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9-08-2015, 21:56

GERMANY’S WARS OF CONQUEST IN EUROPE, 1939–41

During the first two years of war, Germany won a series of victories on the continent of Europe that staggered the world and made the Wehrmacht appear invincible. Apprehensive at the outset, the German people were intoxicated by military success; all that Hitler had done appeared justified. The nightmare that the experiences of the First World War would be repeated seemed for the Germans no more than a bad dream in 1940. Europe learned the reality of the Blitzkrieg. The Wehrmacht used the tactics of speedy penetration by tanks, followed by mechanised infantry and then more slowly by infantry on foot, supported closely by the Luftwaffe; towns were subjected to indiscriminate bombing, and the terrorised populations jammed the roads to escape the advancing Germans. The Blitzkrieg required careful planning, a well-coordinated command structure and highly disciplined, wellequipped troops. The armed forces, from the most senior officers to the newest conscripts, served Hitler’s cause, which they identified with Germany’s, with efficiency and the utmost devotion. The home front supplied the means. It was their war, too, though Hitler’s lightning wars did not require the entire mobilisation of the home front as in Britain. Women were not conscripted and luxury items continued to be produced to keep the Germans happy. Military victory alone made possible the horrors that Hitler’s regime inflicted on the millions of people who fell into Germany’s grasp. In September 1939 Poland was conquered; in April 1940, Denmark and Norway; during May the Netherlands and Belgium; and then in June 1940 the greatest victory of all, France was defeated. With France prostrate, Britain withdrew from the continent of Europe. Did not the ‘good’ which Hitler had achieved outweigh the ‘bad’? – so many Germans now reasoned. Hitler even publicly offered peace to Britain. In July 1940 the war, so it seemed, was virtually over, an astonishingly short war rather than the expected long and bloody struggle, leaving Germany victorious. Why were these German dreams shattered so soon? Hitler was not satisfied with what he had achieved so far. He had not won sufficient Lebensraum in the east or the undisputed hegemony of Europe. Any ‘peace’ for him now would have been tactical and short-lived. Everything he said to his associates, either secretly at the time or in conversations and writings before, points to the fact that he regarded the victory in the west as only a prelude to greater conquests. Plans for a great fleet had been carried forward not with a view to winning the continental European war but with an eye to the wars after that, including the world war with the British Empire and the US. The struggle would continue as long as Hitler lived and until Europe was racially transformed and world power was won; but Hitler proceeded according to his own timetable. The Germans were not allowed for long to enjoy the fruits of victory, the victory parades accompanied by champagne and other luxuries looted from France. Hitler’s megalomania was Germany’s undoing. Its defeat then was so complete that it is easy to overlook the fact that four years earlier it had been a much more close-run thing. Germany’s defeat of Poland was rapid. Surrounded, Warsaw resisted until 27 September 1939. Badly led, the Poles bravely fought the Wehrmacht, which enjoyed overwhelming strength. In the earliest days of the war, the Luftwaffe destroyed the Polish air force, mostly on the ground. Any chance the Poles had of holding out a little longer was lost when the Russians on 17 September invaded from the east in accordance with their secret agreement with Germany of the previous August. Still it was no walkover. The Poles inflicted heavy casualties and the Wehrmacht was in no fit state to switch immediately to the west and to attack France in November 1939 as Hitler desired. Hitler’s public ‘peace’ proposals to Britain and France early in October 1939, after the victorious Polish campaign, were almost certainly meant for German public opinion. He would not, of course, have rejected the idea that Britain should accept and withdraw from involvement on the continent. Then France could not have continued the war on its own and would have been in his power even without a battle. Did Britain contemplate any sort of peace? Whatever differences of opinion may have existed, peace terms involving the eventual abandonment of France were unthinkable in 1939. Militarily, on land and in the air, the war scarcely got started in terms of real fighting on the western front. The French were not ready to take quick offensive action against the weak screen of German troops facing them behind the incomplete fortifications of the Siegfried Line. By the time the army was fully mobilised and in a state of readiness for offensive action – had the commander-in-chief, Maurice Gamelin, desired it – the Polish campaign was drawing to its close and the German high command was rushing reinforcements westwards from Poland. The military inaction on land corresponded to the doctrine, Poland notwithstanding, that the army that attacked would be forced to suffer huge casualties. All the advantage was believed to lie with the defence behind such powerfully constructed fortifications as the Maginot Line. In preparing the defence of France, one section of the front – the Franco-Belgian frontier to the Channel – had been left ‘open’, designed to act as a limited region for offensive manoeuvre. But when the Belgians returned to a position of complete neutrality in 1936 this strategy was more difficult to execute. The Anglo-French campaign plan of 1939–40 was nevertheless designed to meet the expected German advance through Belgium, by a forward movement of their own into Belgium the moment the Germans attacked that country; no earlier move was possible as the Belgians fearfully clung to absolute neutrality. These military assumptions about how best to conduct the war were paralleled by political assumptions held by Chamberlain about the war and its likely outcome. It would be ended, if possible, without great sacrifice of life by imposing a strict blockade on Germany. The British and French governments even considered blowing up the sources of Germany’s oil supplies in Romania and the Soviet Caucasus. With neutral Scandinavia, the Balkan states and the Soviet Union delivering oil and other essential raw materials, the British blockade by sea was far less effective than during the First World War. It did not seriously impede Hitler’s intended lightning strikes against the West. For fear of massive reprisals, the French and British dropped nothing more lethal than pamphlets on the industrial Ruhr. But then Chamberlain did not believe that the war would be won by military force. In December 1939 he wrote to the archbishop of Canterbury, ‘I feel before another Christmas comes the war will be over, and then the troubles will really begin!’. What was in his mind when he wrote that? Was it that he expected reasonable negotiations and a peace treaty? He certainly thought that the war would end in a stalemate and that, once the Germans were convinced that they could not win, they would negotiate for peace. The war would be won on the home front. Chamberlain was certainly anxious whether the British people would stand for a long stalemated kind of war. He feared there was in Britain a ‘peace at any price’ party whose influence might become powerful. He thought it probable nevertheless that the German home front would crack first, forcing Hitler into the wrong policy of attack. Whether all aspects of ‘appeasement’ completely ended after the outbreak of war in September 1939 poses questions that can, as yet, be answered only tentatively. From existing evidence we can reasonably conclude that Chamberlain would never have consented to peace on Hitler’s terms; also that Chamberlain thought Britain and France would not be able to impose a Carthaginian peace on Germany. He appears to have thought that some reshuffle of power setting Hitler aside might offer a solution. ‘Until he disappears and his system collapses there can be no peace’, he wrote a week after the outbreak of the war. Chamberlain’s assumptions were mistaken. Events turned out very differently, when what was to him the unthinkable occurred and the French armies collapsed. Only then did the pre-war illusions on which policies had been based for so long finally collapse. While at sea Britain had the better of the war, serious fighting on land began not on the frontiers of France but in Norway. Winston Churchill had rejoined the Cabinet as first lord of the admiralty at the beginning of the war and was anxious that some visible blow be struck at Germany’s war effort. The attack by the Soviet Union on Finland on 30 November 1939 seemed to provide a good opportunity. Swedish iron ore was vital to the German war machine. During the winter months it was shipped through the Norwegian port of Narvik. For weeks, under Chamberlain’s chairmanship, the Cabinet discussed the possibility of an operation that would disrupt its flow. The favourite idea was to help the Finns against the Russians by sending volunteers who would, on the way so to speak, control the railway line from northern Sweden to the coast. This scheme made use of the public indignation in the West about Russia’s attack to damage both Germany and the Soviet Union, which was seen as Germany’s partner in the European war of aggression. The Finns successfully resisted the illprepared Soviet troops for weeks, inflicting heavy casualties on them in what became known as the Winter War. The French, too, were keen to fight, but not in France. They agreed in February 1940 to a joint Anglo-French expedition of ‘volunteers’ to aid the Finns and occupy the strategic northern railway. British scruples about infringing neutral rights, and Norway’s terrified adherence to neutrality – the Norwegians did not wish to give Germany an excuse for invasion – led to delays, until finally the British decided to mine the waters off Narvik through which the ore ships sailed (though only until spring had opened the other route by way of the Baltic, blocked by ice in the winter). Before an expedition could be sent to the Finns, however, they were defeated, making peace on 12 March 1940. French politicians were so outraged at the inability of the government to help that Daladier’s ministry fell; the more militant Paul Reynaud became prime minister. Chamberlain’s own fall was delayed by another month and historically was far more important. The public was tiring of the phoney war and the easy successes of the dictators, Hitler and Stalin. Poland and now Finland had fallen. Fortunately the British Cabinet (unlike the French) never contemplated any steps that might lead to outright war with the Soviet Union as well, even though, or perhaps because, the Soviet Union represented a far greater threat to Britain’s imperial interests than to France. Chamberlain was singularly unlucky in some of his public utterances. After Munich he had rashly repeated the phrase about ‘peace in our time’. Early in April 1940 he coined one phrase too many when he told the nation that Hitler ‘has missed the bus’. After relatively small forces had secretly begun the operation at sea on 3 April 1940, the main force following during the night of 7 and 8 April, the Germans in a daring move occupied all Norway’s major ports, including the capital, Oslo, on 9 April. The Norwegians resisted and inflicted casualties, especially on the German warships making for Oslo’s harbour. But Germany’s attack was almost entirely successful, even though it was not a complete surprise to Britain and France. The British navy missed the German warships. Executing the policy decided on by the Cabinet, the Royal Navy on 8 April was proceeding to lay mines in Norwegian territorial waters accompanied by a small force of troops which was ready to land in Norway should the Germans retaliate by invading. In fact, they had already anticipated the British move. The instructions to the British force were unclear and reveal Britain’s moral dilemma about landing in Norway if the Norwegians chose to resist. Only in the extreme north, in Narvik, were Anglo-French forces able to inflict a temporary setback to the small German forces far from their base. The British navy sank the German destroyers in the port and a month later Narvik was reoccupied. After Dunkirk, these forces had to be withdrawn and the whole of Norway fell under German occupation. Nevertheless, German naval losses had been so severe that in July 1940 there was no surface fleet in active service; only a few lighter warships were undamaged. The most important political consequence of acting too late in Norway was the fall of the Chamberlain Cabinet, and the outcome – surprising at the time of the crisis – was that Winston Churchill became prime minister on 10 May 1940 of a national government joined by Labour and the Liberals. With the passage of time the adulation of Churchill as war leader has rightly given place to a more critical assessment of his role in policy making at home, in foreign relations and in military strategy, which together make up the conduct of the war. Churchill’s shortcomings stand revealed. By filling in the shadows, showing his mistakes as well as his successes, Churchill becomes more real and believable. The shadows only bring into sharper relief the predominance of that galvanising spirit, the enormous energy and undaunted faith in final victory that became an asset of inestimable value to Britain and to the war effort of the whole alliance. And, despite wartime restrictions, Churchill still led a democracy rooted in Parliament, and was dependent upon the support of the people. The nation thrilled by the rhetoric of his radio speeches and sensed that Britain now had a war leader who was a match for Hitler. Churchill, more than any single man, sustained national morale and hope in the future. It is therefore all the more remarkable that the secrets now emerging from private papers and official records reveal how insecure Churchill’s position really was during the first four months of his administration. Chamberlain was no broken reed. His government had actually won what amounted to a vote of confidence, though many Conservatives had abstained or voted with the Opposition. Chamberlain was deeply injured by so many of his former supporters turning against him. It was he who decided that for the ‘duration’ what was required was a truly national government. But he would remain leader of the Conservative Party and thought that he might return to power when sanity returned; the time would come when his unrivalled experience would be needed to bring back peace. As yet he had no inkling of the cancer that, within a few weeks, turned him into an invalid and caused his death early in November 1940. Churchill was prime minister, but Chamberlain and Halifax remained the most powerful Conservatives in the Cabinet. When Churchill first presented himself to the House of Commons, it was Chamberlain whom the Conservatives loudly cheered. Chamberlain was soon to earn those cheers for far more than his readiness to accept second place under Churchill. Norway was a serious defeat for the Allied war effort. The Norwegian fjords could now serve as ideal bases for the German submarines threatening to sever the lifeline of war supplies crossing the Atlantic from the US. The most shattering blow of all was the defeat of France, on whose armies the containment of Germany overwhelmingly rested. It seemed unthinkable that a great power such as France would succumb as quickly and as totally to the onslaught of the Blitzkrieg as smaller nations like Poland and Norway had done. Yet that is what occurred. The military debacle of the Allied campaign in France can be briefly summarised. The total strength of the German army on the one hand and the French, British, Belgian and Dutch forces on the other were roughly comparable, as were the numbers of tanks on each side. Arguably the French had the edge in the quality of their tanks and artillery. Germany achieved superiority in the air but this in itself was not decisive and, contrary to popular belief, the Maginot Line, to which so much blame came to be attached, was of advantage to the Allies: it deterred the Germans from attacking more than half the frontier and it could be held by a relatively small force. This meant that the Allies did not have to concentrate on the Franco-German border but could predict that the main battles would occur in the regions not covered by the Maginot Line. The Allies then had apparently good reason for quiet confidence before the Germans opened the offensive. The Allies thought that the obvious route of invasion lay through the north, the Netherlands and Belgium, and made their plans accordingly. The Germans, when they attacked, should not be allowed to turn industrial northern France immediately into a battle zone as they had done in the First World War. The French and British forces would, and did, have time to meet the German thrust in Belgium before it reached France. The Maginot Line ran alongside the whole frontier with Germany, alongside that of Luxembourg and alongside the southern tip of the Belgian frontier. Just beyond was the heavily wooded Ardennes region, believed by the Allies to be impassable to any major German offensive with tanks; this section of the front was lightly held. Beyond the Maginot Line to the sea, one careful calculation – others did not differ appreciably – indicated that forty French divisions and nine British were facing two German armies totalling seventy-four divisions. But alongside the Allies another twenty-two Belgian divisions were expected to fight, even discounting ten Dutch divisions which were quickly overwhelmed. The purely Anglo-French/German disparity would have disappeared if thirty-five French and one British division had not been allotted to the Maginot Line and upper Rhine. Germany’s success was based not on superiority of numbers or equipment but on taking and choosing the offensives and in so distributing the German divisions that they would appear in overwhelming strength at the weak point of the Allied front. The massed, coordinated use of armour would ensure that the initial breakthrough could be exploited with great speed. The Allies had anticipated no major thrust through the Ardennes and the Germans achieved complete surprise there. The second unexpected development was the direction of the thrust. The French high command thought in terms of 1914. They expected the Germans would continue straight from Sedan in a south-westerly direction for Paris. Instead, in a great arc the massed Panzers coordinated with aircraft followed by infantry, turned west towards the Channel coast at Abbeville, and north-west to Boulogne, Calais and in the direction of Dunkirk. The BEF (the British Expeditionary Force) and northern French armies were now caught in a nutcracker, with one German army pressing them through Belgium and the other swinging behind their rear. It was like a mirror image of the Schlieffen Plan and had the advantage that the wheel to the coast was a finite and limited distance, whereas Schlieffen’s arc had been huge, and of virtually indefinite length. Had the Wehrmacht attacked in November 1939, the plan would then have corresponded to Anglo- French expectations of an offensive predominantly through Belgium, the old Schlieffen formula. In short, German victory was due to the brilliance of the amended war-plan carried out in May 1940, its successful execution by the German high command and the fighting qualities of the well-trained troops, particularly the Panzer divisions. Obversely, Allied failure was primarily a failure of strategy. French armies were thrown into total confusion, their generals lost control over communications and over the movements of whole armies. No soldier can successfully fight in such a situation, except in local actions. Later, the generals and politicians were quick to blame all sorts of factors – the communists, sabotage, poor equipment, low morale – as having greatly contributed to defeat. The blame must lie overwhelmingly with Gamelin and the Allied generals themselves. The devastating timetable of defeat can be tersely set out. On 10 May 1940 the Germans launched the western offensive, simultaneously attacking the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. The terror-bombing and destruction of Rotterdam added a new term to the war vocabulary. The French and British troops moved forward according to a plan which, as it turned out, placed them more securely in the noose. On 13 May the Germans broke through on the Meuse. The French prime minister Reynaud telephoned Churchill the following day telling him that the situation was grave, and on the 15th that the battle was lost, the way to Paris open. The first rift now appeared between the British and French conduct of the war. The French wanted the outcome of the whole war to depend on the battle for France. Churchill already foresaw that if indeed the battle for France was lost the war would go on. There would then be the battle for Britain. So 15 May 1940 is an important date. Reynaud appealed to Britain to throw the whole of its air force into the battle as the only chance left to stop the Germans. Churchill and the Cabinet were ready to send further squadrons of fighters to France. But twenty-five squadrons would be retained as indispensable for the defence of Britain, as the commander-in-chief of fighter command, Air Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, insisted that this represented the minimum necessary protection. On 15 May, to Reynaud’s desperate plea, Churchill responded: ‘we would do everything we could, but we could not denude England of her essential defences’. On 16 May Churchill crossed the Channel to see the situation for himself and to infuse some of his fighting spirit into Reynaud’s government. The full disaster became evident, there was near panic in Paris. Gamelin was dismissed and replaced by General Weygand on 19 May. But Hitler had slowed the advance to the Channel. He did not wish to risk his tanks in unsuitable terrain; to Göring and his Luftwaffe was to be left a share in annihilating the trapped British. The tanks were temporarily halted. General de Gaulle, of later fame, managed a small-scale counterattack on 17 May but it could not affect the outcome of the battle. In the north the BEF and French divisions were retreating in good order – much too slowly. On 20 May Reynaud had brought Marshal Pétain into his new government. Defeat was in the air. On 24 May the German Panzers reached the coast at Abbeville on the mouth of the Somme. The Allied northern armies were now cut off. The story of the French capitulation is well known. Increasingly the French began to blame the British for not throwing their last reserves into the battle. They could not conceive how Britain would continue the war without France. Churchill was back in Paris on 23 May to discover how the northern Allied armies including the BEF might be saved. It was trapped, he reported back to the War Cabinet in London the next day. On 25 May, General Lord Gort, the commander of the BEF, in spite of instructions on the 19th from Churchill and the chiefs of staff to link with the French, independently began the manoeuvre, subsequently approved, that eventually made it possible to save the British divisions, and many French troops too, from the beaches of Dunkirk. Weygand’s planned counter-offensive against the German flanks never had a chance; there were no French forces left who could seriously threaten the Germans. Meanwhile in Paris on the night of 25 May Pétain and other members of the government were already searching for a way to conclude a separate peace with Germany. Prime Minister Reynaud was despatched to London to sound out British reactions to peace initiatives. That same day contingency arrangements to evacuate the BEF were acted on. The last week of May 1940 was the most critical and dramatic of the Second World War. The full account of British Cabinet deliberations on possible peace negotiations with Hitlerite Germany only recently came to light, some so secret that their record was kept in a special file. Churchill’s ‘finest hour’ was to come: Britain withstood the German Blitz, later that summer and autumn. Government and people were determined to repel invasion from their shores. In Churchill’s speeches the spirit of resolution and the will to fight were accurately encapsulated. Yet, the ‘finest hour’ might never have struck. The picture of Churchill as the indomitable war leader towering over colleagues is so deeply etched in the history of the Second World War that it comes as a surprise that his position as prime minister during the first weeks of office was far weaker than that enjoyed by any of his predecessors since the fall of Lloyd George. Chamberlain saw Churchill as the best war leader for the duration of the conflict and he was also the one Conservative whom Labour and Liberals could agree to serve under. Churchill presided over a small War Cabinet of five. Chamberlain and Halifax, the two most powerful Conservatives, were now joined by two Labour Party ministers, Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood. But Churchill was regarded with much suspicion by many Conservatives, who continued to look to Chamberlain for guidance. Within the War Cabinet, Chamberlain’s role was still decisive. If he sided with Halifax against Churchill, given the continued party loyalty Chamberlain still enjoyed and the overwhelming strength of the Conservatives in the House of Commons, Churchill would not be able to make his views prevail even with the support of Labour and its two representatives in the War Cabinet. The government might then break up – as the French did – with disastrous results at a moment of crisis. This political reality has to be borne in mind when assessing what Churchill, Chamberlain, Halifax, Attlee and Greenwood said during the long hours of Cabinet discussion in May 1940. What was at stake was more than the fate of a government. Whether Britain would remain in the war, the future of Western Europe and the course of world history. Halifax, the foreign secretary, made a determined bid to persuade the War Cabinet to sanction peace feelers. The Cabinet had authorised him on 24 May to try to discover what terms might keep Mussolini out of the war. But Halifax went beyond his brief when he spoke to the Italian ambassador on 25 May. He reported back to the Cabinet on the morning of Sunday, 26 May, that the Italian ambassador had sounded him out on whether the British government would agree to a conference; according to the ambassador, Mussolini’s principal wish was to secure peace in Europe, and he wanted Italian and British issues to be looked at as ‘part of a general European settlement’. Halifax agreed emphatically and replied that peace and security in Europe were equally Britain’s main object and that ‘we should naturally be prepared to consider any proposal which might lead to this provided our liberty and independence were assured’. In this way efforts to keep Italy out of the war – efforts that the Cabinet had already sanctioned involved seeking Roosevelt’s good offices – were being widened to draw in Germany and France in an attempt to reach a general peace. Halifax now wanted to secure the authorisation of the Cabinet to seek the duce’s mediation for this purpose. Churchill opposed Halifax; the prime minister’s instincts were sound. Even if ‘decent’ terms were offered in May 1940 they would have been no safeguard against fresh demands later, once Britain was at Hitler’s mercy. Churchill also knew that if he consented to the commencement of any negotiations it might then prove impossible to fight on. He was therefore determined by any and all means to block Halifax’s manoeuvres. After the Cabinet meeting on the morning of Sunday 26 May, Churchill lunched with the French prime minister Paul Reynaud, who had flown over from France. Churchill urged him to keep France in the war. Reynaud, according to Churchill, ‘dwelt not obscurely upon the possible French withdrawal from the war’. Reynaud’s immediate request was that negotiations should be started to keep Italy out of the war by bribing Mussolini with offers including the neutralisation of Gibraltar and Suez as well as the demilitarisation of Malta. But Churchill wanted no approach to Italy. He knew how easily this could slide into peace negotiations with Germany. He told Reynaud that Britain would not give up on any account but would rather go down fighting than be enslaved to Germany. After further discussions with the French prime minister, the British Cabinet reassembled in the afternoon. Halifax urged that the mediation of Mussolini be sought; Hitler, he observed, might not present such unreasonable terms. Churchill repeatedly opposed such a move. In the diary Chamberlain kept of these vital hours he records Churchill as saying: It was incredible that Hitler would consent to any terms that we could accept though if we could get out of this jam by giving up Malta and some African colonies he would jump at it. But the only safe way was to convince Hitler that he could not beat us. We might do better without the French than with them if they tied us to a conference into which we should enter with our case lost beforehand. What are we to make of Churchill’s remark that ‘he would jump’ at the chance of getting out of the war? If this one remark is considered out of context it might appear that not much separated Churchill from Halifax. But Churchill’s actions throughout these critical days, and all the arguments he marshalled, make it absurd to suppose that he had any other intention but that of defeating Halifax and of winning over the remaining Cabinet ministers in order to fight on. An approach to Mussolini, Churchill warned, would not only be futile but would involve Britain in ‘deadly danger’; ‘let us therefore avoid being dragged down the slippery slope with France’. Nevertheless, in making an effort to appear reasonable, by apparent concessions to Halifax’s arguments, Churchill was manoeuvred into a dangerous corner at the Cabinet meeting on the following day, 27 May. He reiterated his view that no attempt should be made to start any negotiations by way of Mussolini. Halifax, who was a formidable opponent, now accused Churchill of inconsistency, saying that when on the previous day he had asked him whether he were satisfied that if matters vital to Britain’s independence were unaffected he would be prepared to discuss terms, Churchill had then replied that ‘he would be thankful 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 cession of territory’. Yet now, Halifax pointed out, Churchill spoke only of fighting to a finish. Churchill was flustered; he attempted to reconcile what could not be reconciled by saying, ‘If Herr Hitler were prepared to make peace on the terms of the restoration of the 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 immediately followed up his advantage, pressing Churchill by asking him whether he would be willing to discuss Hitler’s terms. Churchill rather feebly responded 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.’ The Cabinet ended. Churchill had gained just one important point: Britain would not initiate direct negotiations with Hitler. The Cabinet met again on 28 May. Halifax once more, on the pretext of starting negotiations to keep Italy out of the war, was trying to find a way of discussing peace with Hitler’s Germany. The War Cabinet well understood this. The real difference between Halifax and Churchill was simple. Halifax believed the war already lost; to fight on would entail useless sacrifice. What he actually said was that Britain might get better terms before France left the war and before Britain’s aircraft factories were bombed by the Luftwaffe. The Italian Embassy now wanted to know, Halifax said, whether ‘we should like mediation by Italy’. Churchill retorted that Britain could not negotiate from weakness; ‘the position would be entirely different when Germany had made an unsuccessful attempt to invade the country’, he added, and he argued that even if defeated later Britain would get no worse terms than now. A nation that went down fighting would rise again whereas those that tamely surrendered were finished. Any negotiations, furthermore, would undermine the nation’s morale. Churchill was supported by both Attlee and Greenwood. Halifax contemptuously accused Churchill of indulging in rhetorical heroics. But the decisive voice was Chamberlain’s. Chamberlain had been deeply shocked by the debacle in France. The basis on which he had conducted the war had been shattered. In his diary a little over a week before these crucial Cabinet discussions he had noted that he expected a German ultimatum, and that it might be necessary to fight on but that: ‘We should be fighting only for better terms not for victory.’ Chamberlain thought with Halifax that realism could only lead to the conclusion that the war was lost. But he jibbed at bribing Mussolini while Britain and Germany remained at war. On the issue of whether Mussolini’s help should be invoked to bring Germany, France and Britain to the conference table his views fluctuated. Halifax worked hard on him to get him to force Churchill’s hand. Chamberlain, however, attempted to reconcile Halifax and Churchill. In addressing the Cabinet, Chamberlain said on 28 May: He felt bound to say that he was in agreement with the Foreign Secretary in taking the view that if we thought it was possible that we now get terms, which, although grievous, would not threaten our independence, we should be right to consider such terms. But, he added, he did not think the French idea of an approach to Mussolini would produce ‘decent terms’, especially with France in Hitler’s grasp. Chamberlain therefore said he had come to the conclusion that an ‘approach to Italy was useless at the present time, it might be that we should take a different view in a short time, possibly even a week hence’. Churchill had won, at least for the time being. One cannot say with certainty what would have happened if Chamberlain, not Churchill, had been prime minister. Halifax might then have carried the day. The impression the documents leave is that Chamberlain had acted less from conviction than out of loyalty to the prime minister. The Cabinet adjourned at 6.15 p.m. Churchill had called a meeting of the ministers not in the War Cabinet to his room in the House of Commons that evening. He told them that ‘of course whatever happens at Dunkirk, we shall fight on’. He reported back to the reassembled War Cabinet at 7 p.m. that his message had been greeted with enthusiasm. Churchill then agreed to a long and tactful message to be sent to Reynaud explaining that Halifax’s ‘formula’ prepared on the occasion of Reynaud’s visit two days previously, which had contemplated asking Mussolini to act as mediator, was now dead; ‘we are convinced that at this moment when Hitler is flushed with victory . . . it would be impossible for Signor Mussolini to put forward proposals for a conference with any success’. Churchill’s victory would not be final as long as Halifax remained in the Cabinet and could influence Chamberlain. Indeed the following day the foreign secretary challenged Churchill’s fighting despatch to Lord Gort. Halifax wanted a despatch sent that left to Gort’s judgement the decision whether to surrender the BEF. ‘It would not be dishonourable to relinquish the struggle, in order to save a handful of men from massacre.’ Churchill was not strong enough to offer outright opposition to such defeatism but evaded the issue by asking for time to consider the position. The evacuation from Dunkirk soon made any reconsideration unnecessary. Churchill was successfully playing for time. In mid-June 1940, with the imminent withdrawal of France from the war, there were more anxious moments for Churchill. In July Hitler in a speech finally called on Britain to be reasonable and to make peace. At the same time he mocked Churchill, whose position was still far from assured. On 2 August, the king of Sweden secretly offered his mediation but the Cabinet on 7 August approved Halifax’s reply which made Germany’s withdrawal from all its conquests a precondition. The full story of continuing attempts by those under Churchill to seek peace remains to be told but there is no reason to doubt Chamberlain’s continued loyalty to the prime minister. It enabled Churchill to survive and to neutralise his opponents. Chamberlain was incapacitated in the summer of 1940. Inoperable cancer was diagnosed. It was Chamberlain’s terminal illness and resignation from the government in October 1940 that transformed Churchill’s position. He now became leader of the party and in November 1940, when Chamberlain died, he paid tribute to Chamberlain’s loyalty. During those critical first weeks of his administration he had owed much to him. Britain had survived. The chiefs of staff in a grave report in May 1940 had not rated Britain’s chances very highly, concluding that ‘Germany has most of the cards; but the real test is whether the morale of our fighting personnel and civil populations will counterbalance the numerical and material advantages which Germany enjoys. We believe it will.’ That Britain had fought back was due to a unified people, to the Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy and the army, whose morale remained intact. This unity would have been severely tested if Churchill’s leadership had been repudiated at the heart of government. But the doubts and divisions within the War Cabinet remained a wellkept secret until long after the war was over. In December 1940, Churchill reconstructed the War Cabinet and sent Halifax to Washington as ambassador, bringing Eden into the Cabinet as foreign secretary. But we must now retrace our steps to the course the war took during the last days of May and the summer of 1940. On 28 May Leopold, king of the Belgians, capitulated, ignoring the contrary advice of his ministers. The evacuation of the BEF had begun the previous day. Every possible boat, including paddle pleasure steamers, was pressed into service. The Royal Navy conducted the evacuation, and some air cover could be provided by the air force. Göring’s Luftwaffe strafed the boats and the men waiting on the beaches. But the calm seas favoured the Allies. The evacuation went on day after day until 3 June. A total of 338,226 Allied troops were snatched from certain capture, including 139,097 Frenchmen, but all the equipment was lost. To the south the war went on in France, and Britain even sent reinforcements to encourage the French. But Weygand viewed the situation as nearly hopeless. The French were given a few days’ grace while the German divisions redeployed. On 10 June 1940 Mussolini – having contemptuously rejected Roosevelt’s earlier offer of good offices – declared war on an already beaten France. Even so the French forces along the Italian frontier repulsed the Italian attacks. But the Germans could not be held. On 14 June they entered Paris. The government had fled to Bordeaux and was seeking release from the British alliance so that it could negotiate separately with Germany. Churchill at first replied that Britain would be willing to grant this wish provided the powerful French fleet were sent to British ports. Hard on the heels of this response, General de Gaulle, who had come to Britain to call on the French to continue the fight from a base still free from the enemy, telephoned from London an extraordinary proposal. Britain, as evidence of solidarity, was now offering to the French an ‘indissoluble union’ of the United Kingdom and the ‘French Republic’. Churchill had been sceptical from the first about whether this dramatic gesture would have much effect in Bordeaux and so keep France in the war. Reynaud favoured acceptance but the French Cabinet never considered the idea seriously. The final agonies ended with Pétain replacing Reynaud as prime minister. He immediately began armistice negotiations. On 22 June the French accepted the German terms and later signed them in the same railway carriage in which Marshal Foch had accepted the German capitulation at the end of the First World War. France was divided into occupied and unoccupied areas. The whole Atlantic coast came under German control. South and south-eastern France was governed by Pétain from a new capital established in Vichy. The colonial empire remained under the control of Vichy. The French sought to ensure that their fleet would not be used by Germany against Britain. The armistice provided that it would be disarmed under German supervision. Not unreasonably the British Cabinet remained unsure whether or not the Germans would in the end seize the fleet. For Britain the war had become a fight for survival. In one of the most controversial military actions of the war, the British navy attacked units of the French fleet at Mers-el-Kebir on 3 July, after the French admiral refused a British ultimatum requiring him to follow one of four courses, each of which would have denied the Germans use of these warships. The British action cost the lives of 1,297 French sailors, so recently their allies. It was an indication that Churchill would pursue the war with all the ruthlessness necessary to defeat a ruthless enemy. Vichy’s response was to break off diplomatic relations with Britain. In London, General de Gaulle rallied the small Free French Forces. But the great majority of the French and most of the colonial empire accepted the legitimacy of Vichy and Pétain. Vichy France remained an important strategic factor in Britain’s calculations, so de Gaulle was not granted the status of the leader of a French government in exile, even though such Polish, Dutch and Belgian governments had been recognised. He deeply resented this as an insult to the honour of France as now embodied in his movement. The course of the war from the fall of France to December 1941 needs to be followed in three separate strands. First there was the actual conflict between Britain and Germany and Italy on land, sea and air. The most critical of the struggles was the battle in the air. Hitler believed that unless he won command of the air he could not, in the face of the strong British fleet, successfully mount Operation Sea Lion, codename for his invasion of the British Isles. On 10 July the preliminary of the battle of Britain started over the Straits of Dover, then in mid-August the main attack switched to British airfields. The Luftwaffe could use some 2,500 bombers and fighters in the battle. Britain’s first-line fighter strength was some 1,200 fighters. The radar stations on the coast which gave warning of the approach of the German planes and the cracking of the German operational code, as well as the superior Hurricanes and Spitfires, of which 660 could be used, were to Britain’s advantage. But had the Germans persisted in their attacks on airfields they might nevertheless have succeeded in their aim of destroying Britain’s air strength. Instead the German attack switched to cities. London was heavily raided on 7 September in reprisal for an RAF raid on Berlin. On 15 September it was clear that the German air force had failed to establish command of the air and two days later Hitler abandoned plans for the invasion of England. But now the night raids against cities were causing tremendous damage to London and other British towns. On 14 November 1940 Coventry was blitzed. The night raids continued, but for all their damage, for all the loss of life they caused, they were not a decisive factor in the outcome of the war. The people emerged from the air-raid shelters to work in the war factories. More critical was the war at sea. Although Britain controlled the surface of the oceans, submarine warfare once again brought it into desperate danger by disrupting essential supplies from America. The submarine threat reached its most serious peak between March and July 1941. The losses of British tonnage were heavy, but the US increasingly assumed a belligerent attitude in guarding the convoys on its side of the Atlantic. The Germans never won what Churchill called the battle of the Atlantic. On land Britain at first won spectacular victories in Africa during General Wavell’s campaigns against the Italians in the spring of 1941. With the help of Dominion troops from South Africa, Australia and New Zealand as well as Indian troops, a much larger Italian army was defeated and chased out of Libya and Cyrenaica. In East Africa Abyssinia was freed and Haile Selassie restored to his throne. Hitler responded by sending General Erwin Rommel and an Afrika Korps to assist the Italians in the western desert. Wavell was forced back to the Egyptian frontier. Britain had weakened her forces in the Middle East by sending an expedition to Greece. Mussolini had attacked Greece in October 1940 to show Hitler that he too could act independently. Unfortunately he could win no battles and soon the Greeks were chasing the Italians into Albania. In April 1941, Hitler came to Mussolini’s rescue once more. By the end of the month the Greeks were defeated and the British expeditionary force withdrew. Britain’s last forces were defeated in Crete which was spectacularly captured at the end of May 1941 by German paratroopers, who, however, suffered heavy casualties in the operation. The second strand of the period from June 1940 to the end of 1941 is formed by the growing informal alliance between Britain and the US. During Britain’s ‘finest hour’, it did not stand alone. Besides the forces of its European Allies who had formed new fighting units in Britain it enjoyed, from the beginning of the war, the full support of the Dominions, all of whom had chosen to stand by Britain. Only Eire (Ireland) declared its neutrality. The support of the Dominions and empire was an important addition to Britain’s ability to wage war. But without the US Britain’s survival would have been problematical. Until the fall of France, President Roosevelt was convinced that to make available the capacities of American industry to provide war supplies to Britain and France would be sufficient to ensure an Allied victory. In the mid-1930s Congress had attempted to prevent the US from playing a role similar to that of the First World War by passing the Neutrality Laws in 1935, 1936 and 1937 so that the US would not be ‘dragged’ into war. This legislation denied belligerents the right to purchase arms and munitions or secure American credit for such purposes. In November 1939, Roosevelt secured the repeal of some of its provisions. Belligerents could now obtain arms and munitions provided they paid for them and transported them home in their own ships (‘cash and carry’). Britain and France took immediate advantage of the opportunity. Germany, lacking the means to transport purchases to Europe, could not do so. The collapse of American neutrality was rapid. Roosevelt was determined to help Britain in every way possible to continue the war against Germany once he became convinced in July 1940 that Britain was not about to be knocked out of the war. Congress, concerned to keep the US out of the war, was the major impediment. Bypassing Congress, Roosevelt agreed in September 1940 to Churchill’s repeated pleas for fifty First World War destroyers in return for leases on naval bases in the British West Indies. He also obtained a formal promise from the British government never to surrender the British fleet to the Germans. But he felt it politically essential during the presidential election of the autumn of 1940 to promise the American people simply, ‘Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.’ When the votes were counted in November, Roosevelt’s victory was decisive. Following the election, Churchill appealed to Roosevelt for all-out aid. He wanted arms and ships and planes if Britain were to match Germany’s strength. Roosevelt did his best to marshal American public opinion, declaring in a speech on 30 December 1940 that the US would become the ‘arsenal of democracy’. The Lend-Lease Act (March 1941) made all these goods available to Britain without payment. By May 1941 Roosevelt had concluded that the US would have to enter the war, but given the attitude of Congress and of the majority of the American people he wanted Germany to fire the first shot. Hitler did not oblige. He cleverly avoided treating the US as a hostile state even though the US navy was now convoying merchant vessels – British, American and neutral – halfway across the Atlantic, and was occupying Iceland. In August 1941 Roosevelt met Churchill off Newfoundland and they jointly enunciated the principles on which a post-war settlement (known as the Atlantic Charter) would be based after the final destruction of the Nazi tyranny. Roosevelt and Congress supported all such non-neutral behaviour partly out of hatred of Nazi rule but above all because the safety of the US depended on Britain’s successful resistance. Roosevelt and Congress had virtually placed the US in a state of undeclared war against Germany, but did not cross the Rubicon of declared all-out war until after the attack by Japan in December 1941 – and then it was Germany that first declared war on the US. The third decisive strand of these years was the transformation of the Nazi–Soviet partnership into war which Germany launched against Russia on 22 June 1941. Since 23 August 1939, when the Nazi–Soviet Non-Aggression Pact had been concluded, Stalin had avoided being drawn into war against Germany. Military unpreparedness in 1939 would have made war even more catastrophic for Russia then than in 1941: the West would have remained behind their defensive line leaving Russia to face the full force of the Wehrmacht. If the Wehrmacht had succeeded in defeating the Soviet Union, the military picture of the Second World War would have been totally different. Stalin in 1939 had no wish, of course, to save the Western democracies. He wanted to protect Russia and never lost his belief in the ultimate hostility of the Western capitalist powers. From the Soviet point of view the pact with the Germans had other advantages in enabling Russia to take on Japan without fear of a German attack in Europe. The Japanese were stunned by Hitler’s U-turn of policy. Left isolated, they hastened their own undeclared war with the Soviet Union on the borders of Manchuria and Mongolia and were defeated. The Non-Aggression Pact also brought other gains for Russia. In a secret additional protocol the Russians secured German acknowledgement of the Russian sphere of interest in Eastern Europe. The Baltic states, Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, fell into Russia’s sphere. Russia also expressed its ‘interest’ in Bessarabia, then part of Romania. Poland was partitioned ‘in the event of a territorial and political rearrangement’ taking place, a fine circumlocution for the imminent German attack on Poland. Germany’s unexpectedly rapid defeat of the Poles nevertheless alarmed the Russians, who extensively mobilised and entered Poland on 17 September 1939. But Hitler did not plan to attack the Soviet Union next. France was to be defeated first. Stalin in any case was confident that he could ‘appease’ Hitler. A new Soviet–German treaty of friendship was concluded on 28 September, adjusting the Polish partition in favour of the Germans. The Russians also denounced France and Britain as responsible for continuing the war. From the end of September 1939 to June 1941, the Soviet Union supplied Germany with grain, oil and war materials. In this way the Soviet Union, though officially neutral, became aligned with Germany. The faithfulness with which Stalin carried out his part of the bargain indicates his fear of being exposed to Germany’s demonstrated armed might and he expected no real help from the West. Fears of Allied hostility, especially now that the Soviet Union was collaborating with Germany economically, were well founded. Until May 1940, when the German victories in the West revealed the desperate weakness of their own position, the British and French were considering not only sending volunteers to Finland, but also stopping the flow of oil from the Baku oilfields by bombing them. Soviet aggression in 1939 and 1940 was, in part, pure aggrandisement to recover what had once belonged to the Russian Empire and more, but also to improve Russia’s capacity for defence. The Baltic states were occupied without a war. But the Finns refused to accept Soviet proposals for naval bases and a shift of the frontier on the Karelian isthmus which was only twenty miles from Leningrad. In return Finland was offered Soviet territory. The three-month Soviet–Finnish War that followed from 30 November 1939 to 12 March 1940 did nothing to enhance Russia’s military prestige. Hitler noted Finland’s military incompetence, but its turn had not yet come, and Germany did nothing to help the ‘Nordic’ Finnish defenders against the Russian Slavs. Stalin was undoubtedly severely shaken by Hitler’s victory in France, but he did not show it. On the contrary, he was in June 1940 unexpectedly tough, demanding that Romania return Bessarabia to Russia and, for good measure, the province of Bukovina. He wished to anticipate German dominance in a strategic region bordering on the Soviet Union. Hitler put pressure on Romania to comply. But secretly he had already made his plans for the invasion of Russia. Fears in the Kremlin of German dominance in the Balkans led to a sharp deterioration of good relations. This became evident when Molotov, the Soviet foreign minister, visited Berlin in November 1940. Molotov’s demands infuriated Hitler and reinforced his determination to ‘smash’ Russia. Yet at the same time Stalin was anxious not to give Germany any pretext for attack and loyally fulfilled to the bitter end all Russia’s economic undertakings to deliver war materials. When the Germans struck on 22 June 1941, the Soviet forces were totally unprepared. Despite all the information on the impending German onslaught reaching Stalin from spies and from the Allies, he either disbelieved it as an Allied plot to involve the Soviet Union in war or was afraid to take precautionary military counter-measures for fear of provoking the Germans. His failure in June 1941 was one of the most extraordinary displays of weakness by this hard and ruthless dictator. Hitler’s decision to launch his war on Russia marks the second turning point in the Second World War; the first was Britain fighting on and made his ultimate defeat certain when he failed to destroy Russia militarily in this new Blitzkrieg during the first few months. Previous German military successes had made him overconfident. The war with the Soviet Union repeated the ‘war of attrition’ that had brought the First World War to an end. The Russian war from 1941 to 1945 was a war of dramatic movement, unlike the trench warfare on the Western front – but its effect in destroying millions of soldiers and huge quantities of material, in the end, bled the Third Reich to death. Why did Hitler attack the Soviet Union? After the fall of France, Hitler hoped Britain would sue for peace. After the failure of the Luftwaffe in the battle of Britain, Hitler for the time being abandoned the alternative of subjugating the British Isles militarily. He also failed in October 1940 to win Franco’s and Pétain’s support for a joint Mediterranean strategy for destroying Britain’s Mediterranean power. Hitler now reasoned that the war against Russia, which he had all along intended to wage as the centrepiece of his ideological faith and territorial ambition, should be launched before Britain’s defeat. It was to serve the additional, though not primary, purpose of convincing Britain that it was useless to continue the war any longer. Hitler gave the order to prepare Operation Barbarossa on 18 December 1940. A series of brief Balkan campaigns in the spring of 1941 ensured that the invasion of Russia would be undertaken on a broad front without any possibility of a hostile flank. Fear of Germany, together with hostility to Russia, had turned Romania, Hungary and Slovakia into more or less enthusiastic junior German partners who all declared war on Russia, as did Italy and Finland. They felt safe under Germany’s military umbrella. Bulgaria, though practically occupied by German troops, remained neutral. Hitler thought Yugoslavia too was in the bag when the Regent, Prince Paul, signed a treaty with Germany in March 1941. But there was a revolt against the Regent and the new government repudiated the German alignment. Yugoslavia’s resistance did not last long. The Germans attacked on 6 April and the Hungarians faithlessly joined in three days later. In less than two weeks Yugoslav resistance was overpowered. Did the diversion in the Balkans, though minor for Germany, have momentous consequences by delaying the attack on the Soviet Union – a delay that meant the Wehrmacht ground to a halt in front of Moscow in the bitter winter of 1941–2? The campaign was too slight to affect significantly the time it took to assemble the huge build-up of men, equipment and supplies for the Russian invasion. In the early hours of 22 June 1941 the Germans launched the attack with approximately 190 German and satellite divisions. The Soviet Union had no choice but to enter into an alliance with Britain and, later, into alignment with the US as well. The consequences of this new war unleashed by Hitler proved momentous for the course of world history.

 

 

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