either to scuttle their fleet or sail to join the British. The subsequent bombardment and destruction of France’s warships was one of the most ruthless acts by a democracy in the annals of war. It resulted from a decision such as only Churchill would plausibly have taken. Yet it commands the respect of posterity, as it did of Franklin Roosevelt, as an earnest of Britain’s iron determination to sustain the struggle. Churchill told the House of Commons the next day, “We had hoped until the afternoon that our terms would be accepted without bloodshed.” As to passing judgement on the action, he left this “with confidence to Parliament. I leave it also to the nation, and I leave it to the United States. I leave it to the world and to history.”
As MPs cheered and waved their order papers in a curiously tasteless display of enthusiasm for an action which, however necessary, had cost 1,250 French lives, Churchill resumed his seat with tears pouring down his face. He, the Francophile, perceived the bitter fruits that had been plucked at Oran. He confided later: “It was a terrible decision125, like taking the life of one’s own child to save the State.” He feared that the immediate consequence would be to drive Vichy to join Germany in arms against Britain. But, at a moment when the Joint Intelligence Committee was warning that invasion seemed imminent, he absolutely declined to acquiesce in the risk that French capital ships might screen a German armada.
Pétain’s regime did not declare war, though French bitterness about Oran persisted for years to come. The bombardment was less decisive in its strategic achievement than Churchill claimed, because one French battle cruiser escaped, and a powerful fleet still lay at Toulon under Vichy orders. But actions sometimes have consequences which remain unperceived for long afterwards. This was the case with the attack on Mers el-Kébir, followed by the failure two months later of a Free French attempt to take over Dakar, capital of France’s African colony Senegal. When Gen. Francisco Franco, Spain’s dictator, submitted to Hitler his shopping list for joining the Axis, it was headed by a demand that Hitler should transfer to Spain French colonies in Africa. Yet Vichy France’s rejection of both British diplomatic advances and military threats, together with the refusal of most of France’s African colonies to “rally” to de Gaulle, persuaded Hitler to hope that Pétain’s nation would soon become his fighting ally. He therefore refused to satisfy Franco at French expense. The attack on Oran, a painful necessity126, and Dakar, an apparent fiasco, contributed significantly to keeping Spain out of the war.
One part of the British Commonwealth offered no succour to the “mother country”: the Irish Free State, bitterly hostile to Britain since it gained independence in 1922, sustained nominal allegiance by a constitutional quirk, under the terms of the island’s partition treaty. Churchill had heaped scorn upon Neville Chamberlain’s 1938 cession of Britain’s Irish “treaty ports” to the Dublin government. As first lord of the Admiralty, in 1939, he contemplated military action against Eire, as the southern Irish dominion was known. Amid the desperate circumstances of June 1940, however, he responded cautiously to a suggestion by Chamberlain—of all people—that Ireland should be obliged by force to yield up its harbours, which might play a critical role in keeping open Britain’s Atlantic lifeline. Churchill opposed this, fearing a hostile reaction in the United States. Instead, the British government urged Lord Craigavon, prime minister of the Protestant north, which remained part of the United Kingdom, to seek a meeting with Irish prime minister Eamon de Valera to discuss the defence of their common island. Craigavon, like most of his fellow Ulstermen, loathed the Catholic southerners. He dismissed this notion out of hand.
Yet in late June, London presented a remarkable and radical secret proposal to Dublin: Britain would make a principled commitment to a postwar united Ireland, in return for immediate access to Irish ports and bases. Britain’s ambassador in Dublin reported de Valera’s stony response. The taoiseach would commit himself only to the neutrality of a united Ireland, though he said unconvincingly that he “might” enter the war after the British government made a public declaration of commitment to union.
The British government nonetheless urged Dublin to conduct talks with the Belfast regime about a prospective union endorsed by Britain, in return for Eire’s belligerence. Chamberlain told the Cabinet, “I do not believe that the Ulster government would refuse to play their part to bring about so favourable a development.” De Valera again declined to accept deferred payment. MacDonald cabled London, urging Churchill to offer personal assurances. The prime minister wrote in the margin of this message: “But all contingent upon127 Ulster agreeing & S. Ireland coming into the war.”
On June 26, Chamberlain belatedly reported these exchanges to Craigavon, saying: “You will observe that the document128 takes the form of an enquiry only, because we have not felt it right to approach you officially with a request for your assent unless we had first a binding assurance from Eire that they would, if the assent were given, come into the war … If therefore they refuse the plan you are in no way committed, and if they accept you are still free to make your own comments or objections as may think fit.” The Ulsterman cabled back: “Am profoundly shocked and disgusted129 by your letter making suggestions so far-reaching behind my back and without any pre-consultation with me. To such treachery to loyal Ulster I will never be a party.” Chamberlain, in turn, responded equally angrily to what he perceived as Craigavon’s insufferable parochialism. He concluded, “Please remember the serious nature130 of the situation which requires that every effort be made to meet it.”
The War Cabinet, evidently unimpressed by Craigavon’s anger, now strengthened its proposal to Dublin: “This declaration would take the form131 of a solemn undertaking that the Union is to become at an early date an accomplished fact from which there shall be no turning back.” When Craigavon was informed, he responded: “Your telegram only confirms my confidential information and conviction de Valera is under German dictation and far past reasoning with. He may purposely protract negotiations till enemy has landed. Strongly advocate immediate naval occupation of harbours and military advance south.”
Craigavon asserted in a personal letter to Churchill that Ulster would only participate in an All-Ireland Defence Force “if British martial law is imposed throughout the island.” The two men met in London on July 7. There is no record of their conversation. It is reasonable to assume that it was frosty, but by then Churchill could assuage the Ulsterman’s fears. Two days earlier, de Valera had finally rejected the British plan. He, like many Irishmen, was convinced that Britain was doomed to lose the war. He doubted Churchill’s real willingness to coerce Craigavon. If he ever seriously contemplated accepting London’s terms, he also probably feared that once committed to belligerence, Ireland would become a British puppet.
Churchill makes no mention of the Irish negotiation in his war memoirs. Since the British offer to Dublin was sensational, this suggests that recollection of it brought no pleasure to the prime minister. Given de Valera’s implacable hostility, the Irish snub was inevitable. But it represented a massive miscalculation by the Irish leader. Ernest Bevin wrote in confidence to an academic friend who was urging a deal on a united Ireland: “There are difficulties which appear132 at the moment almost insurmountable. You see, de Valera’s policy is, even if we get a united Ireland, he would still remain neutral. On that, he is immovable. Were it not for this attitude, I believe a solution would be easy … You may rest assured that we are watching every possible chance.” If Ireland had entered the war on the Allied side at any time, even after the United States became a belligerent in December 1941 and Allied victory was assured, American cash would have flooded into the country, perhaps advancing Ireland’s economic takeoff by two generations.
The exchanges of July were not quite the end of the story. In December 1940, Churchill suggested in a letter to President Roosevelt that, “if the Government of Eire133 would show its solidarity with the democracies of the English-speaking world … a Council of Defence of all Ireland could be set up out of which the unity of the island would probably in some form or other emerge after the war.” Here was a suggestion much less explicit than that of the summer, obviously modified by the diminution of British peril. It is impossible to know whether, if de Valera had acceded to the British proposal of June 1940, Churchill would indeed have obliged the recalcitrant Ulster Protestants to accept union with the south. Given his high-handed treatment of other dominions and colonies in the course of the war—not least the surrender of British overseas bases to the United States—it seems by no means impossible. So dire was Britain’s predicament, of such vital significance in the U-boat war were Irish ports and airfields, that it seemed worth almost any price to secure them. But the gambit failed, leaving Britain and Ireland alike losers.
Churchill threw himself into the struggle to prepare his island to resist invasion. He decreed that if the Germans landed, all measures including poison gas were to be employed against them. On July 6, he inspected an exercise in Kent. “Winston was in great form,”134 Ironside wrote in his diary, “and gave us lunch at Chartwell in his cottage. Very wet but nobody minded at all.” A consignment of 250,000 rifles and 300 old 75mm field guns arrived from America—poor weapons, but desperately welcome. Ironside expected the German invasion on July 9, and was surprised when it did not come. On July 10, instead, the Luftwaffe launched its first big raid on Britain, by seventy aircraft against southern Wales dockyards. Churchill knew this was the foretaste of a heavy and protracted air assault. Two days later, he visited RAF Hurricane squadrons at Kenley. Straining to harness every aid to public morale, he demanded that military bands should play in the streets. He urged attention to gas masks, because he feared that Hitler would unleash chemical weapons. He resisted the evacuation of children from cities, and deplored the shipment of the offspring of the rich to sanctuary in the United States. He argued vigorously against overstringent rationing, and deplored pessimism wherever it was encountered. Dill, less than two months head of the army, was already provoking his mistrust: the CIGS “strikes me as tired135, disheartened and over-impressed with the might of Germany,” wrote the prime minister to Eden. In Churchill’s eyes, all through the long months which followed, defeatism was the only crime beyond forgiveness.
On July 19, Ironside was dismissed as C-in-C Home Forces, and replaced by Sir Alan Brooke. Ironside wanted to meet an invasion with a thin crust of coastal defences, and to rely chiefly upon creating strong lines inland. Brooke, by contrast, proposed swift counterattacks with mobile forces. Brooke and Churchill were surely correct in perceiving that if the Germans secured a lodgement and airfields in southeast England, the battle for Britain would be irretrievably lost. Inland defences were worthless, save for sustaining a sense of purpose among those responsible for building them.
Peter Fleming argued in his later history of the period that although the British went through the motions of anticipating invasion, they did not in their hearts believe in such an eventuality, because they had no historical experience of it: “They paid lip-service136to reality. They took the precautions which the Government advised, made the sacrifices which it required of them and worked like men possessed … But … they found it impossible, however steadfastly they gazed into the future, to fix in a satisfactory focus the terrible contingencies which invasion was expected to bring forth.” Fleming added a perceptive observation: “The menace of invasion137 was at once a tonic and a drug … The extreme and disheartening bleakness of their long-term prospects was obscured by the melodramatic nature of the predicament in which … the fortunes of war had placed them.”
Churchill understood the need to mobilise the British people to action for its own sake, rather than allowing them time to brood, to contemplate dark realities. He himself thought furiously about the middle distance. “When I look around to see how we can win the war,” he wrote to Beaverbrook on July 10, “I see only one sure path. We have no continental army which can defeat the German military power. The blockade is broken and Hitler has Asia and probably Africa to draw upon. Should he be repulsed here or not try invasion, he will recoil eastward and we have nothing to stop him. But there is one thing that will bring him back and bring him down, and that is an absolutely devastating, exterminating attack by very heavy bombers from this country upon the Nazi homeland.” Likewise, at Chequers on July 14: “Hitler must invade or fail138. If he fails he is bound to go east, and fail he will.” Churchill had no evidential basis in intelligence for his assertion that the Germans might lunge towards Russia. At this time, only a remarkable instinct guided him, shared by few others. Not until March 1941139, three months before the event, did British intelligence decide that a German invasion of the Soviet Union was likely.
As for aircraft production, while fighters were the immediate need, the prime minister urged the creation of the largest possible bomber force. This, a desperate policy born out of desperate circumstances and the absolute lack of any plausible alternative, would achieve destructive maturity only years later, when victory was assured by other means. Churchill appointed Admiral Sir Roger Keyes, the brainless old hero of the 1918 Zeebrugge raid, to become director of combined operations with a brief to prepare to launch raids on the continent of Europe. He wanted no pinprick fiascos, he said, but instead attacks by five to ten thousand men. He ordered the establishment of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), under the direction of Hugh Dalton as minister of economic warfare, with a mandate to “set Europe ablaze.” He endorsed de Gaulle as the voice and leader of Free France. Brooke, at Gosport with Churchill on July 17, found him “in wonderful spirits140 and full of offensive plans for next summer.” Most of the commitments made in those days remained ineffectually implemented for years to come. Yet they represented earnests for the future that inspired Churchill’s colleagues, which was, of course, exactly as he intended.
And above all, in those days, there were his words. “Faith is given to us to help and comfort us when we stand in awe before the unfurling scroll of human destiny,” he told the British people in a broadcast on July 14, Bastille Day, in which he recalled attending a magnificent military parade in Paris just a year before. “And I proclaim my faith that some of us will live to see a Fourteenth of July when a liberated France will once again rejoice in her greatness and her glory.” He continued:
Here in this strong City of Refuge which enshrines the title-deeds of human progress and is of deep consequence to Christian civilization; here, girt about by the seas and oceans where the Navy reigns; shielded from above by the prowess and devotion of our airmen—we await undismayed the impending assault. Perhaps it will come tonight. Perhaps it will come next week. Perhaps it will never come. We must show ourselves equally capable of meeting a sudden violent shock or—what is perhaps a harder test—a prolonged vigil. But be the ordeal sharp or long, or both, we shall seek no terms, we shall tolerate no parley; we may show mercy—we shall ask for none.
One of the prime minister’s listeners wrote: “Radio sets were not then very141 powerful, and there was always static. Families had to sit near the set, with someone always fiddling with the knobs. It was like sitting round a hearth, with someone poking the fire; and to that hearth came the crackling voice of Winston Churchill.” Vere Hodgson, a thirty-nine-year-old London woman, wrote: “Gradually we came under the spell142 of that wonderful voice and inspiration. His stature grew larger and larger, until it filled our sky.” Vita Sackville-West wrote to her husband, Harold Nicolson, saying that one of Churchill’s speeches “sent shivers (not of fear)143 down my spine. I think that one of the reasons why one is stirred by his Elizabethan phrases is that one feels the whole massive backing of power and resolve behind them, like a great fortress: they are never words for words’ sake.” Mollie Panter-Downes told readers of the New Yorker: “Mr. Churchill is the only man144 in England today who consistently interprets the quiet but completely resolute national mood.”
Isaiah Berlin wrote: “Like a great actor145—perhaps the last of his kind—upon the stage of history, he speaks his memorable lines with a large, unhurried, and stately utterance in a blaze of light, as is appropriate to a man who knows that his work and his person will remain the objects of scrutiny and judgement to many generations.” Tory MP Cuthbert Headlam wrote on July 16: “It is certainly his hour146—and the confidence in him is growing on all sides.” Churchill’s sublime achievement was to rouse the most ordinary people to extraordinary perceptions of their own destiny. Eleanor Silsby, an elderly psychology lecturer living in south London, wrote to a friend in America on July 23, 1940: “I won’t go on about the war147. But I just want to say that we are proud to have the honour of fighting alone for the things that matter much more than life and death. It makes me hold my chin high to think, not just of being English, but of having been chosen to come at this hour for this express purpose of saving the world … I should never have thought that I could approve of war … There is surprisingly little anger or hate in this business—it is just a job that has to be done … This is Armageddon.” Churchill was much moved by receiving through the post a box of cigars from a working girl, who said that she had saved her wages148 to buy them for him. One morning at Downing Street, John Martin found himself greeting a woman who had called to offer a £60,000 pearl necklace to the service of the state. Told of this, Churchill quoted Macaulay:
“Romans in Rome’s quarrel149,
Spared neither land nor gold”
On July 19, Hitler addressed the Reichstag and the world, publicly offering Britain a choice between peace and “unending suffering and misery.” Churchill responded, “I don’t propose to say anything in reply to Herr Hitler’s speech, not being on speaking terms with him.” He urged Lord Lothian, Britain’s ambassador in Washington, to press the Americans to fulfil Britain’s earlier request for the “loan” of old destroyers. On August 1, he delivered a magisterial rebuke to the Foreign Office for the elaborate phrasing of its proposed response to a message from the king of Sweden, who was offering to mediate between Britain and Germany. “The draft errs,” he wrote, “in trying to be too clever, and to enter into refinements of policy unsuited to the tragic simplicity and grandeur of the times and the issues at stake.” That day, Hitler issued his Directive No. 17, unleashing the Luftwaffe’s massive air campaign against Britain.