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.
Yesterday we buried a titan and she was a woman. Not since Churchill’s bravery when he took the awful decision to sink his French ally’s fleet in WWII, rather than let it fall into enemy hands, have we seen such a brave leader. I even think that Churchill might have blanched at the idea of sending the hugely depleted Fleet that Margaret Thatcher had at her disposal to rescue the Falkland Islands, 8,000 miles away.
But her bravery extended well beyond the battlefield – something that Churchill’s did not. She took on and defeated ‘the enemy within’, as she called them: the Arthur Scargills, Derek Hattons and Ken Livingstones of this world. ‘Union Barons’, one by one, fell upon her lance until the wheel had turned full circle and we had the fewest strikes in all Europe.
Churchill had his own bitter enemies among the working classes as well as the establishment, but somehow their vehemence had faded under the glow of his magnificent conduct of the war and the glory of his rhetoric in its early days, urging his countrymen to stand fast and not be seduced by peace ‘with honour’ offer which he knew would turn out to be humiliating. But Margaret Thatcher’s enemies never left her in peace, not even in death. Whole swathes of industrial England, Scotland and Wales died on her watch. Most of them were dying anyway (as they had been under Labour), but she did nothing to slow the process.
Yet much the same was happening all over the industrialised West. Mines were closing and shipyards were losing out to cheap labour in the East; steel was being produced in the same areas at Mickey Mouse prices. Long-established and close communities who had come to rely on a single industry became a wasteland. Standing guardian over these nationalised and loss-making industries was a union hierarchy more powerful, many argued, than the state itself. It was said that no law could be enacted without their approval.
Thatcher believed herself to be on a mission to restore Britain’s governance, finances and greatness. She believed she saw a very sick patient whom only surgery could cure. The medicine, she knew, would be bitter and the recuperation hard. But she insisted it would be all be worth it. Some said she was stubborn, and she was. But she could be flexible when she needed to be; she could duck and dive with the best of them in politics, but on core issues, as she saw them, she would not budge. You don’t stay on the way to twelve years at the top (almost as long as Hitler’s Reich) without heavy doses of pragmatism.
Also she was not above using her sex either to get her way. Flirtatious Mitterrand, the French president, thought her coquettish and remarked that she had “the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe.” He fell in love with her ballroom dancing skills. In another world he would have had her – or at least tried.
For all this, Thatcher was an earnest woman, almost devoid of humour (jokes had to be explained to her). She had an almost childlike certainty that she knew what to do to lift the economy out of the pit of despondency into which it had fallen. When 360 of the country’s leading economists signed a letter to tell her that her policies were doomed, she ignored them. Once she was the boss she would brook no backsliders. She was dictatorial, but luckily she was compelled to operate within the constraints of a liberal democracy. But she got the essentials right and, remarkably, that army of doomsayers were proved wrong.
Personally, she was very kind to her staff and to the little people, the ones without power – but she could be brutal to those who wielded it. However, her all-consuming ambition made it impossible for her to be a hands-on mother; perhaps that wasn’t her style anyway. But in her extreme old age she did feel pangs of guilt. She shed more tears over her lost boys in the South Atlantic than ever she did for her own children. It is said that she never went to bed during the three months of the Falklands conflict, dozing instead on a chair, waiting to hear the telephone ring to tell her of more boys lost in the latest sinking. She took it all very personally. Churchill seldom did. An eyewitness told of her sobbing for 40 minutes non-stop when news reached her that another ship had been hit by a missile. When her own torpedo slammed into the cruiser Belgrano and sent Argentina’s sailors to the bottom of the icy south Atlantic, I have no doubt that her mother’s heart felt for those other mothers in far away Argentina. But if ‘cruel necessity’ – Cromwell’s justification for cutting off his own king’s head – called for its sinking to save her own precious boys, she would not hold back.
She was tough beyond belief – far tougher than any of the men who surrounded her. She would not yield to IRA hunger strikers, no matter what. It was a case of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object. It took ten emaciated corpses before the IRA conceded defeat. They repaid her by destroying her hotel and almost her.
Her toughness and certainty of the correctness of her policies followed through to the economic woes which beset the country; her monetarist measures brought record inflation to low levels; her privatisation of loss-making, nationalised industries stopped the haemorrhaging and put shares into millions of pockets, becoming a model for virtually the whole world; her sell-off of council houses made property owners of millions; her ‘Big Bang’ financial liberalisation in the City made London the world’s leading capital market; and her curbing of restrictive union practises such as flying pickets and the closed shop brought order to the factory floor. It is an impressive list and there is more.
But she made mistakes. She believed too much in the service economy and failed to realise sufficiently the importance of manufacturing. She was plain stupid in doing a dry run of the Poll Tax in, of all places, prickly Scotland – even though its principals were sound. (She never had any admirers in that part of the kingdom and still doesn’t.) And she should never have allowed herself to be talked into signing up to the ERM at a rate that shadowed the Deutschmark. Her earlier signing of the Single European Act cost her many of her cherished powers of veto. Also her closure of Grammar Schools exceeded even that of her Labour predecessors. It infuriated great numbers of her own followers.
Too long in power, and with the inevitable hubris setting in she finally gave the game away when she used the ‘royal we’ to announce the birth of a grandchild. Her patronising treatment and her public put-downs of her loyal chancellor and foreign secretary, Geoffrey Howe, were not pretty to watch and her hectoring style got worse the longer she remained in office.
But for all her faults and mistakes, she was nevertheless a force of nature that moved the economic firmament. There was no going back, even for an incoming Labour government. She also moved the political centre ground. It might be said that if you seek her monument, as Sir Christopher Wren once famously stated, “look around you”.
Nothing is the same. She was not interested in spin doctors, focus groups, think tanks, legions of special advisers or even the nasty things the papers said about her. She had a job to do and she would do it come what may. There is a certain courage here also. But if we still have difficulty in recognising her greatness then we have to cast our eyes around the world. All of its leaders are in awe of her achievements. They know a colossus when they see one. They were not distracted by the smoke and din of battle as we were here at home. They could see more clearly where she was headed. Their universal opinion was that Great Britain was a more respected nation than it had been at the start of her reign. Flags flew in many countries at half mast when her death was announced and most of all across the broad expanses of North America. There her name, alongside Ronald Reagan, is revered – as it is too across Eastern Europe, as the liberator from Communism. It was she who brought Gorbachev in from the cold and told her friend, the president, “this is a man we can do business with”. Together, their steely resolve and willingness to do whatever it took, brought the Cold War to a triumphant end. It might justly be said that had she accomplished nothing else, that alone would stand as a fitting testament.
Finally there is the no small matter of a grocer’s daughter – a woman – scaling the heights of a man’s world to achieve the highest office in the land. Women everywhere, and that encompasses the whole world, owe it to her that she has for all time proved – with her competence, drive, bravery and vision – that women are truly the equal of men and that there is no office of state that they cannot handle. In the great scheme of things I do believe that history will place her before Churchill – who, after all, was born to privilege – as our greatest 20th century premier.
We have just reached the end of the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. Today we enter its 71st. I believe that of all the titanic battles of WWII, this was the one which determined its outcome. Though tiny in terms of the numbers of combatants involved, it was massive in high-tech: it did not get more massive in this regard for those times. Brilliant machines and brilliant fliers – on both sides – and a ground-breaking British structure of command and control. Without this system, which was put in place during the year which the much-maligned Chamberlain gained us after the Munich Pact, we would have lost the battle.
Churchill said that upon its outcome depended the survival of Christian civilisation and, indeed, the whole world. Lose it and we would all descend into “a new dark age made more sinister and protracted by the lights of perverted science”. He was surely right.
After the fall of France, Hitler sought peace with Britain. The war which his invasion of Poland had precipitated had been the one gamble which misfired. All the others – the reoccupation of the Rhineland, the Anschluss (union) with Austria and the annexation of Czechoslovakia – had all succeeded, bloodlessly. He did not realise we had, at last, rumbled him and hereon would fight him. Hitler even entertained fanciful notions that as a fellow Teutonic power – one he hugely admired – we would join him in his crusade against Bolshevik Russia.
His plan to invade us was born of the lover’s pangs of anger and frustration: unrequited love they call it. Some in the Royal Navy have said that even if we’d lost the Battle of Britain they could still have sunk Hitler’s landing barges.
But we saw time and again as the war progressed how vulnerable surface ships were to air attack. After all, we crippled the Italian fleet at Taranto as did the Japanese the American at Pearl Harbour.
Interestingly, the Japanese commander said that they would never have thought of it but for what we did at Taranto. Then there was the loss of the Repulse and the Prince of Wales off Malaysia and the Bismark in the Atlantic.
Tirpitz also succumbed to aerial assault. No one doubts that had the Wermacht been able to make a landing in force it would have been game over for Britain.
After the debacle at Dunkirk, three months earlier, the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) survivors were without vehicles, heavy ordnance and even the majority of their small arms. Britain would have been forced to give in to its own powerful ‘peace party’. What then would have been the result of Britain’s withdrawal from the war? A free run for the Nazi juggernaut. Hitler would have been able to hurl his entire armed might against Soviet Russia. The many divisions locked up facing a still belligerent Britain would have been released to powerfully augment that effort in the east.
As it was he came within a whisker of success. Death would have then been guaranteed to Stalin’s regime. Master, then, of the entire Eurasian landmass, Hitler’s dream of world conquest would have been complete. Only success in the race to develop the atomic bomb could have reversed that verdict. But the US Manhattan Project would have been impossible without the help of British scientists who were well ahead of their US counterparts in their understanding of the physics involved.
These are the reasons which cause me to believe that the battle which kept Britain in the war was the one which spelt Hitler’s ultimate defeat. On the 50th Anniversary, I wrote a poem to commemorate that extraordinary feat of arms and I am greatly honoured that it has found a home in the Battle of Britain museum. I hope the reader feels that I have done justice to those wonderful, boyish heroes of “our finest hour”.
You were young and you were brave:
You a nation had to save;
Scrambled from your aerodrome,
Test those skills so freshly honed;
Whirling in your fighter high:
Fought your duels across the sky;
Like the famous knights of old,
You were fearless, keen and bold;
Never did a fate so grim
Threaten all with mortal sin:
Never did so very few
Save so great a multitude;
Spurn a deal that would have saved
All that men of empire made;
Chose the path of blood and debt:
Know that honour’s fully met;
Far beyond your nation’s shores,
All humanity took pause:
For it knew that you alone
Could for misspent time atone;
Be the first to best the Hun:
Yours a famous victory won;
Boyish banter in the sky,
Where you were so soon to die;
Almost out of school you came,
There to die in battle’s flame;
Fire and smoke and cannon’s roar,
Trapped within your cockpit door:
Feel the searing heat around;
See the fast approaching ground:
Time to dwell but fleetingly
On that love on mother’s knee;
Bought you time that others might
Join you in that fateful fight;
Lift the terror, set men free:
Save them from base tyranny!