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
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
A gloomy day, in more than one way: for the first time in many a day it rained.
early April there had been some talk of a National Day of Prayer. 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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
Churchill said that
peace and security would not be achieved under a German domination of
now said that he “thought it very probable that
that moment copies of another paper by the chiefs of staff were handed to the
members of the cabinet about the prospects of
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
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.
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
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
The open disagreement between
Halifax and Churchill had now become evident.
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
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
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
ã 2004 Hopkins and Company, LLC
The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the May 2004 issue of Executive Times
URL for this review: http://www.hopkinsandcompany.com/Books/Five Days in London.htm
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Hopkins & Company, LLC •
On 19 May an extraordinary
ceremony took place in
[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).
[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.