Five Days in London: May 1940

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Overview

The days from May 24 to May 28, 1940, altered the course of the history of this century, as the members of the British War Cabinet debated whether to negotiate with or to continue the war against Hitler. The decisive importance of these five days is the focus of John Lukacs's new book.. "Lukacs takes us hour by hour into the critical unfolding of events at 10 Downing Street, where Churchill and the members of his cabinet were painfully considering their war responsibilities. Lukacs also investigates the mood of ...
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Five Days in London, May 1940

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Overview

The days from May 24 to May 28, 1940, altered the course of the history of this century, as the members of the British War Cabinet debated whether to negotiate with or to continue the war against Hitler. The decisive importance of these five days is the focus of John Lukacs's new book.. "Lukacs takes us hour by hour into the critical unfolding of events at 10 Downing Street, where Churchill and the members of his cabinet were painfully considering their war responsibilities. Lukacs also investigates the mood of the British people, drawing on newspaper and Mass-Observation reports that show how the citizenry, though only partly informed about the dangers that faced them, nevertheless began to support Churchill's determination to stand fast.
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Editorial Reviews

Times (London)
A brilliant, heavyweight little book.... This is a modern history that refuses easy answers: its skillful concision cuts painfully to the bone and spills real blood on the carpets of Whitehall and Westminster."
Robert Taylor
[This book] has the power and sweep of Shakespeare’s chronicle plays. —Boston Globe
Stanley Weintraub
[A] fascinating work of historical reconstruction. . . . [Lukacs] gives us much to ponder in this intriguing—and perhaps still controversial—story. —Wall Street Journal
Michael Korda
Superb . . . can be compared to such classics as Trevor-Roper’s The Last Days of Hitler and Tuchman’s The Guns of August. —Harper’s Magazine
Kai Bird
This gem of a book . . . is a compelling antidote for those afflicted with historical amnesia. —Washington Post
Times (London)
A brilliant, heavyweight little book.
Robert Taylor
John Lukacs's account of five dramatic days in May 1940, when Winston Churchill and his Cabinet had to decide whether to negotiate or stand alone against Hitler, is a relatively compact book, but it has the power and sweep of Shakespeare's chronicle plays. . . . One of Lukacs's impressive strengths is a gripping narrative drive. He is lucid and splendidly readable, and furthermore, commands a host of dramatic characters.
Boston Globe
Lynwood Abram
Those concerned with the long tides of history and with the coils of chance in human destiny will delight in the elegant, searching and affecting book Lukacs has written about a critical time.
Houston Chronicle
M. F. Perutz
A gripping historical drama. . . . Lucaks's story is not new,...but he has transformed it into a memorable drama.
— (New York Review of Books)
Brian Bethune
A superb reconstruction of a crucial moment in the war.
Maclean's
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Eminent historian Lukacs (Thread of Years, etc.) delivers the crown jewel to his long and distinguished career with this account of five days--May 24-28, 1940--"that could have changed the world." Lukacs posits that it was during those five days in London "that Western civilization, not to mention the Allied cause in WWII, was saved from Hitler's tyranny." A grand view, to be sure, but the consequences are not in dispute: "Had Britain stopped fighting in May 1940, Hitler would have won his war," writes Lukacs. "Thus he was never closer to victory than during those five days in May 1940." A quarter-million British troops were trapped by the Germans at Dunkirk. The British public, ill-informed about this reality, remained apathetic, and the War Cabinet was divided over what action to take. Neither the United States nor the Soviet Union had yet entered the war, but Churchill resolved to fight "till Hitler is beat or we cease to be a state." Lukacs draws heavily on newspapers and public opinion research of the time to re-create the rapid series of events that turned the tide, swaying both the citizenry and the War Cabinet to rally behind Churchill. Though Churchill did not win the war in May 1940, as Lukacs puts it, he "did not lose it" then. Lukacs covered some of the same turf in The Duel, yet this new work focuses on these five days with a microscopic view. It is the work of a man who lives and breathes history, whose knowledge is limitless and tuned to a pitch that rings true. (Oct.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
By May 1940, just one year into World War II, Great Britain stood virtually alone against Hitler and the unstoppable German Army. Belgium and France were only days away from capitulation, and the British Expeditionary Force was being squeezed into the beachhead at Dunkirk. Things were not going at all well for Britain, and Churchill and his War Cabinet had some tough decisions to make. Lukacs, a history professor and prolific author (The Hitler of History) examines the dynamics of the five days, May 24-28, 1940, when Churchill and his War Cabinet actually debated whether to negotiate peace with Hitler. This scholarly study reveals the drama, uncertainty, suspense, and courage of the men who would ultimately decide the fate of Britain. This is a marvelous example of the complex, behind-the-scenes diplomatic wrangling involved in seeking a national advantage in the deadly game of strategic move and countermove. Recommended for public and academic libraries.--William D. Bushnell, USMC (ret.), Brunswick, ME Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Boston Globe
Lukac's account of five dramatic days in May 1940, when Winston Churchill and his Cabinet had to decide whether to negotiate or stand alone aginst Hitler...has the power and sweep of Shakespeare's chronicle plays.
—Robert Taylor
Houston Chronicle
[An] elegant, searching and affecting book.
—Lynwood Abram
Publishers Weekly
Eminent historian Lukacs delivers the crown jewel to his long and distinguished career.... It is a work of a man who lives and breathes history, whose knowledge is limitless and tuned to a pitch that rings true.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780788747526
  • Publisher: Recorded Books, LLC
  • Publication date: 1/10/2002
  • Format: CD

Meet the Author

Geoffrey Howard is a retired British journalist who strives to add warmth and clarity to every audiobook. Says Howard, "I try to bring the listener as close as possible to the experience I’m having while reading it for the first time."

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Read an Excerpt




Chapter One

The Hinge of Fate


The turning point. Two accounts. — The awesomeness of the German tide. — Black Fortnight. — Problems of British morale. — Distrust of Churchill. — Opinions and sentiments. — "Outwardly calm, inwardly anxious."


    This book attempts to reconstruct the history of five days that could have changed the world. The setting is London, and the five days are Friday through Tuesday, 24 to 28 May 1940. Then and there Adolf Hitler came closest to winning the Second World War, his war.

    One man who knew how close Hitler had come to his ultimate victory was Winston Churchill. In the years after the war he gave the title The Hinge of Fate to the fourth volume of his War Memoirs. That volume dealt with the year 1942, near the end of which the Germans were turned back on many fronts. In November 1942 he said to the British people that this was not yet the beginning of the end but perhaps the end of the beginning. November 1942 was the military hinge of fate on the battlefields of Egypt, North Africa, and Russia: the military turning points. Even then Britain could not win the war. In the end America and Russia did. But in May 1940 Churchill was the one who did not lose it. Then and there he saved Britain, and Europe, and Western civilization. And about that hinge of fate his War Memoirs—essentially his History of the Second World War—are largely silent.

    In the history of states and of peoples aturning point is often a battle or an episode during a revolution: more precisely, a sudden shifting of events and movements in a battle or during a revolution. A turning point is not a milestone; the latter is a numerically fixable place, foreseeable, linear, and sequential. A turning point may occur in a person's mind; it may mean a change of direction; it has consequences that are multiple and unpredictable, consequences that are more often than not recognizable only in retrospect. A turning point may sometimes be foreseeable, but not with certainty. In this case the moment came late on Tuesday, 28 May. It was the resolution of a struggle which, at that very moment, Churchill had won. He declared that England would go on fighting, no matter what happened. No matter what happened: there would be no negotiating with Hitler. Here is his reconstruction of what he said to the Outer Cabinet:


It was Tuesday, May 28, and I did not attend the House until that day week. There was no advantage to be gained by a further statement in the interval, nor did Members express a wish for one. But everyone realized that the fate of our Army and perhaps much else might well be decided by then. "The House," I said, "should prepare itself for hard and heavy tidings. I have only to add that nothing which may happen in this battle can in any way relieve us of our duty to defend the world cause to which we have vowed ourselves; nor should it destroy our confidence in our power to make our way, as on former occasions in our history, through disaster and through grief to the ultimate defeat of our enemies." I had not seen many of my colleagues outside the War Cabinet, except individually, since the formation of the Government, and I thought it right to have a meeting in my room at the House of Commons of all the Ministers of Cabinet rank other than the War Cabinet Members. We were perhaps twenty-five round the table. I described the course of events, and I showed them plainly where we were, and all that was in the balance. Then I said quite casually, and not treating it as a point of special significance: "Of course, whatever happens at Dunkirk, we shall fight on."
There occurred a demonstration which, considering the character of the gathering — twenty-five experienced politicians and Parliament men, who represented all the different points of view, whether right or wrong, before the war — surprised me. Quite a number seemed to jump up from the table and came 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 leading 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 through our island from end to end.


    This is an inspiring passage — Churchillian, imaginative, descriptive, telling. It is not devoid of truthfulness. There is in it, too, a glimmer of what was perhaps Churchill's finest virtue, his magnanimity: when he suggests that his indomitable resolution to die, if he must, was only a representation of the resolution of others. But what is missing is significant. Here, and indeed in all those long chapters of Their Finest Hour, Churchill wrote nothing about the preceding four days, when he had had to struggle to get his way in the War Cabinet. It had been his plan to summon this somewhat extraordinary meeting of the Outer Cabinet, where, as he knew, his supporters were potentially vocal and actually numerous. Moreover, what he said then was not said "quite casually, and not treating it as a point of special significance."

    There is a fuller description of this meeting in Hugh Dalton's memoirs and his diary. Their substantial tone does not differ much from Churchill's. Dalton was an admirer of Churchill. ("He is quite magnificent. The man, the only man we have, for this hour.") But some of Dalton's details are worth considering. "He was determined," Dalton said of Churchill, "to prepare public opinion for bad tidings, and it would of course be said, and with some truth, that what was now happening in Northern France would be the greatest British military defeat for many centuries." Churchill said, Dalton recalls,


"I have thought carefully in these last days whether it was part of my duty to consider entering negotiations with That Man." It was idle to think that, if we tried to make peace now, we should get better terms from Germany than if we went on and fought it out. The Germans would demand our fleet — that would be called "disarmament" — our naval bases, and much else. We should become a slave state, though a British government which would be Hitler's puppet would be set up — "under Mosley or some such person." And where should we be at the end of all that? On the other side, we had immense reserves and advantages. Therefore, he said, "We shall go on and we shall fight it out, here or elsewhere, and if at last the long story is to end, it were better it should end, not through surrender, but only when we are rolling senseless on the ground." There was a murmur of approval round the table, in which I think Amery, Lord Lloyd and I [Dalton] were loudest. Not much more was said. No one expressed even the faintest flicker of dissent.... It is quite clear that whereas the Old Umbrella — neither he nor other members of the War Cabinet were at this meeting — wanted to run very early, Winston's bias is all the other way.


    Eighteen days before this, on 10 May, Churchill had become prime minister. Late that afternoon, he was driven back from Buckingham Palace to Admiralty House, where he then lived. Behind the driver he sat with Inspector W. H. Thompson, his bodyguard. Churchill was silent. Then Thompson thought it proper to congratulate Churchill. "I only wish the position had come your way in better times for you have an enormous task." Tears came into Churchill's eyes. He said to Thompson: "God alone knows how great it is. I hope it is not too late. I am very much afraid it is. We can only do our best." During the next fourteen days came disaster upon disaster. I am compelled to sum them up at the beginning, after which to the five days in London I shall turn.


* * *


    "I hope it is not too late. I am very much afraid it is." Note that Churchill said this at the moment of his personal triumph, and before the battle in Western Europe began to unfold. But then he had never underestimated Hitler. What even he did not know was that the next fortnight would see Hitler's greatest triumphs: unimaginable, irresistible, perhaps final.

    Nearly sixty years after these events, at the end of the twentieth century, the widespread perception is this: Hitler was a fanatic, a dictator, who started a war and turned most of the world against him, a war in which he was bound to fail. There is some truth in this view but not enough. Its shortcoming may be summed up in six words: he was not bound to fail. He represented an enormous tide in the affairs of the world in the twentieth century. The force of this tide consisted of the energy, the discipline, the confidence and the obedience, and the vitality of the German people whom he succeeded in uniting beyond the accomplishments of any other leader in their history. He could rely on a national army whose achievements turned out to be awesome, the wonder of the world. Moreover — beyond Germany, and in the minds of many people — Hitler's rule, his regime and his ideas, represented a new primary force, beside the corroding alternatives of liberal democracy and "International" Communism. For ten years the tide rose, pounding and pouring over obstacles that disappeared beneath its foaming might. In May 1940 it not only seemed irresistible: in many places and in many ways it was.

    Hitler became chancellor of Germany on 30 January 1933. The significance, let alone the importance, of this event went largely unrecognized. Evidence for this exists in the reporting and the commentaries of virtually every leading newspaper of the world. His personal abilities were underestimated, indeed on occasion ridiculed. The German conservative political elite, who helped to arrange his nomination to the chancellorship, thought that they would be able to manage him. The opposite happened. He made them his servitors. More important: soon he became the most popular leader in the history of the Germans, perhaps the most schooled people in the world. The bitterness and the humiliation that had affected most Germans after their loss of the First World War ebbed away; what succeeded it was a rising wave of national self-confidence. To an astonishing degree Hitler won the trust of the great majority of the German people.

    For a while his abilities as a statesman went on being unrecognized. That would change, too, and soon. In three years his Third German Reich replaced France as the leading power in Europe, despite France's multiple alliances, while Hitler did not yet have a single contractual ally. Treaty after treaty restricting Germany militarily, politically, economically, diplomatically, he flung aside. His prestige — and not only among his own people — did not diminish; it rose. Soon the leaders of many European states were seeking his goodwill — or at least they were seeking to avoid any impression that they might be his opponents. Mussolini thought it proper to align himself with this German leader who seemed to be representative of the wave of the future. Less simple were the inclinations of the British governments, of the British Conservative Party, and of many British people. They were inclined to give this new Germany at least the benefit of the doubt. Their policy of appeasing Germany had many motives. We shall have to disentangle some of them later. These inclinations were already apparent during the prime ministership of Stanley Baldwin, but their prototypical representative and proponent was Neville Chamberlain, who became prime minister in 1937. With regard to appeasement his most vocal and determined opponent was Winston Churchill, whose public and political reputation in 1937 stood at what was probably the lowest point in his long career.

    It was at that very time that Adolf Hitler chose to plan the imposition of his power beyond the frontiers of Germany, transforming the map of Europe. There were still people who thought he had no talent for statesmanship. Soon they would be dumbfounded or at least numbed. In November 1937 Hitler told his generals that they might as well prepare for war, even though the contingency was not yet immediate, since England, and France dependent on England, had probably written off Austria and Czechoslovakia. This estimate was accurate. A fortnight later it was strengthened when Chamberlain (unaware, of course, of what Hitler was planning) chose his confidant Lord Halifax to travel to Germany on a goodwill visit, very much including a meeting with Hitler. Halifax was, as was his wont, cautious (in this case, cautious rather than circumspect), but he did suggest to Hitler that the British government would not oppose Germany as long as Germany would achieve its ambitions without war. In February 1938 Anthony Eden resigned as Chamberlain's foreign secretary; his place was taken by Halifax. Churchill recorded in his War Memoirs that he instantly recognized the portent of this change: he, a champion sleeper, now spent a largely sleepless night.

    1938 was Hitler's year. In March he occupied and annexed Austria without firing a single shot, indeed accompanied by the enthusiasm of the mass of the Austrian people. Immediately he turned on Czechoslovakia, which he succeeded in breaking up, adding a large portion of it, with millions of German-speaking people, to his Greater German Reich and reducing the rest to a near-satellite status. This despite the fact that, unlike Austria, Czechoslovakia had military alliances: with Soviet Russia and, more important, with France, behind which Britain seemed to stand. Seemed to stand: for that was the crux of the matter. France would not go to war except together with Britain, and Britain was not willing to do so. The main reason for this was British unpreparedness — militarily, to be sure; but beyond and beneath such practical calculations there was the unpreparedness of the people, of British opinion, and of the leaders of the Dominions for another European war for the sake of Czechoslovakia. Even that was not all. There was the reasoning of Chamberlain, not merely to delay but to avoid a confrontation with Hitler, to whom he was inclined to give the benefit of the doubt, even in extreme situations. Hence the last-minute conference at Munich when Czechoslovakia was surrendered and when Chamberlain was not only relieved but, at least temporarily, encouraged by the prospect of an Anglo-German understanding which could mean Peace In Our Time. Churchill attacked Chamberlain, but to no avail. In a great speech in the House of Commons, Churchill declared that this was all wrong, that "we have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat." His speech was telling and prophetic, but only in retrospect. Except among a small and anxious minority, Churchill's reputation and his influence were still at a low ebb; he was nearly censured by his own constituency. To this we may add that in one important respect Churchill was wrong. It would have been disastrous for the Western democracies to go to war in October 1938. He may have been right, morally speaking; practically, he was wrong.

    Hitler, at the same time, appeared as the greatest leader and statesman that the German people had had in one thousand years — as well as the most powerful national leader in Europe, perhaps even in the world. But he was not made in the classic stamp of a statesman. He was relentless, pressed by a deep sense that time was working against him. He was not content to digest his conquests and to solidify his triumphs. In March 1939 he made a grave mistake. He marched into Prague, incorporating the broken remnant of Czechoslovakia into his Greater German Empire. Thereby he broke his word of six months before ("my last territorial demand," and so on) as well as the asseveration of his main purpose, that of the uniting in one Reich all German peoples, to the exclusion of non-German ones, along the principle of national self-determination (a principle that, alas, had been proclaimed and espoused by Woodrow Wilson). The result was a belated, but instant, revolution of British opinion. Chamberlain's first inclination was to accept the inevitable, that is, Hitler's occupation of Czechoslovakia, the end result of a process that, after all, had been foreordained in Munich. But the pressure of public opinion and the press was now too much. Even Chamberlain's foreign secretary, Halifax, was no longer in favor of appeasing Hitler. Halifax's influence contributed considerably to Chamberlain's speech at Birmingham, three days after Hitler's arrival in Prague. It was in effect a declaration of the British government: "thus far and no further." One week after Prague Hitler took another sliver of former German territory from Lithuania, and the German propaganda apparatus started a campaign against Poland. Now the British government advanced a guarantee to Poland, with the aim of deterring Hitler. It did not work; but, in any event, even Chamberlain was now compelled to envision the prospect of a war. And now Churchill's reputation started to rise. He did not have the habit of saying "I told you so," but about Hitler he seemed to have been proved right. During the summer of 1939 Chamberlain was still inclined to find some kind of an accommodation with Hitler. But the constraints and conditions were too strenuous for that. On the day that Hitler invaded Poland, Chamberlain invited Churchill into his cabinet, as the first lord of the Admiralty. Until the last moment Chamberlain was reluctant to declare war on Germany. But by 3 September he had no choice.

    Hitler hoped that this would not happen. In this he was wrong. But he was not wrong in knowing that Chamberlain and the British went to war reluctantly — indeed, that apart from their declarations of war, the British and the French would do little or nothing, except perhaps on the seas. The still-accepted idea that while the German armies were fighting in Poland an Allied ground offensive across the so-called Siegfried Line would not only have been possible but decisive is groundless: it was not possible because it was not planned, and it was not planned because it was not possible. The result was eight months of what American journalists dubbed the Phoney War (Reluctant War may have been a better term). During it Churchill's popularity grew, to the extent that many people were inclined to overlook his mistakes. All this came to a head when Hitler invaded Denmark and Norway in early April 1940 — perhaps his most daring move of the entire war. The British response was miserable. The navy missed the Germans; it was unable to prevent German landings along the long coast of Norway; where British troops were landed, here and there, they soon retreated rather abjectly; they were outmarched and outfought by the Germans nearly everywhere. Churchill was responsible for much of this. It was his attempt to establish a British presence along the Norwegian coast that made Hitler decide to invade that country; and Churchill's directives to the British fleet were often wrongheaded.

    Still, the defeat in Norway brought down the Chamberlain government. There arose in the House of Commons a heated and confused debate propelled by the rising sentiment that Chamberlain was not the right person to lead Britain through the war. There was a significant vote when dozens of his own Conservative Party members deserted him. Churchill stood by him, unreservedly loyal, though knowing that his own hour might have come. On 9 May Chamberlain concluded that he had to resign. There must be a National Government, including ministers from the Labour Party. His preferred successor was Halifax. Most of the Conservatives preferred Halifax. The king preferred Halifax. There was still plenty of distrust, (even though momentarily latent) of Churchill. But Halifax demurred. There perhaps were three reasons for this. He was a member of the House of Lords, which presented a constitutional problem, though one that could have been fixed. He may or may not have been acceptable to Labour, though that too was not certain. What decided the matter for him was his own judgment that within a Halifax cabinet Churchill the warrior would be unmanageable. Late in the afternoon of 10 May Churchill went to Buckingham Palace, and returned as prime minister.

    Eight years later he wrote that he was "conscious of a profound sense of relief": "At last I had the authority to give directions over the whole scene." But: had he not said to Inspector Thompson, "I hope it is not too late"? Behind the horseman sat black care.

    With every reason. There was a fateful coincidence on that historic day. "Coincidences are spiritual puns" (Chesterton). On 10 May 1940 the pun was more than spiritual. Early that morning the German invasion of Western Europe began. Hitler, who had not only planned it but chosen its main design — again he would be underestimated, this time as a strategist and military leader — was at his headquarters, near the German-Belgian border, watching the campaign develop. This thunderclap on 10 May had nothing to do with Churchill's ascent to the prime ministership; that had been virtually decided the day before. Nor do we have any evidence that, when the news of Churchill's appointment reached Hitler at the end of the day, he was affected by it. He had contempt for Churchill because of Churchill's insistent opposition to him and because of what he knew about Churchill's character and personal habits; he underestimated Churchill — wrongly, as things turned out, though that would not be apparent until many months later. He thought that Churchill would not last long, that Churchill's belligerent manner and his warlike instincts were not shared by most people of the British establishment.

    Again Hitler was not altogether wrong. When Churchill appeared in the House of Commons three days after his appointment, he was greeted with little or no enthusiasm by the Conservative Party, many members of which now seemed to have been in a mild state of emotional hangover, slightly ashamed of the burst of emotion that had helped to bring Chamberlain down. Lord Davidson wrote to Stanley Baldwin: "The Tories don't trust Winston.... After the first clash of war is over it may well be that a sounder Government may emerge." Churchill knew how dependent he was on the Conservative Party, and on Chamberlain. He treated the latter with a compound of prudence and magnanimity. ("I am in your hands," he wrote to Chamberlain.) He brought a few new people into his cabinet, but the composition of it did not change drastically. All of this is known by historians, and we shall return to evidences of a distrust for Churchill. When on 13 May he made his famous "blood, sweat, toil and tears" speech, so impressive when read now, and emotionally honest, it was not too well received by many Conservatives in the House.

    But it was the greater and dramatic and terrifying flow of events that we must now consider: the fact that the first fortnight of Churchill's prime ministership was a time of crashing disasters. Disasters for Britain and Churchill, triumphs for Germany and Hitler. Here was the proof of a new model German army, welded together by an iron sense of national self-confidence, directed by a new model of generalship, equipped with new visions and new armor for a new kind of warfare. Three days after their start the Germans broke across the French lines at Sedan. Holland surrendered. Brussels was abandoned. On the tenth day the Germans were at the English Channel, which they had not been able to reach during the entire First World War. The French and British armies in Flanders and Belgium were trapped. In many places the French fought not at all. Churchill flew over the Channel to Paris twice, encouraging their leaders, but with not much effect. Some of their military chiefs and politicians were beginning to consider the necessity for an armistice with the Germans, through the mediation of Mussolini. Mussolini all but declared that Italy would soon enter the war on Hitler's side. The plan for a French-British counterattack, aimed at cutting through the nose of the advancing German armored crocodile, did not come about. The British, and Churchill, were now forced to begin considering the removal of the British Expeditionary Force across the Channel — if that were possible at all. British and French troops were pushed back to Boulogne and Calais, presently surrounded by the Germans. And if the French fought badly or not at all, the British in Belgium fought not much better (except, perhaps, in the air, but there, too, their attempts at bombing important bridges were useless). On the ground, except for one failed countermove at Arras, the BEF had engaged in no real battles with the Germans; its falling back was more orderly than that of the French, but still it was retreat after retreat.

    The Germans seemed invincible, and the world was stunned. So was Hitler. He hardly believed his luck. For once, he was more cautious than were many of his generals. For once, his self-confidence — his greatest asset, which, throughout his career, rested on his feral, instinctive understanding of his opponents' weaknesses — wobbled a bit. He was nervous and worried. He did not quite realize what his German troops were capable of. During the days of his army's most rapid advances — the seventeenth and the eighteenth — he kept warning his generals against the dangers of a British-French counterattack, which never came. There was another, probably more important matter on his mind. He thought that the British would soon recognize the futility of warring against him. He believed that Churchill's days as leader were numbered, that the British would soon turn away from Churchill and respond to a peace offer from him. On 21 May he told General Franz Halder, "We are seeking contact with England on the basis of a division of the world." The English would see the light, sooner rather than later. He, Hitler, was astride a great wave, representing the Present and perhaps the Future. Churchill was snuggling on the shore, representing an antiquated and useless Past. Hitler also thought that he had the trust and faith of the vast majority of Germans, more than Churchill could count on among the British. Was he altogether wrong? Yes and no. No, because this was how things seemed, and while what happens may not be identical with what people think happens in the long run, the two are inseparable in the short run. Yes, because the majority of the British people refused to recognize how close Hitler had come to an ultimate triumph and how close they had come to their ultimate defeat. But their martial spirit was not unwavering, and they were not — yet — annealed to Churchill.


* * *


    In a secret memorandum to the War Cabinet, Robert Boothby (a Conservative MP and a Churchillian) wrote on 20 March that Hitler's Germans represented "the incredible conception of a movement — young, virile, dynamic, and violent — which is advancing irresistibly to overthrow a decaying old world, that we must continually bear in mind; for it is the main source of the Nazi strength and power." On the very day that the real war broke out in the West, Chamberlain wrote in his diary that Joseph Kennedy (the defeatist American ambassador) told him that he didn't see how Britain could carry on without the French: "I told him I did not see how we could either." On 15 May Lieutenant General Henry Pownall wrote in his diary, sizing up what had happened to the French at the Meuse and Sedan. "Three armies to withdraw because of the initiative shown by one German battalion commander." On 17 May the Ministry of Information suggested to the War Cabinet that "more should be done to inform the general public of the seriousness of the situation, about which most people [are] in complete ignorance." Most people, perhaps, but not all of them. On 14-15 May a quarter of a million queued up at the local police stations to enroll in the Local Defense Volunteers, soon to be renamed the Home Guard. But on 17 May the society photographer Cecil Beaton, on his way to America, wrote in his diary, "My own private courage was badly bruised, and each person one spoke to was more depressing than the last.... A mood of panic: was gripping upper-class circles." General Sir Edmund Ironside, chief of the Imperial General Staff, wrote in his diary on the same day, "At the moment it looks like the greatest military disaster in all history."

    On the eighteenth, Sir Samuel Hoare wrote in his diary: "Neville completely knocked out. Everything finished. The USA no good. We could never get our army out, nor if we did it would be without any equipment." (This even before the Germans reached the Channel.)

    That very day, Churchill, at the end of a dispatch to General Ismay, for the first time raised the possibility of a French surrender: "The Chiefs of Staff must consider whether it would not be well to send only half the so-called Armoured Division to France. One must always be prepared for the fact that the French may be offered very advantageous terms of peace, and the whole weight be thrown on us." On 19 May, returning from the cabinet and walking "the ugly staircase of the War Office to [his] room, General Ironside told Anthony Eden: `This is the end of the British Empire.' He spoke the words flatly and as a mere statement of military fact. He did not believe that we could hold out alone for more than a few months." On 19 May Oliver Harvey wrote in his diary, "Defeatism in London among the richer classes." On the same day Chamberlain in his diary: "The scene ... darken[s] every hour." A day later: "Nothing to relieve anxiety." On the twenty-first: the situation is "desperate." On the twenty-third: "another bleak day." The French "had done nothing," their generals were "beneath contempt," and their soldiers, "with some exceptions, ... would not fight and not even march."

    At night on the twenty-first, Churchill's new secretary, John Colville: "Dined at Betty Montagu's flat ... and tried unsuccessfully not to talk about the war.... It is clear that the full horror of the situation is dawning on people." On 22 May Charles Waterhouse, a Conservative MP, no friend of Churchill's, wrote in his diary, "`All is lost' sort of attitude in evidence in many quarters."

    "Many quarters" may be too vague and — perhaps — exaggerated. "All is lost": that kind of defeatism was not discernible, at least not among the mass of the people. Note, too, that these were the days (the twenty-first to the twenty-fourth, Tuesday to Friday) when both the press and the government expected the French-British counteroffensive at Arras-Amiens against the Bulge (an expectation also propelled by false news); when there came the news of the change of the French high command, the sacking of General Maurice Gamelin and his replacement by General Maxime Weygand, from whom much was expected; when Boulogne, Calais, and Dunkirk were still in Allied hands, indeed the first two filled by units shipped to them from England. Yet cracks were appearing in morale, and the incompetence of the War Office was becoming fatefully evident. The Germans began their siege of Boulogne on the twenty-second. The arms ordered by the War Office, shipped mostly in the large vessel City of Christchurch, were badly packed and often unusable. "At 9 P.M. the ship's crew and the stevedores refused to continue [the unloading] owing to the visit of the Luftwaffe." An officer "even had to place some of the crew under guard." Meanwhile, two elite British units, the First Battallion of the Queen Victoria Rifles and the Rifle Brigade (the Green Jackets), were shipped to Calais on the twenty-second and twenty-third, put under the command of Brigadier Claude Nicholson, a brave officer who was to die in German captivity. As Airey Neave (a Churchillian) wrote: "Whatever may be said of the ultimate merit of Churchill's decision to hold Calais `to the death,' the manner in which [these regiments] were hastily dispatched to France was shameful.... [In their story] farce and tragedy are intimately combined.... Their orders were depressingly obscure and they had no idea what to expect on arrival at Calais." There, too, on 23 May, stevedores refused to work when the German shells began to fall; a Rifle Brigade officer had to find and force them out from "various holes and corners."

    During these crucial days the conduct of the command in London, that is, the management of the war by the War Office, beggars belief, marked as it was by lassitude, incompetence, and confusion.

(Continues...)

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Table of Contents



Contents


Preface.............................................................xi
Acknowledgments.....................................................xv
ONE The Hinge of Fate The turning point. Two accounts. —
The awesomeness of the German tide. — Black Fortnight. —
Problems of British morale. — Distrust of Churchill. —
Opinions and sentiments. — "Outwardly calm, inwardly
anxious."............................................................1
TWO Friday, 24 May Hitler's halt order. — The Germans before Dunkirk. —
Calais. — Hitler and the Conservatives. — The two Rights. — Chamberlain. —
Appeasers. — Halifax. — The War Cabinet. — Churchill and Roosevelt. —
The British press. — "A slight increase in anxiety and a
slight decrease in optimism.".......................................39
THREE Saturday, 25 May An English weekend. — The French: Weygand and Pétain. —
Halifax and the Italian ambassador. — Churchill and the Defence Committee. —
"Depression is quite definitely up."................................82
FOUR Sunday, 26 May An agitated day. — Three meetings of the War Cabinet. —
Chamberlain, Halifax, Churchill. — Disagreements between Halifax and Churchill. —
Scarcity of news: "A mandate to delay judgment and not to
worry." — "In Westminster Abbey."..................................104
FIVE Monday, 27 May What was happening at Dunkirk. — The Belgians surrender. —
American considerations. — Three WarCabinets and a walk in the garden. —
"You'd have been better off playing cricket."......................136
SIX Tuesday, 28 May Morale, opinion, and the press. —
"We cannot possibly starve the public in this way." — Foreigners and refugees. —
Churchill's instructions and the first War Cabinet. —
His statement in the Commons. — The second War Cabinet. — Churchill's coup. —
He comes through...................................................162
SEVEN Survival A long-range view of the war. — The meaning of Dunkirk. —
"It is time to face up to facts." — Halifax redux. — An antiquated Britain. —
Churchill and Europe. — Fortissimo.................................187
Bibliography.......................................................221
Illustration Credits...............................................229
Index..............................................................231


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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 18, 2013

    Essential Window into Churchill's Greatness

    The nuance of Lucak's prose is probably the only way to peel away myth from fact here. One of the top 5 books ever to have been written about Winston Churchill.

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  • Posted May 7, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    a great book on crucial days

    these last days of may a choice had to be made necgotiate with hitler or continue the war . on may 28 the decision was made by churchill to go on with the war and refuse to negotiate wth a killer.. and a tyran. who respected nothing anyway .

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 2, 2002

    Fascinating work!

    I read this book in a weekend. It's short but makes me want to dig deeper. Lukacs has a wonderful style and covers the personalities, backgrounds, philosophy etc well. The footnotes make for interesting reading as well as illuminating the sources. My only reason for not giving 5 stars is that the editing was too severe, I would have liked to have read more. :)

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 6, 2001

    The worst book I've ever read!

    Boring, unfocused, littered with mindless footnotes that turn out to be longer then the book itself. Lukas left me with absolutely no more of an idea of the events in May 1940 then I had prior to reading his book. Buyer beware!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 16, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted March 20, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews

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