Following the award-winning movie on Dunkirk last summer, another blockbuster is to be released on 12th January concerning those testing days for Britain. Called ‘Darkest Hour’, it provides an account of the chaotic and emotional cabinet scenes that surrounded the calls for a negotiated peace with a triumphant, and seemingly unstoppable, Hitler.
In the long period of the 1930s, the appeasers had very largely held the floor. From the top echelons of the political establishment, only the siren warnings of Churchill had interrupted their narrative. Now, in the spring of 1940, Western Europe was ablaze with the British army in headlong retreat and its mighty French ally on the point of collapse. In all of Britain’s long history, no direr situation had ever confronted it. Both Philip II of Spain and Napoleon has posed just as great a risk of invasion, and historians are all agreed that, in both cases, their armies, once landed, would have been successful. But the regimes imposed would have been pussycats compared to the one which a Hitlerite Germany would have delivered, had it been obliged to fight its way into Britain.
Only one man stood out as having the credentials to lead the nation in a government of national unity. Churchill – for all his many flaws – had, since Hitler’s ascent to power seven year earlier, stridently warned of the ‘gathering storm’. He had called for rearmament and condemned the Munich Agreement it as an ‘unmitigated defeat’ for the democracies. It was now patently clear that he was right. Moreover, he alone had held ministerial rank during the previous war. As such, he was acceptable to both opposition parties whereas the prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, and his foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, were not. Neither were deemed credible as war leaders. What was not known – and this is what the movie seeks to make clear – was how very close Britain came to choosing a different path from the one it did. I want to argue that from Britain’s point of view, and indeed the world’s, it chose the wrong path.
Timing is everything. In May 1940, Churchill has luck on his side – even the weather. Fortuitously, as it turned out, he was right to argue passionately that his country should fight on. But he was only just right because, at that time, Britain stood in the gravest danger of losing its entire army on the beaches of Dunkirk. Without it and its French ally, it would almost certainly have been obliged to sue for peace. Even in those circumstances, as I have argued in previous writings, Hitler would have granted what the world would have perceived as an honourable peace. He had no quarrel with Britain and saw war with it as a distraction from his main purpose: the defeat of the Soviet Union. He even admired Britain’s conquests around the world.
Yet by fighting on at that stage, two stunning results were delivered and they strengthened Britain’s arm immeasurably. The first was the miraculous rescue of its all but doomed army, and the second was the defeat of the Luftwaffe over the skies of southern England. Together, they placed Britain in an altogether stronger position vis-à-vis the Nazi juggernaut. Its high command knew at that point that the option of defeating Britain in the short term had been lost. Remaining in its rear would be an enemy with a dagger always at its back. This was the opportunity Britain should have seized.
Britain’s best interests would undoubtedly have been served by negotiating a deal. It would have been a deal between equals, with Germany triumphant on land and Britain equal in the air and, as ever, triumphant at sea. Minus the air, almost an exact parallel could be drawn with Philip’s army in the Low Countries and Napoleon’s at Boulogne.
But with the passage of time – perhaps three years – Britain would have been able to defeat Hitler, and without even the entry of the United States into the war. Immense bloodshed would have been avoided as a result of a much earlier end to the war. Most of the killing outside of Russia took place in its final phases. During that time, of course, the Soviet Union would have been utterly defeated by the Nazis, who came within a whisker of total defeat anyway. With peace in his rear, Hitler would have felt safe to turn his whole war machine against the enemy in the East. Communism would have been destroyed and Central and Eastern Europe spared what happened to it during the years of the Cold War. China, too, would have been spared the horrors of Mao.
The means by which Britain could have defeated the Third Reich unaided was with the atomic bomb. In 1939, when the war broke out, Britain was the most advanced country in the world in nuclear physics. It even had its own atomic weapons programme, codenamed “Tube Alloys”, years before the American Manhattan Project. At this point, Britain was still an immensely rich country with vast overseas holdings, despite all the asset sales of the previous war against Germany.
People will argue that, despite our initial lead, Americans got there first with the atomic bomb. Yes, indeed! But that was because Britain chose to fight Hitler when it did. Had it conserved its wealth and industrial capacity – during what would have amounted to a phoney peace – it could have resumed and accelerated the Tube Alloys programme: a project even further removed from the prying eyes of the Reich than the Manhattan Project in the deserts of New Mexico. Australia would have been the perfect testing ground, as it proved later when Britain did eventually develop and test its own bomb in 1952.
It was principally the gigantic financial and industrial effort needed to create Britain’s vast bomber fleets, along with the warships, tanks and other paraphernalia of war, that robbed Britain of the capacity to take on another major project such as this. It was with government approval, given at the Quebec Conference between Britain and America, that its nuclear physicists decamped en masse to its ally to pursue the work there. Until quite late in the day, the US had shown little interest in the explosive potential of the atomic bomb. It cannot be denied that, had it prioritised the lead it had enjoyed pre-war, Britain would have got to the bomb first.
What would have been the benefit to Britain of a phoney peace of the sort Stalin made with Hitler while it raced ahead to be the sole possessor of the bomb? Well, it would have dictated the post-war peace. Communism would have been eradicated from the world and Britain’s status as a great power preserved or even enhanced. For a period, at least, Britain would have resumed its former position of top dog. It would have avoided bankruptcy and heavy military losses. Although its empire would, in the fullness of time, have been wound down, it would not have happened so precipitously. Its peoples would have had more opportunity to develop fully functioning civic and democratic processes.
During the phoney peace with Hitler, Britain would have been in a position to increase massively its military presence in the Far East and given Imperial Japan pause for thought before confronting it and the United States. Indeed, Japan has admitted that it was only the hugely successful raid by the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm on the Italian fleet, as it lay at anchor in Taranto, that emboldened it to believe that it could do much the same at Pearl Harbour. That raid is unlikely to have taken place under the scenario I have outlined. Although ultimately defeated, the humiliations which Japan heaped on Western powers during its six-month rampage through the Pacific destroyed the previous aura of white invincibility and brought about over-hasty rushes to independence. An informed guess would be that fifty- or seventy-five years might have passed before the colonial handovers eventually did take place. We might now be seeing Prince Charles or William globe-trotting the world performing the flag lowering ceremonies.
It is also fair to say that the Holocaust, itself, could well have been avoided. There were no plans to liquidate Jewry in its entirety while Hitler was winning the war. Other solutions were sought, such as shipment to Madagascar or resettlement beyond the Urals as slave labour. Only a mad belief that the power of international Jewry had brought about the war, and that if he was going to go down he would take Jewry with him, fuelled Hitler’s fanaticism into outright genocide. He never seems to have asked himself why, if international Jewry was so over-achingly powerful, it proved so utterly helpless to protect its own when he began his persecutions and eventual descent into genocide. Had the war ended sooner, and he been allowed meantime to conquer the whole of the Soviet Union before he himself faced sudden Armageddon, that terrible blot on humanity might never have happened.
It will be argued by some that there was no guarantee that the bomb would ever work. To that I would counter that a large majority of scientists, including Einstein, were confident it would. There was certainly more chance of it working than ever there was of Britain winning the war on its own without it, and that was the starkness of the choice faced by the war cabinet at that time. Perhaps, in the circumstances, and with the dice so heavily loaded against them, they were irresponsible to take the gamble they did. After all, it was a nation’s very existence they were there to consider. In the event, victory did eventually come, but it came at a terrible cost.
All in all, a powerful case can be made for the alternative narrative: the one which would have bought Britain time, rather than the one that actually did win the day during those heated and emotional exchanges in May 1940. The outcome, in my view, might now be a calmer, happier world than the one we see around us.
Amidst all the ballyhoo of this incredible election we are in danger of not giving proper thought to an event which has shaped all our lives. Seventy years ago today saw an end to what Churchill called ‘the German War’. It was a war in which 50 million died – 20 million, let us never forget, Russian.
I have never regarded the Second World War as anything other than a continuation of the First, but with a 21-year interregnum. On 8th May 1945 the world was still far from at peace. Not yet vanquished were the fanatical Japanese. If our soldiers feared the last ditch fanaticism of the Nazis as they stormed across the Rhine into the enemy heartland, their fears were multiplied several fold as they considered the horrors of what awaited them on the beaches of Japan. Their naval comrades had already experienced a foretaste of what they could expect with the Kamikaze death flights into their ships.
As the great armies of the Western allies celebrated with their Russian allies in the West, they knew that an even more fearful test of their resolve awaited them in the East. Bloodletting on a scale hitherto unknown seemed guaranteed as they briefly enjoyed their moment of triumph in Europe before their embarkation to the other side of the world and a fresh clash of arms.
Their foe in this encounter did not abide by Western concepts of warfare and could, especially in defending their homeland, be expected to die to the last man and perhaps even woman. At that very moment, while the celebrations were continuing, British Empire forces were locked in mortal combat in the steaming jungles of Burma and south east Asia while their American allies were island-hopping ever closer in the Pacific to the Japanese mainland.
But far away in the deserts of New Mexico a secret project was being furiously fast tracked to its terrifying completion. It was a bomb of such enormous potential that a single one could lay waste an entire city. Millions of lesser bombs had fallen on the cities of the Reich, but still there were whole districts of them relatively unscathed. If it worked then even the suicidal Japanese – who at that moment were preparing for a ‘twilight of the gods’ – would bear what their emperor would later broadcast ‘the unbearable’ and surrender, rather than see their 2000-year-old civilisation wiped from the face of the earth.
In all the long march of humankind towards a better world, the stakes had never been higher. Terrible as the new weapon was, it would save those fearful young Western men who were even then preparing to board their ships, as it would also, ironically, save the Japanese themselves. (Though a quarter of a million of them would have to be sacrificed in the initial blast and its aftermath, it has been estimated that perhaps eight times that number would have perished on both sides before Japan could have been overcome by conventional means.) So while we are right to commemorate the end of the war in Europe, we must not forget the true end of the war, three month later.
This ‘true end’, as I call it has, in my view, the greater significance. This is because it really did achieve what many had, mistakenly, believed in the First World War to be: ‘The War to End Wars’. From the detonation of those two nuclear devices over Hiroshima and Nagasaki came a belief – rightly – that global war was no longer an option as it would escalate, inevitably, into a nuclear conflagration and with that the end of all human civilisation. In such a scenario there could be no winners and it is my belief that that it is this appreciation during the Cold War that kept it from becoming a hot one.
As for the reason I do not believe the two European wars to be separate wars, it is because certain powerful elements in Germany considered the outcome of the First World War unfinished business. It took only a charismatic demagogue like Hitler to fan the embers for a re-run. Even then it would have been unlikely to happen, but for the Wall Street Crash and the impoverishment and mass unemployment which struck Germany. Of all the advanced economies, Germany suffered by far the worst because its situation was dramatically worsened by the huge reparations it was forced to pay under the Versailles treaty.
Why those powerful elements in Germany considered the war unfinished business was because the Western allies did not press home their advantage when they finally broke the four-year impasse on the Western Front and went on to smash the, by then, retreating German army which was surrendering in droves. Heeding Ludendorff, the German commander – who had a breakdown – and his call for a cessation of hostilities (Armistice) the allies allowed the Kaiser’s high command to maintain the fiction that it had not been defeated in the field. Hitler, of course, was all too ready to encourage them in this misplaced belief and, more to the point, provide them with the tools to try once more. The rest is history.