Many Finest Hour readers will no doubt be familiar with François Kersaudy’s 1981 monograph Churchill and de Gaulle. As the most eminent Churchill scholar in France, Kersaudy has also widely published on the great man in French magazines, and his biography of Churchill in French (revised & enlarged in 2009) is unanimously regarded as the best in the language.
Professor Kersaudy did his thesis on the Norway Campaign of 1940 and has kept a life-long interest in Second World War studies— so much so that, in a way, he is himself the “passionate strategist,” which he sees in Churchill. Nobody is better qualified, therefore, to write the volume on Churchill as “Maître de Guerre”(master of war) in the series of the same name, which Kersaudy also co-edits.
Kersaudy does not quote Churchill’s reflection on the night of 10 May 1940, as given in the last paragraph of The Gathering Storm (“I felt…that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial”), but his chapters on 1940 to 1945 are entirely impregnated with this underlying idea, especially Chapter 8, concerning June to October 1940 and predictably titled “La plus belle heure” (the finest hour). Now the “strategist” was able to give full vent to his inspiration and intuitions.
“But this unequalled organiser, inventor, propagandist and tactician,” Kersaudy warns the reader, “doubles up as a disquieting strategist: confusing the desirable with the possible, neglecting logistics, immersing himself in details at the expense of the whole picture, this conductor of genius is constantly tempted to leave his rostrum to play the scores of the violinist or trumpeter. If most false notes were in fact avoided, it is only because this flamboyant maestro was surrounded by professionals who, if notably less inspired, were far more reflective.” Churchill’s team saved him from many errors.
Despite Churchill’s visits to Paris to stiffen French resolve, his attempts proved futile as the German blitzkrieg shattered the French resistance and drove the British Expeditionary Force back to the Channel ports. A pause in the German attacks between 27 May and 4 June allowed the evacuation of over three hundred thousand British and French troops from the beaches at Dunkirk – turning what was in reality a colossal military disaster into what came to be seen as a success; the saving of lives by the ‘little ships’ (fishing boats, pleasure craft, lifeboats) that ferried men to the destroyers waiting offshore.
For more on Dunkirk, and a collection of personal accounts from some of those who took part in the mass evacuation, see the BBC’s Archives.
We must be careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations.
Churchill, speech of 4 June 1940
Antoine Capet is Professor Emeritus of British Studies at the University of Rouen.
Churchill and de Gaulle parade down the Champs-Élysées, 11 November 1944
Strangely enough, we have a book on Churchill and Finland,1 but none on Churchill & France— only a number of articles and book chapters. Is it because of the sheer size of the task, considering the vast available sources, including Churchill’s own publications and private correspondence? Or is it because of the contradictory nature of much of this material, which makes it extremely difficult to master? Thirty years after Churchill’s death, Anthony Montague Browne gave us what is arguably the best short summary of Churchill’s attitude to France, from someone who accompanied him in many of his later travels to the country and heard what he had to say at first hand:
When it came to France, ambivalence was again evident. WSC’s love of France was sentimental and long-standing, based on personal experience in peace and war. His greatest heroine, or indeed hero for that matter, was Joan of Arc. But this did not deter him from taking a firm line with the French if he felt it was required, and he told me that after 1940, and their breaking of a solemn agreement not to sue for a separate peace, he never felt the same about them.2
One might add that this ambivalence is often in evidence according as it is Churchill-the-statesman and impeccable British patriot speaking or Churchill-theprivate-man and Francophile. When the interests of France coincided with those of Britain, all was well— there was no conflict of loyalties deep in his heart. But when he felt that they did not and that British interests were threatened, he naturally gave Britain priority. As “Jock” Colville later put it, “de Gaulle’s loyalty was… to France alone. Churchill’s…was merely to Britain first.”3 But when divergences inevitably occurred, Churchill somehow suffered from a sense of guilt towards France which made him irritable, often Read More >
For some years it seemed that the question whether Britain and France were wise or foolish in the Munich episode would become a matter of long historical controversy. However, the revelations which have been made from German sources and particularly at the Nuremberg Trials, have rendered this unlikely. (218)
The Soviet Proffer
[In March 1938 the Russians] wished to discuss, if only in outline, ways and means of implementing the Franco-Soviet pact within the frame of League action in the event of a major threat to peace by Germany. This met with little warmth in Paris and London. The French Government was distracted by other preoccupations. There were serious strikes in the aircraft factories. Franco’s armies were driving deep into the territory of Communist Spain. Chamberlain was both sceptical and depressed. He profoundly disagreed with my interpretation of the dangers ahead and the means of combating them. I had been urging the prospects of a Franco-British-Russian alliance as the only hope of checking the Nazi onrush….the Prime Minister expressed his mood in a letter to his sister on March 20: “The plan of the ‘Grand Alliance,’ as Winston calls it, had occurred to me long before he mentioned it….You have only to look at the map to see that nothing that France or we could do could possibly save Czechoslovakia.”…Here was at any rate a decision. It was taken on wrong arguments. Read More >
Winston S. Churchill to Paul Reynaud French Minister of Finance, later Prime Minister (Churchill papers: 2/332) Published by Sir Martin Gilbert in 1982, this poignant letter reveals WSC’s depth of despair.
10 October 1938
I feel deeply concerned about the position of France, and about our own course. I cannot see what foreign policy is now open to the French Republic. No minor State will risk its future upon the guarantee of France. I am indulging in no pretensions upon our own account. You have been infected by our weakness, without being fortified by our strength. Read More >
Meanwhile in the Mediterranean a drama of intense interest, and as it proved of fatal consequence, was being enacted….” Our author’s dramatic account of the first naval action in World War I makes for exciting reading a century later—even though he lost.
In a feat of seamanship even Churchill was forced to admire, the German battlecruiser Goeben eluded Royal Navy hunters and sailed to Constantinople, where she was presented to the Ottoman Navy and renamed Yavuz Sultan Selim. usually shortened to Yavuz. By bombarding Russian Black Sea facilities she brought Turkey into the war on the German side. Remarkably, she remained the flagship of the Turkish Navy until 1950, and was not scrapped until 1973, after the West German government declined an invitation to buy her back.
The event which would dominate all others, if war broke out, was the main shock of battle between the French and German armies. We knew that the French were counting on placing in the line a whole army corps of their best troops from North Africa, and that every man was needed. We were informed also that they intended to transport these troops across the Mediterranean as fast as ships could be loaded, under the general protection of the French Fleet, but without any individual escort or system of convoys.
The French General Staff calculated that whatever happened most of the troops would get across. The French Fleet disposed between this stream of transports and the Austrian Fleet afforded a good guarantee. But there was one ship in the Mediterranean which far outstripped in speed every vessel in the French Navy. She was the Goeben. Read More >
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The next issue of Finest Hour will be about "Churchill, Race, and Religion." In the foreword, Lord Boateng, Chair of the Churchill Archives Trust, writes: “Sir Winston did not run away from controversy in his life and would not expect anything less in that which has followed. We do owe him and each other, however, civility and respect in the conduct of those arguments—not least, since we owe to him and the global anti-fascist fight, which he helped lead to such good effect, the secure freedom to hold those arguments at all.” … See MoreSee Less
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