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.