Lessons of 1940: The hardest decision might be the persuasive one, while a disaster might lead to later success
- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Those are thoughts that occurred to me after reading about Churchill’s decision in the summer of 1940 to attack the navy of France, which had been an ally just a month earlier, and which certainly was not at war with the United Kingdom. More than 1,200 French sailors were killed in the attack, while the British suffered two dead. The purpose, of course, was to prevent the French fleet from falling into German hands (as had happened with Austrian gold and Czech weapons factories).
President Roosevelt, knowing how difficult a decision it was to launch a surprise attack against a former ally, was said to have calculated that his defeatist ambassador to London, Joseph Kennedy, was wrong, and that in fact Britain was determined to fight on alone. (Speaking of FDR, it took me a while to remember the names of his three vice presidents, but eventually I did. But for the life of me I couldn’t remember who Truman’s veep was, and had to look it up.)
On the other hand, I was interested to read in Cambridge History of War, Vol. IV: War and the Modern World that one reason the Germans couldn’t invade England later that same summer was because of their naval losses the previous spring in fending off the British attempt to take Norway. "While the victory of the British in the Battle of Britain was won in the air," Gerhard Weinberg writes in his fine essay on World War II, "the German failure to attempt an invasion was due at least as much to their naval losses in the Norwegian campaign."
That British attack on Norway long has been regarded as a disaster. Reading about its beneficial effect on the Battle of Britain makes me think that Churchill may have been right in his view that in conventional warfare, doing something, even at the periphery, is always better than doing nothing at all.
As Bob Dylan or Clausewitz once observed, nothing is easy in war, because friction makes even easy things difficult.