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Five Days in London: May 1940 by John Lucaks


Rating: (Recommended)


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On the Brink

Prominent historian John Lucaks presents a compelling case in his book, Five Days in London: May 1940. Had England chosen to stop fighting Hitler then, an option very close to implementation during the end of May, 1940, Western Civilization would have been transformed by Hitler’s National Socialism, the greatest threat it ever faced. Lucaks recounts how Churchill transformed the defeatist and appeasement elements of his government during these five critical days. Using sources recently made available, Lucaks recounts the events of these critical days from multiple perspectives. Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of chapter 4, “Sunday, 26 May,” pp. 104-113:


An agitated day. Three meetings of the War Cabinet. Chamberlain, Halifax, Churchill. Disagreements between Halifax and Churchill. Scarcity of news: “A mandate to delay judgment and not to worry.” “In Westminster Abbey.”


           A gloomy day, in more than one way: for the first time in many a day it rained.

           In early April there had been some talk of a National Day of Prayer. The archbishop of Canterbury had thought it inadvisable be­cause it could be misinterpreted. Now, along with all the churches, he endorsed it. The king had spoken of it in his broadcast of 23 May.[i] So had the newspapers. “Let Us Pray” was an article on the front page of the Daily Express on Saturday: “It must mean something tomorrow?” At ten o’clock on Sunday morning the king, the queen, and the highest personages of the empire arrived in Westminster Abbey. The king and queen carried gas masks. Wilhelmina, queen of the Netherlands, came with them. Someone shouted: “Long live the Netherlands!” Wilhelmina dropped a curtsey. There was a long queue outside. Churchill made it clear to his household that he and Mrs. Churchill would be able to attend for no longer than ten to thirty minutes. Indeed they left early, in the middle of the service, for there was plenty for him to do.

           The events of this grave Sunday were so many and complicated that, before their reconstruction and analysis, their sequence ought to be sorted out and summed up briefly. We have seen that Churchill requested a meeting of the War Cabinet at the unusual hour of 9 A.M. on this Sunday. One hour later came the high service in Westminster Abbey. Meanwhile, Reynaud and a French delegation arrived in London. At noon Halifax saw the Italian ambassador again. Then he lunched with Chamberlain. Churchill had a long lunch with Reynaud in Admiralty House. He returned to 10 Down­ing Street for another cabinet at 2 P.M. After about forty minutes Churchill asked Halifax to go over to Admiralty House to meet with Reynaud. Churchill, Chamberlain, and Greenwood followed him twenty or so minutes later. A few minutes after four o’clock Reynaud left for France. The War Cabinet members stayed. There was an-other cabinet meeting in Admiralty House at five o’clock, ending at half past six. At eight Churchill dined with Ismay and Eden.

           The War Cabinet session at 9 A.M. began with Churchill’s account of the situation with the French and with the Belgians. He had a letter from his personal representative in Paris, General Edward Spears all bad news about France and the French. The king of Bel­gium was making ready to capitulate. Churchill’s envoy to the king, Sir Roger Keyes, had sent a telegram whose essence was that “King Leopold had written to King George VI to explain his motive in remaining with his army and people if the Belgian Army became en­circled and the capitulation of the Belgian Army became inevitable?”

           The gist of all this was summed up by Churchill: “It seems from all the evidence available that we might have to face a situation in which the French were going to collapse, and that we must do our best to extricate the British Expeditionary Force from northern France?”

           Then Churchill played an important card. A few days before he had asked the chiefs of staff “to consider the situation which would arise if the French would drop out of the war?”


In the event of France being unable to continue in the war and becoming neutral, with the Germans holding their present position and the Belgian army being forced to capitulate after assisting the British Expeditionary Force to reach the coast; in the event of terms offered to Britain which would place her entirely at the mercy of Germany through disarmament, ces­sion of naval bases in the Orkneys etc.; what are the prospects of our continuing the war alone against Germany and probably Italy. Can the Navy and the Air Force hold out reasonable hopes of preventing serious invasion, and could the forces gathered in this Island cope with raids from the air involving detachments not greater than 10,000 men; it being observed that a prolongation of British resistance might be very dan­gerous for Germany engaged in holding down the greater part of Europe.


           The answer of the chiefs of staff has since become a historic docu­ment of first importance, well known to students of the period. Entitled “British Strategy in a Certain Eventuality:” it was a long paper.[ii] It presumed the worst possible conditions and, by 25 May, an increasingly plausible situation: the French making peace with Germany, Italy entering the war, Europe and French North Africa under German control, and the loss of most of the British Expe­ditionary Force still struggling in northern France and Belgium. Still even in these conditions Britain could hold out, if the United States would support Britain increasingly, eventually entering the war, and if the Royal Air Force, together with the navy, would remain in control over Britain and thus “prevent Germany from carrying out a serious sea-borne invasion of this country?” In this they were to be proved right. The rest of the document dealt with the question of whether Germany could be ultimately defeated. On 25 May this could not be even remotely envisaged. The chiefs of staff assumed that Germany’s economic situation was to be plagued by shortages of raw materials. Together with air attacks and revolts in the occupied countries, Germany could be defeated at some time in the future, and with American help. In this assessment the chiefs of staff were wrong rather than right. They— much like Attlee and Greenwood in the War Cabinet, and to a considerable extent Cham­berlain, too not only overestimated but were altogether mistaken about the economic “factors” handicapping Germany.[iii] But that is not our concern here. The crux was “the immediate problem [of] . . . how to get through the next few months, with the Ger­mans across the Channel and no effective allies. On this the Chiefs of Staff offered a reasoned case for hope?”[iv]

           We must, however, consider that on this Sunday, one so closely packed with dramatic events, the War Cabinet members did not have the time to peruse this long document in detail. And before copies of this secret paper were circulated, there occurred the first open clash of opinion between Halifax and Churchill.

           Halifax said that “in the dark picture which had been presented there was one brighter spot in that the dispute on the rights and wrongs of Lord Gort’s action in drawing back had now been satis­factorily cleared up and there would be no recriminations on that point?” Then he came to “the broader issue. We had to face the fact that it was not so much now a question of imposing a complete defeat upon Germany but of safeguarding the independence of our own Empire and if possible that of France?”

           “In this connection:” he told the cabinet about his interview with the Italian ambassador the night before, “Signor Bastianini had clearly made soundings as to the prospect of our agreeing to a con­ference. The Ambassador had said that Signor Mussolini”s principal wish was to secure peace in Europe?” He (Halifax) “had replied that peace and security in Europe were equally our main object, and we should naturally be prepared to consider any proposals which might lead to this, provided our liberty and independence were assured. The French had been informed of this approach by the Italian Am­bassador. Signor Bastianini had asked for a further interview this morning, and he might have fresh proposals to put forward?”

                       Churchill said that peace and security would not be achieved un­der a German domination of Europe: “That we could never accept. We must ensure our complete liberty and independence. He was opposed to any negotiations which might lead to a derogation of our rights and power?”

Chamberlain now said that he “thought it very probable that Italy might send an ultimatum to France very shortly, saying that unless she would agree to a conference, Italy would come in on Germany’s side. This would bring very heavy pressure to bear on the French?” There followed some confusing talk about Italy. Attlee “thought that Mussolini would be very nervous of Germany emerging as the predominant power in Europe?” (This was not so.) Attlee added that he had not yet read the papers of the chiefs of staff “as to our prospects of holding out if the French collapsed?” Halifax made a somewhat obscure statement. He pointed out that if the French in­tended to come to terms, “they had a very strong card to play if they made it clear to Hitler that they were bound not to make a separate peace?” (Why?) “They might use this as a powerful lever to obtain favourable terms which might be of great value to us, if it was Hitler’s object to break the alliance?”

At that moment copies of another paper by the chiefs of staff were handed to the members of the cabinet about the prospects of Britain going on with the war single-handed. “It had been drawn up simply for the purpose of providing arguments to deter the French from capitulating and to strengthen their will to continue to fight?”[v] Chamberlain thought that Italy was important. “Was it possible to ask the French whether Italy could be bought off? This might at least keep matters going?” Churchill “agreed that this point was worth bearing in mind?” Halifax then said that, from reading the chiefs of staffs” paper, he gathered that the entire issue “of our ability to carry on the war single-handed against Germany would depend on the main on our being able to establish and maintain air superiority over the Germans?”

           The chief of the air staff, who was present throughout the meet­ing, said that the issue was “not our obtaining air superiority over the Germans, but on our preventing the Germans from achieving such air superiority as would enable them to invade this country?” There was some discussion of this, with Halifax suggesting that once France collapsed the Germans would “no longer need large land forces. They would be free to switch the balk of their effort to air production?” He also “suggested that in the last resort we should ask the French to put their factories out of gear?” Chamberlain must have felt that this was nugatory: “Whatever undertakings of this character we might extract from the French would be worthless, since the terms of peace which the Germans would propose would inevitably prevent their fulfilment?” Churchill “agreed. It was to be expected, however, that the Germans would make the terms of any peace offer as attractive as possible to the French, but lay em­phasis on the fact that their quarrel was not with France but with England?”[vi]

           Then he asked the War Cabinet to convene again at 2 P.M., after his lunch with Reynaud. They adjourned, Churchill and Cham­berlain hurrying to Westminster Abbey. Halifax went back to the Foreign Office, where Bastianini came to see him. Cadogan, who was present, wrote in his diary: “Nothing to be got out of [Bas­tianini]. He’s an ass and a timid one at that?”[vii] Then Halifax had a quick lunch with Chamberlain.

           Churchill had a long lunch with Reynaud at Admiralty House. Reynaud was constrained to present Churchill with a general view of the near hopelessness of the French military situation, largely in accord with what Weygand and Pétain had insisted upon in their high council the night before. Churchill said that Britain would go on alone. “We would rather go down fighting than be enslaved to Germany?” Yet underlying their discussion, which was not un­friendly Reynaud, who was an Anglophile, respected and admired Churchill was an understanding that their governments were di­vided. This, of course, was less so with the British than with the French. Reynaud “had hinted that he himself would not sign peace terms imposed upon France, but that he might be forced to resign, or might feel he ought to resign” which eventually came about, three weeks to the day. Churchill knew about Weygand and Pétain, though he was not yet fully aware of the defeatism of the former. Nor was he quite aware of what other members of the French dele­gation had sensed, or had pretended to sense. Colonel Villelume was Reynaud’s principal military aide. That evening he wrote in his diary, “Halifax. . . shows his understanding; Churchill, prisoner of his habit of blustering, was absolutely negative?”[viii]

At 2 P.M. the War Cabinet convened again. Churchill gave a lengthy and rather precise account of what Reynaud had said and what he had told Reynaud. He then suggested that Halifax go over and see Reynaud, who was still at Admiralty House; Churchill, Chamberlain, and Attlee would follow a few minutes later. Halifax would talk with Reynaud about the chances of buying off Mussolini. Did Churchill wish to avoid Halifax, since the latter might state his case before the others in the War Cabinet? We cannot tell. And Halifax did not leave yet. “A short further discussion ensued whether we should make any approach to Italy?” Halifax “favoured this course, and thought that the last thing that Signor Mussolini wanted was to see Herr Hitler dominating Europe. He would be anxious, if he could, to persuade Herr Hitler to take a more reason­able attitude?” Churchill “doubted whether anything would come of an approach to Italy, but said that the matter was one which the War Cabinet would have to consider?”

           The open disagreement between Halifax and Churchill had now become evident. Halifax no longer wished merely to state his views; now he wanted to extract a commitment from Churchill: “We had to face the fact that it was not so much now a question of imposing a complete defeat upon Germany but of safeguarding the indepen­dence of our Empire. . . . We should naturally be prepared to con­sider any proposals which might lead to this, provided our liberty and independence were assured. . . . 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 juncture Churchill knew that he could not answer with 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 territory” an extraordinary admission (my italics).[ix] He then added that he did not believe in the prospect of such a deal. Chamberlain did not say much. Then with Churchill and Greenwood he departed to Admiralty House to join Halifax and Reynaud, who were discussing the approach to Mussolini. Reynaud left after four o’clock.

           Churchill now asked the War Cabinet to stay on in Admiralty House. The record of this day’s third, fairly dramatic meeting of the War Cabinet is preceded by two significantly cryptic notes: “After M. Reynaud’s departure, an informal Meeting of War Cabinet Min­isters was held in Admiralty House?” (Why “informal”?) Also, per­haps more significantly: “This record does not cover the first quarter of an hour of the discussion, during which the Secretary [Sir Ed­ward Bridges] was not present?”[x] Such conditions of secrecy had no precedent in the modern history of Britain. Then the Secretary came in and Churchill began.

It’s rare for me to pull back from currently published books to pick up something I missed when it first came out. An Executive Times reader, who’s probably read everything written about Churchill asked me if I had read Lucaks. I mentioned The Duel, which I enjoyed, and he recommended Five Days in London. I’m pleased he did. Lucaks presents history with clarity and informed judgment. Readers may disagree that these five days saved Western Civilization, but reading why Lucaks feels this way is well worth your time.

Steve Hopkins, April 23, 2004


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the May 2004 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: Days in London.htm


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[i] On 19 May an extraordinary ceremony took place in Paris. The digni­taries of the agnostic Third Republic gathered in the cool vault of Notre Dame.

[ii] CAB 66-7 [WP. (40) 168; also C.O.S. (40) 390]. Bell, A Certain Eventuality, 31: “a euphemistic wording regularly used in such papers in place of a direct reference to a French collapse?”

[iii] This assumption very much mistaken was predominant in the Board of Economic Warfare. “Its main activities are recorded in a number of reasonably honest, though regrettably bland, official publications, such as W. N. Medlicott’s The Economic Blockade (London, 1952), whose first sen­tence reads: ‘Too much, it is now agreed, was expected of the blockade in the Second World War? Indeed, Great Expectations reigned, at least on paper, in the Bleak House of the London School of Economics where the new ministry had its home at first. . . . [But then] Chamberlain’s war strat­egy, too, rested on his trust in the efficacy of the blockade; he ‘did not believe that the enemy could face a second winter? . . . [Yet] until the middle of 1944 the German economy had no general difficulties in provid­ing its war materials” (Lukacs, The Last European War, 232—33).

[iv] Bell,A Certain Eventuality, 50.

[v] C.O.S. 40(391), not identical with 390.

[vi] CAB 65/13 WM 139.

[vii] Cadogan, Diaries, 290. (Late on Saturday night Gladwyn Jebb had met with Paresci.) Bastianini was “timid” because he feared Mussolini, who had already instructed his ambassadors in London and Paris and Washington not to engage in substantial negotiations. There is no record of his short conversations with Halifax on Sunday, unless it is subsumed within the report he drafted about their talk on the previous day which may have been the reason of the relative lateness of his summary dispatch to Rome. See above, p. 93.

[viii] Villelume,Journal d’une defaite, 356. Alexis Léger, the secretary-general of the Foreign Ministry, inclined to Churchill. This did not matter much, though somehow it was made known to the arch-appeaser Horace Wilson, whom Churchill had thrown out of Downing Street a fortnight before and who had then written that “Léger was violently anti-German, equally vio­lently anti-Italian, and he must bear much of the responsibility for the failure to take advantage of the opportunities offered from time to time, by either Hitler or Mussolini for some kind of rapprochement?” That would come to Churchill’s attention in October 1941, when he was threatened by another potential collapse, that of the Russian army. Horace Wilson Papers, CAJ3 127/158.

[ix] See below, pp. 116—17, 120.

[x] CAB 65/13 WM 140.