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, one that is commemorated on the reverse of the new £5 note, where the hands of Big Ben are set to reflect the hour of this celebrated address. 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 over whelmed, 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
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 France in asking for terms; but if he were told what the terms offered were, he would be prepared to consider them”.
It might have seemed like a small victory for Halifax, or even an indication that Churchill was wavering. But look again at the minutes of this debate and you can see signs that the foreign secretary was already losing his colleagues’ support. Attlee and Greenwood joined Sinclair in opposing the suggested approach to Italy, while Chamberlain now argued that it might serve no useful purpose, as Mussolini would simply wait until France had fallen and then enter the game.
Churchill expressed his preference for an approach to Mussolini from President Roosevelt, which would smack less of British weakness. He knew that the Dunkirk evacuations had begun and, that morning, his military chiefs of staff had confirmed that a German invasion could be resisted by the navy and the Royal Air Force, as long as a sufficient air force remained in being, and as long as British morale remained high. He also knew that nothing was more likely to reduce British morale than public knowledge of an approach to Italy for peace terms.
28 May: The PM wins the day by choosing blood over surrender
Churchill had been playing a waiting game, allowing the matter to be talked out at great length, and being careful not to alienate his colleagues. But, on Tuesday 28 May, he made his move. Faced with the need to respond to the latest news of the surrender of Belgium, and to prevent any fall in that all-important public morale, he moved the playing field to parliament. After publicly reaffirming his commitment to fighting on in the chamber of the Commons, he chaired another meeting of the war cabinet in his parliamentary office. Declaring that the chances of Britain receiving decent terms were 1,000 to 1 against, he expressed his view that “nations which went down fighting rose again, but those which surrendered tamely were finished”.
The tide may have been ebbing away from Halifax, but the issue was still unresolved. It was at this point that Churchill unveiled his final and most effective ploy: breaking the smaller war cabinet discussion half way through to call his first meeting of all his government ministers outside of the war cabinet. Seizing the moment, he addressed the wider group with a powerful off-the-cuff speech in which he described the serious nature of the crisis, before announcing that he would rather go down choking on his own blood than entertain surrender.
It was a brave and emotional performance, but it won him an ovation from a hardened and usually cynical political audience. More crucially, it won their support for his policy of continuing to wage war. Leo Amery, the secretary of state for India, was present and wrote that it “left all of us tremendously heartened by Winston’s resolution and grip of things. He is a real war leader and one whom it is worth while serving under.”
When the war cabinet meeting resumed at 7pm, immediately after Churchill’s speech, it was clear that he had effectively won the argument against any exploration of negotiations. In this, he was undoubtedly helped by the fact that President Roosevelt’s offer of mediation had been rejected; by sources which were suggesting that Hitler would not allow Mussolini to play the role of mediator; by the resolution of his political colleagues; and by the news that the Dunkirk evacuations were under way. He had judged his moment well.
Did Churchill waver? 1940 has become part and parcel of our national myth, and Churchill’s role in that myth is that of the uncompromising, cigar-chomping war leader. Reality, particularly in the chaos of war, is inevitably more nuanced.
Churchill clearly wanted to fight on, but had to accept that there might be circumstances in which Britain would have to seek terms. Halifax, in contrast, favoured exploring terms, but accepted that if Britain’s independence were threatened the country might have to fight. There was much that united as well as divided these very different characters. Churchill was shrewd enough to know that he could not carry on alone. He had to keep Halifax on side and ensure that his war cabinet colleagues, the chiefs of staff and the wider political establishment were behind their prime minister. The episode shows him in a more consultative and political light, and reveals how he survived the first great test of his wartime leadership, helping to steer Britain away from a negotiated peace.
Allen Packwood is the director of the Churchill Archives Centre and a fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge
Film: Darkest Hour, starring Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill, is released this month
On the Podcast: Anthony McCarten, author of the new book Darkest Hour: How Churchill Brought Us Back from the Brink (Viking, 2017), talks about 1940 on our weekly podcast historyextra.com/podcasts
This article was first published in the January 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine