FINEST HOUR 134, SPRING 2007
CHURCHILL’S TASK was formidable in 1940. Fortunately, across the Channel in Germany, Korporal Hitler made it easier than it might have been….
BY BYRON CYNEWULF ROBBINS
Mr. Robbins, who covered Churchill in Parliament in his long journalism career, is a Finest Hour senior editor in Victoria, B.C.
Few defenders of freedom have excelled Winston Churchill in the capacity for drawing lessons from the past to overcome present dangers and survive future perils. He never lost sight of an invaluable axiom: “In the mirror of history all great events and personalities reappear in one fashion or another.”
Napoleon and Hitler are classic reappearances. With Greek-tragedy certainty, their actions foreshadowed their Nemesis. At French military schools, before promotion, Napoleon’s nickname was “The Little Corporal.” During the First World War, Hitler was a corporal and won the Iron Cross. At the apex of power, both displayed maniacal insistence by throwing their armies into the snowy vastness of Russia, where patriotic heroism drove back the invaders.
Another dramatic resemblance is that both made and abandoned plans to invade Britain. But they had different attitudes to the sea. Hitler’s dislike of it was intense, and never concealed. Napoleon’s sea knowledge was nil, but to the despair of his admirals, egotistical folly convinced him he was an expert. He issued patently absurd orders which the admirals were too frightened to denounce in his presence. One man was a courageous exception.1 The Minister of the Navy, Admiral Denis Decres, warned the French Emperor of impending disaster three days or so ahead of Trafalgar. His words came too late. Nelson obliterated the French Fleet, and also any chance Napoleon had of mounting a successful invasion of Great Britain. Hitler had no such wise counsel.
When the Second World War began, on 3 September 1939, expediency impelled Prime Minister Chamberlain to appoint Churchill First Lord of the Admiralty, a portfolio he had held from 1911-1915 and was ousted from during the Dardanelles imbroglio.
Britain’s mishandling of the Norwegian-Narvik campaign, in April 1940, gave Churchill’s lingering vindictive political enemies false hopes of a Dardanelles-style expulsion. The rising tide of public preference for Churchill to take charge foiled them.2
And the record is now completely clear: inside the British Government, there had been very tardy acceptance of Churchill’s early warnings of Hitler’s Norwegian intentions. Not until 8 April 1940 did the British mine the waters around Narvik. Unfortunately, on the next day, Hitler successfully launched his planned attack on Norway and Denmark to ensure essential Scandinavian iron ore supplies for Germany would not be cut off. Retrospectively, one can see that Hitler’s seizure of Norway was achieved only by throwing into the maelstrom every German warship that happened to be in a state of sea readiness.
Facing Parliament, Churchill did not seek to evade responsibility; he stood shoulder to shoulder with Chamberlain. But the Norwegian debacle precipitated Chamberlain’s removal. By May 1, Churchill had begun his lion-hearted premiership.
For Hitler the Norway sea encounters were extremely costly.3 He lost three cruisers and ten destroyers; two heavy cruisers and a pocket battleship were withdrawn for repairs. Germany did gain improved access via Norway to the Atlantic and the Arctic. But Britain’s larger fleet had easily absorbed Norwegian battle losses. The situation later influenced Hitler’s cancellation of his plan to invade Britain. It also lessened Germany’s ability to frustrate the Dunkirk evacuation.
Later in 1940, when the British were confronted with the threat of a Nazi invasion, a service of intercession and prayer was held at Westminster Abbey. Churchill attended and later wrote: “The English are loth to expose their feelings, but in my small stall in the choir I could feel the pent-up, passionate emotion, and also the fear of the congregation, not of death or wounds or material loss, but of defeat and the final ruin of Britain.”4
There is merit in taking a clear-eyed look at exactly why Hitler decided, on 24 May 1940, to order a halt to the advance of his forces when they were only fifteen miles from Dunkirk. Ian Kershaw, a highly esteemed historian, writes in his biography of Hitler: “Postwar suggestions that Hitler was deliberately allowing British troops to get away as an act of generosity to encourage Britain to come to the peace table with its armies intact are far-fetched….the decision not to move on Dunkirk was taken for military reasons, and on military advice.”5
Hitler believed it was imperative to conserve tanks for operations in the south of France. He was also positive that delay was inevitable if a few days were needed to vanquish the British troops at Dunkirk.
Churchill summed it up precisely after the war: “Calais was the crux.”6 Undoubtedly the epic defense there made the Dunkirk rescue feasible by winning vital time: two German divisions were caught up in the annihilation of British resistance. It is fair and just to mention that among the defenders were the last remaining regular army infantry who had been rushed to Calais from England, to fight to the last bullet and to the last man. Overhead the Royal Air Force gave the much-vaunted Luftwaffe an unpleasant foretaste of the valor that would drive them from the skies in the forthcoming Battle of Britain.
In the blackest of all hours Churchill spoke to a meeting of non-Cabinet ministers: “Of course, whatever happens at Dunkirk, we shall fight on.” His colleagues jumped up from their chairs, shouted their approbation, and patted his shoulders. Years afterwards he recalled, “There is no doubt that had I at this juncture faltered at all in the leading of the nation, I should have been hurled out of office.” These words did not describe the view of every Cabinet minister. There were some—there always are—who doubted the nation’s will. But the words are quintessential Churchill, proving that he understood the dauntless will of the people he led.
Hitler ineptly believed he had the British completely beleaguered and almost on their knees. In fact, they were sturdy and refractory, embattled and engrossed in toughening defenses, erecting road-blocks, digging air raid shelters in their gardens, evacuating children to the countryside, and pulling down road signs to confuse the expected invaders. Just how united and embattled they were Hitler found out when he unleashed his fierce bombing of cities, and also when Britain rejected his transparently spurious “peace offer.” It was abundantly evident he was playing for time to tighten his python-like grip on continental Europe.
As the months passed, Hitler remained confident that Britain could be brought down on his say-so. For a while he clung to vain hopes that there would be post-bombing panic in London and other cities, to compel Churchill’s coalition government to clamour for peace. Thus invasion became an inviting prospect, despite the increasing odds against it. And, after the loan of fifty American destroyers to the Royal Navy, he had to consider that eventually the United States might intervene.
It is worth noting that as far back as 1934 a lowly-ranked German writer, Dr. Ewald Banse, published a book visualizing with infinite pleasure the destruction that “sooner or later” would overtake Britain, “a proud and seemingly invincible nation….This country, which was last conquered in 1066, will once again obey a foreign master.”7
The German Embassy in London hastily put up a smoke-screen, denouncing Banse’s views. But the record shows that in February 1940 the Germans began broadcasting to England through the self-proclaimed “New British Broadcasting Station,” making similar blood curdling threats of invasion.
The sound quality was indifferent, and the accompanying music bizarre. (Its signature tune, “The Bonnie, Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond,” considerably irritated the Scots—an imprudent act in peacetime, and notoriously fatal in war.) The most frequent broadcaster in English was the gross-voiced, ex-British Union of Fascists member William Joyce (comically dubbed “Lord Haw Haw” in England). He was caught and executed for treason after the war.
On 1 August 1940, German planes dropped Nazi leaflets disingenuously entitled “A Last Appeal to Reason” over England. It is reasonably certain that Hitler never saw the English newspaper photographs showing the levity of housewives holding up his “appeal.” More curious objects were dropped by German planes: empty parachutes, small amounts of high explosives, maps, and photographs, lists of well-known Britons presumably marked for extinction, fake instructions to imaginary agents. Although all this engendered smiles throughout the British Isles, it did not lessen the national preoccupation with preparedness, especially after Hitler’s barbaric attacks on the Low Countries.8
Shortly after the war had begun, in November 1939, Grand-Admiral Erich Raeder had looked into the possibility of a landing in England. By July 1940, Hitler had signed his Directive Number 16 to give effect to the invasion plan, named “Operation Sea Lion.” But backstage, he turned out to be astoundingly double-minded, wobbling between the decision to invade or not invade. Like all tyrants, he took delight in voicing splenetic public admonitions to send shock-waves of fear through his foes. This increased rather than diminished British determination.
At one point he tried to cloak his dilatory behavior by telling a hysterically approving Berlin crowd: “When people are very curious in Great Britain and ask ‘Yes, but why doesn’t he come?’ we reply, ‘Calm yourselves! Calm yourselves! He is coming! He is coming!'”
Churchill had said calmly in a broadcast made while bombs were falling on London: “We are waiting for the long-promised invasion. So are the fishes.”
Despite being regarded as one of history’s most prominent gamblers, Hitler became a prey to dubiety. Evading a fatal throw of the dice, on 17 September 1940, he finally abandoned his notions of risking all in a landing on British soil. Even failure in a botched-up preliminary probing raid could have exploded the myth of his invincibility.
1. Howarth, David, British Sea Power. London: Constable and Robinson, 2003, 304.
2. Gilbert, Martin, Churchill: A Life. London: Minerva edition, 1992, 634-36, 681.
3. Jenkins, Roy, Churchill: A Biography. London: Penguin, 2001, 574-75.
4. Churchill, Winston S., Their Finest Hour. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1949, 99-100.
5. Kershaw, Ian, Hitler 1936-1945: Nemesis. London: Penguin, 2000, 295-96.
6. Rhodes James, Robert, Anthony Eden. London: Macmillan, 1987, 230.
7. Fleming, Peter, Operation Sea Lion. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1957, 77-79.
8. Ibid. 116-18.