Eighty years ago this past week, the British and French armies were in the midst of the most calamitous defeat in their combined history. Churchill and Lord Halifax are pictured above
Eighty years ago this past week, the British and French armies were in the midst of the most calamitous defeat in their combined history.
On May 14, 1940, Hitler’s panzer divisions broke through the French line at Sedan on the edge of the Ardennes forest and, within six days, had reached the Channel, trapping the northern French Armies and British Expeditionary Force.
As exhausted British soldiers retreated towards Dunkirk, the War Cabinet in London, led by new Prime Minister Winston Churchill, began to contemplate the unthinkable: a peace deal with Hitler.
Strange as it may seem today, Churchill’s position, in the summer of 1940, was far from secure. At the time the British Expeditionary Force began its march to the coast, Churchill had been PM for only two weeks.
Most Conservative MPs had wanted the former appeaser, Lord Halifax, to succeed Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister and there was a widespread view within Westminster that Churchill was a dangerous adventurer.
When Chamberlain entered the House of Commons the day after his fall he received a far greater ovation than Churchill and, as the Chairman of the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee explained to the Chamberlain supporter Rab Butler on May 13, three-quarters of Tory MPs were ‘ready to put Chamberlain back’.
This, then, was the context in which the War Cabinet discussed the dramatic possibility of exploring peace terms with Nazi Germany. The man urging this course was Churchill’s rival for the premiership, Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax.
Halifax was no traitor. Although he had been one of the leading appeasers in the years before the war, the 1938 crisis over Czechoslovakia had convinced him, belatedly, of the futility of trying to appease Adolf Hitler.
The collapse of France, however, changed everything. ‘We have to face the fact,’ Halifax told the War Cabinet on May 26, ‘that it is not so much now a question of imposing a complete defeat upon Germany’ as protecting the independence of Britain and her Empire.
Was Churchill, then, prepared to explore peace terms using the Italian dictator Mussolini as intermediary?
During the previous day only 7,699 troops had been evacuated from the beaches (a tiny fraction of those who were waiting to be rescued) and it was more than possible they were on the verge of witnessing ‘the greatest British military defeat for many centuries’. The beach of Dunkirk is pictured above after the evacuation
Unlike his caricatured portrayal in that historical travesty of a film, Darkest Hour, Churchill did not lose his temper. Aware that a breach with his Foreign Secretary and chief rival had the capacity to destroy his fledgling government, he gave a measured and deliberately ambiguous response.
It was most unlikely, he said, that Hitler would offer terms that would prove acceptable but, in theory, if Britain could get out of this ‘jam’ by surrendering parts of her African and Mediterranean Empire to the Axis then he would ‘jump at it’.
The only safe course, however, ‘was to convince Hitler that he could not beat us’. Later that evening, the order for the commencement of Operation Dynamo – the evacuation of the BEF from France – was given.
With Calais surrounded and the German spearheads only five miles from Dunkirk, the War Cabinet met the following day – Monday, May 27 – at 4.30pm. The meeting only lasted an hour and a half but was probably the most important 90 minutes of the war – certainly the closest Hitler came to winning it.
Halifax re-presented his plan for exploring peace terms via Mussolini. Churchill expressed scepticism but held his fire. The Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair, however, argued that an approach to the Italians would be not merely hopeless but dangerous.
The two Labour Ministers, Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood, strongly agreed. ‘If it got out that we had sued for terms at the cost of ceding British territory, the consequences would be terrible,’ argued Greenwood.
Halifax re-presented his plan for exploring peace terms via Mussolini. Churchill expressed scepticism but held his fire. The Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair, however, argued that an approach to the Italians would be not merely hopeless but dangerous
‘It would be heading for disaster’ to go any further down this route. With this bolstering of support, Churchill declared his unambiguous opposition to the proposal. The mere exploration of peace talks, he explained, ‘would ruin the fighting integrity in this country’.
There was not the remotest possibility Hitler would offer acceptable terms and, when the Germans revealed the British had sued for peace, the determination of the British people to continue the struggle would evaporate.
British prestige, it was true, was currently very low. But the only way to get it back was to show the world ‘that the Germans had not beaten us’.
No, they should avoid being ‘dragged down the slippery slope with France’ and continue the struggle, if necessary alone.
Halifax, who described Churchill’s speech ‘as the most frightful rot’ in his diary, then threatened to resign. This was the tipping point.
Churchill had been Prime Minister for 17 days and the resignation of his Foreign Secretary and favoured candidate for his post would almost certainly bring down his Government.
Faced with such danger, Churchill did not shout and storm but resorted to charm. He spoke to Halifax in private in the Downing Street garden – the site of Dominic Cummings’s recent press conference – and was ‘full of apologies and affection’.
Although not able to convert the Foreign Secretary to his point of view, Churchill managed to dissuade him from taking a step which would plunge Britain into a political crisis at the same time as her Army in France was facing the prospect of annihilation.
Back in the Foreign Office, the Permanent Under Secretary, Sir Alexander Cadogan, urged Halifax not ‘to do anything silly under the stress’. Yet Halifax returned to the charge at the War Cabinet the following day – Tuesday, May 28 – arguing that Britain might get ‘better terms before France went out of the war and our aircraft factories were being bombed’.
Churchill again dissented but the crucial contribution came from Chamberlain. At this critical moment, the man who had made the cataclysmic mistake of trusting Hitler in 1938, announced that he agreed with Churchill.
There was no doubt that continuing the fight was a serious risk, he said. But the alternative – not fighting – also ‘involved a serious gamble’.
The mere exploration of peace talks, he explained, ‘would ruin the fighting integrity in this country’. There was not the remotest possibility Hitler would offer acceptable terms and, when the Germans revealed the British had sued for peace, the determination of the British people to continue the struggle would evaporate. British prestige, it was true, was currently very low
He, therefore, believed that ‘it was no good making an approach [to Mussolini] on the lines proposed.’ It was a vital intervention, and completely contrary to the version most recently promoted by Hollywood.
Churchill now moved to checkmate Halifax. He asked the War Cabinet to reconvene at 7pm, after he had met with the wider Cabinet, so far excluded from these discussions.
When the 25 Ministers convened in the Prime Minister’s room in the House of Commons that afternoon, Churchill began by giving them an unvarnished account of the situation at Dunkirk.
During the previous day only 7,699 troops had been evacuated from the beaches (a tiny fraction of those who were waiting to be rescued) and it was more than possible they were on the verge of witnessing ‘the greatest British military defeat for many centuries’.
In these circumstances, he confessed he had wondered whether it was part of his duty as Prime Minister to consider entering into negotiations with ‘That Man’. But the answer was no. It was delusional, he argued, to believe Britain would get better terms from Hitler now, than if she carried on and fought it out.
The Germans, he said, would demand the Royal Navy and significant chunks of the Empire. Britain would become a ‘slave state’ under Fascist leader Oswald Mosley or some other Nazi puppet.
Furthermore, Britain had considerable reserves and strategic advantages. Only a few days earlier, the Chiefs of Staff had produced a report (euphemistically entitled British Strategy In A Certain Eventuality, ie the collapse of France), which argued Britain could hope to survive the war, alone, providing her Navy and Air Force remained intact to repel a German invasion.
Therefore, Churchill concluded in the most simple yet dramatic terms: ‘We shall go on and we shall fight it out, here or elsewhere and if this long island story is to end at last, let it end only when each of us lies choking in his own blood.’
As the Labour MP and Minister for Economic Warfare, Hugh Dalton, recorded ‘there was not even the faintest flicker of dissent’ and, when the meeting was over, there were cheers and much slapping of the Prime Ministerial back.
Later, when Churchill recounted the meeting to the reconvened War Cabinet, he stated that he could not remember a gathering of so many senior politicians having expressed themselves so emphatically.
None had flinched when confronted with the danger that lay ahead and, on the contrary, there was universal rejoicing when he told them there was no chance of giving up the struggle.
Most Conservative MPs had wanted the former appeaser, Lord Halifax, to succeed Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister and there was a widespread view within Westminster that Churchill was a dangerous adventurer
Outmanoeuvred, Halifax was forced to accept defeat. He raised the French desire for an appeal to President Roosevelt but when Churchill vetoed this, arguing that a ‘bold stand’ would command the respect of the United States but a ‘grovelling appeal would have the worst possible effect’, he did not demur. Churchill had won.
The Second World War had many decisive moments: the invasion of the Soviet Union by Hitler’s armies in June 1941; the halting of the German offensive before the gates of Moscow six months later; the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the entry of the United States into the war; Stalingrad; D-Day, to name only the most important.
Yet, I agree with the late historian John Lukas that the debates in the War Cabinet between May 26 and 28, 1940, were the real ‘hinge of fate’.
As we all know, Britain did not and could not win the war single-handed. Yet, in 1940, she was the only country capable of losing it. Had Churchill faltered, Hitler would have been victorious. Europe would have fallen entirely under the shadow of the swastika and the possibility of salvation by the US would have disappeared.
Even if Hitler had persisted with what proved his suicidal bid to conquer the Soviet Union, then history, under these circumstances, could have been different.
Without the belligerency of Great Britain – fighting in North Africa and at sea, restricting supplies and bombing German cities – Germany would have been exponentially stronger. The Russians would have received none of the tanks, aeroplanes and raw materials supplied by Britain and the US and there would have been no chance of a second front in Western Europe.
It is for these reasons we owe such a debt to Churchill. He had been wrong about a range of issues before 1940 and was not always sound in his judgment thereafter. But when European civilisation teetered on the brink of destruction, he showed courage, perspicacity, tact and leadership.
It is to the world’s enduring gratitude that Britain had such a Prime Minister at a such a time.
Tim Bouverie’s Appeasing Hitler: Chamberlain, Churchill And The Road To War is out now in paperback.