Tuesday 28 May 1940 was one of the most significant days in the course of the Second World War in terms of the British government’s strategy, with the fate of the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk in the balance and the future of France (and, indeed, western civilisation) in severe jeopardy. This is the territory explored by the film ‘Darkest Hour’, in which Gary Oldman plays Winston Churchill.
Since 25 May the Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax had been pursuing, with increasing vigour, the possibility of a negotiated peace with Hitler through the services of Mussolini. The potential conduit for this was the Italian Ambassador, Giuseppe Bastianini. This caused significant tensions between Halifax and Churchill during the War Cabinet meetings of these eventful days, which had ebbed and flowed. Under tremendous pressure, and wary of Chamberlain’s position, Churchill had seemed to concede some ground to Halifax on a couple of occasions.
At a 14:00 War Cabinet meeting on 26 May, Halifax sought a commitment from Churchill regarding peace mediation: ‘If he [Churchill] was satisfied that matters vital to the independence of this country were unaffected, would he be “prepared” to discuss such terms?’
At this stage Churchill knew he could not give a categorical no. He said that he ‘would be thankful to get out of our present difficulties on such terms, provided we retained the essentials and the elements of our vital strength, even at the cost of some territories’. He added that he did not believe in the prospect of such a deal.
At the 17:00 meeting on 26 May, it is clear from Churchill’s response that he wasn’t at all keen on Halifax’s line: ‘The only thing to do was to show him [Hitler] that he could not conquer this country’ but he also said ‘he did not raise any objection to some approach being made to Signor Mussolini.’ – Churchill felt he had to make some concession to Halifax, at least momentarily.
At a War Cabinet meeting at 16:00 on 28 May, the differences between the two principal figures over the peace mediation proposal were laid bare as never before. The detailed account of this meeting available in the ‘Confidential Annex’ to the Minutes reads like a very fraught game of verbal tennis. Churchill was clearly rejecting the option of seeking mediation with Hitler through Mussolini’s services 1. Churchill was supported in his opposition by the Minister Without Portfolio (Arthur Greenwood, Labour) and the Secretary of State for Air, Archibald Sinclair (Liberal Party).
It is not really accurate to describe Halifax’s position as defeatist – he advocated an argument of cold logic, which could be paraphrased as ‘there’s no point in going down in a blaze of glory, and losing everything we hold dear, when we could secure a settlement before France goes out of the war that will leave Britain intact’.
The tension caused by the sharp exchanges at that meeting must have been palpable: the following extract gives a flavour of the robust debate.
When one reads Lord President of the Council Neville Chamberlain’s contributions, it is not easy to work out precisely what his position was. He does state that the message we should give to France is: ‘without prejudice to the future, the present is not the time at which advances should be made to Signor Mussolini’.
Halifax must have been disappointed to hear him say that. However, there seems to be, in my view, a lot of verbiage and a certain amount of ‘hedging’ by Chamberlain. He does not back Halifax’s view – and that was significant – and surely a relief to Churchill, who would have dreaded a Halifax-Chamberlain alliance on this matter. But Chamberlain does appear to be clinging on to the notion that there was no harm in hearing what the peace terms might be – whilst still making it clear that Britain would fight for its independence. It is a complicated balancing act he is trying to carry off.
Churchill makes his move
The deliberations continued a long time. At 18:15, Churchill made a very smart manoeuvre. He adjourned the meeting, to reassemble at 19:00. In the meantime, he had arranged to meet with the members of the Outer Cabinet in his rooms at the House of Commons.
The Second World War Diary of Hugh Dalton (Labour, Minister of Economic Warfare) includes a powerful account of Churchill’s address to those assembled: ‘He is quite magnificent. The man, the only man we have, for this hour.’
He quotes Churchill as saying [my heavily condensed version]: ‘if we tried to make peace now…we should become a slave state.’
According to Dalton, Churchill crowned his arguments with this incredibly passionate exhortation: ‘We shall go on and we shall fight it out, here or elsewhere, and if at last the long story is to end, it were better it should end, not through surrender, but only when we are rolling senselessly upon the ground.’ Dalton added an insertion in the margin of his Diary, giving an alternative version: ‘If this long island story of ours is to end at last, let it end only when each of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.’
Churchill got a fantastic reception for this speech. He must have been full of renewed vigour when he returned to the reassembled Cabinet meeting at 19:00. He immediately told his colleagues about the reaction of the Outer Cabinet Ministers who ‘had not expressed alarm at the position in France, but had expressed the greatest satisfaction when he told them that there was no chance of our giving up the struggle. He did not remember having ever before heard a gathering of persons occupying high places in political life express themselves so emphatically’.
Halifax knew he could no longer raise objections to Churchill’s ‘we shall fight it out’ strategy. The matter was settled. While there was still a colossal amount of sacrifice and suffering to come, the ‘darkest hour’ – a time when, unbeknown to the public, the unity of the War Cabinet was in doubt at a critical juncture – this hour had passed.
In his book on the May 1940 Cabinet Crisis, Lord Owen makes a noteworthy and thought-provoking argument: ‘Halifax as Foreign Secretary was right to ensure in May 1940 that a negotiated peace was discussed extensively in the War Cabinet’ 2. Given the high stakes, it was right that alternative courses of action to fighting on should have been examined and tested to destruction. Lord Owen makes a powerful point: the fact that there was a full Cabinet discussion was a healthy sign – democracy was maintained in the fight against authoritarian regimes.