Two significant events happened on May 10th 1940 - Winston Churchill became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and the German Wehrmacht began its (untimately successful) assault on the Allied forces in France.
Some think the first event happened because of the second. But Churchill actually became PM because of the Norway defeat, still fresh on May 10th.
But the swift German breakthrough in the Ardennes and their exploitation of the victory mean that Churchill went from being embroiled in a disaster to being up to his neck in a catastrophe. He encountered at first hand the incompetence and defeatism of the French High Command -it made him wonder what had happened to the successors of the aggressive French commanders of WWI like Mangin and Foch. For the first time, he also came up against the ferocity, mobility and professionalism of the German Army, which far outstripped that of the British. All this must have been profoundly disturbing and demoralizing to an already old man, 66 years of age.
By May 26th the Germans had reached the Channel and began to move North, encircling hundreds of thousands of British, Belgian and French soldiers in an ever-shrinking pocket. The Germans were closer to the port of egress (Dunkirk) then were the allies. To any military observer, the British Army looked doomed. The "miracle" (so-called) of Dunkirk still lay a week or so in the future.
During these three days all those 73 years ago, conviction began to drain from key figures in the British Establishment, and peace terms brokered through the "good offices" (Italy still still neutral) of Benito Mussolini were mooted. The Tory Party had been lukewarm in support of the war, and a majority of MPs might be swayed into thinking that an immediate Armistice and peace talks were the only way to save the Army and the Empire.
It is hard to reconstruct those days now because some key meetings of the British War Cabinet were (deliberately) unrecorded, others are still withheld from public scrutiny, and memoirs (including Churchill's) are silent or less than frank about the discussions that took place over the three days.
The focus of the discontent was Ernest Wood, Lord Halifax, Foreign Secretary, a Tory Grandee, pillar of the Establishment, and a key architect of the Appeasement Policy led by Neville Chamberlain, the former PM. Chamberlain had offered Halifax the premiership two weeks before, when he stepped down, the Tory Party wanted him, the Royal Family wanted him, but Halifax had refused, saying that as a peer, he could not be PM from the House of Lords. He may also have felt that his chances would be better if Churchill failed.
That meant Halifax could command the support of the Conservative party, more so than Churchill could. It was striking that when Churchill first entered the House of Commons as Prime Minster, he was cheered and applauded from the Labour and Liberal benches, but not from the seated and silent Tories.
On this weekend, 73 years ago, Halifax began to suggest the opening of talks with Italy, and rebuffed Churchill's first attempts at encouraging rhetoric and morale-raising speeches. To us, now, Churchillian rhetoric rings with patriotic fervour. To Halifax (and many others at the time), it was garrulous, reckless twaddle.
They knew Churchill's fingerprints were all over the Norway disaster, for which he was at least partly responsible. His (apparently) pompous fustian masked a reputation as a reckless adventurer of poor judgment, profoundly mistrusted by his own party.
Halifax began to tell his friends "I cannot work with Winston any longer". Halifax' resignation would have been an earthquake, signalling a split at the heart of the Establishment, and maybe provoking the fall of Churchill's short-lived government.
And Halifax had a case. Why not find out what were the best terms available? Churchill's problem was that if the terms offered were even half-reasonable (the Royal Navy preserved, maybe the retention of Gibraltar, the return of German East Africa, a non-aggression pact with Germany), it would be a slippery slope, losing ground he could never regain.
Churchill's riposte was to argue that it was hasty to ask for terms - while the French might do so, he was willing to listen what might be offered to the British, but it was important that the British not sue for peace. If they did, and the facts were leaked, it would be devastating to morale, and that slippery slope would get even more slippery.
At that moment, Churchill was at his worst and weakest moment of the war. His government was new and untried. He himself was not the "indispensable man" he was to become - surrounded by men who had been political opponents, men who disrespected him and (to an extent) despised him, he and his government were vulnerable.
Yes, he succeeded, thank God. How did he do it? Luck played its part, because with different events and a slightly different caste of characters, all might have been lost. Some of the factors I discern are:
- Churchill himself. At his best in adversity, he believed in Britain, in the Empire, but most of all in his own destiny to save both. Confident in his abilities to lead and win, he deployed his charm over Halifax in personal meetings that might have swayed that rigid High Tory. On at least one occasion, Churchill's determined and indomitable personality may have influenced the outcome of the 3 days (see below).
- Neville Chamberlain. If Chamberlain ever had a "finest hour", this was it. Though initially swayed by Halifax, on the 27th May 1940 he began to act as a brake on his colleague. He and Halifax on the 28th presented a report recommending that Britain "wait and see" the result of French overtures to Italy. It was a signal that Churchill (temporarily, at least) had won.
- Clement Attlee. In Churchill's new coalition War Cabinet of 5, there were 2 Labour members ( Attlee & Greenwood, as well as Churchill, Halifax and Chamberlain). Attlee and Greenwood were supportive of Churchill all through the 3 days, and must have encouraged the PM and swayed the others. At one point in a private meeting, Greenwood said to Attlee "No one will blame us". Attlee snapped back "I do not want to be remembered as someone who was not to blame when civilization collapsed!".
- The chiefs of staff of the Army, Air Force and Navy presented a report that said Britain could continue the war without France, as long as there was American aid - and (presumably) as long as most of the Army was saved from France. It was conditional, but it gave Churchill a breathing space to argue that all was not lost.
The decisive moment came on the afternoon of the 27th when Churchill called a meeting of the wider cabinet (26 men in all). In dark terms, he described Britain's plight, added that Germany may offer peace terms, but ended with "Of course, no matter what happens, we will fight on". The room exploded in cheering and applause, desks were pounded, some ministers rushed forward to shake Churchill's hand and pound him on the back. Churchill claimed to have been surprised by the acclamation, others think it was all shrewdly staged by the PM. Judge for yourself, but news must have got back to Halifax.
Churchill had other business that weekend - trying to save the Allied Armies in France, meeting with the French PM who came to London, and attending a prayer service. He also twice invited David Lloyd George to join his cabinet. He did this (as Don Corleone advised his son in The Godfather) to "keep your friends close, but your enemies closer". Lloyd George was openly defeatist and calling for Hitler's terms to be taken seriously.
The Welshman refused, telling friends that he thought Churchill would not last. No doubt he fully expected to play the same role Petain played for France.
Britain and Churchill were to endure many bleak moments in the war - on June 18th, after the Fall of Paris on June 14th, France asked for an Armistice. Later there were the defeats in Greece and Crete (1941), the Fall of Tobruk (1942) and the Fall of Singapore (1942). But the country never came closer to defeat than over that May weekend in 1940.
After the French gave up, the possibility of peace feelers again arose, but Churchill at that stage was able to squelch them effectively. Eventually, in January 1941, he shifted Halifax to Washington as Ambassador and installed his own man, Anthony Eden, as Foreign Secretary. Chamberlain became ill, resigned and died in 1941 of cancer. From June, 1940, Churchill dominated Britain's strategy until he fell from power in the 1945 election.
[Eoghan Harris writes his column on this theme today in the Sunday Independent.
BUT HE DID NOT WRITE THE ABOVE. I DID.
We both rely on historian John Lukacs, but I differ from Harris in the interpretation of some events]