The May 1940 War Cabinet Crisis: Churchill’s darkest hour?
In May 1940, as the evacuations at Dunkirk were taking place and the outlook of Operation Dynamo looked grim, wartime prime minister Winston Churchill met with his War Cabinet to discuss a possible peace deal with Adolf Hitler.
Writing for History Extra, Anthony McCarten, screenwriter of historical blockbuster Darkest Hour, explores how Churchill brought Britain back from the brink of negotiated peace between London and Berlin in the Second World War…
We have seen more ink expended on Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill than on any other figure in history. Books on him dwarf in number those about George Washington, Julius Caesar or Napoleon, and render insipid the collective attempts to describe his great enemy Adolf Hitler. This is for the simple reason that seldom in history has a figure done so much, both good and bad, and made such a difference in the course of a long and packed lifetime, let alone the 65 years before this story begins in the House of Commons on those tense May days in 1940.
Titanic orator. Drunk. Wit. Patriot. Imperialist. Visionary. Tank designer. Blunderer. Swashbuckler. Aristocrat. Prisoner. War hero. War criminal. Conqueror. Laughing stock. Bricklayer. Racehorse-owner. Soldier. Painter. Politician. Journalist. Nobel Prize-winning author. The list goes on and on, but each label, when taken alone, fails to do Churchill justice; when taken together, they offer a challenge on a par with tossing 20 jigsaw puzzles together and expecting a single unified picture. The War Cabinet crisis in May 1940 occurred over just a few days, yet ultimately resulted in some of Churchill’s more favourable descriptors in the above list.
Peace with Hitler?
The 4.30pm meeting on 27 May consisted of Churchill, Lord Halifax, Neville Chamberlain, Clement Attlee, Arthur Greenwood, Sir Alexander Cadogan, Sir Archibald Sinclair and Sir Edward Bridges. There was just one topic to discuss: the suggested approach to Mussolini. Halifax saw a clear role for Italy to act as mediator between the UK and Germany in a peace deal with Hitler, and the Italians had indicated they were agreeable, at a price. But Churchill saw this attempt to keep Italy out of the war and the attendant peace deal as, at best, premature.
Churchill’s inclusion in the line‑up of the Liberal Party leader, Sinclair – a long-time critic of appeasement and an old friend – was in defiance of protocol and clearly an attempt to strengthen a hand weakened by the facts on the battlefield. Operation Dynamo – the evacuation of Dunkirk – had begun, but it was looking likely that the troops would be surrounded and unlikely that British ships would make it into the harbour to rescue more than 10 per cent of them.
The ensuing discussion at the meeting would finally pitch Halifax and those who supported him – a large proportion of the ruling Conservative Party – full force against one of their own: Churchill, whose stubborn will to fight on alone seemed, to Halifax, impervious to reason and hard evidence and against the country’s best interests.
Said Churchill at the meeting: “Even if we were beaten, we should be no worse off than we should be if we were now to abandon the struggle… The approach proposed [by Halifax] was not only futile, but involved us in a deadly danger… If the worst came to the worst, it would not be a bad thing for this country to go down fighting for other countries which had been overcome by the Nazi tyranny.”
Such an emotional argument caused a sudden rift in the room. The old strategic and ideological battle lines that had separated Churchill from the appeasers since the mid-1930s were once again starkly exposed.
"I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat": Winston Churchill delivers a speech on the BBC in May 1940. (Keystone-France via Getty Images)
Halifax had reached the limit of his appetite for Churchillian rhetoric, and wrote in his diary of this meeting that “it does drive one to despair when he [Churchill] works himself up into a passion of emotion when he ought to make his brain think and reason”. Halifax knew he was being hung out to dry for all in the room to see, and he didn’t like it.
Toward the end of the meeting Halifax sought to make clear his “profound differences of points of view” and raised Churchill’s unminuted comments from the previous day (May 26) – Halifax claims, and his account is corroborated by Neville Chamberlain’s diarised record of the meeting, that the prime minister had said he “would be thankful to get out of our present difficulties” so long as Britain’s independence was guaranteed.
Churchill considers peace?
What was Churchill playing at? Were these remarks just an attempt to buy time, or had he been sincere about peace talks during these dark days?
Despite everything he had fought for since 1933, after all the speeches and all the rhetoric about victory, we see that at the 26 May meeting, Winston too considered a deal with Hitler possible, even welcome. Just look at the pressures urging such a deal. Dynamo had begun, but the outlook was grim. The destruction of virtually the entire British Army looked likely, and after this the German invasion of an undefended Britain must soon come. On 27 May, Churchill once more agreed it was worth exploring a possible negotiated settlement, provided Britain maintained its sovereignty, even if the cost was German “overlordship of central Europe” and the surrender of some British territories such as Malta, Gibraltar and some African states. In typical Churchill fashion, he followed this major concession to history and to Halifax with a caveat: “that it was quite unlikely that he [Hitler] would make such an offer.”
Halifax, determined to stop Churchill from wriggling out of these commitments, played his trump card: a threat to resign if Churchill didn’t follow through with talks. He inferred it in a speech he made, and then made it explicit in a private meeting in the garden of 10 Downing Street. If Churchill refused to even consider peace talks with Hitler, then their ways would separate.
Churchill knew full well that Halifax’s resignation at this time would be catastrophic. Deprived of Halifax’s cooling counsel, the prime minister, viewed by many as a loose cannon, would almost certainly face a vote of no confidence in the House of Commons, a vote he would in all likelihood lose. According to Halifax’s diary, Churchill, in the garden, backed down and became “full of apologies and affection”.
This would be the zenith of Halifax’s power and influence, for he had steered a reluctant leader from almost histrionic talk of victory at all costs to a serious embrace of the notion of peace talks, to a consideration of when, not if, such talks should take place. His threats had achieved their desired outcome, at least for now, and Halifax returned to the Foreign Office.
The role of Italy as a mediator
The War Cabinet convened again the following day, 28 May, to once more discuss the issue of Italy. Lord Halifax spoke first: “We should give a clear indication that we should like to see mediation by Italy.” But Churchill said he felt it was “clear that the French purpose was to see Signor Mussolini acting as intermediary between ourselves and Herr Hitler” and that “he was determined not to get into this position”. Halifax – surely thinking ‘here we go again!’ at yet another row-back from Churchill – disagreed strongly with this suggestion. Churchill continued, stating that he believed “the French were trying to get us on to the slippery slope… The position would be entirely different when Germany had made an unsuccessful attempt to invade this country.”
Was Churchill, having agreed to consider a peace deal, now adding a new caveat that it should be pursued only after a failed German attempt to invade Britain?
The idea that Britain, without an army (as it now looked), was equipped to repel a German invasion (which looked likely) was a notion that Halifax did not even want his name linked to.
The argument continued, with Churchill adding that: “Signor Mussolini, if he came in as mediator, would take his whack out of us. It was impossible to imagine that Herr Hitler would be so foolish as to let us continue our re-armament. In effect, his terms would put us completely at his mercy. We should get no worse terms if we went on fighting, even if we were beaten, than were open to us now.”
Halifax was understandably infuriated. He could not fathom what Churchill felt was “so wrong” in the proposed idea of mediation. Chamberlain, sensing this frustration, came in on Halifax’s side, saying: “It was clear to the world that we were in a tight corner, and [I] did not see what we should lose if we said openly that, while we would fight to the end to preserve our independence, we were ready to consider decent terms if such were offered to us.”
Faced with losing Chamberlain’s support to Halifax, Churchill returned to his rhetorical roots and stated: “[T]he nations which went down fighting rose again, but those which surrendered tamely were finished.”
Chamberlain again sought to broker a compromise, agreeing with Halifax that if Britain could succeed in negotiating terms which “although grievous, would not threaten our independence, we should be right to consider such terms”. When the meeting adjourned, Winston had an appointment to keep and that which followed was what his biographer, Martin Gilbert, would call “one of the most extraordinary scenes of the war”.
On the brink
Earlier that day, Churchill had requested a meeting of the 25 Cabinet ministers outside the War Cabinet to brief them in detail on the current situation faced by Britain. We have no record of how he made his way to his office at the House of Commons, but being only a brisk walk of ten minutes, and with much mental work to do, one can suppose he walked it, strange as ever in his Edwardian clothes of black waistcoat and gold fob-chain, puffing on his Longfellow cigar, striking out with his cane, one of his innumerable hats on his smallish head, a head that was a cyclotron of thoughts and arguments and positions and possible outcomes. A leader lives and dies by such moments. The power of their argument can just as easily condemn millions to sorrow and suffering as bring salvation. What to tell his peers, then? Should he listen to them or instruct them? And how much persuasion to apply when the price his listeners might pay, if persuaded, is their own blood?
It is not certain that Churchill knew full well what he would tell them. But as he walked he began to form an idea. He must reveal that a peace deal with Hitler has its advocates and has indeed been under consideration. It was even possible that Hitler was behind the Italians’ overtures, sending out a subtle signal of readiness to talk. Out of all this, he must discern the mood of his ministers, before publicly disclosing his own.
“I have thought carefully in these last days whether it was part of my duty to consider entering into negotiations with That Man [Hitler]. But it was idle to think that, if we tried to make peace now, we should get better terms from Germany than if we went on and fought it out. The Germans would demand our fleet – that would be called ‘disarmament’ – our naval bases, and much else. We should become a slave state, though a British Government which would be Hitler’s puppet would be set up – ‘under Mosley [Sir Oswald Mosley, British fascist] or some such person’. And where should we be at the end of all that? On the other side, we had immense reserves and advantages. And I am convinced that every one of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate parley or surrender. Therefore, he said, ‘We shall go on and we shall fight it out, here or elsewhere, and if this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.”
When on the brink of defeat, Churchill – speaking from the heart – summoned all the skills in his arsenal and produced a masterful display of rhetoric, one that we must assume took its shape in the orator’s head in the fleeting moments before expression, too late to edit it.
What it meant was this. He had decided. Decided no longer to sit on the fence. Decided to pre-emptively quash any campaign of support Halifax might be attempting for his ‘European Settlement’. Decided to risk the Foreign Secretary’s resignation, and with it a no confidence vote against himself. Decided, on balance, that it was better – despite all the valid and powerful and moral arguments against – to fight on, returning to his original position, but now with a full sense of the poor odds, the dangers, the costs, possible sacrifices that lay ahead. His countrymen and countrywomen must risk death; be ready to choke in their own blood.
He did not have to wait long to find out if his words had hit their mark. The reaction came right away.
In the second volume of his memoirs of the Second World War, Their Finest Hour, Churchill recalled the Cabinet’s response:
“There occurred a demonstration which, considering the character of the gathering – twenty-five experienced politicians and Parliament men, who represented all the different points of view, whether right to wrong, before the war – surprised me. Quite a number seemed to jump up from the table and come running to my chair, shouting and patting me on the back. There is no doubt that had I at this juncture faltered at all in the leading of the nation I should have been hurled out of office. I was sure that every Minister was ready to be killed quite soon, and have all his family and possessions destroyed, rather than give in. In this they represented the House of Commons and almost all the people.”
After hearing of this scene, Halifax and Chamberlain could see the writing on the wall. Not even their combined resignation now could shake the Churchill leadership, not after this victory with ministers, whose collective mood to fight on they had not anticipated.
Churchill had outflanked his opponents. He had won game, set and match. No record can be found that these men – not Halifax, not Chamberlain – ever raised the matter of a negotiated peace between London and Berlin again. And while the country’s trials were only beginning, Churchill knew now that he had the support of his colleagues, and of the public, to continue the struggle together.
Anthony McCarten an award-winning screenwriter and is the author of Darkest Hour: How Churchill Brought us Back from the Brink which is published by Viking and released in September 2017