Churchill’s Days of Destiny

The film Dark­est Hour fo­cussed on a few cru­cial days when Bri­tain’s war cab­i­net weighed an im­mense ques­tion – to seek terms with Ger­many or fight to the last. Allen Pack­wood re­veals how Win­ston Churchill car­ried the ar­gu­ment to seek “vic­tory at all costs

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Allen Pack­wood re­veals how Win­ston Churchill car­ried the ar­gu­ment to seek “vic­tory at all costs”

It is 3pm on Mon­day 13 May 1940. Win­ston Churchill has just made his first speech as prime min­is­ter to the House of Com­mons. He has an­nounced that he has “noth­ing to of­fer but blood, toil, tears and sweat”, and has pledged him­self to a pol­icy of wag­ing war “by sea, land and air” with the sin­gle aim of vic­tory: “vic­tory at all costs, vic­tory in spite of all ter­ror, vic­tory, how­ever hard and long the road may be”. This short speech is now seen as an iconic mo­ment in Bri­tish his­tory. But our view of that mo­ment is coloured by hind­sight, and by our knowl­edge that vic­tory was achieved. No such lux­ury was granted to Churchill and his au­di­ence at the time. The prime min­is­ter’s speech, at six min­utes long, was lack­ing in de­tail, and his po­si­tion was far from se­cure. In the short term, things would only get worse – much worse.

Churchill be­came prime min­is­ter on

10 May 1940, the very day that Hitler launched his blitzkrieg of­fen­sive against France and the Low Coun­tries. He was not elected prime min­is­ter – he was there be­cause the Labour party would not serve un­der Neville Cham­ber­lain in a na­tional coali­tion; and be­cause Lord Hal­i­fax, the Con­ser­va­tive for­eign sec­re­tary, was not will­ing to try to lead a wartime gov­ern­ment from the House of Lords rather than the Com­mons. It was a West­min­ster coup from which he emerged as the only lead­ing Con­ser­va­tive with the pop­u­lar cred­i­bil­ity and po­lit­i­cal abil­ity to form a gov­ern­ment.

True, Churchill’s long record of warn­ing about Nazi Ger­many – cou­pled with his ob­vi­ous de­ter­mi­na­tion to take the fight to the en­emy – had won him public and press sup­port, but there were many through­out the cor­ri­dors of power, and even within his own party, who re­garded him with sus­pi­cion, as an op­por­tunist and a mav­er­ick who might lead the coun­try into the most dan­ger­ous paths. He had no po­lit­i­cal power­base of his own. To form a na­tional coali­tion he had to of­fer places in his war cab­i­net to the Labour lead­ers, Clement At­tlee and Arthur Green­wood. To keep his own Con­ser­va­tive party on side he had to give the two re­main­ing seats to Cham­ber­lain and Hal­i­fax. As he looked around that fa­mous cab­i­net ta­ble, he was con­fronted by his pre­de­ces­sor, his main Con­ser­va­tive ri­val, and the rep­re­sen­ta­tives of a so­cial­ist party that he had spent much of his po­lit­i­cal life at­tack­ing.

Nor was he to be given any time to estab­lish him­self. The mil­i­tary sit­u­a­tion de­te­ri­o­rated faster and fur­ther than he could pos­si­bly have an­tic­i­pated. The Dutch were quickly over­whelmed, but that was just the first wave. Streams of Panzer tank di­vi­sions, sup­ported by a fe­ro­cious aerial bom­bard­ment, smashed their way through the sup­pos­edly im­pass­able Ar­dennes for­est, sim­ply by­pass­ing the static de­fences of the French Maginot Line. Within a mat­ter of days they had cut a swathe across the French coun­try­side, reach­ing the coast and cut­ting off the French north­ern army and the Bri­tish Ex­pe­di­tionary Force. Boulogne fell on 25 May and Calais was be­sieged. Churchill had only been prime min­is­ter for two weeks and was sud­denly fac­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of the de­struc­tion of his army and the loss of his main ally.

26 May

The French urge Churchill to seek salvation in Fas­cist Italy

Sun­day 26 May was def­i­nitely not a day of rest for Churchill and the Bri­tish war cab­i­net. It had be­come clear that the Bri­tish Ex­pe­di­tionary Force was at risk of be­ing an­ni­hi­lated, and would have to make a fight­ing re­treat to­wards the port of Dunkirk. It was feared that this would be seen as an act of de­ser­tion by the French, who had over­all com­mand of the land cam­paign. French premier Paul Rey­naud flew over to dis­cuss the cri­sis with Churchill. The news he brought with him could not have been bleaker: the French had only 50 di­vi­sions to field against 150 Ger­man, and their supreme com­man­der, Gen­eral Wey­gand, did not think that re­sis­tance could last long against a de­ter­mined on­slaught. “Where then could France look for salvation?” Rey­naud asked Churchill.

Rey­naud felt that France’s only hope lay in an ap­proach to Fas­cist Italy, still neu­tral but ex­pected to de­clare war against the Al­lies at any mo­ment. If Italy could be bought off, 10 di­vi­sions might be re­leased from France’s east­ern bor­ders. But the price Italy might de­mand for her non-bel­liger­ence was ex­pected to in­clude the de­mil­i­tari­sa­tion of Malta and the neu­tral­i­sa­tion of Gi­bral­tar and the Suez Canal. As these ter­ri­to­ries were all un­der Bri­tish con­trol, Rey­naud was ask­ing Churchill to keep France in the war by mak­ing con­ces­sions to Italy.

Churchill’s per­sonal re­sponse to Rey­naud was un­equiv­o­cal: “We would rather go down fight­ing than be en­slaved to Ger­many.” Yet when he re­ported this con­ver­sa­tion to his war cab­i­net col­leagues at 2pm that af­ter­noon, it was clear that not all of them shared such a black and white view. Lord Hal­i­fax favoured mak­ing an ap­proach to Italy, ar­gu­ing that it was not in Mus­solini’s in­ter­est to al­low Hitler to dom­i­nate Europe, and that the Ital­ian dic­ta­tor might be able to per­suade Hitler to take a more rea­son­able at­ti­tude. In other words, peace terms with Ger­many might be ex­plored through Italy. While ex­press­ing doubt as to the value of any such ap­proach, Churchill agreed that it should be fur­ther con­sid­ered by the war cab­i­net. The mil­i­tary sit­u­a­tion was sim­ply too un­cer­tain for him to be able to rule it out, and his pri­or­ity re­mained get­ting Bri­tish troops out of France. Po­lit­i­cally he needed to carry his war cab­i­net with him on such an is­sue of na­tional sur­vival.

What Churchill could and did do was to con­trol the process. As prime min­is­ter it fell to him to con­vene the meet­ings and set the agen­das. The dis­cus­sions about an ap­proach to Mus­solini were re­stricted to a very small group: the five mem­bers of the war cab­i­net, sup­ple­mented from 27 May by Alexander Cado­gan, a se­nior civil ser­vant at the for­eign of­fice, and Archibald Sinclair, in his ca­pac­ity as leader of the Lib­eral party (and key coali­tion part­ner) rather than sec­re­tary of state for air. This in­ner cir­cle held three sep­a­rate meet­ings to thrash out the is­sue: in Ad­mi­ralty House mid-af­ter­noon on 26 May, at 4.30pm in Down­ing Street on 27 May, and at 4pm in the prime min­is­ter’s room at the House of Com­mons on 28 May.

Ev­ery­thing hung on a few men, meet­ing in smoke-filled rooms, their con­cen­tra­tion pe­ri­od­i­cally bro­ken by the lat­est news from the front, their de­lib­er­a­tions oc­cur­ring against the back­drop of the evac­u­a­tion from Dunkirk. The lev­els of stress are unimag­in­able, and it is not sur­pris­ing if at times their words be­came heated and their emo­tions ran high.

26 May

Hal­i­fax nudges Churchill to­wards the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble

The dis­cus­sion re­sumed in earnest later on 26 May. There was no sec­re­tary present for the first 15 min­utes.

Per­haps this was a de­lib­er­ate ploy to al­low the main pro­tag­o­nists to speak off the record; more likely it was a re­flec­tion of the sheer pace of events, with civil ser­vants strug­gling to keep up with their min­is­ters. Bat­tle lines were quickly drawn.


Churchill was clear that Bri­tain was in a dif­fer­ent po­si­tion to France – it still had the power to re­sist and at­tack, and France should not be al­lowed to drag the coun­try into a set­tle­ment which in­volved in­tol­er­a­ble terms. Lord Hal­i­fax coun­tered with cold logic and diplo­matic lan­guage: France should be al­lowed “to try out the pos­si­bil­i­ties of Euro­pean equi­lib­rium”. He “was not quite con­vinced that the prime min­is­ter’s di­ag­no­sis was cor­rect and that it was in Hitler’s in­ter­est to in­sist on out­ra­geous terms”, and Ital­ian claims might be con­sid­ered as part of a wider set­tle­ment about the bal­ance of power. “At any rate, he could see no harm in try­ing this line of ap­proach.” Ul­ti­mately, said Hal­i­fax, if Bri­tain found that it could ob­tain terms that did not mean sac­ri­fic­ing its in­de­pen­dence “we should be fool­ish if we did not ac­cept them”. He also re­ported on a pre­lim­i­nary dis­cus­sion with the Ital­ian am­bas­sador, pre­par­ing the ground for a more for­mal ap­proach.

The other mem­bers of the war cab­i­net were torn be­tween these com­pet­ing views. Green­wood had no ob­jec­tion to an ap­proach be­ing at­tempted, but doubted Mus­solini’s in­de­pen­dence of Hitler and there­fore the chances of suc­cess. Cham­ber­lain felt “it was right to talk it out from every point of view”. In the end, nei­ther view pre­vailed. On the one hand, Churchill was adamant that the only thing to do was to show Hitler that he could not con­quer this coun­try, but “at the same time, he did not raise ob­jec­tion to some ap­proach be­ing made to Sig­nor Mus­solini”.

27 May

Churchill’s fight­ing talk pushes Hal­i­fax to the brink of res­ig­na­tion

When the dis­cus­sion re­sumed at 4.30pm the fol­low­ing day in 10 Down­ing Street, Archibald Sinclair was there to re­in­force Churchill. It is tempt­ing to spec­u­late that the prime min­is­ter had brought him in es­pe­cially for this pur­pose. As leader of the Lib­eral party, it was ap­pro­pri­ate for him to have a voice in a dis­cus­sion that might af­fect the fu­ture of the coali­tion, but as sec­re­tary of state for air he was not a mem­ber of the war cab­i­net. He was, how­ever, a close friend of Churchill’s. They had served to­gether in the trenches in the First World War and then Sinclair had been Win­ston’s pri­vate sec­re­tary (when Churchill was a Lib­eral min­is­ter in Lloyd Ge­orge’s gov­ern­ment). Sinclair ar­gued against any ne­go­ti­a­tion, on the grounds that it would only un­der­mine Bri­tish morale and en­cour­age our en­e­mies.

The fo­cus of much that has been writ­ten about these events has been the dra­matic ex­change at the heart of this meet­ing be­tween Churchill and Hal­i­fax. The prime min­is­ter, “in­creas­ingly op­pressed with the fu­til­ity of the sug­gested ap­proach”, feared be­ing forced into ne­go­ti­a­tions from which it would be im­pos­si­ble to turn back, and stated: “Let us there­fore avoid be­ing dragged down the slip­pery slope with France.” His sub­se­quent re­marks – in­clud­ing, “If the worst came to the worst, it would not be a bad thing for this coun­try to go down fight­ing” – prompted Hal­i­fax to threaten to re­sign. He later told Cado­gan that he could no longer work with Churchill, and it took a pri­vate and un­min­uted con­ver­sa­tion in the gar­den to ease the im­me­di­ate ten­sion be­tween the two men.

Re­mind­ing the prime min­is­ter that just yes­ter­day he had been pre­pared to con­sider terms that did not af­fect Bri­tish in­de­pen­dence, Hal­i­fax de­manded to know whether, if Hitler were to of­fer peace terms, Churchill would dis­cuss them. Here was a di­rect challenge to Churchill’s stated pol­icy of wag­ing war un­til fi­nal vic­tory. Back­ing away from an open breach with Hal­i­fax, and un­able to say that he would never ne­go­ti­ate, Churchill replied that “he would not join

A Ger­man Panzer di­vi­sion rum­bles through the Ar­dennes in May 1940. By the end of the month, Churchill’s war cab­i­net was scram­bling to for­mu­late a re­sponse to the light­ning Nazi ad­vances

French premier Paul Rey­naud (front row, far right) with Churchill and Clement At­tlee (stand­ing to Rey­naud’s right), June 1940. By now, France’s prospects were dire

Archibald Sinclair (left) at a meet­ing of the air min­istry. The Lib­eral party leader threw his weight firmly be­hind Churchill’s calls for a de­fi­ant, ag­gres­sive diplo­matic stance

Al­lied troops are evac­u­ated from Dunkirk, May–June 1940. Churchill’s hand was greatly strength­ened by the fact that so many eluded cap­ture

Lord Hal­i­fax (shown left, with An­thony Eden, on 28 May 1940) con­sid­ered re­sign­ing dur­ing that month’s tense ne­go­ti­a­tions

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