- May 1940 War Cabinet Crisis
The May 1940 War Cabinet Crisis in the United Kingdom was a notable episode in World War II when the British Empire might have sued for peace. The role of Winston Churchill was instead decisive in the continuation of the war.
In May 1940, the fate of the world, the future of an empire, and the destiny of a nation rested with two men; Winston S. Churchill, the newly appointed British Prime Minister and Edward Wood 3rd Viscount Halifax, the British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Both of these men passionately believed in saving Britain from the military nightmare they been placed in by Nazi Germany. However their approaches to achieving this were radically different. Halifax believed that it might be possible to secure a peace treaty with Germany that would safeguard British independence as well as its imperial interests. On the other hand, Churchill believed that German dictator Adolf Hitler would only honour such a treaty whilst it served his own interests. Instead Churchill favoured a continuation of the conflict at all costs until final victory was secured.
From 25 May - 28 May 1940, Churchill and Halifax fought the Battle for Britain in the five-member British War Cabinet. By 28 May 1940 it seemed as if Halifax had the upper hand and Churchill might be forced from office. However Churchill out-manoeuvred Halifax and called a meeting of his 25-member Outer Cabinet. He then delivered the greatest speech of his life in which he convinced every member present that Britain must fight on against Hitler no matter what the costs. At that meeting on 28 May 1940, British Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill had saved Britain and perhaps Western Civilization from threat of Nazi domination.
On the 9 May 1940, one of the most important meetings in British political history took place. The major participants at the meeting were Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston S. Churchill, and the co-leaders of the Labour Party Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood.
On the previous day Chamberlain government had survived a vote of no confidence but only just. The deteriorating military situation in Norway had precipitated the vote. The Government’s majority fell from 213 to just 81. A total of 33 Conservatives and 8 of their supporters voted with the opposition Labour and Liberal parties while a further 60 abstained. Winston S. Churchill, who had never been on good relations with Chamberlain and had only grudgingly been appointed First Lord of the Admiralty by the Prime Minister, nevertheless mounted a strong and passionate defence of Chamberlain and his Government in the debate preceding the vote.
"At no time in the last war were we in greater peril than we are now, and I urge the House strongly to deal with these matters not in a precipitate vote, ill debated and on a widely discursive field, but in grave time and due time in accordance with the dignity of Parliament."
After the vote Chamberlain asked to see Churchill. He told his First Lord of the Admiralty that he felt dejected and did not think he could go on. Chamberlain stated that he would attempt to form a coalition government with the Labour and Liberal Parties. Churchill was opposed to this action. He later wrote:
Aroused by the antagonisms of the debate, and being sure of my own past record on the issues at stake, I was strongly disposed to fight on. ‘This has been a damaging debate [he told Chamberlain], but you have a good majority. Do not take the matter grievously to heart. We have a better case about Norway than it has been possible to convey to the House. Strengthen your Government from every quarter, and let us go until our majority deserts us.’ To this effect I spoke. But Chamberlain was neither convinced nor comforted, and I left him about midnight with the feeling that he would persist in his resolve to sacrifice himself, if there was no other way, rather than attempt to carry the war further with a one-party Government.
At the 9 May meeting, Chamberlain turned to Attlee and Greenwood. He asked the Labour leaders if they would agree to serve in coalition government under either himself or another unspecified Conservative MP. They told Chamberlain that before they could officially answer they would need to check with the rank and file members of the Labour Party presently at their annual conference at Bournemouth. “The conversation was most polite,” recalled Churchill, “but it was clear that the Labour leaders would not commit themselves without consulting their people, and they hinted, not obscurely, that they thought the response would be unfavourable.”
After Attlee and Greenwood left, Chamberlain turned to Churchill and asked: “Can you see any reason, Winston, why in these days a Peer should not be Prime Minister?” Churchill recognized this as a trap.
It would be difficult to say yes without saying frankly that he thought he himself should be the choice. If he said no, or hedged, he felt sure that Mr. Chamberlain would turn to Lord Halifax and say, “Well since Winston agrees I am sure that if the King asks me I should suggest his sending for you.
Earlier that day Churchill had lunched with Anthony Eden, the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs, and Kingsley Wood, the Lord Privy Seal. Wood had been a friend and colleague of Chamberlain for nearly twenty years. However, perhaps sensing his master’s demise, he threw his full support behind Churchill. Wood warned Churchill that Chamberlain wanted Halifax to succeed him. He then gave the following advice should Churchill be asked for his opinion of Halifax becoming Prime Minister. “Don’t agree, and don’t say anything,” advised Wood. Eden later commented on this conversation: “I was shocked that Wood should talk in this way, for he had been so much Chamberlain’s man, but it was good counsel and I seconded it.”
Churchill would take Wood’s advice and did not respond to Chamberlain’s question. Usually I talk a great deal, but on this occasion I was silent…As I remained silent, a very long pause ensued. It certainly seemed longer than the two minutes which one observes in the commemorations of Armistice Day.
At this point Halifax broke the silence. He said that his peerage would prevent him from attending the House of Commons. He said he would not have “the power to guide the assembly upon whose confidence the life of every Government depended…I should be a cipher…Winston [Churchill] would be the better choice.”
As a peer and a member of the House of Lords, Halifax could not sit in the House of Commons. Until the 1960s, it was not possible to resign or suspend a peerage. Had this been the case at the time, the Conservative Party could have found him a so-called “safe seat” somewhere and he would have been elected to the House of Commons.
In his memoirs, Halifax offers a different explanation for his refusal of the Premiership. I had no doubt at all in my own mind that for me to succeed him would create a quite impossible situation. Apart altogether from Churchill’s qualities as compared with my own at this particular juncture, what would in fact be my position? Churchill would be running Defence, and in this connexion one could not but remember the relationship between Asquith and Lloyd George had broken down in the first war...I should speedily become a more or less honorary Prime Minister, living in a kind of twilight just outside the things that really mattered.
Churchill’s position in the Conservative Party was tenuous at best. He was poplar with the Labour and Liberal Parties for stance against appeasement in the 1930’s, but the Conservative Party still held a huge majority in House of Commons and thus had the power to choose who among its members would be Prime Minister.
Churchill’s problems with the Conservative Party dated back to the turn of the century. Both his father and grandfather had been prominent in its ranks. So 1900, using their old contacts within the Party, Churchill was elected to the House of Commons as a Conservative. However almost from the beginning the relationship between the two was hostile. In his first years in Parliament Churchill would often criticize the Conservative Party’s policies and its leadership. Eventually by 1904, Churchill realized that he would have no future with the Conservatives, so he accepted an invitation from the Liberal Party and joined its ranks.
When the Liberals took control of the House of Commons in 1905, Churchill was awarded for his defection with a series of Cabinet posts culminating in 1911 with his first of two career appointments as First Lord of the Admiralty. However 1915, after the failed British Naval assault in the Dardanelles during the First World War, Churchill was fired from his Cabinet post and sent into political exile when the Conservatives joined a coalition government with the Liberals. However a year later when Churchill’s friend and political mentor Lloyd George became Prime Minister, he brought Churchill back into the cabinet.
After the war ended in 1918, George decided to maintain the coalition with the Conservatives. This action would cause a split in the Liberal Party leading to their eventual collapse at the polls and their demotion to that of third party status, a status that they still maintain to this day.
In 1924, Churchill realized that the Liberals would no longer be an influential force in British politics. So he reluctantly re-joined the Conservative Party. The new Conservative Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin rewarded Churchill with the post of Chancellor of the Exchequer, a post that was expected to go to Neville Chamberlain. For the next five years Churchill had a stable working relationship with the Conservatives. However in the 1929 elections the Conservatives were eclipsed in the polls by the socialist Labour party and fell from power.
Now in opposition, Churchill again began to criticize the Conservatives for their support of self-government for India and for their appeasement to Hitler and Nazis. In 1935 the Conservatives, who formed a coalition government with the Labour and Liberal in 1931 to combat the depression, were elected in their own right. They refused give Churchill even an honorary Cabinet position. It was not until September 1939, when Britain and France were forced to declare war, that Churchill was again made First Lord of the Admiralty. Then on 10 May 1940, Churchill became Prime Minister. On that same day Germany invaded Belgium, Holland, and France.
Hitler had initially planned to attack French and British forces on 12 November 1939 but bad weather led to the first of 29 postponements. The original plan was quite unambitious. It only called for the occupation of the shorelines of Belgium and Holland in order to conduct naval and air operations against France and Great Britain. Perhaps Hitler thought this strategy would lead to a negotiated peace with the Western Allies. Unfortunately for the Germans, those plans were discovered when on 10 January 1940 when a German aircraft, carrying the plans, became lost over Belgian territory and was forced to crash land. The two German officers on board failed in their frantic attempts to destroy the invasion plans and they were soon recovered by the Belgians who promptly turned them over to the French and British intelligence services.
This German intelligence blunders led Hitler to change his mind about a limited war against the French and British. He decided instead to adopt the plan authored by General Erich von Manstein, which called for a diversionary attack through Holland and Belgium while the main attack took place further south through the Ardennes Forest. The main German force would then sweep northwards to trap and destroy the British and French Armies that would come to the aid of the Belgians and the Dutch. Upon the completion of this objective the German Army would then sweep south to capture Paris and force the French to come to terms.
The attack, however, on the Western Allies did not go completely according to plan. On 22-23 May, the Germany Army arrived at the coast of the English Channel. However suffering from fatigue and the loss of up to 50% of their vehicles, they were unable to immediately continue the offensive. Luftwaffe commander Herman Goring convinced Hitler that his air force, which up to this point in the campaign had performed exceptionally, could destroy what remained of the Allied forces on the beaches on Dunkirk. So on 24 May Hitler issued the order for his armies to halt his armies before they reach Dunkirk. Two days later the British and French Navies, assisted by the Royal Air Force, began an evacuation of the Allied armies trapped at Dunkirk.
On 25 May Halifax reported to the war cabinet that the Italian Embassy had requested a meeting with him to discuss Italy’s neutrality. Churchill did not think anything would come of this meeting but he did give Halifax the go ahead provided it was not made public. He believed any publicity in this matter “would amount to a confession of weakness”.
Halifax met with the Italian ambassador Giuseppe Bastianini later that afternoon. The discussion soon moved from a question of neutrality to that of Italian mediation between the Allies and Germany. Bastianini asked Halifax “whether His Majesty’s Government would consider it possible to discuss general questions involving not only Great Britain and Italy, but other countries.”
Halifax being shrewd negotiator did not immediately agree to this. “It would be difficult,” he said “to visualize such wide discussions while the war was still proceeding.” Bastianini countered by saying that “once such a discussion were begun, war would be pointless.” He declared that Mussolini’s goal was to build a settlement “that would not merely be an armistice but would protect European peace for the century.” Halifax worded his reply to this in sharply crafted diplomatic language that made both his willing clear but did not commit him to any course of action. “The purpose of His Majesty’s government was the same,” said Halifax, “and they would never be unwilling to consider any proposal made with authority that gave promise of establishment of a secure and peaceful Europe.”
The following morning Halifax gave his report of his conversation with Bastianini to the War Cabinet. However before doing so he told the War Cabinet that they “had to face the fact that it was not so much now a question of imposing a complete defeat upon Germany but of safeguarding the independence of our own Empire and if possible that of France.” Halifax then summarized his meeting with Bastianini. He said, “That peace and security in Europe were equally our main object, and we should naturally be prepared to consider any proposals which might lead to this, provided our liberty and independence were assured.” Upon the completion of Halifax’s remarks the first verbal skirmish occurred between Churchill and himself.
Churchill told Halifax and the War Cabinet that “peace might be achieved” under the proposed scheme, but only under a German dominated Europe. This was something that Churchill said he could never accept. “We must ensure our complete liberty and independence,” said Churchill. He went on to say that he was “opposed to any negotiations which might lead to a derogation of our rights and power.” Halifax chose to not respond to Churchill assertions at that point. Churchill soon adjourned the meeting so he could attend a meeting with the French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud.
The War Cabinet resumed its deliberations later that day at 2:00PM. Churchill began by describing his meeting with the French Prime Minister. Reynaud believed that the situation was hopeless. He told Churchill that despite this he had no intentions of signing a separate peace treaty with Germany, but that he might be forced to resign and that there were others in the French Government who would sign such a treaty. Churchill then told Reynaud “we [Britain] were not prepared to give in on any account. We would rather go down fighting than be enslaved to Germany.”
After Churchill's summation was complete he turned to Halifax and asked him to immediately go see Reynaud at Admiralty House. Churchill then said that himself and the rest of the War Cabinet would follow shortly. However Halifax did not comply with Churchill's request. He again brought up the subject of Italy stating, “that the last thing Mussolini wanted was to see Herr Hitler dominating Europe.” Halifax then suggested that in exchange for territory, presumable Malta, Gibraltar, and/or the Suez Canal, Mussolini might be willing to mediate a succession of hostilities between the Allies and Germany.
In an apparent attempt to placate Halifax, Churchill said that he “doubted whether anything would come of an approach to Italy, but that the matter was one which the War Cabinet would have to consider.” However Halifax was in no mood to be placated and attempted to obtain a firm comment from Churchill. He asked Churchill if he “was satisfied that matters vital to independence of this country were unaffected would he be prepared to discuss such terms?”
Churchill’s reply to Halifax is in direct contradiction to what he had early told Reynaud. Churchill said, “I would be grateful to get out of our present difficulties on such terms, provided we retained the essentials and the elements of our vital strength, even at the cost of some territory.” Historians have often used this statement of Churchill’s to suggest that he wavered on whether or not Britain should make a peace deal with Germany. However, when compared with his earlier statements on the subject another theory becomes apparent. Churchill quite simply lied to Halifax in order to gain time.
After gaining what he thought was a firm commitment from Churchill, Halifax departed the War Cabinet for his meeting with Reynaud. Not long thereafter Churchill adjourned the meeting and joined Halifax at Admiralty House along with the rest of the War Cabinet. Later that day after Reynaud’s departure, Churchill asked the War Cabinet to remain at Admiralty House for an “informal meeting.”
Unfortunately due to the surprise nature of this meeting the records of it are incomplete. The War Cabinet Secretary Sir Edward Bridges did not arrive until fifteen minutes into the meeting. Upon the arrival of Bridges the War Cabinet was in the mist of discussing the prior meeting with Reynaud and likelihood of France making a peace deal with Germany. Churchill said:
- We were in a different position from France. In the first place, we still had powers of resistance and attack, which they had not. In the second place, they would likely to be offered decent terms by Germany, which we should not. If France could not defend herself, it was better that she should get out of the war rather than that she should drag us into a settlement which involved intolerable terms. There was no limit to the terms which Germany would impose upon us if she had her way. From one point of view, I would rather France was out of the war before she was broken up, and retained the strong position of a strong neutral whose factories could not be used against us. [Churchill then went on to say that he] hoped France would hang on. At the same time we must take care not to be forced into a weak position in which we went to Signor Mussolini and invited him to go to Herr Hitler and asked him to treat us nicely. We must not get tangled in a position of that kind before we had been involved in any serious fighting.
Halifax, who by now must surely realized that he did not after all have the firm commitment from Churchill to pursue the a negotiated peace, responded. He said that he did not disagree with Churchill’s views but that he “attached perhaps more importance than the Prime Minister to the desirability of allowing France to try out the possibilities of European equilibrium.” Halifax went on to say that Churchill was wrong about Hitler’s intent and that it would not be in his interests “to insist on outrageous terms. After all, he [Hitler] knew his own weakness. On this lay-out it might be possible to save France from the wreck.”
Churchill again stated his disagreement. Halifax continued:
- We might say to Signor Mussolini that if there was any suggestion of terms which affected our independence, we should not look at them for a moment. If, however, Signor Mussolini was alarmed as we felt he must be in regard to Herr Hitler’s power, and was prepared to look at matters from the point of view of the balance of power, then we might consider Italian claims. At any rate, he could see no harm in trying this line of approach.”
Chamberlain was non-committable. He said “Mussolini could only take an independent line if Herr Hitler were disposed to conform to the line which Signor Mussolini indicated. The problem was a very difficult one, and it was right to talk it out from every point of view.” Churchill again attempted to buy time and said to the War Cabinet: It was best to decide nothing until we saw how much of the Army we could re-embark from France. The operation might be a great failure. On the other hand, out troops might well fight magnificently, and we might save a considerable portion of the Force. A good deal of the re-embarkation would be carried out by day. This would afford a real test of air superiority, since the Germans would attempt to bomb the ships and boats.
Halifax let it be known that he did not agree with this approach. He again read out his notes on his meeting with Bastianini and stated that this was the time to negotiate in order to obtain the best terms. Churchill again implied that he was prepared to give Germany back its colonies, taken after the First World War, and “to make certain concessions in the Mediterranean” in order to “get out of our present difficulties. He then added that he believed “no such option was open to us. For example, the terms offered would certainly prevent us from completing our re-armament.”
Halifax said that such terms “would be refused,” but added that he did not think this was likely because “Mussolini must feel in a most uncomfortable position. Churchill responded: Herr Hitler thought that he had the whip hand. The only thing to do was to show him that he could not conquer this country. If, on M. Reynaud’s showing, France could not continue, we must part company.
However Churchill then granted Halifax a concession and asked to prepare a memorandum on “Suggested Approaches to Italy” to be presented at the next days War Cabinet. The meeting soon adjourned.
On following day occurred the most critical of the nine War Cabinet meetings between 26 May-28 May 1940. The first War Cabinet meeting started at 11:30AM and concerned mainly military matters. Halifax spoke very little. It was the second meeting at 4:30PM that disagreement between Churchill and Halifax came to a head. Perhaps suspecting a confrontation with Halifax at this meeting, Churchill broke protocol and invited the Liberal Party leader and newly appointed Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair to be present. Sinclair was strong opponent of appeasement and a supporter of Churchill.
The War Cabinet opened with Halifax presenting his memorandum on the “Suggested Approaches to Italy.” It said:
- If Signor Mussolini will co-operate with us in securing a settlement…we will undertake at once to discuss, with the desire to find solutions, [to] the matters in which Signor Mussolini is primarily interested. We understand that he desires the solution of certain Mediterranean questions: and if he will state in secrecy what these are, France and Great Britain will at once do their best to meet these wishes.
Churchill now decided that the time had come to confront Halifax head on. He made rather lengthy statement opposing Halifax’s “Suggested Approaches to Italy.” Churchill said that he was:
Increasingly opposed with the futility of the suggested approach to Signor Mussolini, which the latter would certainly regard with contempt. Such an approach would do M. Reynaud far less good than if he made a firm stand. Further, the approach would ruin the integrity of our fighting position in this country. Even if we did not include geographical precision and mentioned no names, everybody would know what we had in mind…let us not be dragged down with France. If the French were not prepared to go on with the struggle, let them give up…If this country was beaten, France [would become] a vassal State; but if we won, we might save them. The best help we could give to M. Reynaud was to let him feel that, whatever happened to France, we were going to fight it out to the end…At the moment our prestige in Europe was very low. The only way we could get it back was by showing the world that Germany had not beaten us. If, after two or three months, we could show that we still unbeaten, our prestige would return. Even if we were beaten, we should be no worse off than we should be if we were now to abandon the struggle. Let us therefore avoid being dragged down the slippery slope with France. The whole of this maneuver was intended to get us so deeply involved in negotiations that we should be unable to turn back. We had gone a long way already in our approach to Italy, but let us not allow M. Reynaud to get us involved in a confused situation. The approach proposed was not only futile, but involved us in a deadly danger.
Chamberlain now spoke out in defence of Halifax’s peace proposal. “While [it is] agreed that the proposed approach would not serve any useful purpose, [I think] that we ought to go a little further with it, in order to keep the French in a good temper…our reply should not be a complete refusal.” Churchill replied that “if worst came to the worst, it would not be a bad thing for this country to go down fighting for the other countries which had been overcome by Nazi tyranny.”
Halifax by this point was incensed. He must have felt the prospects of his peace plan slipping away. He went the offensive. He said to the War Cabinet that he saw: No particular difficulty in taking the line suggested by the Lord President [Chamberlain]. Nevertheless [I am] conscious of certain rather profound differences of points of view which [I] would like to make clear… [I] could not recognize any resemblance between the action which [I] proposed, and the suggestion that we were suing for terms and following a line which would lead us to disaster. In the discussion the previous day [I] had asked the Prime Minister whether, if he was satisfied that matters vital to the independence of this country were unaffected, he would be prepared to discuss terms. The Prime Minister had said that he would be thankful to get out of our present difficulties on such terms, provided we retain the essentials and the elements of our vital strength, even at the cost of some cession of territory. On the present occasion, however, the Prime Minister seemed to suggest that under no conditions would we contemplate any course except fighting to the finish. The issue was probably academic, since we were unlikely to receive any offer which would not come up against the fundamental conditions which were essential to us. If, however, it was possible to obtain a settlement which did not impair those conditions, [I doubt I] would be able to accept the view now put forward by the Prime Minister.
Halifax had implied that if Churchill would not accept a negotiated peace then if would be forced to resign. On the surface this seems to be the answer to Churchill’s problems. If Halifax resigned, most likely Chamberlain would follow, and then Churchill could appoint two new Ministers to the War Cabinet who would be more supportive of his views. However this was not the case at all.
As we have seen above Churchill was not popular with the Conservatives. Upon his appointment as Prime Minister, John Colville wrote in his diary: “There seems to be some inclination in Whitehall to believe that Winston will be a complete failure and that Neville [Chamberlain] will return.” If Halifax and then Chamberlain had resigned, Churchill would have most certainly faced a parliamentary revolt from the Conservative Party in the House of Commons. The outcome of such a revolt would likely have led to Churchill’s dismissal as Prime Minister and the re-appointment of Chamberlain or possibly Halifax. And Churchill knew this quite well.
Faced with the threat of Halifax’s resignation Churchill decided to again retreat from his hawkish position. He said that: The issue which the War Cabinet was called upon to settle was difficult enough without getting involved in the discussion of an issue which was quite unreal and was unlikely to arise. If Herr Hitler was prepared to make peace on the terms of restoration of German colonies and the overlordship of Central Europe, that was one thing. But it was quite unlikely that he would make any such offer.
Halifax then decided to press Churchill on this statement. He asked:
- Suppose the French Army collapsed and Herr Hitler made an offer of peace terms. Suppose the French Government said ‘We are unable to deal with an offer made to France alone and you must deal with the Allies together.’ Suppose Herr Hitler, being anxious to end the war through knowledge of his own internal weaknesses, offered terms to France and England, would the Prime Minister be prepared to discuss them?
Churchill said that he “would not join France in asking for terms; but if [I] were told what the terms offered were, [I] would be prepared to consider them.
The meeting soon adjourned and Halifax asked to speak with Churchill privately. Churchill took Halifax to his private garden at 10 Downing Street. The only account available of this conversation comes from Halifax’s diary. It states:
- At the 4:30 Cabinet we had a long and rather confused discussion about, nominally, the approach to Italy, but also largely about the general policy in the event of things going really badly in France. I thought Winston [Churchill] talked the most frightful rot, also Greenwood, and after bearing it for some time I said exactly what I thought of them, adding that if that was really their view, and if it came to the point, our ways must separate. Winston, surprised and mellowed, and when I repeated the same thing in the garden, was full of apologies and affection. But it does drive me to despair when he works himself up into a passion of emotion when he ought to make his brain think and reason.
Two further War Cabinet meetings followed at 10:00PM on 27 May and 11:30AM on 28 May before the conflict between Churchill and Halifax erupted again. At the 4:00PM War Cabinet meeting Halifax announced that the Foreign Office has received word from the Italian Embassy in London that Italy was prepared to mediate a resolution between Allies and Germany. Halifax then said that he has discussed the possibility of such a proposal with Reynaud two day before. He believe that Britain and France should inform Italy that they “were prepared to fight to the death for our independence, but that, provided this could be secured, there were certain concessions that we were prepared to make to Italy.”
Churchill refused to do so and then replied that “the position would be entirely different when Germany had made an unsuccessful attempt to invade this country.” Halifax then responded. He said that “we must not ignore the fact that we might get better terms before France went out of the war and our aircraft factories were bombed, than we might get in three months’ time.
Churchill continued to resist Halifax. Later in the meeting he said: Signor Mussolini, if he came in as a mediator, would take his whack out of us. It was impossible to image 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. If, however, we continued the war and Germany attacked us, no doubt we should suffer some damage, but they also would suffer severe losses. Their oil supplies might be reduced. A time might come when we felt that we had to put an end to the struggle, but the terms would then be more mortal than those offered to us now.
Halifax responded that he still could not see what Churchill found so wrong with “trying out the possibilities of mediation.” Churchill replied that “nations which went down fighting rose again, but those which surrendered tamely were finished.”
Churchill turn adjourned the War Cabinet until 7:00PM so he could attend a previously scheduled meeting with his 25-member Outer Cabinet. “I had not seen many of my colleagues outside the War Cabinet, except individually, since the formation of the Government” said Churchill in his memoirs. The only account we have of what Churchill said at this critical meeting comes from Hugh Dalton, a member of the Labour Party and the newly appointed Minister of Economic Warfare.
Churchill began his remarks by making no attempt to mitigate the seriousness of the situation Britain had found herself in.
The French had failed to make a push northwards from the Somme. They had too few Divisions between the sea and Amiens and their communications had been badly bombed. Therefore, though we had done our best from the north, it had been impossible to close the gap, and we were in grave danger of being surrounded. Now, therefore, it was necessary to fight our way through to the Channel Ports and get away all we could...We should certainly be able to get 50,000 away. If we could get 100,000 away, that would be a magnificent performance... 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 than if we fought it out. The Germans would demand our – 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 or some such person. And where should we be at the end of all that? On the other side we have 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. 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.
Churchill would later write of the response he received at the conclusion of his remarks. There occurred a demonstration which considered the character of the gathering – twenty-five experienced politicians and Parliament men, who represented all the different points of view, whether right or 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. It fell to me in these coming days and months to express their sentiments on suitable occasions. This I was able to do because they were mine also. There was a white glow, overpowering, sublime, which ran though our Island from end to end.
Dalton joined the other Ministers in offering his congratulations to Churchill. He said: ‘Well done, Prime Minister! You ought to get that cartoon of Low, showing us all rolling up our sleeves and falling in behind you, and frame it and stick it up there.’ He [Churchill] answered with a broad grin, ‘Yes, that was a good one, wasn’t it?’
At that moment and with that speech Winston S. Churchill had saved Britain and perhaps Western Civilization from threat of Nazi domination. At that meeting he had won the Second World War. By the time the War Cabinet reconvened at 7:00PM Churchill’s position was secure. He told the War Cabinet of his earlier meeting.
They [the Outer Cabinet] had not expressed alarm at the position in France, but had expressed the greatest satisfaction when [I] had told them that there was no chance of our giving up the struggle. [I] did not remember having ever before heard a gathering of persons occupying high places in political life express themselves so emphatically. Churchill then told the War Cabinet that there would no negotiated peace. Halifax had lost. Several days later Churchill would be rewarded for his defiance. The British and French Navies, assisted by the Royal Air Force, managed to evacuate between 26 May – 4 June 1940, 338,226 Allied soldiers.
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