John Kelly, Never Surrender: Winston Churchill and Britain’s Decision to Fight Nazi Germany in the Fateful Summer of 1940, New York: Scribner’s, 2015, 370 pages, $30.
Churchill, at his disingenuous best, wrote in his war memoirs that “the supreme question of whether we should fight on alone never found a place upon the War Cabinet agenda.”
Roy Jenkins, in his 2001 biography Churchill, called this “the most breathtakingly bland piece of misinformation to appear in all those six volumes” because, over a three-day period from 26 through 28 May, there were what Jenkins termed “nine tense meetings of the War Cabinet” on that very subject.
John Kelly has written a compelling narrative about the events leading up to the decision by Britain’s War Cabinet on 28 May 1940 not to take even preliminary steps to ascertain Hitler’s terms for peace.
On 13 May, Churchill told the Commons of Britain’s new war policy: “victory at all costs.” His Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax, did not yet agree. Instead, when the French army started collapsing within a fortnight, Halifax wanted France and Britain to inquire through the Italian government what Hitler’s terms for peace might be. What frustrated Halifax was that Churchill did not wish to find them out at all.
Eventually Churchill won the day when, on 28 May, Chamberlain and the Labour members of the War Cabinet, Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood, joined in rejecting Halifax’s proposed approach to Italy.
The key event in the drama, though, did not involve the War Cabinet. On 28 May, between the eighth and ninth meetings of the War Cabinet, Churchill met the twenty-five ministers who made up the rest of the Cabinet to report to them on the status of the war. No other member of the War Cabinet was present. It was, Kelly writes, “Churchill unfettered and unbuttoned.” And deliberately deceptive.
In addressing the outer Cabinet, Churchill made no reference to the War Cabinet’s debate over the preceding three days about approaching the Italians, on which no decision had yet been made. Instead, after giving a full and frank account of how badly things were going in France. Churchill said that he had “thought carefully in these last few days whether it was part of my duty to consider negotiations with That Man.” “I am convinced,” he concluded, “that every man of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate parley or surrender.”
Yet Churchill had previously told Halifax and the War Cabinet on 27 May that he “would not join the French in asking for terms, but if he were told what the terms offered were, he would be prepared to discuss them” (emphasis added). Churchill, however, withheld this fact from the outer Cabinet, and the ministers applauded his refusal to seek terms. According to Hugh Dalton, “No one offered even the faintest flicker of dissent.”
Did Churchill deliberately plan to undercut Halifax and the War Cabinet by appealing to the outer Cabinet to support a policy of “no parley” when no such decision had yet been made? Kelly thinks so, as do historians Andrew Roberts and John Charmley. Roy Jenkins and John Lukacs allow for such a possibility, but are not so sure. Jenkins writes that appealing to the rest of the Cabinet in such a dramatic fashion “could be regarded as either his most skillful ploy or his luckiest unplanned bonus of those peculiarly testing three days.” Either way, it worked. The War Cabinet never again seriously considered negotiations with Hitler.
Did Halifax? Kelly thinks so. He writes about the chance meeting that Rab Butler (“a Halifax confidante”) had with the Swedish ambassador Bjorn Prytz on 17 June. Kelly calls it “Halifax’s last foray into peace diplomacy,” but this is unfair to Halifax, depending, as it does, on Rab Butler’s questionable credibility. During the meeting with Prytz, Butler met briefly with Halifax, who allegedly sent Prytz a message through Butler that “Common sense and not bravado would dictate the British Government’s policy.”
It is generally accepted that Prytz, who had no ax to grind, accurately reported what Butler told him. When the telegram came to the attention of Churchill and Halifax, however, Butler was called on the carpet and denied saying anything like that to Prytz, claiming he must have been misunderstood. This seems doubtful.
Andrew Roberts concludes in his Halifax biography that the most likely explanation is that Butler “had put words into Halifax’s mouth.” This is based, among other things, on Halifax’s diary entry on 17 June, recording that he now believed Churchill was “right in feeling that if we can, with our resources concentrated, hold the devils for two or three months, there is quite a chance that the situation might turn in our favour.”
Kelly’s only source on this episode is secondary, Clive Ponting’s book 1940: Myth and Reality, where Ponting’s claim that Halifax had directed Butler to reach out to Prytz is misleadingly based upon a sentence fragment from Sir Alexander Cadogan’s 18 June diary that implies the Foreign Office was waiting for a “reply from Germans” to Prytz. The complete sentence (undisclosed by Ponting) makes clear that Cadogan meant no reply to the French call for an armistice the day before.
To be fair to Kelly, though, the Butler-Prytz meeting takes up only two pages out of 321 in an otherwise well-written, enjoyable book about a critical time in history when Hitler almost won his war. Thanks to Churchill, he did not.
Michael McMenamin writes Action This Day for Finest Hour and is a member of the journal’s Editorial Board.
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