Six Min­utes in May: How Churchill Un­ex­pect­edly Be­came Prime Min­is­ter by Ni­cholas Shake­speare. Nor­man Stone

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Six Min­utes in May: How Churchill Un­ex­pect­edly Be­came Prime Min­is­ter By Ni­cholas Shake­speare Harvill Secker £20.00 Oldie price £14.00 inc p&p

In July 1940, as the Bat­tle of Bri­tain got un­der way, a book ap­peared, Guilty Men, by a ‘Cato’ who turned out to be three jour­nal­ists; the main one was Michael Foot.

The book had huge suc­cess, and was reprinted by Pen­guin in 2000. Some of th­ese ‘guilty men’ are cen­tral fig­ures in Ni­cholas Shake­speare’s ex­cel­lently told story about the sea change of Bri­tish wartime pol­i­tics on 8th May, 1940.

Within forty-eight hours, al­most out of the blue, it made Win­ston Churchill Prime Min­is­ter, at the head of a Na­tional Govern­ment which in­cluded Labour. The Labour lead­ers were in fact the main ac­tors in this, even though Churchill had a long record of hos­til­ity to so­cial­ism. But most of the Labour Party had greater dis­like, even con­tempt, for the ‘guilty men’ whom Churchill dis­placed.

The chief ones named in the book – it ap­peared only a month af­ter Churchill’s takeover – were Neville Chamberlain, the Prime Min­is­ter, Lord Hal­i­fax, the For­eign Sec­re­tary and Sir John Si­mon, Chan­cel­lor of the Ex­che­quer. Just as the Bri­tish po­lit­i­cal cri­sis broke out, Hitler in­vaded neu­tral Hol­land and Bel­gium, as he had in­vaded neu­tral Den­mark and Nor­way a month be­fore, and Ger­man bombs rained down on civil­ian tar­gets. His tanks rum­bled to­wards France, and there were fears that his para­troop­ers would land in Eng­land.

The ‘guilty men’ stood ac­cused of try­ing to buy Hitler off, mak­ing con­ces­sions that only en­cour­aged him to de­mand more; worse, they had bun­gled Bri­tish rear­ma­ment and had left the coun­try badly short of de­fences. The guilty men were par­tic­u­larly de­tested be­cause of what had hap­pened in Nor­way. Dozens of Con­ser­va­tive MPS, in uni­form, brought down the Chamberlain govern­ment when they voted against him at the de­ci­sive mo­ment on 8th May.

The Bri­tish had sent an ex­pe­di­tionary force to help Nor­way, and made the sort of mess of things with which Bri­tish wars so of­ten be­gin. The Ger­mans had in­vaded with panache, their com­man­der say­ing of Den­mark, ‘Get this coun­try out of the way – we are at­tack­ing some­where else.’

Air, land and sea co-op­er­ated ef­fi­ciently, and there were Aus­trian Alpine troops who knew how to deal with snowy moun­tains. Ger­man bombers oblit­er­ated small, wooden Nor­we­gian ports and made it im­pos­si­ble for the Bri­tish to land ef­fec­tively.

Ni­cholas Shake­speare de­votes roughly half of his book to this cam­paign, with which, through his fam­ily, he has a per­sonal con­nec­tion, and he uses pri­vate pa­pers to con­sid­er­able ef­fect: what does a Bri­tish mil­i­tary mess look like on the ground?

The naval and land com­man­ders’ re­spon­si­bil­i­ties were not clear-cut, they any­way de­tested each other, and

air cover was al­most non-ex­is­tent. Troops even lacked am­mu­ni­tion and snow­shoes, and med­i­cal sup­plies ran short.

The ex­tra­or­di­nary thing was that Churchill, as First Sea Lord, was largely re­spon­si­ble for the mis­be­got­ten cam­paign. The par­al­lel with the dis­as­trous am­phibi­ous cam­paign on the Gal­lipoli Penin­sula in 1915 was in the minds of many, as they con­tem­plated an­other over-am­bi­tious Churchillian scheme go­ing badly wrong.

In any case, far from be­ing yet an­other case of un­pro­voked Nazi ag­gres­sion, the Nor­we­gian af­fair had been started by Churchill, who meant to mine Nor­we­gian waters to stop the Ger­mans from get­ting iron ore from Swe­den via the north­ern port of Narvik. Hitler moved in to stop him.

But in pub­lic opin­ion, Churchill was seen in a golden glow. He had all along de­nounced Hitler and warned about Ger­many’s in­ten­tions, and now he had been proven right. The blame for the Nor­we­gian fi­asco fell on ‘the guilty men’.

And Chamberlain ‘wryly re­flected that it was he and Lord Swin­ton who had pushed ahead with the pro­duc­tion of the Hur­ri­canes and Spit­fires that were win­ning the Bat­tle of Bri­tain, against the ad­vice both of Churchill, who (in March 1938) had writ­ten to Chamberlain crit­i­cis­ing th­ese self-same fighter planes, and that of the Air Staff, who had cham­pi­oned bombers’.

Churchill was widely dis­trusted in the Con­ser­va­tive Party, and peo­ple who knew him thought he might well be dis­as­trous: hav­ing him in the War Cabi­net would, some­one said, be like talk­ing through a brass band. He could, of course, talk su­perbly and was full of ideas, but he also no­to­ri­ously drank, mad­cap ideas run­ning away with him.

Still, a de­ci­sive el­e­ment in the party dis­liked Chamberlain, the el­derly peace­maker with his wooden voice and, in wartime, in­spi­ra­tion is all.

The truly se­ri­ous ri­val to Churchill was the For­eign Sec­re­tary, Lord Hal­i­fax, and Shake­speare’s ac­count of his sidelin­ing is su­perb: he has pieced to­gether the var­i­ous sources (some­times quite dif­fer­ent in their ac­counts) and writ­ten what can al­most be read as a de­tec­tive story.

Pol­i­tics at this level, in the hands of a lesser writer, can be dev­as­tat­ingly dif­fi­cult to fol­low. Not here.

Hal­i­fax was the can­di­date of the King, of a good part of the party, of the Es­tab­lish­ment in gen­eral and, as Shake­speare shows, he would in­deed have been a good Prime Min­is­ter.

But not a wartime one, es­pe­cially with a Ger­man in­va­sion ap­par­ently im­pend­ing. It was Labour that in­sisted on Churchill.

There is a di­men­sion to this, maybe worth think­ing about. Labour had one great strength, in that the trade unions were in league with it, and they were all-im­por­tant in achiev­ing in­dus­trial mo­bil­i­sa­tion. So a strange and very Bri­tish phe­nom­e­non emerged, an al­liance be­tween a ro­man­tic-re­ac­tionary im­pe­ri­al­ist and a Labour Party com­mit­ted to a do­mes­tic pro­gramme of so­cial­ism.

We have lived ever since with the con­se­quences – I can still re­call the taste of com­pul­sory or­ange juice, in 1944.

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