When Britain Saved the West: The Story of 1940

Robin Prior—

The year 1940 could have been disastrous for Britain and for the West. Any number of events that occurred during that year might have seen Germany victorious over Britain. As Churchill said of another series of crises in another war, “The terrible ‘If’s’ accumulate.”

If the government of Neville Chamberlain had not been overthrown in early May, a compromise peace might have followed the military disaster in France. Chamberlain had no stomach for war. On 3 September he reluctantly declared war but he hardly prosecuted it, apparently relying on an internal revolt in Germany to get him out of his difficulties. This explains why he was reluctant fully to mobilize the country for war or to attack Germany directly. It is difficult to see his resolve for even this partial effort surviving the setbacks in France. It is not difficult to imagine Chamberlain joining the defeatist elements in the French government to seek a settlement with Hitler.

That such a settlement would have been to Germany’s advantage goes without saying. This was the only kind of settlement Hitler made. That the war would have been resumed in short order against the weakened Allies also goes without saying. Nazism could not stand still. Chamberlain’s ultimate act would have been to preside over the destruction of his country.

If Churchill had not come to power on 10 May it is difficult to see the year ending well for Britain. Churchill had taken the measure of Hitler. He knew that negotiations with “that man,” as he called him, were futile. He had grasped, long before the Holocaust, the evil and aggression that had to be fought. In seeing the struggle in Manichean terms, black versus white, he was surely correct. Against Hitler, victory had to be at “all costs,” it had to be “in spite of all terror”for the alternative was unthinkable. At this moment, Britain needed more than an anti-appeaser as Prime Minister; it needed someone with the perception, the courage, and the deadliness to see the fight against Germany through to the end.

If Lord Halifax had succeeded in his challenge to Churchill during the Cabinet crisis of late May, he would have followed a path similar to Chamberlain’s. Once the British sat down at the table with Mussolini or Hitler or both, there would have been no going back. The slippery slope, as Churchill called it, would have grown more precipitate as home morale plummeted. Moreover, the peace that Halifax sought entailed a guarantee only of Britain’s independence. There were two dangers inherent in this approach. The first was that, as already noted, Hitler never honored agreements of this kind with states he considered a threat. Second, on no occasion did Halifax ever mention the independence of other states. The security of France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, and Poland was never his concern. He might fight to keep the grouse moors of Yorkshire safe for the aristocracy but not much more. The second danger was that under Halifax’s peace terms Europe and all its resources would have fallen under the Nazi yoke. Exactly how he thought a Europe organized by Hitler for aggression would not represent a danger to Britain was not specified. But it is well for Britain and for Europe that Halifax did not prevail.

If the British army had not survived the German onslaught and had been trapped in Europe, the consequences, both militarily and politically, would have been dire. Thanks to Lord Gort’s actions to shore up the British position and his determination to ignore Churchill and retreat to the coast, the steadiness of Brooke, Alexander and lower-order commanders such as Montgomery, Franklyn and others, the retreat was managed reasonably well. The fighting quality of the troops and indecisiveness on the German side ensured that the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) arrived at Dunkirk in a state where a systematic evacuation could be undertaken. The strength and efficiency of the navy and the intervention of the Royal Air Force (RAF) enabled such an operation to be carried out and the vast bulk of the army returned to Britain.

If these events had played out differently, if Britain had lost 300,000 men and most of the officer corps of the Regular Army, its role in the subsequent years of the Second World War would necessarily have been diminished. Whether Britain could have maintained campaigns in the Western Desert, Italy and the Far East, as well as playing a major role in the invasion of north-western Europe, is doubtful.

If Churchill had been unable to portray Dunkirk at least as some form of success, there is no doubt that his position politically would have been weakened. In this situation Halifax might have returned to the charge, pointing out the necessity, now that Britain was without an army, to open talks with the dictators. Churchill had to use all his political skill to fight off Halifax’s first challenge. It was as well for Britain that a second was never made.

If the German army had been able to cross to Britain and land in sufficient numbers in 1940, the outlook would have been grim. The British army had to some extent recovered from Dunkirk but whether it was equipped to fight Panzer divisions is another matter. Fortunately for Britain the strength of the Royal Navy and the RAF acted as a sufficient deterrent to Hitler. It must, however, be said that in this instance the hesitations shown by Hitler were well-founded. An invasion along the lines of that planned by the Germans would almost certainly have come to grief.

If Fighter Command had been defeated in the Battle of Britain, invasion would have been an easier prospect for Germany. However, the power of the navy would still have acted as a considerable deterrent. In any case a close examination of the air battles in the summer of 1940 indicates that Sir Keith Park and Sir Hugh Dowding had the conflict under control. Nevertheless, in war everything is in flux. Park was still required to make the correct decisions during the battle; the pilots had to be prepared to risk their lives daily; the factories had to retain the capacity to produce new aircraft. We can see in retrospect that all these things happened. At the time the picture was not quite so clear, and the decision to fight on was accordingly more debatable in some quarters at least.

If the night bombing of Britain in the last few months of the year had succeeded in crippling industry or breaking civilian morale, Britain may have been forced to seek terms. The Luftwaffe did not remotely have the power to succeed in its attack on industry. The bomb loads it could carry were too small, the targets too numerous. The effect of the attack on the civilian population was more difficult to assess. The fact was that no people had ever before been subjected to bombardment from the air for such a sustained period. The terror and helplessness experienced by people threatened by the bombs are captured in every diary and letter from the period. The casualties suffered during the Blitz of about 40,000 dead may seem small in comparison to later aerial campaigns but they were unprecedented at the time. In the event, the mood of the country was resolute.

So Britain would survive. But Britain in 1940 was fighting for more than its own survival. Churchill’s efforts to keep the French in the war were clearly partly dictated by Britain’s national interest. It was better to have a continental ally than not. But while Dunkirk was in progress Churchill ordered that the French be evacuated in equal numbers. As it happened they were not, but 150,000 French troops were lifted to safety during the evacuation. During May and June he offered the French a steady supply of fighters over and above what his own experts told him Britain must keep at home for its own safety. During the last few visits Churchill made to France he assured the leadership that Britain would see their country restored. And the most dramatic of Churchill’s gestures in this directionthe offer of Unionwas made after the French army had collapsed and after the French government had been driven from Paris to Bordeaux. The offer of Union would have been of little benefit to Britain. It might have gained a proportion of the French Fleet but that would have depended on whether the offer of Union forestalled the formation of a defeatist administration under Marshal Pétain. The overwhelming likelihood was that it would not.

Churchill, then, was appealing to something beyond material assistance to Britain when he offered the Union to France. He was appealing to the French to stay in the fight as part of a larger unity that we can call the West and that he sometimes categorized as Christian civilization. When he spoke to the French people in October 1940 in his broken French he assured them that they were not forgotten and that France would resume its place among ‘the greatest nations of the world’ when Britain emerged victorious. Churchill would have no truck with the Pétain regime and, as we saw, he was implacable in his determination to neutralize their fleet by whatever means. However, his attitude to France was always tempered by the fact that it had fought the Germans and that many of its troops had fought very hard.

When it came to the Americans in 1940, Churchill showed no such understanding. His appeals to President Roosevelt for aid were often coupled with an appeal for the United States to join the fight for civilized values. What infuriated Churchill during this period was that Roosevelt made frequent speeches in which he seemed to take Churchill’s point. He spoke of the barbaric policies being pursued by Nazi Germany, the many atrocities committed by them in Occupied Europe, and how America would assist the free world to thwart Hitler. But none of this led Roosevelt to take America into the war. Sympathy with Britain’s cause did not mean participation. Even economic aid came at the highest price it was thought Britain could afford. And Lend-Lease was only enacted when the administration realized that Britain was running out of dollars, that it might default on contracts to American suppliers, and that it might be forced out of the war. Roosevelt did not want Britain to leave the war but he was willing to risk it, hence his constant badgering of Churchill on the fate of the British fleet. He was never willing to accept Churchill’s warning that a completely Nazified Europe would represent a deadly threat to American security. In the end Roosevelt was not even willing to follow public opinion. When 70 percent of his countrymen thought America should even risk war to aid the British, Roosevelt remained resolute for inaction. There seems no doubt from Churchill’s responses to this inaction that he thought the President had fallen far below the level of events. There was no meeting of minds between the two statesmen in this period, no hint of a special relationship. Somewhat ironically, the popular view that Churchill and Roosevelt were of one mind in 1940-41 was largely created by Churchill. In his morale-raising wartime speeches he often held out the hope of immediate American intervention and made much of the aid Britain was receiving from the US. And his war memoirs, which might have taken a different line, were written during the Cold War when the friendship and aid of America to Britain and Europe were vital.

For Roosevelt there was no conception that America should join Britain in the fight for something larger than survival. For Roosevelt the survival of Fortress America seemed to be sufficient. For Churchill this was never the case. From the moment Britain entered the war and he held high office, his speeches made constant reference to the fact that the war was being waged to ensure the survival of the West. In his first speech as First Lord of the Admiralty he emphasized that this was not just a war for Danzig and Poland but for the rights of the individual. Later he said that the fate of Holland, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Austria would be decided by Britain’s victory, for “if we are not destroyed, all these countries will be rescued and restored to life and freedom.”

When Churchill became Prime Minister he continued with this theme. He clearly saw the French and British as being in the vanguard of freedom. His first broadcast was notable for its mention of the enslaved states of Europe and the duty of the Allies to rescue them from the “long night of barbarism.” When Britain was “alone” (always a concept that for Churchill included the Empire and Dominions), in perhaps his most famous speech (Their Finest Hour) and just before he reached the peroration he said:

However matters go in France or with the French Government or other French Governments, we in this Island and in the British Empire will never lose our sense of comradeship with the French people. If we are now called on to endure what they have been suffering, we shall emulate their courage, and if final victory rewards our toils they shall share the gains, aye, and freedom shall be restored to all. We abate nothing of our just demands; not one jot or tittle do we recede. Czechs, Poles, Norwegians, Dutch, Belgians have joined their causes to our own. All these shall be restored.

Later, in a Mansion House speech, he said:

We have not abandoned… any of our obligations or undertakings towards the captive and enslaved countries of Europe or towards any of those countries which still act with us. On the contrary, since we have been left alone in this world struggle we have reaffirmed or defined more precisely all the causes of all the countries with whom and for whom we drew the swordAustria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Norway, Holland, Belgium; greatest of all France; latest of all Greece. For all these we will toil and strive, and our victory will supply the liberation of them all.

Churchill’s whole policy was in fact encapsulated in his speech of 14 July 1940 when he reminded the people that “we are fighting by ourselves alone but not for ourselves alone.” It was a theme that he would return to until the end of the war.

Any survey of Churchill’s pronouncements must conclude that he had a broader concept of what was at stake in the war than many of his political colleagues. The deluded Vichyites thought that they would be left in peace. Roosevelt was willing to risk the prospect of a Nazified Europe. Churchill was different. He knew that a British victory was essential if the West was to survive. He knew that Britain had to endure during the dark hours of 1940 and beyond until it was joined by a major ally. In 1945 when the end of the war came and Churchill addressed the crowds in Whitehall, he told them “This is your Victory.” They shouted back, “No, it’s yours.” They were both right. And the origins of that victory lay in 1940 when Churchill and the British people saved the West.

From When Britain Saved the West by Robin Prior, published by Yale University Press in 2017. Reproduced by permission.

Robin Prior is professor of history at Flinders University, Adelaide, and author of six previous books. He lives in Adelaide, Australia.

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Featured Image: “Winston Churchill walks with members of the Anglican clergy through the ruins of Coventry Cathedral which was bombed by the Germans in 1940,” licensed for use on the public domain by the Library of Congress.

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