- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tom note: This is an excerpt from my new book, Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom. In this section, Churchill, having become prime minister in early May 1940, suddenly faces the prospect of the British Army being taken prisoner.
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The key moment in Churchill’s first weeks in office was the British retreat to the coastal Belgian town of Dunkirk in late May 1940. Several hundred thousand British and Allied troops were encircled by the Germans. Had the Germans attacked aggressively, they would have captured a quarter of a million men, stripping Britain of its army. This would have put enormous pressure on Britain to enter into peace talks, something that could have forced Churchill to step down.
But the Germans did not thrust into the beach areas. Instead, a crushing force of nine Panzer divisions stopped just short of Dunkirk. A British general was puzzled, writing in his diary, “The German mobile columns have definitely been halted for some reason or other.
Some junior officers on the German side also were surprised. “We could not understand why we let so many get away,” recalled Hans von Luck, commander of a Panzer reconnaissance company at the time.
And so the British were able to begin their evacuation from the beaches. Even today, there are some unresolved questions about why Dunkirk went so well for the British. One group of historians argues that Hitler, still hoping for a peace settlement with the British, stopped his tanks in order, as Stephen Bungay put it, to “avoid inflicting a humiliating defeat on the British” that would make them less willing to negotiate.
The historical record is mixed, but one quite persuasive piece of evidence is that Hitler’s order stopping his ground forces was sent unencrypted, making it possible for the British to hear and understand it immediately as a kind of peace offering. Later in the war, Hitler took to complaining that he had been too nice to the British. For example, Walter Warlimont, a general in the German military headquarters, reported that Hitler stated, “Churchill was quite unable to appreciate the sporting spirit of which I have given proof by refraining from creating an irreparable breach between the British and ourselves. We did, however, refrain from annihilating them at Dunkirk.”
Indeed, after the war, German commanders being debriefed confirmed that they had been ordered to stop about eight miles outside Dunkirk. “My tanks were kept halted there for three days,” said Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt. “If I had had my way the English would not have got off so lightly. But my hands were tied by direct orders from Hitler himself.”
When one of Rundstedt’s subordinate generals told Hitler in a small meeting that he did not understand why such an order was issued, Hitler replied that “his aim was to make peace with Britain on a basis that she would regard as compatible with her honour to accept.”
However, some serious historians believe it possible that all this talk of stopping in hopes of peace was a cover story concocted to explain away Hitler’s bungled decision. For example, Ian Kershaw, the author of a two-volume biography of Hitler, concludes that Hitler’s claim that he had purposely let the British escape was “no more than a face-saving rationalization,” while Gerhard Weinberg in his massive history of the war dismisses it flatly as “a fabrication.” A third possibility, supported by Alistair Horne, a leading military historian, is that Hitler aimed to reserve the delivery of the coup de grace at Dunkirk for the Luftwaffe, the most politically loyal of his armed forces. He cites the German Panzer commander Heinz Guderian, who wrote that one of the orders telling him to halt stated, “Dunkirk is to be left to the Luftwaffe.”
Whatever the tactical situation at Dunkirk, the result was that most of the British troops made it home, albeit without most of their weapons, artillery pieces, and vehicles. About three hundred thousand men were brought out — two thirds British, the remainder French.
The important point often neglected in discussions of the Dunkirk evacuation is that Hitler’s hopes for a peace settlement with the British were not unfounded. We know now that even as the Dunkirk operation was under way, the British government was mulling whether to seek peace terms. On May 27, 1940, as ragged British troops were disembarking from ships and boats all along the southeastern coast of England, the five members of the War Cabinet of Churchill’s new government debated the wisdom of entering into peace negotiations.
Churchill was vehemently against any such move, arguing, “Even if we were beaten [later], we should be no worse off than we should be if we were now to abandon the struggle.”
The foreign minister, Lord Halifax, who favored some sort of peace talks, wrote in his diary that night, “I thought Winston talked the most frightful rot.” Halifax’s view was that England’s negotiating position was stronger while France was still in the war —as it would be for another two weeks — and while English aircraft factories had not yet been bombed. He also felt that the goal of Britain should not be to try to fight and defeat Germany, but rather to hold on to as much of British independence as possible in some kind of peaceful coexistence.
It was an astonishing argument to make, given that the prime lesson of the Chamberlain government was that it was folly to negotiate with Hitler from a position of weakness.
Even so, Churchill needed to thread a narrow course here. Two British politicians who have written about Churchill make different but complementary points about his situation at this decisive point. The politician and writer Boris Johnson, who in mid-2016 became the British foreign secretary, notes that Churchill was “fighting for his political life and credibility, and if he gave in to Halifax he was finished.” Equally true is Roy Jenkins’s point that Churchill needed to overcome the Halifax position without doing so in such a way that led Halifax and Chamberlain to resign from the Cabinet. Churchill at this point did not command enough loyalty in the Conservative Party to survive such a departure. If they left, “his government would be untenable,” observes Jenkins, himself a Labour member of Parliament for decades and several times a senior Cabinet official in the 1960s and 1970s.
Halifax grumbled to Sir Alexander Cadogan, also at the War Cabinet meeting on May 27, that he felt that he could no longer work with Churchill. Churchill, perhaps sensing that a breach was looming, invited Halifax for a quiet walk in the garden. There he spoke in terms of “apologies and affection,” Halifax told his diary.
The buttering up concluded, Churchill the following day showed his teeth. In another Cabinet meeting he stated flatly that there would be no surrender, and that as long as he was in office, he would not parley with the Nazis. “If this long island story of ours is to end at last,” he vowed, “let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood on the ground.”
Excerpted from Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom (Penguin Press, 2017), by permission of me.
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