Ticknor & Fields, New York 1994
Five Days in London: May 1940
Yale Univ. Press 1999
We buried Winston Churchill forty years ago. Sixty five years ago, come May, he faced, for us, the greatest crisis of our history. BBC’s Radio 4 commemorated his death with a fine, hour-long recall of his funeral and the crisis of 1940 with a gripping drama, Playing for Time – Three Days in May 1940. I do not know whether the author of the play, Robin Glendinning, owed anything to the books noticed here, but to me they seem to autheticate it. Another Radio 4 programme, Churchill’s Roar, very perceptively analysed the voice that spoke the words that still move us.
The World’s Debt to Britain
To put it no higher, the world is fortunate that, for a whole year, from June 1940 to June 1941, Britain had a government that did not capitulate to or compromise with Hitler. The situation during that year looked barely a stalemate. The Axis Powers now completely dominated Europe. Italy was an ally, Spain was friendly and the USSR no threat (the only person Stalin ever trusted was Hitler). Germany had absorbed Austria and occupied Czechoslovakia in 1938, then in less than a year’s war had overrun and partitioned Poland, occupied Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium and Luxemburg, and completed her conquest of Western Europe by knocking out France. The Balkans represented no problem.
Although it may have been the result of miscalculation and misfortune that for a year Britain “stood alone”, it turned out to be the right thing to do. And more than calculation stood behind the decision: it felt the right thing to do. But what could Britain hope for? The Dominions (except for Southern Ireland, still officially one of them, whose government played its ignoble role, excused by its history, until the very end) were loyal and contributed men and arms. The United States was sympathetic but strongly isolationist: to win the Presidential Election in 1940, Roosevelt felt he had to promise to keep out of the war. There was little Britain could do but protect herself and trounce Hitler’s jackal-ally Italy in Ethiopia, Somaliland and North Africa – and hope that Hitler would make some mistake.
The Inevitable Parallel: Napoleon and Hitler
The parallel between Britain’s struggle against Napoleon and that against Hitler hardly needs to be drawn, but if there is any lesson in history, surely it is here. Napoleon retains his high reputation, gained from victory in a dozen battles; Hitler never commanded in the field, yet subjugated Europe more thoroughly. Both underestimated Britain in both her power and persistence, Hitler the more excusably. Napoleon abandoned the attempt to invade, and did not in person try to eject Britain from Spain and Portugal; in combination, a fatal error. Hitler postponed his invasion attempt, half-hoping the fruit would drop into his hand, also a fatal error. Hitler’s Priority – and his Four Mistakes
We can see now that the priority for Hitler was the elimination of Britain. Any move that Hitler made that did not have this purpose was bound to be a mistake. From June 1940 until April 1941 he had no other enemy; a better opportunity to attack her was never to recur. That he failed to concentrate on this was his first mistake. Then he made his next; he attacked Jugoslavia and Greece, wasting energy merely to enter the irrelevant theatre of the Mediterranean by a more difficult route than one he already had, through Italy – Rommel was already causing us trouble in North Africa. The third error, the colossal blunder of invading the USSR, followed in June; from then on Germans were to be killed on a large scale, though at terrible cost to the Russians because of the stupidity of Stalin and the wastefulness of his generals. Even so, the first German offensive would almost certainly have captured Moscow, Leningrad and European Russia, including the Ukraine, had Hitler’s resources not been depleted by his Balkan adventure and the need to keep watch on Britain. We on our part, began to send arms to Russia. Hitler’s fourth mistake was the inexplicable stupidity of declaring war on the USA. This sealed his fate by rendering Britain impregnable and providing inexhaustible armaments to anyone willing to fight him.
That the US military alliance was vital, no one can deny. Churchill, in May 1940, our darkest hour, confessed to his son that his only hope was somehow to get the United States into the war. The rapport that Churchill and Roosevelt developed was an extraordinary bonus, not something that could have been taken for granted. Although it can be confidently asserted that Churchill took the initiative and that necessity drove him, yet the bond formed was firm and lasting. When Roosevelt died in January 1945 Churchill wept copiously at his Memorial Service; reciprocally, Roosevelt had confided to a colleague that Churchill was “the greatest man alive”.
Why Britain’s Survival in 1940 was Essential to Win the War
The survival of Britain as a fighting power after June 1940 was thus essential to victory. Without it, the US would would almost certainly never have come to Europe, where the political scene, whether dominated by a Nazi Germany or, much less likely, a Communist USSR would be at best depressing, at worst horrific. While both ideologies might mellow or collapse over time, that time would undoubtedly have had its fill of horrors and humiliation. It would certainly have been most of the last 65 years and of the lifetimes of those born since 1940, the year we are now so reluctant to see as our Annus Mirabilis.
…and Why We Should Have Fought On
There have been suggestions that Britain, in 1940-41, might have reached a modus vivendi with Hitler, similar to the Peace of Amiens in 1802 with Napoleon. Logically, Hitler should have offered to withdraw to 1939 boundaries (which still included Austria and Czechoslovakia), but this would have been for Hitler, a political and psychological impossibility. He made no offer anything like it. For Britain to have accepted anything less, on the other hand, would have been unwise, leaving her vulnerable, both materially and psychologically, to a second round. And Britain in 1940 was not Britain in 1802. In 1802 her foreign policy was run by a handful of aristocrats with a managed Parliament, who took their country in and out of wars and alliances with little need to consult public, or even informed opinion. In 1940, by contrast, a government that stopped the country fighting would have had difficulty in starting it again.
Churchill as Inspirer (or Mouthpiece?)
The resolution of the government, in 1940 as in 1802, remained all-important, and accounts of Cabinet meetings and less formal discussions leave one in no doubt that this resolution would have wavered, had it not been for Churchill. Well might he have said, in the words uttered (without bombast, one feels sure) by Wellington after Waterloo: “By God! I don’t think it would have done if I had not been there!” In fact, Churchill’s assessment of his own part was humble: “Had I faltered at all in the leading of the nation I should have been hurled out of office.” Yet when Churchill inspired, first his cabinet, then the nation, while France crumbled and the BEF was being evacuated from Dunkirk, he had been Prime Minister for less than a month.
Since any terms offered by Hitler would have been equivalent to surrender, Churchill refused to condone any negotiating, which would merely admit weakness. Both RAF and Royal Navy chiefs thought they could prevent an invasion, but emphasised the importance of national morale. Churchill probably overestimated the nation’s courage and determination, but in thinking he was only its mouthpiece, he inspired it into believing itself what he thought it was. “It fell to me,” he wrote later, “to express their sentiments on suitable occasions. This I was able to do because they were mine also. There was a white glow, overpowering, sublime, which ran through our island from end to end.” With the Battle of Britain won and the Blitz endured, Britain was saved. and, ultimately, the war was won. If any one man was responsible for this achievement, it was Churchill.
If Britain Had Been Beaten…
Allow me to reiterate the logic of this claim. If Hitler could have subjugated Britain, he could then, by concentrating all his resources, and in his own time, have occupied or neutralized all of Europe west of the Black Sea, dominated the Mediterranean, and still have surprised the USSR and annihilated her armies. The USA could only have acquiesced in this state of affairs. It might ultimately have collided with Japan, but yet have taken no action while that power absorbed the Far Eastern possessions of the Dutch, French and British and turned China into a helpless puppet. India could have experienced a spurious liberation, either by the Germans or the Japanese – how can anyone know what might have happened to her?
The laws of Physics determine that however long and strong a lever may be, without a fulcrum it cannot be used. It is almost impossible to believe that Germany could have been beaten without either Soviet or US participation, but in the event, neither could it have happened without Britain’s survival through the year 1940-1 when she stood alone. We do not know whether or for how long we could have survived a determined German attack, but we do know that Churchill’s role in Britain’s defiance was paramount. The VE Day crowds in 1945 did not doubt it. When he told them “This is your victory” they roared back “No – it is yours”.
By the end of October 1940 the British Government knew that German invasion plans had been cancelled. It is presumably during the next five months, until the German invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece, which was started at the beginning and completed by the end of April, that some modern historians see a “window of opportunity” for a negotiated peace. Whether or not this seems reasonable in retrospect, it is difficult to see how it could possibly ever have happened. Churchill was now at the zenith of his power and prestige and had no intention of discussing peace. There was no politician of any standing whom a peace party could form around; Chamberlain was dead, Halifax (as a lord, anyway more or less disqualified) had been sent as Ambassador to Washington and Cripps to Moscow; Butler had been sidetracked into the unwarlike Ministry of Education.
Which Would Hitler Invade First – Britain or the USSR?
Be that as it may and granted that Churchill had the bit between his teeth (we can surely dismiss personal ambition) we still have to decide whether peace was a reasonable option and on what terms. The question boils down to this: if Hitler had spent the better part of a year preparing to invade Britain, would he have succeeded? For this his best strategy would be a massive aircraft and U-Boat building programme. The Army was certainly adequate as it was. But here a large factor looms – the USSR. With hindsight, we know that Hitler always intended to subjugate it. From captured documents the British government knew that in July 1940 Hitler had initiated the planning to do so. So for Britain, the question must have been not “If?” but “When?” As we have seen, Hitler’s best strategy would have been to neutralize Britain first; as soon as Britain knew the attack on Russia was fixed for June 1941, there would be no reason to seek peace. The British Government would not be justified in making, or in considering, peace overtures if the evidence showed that Germany was either not making a serious attempt to dominate the Channel, or that such an attempt would fail. After the Battle of Britain, which we won, evidence for both became overwhelming.
So confident was Churchill and the government of this that the the British felt able to send troops to Egypt and campaign, in a morale-raising way, to throw the Italians out of North Africa. Hitler refused Rommel reinforcements which may, at the time, have revealed that he needed the men elsewhere – Russia.
The Academic Debate: The Price We Paid – Unnecessary or Inevitable?
Despite the facts in the analysis above, it has been claimed that this interlude, irrespective of Hitler’s choice between the two alternatives, would have been a good time to negotiate. Large numbers of Britons (200,000+?) would have stayed alive, large numbers of houses and factories would not have been destroyed, our empire, including its oil-rich territories, would have remained intact, and its resources diverted to counter any threat from the Japanese. The morality of such a policy could be brushed aside and with some reason; Nazi atrocities were largely in the future, were dwarfed to date by Communist ones and, it has to be said, did not affect military strategy when they were known.
None of these reasons is really valid. What of the 200,000+ putative lives to be saved? Spread over the whole country, this would be a one chance in 275 of being killed, about twice the likelihood of anyone today being killed in a road accident during their entire lives. In human history, warfare has ranged from being regarded as a somewhat dangerous sport, through all the various stages of high-risk activity to kamikaze and suicide bomber. In short, it is difficult not to believe that most people in this country would have accepted a 100 to 200 to 1 chance of being killed in preference to the risk of trusting Hitler. Admittedly, in the armed forces, the risk would be higher!
The other reasons can be dealt with more straightforwardly. The actual aftermath of the war has shown how rapidly material resources can be regenerated. The undeniable fact that the two defeated nations subsequently outstripped the victors economically even suggests that a thorough demolition of obsolescent structures, physical and psychological, can be even beneficial.
…and The Empire
As for the survival of Britain’s empire; this had been held together by moral force; selfconfidence in the rulers, acquiescence by the ruled. It would have been amazing if it could have survived a perceived British defeat any better than it did the ultimate British victory, especially in the case of India. The Japanese, had they taken care not to become embroiled with the US, could have over-run Malaya and Burma just as effectively as they did in 1942. To them, the difference between a compromise peace and an outright British defeat might not have seemed sufficient for them not to take the risk.
The Surprising “Moral Dimension”
Coming, lastly, to the moral dimension, it may surprise cynics, blase to British claims to hold the higher moral ground, to find how crucial this was. If the Germans had treated the inhabitants of White Russia (Belorus) and the Ukraine humanely or as allies against Bolshevism, as most of them wished to be, the Soviet Union might well have fallen to pieces nearly 50 years before it did. Hitler was even advised to do so but opted for their enslavement, largely because he regarded them as inferior human beings. With a parallel idiocy, both sides ill-treated their prisoners, instead of wooing them.
But Back to 1940 – 41: The Actual Situation…
During the months October 1940 to March 1941 Churchill waited to see whether Germany was going to move against Britain or the Soviet Union first. Given his complete dominance over the Cabinet, Parliament and the nation, there was, because of his refusal to consider them, no chance of peace negotiations coming about and the discussion of their desirability is literally an academic exercise. The academic exercise conducted in the paragraphs above suggests that he was right. At Nuremburg, the German Foreign Minister Ribbentrop (if one can believe him) claimed that Hitler himself, baffled as to what to do about Britain, even turned in desperation to Japan – to initiate an alliance that was to make his ruin ultimately complete.
Britain’s “Compromise Option” – To Be Eaten Last
There was, of course, an enormous risk that Hitler would succeed in completely defeating the Soviet Union, disintegrating its armies, killing or capturing Stalin or after occupying Moscow and Leningrad, turning him into a completely discredited, hunted man. But this risk would be much increased if Britain was neutral and our position would become desperate when the last power independent of Germany in the whole of Eurasia disappeared. Consequently it was not in our interest to agree with Hitler to give him a free hand to deal with the Soviet Union; that would be merely to accept the privilege accorded by the Cyclops to Odysseus – to be eaten last.
Because the United States, due to Hitler’s folly, became involved in the European war, Britain never had to confront either single power, Germany or the Soviet Union, dominant on the continent. However, whichever it had turned out to be, we should have been best to do so fully armed, with our resources mobilised in a fashion that only actual belligerance can ensure.
In The Duel, practically a day by day account of 80 days, May 10th to 31st July 1940 Lukacs explains how Churchill put the backbone into the British policy of defiance, a policy justifiable at the time only because the alternatives would be worse, but ultimately vindicated. Its most obvious feature is Churchill’s determination and will power, compared with the pessimism, if not actual defeatism, of, in particular, Halifax and Butler. Against their wish to explore Hitler’s terms was Churchill’s awareness of the “slippery slope” down which any interest in them might lead. It was another matter to carefully place “false feelers” to confuse and delay German reactions.
But there are other points well worth taking into account. The magnanimity of both Chamberlain and Churchill emerge; Churchill in his loyalty until his time comes and his kindness thereafter; Chamberlain’s acceptance of his replacement (he surely realised how much more adequate Churchill was to the task) and his pressure on his own supporters to rally behind Churchill. The number of Conservative MPs who began the period hostile to Churchill was large (large enough in the Commons Chamber to cheer Chamberlain rather than Churchill after the changeover). I rather wish that Lloyd George (Petain in waiting?) had been followed up.
The famous “calling off” by Hitler of Rundstedt’s advance on Dunkirk remains (to me) unexplained. The book finishes just as the Battle of Britain begins. Not perhaps argued strongly enough by the author is his suggestion that airborne or paratroop landings by the Germans might have led to the defeat of Britain immediately after, perhaps during, the Dunkirk evacuation. But were such airborne facilities yet developed sufficiently?
As an American, Lukacs is aware of the dependence of Churchill upon hopes of US help and knows the personalities in US politics; the various ways and means may have been simplified here. The weakness of a democratic system, especially of the US constitutional type, shows up in the difficulties Roosevelt had in aiding Britain, e.g., for his political support he had to keep the defeatist Joseph Kennedy as Ambassador to Britain. He also characterises John Foster Dulles as an isolationist in 1940 – and John F. Kennedy following his father in his defeatist attitude. It seems amazingly fortunate that the Republican candidate in 1940 was Wendell Wilkie, who also favoured intervention short of war.
In his Five Days in London: May 1940, Lukacs, in 1999, followed The Duel with a more detailed examination of the most critical period of 1940. I am not sure if I can say that he has added much to the subject, though doubtless the detail is greater. Perhaps there is more about the precariousness of Churchill’s position, but even so, this seems to have ended before the Dunkirk evacuation when far more men had been rescued that had been thought possible by anyone at its start. He may have thought the book was necessary after the publications of such revisionist historians as Charmley or Lawler, while he cites fairly often Roberts’ biography of Halifax, The Holy Fox (1991) and Eminent Churchillians (1994), often to correct and contradict. The book has the merit of greater brevity, concentration and force than The Duel.
Britain emerged from the War exhausted and bankrupt, unable and unwilling to be any longer a Great Power. The Americans had come to liberate us all from the Germans; they remained to protect us from the Russians. Increasingly content, like the rest of Western Europe, to shelter under the American umbrella, and increasingly powerless, we could all cavort beneath it in a parody of independence, indulged by our benign protector, whom we treat in the normal, expected way – with ingratitude.