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Title: The Second World War: Their Finest Hour

Date of first publication: 1949

Author: Winston S. Churchill (1874-1965)

Date first posted: Oct. 25, 2019

Date last updated: Oct. 25, 2019

Faded Page eBook #20191054

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The Second World War

 

 

Their

Finest

Hour

 

 

Winston S. Churchill

 

 

Published in association with

The Cooperation Publishing Company, Inc.

 

HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY BOSTON

The Riverside Press Cambridge

1949


COPYRIGHT, 1949, BY HOUGHTON MIFFLIN COMPANY

 

All rights reserved. Reproduction in full or in part in any language strictly prohibited.

 

The quotations from Blood, Sweat and Tears, by

Winston S. Churchill, are reprinted by the courtesy

of G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

 

The quotation from The Memoirs of Cordell Hull,

copyright, 1948, by Cordell Hull, is reprinted by

the courtesy of The Macmillan Company.

 

The quotations from The Ciano Diaries are reprinted

by the courtesy of Countess Ciano.

 

The quotation from Hamewith and Other Poems,

by Dr. Charles Murray, is reprinted by the courtesy

of Constable & Company Limited.

 

PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA BY

KINGSPORT PRESS, INC., KINGSPORT, TENNESSEE


Preface

During the period covered by this volume I bore a heavy burden of responsibility. I was Prime Minister, First Lord of the Treasury, Minister of Defence, and Leader of the House of Commons. After the first forty days we were alone, with victorious Germany and Italy engaged in mortal attack upon us, with Soviet Russia a hostile neutral actively aiding Hitler, and Japan an unknowable menace. However, the British War Cabinet, conducting His Majesty’s affairs with vigilance and fidelity, supported by Parliament and sustained by the Governments and peoples of the British Commonwealth and Empire, enabled all tasks to be accomplished and overcame all our foes.

Winston Spencer Churchill

Chartwell

Westerham

Kent

January 1, 1949


Acknowledgments

I must again acknowledge the assistance of those who helped me with the previous volume, namely, Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Pownall, Commodore G. R. G. Allen, Colonel F. W. Deakin and Sir Edward Marsh. I must also thank the very large number of others who have kindly read these pages and commented upon them.

Lord Ismay has continued to give me his aid, as have my other friends.

I again record my obligations to His Majesty’s Government for permission to reproduce the text of certain official documents of which the Crown copyright is legally vested in the Controller of His Majesty’s Stationery Office. At the request of His Majesty’s Government on security grounds, I have paraphrased some of the telegrams published in this volume. These changes have not altered in any way the sense or substance of the telegrams.


 

 

Moral of the work

 

In War: Resolution

 

In Defeat: Defiance

 

In Victory: Magnanimity

 

In Peace: Good Will


 

 

Theme of the volume

 

How the British people

held the fort

ALONE

till those who

hitherto had been half blind

were half ready


Contents
  
  
Book One
  
The Fall of France
  
1.The National Coalition3
2.The Battle of France
The First Week. Gamelin
27
3.The Battle of France
The Second Week. Weygand
53
4.The March to the Sea74
5.The Deliverance of Dunkirk99
6.The Rush for the Spoils119
7.Back to France138
8.Home Defence. June161
9.The French Agony177
10.The Bordeaux Armistice199
11.Admiral Darlan and the French Fleet. Oran224
12.The Apparatus of Counter-Attack. 1940242
13.At Bay255
14.The Invasion Problem280
15.Operation Sea Lion301
  
  
Book Two
  
Alone
  
1.The Battle of Britain319
2.The Blitz341
3.London Can Take It358
4.The Wizard War381
5.United States Destroyers and West Indian Bases398
6.Egypt and the Middle East. 1940417
7.The Mediterranean Passage439
8.September Tensions455
9.Dakar473
10.Mr. Eden’s Mission495
11.Relations with Vichy and Spain507
12.Mussolini Attacks Greece531
13.Lend-Lease552
14.Germany and Russia576
15.Ocean Peril594
16.Desert Victory609
  
Appendices633
  
Index727


Maps and diagrams
 
PAGE
 
The Forward Movements, Starting May 1033
The Opposing Forces, May 1339
German Advances, May 13-17, 194044
Situation Evening, May 1852
Situation Evening, May 2267
Battle of Arras, May 21-2269
Situation at Nightfall, May 2585
Situation, May 2894
Diagram of Dunkirk Perimeter, May 29 and 30103
Diagram of Dunkirk Perimeter, May 31 and June 1103
Area of Operations, May, 1940116
The Opposing Forces on the Western Flank, June 5, 1940149
The German Advance, June 5-9151
The Last Stand of the French Army, June 1940190
General Map: Western France (Cherbourg-Brest)197
State of Readiness, Infantry Divisions, July 13, 1940269
State of Readiness, Infantry Divisions, September 7, 1940270
Sketch Map of German Invasion Plan307
General Map of the Northwest France and Belgium315
Battle of Britain340
Disposition of Main Fleets in Mediterranean, June 14, 1940438
Desert Victory, December, 1940, to January, 1941617


Book One

 

The fall of France


Their Finest Hour

1
The National Coalition

The Beginning and the End—The Magnitude of Britain’s Work for the Common Cause—Divisions in Contact with the Enemy Throughout the War—The Roll of Honour—The Share of the Royal Navy—British and American Discharge of Air Bombs—American Aid in Munitions Magnifies Our War Effort—Formation of the New Cabinet—Conservative Loyalty to Mr. Chamberlain—The Leadership of the House of Commons—Heresy-Hunting Quelled in Due Course—My Letter to Mr. Chamberlain of May 11—A Peculiar Experience—Forming a Government in the Heat of Battle—New Colleagues: Clement Attlee, Arthur Greenwood, Archibald Sinclair, Ernest Bevin, Max Beaverbrook—A Small War Cabinet—Stages in the Formation of the Government, May 10 to May 16—A Digression on Power—Kindness and Confidence in Very Few Hands—My Personal Methods—The Written Word—Sir Edward Bridges—My Relations with the Chiefs of the Staff Committee—General Ismay—Kindness and Confidence Shown by the War Cabinet—The Office of Minister of Defence—Its Staff: Ismay, Hollis, Jacob—No Change for Five Years—Stability of Chiefs of Staff Committee—No Changes from 1941 till 1945 Except One by Death—Intimate Personal Association of Politicians and Soldiers at the Summit—The Personal Correspondence—My Relations with President Roosevelt—My Message to the President of May 15—“Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat.”

Now at last the slowly gathered, long-pent-up fury of the storm broke upon us. Four or five millions of men met each other in the first shock of the most merciless of all the wars of which record has been kept. Within a week the front in France, behind which we had been accustomed to dwell through the long years of the former war and the opening phase of this, was to be irretrievably broken. Within three weeks the long-famed French Army was to collapse in rout and ruin, and the British Army to be hurled into the sea with all its equipment lost. Within six weeks we were to find ourselves alone, almost disarmed, with triumphant Germany and Italy at our throats, with the whole of Europe in Hitler’s power, and Japan glowering on the other side of the globe. It was amid these facts and looming prospects that I entered upon my duties as Prime Minister and Minister of Defence and addressed myself to the first task of forming a Government of all parties to conduct His Majesty’s business at home and abroad by whatever means might be deemed best suited to the national interest.

Five years later almost to a day it was possible to take a more favourable view of our circumstances. Italy was conquered and Mussolini slain. The mighty German Army surrendered unconditionally. Hitler had committed suicide. In addition to the immense captures by General Eisenhower, nearly three million German soldiers were taken prisoners in twenty-four hours by Field Marshal Alexander in Italy and Field Marshal Montgomery in Germany. France was liberated, rallied and revived. Hand in hand with our allies, the two mightiest empires in the world, we advanced to the swift annihilation of Japanese resistance. The contrast was certainly remarkable. The road across these five years was long, hard, and perilous. Those who perished upon it did not give their lives in vain. Those who marched forward to the end will always be proud to have trodden it with honour.

      *      *      *      *      *      

LAND FORCES IN FIGHTING CONTACT WITH THE ENEMY
“EQUIVALENT DIVISIONS”

British EmpireU.S.A.
Western TheatreEastern TheatreTotalWestern TheatreEastern TheatreTotal
Jan. 1, 194055½(a)
July 1, 194066
Jan. 1, 19411010(b)
July 1, 19411313(b)
Jan. 1, 1942771422(c)
July 1, 19421041488
Jan. 1, 19431081951015
July 1, 194316724101222
Jan. 1, 19441112236916
July 1, 1944221638251742
Jan. 1, 1945301849552379
aB.E.F. in France.
bExcludes Guerrillas in Abyssinia.
cExcludes Filipino troops.
The dividing line between the Eastern and Western theatres is taken as a north-south line through Karachi.
The following are not taken as operational theatres:
Northwest frontier of India; Gibraltar; West Africa; Iceland; Hawaii; Palestine; Iraq; Syria (except on July 1, 1941).
Malta is taken as an operational theatre; also Alaska from January, 1942, to July, 1943.
Foreign contingents—e.g., Free French, Poles, Czechs—are not included.

In giving an account of my stewardship and in telling the tale of the famous National Coalition Government, it is my first duty to make plain the scale and force of the contribution which Great Britain and her Empire, whom danger only united more tensely, made to what eventually became the common cause of so many states and nations. I do this with no desire to make invidious comparisons or rouse purposeless rivalries with our greatest ally, the United States, to whom we owe immeasurable and enduring gratitude. But it is to the combined interest of the English-speaking world that the magnitude of the British warmaking effort should be known and realised. I have therefore had a table made which I print on this page, which covers the whole period of the war. This shows that up till July, 1944, Britain and her Empire had a substantially larger number of divisions in contact with the enemy than the United States. This general figure includes not only the European and African spheres, but also all the war in Asia against Japan. Up till the arrival in Normandy in the autumn of 1944 of the great mass of the American Army, we had always the right to speak at least as an equal and usually as the predominant partner in every theatre of war except the Pacific and Australasian; and this remains also true, up to the time mentioned, of the aggregation of all divisions in all theatres for any given month. From July, 1944, the fighting front of the United States, as represented by divisions in contact with the enemy, became increasingly predominant, and so continued, mounting and triumphant, till the final victory ten months later.

Another comparison which I have made shows that the British and Empire sacrifice in loss of life was even greater than that of our valiant ally. The British total dead, and missing, presumed dead, of the armed forces, amounted to 303,240, to which should be added over 109,000 from the Dominions, India, and the colonies, a total of over 412,240. This figure does not include 60,500 civilians killed in the air raids on the United Kingdom, nor the losses of our merchant navy and fishermen, which amounted to about 30,000. Against this figure the United States mourn the deaths in the Army and Air Force, the Navy, Marines, and Coastguard, of 322,188.[1] I cite these sombre rolls of honour in the confident faith that the equal comradeship sanctified by so much precious blood will continue to command the reverence and inspire the conduct of the English-speaking world.

On the seas the United States naturally bore almost the entire weight of the war in the Pacific, and the decisive battles which they fought near Midway Island, at Guadalcanal, and in the Coral Sea in 1942 gained for them the whole initiative in that vast ocean domain, and opened to them the assault of all the Japanese conquests, and eventually of Japan herself. The American Navy could not at the same time carry the main burden in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Here again it is a duty to set down the facts. Out of 781 German and 85 Italian U-boats destroyed in the European theatre, the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, 594 were accounted for by British sea and air forces, who also disposed of all the German battleships, cruisers, and destroyers, besides destroying or capturing the whole Italian Fleet.

U-BOAT LOSSES

Destroyed byGermanItalianJapanese
British forces(a)525699½
United States forces(a)1745110½
Other and unknown causes821110
Totals78185130
Grand total of U-boats destroyed: 996
(a) The terms British and United States forces include Allied forces under their operational control. Where fractional losses are shown, the “kill” was shared. There were many cases of shared “kills,” but in the German totals the fractions add up to whole numbers.

The table of U-boat losses is shown in the table on this page.

In the air superb efforts were made by the United States to come into action—especially with their daylight Fortress bombers—on the greatest scale from the earliest moment after Pearl Harbour, and their power was used both against Japan and from the British Isles against Germany. However, when we reached Casablanca in January, 1943, it was a fact that no single American bomber plane had cast a daylight bomb on Germany. Very soon the fruition of the great exertions they were making was to come, but up till the end of 1943 the British discharge of bombs upon Germany had in the aggregate exceeded by eight tons to one those cast from American machines by day or night, and it was only in the spring of 1944 that the preponderance of discharge was achieved by the United States. Here, as in the armies and on the sea, we ran the full course from the beginning, and it was not until 1944 that we were overtaken and surpassed by the tremendous war effort of the United States.

It must be remembered that our munitions effort from the beginning of Lend-Lease in January, 1941, was increased by over one-fifth through the generosity of the United States. Through the materials and weapons which they gave us we were actually able to wage war as if we were a nation of fifty-eight millions instead of forty-eight. In shipping also the marvellous production of Liberty Ships enabled the flow of supplies to be maintained across the Atlantic. On the other hand, the analysis of shipping losses by enemy action suffered by all nations throughout the war should be borne in mind. Here are the figures:

NationalityLosses in Gross TonsPercentage
British11,357,00054
United States3,334,00016
All other nations (outside enemy control)6,503,00030
-------------
21,194,000100

Of these losses eighty per cent were suffered in the Atlantic Ocean, including British coastal waters and the North Sea. Only five per cent were lost in the Pacific.

This is all set down, not to claim undue credit, but to establish on a footing capable of commanding fair-minded respect the intense output in every form of war activity of the people of this small island, upon whom in the crisis of the world’s history the brunt fell.

      *      *      *      *      *      

It is probably easier to form a cabinet, especially a coalition cabinet, in the heat of battle than in quiet times. The sense of duty dominates all else, and personal claims recede. Once the main arrangements had been settled with the leaders of the other parties, with the formal authority of their organisations, the attitude of all those I sent for was like that of soldiers in action, who go to the places assigned to them at once without question. The party basis being officially established, it seemed to me that no sense of Self entered into the minds of any of the very large number of gentlemen I had to see. If some few hesitated, it was only because of public considerations. Even more did this high standard of behaviour apply to the large number of Conservative and National Liberal Ministers who had to leave their offices and break their careers, and at this moment of surpassing interest and excitement to step out of official life, in many cases forever.

The Conservatives had a majority of more than one hundred and twenty over all other parties in the House combined. Mr. Chamberlain was their chosen leader. I could not but realise that his supersession by me must be very unpleasant to many of them, after all my long years of criticism and often fierce reproach. Besides this, it must be evident to the majority of them how my life had been passed in friction or actual strife with the Conservative Party; that I had left them on Free Trade and had later returned to them as Chancellor of the Exchequer. After that I had been for many years their leading opponent on India, on foreign policy, and on the lack of preparations for war. To accept me as Prime Minister was to them very difficult. It caused pain to many honourable men. Moreover, loyalty to the chosen leader of the party is the prime characteristic of the Conservatives. If they had on some questions fallen short of their duty to the nation in the years before the war, it was because of this sense of loyalty to their appointed chief. None of these considerations caused me the slightest anxiety. I knew they were all drowned by the cannonade.

In the first instance I had offered to Mr. Chamberlain, and he had accepted, the leadership of the House of Commons, as well as the Lord Presidency. Nothing had been published. Mr. Attlee informed me that the Labour Party would not work easily under this arrangement. In a coalition the leadership of the House must be generally acceptable. I put this point to Mr. Chamberlain, and, with his ready agreement, I took the leadership myself, and held it till February, 1942. During this time Mr. Attlee acted as my deputy and did the daily work. His long experience in Opposition was of great value. I came down only on the most serious occasions. These were, however, recurrent. Many Conservatives felt that their party leader had been slighted. Everyone admired his personal conduct. On his first entry into the House in his new capacity (May 13) the whole of his party—the large majority of the House—rose and received him in a vehement demonstration of sympathy and regard. In the early weeks it was from the Labour benches that I was mainly greeted. But Mr. Chamberlain’s loyalty and support was steadfast, and I was sure of myself.

There was considerable pressure by elements of the Labour Party, and by some of those many able and ardent figures who had not been included in the new Government, for a purge of the “guilty men” and of Ministers who had been responsible for Munich or could be criticised for the many shortcomings in our war preparation. Among these Lord Halifax, Lord Simon, and Sir Samuel Hoare were the principal targets. But this was no time for proscriptions of able, patriotic men of long experience in high office. If the censorious people could have had their way, at least a third of the Conservative Ministers would have been forced to resign. Considering that Mr. Chamberlain was the leader of the Conservative Party, it was plain that this movement would be destructive of the national unity. Moreover, I had no need to ask myself whether all the blame lay on one side. Official responsibility rested upon the Government of the time. But moral responsibilities were more widely spread. A long, formidable list of quotations from speeches and votes recorded by Labour, and not less by Liberal, Ministers, all of which had been stultified by events, was in my mind and available in detail. No one had more right than I to pass a sponge across the past. I therefore resisted these disruptive tendencies. “If the present,” I said a few weeks later, “tries to sit in judgment on the past, it will lose the future.” This argument and the awful weight of the hour quelled the would-be heresy-hunters.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Early on the morning of May 11 I sent a message to Mr. Chamberlain: “No one changes houses for a month.” This avoided petty inconveniences during the crisis of the battle. I continued to live at Admiralty House and made its map room and the fine rooms downstairs my temporary headquarters. I reported to him my talk with Mr. Attlee and the progress made in forming the new Administration. “I hope to have the War Cabinet and the Fighting Services complete tonight for the King. The haste is necessitated by the battle. . . . As we [two] must work so closely together, I hope you will not find it inconvenient to occupy once again your old quarters which we both know so well in Number 11.”[2] I added:

I do not think there is any necessity for a Cabinet today, as the Armies and other Services are fighting in accordance with pre-arranged plans. I should be very glad, however, if you and Edward [Halifax] would come to the Admiralty War Room at 12.30 P.M. so that we could look at the maps and talk things over.

British and French advanced forces are already on the Antwerp-Namur line, and there seem to be very good hopes that this line will be strongly occupied by the Allied armies before it can be assailed. This should be achieved in about forty-eight hours, and might be thought to be very important. Meanwhile the Germans have not yet forced the Albert Canal, and the Belgians are reported to be fighting well. The Dutch also are making a stubborn resistance.

      *      *      *      *      *      

My experiences in those first days were peculiar. One lived with the battle, upon which all thoughts were centred and about which nothing could be done. All the time there was the Government to form and the gentlemen to see and the party balances to be adjusted. I cannot remember, nor do my records show, how all the hours were spent. A British Ministry at that time contained between sixty and seventy Ministers of the Crown, and all these had to be fitted in like a jigsaw puzzle, in this case having regard to the claims of three Parties. It was necessary for me to see not only all the principal figures, but, for a few minutes at least, the crowd of able men who were to be chosen for important tasks. In forming a Coalition Government the Prime Minister has to attach due weight to the wishes of the party leaders about whom among their followers shall have the offices allotted to the Party. By this principle I was mainly governed. If any who deserved better were left out on the advice of their party authorities, or even in spite of that advice, I can only express regret. On the whole, however, the difficulties were few.

In Clement Attlee I had a colleague of war experience long versed in the House of Commons. Our only differences in outlook were about Socialism, but these were swamped by a war soon to involve the almost complete subordination of the individual to the State. We worked together with perfect ease and confidence during the whole period of the Government. Mr. Arthur Greenwood was a wise counsellor of high courage and a good and helpful friend.

Sir Archibald Sinclair, as official leader of the Liberal Party, found it embarrassing to accept the office of Air Minister because his followers felt he should instead have a seat in the War Cabinet. But this ran contrary to the principle of a small War Cabinet. I therefore proposed that he should join the War Cabinet when any matter affecting fundamental political issues or party union was involved. He was my friend, and had been my second-in-command when in 1916 I commanded the 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers at Ploegsteerte (“Plug Street”), and personally longed to enter upon the great sphere of action I had reserved for him. After no little intercourse this had been amicably settled. Mr. Bevin, with whom I had made acquaintance at the beginning of the war, in trying to mitigate the severe Admiralty demands for trawlers, had to consult the Transport and General Workers’ Union, of which he was secretary, before he could join the team in the most important office of Minister of Labour. This took two or three days, but it was worth it. The Union, the largest of all in Britain, said unanimously that he was to do it, and stuck solid for five years till we won.

The greatest difficulty was with Lord Beaverbrook. I believed he had services to render of a very high quality. I had resolved, as the result of my experiences in the previous war, to remove the Supply and Design of Aircraft from the Air Ministry, and I wished him to become the Minister of Aircraft Production. He seemed at first reluctant to undertake the task, and of course the Air Ministry did not like having their Supply Branch separated from them. There were other resistances to his appointment. I felt sure, however, that our life depended upon the flow of new aircraft; I needed his vital and vibrant energy, and I persisted in my view.

      *      *      *      *      *      

In deference to prevailing opinions expressed in Parliament and the press it was necessary that the War Cabinet should be small. I therefore began by having only five members, of whom one only, the Foreign Secretary, had a Department. These were naturally the leading party politicians of the day. For the convenient conduct of business, it was necessary that the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the leader of the Liberal Party should usually be present, and as time passed the number of “constant attenders” grew. But all the responsibility was laid upon the five War Cabinet Ministers. They were the only ones who had the right to have their heads cut off on Tower Hill if we did not win. The rest could suffer for departmental shortcomings, but not on account of the policy of the State. Apart from the War Cabinet, no one could say “I cannot take the responsibility for this or that.” The burden of policy was borne at a higher level. This saved many people a lot of worry in the days which were immediately to fall upon us.

Here are the stages by which the National Coalition Government was built up day by day in the course of the great battle.

The War Cabinet

May 11, 1940
  
Prime Minister, First Lord of the Treasury, Minister of Defence and Leader of the House of CommonsMr. Churchill *Conservative
Lord President of the CouncilMr. Neville Chamberlain *Conservative
Lord Privy SealMr. C. R. AttleeLabour
Secretary of State for Foreign AffairsLord Halifax *Conservative
Minister without PortfolioMr. Arthur GreenwoodLabour
  
MINISTERS OF CABINET RANK
  
First Lord of the AdmiraltyMr. A. V. AlexanderLabour
Secretary of State for WarMr. Anthony Eden *Conservative
Secretary of State for AirSir Archibald SinclairLiberal
  
  
May 12
  
Lord ChancellorSir John Simon [becoming Lord Simon] *National Liberal
Chancellor of the ExchequerSir Kingsley Wood *Conservative
Home Secretary and Minister of Home SecuritySir John Anderson *Non-Party
Secretary of State for the ColoniesLord LloydConservative
President of the Board of TradeSir Andrew DuncanNon-Party
Minister of SupplyMr. Herbert MorrisonLabour
Minister of InformationMr. Alfred Duff CooperConservative
  
  
May 13
  
Secretary of State for India and BurmaMr. L. S. AmeryConservative
Minister of HealthMr. Malcolm Macdonald *National Labour
Minister of Labour and National ServiceMr. Ernest BevinLabour
Minister of FoodLord Woolton *Non-Party
  
  
May 14
  
Dominions Secretary and Leader of the House of LordsViscount Caldecote *Conservative
Secretary of State for ScotlandMr. Ernest Brown *National Liberal
Minister of Aircraft ProductionLord BeaverbrookConservative
President of the Board of EducationMr. Herwald Ramsbotham *Conservative
Minister of AgricultureMr. Robert Hudson *Conservative
Minister of TransportSir John Reith *Non-Party
Minister of ShippingMr. Ronald Cross *Conservative
Minister of Economic WarfareMr. Hugh DaltonLabour
Chancellor of the Duchy of LancasterLord Hankey *Non-Party
  
  
May 15
  
Minister of PensionsSir W. J. Womersley *Conservative
Postmaster-GeneralMr. W. S. Morrison *Conservative
Paymaster-GeneralLord CranborneConservative
Attorney-GeneralSir Donald Somervell,* K.C.Conservative
Lord AdvocateMr. T. M. Cooper,* K.C.Conservative
Solicitor-GeneralSir William Jowitt, K.C.Labour
Solicitor-General for ScotlandMr. J. S. C. Reid,* K.C.Conservative
  
* Members in previous Administration.

In my long political experience I had held most of the great offices of State, but I readily admit that the post which had now fallen to me was the one I liked the best. Power, for the sake of lording it over fellow-creatures or adding to personal pomp, is rightly judged base. But power in a national crisis, when a man believes he knows what orders should be given, is a blessing. In any sphere of action there can be no comparison between the positions of number one and number two, three, or four. The duties and the problems of all persons other than number one are quite different and in many ways more difficult. It is always a misfortune when number two or three has to initiate a dominant plan or policy. He has to consider not only the merits of the policy, but the mind of his chief; not only what to advise, but what it is proper for him in his station to advise; not only what to do, but how to get it agreed, and how to get it done. Moreover, number two or three will have to reckon with numbers four, five, and six, or maybe some bright outsider, number twenty. Ambition, not so much for vulgar ends, but for fame, glints in every mind. There are always several points of view which may be right, and many which are plausible. I was ruined for the time being in 1915 over the Dardanelles, and a supreme enterprise was cast away, through my trying to carry out a major and cardinal operation of war from a subordinate position. Men are ill-advised to try such ventures. This lesson had sunk into my nature.

At the top there are great simplifications. An accepted leader has only to be sure of what it is best to do, or at least to have made up his mind about it. The loyalties which centre upon number one are enormous. If he trips, he must be sustained. If he makes mistakes, they must be covered. If he sleeps, he must not be wantonly disturbed. If he is no good, he must be pole-axed. But this last extreme process cannot be carried out every day; and certainly not in the days just after he has been chosen.

      *      *      *      *      *      

The fundamental changes in the machinery of war direction were more real than apparent. “A Constitution,” said Napoleon, “should be short and obscure.” The existing organisms remained intact. No official personalities were changed. The War Cabinet and the Chiefs of the Staff Committee at first continued to meet every day as they had done before. In calling myself, with the King’s approval, Minister of Defence, I had made no legal or constitutional change. I had been careful not to define my rights and duties. I asked for no special powers either from the Crown or Parliament. It was, however, understood and accepted that I should assume the general direction of the war, subject to the support of the War Cabinet and of the House of Commons. The key-change which occurred on my taking over was, of course, the supervision and direction of the Chiefs of the Staff Committee by a Minister of Defence with undefined powers. As this Minister was also the Prime Minister, he had all the rights inherent in that office, including very wide powers of selection and removal of all professional and political personages. Thus for the first time the Chiefs of Staff Committee assumed its due and proper place in direct daily contact with the executive Head of the Government, and in accord with him had full control over the conduct of the war and the armed forces.

The position of the First Lord of the Admiralty and of the Secretaries of State for War and Air was decisively affected in fact though not in form. They were not members of the War Cabinet, nor did they attend the meetings of the Chiefs of Staff Committee. They remained entirely responsible for their Departments, but rapidly and almost imperceptibly ceased to be responsible for the formulation of strategic plans and the day-to-day conduct of operations. These were settled by the Chiefs of Staff Committee acting directly under the Minister of Defence and Prime Minister, and thus with the authority of the War Cabinet. The three Service Ministers, very able and trusted friends of mine whom I had picked for these duties, stood on no ceremony. They organised and administered the ever-growing forces, and helped all they could in the easy practical English fashion. They had the fullest information by virtue of their membership of the Defence Committee and constant access to me. Their professional subordinates, the Chiefs of Staff, discussed everything with them and treated them with the utmost respect. But there was an integral direction of the war to which they loyally submitted. There never was an occasion when powers were abrogated or challenged, and anyone in this circle could always speak his mind; but the actual war direction soon settled into a very few hands, and what had seemed so difficult before became much more simple—apart, of course, from Hitler. In spite of the turbulence of events and the many disasters we had to endure, the machinery worked almost automatically, and one lived in a stream of coherent thought capable of being translated with great rapidity into executive action.

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Although the awful battle was now going on across the Channel, and the reader is no doubt impatient to get there, it may be well at this point to describe the system and machinery for conducting military and other affairs which I set on foot and practised from my earliest days of power. I am a strong believer in transacting official business by The Written Word. No doubt, surveyed in the after-time, much that is set down from hour to hour under the impact of events may be lacking in proportion or may not come true. I am willing to take my chance of that. It is always better, except in the hierarchy of military discipline, to express opinions and wishes rather than to give orders. Still, written directives coming personally from the lawfully constituted Head of the Government and Minister specially charged with Defence counted to such an extent that, though not expressed as orders, they very often found their fruition in action.

To make sure that my name was not used loosely, I issued during the crisis of July the following minute:

Prime Minister to General Ismay, C.I.G.S., and Sir Edward Bridges. 19.VII.40.

Let it be very clearly understood that all directions emanating from me are made in writing, or should be immediately afterwards confirmed in writing, and that I do not accept any responsibility for matters relating to national defence on which I am alleged to have given decisions, unless they are recorded in writing.

When I woke about 8 A.M., I read all the telegrams, and from my bed dictated a continuous flow of minutes and directives to the Departments and to the Chiefs of Staff Committee. These were typed in relays as they were done, and handed at once to General Ismay, Deputy Secretary (Military) to the War Cabinet, and my representative on the Chiefs of Staff Committee, who came to see me early each morning. Thus he usually had a good deal in writing to bring before the Chiefs of Staff Committee when they met at 10.30. They gave all consideration to my views at the same time as they discussed the general situation. Thus between three and five o’clock in the afternoon, unless there were some difficulties between us requiring further consultation, there was ready a whole series of orders and telegrams sent by me or by the Chiefs of Staff and agreed between us, usually giving all the decisions immediately required.

In total war it is quite impossible to draw any precise line between military and non-military problems. That no such friction occurred between the Military Staff and the War Cabinet Staff was due primarily to the personality of Sir Edward Bridges, Secretary to the War Cabinet. Not only was this son of a former Poet Laureate an extremely competent and tireless worker, but he was also a man of exceptional force, ability, and personal charm, without a trace of jealousy in his nature. All that mattered to him was that the War Cabinet Secretariat as a whole should serve the Prime Minister and War Cabinet to the very best of their ability. No thought of his own personal position ever entered his mind and never a cross word passed between the civil and military officers of the Secretariat.

In larger questions, or if there were any differences of view, I called a meeting of the War Cabinet Defence Committee, which at the outset comprised Mr. Chamberlain, Mr. Attlee, and the three Service Ministers, with the Chiefs of the Staff in attendance. These formal meetings got fewer after 1941.[3] As the machine began to work more smoothly, I came to the conclusion that the daily meetings of the War Cabinet with the Chiefs of Staff present were no longer necessary. I therefore eventually instituted what came to be known among ourselves as the “Monday Cabinet Parade.” Every Monday there was a considerable gathering—all the War Cabinet, the Service Ministers, and the Minister of Home Security, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Secretaries of State for the Dominions and for India, the Minister of Information, the Chiefs of Staff, and the official head of the Foreign Office. At these meetings each Chief of Staff in turn unfolded his account of all that had happened during the previous seven days; and the Foreign Secretary followed them with his story of any important developments in foreign affairs. On other days of the week the War Cabinet sat alone, and all important matters requiring decision were brought before them. Other Ministers primarily concerned with the subjects to be discussed attended for their own particular problems. The members of the War Cabinet had the fullest circulation of all papers affecting the war, and saw all important telegrams sent by me. As confidence grew, the War Cabinet intervened less actively in operational matters, though they watched them with close attention and full knowledge. They took almost the whole weight of Home and Party affairs off my shoulders, thus setting me free to concentrate upon the main theme. With regard to all future operations of importance, I always consulted them in good time; but while they gave careful consideration to the issues involved, they frequently asked not to be informed of dates and details, and indeed on several occasions stopped me when I was about to unfold these to them.

I had never intended to embody the office of Minister of Defence in a Department. This would have required legislation, and all the delicate adjustments I have described, most of which settled themselves by personal good will, would have had to be thrashed out in a process of ill-timed constitution-making. There was, however, in existence and activity under the personal direction of the Prime Minister the Military Wing of the War Cabinet Secretariat, which had in pre-war days been the Secretariat of the Committee of Imperial Defence. At the head of this stood General Ismay, with Colonel Hollis and Colonel Jacob as his two principals, and a group of specially selected younger officers drawn from all three Services. This Secretariat became the staff of the Office of the Minister of Defence. My debt to its members is immeasurable. General Ismay, Colonel Hollis, and Colonel Jacob rose steadily in rank and repute as the war proceeded, and none of them was changed. Displacements in a sphere so intimate and so concerned with secret matters are detrimental to continuous and efficient despatch of business.

After some early changes almost equal stability was preserved in the Chiefs of Staff Committee. On the expiry of his term as Chief of the Air Staff, in September, 1940, Air Marshal Newall became Governor-General of New Zealand, and was succeeded by Air Marshal Portal, who was the accepted star of the Air Force. Portal remained with me throughout the war. Sir John Dill, who had succeeded General Ironside in May, 1940, remained C.I.G.S. until he accompanied me to Washington in December, 1941. I then made him my personal Military Representative with the President and head of our Joint Staff Mission. His relations with General Marshall, Chief of Staff of the United States Army, became a priceless link in all our business, and when he died in harness some two years later he was accorded the unique honour of a resting-place in Arlington Cemetery, the Valhalla hitherto reserved exclusively for American warriors. He was succeeded as C.I.G.S. by Sir Alan Brooke, who stayed with me till the end.

From 1941, for nearly four years, the early part of which was passed in much misfortune and disappointment, the only change made in this small band either among the Chiefs or in the Defence Staff was due to the death in harness of Admiral Pound. This may well be a record in British military history. A similar degree of continuity was achieved by President Roosevelt in his own circle. The United States Chiefs of Staff—General Marshall, Admiral King, and General Arnold, subsequently joined by Admiral Leahy—started together on the American entry into the war, and were never changed. As both the British and Americans presently formed the Combined Chiefs of Staff Committee, this was an inestimable advantage for all. Nothing like it between allies has ever been known before.

I cannot say that we never differed among ourselves even at home, but a kind of understanding grew up between me and the British Chiefs of Staff that we should convince and persuade rather than try to overrule each other. This was, of course, helped by the fact that we spoke the same technical language, and possessed a large common body of military doctrine and war experience. In this ever-changing scene we moved as one, and the War Cabinet clothed us with ever more discretion, and sustained us with unwearied and unflinching constancy. There was no division, as in the previous war, between politicians and soldiers, between the “Frocks” and the “Brass Hats”—odious terms which darkened counsel. We came very close together indeed, and friendships were formed which I believe were deeply valued.

The efficiency of a war administration depends mainly upon whether decisions emanating from the highest approved authority are in fact strictly, faithfully, and punctually obeyed. This we achieved in Britain in this time of crisis, owing to the intense fidelity, comprehension, and whole-hearted resolve of the War Cabinet upon the essential purpose to which we had devoted ourselves. According to the directions given, ships, troops, and aeroplanes moved, and the wheels of factories spun. By all these processes, and by the confidence, indulgence, and loyalty by which I was upborne, I was soon able to give an integral direction to almost every aspect of the war. This was really necessary because times were so very bad. The method was accepted because everyone realised how near were death and ruin. Not only individual death, which is the universal experience, stood near, but, incomparably more commanding, the life of Britain, her message, and her glory.

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Any account of the methods of government which developed under the National Coalition would be incomplete without an explanation of the series of personal messages which I sent to the President of the United States and the heads of other foreign countries and the Dominion Governments. This correspondence must be described. Having obtained from the Cabinet any specific decisions required on policy, I composed and dictated these documents myself, for the most part on the basis that they were intimate and informal correspondence with friends and fellow-workers. One can usually put one’s thought better in one’s own words. It was only occasionally that I read the text to the Cabinet beforehand. Knowing their views, I used the ease and freedom needed for the doing of my work. I was of course hand-in-glove with the Foreign Secretary and his Department, and any differences of view were settled together. I circulated these telegrams, in some cases after they had been sent, to the principal members of the War Cabinet, and, where he was concerned, to the Dominions Secretary. Before despatching them I, of course, had my points and facts checked departmentally, and nearly all military messages passed through Ismay’s hands to the Chiefs of Staff. This correspondence in no way ran counter to the official communications or the work of the Ambassadors. It became, however, in fact the channel of much vital business, and played a part in my conduct of the war not less, and sometimes even more, important than my duties as Minister of Defence.

The very select circle, who were entirely free to express their opinion, were almost invariably content with the drafts and gave me an increasing measure of confidence. Differences with American authorities, for instance, insuperable at the second level, were settled often in a few hours by direct contact at the top. Indeed, as time went on, the efficacy of this top-level transaction of business was so apparent that I had to be careful not to let it become a vehicle for ordinary departmental affairs. I had repeatedly to refuse the requests of my colleagues to address President Roosevelt personally on important matters of detail. Had these intruded unduly upon the personal correspondence, they would soon have destroyed its privacy and consequently its value.

My relations with the President gradually became so close that the chief business between our two countries was virtually conducted by these personal interchanges between him and me. In this way our perfect understanding was gained. As Head of the State as well as Head of the Government, Roosevelt spoke and acted with authority in every sphere; and, carrying the War Cabinet with me, I represented Great Britain with almost equal latitude. Thus a very high degree of concert was obtained, and the saving in time and the reduction in the number of people informed were both invaluable. I sent my cables to the American Embassy in London, which was in direct touch with the President at the White House through special coding machines. The speed with which answers were received and things settled was aided by clock-time. Any message which I prepared in the evening, night, or even up to two o’clock in the morning, would reach the President before he went to bed, and very often his answer would come back to me when I woke the next morning. In all, I sent him nine hundred and fifty messages and received about eight hundred in reply. I felt I was in contact with a very great man who was also a friend and the foremost champion of the high causes which we served.

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The Cabinet being favourable to my trying to obtain destroyers from the American Government, I drafted during the afternoon of May 15 my first message to President Roosevelt since I became Prime Minister. To preserve the continuity of our correspondence I signed myself “Former Naval Person,” and to this fancy I adhered almost without exception throughout the war.

Although I have changed my office, I am sure you would not wish me to discontinue our intimate private correspondence. As you are no doubt aware, the scene has darkened swiftly. The enemy have a marked preponderance in the air, and their new technique is making a deep impression upon the French. I think myself the battle on land has only just begun, and I should like to see the masses engage. Up to the present, Hitler is working with specialised units in tanks and air. The small countries are simply smashed up, one by one, like matchwood. We must expect, though it is not yet certain, that Mussolini will hurry in to share the loot of civilisation. We expect to be attacked here ourselves, both from the air and by parachute and air-borne troops, in the near future, and are getting ready for them. If necessary, we shall continue the war alone, and we are not afraid of that.

But I trust you realise, Mr. President, that the voice and force of the United States may count for nothing if they are withheld too long. You may have a completely subjugated, Nazified Europe established with astonishing swiftness, and the weight may be more than we can bear. All I ask now is that you should proclaim non-belligerency, which would mean that you would help us with everything short of actually engaging armed forces. Immediate needs are: First of all, the loan of forty or fifty of your older destroyers to bridge the gap between what we have now and the large new construction we put in hand at the beginning of the war. This time next year we shall have plenty. But if in the interval Italy comes in against us with another one hundred submarines, we may be strained to breaking-point. Secondly, we want several hundred of the latest types of aircraft, of which you are now getting delivery. These can be repaid by those now being constructed in the United States for us. Thirdly, anti-aircraft equipment and ammunition, of which again there will be plenty next year, if we are alive to see it. Fourthly, the fact that our ore supply is being compromised from Sweden, from North Africa, and perhaps from Northern Spain, makes it necessary to purchase steel in the United States. This also applies to other materials. We shall go on paying dollars for as long as we can, but I should like to feel reasonably sure that when we can pay no more, you will give us the stuff all the same. Fifthly, we have many reports of possible German parachute or air-borne descents in Ireland. The visit of a United States Squadron to Irish ports, which might well be prolonged, would be invaluable. Sixthly, I am looking to you to keep the Japanese quiet in the Pacific, using Singapore in any way convenient. The details of the material which we have in hand will be communicated to you separately.

With all good wishes and respect.

On May 18 a reply was received from the President welcoming the continuance of our private correspondence and dealing with my specific requests. The loan or gift of the forty or fifty older destroyers, it was stated, would require the authorisation of Congress, and the moment was not opportune. He would facilitate to the utmost the Allied Governments obtaining the latest types of United States aircraft, anti-aircraft equipment, ammunition, and steel. In all this the representations of our agent, the highly competent and devoted Mr. Purvis (presently to give his life in an air accident) would receive most favourable consideration. The President would consider carefully my suggestion that a United States Squadron might visit Irish ports. About the Japanese, he merely pointed to the concentration of the American Fleet at Pearl Harbour.

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On Monday, May 13, I asked the House of Commons, which had been specially summoned, for a vote of confidence in the new Administration. After reporting the progress which had been made in filling the various offices, I said, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” In all our long history no Prime Minister had ever been able to present to Parliament and the nation a programme at once so short and so popular. I ended:

You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land, and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us: to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, What is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory—victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror; victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival. Let that be realised; no survival for the British Empire; no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal. But I take up my task with buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men. At this time I feel entitled to claim the aid of all, and I say, “Come, then, let us go forward together with our united strength.”

Upon these simple issues the House voted unanimously, and adjourned till May 21.

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Thus, then, we all started on our common task. Never did a British Prime Minister receive from Cabinet colleagues the loyal and true aid which I enjoyed during the next five years from these men of all Parties in the State. Parliament, while maintaining free and active criticism, gave continuous, overwhelming support to all measures proposed by the Government, and the nation was united and ardent as never before. It was well indeed that this should be so, because events were to come upon us of an order more terrible than anyone had foreseen.


Eisenhower “Crusade in Europe.”

The house in Downing Street, usually occupied by the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

The Defence Committee met 40 times in 1940, 76 in 1941, 20 in 1942, 14 in 1943, and 10 in 1944.

2
The Battle of France: Gamelin

The First Week, May 10 to May 16

Plan D—The German Order of Battle—German and French Armour—French and British Advance Through Belgium—Holland Overrun—The Belgian Problem—Accepted Primacy of France in the Military Art—The Gap in the Ardennes—British Difficulties During the Twilight War Phase—Progress of Plan D—Bad News of May 13 and 14—Kleist’s Group of Armies Break the French Front—Heavy British Air Losses—Our Final Limit for Home Defence—Reynaud Telephones Me Morning of May 15—Destruction of the French Ninth Army Opposite the Ardennes Gap—“Cease Fire” in Holland—The Italian Menace—I Fly to Paris—Meeting at the Quai D’Orsay—General Gamelin’s Statement—No Strategic Reserve: “Aucune”—Proposed Attacks on the German “Bulge”—French Demands for More British Fighter Squadrons—My Telegram to the Cabinet on the Night of May 16—Cabinet Agrees to Send Ten More Fighter Squadrons.

At the moment in the evening of May 10 when I became responsible, no fresh decision about meeting the German invasion of the Low Countries was required from me or from my colleagues in the new and still unformed Administration. We had long been assured that the French and British staffs were fully agreed upon General Gamelin’s Plan D, and it had already been in action since dawn. In fact, by the morning of the 11th the whole vast operation had made great progress. On the seaward flank General Giraud’s Seventh French Army had already begun its adventurous dash into Holland. In the centre the British armoured-car patrols of the 12th Lancers were upon the river Dyle, and to the south of our front all the rest of General Billotte’s First Group of Armies were hastening forward to the Meuse. The opinion of the Allied military chiefs was that Plan D, if successful, would save anything from twelve to fifteen divisions by shortening the front against Germany, and then, of course, there was the Belgian Army of twenty-two divisions besides the Dutch Army of ten divisions, without which our total forces in the West were numerically inferior. I did not therefore in the slightest degree wish to interfere with the military plans, and awaited with hope the impending shock.

Nevertheless, if in the after-light we look back upon the scene, the important paper written by the British Chiefs of Staff on September 18,[1] 1939, becomes prominent. In this it had been affirmed that unless the Belgians were effectively holding their front on the Meuse and the Albert Canal, it would be wrong for the British and French to rush to their aid; but that they should rather stand firm on the French frontier, or at the most swing their left hand slightly forward to the line of the Scheldt. Since those days of September, 1939, agreement had been reached to carry out General Gamelin’s Plan D. Nothing had, however, happened in the interval to weaken the original view of the British Chiefs of Staff. On the contrary, much had happened to strengthen it. The German Army had grown in strength and maturity with every month that had passed, and they now had a vastly more powerful armour. The French Army, gnawed by Soviet-inspired Communism and chilled by the long, cheerless winter on the front, had actually deteriorated. The Belgian Government, staking their country’s life upon Hitler’s respect for international law and Belgian neutrality, had not achieved any effective joint planning between their army chiefs and those of the Allies. The anti-tank obstacles and defensive line which were to have been prepared on the front Namur-Louvain were inadequate and unfinished. The Belgian Army, which contained many brave and resolute men, could hardly brace itself for a conflict for fear of offending neutrality. The Belgian front had been, in fact, overrun at many points by the first wave of German assault, even before General Gamelin gave the signal to execute his long-prepared plan. The most that could now be hoped for was success in that very “encounter battle” which the French High Command had declared itself resolved to avoid.

On the outbreak of the war eight months before, the main power of the German Army and Air Force had been concentrated on the invasion and conquest of Poland. Along the whole of the Western Front, from Aix-la-Chapelle to the Swiss frontier, there had stood 42 German divisions without armour. After the French mobilisation, France could deploy the equivalent of 70 divisions opposite to them. For reasons which have been explained, it was not deemed possible to attack the Germans then. Very different was the situation on May 10, 1940. The enemy, profiting by the eight months’ delay and by the destruction of Poland, had armed, equipped, and trained about 155 divisions, of which ten were armoured (“Panzer”). Hitler’s agreement with Stalin had enabled him to reduce the German forces in the East to the smallest proportions. Opposite Russia, according to General Halder, the German Chief of Staff, there was “no more than a light covering force, scarcely fit for collecting customs duties.” Without premonition of their own future, the Soviet Government watched the destruction of that “Second Front” in the West for which they were soon to call so vehemently and to wait in agony so long. Hitler was therefore in a position to deliver his onslaught on France with 126 divisions and the whole of the immense armour weapon of ten Panzer divisions, comprising nearly three thousand armoured vehicles, of which a thousand at least were heavy tanks.

These mighty forces were deployed from the North Sea to Switzerland in the following order:

Army Group B, comprising 28 divisions, under General von Bock, marshalled along the front from the North Sea to Aix-la-Chapelle, was to overrun Holland and Belgium, and thereafter advance into France as the German right wing.

Army Group A, of 44 divisions, under General von Rundstedt, constituting the main thrust, was ranged along the front from Aix-la-Chapelle to the Moselle.

Army Group C, of 17 divisions, under General von Leeb, held the Rhine from the Moselle to the Swiss frontier.

The O.K.H. (Supreme Army Command) Reserve consisted of about 47 divisions, of which 20 were in immediate reserve behind the various Army Groups, and 27 in general reserve.

Opposite this array, the exact strength and disposition or which was, of course, unknown to us, the First Group of Armies, under General Billotte, consisting of 51 divisions of which 9 were held in G.Q.G. (Grand Quartier Général Reserve), including 9 British divisions, stretched from the end of the Maginot Line near Longwy to the Belgian frontier, and behind the frontiers to the sea in front of Dunkirk. The Second and Third Groups of Armies, under Generals Prételat and Besson, consisting, with the reserves, of 43 divisions, guarded the French frontier from Longwy to Switzerland. In addition the French had the equivalent of 9 divisions occupying the Maginot Line—a total of 103 divisions. If the armies of Belgium and Holland became involved, this number would be increased by 22 Belgian and 10 Dutch divisions. As both these countries were immediately attacked, the grand total of Allied divisions of all qualities nominally available on May 10 was therefore 135, or practically the same number as we now know the enemy possessed. Properly organised and equipped, well trained and led, this force should, according to the standards of the previous war, have had a good chance of bringing the invasion to a stop.

However, the Germans had full freedom to choose the moment, the direction, and the strength of their attack. More than half of the French Army stood on the southern and eastern sectors of France, and the fifty-one French and British divisions of General Billotte’s Army Group No. 1, with whatever Belgian and Dutch aid was forthcoming, had to face the onslaught of upwards of seventy hostile divisions under Bock and Rundstedt between Longwy and the sea. The combination of the almost cannon-proof tank and dive-bomber aircraft, which had proved so successful in Poland on a smaller scale, was again to form the spearhead of the main attack, and a group of five Panzer and three motorised divisions under Kleist, included in Germany Army Group A, was directed through the Ardennes on Sedan and Monthermé.

To meet such modern forms of war the French deployed about 2300 tanks, mostly light. Their armoured formations included some powerful modern types, but more than half their total armoured strength was held in dispersed battalions of light tanks, for co-operation with the infantry. Their six armoured divisions, with which alone they could have countered the massed Panzer assault, were widely distributed over the front, and could not be collected together to operate in coherent action. Britain, the birthplace of the tank, had only just completed the formation and training of her first armoured division (328 tanks), which was still in England.

The German fighter aircraft now concentrated in the West were far superior to the French in numbers and quality. The British Air Force in France comprised the ten fighter squadrons (Hurricanes) which could be spared from vital Home Defence, eight squadrons of Battles, six of Blenheims, and five of Lysanders. Neither the French nor the British air authorities had equipped themselves with dive-bombers, which at this time, as in Poland, became prominent, and were to play an important part in the demoralisation of the French infantry and particularly of their coloured troops.

During the night of 9/10 May, heralded by widespread air attacks against airfields, communications, headquarters, and magazines, all the German forces in the Bock and Rundstedt Army Groups sprang forward towards France across the frontiers of Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg. Complete tactical surprise was achieved in nearly every case. Out of the darkness came suddenly innumerable parties of well-armed ardent storm troops, often with light artillery, and long before daybreak a hundred and fifty miles of front were aflame. Holland and Belgium, assaulted without the slightest pretext of warning, cried aloud for help. The Dutch had trusted to their waterline; all the sluices not seized or betrayed were opened, and the Dutch frontier guards fired upon the invaders. The Belgians succeeded in destroying the bridges of the Meuse, but the Germans captured intact two across the Albert Canal.

By Plan D, the First Allied Army Group, under General Billotte, with its small but very fine British army, was, from the moment when the Germans violated the frontier, to advance east into Belgium. It was intended to forestall the enemy and stand on the line Meuse-Louvain-Antwerp. In front of that line, along the Meuse and the Albert Canal, lay the main Belgian forces. Should these stem the first German onrush, the Army Group would support them. It seemed more probable that the Belgians would be at once thrown back onto the Allied line. And this, in fact, happened. It was assumed that in this case the Belgian resistance would give a short breathing-space, during which the French and British could organise their new position. Except on the critical front of the French Ninth Army, this was accomplished. On the extreme left or seaward flank the Seventh French Army was to seize the islands commanding the mouth of the Scheldt, and, if possible, to assist the Dutch by an advance toward Breda. It was thought that on our southern flank the Ardennes were impassable for large modern armies, and south of that again began the regular fortified Maginot Line, stretching out to the Rhine and along the Rhine to Switzerland. All therefore seemed to depend upon the forward left-handed counter-stroke of the Allied Northern Armies. This again hung upon the speed with which Belgium could be occupied. Everything had been worked out in this way with the utmost detail, and only a signal was necessary to hurl forward the Allied force of well over a million men. At 5.30 A.M. on May 10, Lord Gort received a message from General Georges ordering “Alertes 1, 2, and 3”; namely, instant readiness to move into Belgium. At 6.45 A.M. General Gamelin ordered the execution of Plan D, and the long-prepared scheme of the French High Command, to which the British had subordinated themselves, came at once into action.

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Mr. Colijn, when as Dutch Prime Minister he visited me in 1937, had explained to me the marvellous efficiency of the Dutch inundations. He could, he explained, by a telephone message from the luncheon table at Chartwell, press a button which would confront an invader with impassable water obstacles. But all this was nonsense. The power of a great State against a small one under modern conditions is overwhelming. The Germans broke through at every point, bridging the canals or seizing the locks and water-controls. In a single day all the outer line of the Dutch defences was mastered. At the same time the German Air Force began to use its might upon a defenceless country. The Dutch hope that they would be bypassed by the German right-handed swing as in the former war was vain.

The case of Belgium requires more searching statement. Several hundreds of thousands of British and French graves in Belgium mark the struggle of the previous war. The policy of Belgium in the years between the wars had not taken sufficient account of the past. The Belgian leaders saw with worried eyes the internal weakness of France and the vacillating pacifism of Britain. They clung to a strict neutrality. In the years before they were again invaded, their attitude towards the two mighty arrays which confronted each other was, officially at any rate, quite impartial. Great allowance must be made for the fearful problems of a small State in such a plight, but the French High Command had for years spoken bitterly of the line taken by the Belgian Government. Their only chance of defending their frontier against a German attack lay in a close alliance with France and Britain. The line of the Albert Canal and other water fronts was highly defensible, and had the British and French armies, aided by the Belgian armies, after the declaration of war, been drawn up on the Belgian frontiers in good time, a very strong offensive might have been prepared and launched from these positions against Germany. But the Belgian Government deemed that their safety lay in the most rigid neutrality, and their only hope was founded on German good faith and respect for treaties.

Even after Britain and France had entered into war, it was impossible to persuade them to rejoin the old alliance. They declared they would defend their neutrality to the death, and placed nine-tenths of their forces on their German frontier, while at the same time they strictly forbade the Anglo-French Army to enter their country and make effective preparations for their defence or for forestalling counter-strokes. The construction of new lines and the anti-tank ditch during the winter of 1939 by the British armies, with the French First Army on their right, along the Franco-Belgian frontier, had been the only measure open to us. It is a haunting question whether the whole policy of Plan D should not have been reviewed upon this basis, and whether we would not have been wiser to stand and fight on the French frontier, and amid these strong defences invite the Belgian Army to fall back upon them, rather than make the hazardous and hurried forward leap to the Dyle or the Albert Canal.

      *      *      *      *      *      

No one can understand the decisions of that period without realising the immense authority wielded by the French military leaders and the belief of every French officer that France had the primacy in the military art. France had conducted and carried the main weight of the terrible land fighting from 1914 to 1918. She had lost fourteen hundred thousand men killed. Foch had held the supreme command, and the great British and Imperial armies of sixty or seventy divisions had been placed, like the Americans, unreservedly under his orders. Now the British Expeditionary Army numbered but three or four hundred thousand men, spread from the bases at Havre and along the coast forward to the line, compared with nearly a hundred French divisions, or over two million Frenchmen, actually holding the long front from Belgium to Switzerland. It was natural, therefore, that we should place ourselves under their command, and that their judgment should be accepted. It had been expected that General Georges would take full command of the French and British armies in the field from the moment when war was declared, and General Gamelin was expected to retire to an advisory position on the French Military Council. However, General Gamelin was averse from yielding his control as Generalissimo. He retained the supreme direction. A vexatious conflict of authority took place between him and General Georges during the eight months’ lull. General Georges, in my opinion, never had the chance to make the strategic plan in its integrity and on his own responsibility.

The British General Staff and our headquarters in the field had long been anxious about the gap between the northern end of the Maginot Line and the beginning of the British fortified front along the Franco-Belgian frontier. Mr. Hore-Belisha, the Secretary of State for War, raised the point in the War Cabinet on several occasions. Representations were made through military channels. Considering, however, our relatively small contribution, the Cabinet and our military leaders were naturally shy of criticising those whose armies were ten times as strong as our own. The French thought that the Ardennes were impassable for large modern armies. Marshal Pétain had told the Senate Army Commission: “This sector is not dangerous.” A great deal of field work was done along the Meuse, but nothing like a strong line of pillboxes and anti-tank obstacles, such as the British had made along the Belgian sector, was attempted. Moreover, General Corap’s Ninth French Army was mainly composed of troops who were definitely below the French standards. Out of its nine divisions, two were of cavalry, partly mechanised, one was a fortress division, two (61st and 53d) belonged to a secondary category, two (22d and 18th) were not much inferior to active divisions; only two were divisions of the permanent regular army. Here, then, from Sedan to Hirson on the Oise, along a front of fifty miles, there were no permanent fortifications, and only two divisions of professional troops.

One cannot be strong everywhere. It is often right and necessary to hold long sectors of a frontier with light covering forces, but this, of course, should be only with the object of gathering larger reserves for counter-attacks when the enemy’s striking-points are revealed. The spreading of forty-three divisions, or half the mobile French army, from Longwy to the Swiss frontier, the whole of which was either defended by the Maginot Line forts or by the broad, swift-flowing Rhine, with its own fortress system behind it, was an improvident disposition. The risks that have to be run by the defender are more trying than those which an assailant, who is presumably the stronger at the point of attack, must dare. Where very long fronts are concerned, they can only be met by strong mobile reserves which can rapidly intervene in a decisive battle. A weight of opinion supports the criticism that the French reserves were inadequate, and, such as they were, badly distributed. After all, the gap behind the Ardennes opened the shortest road from Germany to Paris, and had for centuries been a famous battleground. If the enemy penetrated here, the whole forward movement of the Northern Armies would be deprived of its pivot, and all their communications would be endangered equally with the capital.

Looking back, we can see that Mr. Chamberlain’s War Cabinet, in which I served and for whose acts or neglects I take my full share of responsibility, ought not to have been deterred from thrashing the matter out with the French in the autumn and winter of 1939. It would have been an unpleasant and difficult argument, for the French at every stage could say: “Why do you not send more troops of your own? Will you not take over a wider sector of the front? If reserves are lacking, pray supply them. We have five million men mobilised.[2] We follow your ideas about the war at sea: we conform to the plans of the British Admiralty. Pray show a proper confidence in the French Army and in our historic mastery of the art of war on land.”

Nevertheless we ought to have done it.

Hitler and his generals were in little doubt as to the military views and general arrangements of their opponents. During this same autumn and winter the German factories had poured out tanks, the plants for making which must have been well advanced at the Munich crisis in 1938, and bore abundant fruit in the eight months that had passed since war began. They were not at all deterred by the physical difficulties of traversing the Ardennes. On the contrary, they believed that modern mechanical transport and vast organised road-making capacity would make this region, hitherto deemed impassable, the shortest, surest, and easiest method of penetrating France and of rupturing the whole French scheme of counter-attack. Accordingly, the German Supreme Army Command (O.K.H.) planned their enormous onrush through the Ardennes to sever the curling left arm of the Allied Northern Armies at the shoulder-joint. The movement, though on a far larger scale and with different speeds and weapons, was not unlike Napoleon’s thrust at the Plateau of Pratzen in the battle of Austerlitz, whereby the entire Austro-Russian turning move was cut off and ruined and their centre broken.

      *      *      *      *      *      

At the signal the Northern Armies sprang to the rescue of Belgium and poured forward along all the roads amid the cheers of the inhabitants. The first phase of Plan D was completed by May 12. The French held the left bank of the Meuse to Huy, and their light forces beyond the river were falling back before increasing enemy pressure. The armoured divisions of the French First Army reached the line Huy-Hannut-Tirlemont. The Belgians, having lost the Albert Canal, were falling back to the line of the river Gette and taking up their prescribed position from Antwerp to Louvain. They still held Liége and Namur. The French Seventh Army had occupied the islands of Walcheren and South Beveland, and were engaged with mechanised units of the German Eighteenth Army on the line Herenthals—Bergen-op-Zoom. So rapid had been the advance of the French Seventh Army that it had already outrun its ammunition supplies. The superiority in quality though not in numbers of the British Air Force was already apparent. Thus up till the night of the 12th there was no reason to suppose that the operations were not going well.

However, during the 13th Lord Gort’s Headquarters became aware of the weight of the German thrust on the front of the French Ninth Army. By nightfall the enemy had established themselves on the west bank of the Meuse, on either side of Dinant and Sedan. The French G.Q.G. (Grand Quartier Général) were not yet certain whether the main German effort was directed through Luxembourg against the left of the Maginot Line or through Maastricht towards Brussels. Along the whole front Louvain-Namur-Dinant to Sedan an intense, heavy battle had developed, but under conditions which General Gamelin had not contemplated, for at Dinant the French Ninth Army had no time to install themselves before the enemy was upon them.

      *      *      *      *      *      

During the 14th the bad news began to come in. At first all was vague. At 7 P.M. I read to the Cabinet a message received from M. Reynaud stating that the Germans had broken through at Sedan, that the French were unable to resist the combination of tanks and dive-bombing, and asking for ten more squadrons of fighters to re-establish the line. Other messages received by the Chiefs of Staff gave similar information, and added that both Generals Gamelin and Georges took a serious view of the situation and that General Gamelin was surprised at the rapidity of the enemy’s advance. In fact, Kleist’s Group, with its immense mass of armour, heavy and light, had completely scattered or destroyed the French troops on their immediate front, and could now move forward at a pace never before known in war. At almost all points where the armies had come in contact, the weight and fury of the German attack was overpowering. They crossed the Meuse in the Dinant sector with two more armoured divisions. To the north the fighting on the front of the French First Army had been most severe. The First and Second British Corps were still in position from Wavre to Louvain, where our Third Division, under General Montgomery, had had sharp fighting. Farther north the Belgians were retiring to the Antwerp defences. The French Seventh Army on the seaward flank was recoiling even quicker than it had advanced.

From the moment of the invasion we began “Operation Royal Marine,” the launching of the fluvial mines into the Rhine, and in the first week of the battle nearly 1700 were “streamed.”[3] They produced immediate results. Practically all river traffic between Karlsruhe and Mainz was suspended, and extensive damage was done to the Karlsruhe barrage and a number of pontoon bridges. The success of this device was, however, lost in the deluge of disaster.

All the British air squadrons fought continuously, their principal effort being against the pontoon bridges in the Sedan area. Several of these were destroyed and others damaged in desperate and devoted attacks. The losses in the low-level attacks on the bridges from the German anti-aircraft artillery were cruel. In one case, of six aircraft only one returned from the successful task. On this day alone we lost a total of sixty-seven machines, and being engaged principally with the enemy’s anti-aircraft forces, accounted for only fifty-three German aircraft. That night there remained in France of the Royal Air Force only 206 serviceable aircraft out of 474.

This detailed information came only gradually to hand. But it was already clear that the continuance of fighting on this scale would soon completely consume the British Air Force in spite of its individual ascendancy. The hard question of how much we could send from Britain without leaving ourselves defenceless and thus losing the power to continue the war pressed itself henceforward upon us. Our own natural promptings and many weighty military arguments lent force to the incessant, vehement French appeals. On the other hand, there was a limit, and that limit if transgressed would cost us our life.

At this time all these issues were discussed by the whole War Cabinet, which met several times a day. Air Chief Marshal Dowding, at the head of our metropolitan fighter command, had declared to me that with twenty-five squadrons of fighters he could defend the island against the whole might of the German Air Force, but that with less he would be overpowered. This would have entailed not only the destruction of all our airfields and our air power, but of the aircraft factories on which our whole future hung. My colleagues and I were resolved to run all risks for the sake of the battle up to that limit—and those risks were very great—but not to go beyond it, no matter what the consequences might be.

About half-past seven on the morning of the 15th I was woken up with the news that M. Reynaud was on the telephone at my bedside. He spoke in English, and evidently under stress. “We have been defeated.” As I did not immediately respond he said again, “We are beaten; we have lost the battle.” I said, “Surely it can’t have happened so soon?” But he replied, “The front is broken near Sedan; they are pouring through in great numbers with tanks and armoured cars”—or words to that effect. I then said, “All experience shows that the offensive will come to an end after a while. I remember the 21st of March, 1918. After five or six days they have to halt for supplies, and the opportunity for counter-attack is presented. I learned all this at the time from the lips of Marshal Foch himself.” Certainly, this was what we had always seen in the past and what we ought to have seen now. However, the French Premier came back to the sentence with which he had begun, which proved indeed only too true: “We are defeated; we have lost the battle.” I said I was willing to come over and have a talk.

On this day Corap’s French Ninth Army was in a state of complete dissolution, and its remnants were divided up between General Giraud of the Seventh French Army, who took over from Corap in the north, and the headquarters of the Sixth French Army, which was forming in the south. A gap of some fifty miles had in fact been punched in the French line, through which the vast mass of enemy armour was pouring. By the evening of the 15th, German armoured cars were reported to be in Liart and Montcornet, the latter sixty miles behind the original front. The French First Army was also pierced on a five-thousand yards front south of Limal. Farther north all attacks on the British were repulsed. The German attack and the retirement of the French division on their right compelled the making of a British defensive flank facing south. The French Seventh Army had retreated into the Antwerp defences west of the Scheldt, and was being driven out of the islands of Walcheren and South Beveland.

On this day also the struggle in Holland came to an end. Owing to the “Cease Fire” order given by the Dutch High Command at 11 A.M., only a very few Dutch troops could be evacuated.

Of course this picture presented a general impression of defeat. I had seen a good deal of this sort of thing in the previous war, and the idea of the line being broken, even on a broad front, did not convey to my mind the appalling consequences that now flowed from it. Not having had access to official information for so many years, I did not comprehend the violence of the revolution effected since the last war by the incursion of a mass of fast-moving heavy armour. I knew about it, but it had not altered my inward convictions as it should have done. There was nothing I could have done if it had. I rang up General Georges, who seemed quite cool, and reported that the breach at Sedan was being plugged. A telegram from General Gamelin also stated that, although the position between Namur and Sedan was serious, he viewed the situation with calm. I reported Reynaud’s message and other news to the Cabinet at 11 A.M., the Chiefs of Staff being present.

On the 16th the German spearheads stood along the line La Capelle-Vervins-Marle-Laon, and the vanguards of the German Fourteenth Corps were in support at Montcornet and Neufchâtel-sur-Aisne. The fall of Laon confirmed the penetration of over sixty miles inward upon us from the frontier near Sedan. Under this threat and the ever-increasing pressure on their own front, the First French Army and the British Expeditionary Force were ordered to withdraw in three stages to the Scheldt. Although none of these details were available even to the War Office, and no clear view could be formed of what was happening, the gravity of the crisis was obvious. I felt it imperative to go to Paris that afternoon. My colleagues accepted the fact that I must go, and said they would look after everything at home.

      *      *      *      *      *      

We had to expect that the disastrous events on the front would bring new foes upon us. Although there were no indications of a change in Italian policy, the Minister of Shipping was given instructions to thin out the shipping in the Mediterranean. No more British ships were to come homewards from Aden. We had already diverted round the Cape the first convoy carrying the Australian troops to England. The Defence Committee were instructed to consider action in the event of war with Italy, particularly with regard to Crete. Schemes for evacuating civilians from Aden and Gibraltar were put into operation.

      *      *      *      *      *      

At about 3 P.M. I flew to Paris in a Flamingo, a Government passenger plane, of which there were three. General Dill, Vice-Chief of the Imperial General Staff, came with me, and Ismay.

It was a good machine, very comfortable, and making about a hundred and sixty miles an hour. As it was unarmed, an escort was provided, but we soared off into a rain-cloud and reached Le Bourget in little more than an hour. From the moment we got out of the Flamingo, it was obvious that the situation was incomparably worse than we had imagined. The officers who met us told General Ismay that the Germans were expected in Paris in a few days at most. After hearing at the Embassy about the position, I drove to the Quai d’Orsay, arriving at 5.30 o’clock. I was conducted into one of its fine rooms. Reynaud was there, Daladier, Minister of National Defence and War, and General Gamelin. Everybody was standing. At no time did we sit down around a table. Utter dejection was written on every face. In front of Gamelin on a student’s easel was a map, about two yards square, with a black ink line purporting to show the Allied front. In this line there was drawn a small but sinister bulge at Sedan.

The Commander-in-Chief briefly explained what had happened. North and south of Sedan, on a front of fifty or sixty miles, the Germans had broken through. The French army in front of them was destroyed or scattered. A heavy onrush of armoured vehicles was advancing with unheard-of speed toward Amiens and Arras, with the intention, apparently, of reaching the coast at Abbeville or thereabouts. Alternatively they might make for Paris. Behind the armour, he said, eight or ten German divisions, all motorised, were driving onwards, making flanks for themselves as they advanced against the two disconnected French armies on either side. The General talked perhaps five minutes without anyone saying a word. When he stopped there was a considerable silence. I then asked: “Where is the strategic reserve?” and, breaking into French, which I used indifferently (in every sense): “Où est la masse de manoeuvre?” General Gamelin turned to me and, with a shake of the head and a shrug, said: “Aucune.”

There was another long pause. Outside in the garden of the Quai d’Orsay clouds of smoke arose from large bonfires, and I saw from the window venerable officials pushing wheelbarrows of archives onto them. Already, therefore, the evacuation of Paris was being prepared.

Past experience carries with its advantages the drawback that things never happen the same way again. Otherwise I suppose life would be too easy. After all, we had often had our fronts broken before; always we had been able to pull things together and wear down the momentum of the assault. But here were two new factors that I had never expected to have to face. First, the overrunning of the whole of the communications and countryside by an irresistible incursion of the armoured vehicles, and secondly no strategic reserve. “Aucune.” I was dumbfounded. What were we to think of the great French Army and its highest chiefs? It had never occurred to me that any commanders having to defend five hundred miles of engaged front would have left themselves unprovided with a mass of manoeuvre. No one can defend with certainty so wide a front; but when the enemy has committed himself to a major thrust which breaks the line, one can always have, one must always have, a mass of divisions which marches up in vehement counter-attack at the moment when the first fury of the offensive has spent its force.

What was the Maginot Line for? It should have economised troops upon a large sector of the frontier, not only offering many sally-ports for local counter-strokes, but also enabling large forces to be held in reserve: and this is the only way these things can be done. But now there was no reserve. I admit this was one of the greatest surprises I have had in my life. Why had I not known more about it, even though I had been so busy at the Admiralty? Why had the British Government, and the War Office above all, not known more about it? It was no excuse that the French High Command would not impart their dispositions to us or to Lord Gort except in vague outline. We had a right to know. We ought to have insisted. Both armies were fighting in the line together. I went back again to the window and the curling wreaths of smoke from the bonfires of the State documents of the French Republic. Still the old gentlemen were bringing up their wheelbarrows, and industriously casting their contents into the flames.

There was a considerable conversation in changing groups around the principals of which M. Reynaud has published a detailed record. I am represented as urging that there should be no withdrawal of the Northern Armies, that on the contrary they should counter-attack. Certainly this was my mood. But here was no considered military opinion.[4] It must be remembered that this was the first realisation we had of the magnitude of the disaster or of the apparent French despair. We were not conducting the operations, and our army, which was only a tenth of the troops on the front, was serving under the French command. I and the British officers with me were staggered at the evident conviction of the French Commander-in-Chief and leading Ministers that all was lost, and in anything that I said I was reacting violently against this. There is, however, no doubt that they were quite right, and that the most rapid retreat to the south was imperative. This soon became obvious to all.

Presently General Gamelin was speaking again. He was discussing whether forces should now be gathered to strike at the flanks of the penetration, or “Bulge,” as we called such things later on. Eight or nine divisions were being withdrawn from quiet parts of the front, the Maginot Line; there were two or three armoured divisions which had not been engaged; eight or nine more divisions were being brought from Africa and would arrive in the battle zone during the next fortnight or three weeks. General Giraud had been placed in command of the French army north of the gap. The Germans would advance henceforward through a corridor between two fronts on which warfare in the fashion of 1917 and 1918 could be waged. Perhaps the Germans could not maintain the corridor, with its ever-increasing double flank guards to be built up, and at the same time nourish their armoured incursion. Something in this sense Gamelin seemed to say, and all this was quite sound. I was conscious, however, that it carried no conviction in this small but hitherto influential and responsible company. Presently I asked General Gamelin when and where he proposed to attack the flanks of the Bulge. His reply was: “Inferiority of numbers, inferiority of equipment, inferiority of method”—and then a hopeless shrug of the shoulders. There was no argument; there was no need of argument. And where were we British anyway, having regard to our tiny contribution—ten divisions after eight months of war, and not even one modern tank division in action?

This was the last I saw of General Gamelin. He was a patriotic, well-meaning man and skilled in his profession, and no doubt he has his tale to tell.[5]

      *      *      *      *      *      

The burden of General Gamelin’s, and indeed of all the French High Command’s subsequent remarks, was insistence on their inferiority in the air and earnest entreaties for more squadrons of the Royal Air Force, bomber as well as fighter, but chiefly the latter. This prayer for fighter support was destined to be repeated at every subsequent conference until France fell. In the course of his appeal, General Gamelin said that fighters were needed not only to give cover to the French Army, but also to stop the German tanks. At this I said: “No. It is the business of the artillery to stop the tanks. The business of the fighters is to cleanse the skies (nettoyer le ciel) over the battle.” It was vital that our metropolitan fighter air force should not be drawn out of Britain on any account. Our existence turned on this. Nevertheless, it was necessary to cut to the bone. In the morning, before I started, the Cabinet had given me authority to move four more squadrons of fighters to France. On our return to the Embassy and after talking it over with Dill, I decided to ask sanction for the despatch of six more. This would leave us with only the twenty-five fighter squadrons at home, and that was the final limit.

It was a rending decision either way. I told General Ismay to telephone to London that the Cabinet should assemble at once to consider an urgent telegram which would be sent over in the course of the next hour or so. Ismay did this in Hindustani, having previously arranged for an Indian Army officer to be standing by in his office. This was my telegram:

9 P.M. 16th May, 1940

I shall be glad if the Cabinet could meet immediately to consider following. Situation grave in the last degree. Furious German thrust through Sedan finds French armies ill-grouped, many in north, others in Alsace. At least four days required to bring twenty divisions to cover Paris and strike at the flanks of the Bulge, which is now fifty kilometres wide.

Three [German] armoured divisions with two or three infantry divisions have advanced through gap and large masses hurrying forward behind them. Two great dangers therefore threaten. First that B.E.F. will be largely left in the air to make a difficult disengagement and retreat to the old line. Secondly, that the German thrust will wear down the French resistance before it can be fully gathered.

Orders given to defend Paris at all costs, but archives of the Quai d’Orsay already burning in the garden. I consider the next two, three, or four days decisive for Paris and probably for the French Army. Therefore the question we must face is whether we can give further aid in fighters above four squadrons, for which the French are very grateful, and whether a larger part of our long-range heavy bombers should be employed tomorrow and the following nights upon the German masses crossing the Meuse and flowing into the Bulge. Even so results cannot be guaranteed; but the French resistance may be broken up as rapidly as that of Poland unless this battle of the Bulge is won. I personally feel that we should send squadrons of fighters demanded (i.e., six more) tomorrow, and, concentrating all available French and British aviation, dominate the air above the Bulge for the next two or three days, not for any local purpose, but to give the last chance to the French Army to rally its bravery and strength. It would not be good historically if their requests were denied and their ruin resulted. Also night bombardment by a strong force of heavy bombers can no doubt be arranged. It looks as if the enemy was by now fully extended both in the air and tanks. We must not underrate the increasing difficulties of his advance if strongly counter-attacked. I imagine that if all fails here we could still shift what is left of our own air striking force to assist the B.E.F. should it be forced to withdraw. I again emphasise the mortal gravity of the hour, and express my opinion as above. Kindly inform me what you will do. Dill agrees. I must have answer by midnight in order to encourage the French. Telephone to Ismay at Embassy in Hindustani.

The reply came at about 11.30. The Cabinet said “Yes.” I immediately took Ismay off with me in a car to M. Reynaud’s flat. We found it more or less in darkness. After an interval M. Reynaud emerged from his bedroom in his dressing-gown and I told him the favourable news. Ten fighter squadrons! I then persuaded him to send for M. Daladier, who was duly summoned and brought to the flat to hear the decision of the British Cabinet. In this way I hoped to revive the spirits of our French friends, as much as our limited means allowed. Daladier never spoke a word. He rose slowly from his chair and wrung my hand. I got back to the Embassy about 2 A.M., and slept well, though the cannon fire in petty aeroplane raids made one roll over from time to time. In the morning I flew home, and, in spite of other preoccupations, pressed on with construction of the second level of the new Government.


Volume 1, page 378.

The French “mobilisation” of five millions included many not under arms—e.g., in factories, on the land, etc.

“Operation Royal Marine” was first planned in November, 1939. The mines were designed to float down the Rhine and destroy enemy bridges and shipping. They were fed into the river from French territory upstream. See Volume I, Book II. pages 508-10.

As other accounts of what passed have appeared, I asked Lord Ismay, who was at my side throughout, to give his recollection. He writes:

“We did not sit round a table, and much may have been said as we walked about in groups. I am positive that you did not express any ‘considered military opinion’ on what should be done. When we left London we considered the break-through at Sedan serious, but not mortal. There had been many ‘break-throughs’ in 1914-18, but they had all been stopped, generally by counter-attacks from one or both sides of the salient.

“When you realised that the French High Command felt that all was lost, you asked Gamelin a number of questions, with, I believe, the dual object, first of informing yourself as to what had happened and what he proposed to do, and secondly of stopping the panic. One of these questions was: ‘When and where are you going to counter-attack the flanks of the Bulge? From the north or from the south?’ I am sure that you did not press any particular strategical or tactical thought upon the conference. The burden of your song was: ‘Things may be bad, but are certainly not incurable.’ ”

His two volumes, entitled Servir, throw little light either upon his personal conduct of events or generally upon the course of the war.

3
The Battle of France

The Second Week: Weygand

May 17 to May 24

The Battle Crisis Grows—The Local Defence Volunteers—Reinforcements from the East—My Telegrams to President Roosevelt of May 18 and May 20—General Gamelin’s Final Order No. 12, May 19—General Weygand Appointed—French Cabinet Changes—First Orders to the Little Ships, May 20—“Operation Dynamo”—Weygand Tours the Front—Billotte Killed in a Motor Accident—French Failure to Grapple with German Armour—Ironside’s Report, May 21—Parliament Votes Extraordinary Powers to the Government—My Second Visit to Paris—Weygand’s Plan—Peril of the Northern Armies—Fighting Round Arras—Correspondence with M. Reynaud—Sir John Dill Chief of the Imperial General Staff.

The War Cabinet met at 10 A.M. on the 17th, and I gave them an account of my visit to Paris, and of the situation so far as I could measure it.

I said I had told the French that unless they made a supreme effort we should not be justified in accepting the grave risk, to the safety of our country that we were incurring by the despatch of the additional fighter squadrons to France. I felt that the question of air reinforcements was one of the gravest that a British Cabinet had ever had to face. It was claimed that the German air losses had been four or five times our own, but I had been told that the French had only one-quarter of their fighter aircraft left. On this day Gamelin thought the situation “lost,” and is reported to have said: “I will guarantee the safety of Paris only for today, tomorrow [the 18th], and the night following.” In Norway it appeared that Narvik was likely to be captured by us at any moment, but Lord Cork was informed that in the light of the news from France no more reinforcements could be sent to him.

The battle crisis grew hourly in intensity. At the request of General Georges, the British Army prolonged its defensive flank by occupying points on the whole line from Douai to Péronne, thus attempting to cover Arras, which was a road centre vital to any southward retreat. That afternoon the Germans entered Brussels. The next day they reached Cambrai, passed St. Quentin, and brushed our small parties out of Péronne. The French Seventh, the Belgian, the British, and the French First Army all continued their withdrawal to the Scheldt, the British standing along the Dendre for the day, and forming the detachment “Petreforce” (a temporary grouping of various units under Major-General Petre) for the defence of Arras.

At midnight (May 18-19) Lord Gort was visited at his headquarters by General Billotte. Neither the personality of this French general nor his proposals, such as they were, inspired confidence in his allies. From this moment the possibility of a withdrawal to the coast began to present itself to the British Commander-in-Chief. In his despatch published in March, 1941, he wrote: “The picture was now [night of the 19th] no longer that of a line bent or temporarily broken, but of a besieged fortress.”

As the result of my visit to Paris and the Cabinet discussions I already found it necessary to pose a general question to my colleagues.

Prime Minister to Lord President. 17.V.40.

I am very much obliged to you for undertaking to examine tonight the consequences of the withdrawal of the French Government from Paris or the fall of that city, as well as the problems which would arise if it were necessary to withdraw the B.E.F. from France, either along its communications or by the Belgian and Channel ports. It is quite understood that in the first instance this report could be no more than an enumeration of the main considerations which arise, and which could thereafter be remitted to the Staffs. I am myself seeing the military authorities at 6.30.

      *      *      *      *      *      

The swift fate of Holland was in all our minds. Mr. Eden had already proposed to the War Cabinet the formation of Local Defence Volunteers, and this plan was energetically pressed. All over the country, in every town and village, bands of determined men came together armed with shotguns, sporting rifles, clubs and spears. From this a vast organisation was soon to spring. But the need of Regulars was also vital.

Prime Minister to General Ismay, for C.O.S. 18.V.40.

I cannot feel that we have enough trustworthy troops in England, in view of the very large numbers that may be landed from air-carriers preceded by parachutists. I do not consider this danger is imminent at the present time, as the great battle in France has yet to be decided.

I wish the following moves to be considered with a view to immediate action:

(1)

The transports which brought the Australians to Suez should bring home eight battalions of Regular infantry from Palestine, properly convoyed, even at some risk, by whatever route is thought best. I hope it will be possible to use the Mediterranean.

(2)

The Australian fast convoy arrives early in June with 14,000 men.

(3)

These ships should be immediately filled with eight battalions of Territorials and sent to India, where they should pick up eight [more] Regular battalions. The speed of this fast convoy should be accelerated.

2. Everything must be done to carry out the recommendations for the control of aliens put forward by the Committee and minuted by me on another paper. Action should also be taken against Communists and Fascists, and very considerable numbers should be put in protective or preventive internment, including the leaders. These measures must, of course, be brought before the Cabinet before action.

3. The Chiefs of Staff must consider whether it would not be well to send only half of the so-called Armoured Division to France. One must always be prepared for the fact that the French may be offered very advantageous terms of peace, and the whole weight be thrown on us.

      *      *      *      *      *      

I also thought it necessary, with the approval of my colleagues, to send the following grave telegrams to President Roosevelt in order to show how seriously the interests of the United States would be affected by the conquest and subjugation not only of France but of Great Britain. The Cabinet pondered over these drafts for a while, but made no amendment.

Former Naval Person to President Roosevelt. 18.V.40.

I do not need to tell you about the gravity of what has happened. We are determined to persevere to the very end, whatever the result of the great battle raging in France may be. We must expect in any case to be attacked here on the Dutch model before very long, and we hope to give a good account of ourselves. But if American assistance is to play any part it must be available soon.

Former Naval Person to President Roosevelt. 20.V.40.

Lothian has reported his conversation with you. I understand your difficulties, but I am very sorry about the destroyers. If they were here in six weeks they would play an invaluable part. The battle in France is full of danger to both sides. Though we have taken heavy toll of the enemy in the air and are clawing down two or three to one of their planes, they have still a formidable numerical superiority. Our most vital need is, therefore, the delivery at the earliest possible date of the largest possible number of Curtiss P-40 fighters, now in course of delivery to your Army.

With regard to the closing part of your talk with Lothian, our intention is, whatever happens, to fight on to the end in this island, and, provided we can get the help for which we ask, we hope to run them very close in the air battles in view of individual superiority. Members of the present Administration would [be] likely [to] go down during this process should it result adversely, but in no conceivable circumstances will we consent to surrender. If members of the present Administration were finished and others came in to parley amid the ruins, you must not be blind to the fact that the sole remaining bargaining counter with Germany would be the Fleet, and, if this country was left by the United States to its fate, no one would have the right to blame those then responsible if they made the best terms they could for the surviving inhabitants. Excuse me, Mr. President, putting this nightmare bluntly. Evidently I could not answer for my successors, who in utter despair and helplessness might well have to accommodate themselves to the German will. However, there is happily no need at present to dwell upon such ideas. Once more thanking you for your good will . . .

      *      *      *      *      *      

Far-reaching changes were now made by M. Reynaud in the French Cabinet and High Command. On the 18th Marshal Pétain was appointed Vice-President of the Council. Reynaud himself, transferring Daladier to Foreign Affairs, took over the Ministry of National Defence and War. At 7 P.M. on the 19th he appointed Weygand, who had just arrived from the Levant, to replace General Gamelin. I had known Weygand when he was the right-hand man of Marshal Foch, and had admired his masterly intervention in the Battle of Warsaw against the Bolshevik invasion of Poland in August, 1920—an event decisive for Europe at that time. He was now seventy-three, but was reported to be efficient and vigorous in a very high degree. General Gamelin’s final Order (No. 12), dated 9.45 A.M. on May 19, prescribed that the Northern Armies, instead of letting themselves be encircled, must at all costs force their way southward to the Somme, attacking the Panzer divisions which had cut their communications. At the same time the Second Army and the newly forming Sixth were to attack northward towards Mézières. These decisions were sound. Indeed, an order for the general retreat of the Northern Armies southward was already at least four days overdue. Once the gravity of the breach in the French centre at Sedan was apparent, the only hope for the Northern Armies lay in an immediate march to the Somme. Instead, under General Billotte, they had only made gradual and partial withdrawals to the Scheldt and formed the defensive flank to the right. Even now there might have been time for the southward march.

The confusion of the northern command, the apparent paralysis of the First French Army, and the uncertainty about what was happening had caused the War Cabinet extreme anxiety. All our proceedings were quiet and composed, but we had a united and decided opinion, behind which there was silent passion. On the 19th we were informed (4.30 P.M.) that Lord Gort was “examining a possible withdrawal towards Dunkirk if that were forced upon him.” The C.I.G.S. (Ironside) could not accept this proposal, as, like most of us, he favoured the southward march. We therefore sent him to Lord Gort with instructions to move the British Army in a southwesterly direction and to force his way through all opposition in order to join up with the French in the south, and that the Belgians should be urged to conform to this movement, or, alternatively, that we would evacuate as many of their troops as possible from the Channel ports. He was to be told that we would ourselves inform the French Government of what had been resolved. At the same Cabinet we sent Dill to General Georges’ Headquarters, with which we had a direct telephone. He was to stay there for four days and tell us all he could find out. Contacts even with Lord Gort were intermittent and difficult, but it was reported that only four days’ supplies and ammunition for one battle were available.

      *      *      *      *      *      

At the morning War Cabinet of May 20, we again discussed the situation of our Army. Even on the assumption of a successful fighting retreat to the Somme, I thought it likely that considerable numbers might be cut off or driven back on the sea. It is recorded in the minutes of the meeting: “The Prime Minister thought that as a precautionary measure the Admiralty should assemble a large number of small vessels in readiness to proceed to ports and inlets on the French coast.” On this the Admiralty acted immediately and with ever-increasing vigour as the days passed and darkened. Operational control had been delegated on the 19th to Admiral Ramsay, commanding at Dover, whose resources at that time comprised thirty-six personnel vessels of various sorts based on Southampton and Dover. On the afternoon of the 20th, in consequence of the orders from London, the first conference of all concerned, including representatives of the Shipping Ministry, was held at Dover to consider “the emergency evacuation across the Channel of very large forces.” It was planned if necessary to evacuate from Calais, Boulogne, and Dunkirk, at a rate of ten thousand men from each port every twenty-four hours. Thirty craft of passenger-ferry type, twelve naval drifters, and six small coasters were provided as a first instalment. On May 22 the Admiralty ordered forty Dutch skoots which had taken refuge with us to be requisitioned and manned with naval crews. These were commissioned between May 25 and May 27. From Harwich round to Weymouth sea-transport officers were directed to list all suitable ships up to a thousand tons, and a complete survey was made of all shipping in British harbours. These plans for what was called “Operation Dynamo” proved the salvation of the Army ten days later.

      *      *      *      *      *      

The direction of the German thrust had now become more obvious. Armoured vehicles and mechanised divisions continued to pour through the gap towards Amiens and Arras, curling westward along the Somme towards the sea. On the night of the 20th, they entered Abbeville, having traversed and cut the whole communications of the Northern Armies. These hideous, fatal scythes encountered little or no resistance once the front had been broken. The German tanks—the dreaded “chars allemands”—ranged freely through the open country, and aided and supplied by mechanised transport advanced thirty or forty miles a day. They had passed through scores of towns and hundreds of villages without the slightest opposition, their officers looking out of the open cupolas and waving jauntily to the inhabitants. Eye-witnesses spoke of crowds of French prisoners marching along with them, many still carrying their rifles, which were from time to time collected and broken under the tanks. I was shocked by the utter failure to grapple with the German armour, which, with a few thousand vehicles, was compassing the entire destruction of mighty armies, and by the swift collapse of all French resistance once the fighting front had been pierced. The whole German movement was proceeding along the main roads, at no point on which did they seem to be blocked.

Already on the 17th I had asked the Chief of the Air Staff: “Is there no possibility of finding out where a column of enemy armoured vehicles harbours during the dark hours, and then bombing? We are being ripped to pieces behind the front by these wandering columns.”

I now telegraphed to Reynaud:

21.V.40.

Many congratulations upon appointing Weygand, in whom we have entire confidence here.

It is not possible to stop columns of tanks from piercing thin lines and penetrating deeply. All ideas of stopping holes and hemming in these intruders are vicious. Principle should be, on the contrary, to punch holes. Undue importance should not be attached to the arrival of a few tanks at any particular point. What can they do if they enter a town? Towns should be held with riflemen, and tank personnel should be fired upon should they attempt to leave vehicles. If they cannot get food or drink or petrol, they can only make a mess and depart. Where possible, buildings should be blown down upon them. Every town with valuable crossroads should be held in this fashion. Secondly, the tank columns in the open must be hunted down and attacked in the open country by numbers of small mobile columns with a few cannon. Their tracks must be wearing out, and their energy must abate. This is the one way to deal with the armoured intruders. As for the main body, which does not seem to be coming on very quickly, the only method is to drive in upon the flanks. The confusion of this battle can only be cleared by being aggravated, so that it becomes a mêlée. They strike at our communications; we should strike at theirs. I feel more confident than I did at the beginning of the battle; but all the armies must fight at the same time, and I hope the British will have a chance soon. Above is only my personal view, and I trust it will give no offence if I state it to you.

Every good wish.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Weygand’s first act was to cancel Gamelin’s Instruction No. 12. It was not unnatural that he should wish to see the situation in the north for himself, and to make contact with the commanders there. Allowances must be made for a general who takes over the command in the crisis of a losing battle. But now there was no time. He should not have left the summit of the remaining controls and have become involved in the delays and strains of personal movement. We may note in detail what followed. On the morning of the 20th, Weygand, installed in Gamelin’s place, made arrangements to visit the Northern Armies on the 21st. After learning that the roads to the north were cut by the Germans, he decided to fly. His plane was attacked, and forced to land at Calais. The hour appointed for his conference at Ypres had to be altered to 3 P.M. on the 21st. Here he met King Leopold and General Billotte. Lord Gort, who had not been notified of time and place, was not present, and the only British officer in attendance was Admiral Keyes, who was attached to the King and had no military command. The King described this conference as “four hours of confused talking.” It discussed the co-ordination of the three armies, the execution of the Weygand plan, and if that failed the retirement of the British and French to the Lys, and the Belgians to the Yser. At 8 P.M. General Weygand had to leave. Lord Gort did not arrive till eight, when he received an account of the proceedings from General Billotte. Weygand drove back to Calais, embarked on a submarine for Dieppe, and returned to Paris. Billotte drove off in his car to deal with the crisis, and within the hour was killed in a motor collision. Thus all was again in suspense.

      *      *      *      *      *      

On the 21st, Ironside returned and reported that Lord Gort, on receiving the Cabinet instructions, had put the following points to him:

(1) That the southward march would involve a rearguard action from the Scheldt at the same time as an attack into an area already strongly held by the enemy armoured and mobile formations. During such a movement both flanks would have to be protected.

(2) That sustained offensive operations were difficult in view of the administrative situation; and

(3) That neither the French First Army nor the Belgians were likely to be able to conform to such a manoeuvre if attempted.

Ironside added that confusion reigned in the French High Command in the north; that General Billotte had failed to carry out his duties of co-ordination for the past eight days and appeared to have no plans; that the British Expeditionary Force were in good heart and had so far had only about five hundred battle casualties. He gave a vivid description of the state of the roads, crowded with refugees, scourged by the fire of German aircraft. He had had a rough time himself.

Two fearsome alternatives therefore presented themselves to the War Cabinet. The first, the British Army at all costs, with or without French and Belgian co-operation, to cut its way to the south and the Somme, a task which Lord Gort doubted its ability to perform; the second, to fall back on Dunkirk and face a sea evacuation under hostile air attack with the certainty of losing all the artillery and equipment, then so scarce and precious. Obviously great risks should be run to achieve the first, but there was no reason why all possible precautions and preparations should not be taken for the sea evacuation if the southern plan failed. I proposed to my colleagues that I should go to France to meet Reynaud and Weygand and come to a decision. Dill was to meet me there from General Georges’ Headquarters.

      *      *      *      *      *      

This was the moment when my colleagues felt it right to obtain from Parliament the extraordinary powers for which a bill had been prepared during the last few days. This measure would give the Government practically unlimited power over the life, liberty, and property of all His Majesty’s subjects in Great Britain. In general terms of law the powers granted by Parliament were absolute. The Act was to “include power by Order in Council to make such Defence Regulations making provision for requiring persons to place themselves, their services, and their property at the disposal of His Majesty as appear to him to be necessary or expedient for securing the public safety, the defence of the Realm, the maintenance of public order, or the efficient prosecution of any war in which His Majesty may be engaged, or for maintaining supplies or services essential to the life of the community.”

In regard to persons, the Minister of Labour was empowered to direct anyone to perform any service required. The regulation giving him this power included a fair wages clause which was inserted in the Act to regulate wage conditions. Labour supply committees were to be set up in important centres. The control of property in the widest sense was imposed in equal manner. Control of all establishments, including banks, was imposed under the authority of Government orders. Employers could be required to produce their books, and excess profits were to be taxed at 100 per cent. A Production Council to be presided over by Mr. Greenwood was to be formed, and a Director of Labour Supply to be appointed.

This bill was accordingly presented to Parliament on the afternoon of the 22d by Mr. Chamberlain and Mr. Attlee, the latter himself moving the second reading. Both the Commons and the Lords with their immense Conservative majorities passed it unanimously through all its stages in a single afternoon, and it received the Royal Assent that night:

“For Romans in Rome’s quarrel

  Spared neither land nor gold,

Nor son nor wife, nor limb nor life,

  In the brave days of old.”

Such was the temper of the hour.

      *      *      *      *      *      

When I arrived in Paris on May 22, there was a new setting. Gamelin was gone; Daladier was gone from the war scene. Reynaud was both Prime Minister and Minister of War. As the German thrust had definitely turned seaward, Paris was not immediately threatened. Grand Quartier Général (G.Q.G.) was still at Vincennes. M. Reynaud drove me down there about noon. In the garden some of those figures I had seen round Gamelin—one a very tall cavalry officer—were pacing moodily up and down. “C’est l’ancien régime,” remarked the aide-de-camp. Reynaud and I were brought into Weygand’s room and afterwards to the map room, where we had the great maps of the Supreme Command. Weygand met us. In spite of his physical exertions and a night of travel, he was brisk, buoyant, and incisive. He made an excellent impression upon all. He unfolded his plan of war. He was not content with a southward march or retreat for the Northern Armies. They should strike southeast from around Cambrai and Arras in the general direction of St. Quentin, thus taking in flank the German armoured divisions at present engaged in what he called the St. Quentin-Amiens pocket. Their rear, he thought, would be protected by the Belgian Army, which would cover them towards the east, and if necessary towards the north. Meanwhile a new French army under General Frère, composed of eighteen to twenty divisions drawn from Alsace, from the Maginot Line, from Africa, and from every other quarter, were to form a front along the Somme. Their left hand would push forward through Amiens to Arras, and thus by their utmost efforts establish contact with the armies of the north. The enemy armour must be kept under constant pressure. “The Panzer divisions must not,” said Weygand, “be allowed to keep the initiative.” All necessary orders had been given so far as it was possible to give orders at all. We were now told that General Billotte, to whom he had imparted his whole plan, had just been killed in the motor accident. Dill and I were agreed that we had no choice, and indeed no inclination, except to welcome the plan. I emphasised that “it was indispensable to reopen communications between the armies of the north and those of the south by way of Arras.” I explained that Lord Gort, while striking southwest, must also guard his path to the coast. To make sure there was no mistake about what was settled, I myself dictated a résumé of the decisions and showed it to Weygand, who agreed. I reported accordingly to the Cabinet and sent the following telegram to Lord Gort:

22.V.40.

I flew to Paris this morning with Dill and others. The conclusions which were reached between Reynaud, Weygand, and ourselves are summarised below. They accord exactly with general directions you have received from the War Office. You have our best wishes in the vital battle now opening towards Bapaume and Cambrai.

It was agreed:

1. That the Belgian Army should withdraw to the line of the Yser and stand there, the sluices being opened.

2. That the British Army and the French First Army should attack southwest towards Bapaume and Cambrai at the earliest moment certainly tomorrow—with about eight divisions—and with the Belgian Cavalry Corps on the right of the British.

3. That as this battle is vital to both armies and the British communications depend upon freeing Amiens, the British Air Force should give the utmost possible help, both by day and by night, while it is going on.

4. That the new French Army Group which is advancing upon Amiens and forming a line along the Somme should strike northward and join hands with the British divisions who are attacking southward in the general direction of Bapaume.

It will be seen that Weygand’s new plan did not differ except in emphasis from the cancelled Instruction No. 12 of General Gamelin. Nor was it out of harmony with the vehement opinion which the War Cabinet had expressed on the 19th. The Northern Armies were to shoulder their way southward by offensive action, destroying, if possible, the armoured incursion. They were to be met by a helpful thrust through Amiens by the new French Army Group under General Frère. This would be most important if it came true. In private I complained to M. Reynaud that Gort had been left entirely without orders for four consecutive days. Even since Weygand had assumed command three days had been lost in taking decisions. The change in the Supreme Command was right. The resultant delay was evil.

I slept the night at the Embassy. The air raids were trivial; the guns were noisy, but one never heard a bomb. Very different indeed were the experiences of Paris from the ordeal which London was soon to endure. I had a keen desire to go to see my friend General Georges at his headquarters at Compiègne. Our liaison officer with him, Brigadier Swayne, was with me for some time and gave me the picture of the French armies so far as he knew it, which was only part of the way. I was persuaded that it would be better not to intrude at this time, when this vast and complicated operation was being attempted in the teeth of every form of administrative difficulty and frequent breakdowns in communication.

In the absence of any supreme war direction, events and the enemy had taken control. On the 17th, Gort had begun to direct troops to the line Ruyaulcourt-Arleux and to garrison Arras, and was constantly strengthening his southern flank. The French Seventh Army, less the Sixteenth Corps, which had suffered heavily in the Walcheren fighting, had moved south to join the First French Army. It had traversed the British rear without serious disturbance. On the 20th, Gort had informed both Generals Billotte and Blanchard that he proposed to attack southward from Arras on May 21 with two divisions and an armoured brigade, and Billotte had agreed to co-operate with two French divisions from the First French Army. This army of thirteen divisions was gathered in an oblong some nineteen miles by ten—Maulde-Valenciennes-Denain-Douai. The enemy had crossed the Scheldt on the 20th around Oudenarde, and the three British corps, which still faced east, withdrew on the 23d to the defences we had erected in the winter along the Belgian frontier, from which they had advanced so eagerly twelve days before. On this day the B.E.F. were put on half rations. The impression of French helplessness derived from many sources led me to protest to Reynaud.

Prime Minister to M. Reynaud. 23.V.40.

(Copy to Lord Gort.)

Communications of Northern Armies have been cut by strong enemy armoured forces. Salvation of these armies can only be obtained by immediate execution of Weygand’s plan. I demand the issue to the French commanders in north and south and Belgian G.H.Q. of the most stringent orders to carry this out and turn defeat into victory. Time is vital as supplies are short.

I reported this message to the War Cabinet when they met at 11.30 A.M., pointing out that the whole success of the Weygand plan was dependent on the French taking the initiative, which they showed no signs of doing. We met again at 7 P.M.

And the next day:

Prime Minister to M. Reynaud, for General Weygand. 24.V.40.

General Gort wires that co-ordination of northern front is essential with armies of three different nations. He says he cannot undertake this co-ordination, as he is already fighting north and south and is threatened on his lines of communications. At the same time, Sir Roger Keyes tells me that up to 3 P.M. today (23d) Belgian Headquarters and King had received no directive. How does this agree with your statement that Blanchard and Gort are main dans la main? Appreciate fully difficulties of communication, but feel no effective concert of operations in northern area against which enemy are concentrating. Trust you will be able to rectify this. Gort further says that any advance by him must be in the nature of sortie, and that relief must come from south, as he has not (repeat not) ammunition for serious attack. Nevertheless, we are instructing him to persevere in carrying out your plan. We have not here even seen your own directive, and have no knowledge of the details of your northern operations. Will you kindly have this sent through French Mission at earliest? All good wishes.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Some account of the small battle fought by the British around Arras must be given here. General Franklyn, who commanded, intended to occupy the area Arras-Cambrai-Bapaume. He had the 5th and 50th British Divisions and the 1st Army Tank Brigade. His plan was to attack with this armour and one brigade of each division, the whole under General Martel, round the western and southern sides of Arras, with an immediate objective on the river Sensée. The French were to co-operate with two divisions on the east to the Cambrai-Arras road. The British divisions consisted of only two brigades each, and the tanks numbered sixty-five Mark I and eighteen Mark II, all of whose tracks, the life of which was short, were wearing out. The attack began at 2 P.M. on May 21, and soon found itself engaged with much stronger opposition than was expected. French support on the eastern flank did not materialise, and on the western was limited to one light mechanised division. The enemy armour actually consisted of about four hundred tanks of the 7th and 8th German Armoured Divisions, a general named Rommel commanding the former.

At first the attack prospered, and four hundred prisoners were taken, but the line of the river Sensée was not reached, and the German counter-attack in overwhelming numbers with full air support caused heavy casualties. The 12th Lancers presently reported strong enemy columns moving towards St. Pol and threatening to turn the western flank. During the night the Army Tank Brigade, the 13th Brigade of the 5th Division, and the 151st Brigade of the 50th Division gradually withdrew to the river Scarpe. Here three British brigades stood until the afternoon of the 22d, and in this neighbourhood repulsed various attacks. We still held Arras, but the enemy gradually tended to swing round towards Béthune. The French light mechanised division guarding our western flank was forced from Mont St. Eloi, and the enemy tanks soon after approached Souchez. By 7 P.M. on the 23d the British eastern flank was under heavy pressure, and the enemy reaching Lens had encircled the western flank. Thus the position was precarious. We were hopelessly outnumbered, beset by masses of armour, and almost surrounded. At 10 P.M. General Franklyn informed General Headquarters that unless his force was withdrawn during the night its retirement would become impossible. He was told that orders to withdraw had been sent him three hours before. The operation had some temporary effect on the enemy; they recorded it at the time as “heavy British counter-attacks with armour,” which caused them considerable anxiety.

In pursuance of the Weygand plan, Gort proposed to General Blanchard, who now commanded the northern group, that two British divisions, one French division, and the French Cavalry Corps should attack southward between the Canal du Nord and the Scheldt Canal. Two French divisions had in fact twice previously reached the outskirts of Cambrai, but on each occasion they were bombed and withdrew. In all these days this was the only offensive action of the French First Army.

      *      *      *      *      *      

In London we had no knowledge of the progress of this forlorn attempt at Arras to break the encircling line. However, during the 24th very reproachful telegrams arrived from Reynaud. The shorter of his two messages tells the story.

You wired me [he said] this morning that you had instructed General Gort to continue to carry out the Weygand plan. General Weygand now informs me that, according to a telegram from General Blanchard, the British Army had carried out, on its own initiative, a retreat of twenty-five miles towards the ports at a time when our troops moving up from the south are gaining ground towards the north, where they were to meet their allies.

This action of the British Army is in direct opposition to the formal orders renewed this morning by General Weygand. This retreat has naturally obliged General Weygand to change all his arrangements, and he is compelled to give up the idea of closing the gap and restoring a continuous front. I need not lay any stress upon the gravity of the possible consequences.

Up to this time General Weygand had been counting on General Frère’s army advancing northward on Amiens, Albert, and Péronne. They had, in fact, made no noticeable progress, and were still forming and assembling. The following are my replies to M. Reynaud:

25.V.40.

My telegram last night told you all we knew over here, and we have still heard nothing from Lord Gort to contradict it. But I must tell you that a staff officer has reported to the War Office confirming the withdrawal of the two divisions from the Arras region, which your telegram to me mentioned. General Dill, who should be with Lord Gort, has been told to send a staff officer by air at the earliest moment. As soon as we know what has happened, I will report fully. It is clear, however, that the Northern Army is practically surrounded and that all its communications are cut except through Dunkirk and Ostend.

25.V.40.

We have every reason to believe that Gort is still persevering in southward move. All we know is that he has been forced by the pressure on his western flank, and to keep communication with Dunkirk for indispensable supplies, to place parts of two divisions between himself and the increasing pressure of the German armoured forces, which in apparently irresistible strength have successively captured Abbeville and Boulogne, are menacing Calais and Dunkirk, and have taken St. Omer. How can he move southward and disengage his northern front unless he throws out this shield on his right hand? Nothing in the movements of the B.E.F. of which we are aware can be any excuse for the abandonment of the strong pressure of your northward move across the Somme, which we trust will develop.

Secondly, you complained of heavy materials being moved from Havre. Only materials moved away were gas shells, which it was indiscreet to leave. Also some of the stores have been moved from the north to the south side of the river at Havre.

Thirdly, should I become aware that extreme pressure of events has compelled any departure from the plan agreed, I shall immediately inform you. Dill, who was this morning wholly convinced that the sole hope of any effective extrication of our Army lies in the southward move and in the active advance of General Frère, is now with Gort. You must understand that, having waited for the southward move for a week after it became obvious[ly necessary], we find ourselves now ripped from the coast by the mass of the enemy’s armoured vehicles. We therefore have no choice but to continue the southward move, using such flank guard protection to the westward as is necessary.

General Spears will be with you tomorrow morning, and it will probably be quickest to send him back when the position is clear.

      *      *      *      *      *      

There was a very strong feeling in Cabinet and high military circles that the abilities and strategic knowledge of Sir John Dill, who had been since April 23 Vice-Chief of the Imperial General Staff, should find their full scope in his appointment as our principal Army adviser. No one could doubt that his professional standing was in many ways superior to that of Ironside.

As the adverse battle drew to its climax, I and my colleagues greatly desired that Sir John Dill should become C.I.G.S. We had also to choose a Commander-in-Chief for the British Island, if we were invaded. Late at night on May 25, Ironside, Dill, Ismay, myself, and one or two others in my room at Admiralty House were trying to measure the position. General Ironside volunteered the proposal that he should cease to be C.I.G.S., but declared himself quite willing to command the British Home Armies. Considering the unpromising task that such a command was at the time thought to involve, this was a spirited and selfless offer. I therefore accepted General Ironside’s proposal; and the high dignities and honours which were later conferred upon him arose from my appreciation of his bearing at this moment in our affairs. Sir John Dill became C.I.G.S. on May 27. The changes were generally judged appropriate for the time being.

4
The March to the Sea

May 24 to May 31

Review of the Battle—General Halder’s Account of Hitler’s Personal Intervention—Halt of the German Armour—The Truth from the German Staff Diaries—A Separate Cause for the Halt at the Decisive Point—The Defence of Boulogne—The Drama of Calais—The Consequences of Prolonged Defence—Gort Abandons the Weygand Plan—His Decision of May 25—Filling the Belgian Gap—Withdrawal of the British Army to the Dunkirk Bridgeheads—Extrication of the Four British Divisions from Lille—A Question to the Chiefs of Staff—Their Answer—My Message to Lord Gort—And to Admiral Keyes—General Pownall’s Account of the Gort-Blanchard Meeting on the Morning of May 28—Surrender of the Belgian Army, May 28—Decisive Battle Fought by General Brooke and the Second Corps, May 28—Withdrawal to the Bridgehead—Escape by Sea of Half the French First Army.

We may now review up to this point the course of this memorable battle.

Only Hitler was prepared to violate the neutrality of Belgium and Holland. Belgium would not invite the Allies in until she was herself attacked. Therefore the military initiative rested with Hitler. On May 10 he struck his blow. The First Army Group, with the British in the centre, instead of standing behind their fortifications, leaped forward into Belgium on a vain, but belated, mission of rescue. The French had left the gap opposite the Ardennes ill fortified and weakly guarded. An armoured inroad on a scale never known in war broke the centre of the French line of armies, and in forty-eight hours threatened to cut all the northern armies alike from their southern communications and from the sea. By the 14th at the latest the French High Command should have given imperative orders to these armies to make a general retreat at full speed, accepting not only risks but heavy losses of material. This issue was not faced in its brutal realism by General Gamelin. The French commander of the northern group, Billotte, was incapable of taking the necessary decisions himself. Confusion reigned throughout the armies of the threatened left wing.

As the superior power of the enemy was felt, they fell back. As the turning movement swung round their right, they formed a defensive flank. If they had started back on the 14th, they could have been on their old line by the 17th and would have had a good chance of fighting their way out. At least three mortal days were lost. From the 17th onwards the British War Cabinet saw clearly that an immediate fighting march southward would alone save the British Army. They were resolved to press their view upon the French Government and General Gamelin, but their own commander, Lord Gort, was doubtful whether it was possible to disengage the fighting fronts, and still more to break through at the same time. On the 19th, General Gamelin was dismissed, and Weygand reigned in his stead. Gamelin’s “Instruction No. 12,” his last order, though five days late, was sound in principle, and also in conformity with the main conclusions of the British War Cabinet and Chiefs of Staff. The change in the supreme command, or want of command, led to another three days’ delay. The spirited plan which General Weygand proposed after visiting the northern armies was never more than a paper scheme. In the main it was the Gamelin plan, rendered still more hopeless by further delay.

In the hideous dilemma which now presented itself, we accepted the Weygand plan and made loyal and persistent, though now ineffectual, efforts to carry it out until the 25th, when, all the communications being cut, our weak counter-attack being repulsed with the loss of Arras, the Belgian front being broken and King Leopold about to capitulate, all hope of escape to the southward vanished. There remained only the sea. Could we reach it, or must we be surrounded and broken up in the open field? In any case the whole artillery and equipment of our army, irreplaceable for many months, must be lost. But what was that compared with saving the army, the nucleus and structure upon which alone Britain could build her armies of the future? Lord Gort, who had from the 25th onwards felt that evacuation by sea was our only chance, now proceeded to form a bridgehead around Dunkirk and to fight his way into it with what strength remained. All the discipline of the British, and the qualities of their commanders, who included Brooke, Alexander, and Montgomery, were to be needed. Much more was to be needed. All that man could do was done. Would it be enough?

      *      *      *      *      *      

A much-disputed episode must now be examined: General Halder, Chief of the German General Staff, has declared that at this moment Hitler made his only effective direct personal intervention in the battle. He became, according to this authority, “alarmed about the armoured formations because they were in considerable danger in a difficult country, honeycombed with canals, without being able to attain any vital results.” He felt he could not sacrifice armoured formations uselessly, as they were essential to the second stage of the campaign. He believed, no doubt, that his air superiority would be sufficient to prevent a large-scale evacuation by sea. He therefore, according to Halder, sent a message to him through Brauchitsch, ordering “the armoured formations to be stopped, the points even taken back.” Thus, says Halder, the way to Dunkirk was cleared for the British Army. At any rate we intercepted a German message sent in clear at 11.42 A.M. on May 24, to the effect that the attack on the line Dunkirk-Hazebrouck-Merville was to be discontinued for the present. Halder states that he refused, on behalf of Supreme Army Headquarters, to interfere in the movement of Army Group Rundstedt, which had clear orders to prevent the enemy from reaching the coast. The quicker and more complete the success here, he argued, the easier it would be later to repair the loss of some tanks. The next day he was ordered to go with Brauchitsch to a conference.

The excited discussion finished with a definite order by Hitler, to which he added that he would ensure execution of his order by sending personal liaison officers to the front. Keitel was sent by plane to Army Group Rundstedt, and other officers to the front command posts. “I have never been able,” says General Halder, “to figure how Hitler conceived the idea of the useless endangering of the armoured formations. It is most likely that Keitel, who was for a considerable time in Flanders in the First World War, had originated these ideas by his tales.”

Other German generals have told much the same story, and have even suggested that Hitler’s order was inspired by a political motive, to improve the chances of peace with England after France was beaten. Authentic documentary evidence has now come to light in the shape of the actual diary of Rundstedt’s headquarters written at the time. This tells a different tale. At midnight on the 23d orders came from Brauchitsch at O.K.H., placing the Fourth Army under Rundstedt for “the last act” of “the encirclement battle.” Next morning Hitler visited Rundstedt, who represented to him that his armour, which had come so far and so fast, was much reduced in strength and needed a pause wherein to reorganise and regain its balance for the final blow against an enemy who his staff diary says was “fighting with extraordinary tenacity.” Moreover, Rundstedt foresaw the possibility of attacks on his widely dispersed forces from north and south; in fact, the Weygand Plan, which, if it had been feasible, was the obvious Allied counter-stroke. Hitler “agreed entirely” that the attack east of Arras should be carried out by infantry and that the mobile formations should continue to hold the line Lens-Béthune-Aire-St. Omer-Gravelines in order to intercept the enemy forces under pressure from Army Group B in the northeast. He also dwelt on the paramount necessity of conserving the armoured forces for further operations. However, very early on the 25th a fresh directive was sent from Brauchitsch as the Commander-in-Chief ordering the continuation of the advance by the armour. Rundstedt, fortified by Hitler’s verbal agreement, would have none of it. He did not pass on the order to the Fourth Army Commander, Kluge, who was told to continue to husband the Panzer divisions. Kluge protested at the delay, but it was not till next day, the 26th, that Rundstedt released them, although even then he enjoined that Dunkirk was not yet itself to be directly assaulted. The diary records that the Fourth Army protested at this restriction, and its Chief of Staff telephoned on the 27th: “The picture in the Channel ports is as follows. Big ships come up the quayside, boards are put down and the men crowd on the ships. All material is left behind. But we are not keen on finding these men, newly equipped, up against us later.”

It is therefore certain that the armour was halted; that this was done on the initiative not of Hitler but of Rundstedt. Rundstedt no doubt had reasons for his view both in the condition of the armour and in the general battle, but he ought to have obeyed the formal orders of the Army Command, or at least told them what Hitler had said in conversation. There is general agreement among the German commanders that a great opportunity was lost.

      *      *      *      *      *      

There was, however, a separate cause which affected the movements of the German armour at the decisive point.

After reaching the sea at Abbeville on the night of the 20th, the leading German armoured and motorised columns had moved northward along the coast by Etaples towards Boulogne, Calais, and Dunkirk, with the evident intention of cutting off all escape by sea. This region was lighted in my mind from the previous war, when I had maintained the mobile Marine Brigade operating from Dunkirk against the flanks and rear of the German armies marching on Paris. I did not therefore have to learn about the inundation system between Calais and Dunkirk, or the significance of the Gravelines waterline. The sluices had already been opened, and with every day the floods were spreading, thus giving southerly protection to our line of retreat. The defence of Boulogne, but still more of Calais, to the latest hour stood forth upon the confused scene, and garrisons were immediately sent there from England. Boulogne, isolated and attacked on May 22, was defended by two battalions of the Guards and one of our few anti-tank batteries, with some French troops. After thirty-six hours’ resistance, it was reported to be untenable, and I consented to the remainder of the garrison, including the French, being taken off by sea. This was effected by eight destroyers on the night of May 23-24 with a loss of only two hundred men. I regretted this decision.

Some days earlier I had placed the conduct of the defence of the Channel ports directly under the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, with whom I was in constant touch. I now resolved that Calais should be fought to the death, and that no evacuation by sea could be allowed to the garrison, which consisted of one battalion of the Rifle Brigade, one of the 60th Rifles, the Queen Victoria Rifles, and a battalion of the Royal Tank Regiment, with twenty-one Light and twenty-seven Cruiser tanks and an equal number of Frenchmen. It was painful thus to sacrifice these splendid trained Regular troops, of which we had so few, for the doubtful advantage of gaining two or perhaps three days, and the unknown uses that could be made of these days. The Secretary of State for War and the C.I.G.S. agreed to this hard measure. The telegrams and minutes tell the tale.

Prime Minister to General Ismay for C.I.G.S. 23.V.40.

Apart from the general order issued, I trust, last night by Weygand, for assuring the southward movement of the armies via Amiens, it is imperative that a clear line of supply should be opened up at the earliest moment to Gort’s army by Dunkirk, Calais, or Boulogne. Gort cannot remain insensible to the peril in which he is now placed, and he must detach even a division, or whatever lesser force is necessary, to meet our force pushing through from the coast. If the regiment of armoured vehicles, including Cruiser tanks, has actually landed at Calais, this should improve the situation, and should encourage us to send the rest of the Second Brigade of that Armoured Division in there. This coastal area must be cleaned up if the major operation of withdrawal is to have any chance. The intruders behind the line must be struck at and brought to bay. The refugees should be driven into the fields and parked there, as proposed by General Weygand, so that the roads can be kept clear. Are you in touch with Gort by telephone and telegraph, and how long does it take to send him a cyphered message? Will you kindly tell one of your staff officers to send a map to Downing Street with the position, so far as it is known today, of the nine British divisions. Do not reply to this yourself.

Prime Minister to General Ismay. 24.V.40.

I cannot understand the situation around Calais. The Germans are blocking all exits, and our regiment of tanks is boxed up in the town because it cannot face the field guns planted on the outskirts. Yet I expect the forces achieving this are very modest. Why, then, are they not attacked? Why does not Lord Gort attack them from the rear at the same time that we make a sortie from Calais? Surely Gort can spare a brigade or two to clear his communications and to secure the supplies vital to his army. Here is a general with nine divisions about to be starved out, and yet he cannot send a force to clear his communications. What else can be so important as this? Where could a reserve be better employed?

This force blockading Calais should be attacked at once by Gort, by the Canadians from Dunkirk, and by a sortie of our boxed-up tanks. Apparently the Germans can go anywhere and do anything, and their tanks can act in twos and threes all over our rear, and even when they are located they are not attacked. Also our tanks recoil before their field guns, but our field guns do not like to take on their tanks. If their motorised artillery, far from its base, can block us, why cannot we, with the artillery of a great army, block them? . . . The responsibility for cleansing the communications with Calais and keeping them open rests primarily with the B.E.F.

This did less than justice to our troops. But I print it as I wrote it at the time.

Prime Minister to General Ismay. 24.V.40.

Vice Chief of the Naval Staff informs me that [an] order was sent at 2 A.M. to Calais saying that evacuation was decided in principle, but this is surely madness. The only effect of evacuating Calais would be to transfer the forces now blocking it to Dunkirk. Calais must be held for many reasons, but specially to hold the enemy on its front. The Admiralty say they are preparing twenty-four naval twelve-pounders, which with S.A.P.[1] will pierce any tank. Some of these will be ready this evening.

Prime Minister to C.I.G.S. 25.V.40.

I must know at earliest why Gort gave up Arras, and what actually he is doing with the rest of his army. Is he still persevering in Weygand’s plan, or has he become largely stationary? If the latter, what do you consider the probable course of events in the next few days, and what course do you recommend? Clearly, he must not allow himself to be encircled without fighting a battle. Should he [not] do this by fighting his way to the coast and destroying the armoured troops which stand between him and the sea with overwhelming force of artillery, while covering himself and the Belgian front, which would also curl back, by strong rearguards? Tomorrow at latest this decision must be taken.

It should surely be possible for Dill to fly home from any aerodrome momentarily clear, and R.A.F. should send a whole squadron to escort him.

Prime Minister to Secretary of State for War, and C.I.G.S. 25.V.40.

Pray find out who was the officer responsible for sending the order to evacuate Calais yesterday, and by whom this very lukewarm telegram I saw this morning was drafted, in which mention is made of “for the sake of Allied solidarity.” This is not the way to encourage men to fight to the end. Are you sure there is no streak of defeatist opinion in the General Staff?

Prime Minister to C.I.G.S. 25.V.40.

Something like this should be said to the Brigadier defending Calais: Defence of Calais to the utmost is of the highest importance to our country and our Army now. First, it occupies a large part of the enemy’s armoured forces, and keeps them from attacking our line of communication. Secondly, it preserves a sally-port from which portions of the British Army may make their way home. Lord Gort has already sent troops to your aid, and the Navy will do all possible to keep you supplied. The eyes of the Empire are upon the defence of Calais, and His Majesty’s Government are confident that you and your gallant regiment will perform an exploit worthy of the British name.

This message was sent to Brigadier Nicholson at about 2 P.M. on May 25.

The final decision not to relieve the garrison was taken on the evening of May 26. Till then the destroyers were held ready. Eden and Ironside were with me at the Admiralty. We three came out from dinner and at 9 P.M. did the deed. It involved Eden’s own regiment, in which he had long served and fought in the previous struggle. One has to eat and drink in war, but I could not help feeling physically sick as we afterwards sat silent at the table.

Here was the message to the Brigadier:

Every hour you continue to exist is of the greatest help to the B.E.F. Government has therefore decided you must continue to fight. Have greatest possible admiration for your splendid stand. Evacuation will not (repeat not) take place, and craft required for above purpose are to return to Dover. Verity and Windsor to cover Commander minesweeping and his retirement.

Calais was the crux. Many other causes might have prevented the deliverance of Dunkirk, but it is certain that the three days gained by the defence of Calais enabled the Gravelines waterline to be held, and that without this, even in spite of Hitler’s vacillations and Rundstedt’s orders, all would have been cut off and lost.

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Upon all this there now descended a simplifying catastrophe. The Germans, who had hitherto not pressed the Belgian front severely, on the 24th of May broke the Belgian line on either side of Courtrai, which is but thirty miles from Ostend and Dunkirk. The King of the Belgians soon considered the situation hopeless, and prepared himself for capitulation.

By May 23 the First and Second Corps of the British Expeditionary Force, withdrawn by stages from Belgium, were back again on the frontier defences north and east of Lille, which they had built for themselves during the winter. The German scythe-cut round our southern flank had reached the sea, and we had to shield ourselves from this. As the facts forced themselves upon Gort and his headquarters, troops had successfully been sent to positions along the canal line La Bassée-Béthune-Aire-St. Omer-Watten. These, with elements of the French Sixteenth Corps, touched the sea at the Gravelines waterline. The British Third Corps was responsible in the main for this curled-in flank facing south. There was no continuous line, but only a series of defended “stops” at the main crossings, some of which, like St. Omer and Watten, had already fallen to the enemy. The indispensable roads northward from Cassel were threatened. Gort’s reserve consisted only of the two British divisions, the 5th and 50th, which had, as we have seen, just been so narrowly extricated from their southerly counter-attack made at Arras in forlorn fulfilment of the Weygand plan. At this date the total frontage of the B.E.F. was about ninety miles, everywhere in close contact with the enemy.

To the south of the B.E.F. lay the First French Army, having two divisions in the frontier defences and the remainder, comprising eleven divisions in no good shape, cramped in the area north and east of Douai. This army was under attack from the southeast claw of the German encirclement. On our left the Belgian Army was being driven back from the Lys Canal at many places, and with their retirement northward a gap was developing north of Menin.

In the evening of the 25th, Lord Gort took a vital decision. His orders still were to pursue the Weygand plan of a southerly attack towards Cambrai, in which the 5th and 50th Divisions, in conjunction with the French, were to be employed. The promised French attack northward from the Somme showed no sign of reality. The last defenders of Boulogne had been evacuated. Calais still held out. Gort now abandoned the Weygand plan. There was in his view no longer hope of a march to the south and to the Somme. Moreover, at the same time the crumbling of the Belgian defence and the gap opening to the north created a new peril, dominating in itself. A captured order of the German Sixth Army showed that one corps was to march northwestward towards Ypres and another corps westward towards Wytschaete. How could the Belgians withstand this double thrust?

Confident in his military virtue, and convinced of the complete breakdown of all control, either by the British and French Governments or by the French Supreme Command, Gort resolved to abandon the attack to the southward, to plug the gap which a Belgian capitulation was about to open in the north, and to march to the sea. At this moment here was the only hope of saving anything from destruction or surrender. At 6 P.M. he ordered the 5th and 50th Divisions to join the Second British Corps to fill the impending Belgian gap. He informed General Blanchard, who had succeeded Billotte in command of the First Army Group, of his action; and this officer, acknowledging the force of events, gave orders at 11.30 P.M. for a withdrawal on the 26th to a line behind the Lys Canal west of Lille, with a view to forming a bridgehead around Dunkirk.

Early on May 26, Gort and Blanchard drew up their plan for withdrawal to the coast. As the First French Army had farther to go, the first movements of the B.E.F. on the night of May 26/27 were to be preparatory, and rearguards of the British First and Second Corps remained on the frontier defences till the night of May 27/28. In all this Lord Gort had acted upon his own responsibility. But by now we also at home, with a somewhat different angle of information, had already reached the same conclusions. On the 26th a telegram from the War Office approved his conduct, and authorised him “to operate towards the coast forthwith in conjunction with the French and Belgian armies.” The emergency gathering on a vast scale of naval vessels of all kinds and sizes was already in full swing.

The reader must now look at the diagram which shows the general areas held on the night of May 25/26 by the British divisions.

On the western flank of the corridor to the sea the position remained largely unchanged during the 26th. The localities held by the 48th and 44th Divisions came under relatively little pressure. The 2d Division, however, had heavy fighting on the Aire and La Bassée Canals, and they held their ground. Farther to the east a strong German attack developed around Carvin, jointly defended by British and French troops. The situation was restored by the counter-attack of two battalions of the 50th Division, which were in bivouac close by. On the left of the British line the 5th Division, with the 143d Brigade of the 48th Division under command, had travelled through the night, and at dawn took over the defence of the Ypres-Comines Canal to close the gap which had opened between the British and Belgian armies. They were only just in time. Soon after they arrived the enemy attacked, and the fighting was heavy all day. Three battalions of the 1st Division in reserve were drawn in. The 50th Division, after bivouacking south of Lille, moved northward to prolong the flank of the 5th Division around Ypres. The Belgian Army, heavily attacked throughout the day and with their right flank driven in, reported that they had no forces with which to regain touch with the British line, and also that they were unable to fall back to the line of the Yser Canal in conformity with the British movement.

Meanwhile, the organisation of the bridgeheads around Dunkirk was proceeding. The French were to hold from Gravelines to Bergues, and the British thence along the canal by Furnes to Nieuport and the sea. The various groups and parties of all arms which were arriving from both directions were woven into this line. Confirming the orders of the 26th, Lord Gort received from the War Office a telegram, despatched at 1 P.M. on the 27th, telling him that his task henceforward was “to evacuate the maximum force possible.” I had informed M. Reynaud the day before that the policy was to evacuate the British Expeditionary Force, and had requested him to issue corresponding orders. Such was the breakdown in communications that at 2 P.M. on the 27th the commander of the First French Army issued an order to his corps, “La bataille sera livrée sans esprit de recul sur la position de la Lys.

Four British divisions and the whole of the First French Army were now in dire peril of being cut off around Lille. The two arms of the German encircling movement strove to close the pincers upon them. Although we had not in those days the admirable map rooms of more coherent periods, and although no control of the battle from London was possible, I had for three days past been harrowed by the position of the mass of Allied troops around Lille, including our four fine divisions. This, however, was one of those rare but decisive moments when mechanical transport exercises its rights. When Gort gave the order, all these four divisions came back with surprising rapidity almost in a night. Meanwhile, by fierce battles on either side of the corridor, the rest of the British army kept the path open to the sea. The pincer-claws, which were delayed by the 2d Division, and checked for three days by the 5th Division, eventually met on the night of May 29 in a manner similar to the great Russian operation round Stalingrad in 1942. The trap had taken two and a half days to close, and in that time four British divisions and a great part of the First French Army, except the Fifth Corps, which was lost, withdrew in good order through the gap, in spite of the French having only horse transport, and in spite of the main road to Dunkirk being already cut and the secondary roads filled with retiring troops, long trains of transport, and many thousands of refugees.

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The question about our ability to go on alone, which I had asked Mr. Chamberlain to examine with other Ministers ten days before, was now put formally by me to our military advisers. I drafted the reference purposely in terms which, while giving a lead, left freedom to the Chiefs of Staff to express their view, whatever it might be. I knew beforehand that they were absolutely determined; but it is wise to have written records of such decisions. I wished, moreover, to be able to assure Parliament that our resolve was backed by professional opinion. Here it is, with the answer:

We have reviewed our report on “British Strategy in a Certain Eventuality” in the light of the following terms of reference remitted to us by the Prime Minister.

“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 being 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 ten thousand 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?”

2. Our conclusions are contained in the following paragraphs.

3. While our Air Force is in being, our Navy and Air Force together should be able to prevent Germany carrying out a serious sea-borne invasion of this country.

4. Supposing Germany gained complete air superiority, we consider that the Navy could hold up an invasion for a time, but not for an indefinite period.

5. If, with our Navy unable to prevent it, and our Air Force gone, Germany attempted an invasion, our coast and beach defences could not prevent German tanks and infantry getting a firm footing on our shores. In the circumstances envisaged above our land forces would be insufficient to deal with a serious invasion.

6. The crux of the matter is air superiority. Once Germany had attained this, she might attempt to subjugate this country by air attack alone.

7. Germany could not gain complete air superiority unless she could knock out our Air Force, and the aircraft industries, some vital portions of which are concentrated at Coventry and Birmingham.

8. Air attacks on the aircraft factories would be made by day or by night. We consider that we should be able to inflict such casualties on the enemy by day as to prevent serious damage. Whatever we do, however, by way of defensive measures—and we are pressing on with these with all despatch— we cannot be sure of protecting the huge industrial centres, upon which our aircraft industries depend, from serious material damage by night attack. The enemy would not have to employ precision bombing to achieve this effect.

9. Whether the attacks succeed in eliminating the aircraft industry depends not only on the material damage by bombs, but on the moral effect on the workpeople and their determination to carry on in the face of wholesale havoc and destruction.

10. If therefore the enemy presses home night attacks on our aircraft industry, he is likely to achieve such material and moral damage within the industrial area concerned as to bring all work to a standstill.

11. It must be remembered that numerically the Germans have a superiority of four to one. Moreover, the German aircraft factories are well dispersed and relatively inaccessible.

12. On the other hand, so long as we have a counter-offensive bomber force, we can carry out similar attacks on German industrial centres and by moral and material effect bring a proportion of them to a standstill.

13. To sum up, our conclusion is that prima facie Germany has most of the cards; but the real test is whether the morale of our fighting personnel and civil population will counterbalance the numerical and material advantages which Germany enjoys. We believe it will.

This report, which of course was written at the darkest moment before the Dunkirk Deliverance, was signed not only by the three Chiefs of Staff, Newall, Pound, and Ironside, but by the three Vice-Chiefs, Dill, Phillips, and Peirse. Reading it in after years, I must admit that it was grave and grim. But the War Cabinet and the few other Ministers who saw it were all of one mind. There was no discussion. Heart and soul we were together.

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I now addressed myself to Lord Gort:

27.V.40.

At this solemn moment I cannot help sending you my good wishes. No one can tell how it will go. But anything is better than being cooped up and starved out. I venture these few remarks. First, cannon ought to kill tanks, and they may as well be lost doing that as any other way. Second, I feel very anxious about Ostend till it is occupied by a brigade with artillery. Third, very likely the enemy tanks attacking Calais are tired, and, anyhow, busy on Calais. A column directed upon Calais while it is still holding out might have a good chance. Perhaps they will be less formidable when attacked themselves.

2. It is now necessary to tell the Belgians. I am sending following telegram to Keyes, but your personal contact with the King is desirable. Keyes will help. We are asking them to sacrifice themselves for us.

3. Presume [our] troops know they are cutting their way home to Blighty. Never was there such a spur for fighting. We shall give you all that the Navy and Air Force can do. Anthony Eden is with me now and joins his good wishes to mine.

[Enclosure.]

Prime Minister to Admiral Keyes.

Impart following to your friend [the King of the Belgians]. Presume he knows that British and French are fighting their way to coast between Gravelines and Ostend inclusive, and that we propose to give fullest support from Navy and Air Force during hazardous embarkation. What can we do for him? Certainly we cannot serve Belgium’s cause by being hemmed in and starved out. Our only hope is victory, and England will never quit the war whatever happens till Hitler is beat or we cease to be a State. Trust you will make sure he leaves with you by aeroplane before too late. Should our operation prosper and we establish [an] effective bridgehead, we would try, if desired, to carry some Belgian divisions to France by sea. Vitally important Belgium should continue in war, and safety [of] King’s person essential.

My telegram did not reach Admiral Keyes until after his return to England on the 28th. In consequence this particular message was not delivered to King Leopold. The fact is not, however, important because on the afternoon of the 27th between five and six o’clock Admiral Keyes spoke to me on the telephone. The following passage is taken from his report.

At about 5 P.M., on the 27th, when the King told me his Army had collapsed and he was asking for a cessation of hostilities, a cipher telegram was sent to Gort and to the War Office by wireless. The War Office received it at 5.54 P.M. I motored at once to La Panne and telephoned to the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister was not at all surprised, in view of the repeated warnings, but he told me that I must make every endeavour to persuade the King and Queen to come to England with me, and dictated a message which he said I ought to have received that afternoon:

27.V.40.

“Belgian Embassy here assumes from King’s decision to remain that he regards the war as lost and contemplates separate peace.

“It is in order to dissociate itself from this, that the constitutional Belgian Government has reassembled on foreign soil. Even if present Belgian Army has to lay down its arms there are two hundred thousand Belgians of military age in France, and greater resources than Belgium had in 1914, on which to fight back. By present decision the King is dividing the nation and delivering it into Hitler’s protection. Please convey these considerations to the King, and impress upon him the disastrous consequences to the Allies and to Belgium of his present choice.”

I gave King Leopold the Prime Minister’s message, but he said that he had made up his mind that he must stay with his Army and people. . . .

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At home I issued the following general injunction:

(Strictly confidential.) 28.V.40.

In these dark days the Prime Minister would be grateful if all his colleagues in the Government, as well as important officials, would maintain a high morale in their circles; not minimising the gravity of events, but showing confidence in our ability and inflexible resolve to continue the war till we have broken the will of the enemy to bring all Europe under his domination.

No tolerance should be given to the idea that France will make a separate peace; but whatever may happen on the Continent, we cannot doubt our duty, and we shall certainly use all our power to defend the Island, the Empire, and our Cause.

During the morning of the 28th, Lord Gort met General Blanchard again. I am indebted to General Pownall, Lord Gort’s Chief of Staff, for this record made by him at the time:

Blanchard’s enthusiasm at the Cassel meeting had evaporated when he visited us today. He had no constructive suggestions or plans. We read to him the telegram ordering us to proceed to the coast with a view to embarkation. He was horrified. And that was strange; for what other reason did he think that he and Gort had been ordered to form bridgeheads? To what else could such a preliminary move lead? We pointed out that we had both received similar instructions regarding the bridgeheads. What had happened now was that we had got from our Government the next and logical step (which had no doubt been communicated to the French Government), whereas he had received as yet no such corresponding order. This pacified him somewhat, but by no means entirely. Then we said that we too, like him, wanted to keep the British and the First French Army together in this their last phase. Presumably, therefore, the First French Army would continue the retirement tonight, keeping aligned with us. Whereat he went completely off the deep end—it was impossible, he declared. We explained to him as clearly as the human tongue can explain the factors in the situation. The threat from the Germans on our northeastern flank would probably not develop in strength for the next twenty-four hours (though when it did come it would be serious indeed). What was of immediate importance was the threat to our long southwestern flank. There, as he well knew, advance guards of German infantry divisions, supported by artillery, had made attacks yesterday at various points. Though the main points Wormhould, Cassel, Hazebrouck had held, there had been some penetration. The Germans might be relied upon to press these advantages, and we could be sure that the main bodies of the divisions would soon deploy and force themselves right across our line of withdrawal to the sea (a withdrawal which had been ordered for us, if not for him). There was therefore not a moment to be lost in getting back from the Lys, and we must get back tonight at least to the line Ypres-Poperinghe-Cassel. To wait till tomorrow night was to give two days to the Germans to get behind us, an act of madness. We thought it unlikely that we could get even thirty per cent of our forces away even if we reached the sea; many, indeed, in forward positions would never reach it. But even if we could only save a small proportion of highly trained officers and men it would be something useful to the continuance of the war. Everything possible must therefore be done, and the one thing that was possible, if only in part, was to get back some way tonight. . . .

Then came a liaison officer from General Prioux, now commanding the First Army. The liaison officer told Blanchard that Prioux had decided that he could not withdraw any farther tonight, and therefore intended to remain in the quadrangle of canals whose northeastern corner is Armentières and southwestern corner Béthune. This seemed to decide Blanchard against withdrawal. We begged him for the sake of the First Army and of the Allied cause to order Prioux to bring back at least some of his army in line with us. Not all of them could be so tired or so far away that it was impossible. For every man brought back there was at least some chance of embarkation, whereas every man who remained behind would certainly be eaten up. Why not try, then? There was nothing to be gained by not trying: for those who did try there was at least some hope. But there was no shaking him. He declared that evacuation from the beach was impossible—no doubt the British Admiralty had arranged it for the B.E.F., but the French Marine would never be able to do it for French soldiers. It was therefore idle to try—the chance wasn’t worth the effort involved: he agreed with Prioux.

He then asked, in terms, whether it was therefore Gort’s intention to withdraw tonight to the line Ypres-Poperinghe-Cassel or not, knowing that in doing so Gort would be going without the French First Army. To which Gort replied that he was going. In the first place, he had been ordered to re-embark, and to do so necessitated immediate withdrawal. To wait another twenty-four hours would mean that he would not be able to carry out his orders, for the troops would be cut off. In the second place, and apart from the formal aspect of obeying orders, it was madness to leave the troops forward in their present exposed positions. There, they would certainly be overwhelmed very soon. For these reasons, therefore, and with great regret, it was necessary for the B.E.F. to withdraw even if the First French Army did not do so. . . .

      *      *      *      *      *      

In the early hours of the 28th, the Belgian Army surrendered. Lord Gort had intimation of this only one hour before the event, but the collapse had been foreseen three days earlier, and in one fashion or another the gap was plugged. I announced this event to the House in far more moderate terms than those M. Reynaud had thought it right to use:

The House will be aware that the King of the Belgians yesterday sent a plenipotentiary to the German Command asking for a suspension of arms on the Belgian front. The British and French Governments instructed their generals immediately to dissociate themselves from this procedure and to persevere in the operations in which they are now engaged. However, the German Command has agreed to the Belgian proposals and the Belgian Army ceased to resist the enemy’s will at four o’clock this morning.

I have no intention of suggesting to the House that we should attempt at this moment to pass judgment upon the action of the King of the Belgians in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief of the Belgian Army. This army has fought very bravely and has both suffered and inflicted heavy losses. The Belgian Government has dissociated itself from the action of the King, and, declaring itself to be the only legal Government of Belgium, has formally announced its resolve to continue the war at the side of the Allies.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Concern was expressed by the French Government that my reference to King Leopold’s action was in sharp contrast to that of M. Reynaud. I thought it my duty, when speaking in the House on June 4, alter a careful examination of the fuller facts then available, and in justice not only to our French Ally, but also to the Belgian Government now in London, to state the truth in plain terms.

At the last moment when Belgium was already invaded, King Leopold called upon us to come to his aid, and even at the last moment we came. He and his brave, efficient Army, nearly half a million strong, guarded our left flank and thus kept open our only line of retreat to the sea. Suddenly, without prior consultation, with the least possible notice, without the advice of his Ministers and upon his own personal act, he sent a plenipotentiary to the German Command, surrendered his Army, and exposed our whole flank and means of retreat.

      *      *      *      *      *      

All this day of the 28th, the escape of the British Army hung in the balance. On the front from Comines to Ypres and thence to the sea, facing east and attempting to fill the Belgian gap, General Brooke and his Second Corps fought a magnificent battle. For two days past, the 5th Division had held Comines against all attacks, but as the Belgians withdrew northward, and then capitulated, the gap widened beyond repair. The protection of the flank of the B.E.F. was now their task. First the 50th Division came in to prolong the line; then the 4th and 3d Divisions, newly withdrawn from east of Lille, hastened in motor transports to extend the wall of the vital corridor that led to Dunkirk. The German thrust between the British and Belgian armies was not to be prevented, but its fatal consequence, an inward turn across the Yser, which would have brought the enemy onto the beaches behind our fighting troops, was foreseen and everywhere forestalled.

The Germans sustained a bloody repulse. Orders were given to the British artillery, both field and medium, to fire off all their ammunition at the enemy, and the tremendous fire did much to quell the German assault. All the time, only about four miles behind Brooke’s struggling front, vast masses of transport and troops poured back into the developing bridgehead of Dunkirk, and were fitted with skilful improvisation into its defences. Moreover, within the perimeter itself, the main east-west road was at one time completely blocked by vehicles, and a one-way track was cleared only by bulldozers hurling them into the ditches on either side.

In the afternoon of the 28th, Gort ordered a general withdrawal to the bridgehead, which now ran Gravelines-Bergues-Furnes-Nieuport. On this front the British divisions stood from right to left, and from Bergues to the sea by Nieuport, in the following order: 46th, 42d, 1st, 50th, 3d, and 4th. By the 29th, a large part of the B.E.F. had arrived within the perimeter, and by this time the naval measures for evacuation were beginning to attain their full effect. On May 30, General Headquarters reported that all British divisions, or the remains of them, had come in.

More than half the First French Army found their way to Dunkirk, where the great majority were safely embarked. But the line of retreat of at least five divisions was cut by the German pincer movement west of Lille. On the 28th, they attempted to break out westward, but in vain; the enemy closed in upon them from all sides. All through the next three days the French in Lille fought on gradually contracting fronts against increasing pressure, until on the evening of the 31st, short of food and with their ammunition exhausted, they were forced to surrender. About fifty thousand men thus fell into German hands. These Frenchmen, under the gallant leadership of General Molinié, had for four critical days contained no less than seven German divisions which otherwise could have joined in the assaults on the Dunkirk perimeter. This was a splendid contribution to the escape of their more fortunate comrades and of the British Expeditionary Force.

      *      *      *      *      *      

It was a severe experience for me, bearing so heavy an overall responsibility, to watch during these days in flickering glimpses this drama in which control was impossible, and intervention more likely to do harm than good. There is no doubt that by pressing in all loyalty the Weygand plan of retirement to the Somme as long as we did, our dangers, already so grave, were increased. But Gort’s decision, in which we speedily concurred, to abandon the Weygand plan and march to the sea, was executed by him and his staff with masterly skill, and will ever be regarded as a brilliant episode in British military annals.


Semi-armour-piercing shell.

5
The Deliverance of Dunkirk

May 26 to June 4

“Hard and Heavy Tidings”—A Demonstration of Ministers—Service of Intercession and Prayer—The Gathering of the Little Ships—Seven Hundred Vessels—Three Vital Factors—The Mosquito Armada—Bringing off the French—Final Orders to Lord Gort—A Possible Consequence—Gort Transfers the Dunkirk Command to Alexander—My Third Visit to Paris, May 31—General Spears and Marshal Pétain—The Evacuation Complete—My Statement to Parliament, June 4—Significance of the Air Victory—Britain’s Resolve.

There was a short service of intercession and prayer in Westminster Abbey. The English are loth to expose their feelings, but in my stall in the choir I could feel the pent-up, passionate emotion, and also the fear of the congregation, not of death or wounds or material loss, but of defeat and the final ruin of Britain.

      *      *      *      *      *      

It was Tuesday, May 28, and I did not attend the House until that day week. There was no advantage to be gained by a further statement in the interval, nor did Members express a wish for one. But everyone realised that the fate of our Army and perhaps much else might well be decided by then. “The House,” I said, “should prepare itself for hard and heavy tidings. I have only to add that nothing which may happen in this battle can in any way relieve us of our duty to defend the world cause to which we have vowed ourselves; nor should it destroy our confidence in our power to make our way, as on former occasions in our history, through disaster and through grief to the ultimate defeat of our enemies.” I had not seen many of my colleagues outside the War Cabinet, except individually, since the formation of the Government, and I thought it right to have a meeting in my room at the House of Commons of all Ministers of Cabinet rank other than the War Cabinet Members. We were perhaps twenty-five round the table. I described the course of events, and I showed them plainly where we were, and all that was in the balance. Then I said quite casually, and not treating it as a point of special significance: “Of course, whatever happens at Dunkirk, we shall fight on.”

There occurred a demonstration which, considering the character of the gathering—twenty-five experienced politicians and Parliament men, who represented all the different points of view, whether right or wrong, before the war—surprised me. Quite a number seemed to jump up from the table and come running to my chair, shouting and patting me on the back. There is no doubt that had I at this juncture faltered at all in the leading of the nation, I should have been hurled out of office. I was sure that every Minister was ready to be killed quite soon, and have all his family and possessions destroyed, rather than give in. In this they represented the House of Commons and almost all the people. It fell to me in these coming days and months to express their sentiments on suitable occasions. This I was able to do, because they were mine also. There was a white glow, overpowering, sublime, which ran through our island from end to end.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Accurate and excellent accounts have been written of the evacuation of the British and French armies from Dunkirk. Ever since the 20th the gathering of shipping and small craft had been proceeding under the control of Admiral Ramsay, who commanded at Dover. On the evening of the 26th (6.57 P.M.) an Admiralty signal put “Operation Dynamo” into play, and the first troops were brought home that night. After the loss of Boulogne and Calais only the remains of the port of Dunkirk and the open beaches next to the Belgian frontier were in our hands. At this time it was thought that the most we could rescue was about 45,000 men in two days. Early the next morning, May 27, emergency measures were taken to find additional small craft “for a special requirement.” This was no less than the full evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force. It was plain that large numbers of such craft would be required for work on the beaches, in addition to bigger ships which could load in Dunkirk Harbour. On the suggestion of Mr. H. C. Riggs, of the Ministry of Shipping, the various boatyards, from Teddington to Brightlingsea, were searched by Admiralty officers, and yielded upwards of forty serviceable motor-boats or launches, which were assembled at Sheerness on the following day. At the same time lifeboats from liners in the London docks, tugs from the Thames, yachts, fishing-craft, lighters, barges, and pleasure-boats—anything that could be of use along the beaches—were called into service. By the night of the 27th a great tide of small vessels began to flow towards the sea, first to our Channel ports, and thence to the beaches of Dunkirk and the beloved Army.

The Admiralty did not hesitate to give full rein to the spontaneous movement which swept the seafaring population of our south and southeastern shores. Everyone who had a boat of any kind, steam or sail, put out for Dunkirk, and the preparations, fortunately begun a week earlier, were now aided by the brilliant improvisation of volunteers on an amazing scale. The numbers arriving on the 29th were small, but they were the forerunners of nearly four hundred small craft which from the 31st were destined to play a vital part by ferrying from the beaches to the off-lying ships almost a hundred thousand men. In these days I missed the head of my Admiralty map room, Captain Pim, and one or two other familiar faces. They had got hold of a Dutch schuit which in four days brought off eight hundred soldiers. Altogether there came to the rescue of the Army under the ceaseless air bombardment of the enemy about eight hundred and sixty vessels, of which nearly seven hundred were British and the rest Allied.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Here is the official list in which ships not engaged in embarking troops are omitted:

British Ships

Total EngagedSunkDamaged
A.A. cruiser11 
Destroyers39619 
Sloops, corvettes and gunboats511 
Minesweepers3657 
Trawlers and drifters77176 
Special service vessels31 
Armed boarding vessels311 
Motor torpedo boats and Motor anti-submarine boats4
Ex-Dutch skoots (naval crews)404}(Not
Yachts (naval crews)263recorded)
Personnel ships4588 
Hospital carriers815 
Naval motor-boats126}(Not
Tugs223recorded)
Other small craft[A]372170 
------ 
Total693226 
      
Allied Ships
      
Warships (all types)498}(Not
Other ships and craft1199recorded)
------ 
Total16817 
      
Grand Total861243 
      
[A] Omitting ships’ lifeboats and some other privately owned small craft of which no record is available.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Meanwhile ashore around Dunkirk the occupation of the perimeter was effected with precision. The troops arrived out of chaos and were formed in order along the defences, which even in two days had grown. Those men who were in best shape turned about to form the line. Divisions like the 2d and 5th, which had suffered most, were held in reserve on the beaches and were then embarked early. In the first instance there were to be three corps on the front, but by the 29th, with the French taking a greater share in the defences, two sufficed. The enemy had closely followed the withdrawal, and hard fighting was incessant, especially on the flanks near Nieuport and Bergues. As the evacuation went on, the steady decrease in the number of troops, both British and French, was accompanied by a corresponding contraction of the defence. On the beaches among the sand dunes, for three, four, or five days scores of thousands of men dwelt under unrelenting air attack. Hitler’s belief that the German Air Force would render escape impossible, and that therefore he should keep his armoured formations for the final stroke of the campaign, was a mistaken but not unreasonable view.

Three factors falsified his expectations. First, the incessant air-bombing of the masses of troops along the seashore did them very little harm. The bombs plunged into the soft sand, which muffled their explosions. In the early stages, after a crashing air raid, the troops were astonished to find that hardly anybody had been killed or wounded. Everywhere there had been explosions, but scarcely anyone was the worse. A rocky shore would have produced far more deadly results. Presently the soldiers regarded the air attacks with contempt. They crouched in the sand dunes with composure and growing hope. Before them lay the grey but not unfriendly sea. Beyond, the rescuing ships and—Home.

The second factor which Hitler had not foreseen was the slaughter of his airmen. British and German air quality was put directly to the test. By intense effort Fighter Command maintained successive patrols over the scene, and fought the enemy at long odds. Hour after hour they bit into the German fighter and bomber squadrons, taking a heavy toll, scattering them and driving them away. Day after day this went on, till the glorious victory of the Royal Air Force was gained. Wherever German aircraft were encountered, sometimes in forties and fifties, they were instantly attacked, often by single squadrons or less, and shot down in scores, which presently added up into hundreds. The whole Metropolitan Air Force, our last sacred reserve, was used. Sometimes the fighter pilots made four sorties a day. A clear result was obtained. The superior enemy were beaten or killed, and for all their bravery mastered, or even cowed. This was a decisive clash. Unhappily, the troops on the beaches saw very little of this epic conflict in the air, often miles away or above the clouds. They knew nothing of the loss inflicted on the enemy. All they felt was the bombs scourging the beaches, cast by the foes who had got through, but did not perhaps return. There was even a bitter anger in the Army against the Air Force, and some of the troops landing at Dover or at Thames ports in their ignorance insulted men in Air Force uniform. They should have clasped their hands; but how could they know? In Parliament I took pains to spread the truth.

But all the aid of the sand and all the prowess in the air would have been vain without the sea. The instructions given ten or twelve days before had under the pressure and emotion of events borne amazing fruit. Perfect discipline prevailed ashore and afloat. The sea was calm. To and fro between the shore and the ships plied the little boats, gathering the men from the beaches as they waded out or picking them from the water, with total indifference to the air bombardment, which often claimed its victims. Their numbers alone defied air attack. The Mosquito Armada as a whole was unsinkable. In the midst of our defeat glory came to the island people, united and unconquerable; and the tale of the Dunkirk beaches will shine in whatever records are preserved of our affairs.

Notwithstanding the valiant work of the small craft, it must not be forgotten that the heaviest burden fell on the ships plying from Dunkirk Harbour where two-thirds of the men were embarked. The destroyers played the predominant part as the casualty lists on page 100 show. Nor must the great part played by the personnel ships with their mercantile crews be overlooked.

      *      *      *      *      *      

The progress of the evacuation was watched with anxious eyes and growing hope. On the evening of the 27th, Lord Gort’s position appeared critical to the Naval authorities, and Captain Tennant, R.N., from the Admiralty, who had assumed the duties of Senior Naval Officer at Dunkirk, signalled for all available craft to be sent to the beaches immediately, as “evacuation tomorrow night is problematical.” The picture presented was grim, even desperate. Extreme efforts were made to meet the call, and a cruiser, eight destroyers, and twenty-six other vessels were sent. The 28th was a day of tension, which gradually eased as the position on land was stabilised with the powerful help of the Royal Air Force. The naval plans were carried through despite severe losses on the 29th, when three destroyers and twenty-one other vessels were sunk and many others damaged.

There was never any question of our leaving the French behind. Here was my order before any request or complaint from the French was received:

Prime Minister to Secretary of State for War, C.I.G.S. and General Ismay. 29.V.40.

(Original to C.I.G.S.)

It is essential that the French should share in such evacuations from Dunkirk as may be possible. Nor must they be dependent only upon their own shipping resources. Arrangements must be concerted at once with the French Missions in this country, or, if necessary, with the French Government, so that no reproaches, or as few as possible, may arise. It might perhaps be well if we evacuated the two French divisions from Dunkirk, and replaced them pro tem. with our own troops, thus simplifying the command. But let me have the best proposals possible, and advise me whether there is any action I should take.

Prime Minister to General Spears (Paris). 29.V.40.

Following for Reynaud for communication to Weygand and Georges:

We have evacuated nearly 50,000 from Dunkirk and beaches, and hope another 30,000 tonight. Front may be beaten in at any time, or piers, beaches, and shipping rendered unusable by air attack, and also by artillery fire from the southwest. No one can tell how long present good flow will last, or how much we can save for future. We wish French troops to share in evacuation to fullest possible extent, and Admiralty have been instructed to aid French Marine as required. We do not know how many will be forced to capitulate, but we must share this loss together as best we can, and, above all, bear it without reproaches arising from inevitable confusion, stresses, and strains.

As soon as we have reorganised our evacuated troops, and prepared forces necessary to safeguard our life against threatened and perhaps imminent invasion, we shall build up a new B.E.F. from St. Nazaire. I am bringing Regulars from India and Palestine; Australians and Canadians are arriving soon. At present we are removing equipment south of Amiens, beyond what is needed for five divisions. But this is only to get into order and meet impending shock, and we shall shortly send you new scheme for reinforcement of our troops in France. I send this in all comradeship. Do not hesitate to speak frankly to me.

      *      *      *      *      *      

On the 30th I held a meeting of the three Service Ministers and the Chiefs of Staff in the Admiralty War Room. We considered the events of the day on the Belgian coast. The total number of troops brought off had risen to 120,000, including only 6000 French; 850 vessels of all kinds were at work. A message from Admiral Wake Walker at Dunkirk said that, in spite of intense bombardment and air attack, 4000 men had been embarked in the previous hour. He also thought that Dunkirk itself would probably be untenable by the next day. I emphasised the urgent need of getting off more French troops. To fail to do so might do irreparable harm to the relations between ourselves and our ally. I also said that when the British strength was reduced to that of a corps we ought to tell Lord Gort to embark and return to England, leaving a corps commander in charge. The British Army would have to stick it out as long as possible so that the evacuation of the French could continue.

Knowing well the character of Lord Gort, I wrote out in my own hand the following order to him, which was sent officially by the War Office at 2 P.M. on the 30th:

Continue to defend the present perimeter to the utmost in order to cover maximum evacuation now proceeding well. Report every three hours through La Panne. If we can still communicate we shall send you an order to return to England with such officers as you may choose at the moment when we deem your command so reduced that it can be handed over to a corps commander. You should now nominate this commander. If communications are broken, you are to hand over and return as specified when your effective fighting force does not exceed the equivalent of three divisions. This is in accordance with correct military procedure, and no personal discretion is left you in the matter. On political grounds it would be a needless triumph to the enemy to capture you when only a small force remained under your orders. The corps commander chosen by you should be ordered to carry on the defence in conjunction with the French and evacuation whether from Dunkirk or the beaches, but when in his judgment no further organised evacuation is possible and no further proportionate damage can be inflicted on the enemy, he is authorised in consultation with the senior French commander to capitulate formally to avoid useless slaughter.

      *      *      *      *      *      

It is possible that this last message influenced other great events and the fortunes of another valiant commander. When I was at the White House at the end of December, 1941, I learned from the President and Mr. Stimson of the approaching fate of General MacArthur and the American garrison at Corregidor. I thought it right to show them the way in which we had dealt with the position of a Commander-in-Chief whose force was reduced to a small fraction of his original command. The President and Mr. Stimson both read the telegram with profound attention, and I was struck by the impression it seemed to make upon them. A little later in the day Mr. Stimson came back and asked for a copy of it, which I immediately gave him. It may be (for I do not know) that this influenced them in the right decision which they took in ordering General MacArthur to hand over his command to one of his subordinate generals, and thus saved for all his future glorious services the great Commander who would otherwise have perished or passed the war as a Japanese captive. I should like to think this was true.

      *      *      *      *      *      

On the 30th, members of Lord Gort’s staff in conference with Admiral Ramsay at Dover informed him that daylight on June 1 was the latest time up to which the eastern perimeter might be expected to hold. Evacuation was therefore pressed on with the utmost urgency to ensure, so far as possible, that a British rearguard of no more than about four thousand men would then remain ashore. Later it was found that this number would be insufficient to defend the final covering positions, and it was decided to hold the British sector until midnight June 1/2, evacuation proceeding meanwhile on the basis of full equality between French and British forces.

Such was the situation when on the evening of May 31 Lord Gort in accordance with his orders handed over his command to Major-General Alexander and returned to England.

      *      *      *      *      *      

To avoid misunderstandings by keeping personal contact it was necessary for me to fly to Paris on May 31 for a meeting of the Supreme War Council. With me in the plane came Mr. Attlee and Generals Dill and Ismay. I also took General Spears, who had flown over on the 30th with the latest news from Paris. This brilliant officer and Member of Parliament was a friend of mine from the First Great War. Half French by birth, liaison officer between the left of the French and the right of the British Armies, he had taken me round the Vimy Ridge in 1916, and had made me friends with General Fayolle, who commanded the Thirty-Third French Corps. Speaking French with a perfect accent and bearing five wound stripes on his sleeve, he was a personality at this moment fitted to our anxious relations. When Frenchmen and Englishmen are in trouble together and arguments break out, the Frenchman is often voluble and vehement, and the Englishman unresponsive or even rude. But Spears could say things to the high French personnel with an ease and force which I have never seen equalled.

This time we did not go to the Quai d’Orsay, but to M. Reynaud’s room at the War Office in the Rue Saint-Dominique. Attlee and I found Reynaud and Marshal Pétain opposite to us as the only French Ministers. This was the first appearance of Pétain, now Vice-President of the Council, at any of our meetings. He wore plain clothes. Our Ambassador, Dill, Ismay, and Spears were with us, and Weygand and Darlan, Captain de Margerie, head of Reynaud’s private office, and a M. Baudouin of the Secretariat represented the French.

The first question was the position in Norway. I said that the British Government was of the considered opinion that the Narvik area should be evacuated at once. Our troops there, the destroyers involved, and a hundred anti-aircraft guns were badly wanted elsewhere. We therefore proposed an evacuation beginning on June 2. The British Navy would transport and repatriate the French forces, the King of Norway and any Norwegian troops who wished to come. Reynaud said that the French Government agreed with this policy. The destroyers would be urgently required in the Mediterranean in the event of war with Italy. The sixteen thousand men would be very valuable on the line of the Aisne and the Somme. This matter was therefore settled.

I then turned to Dunkirk. The French seemed to have no more idea of what was happening to the northern armies than we had about the main French front. When I told them that 165,000 men, of whom 15,000 were French, had been taken off, they were astonished. They naturally drew attention to the marked British preponderance. I explained that this was due largely to the fact that there had been many British administrative units in the back area who had been able to embark before fighting troops could be spared from the front. Moreover, the French up to the present had had no orders to evacuate. One of the chief reasons why I had come to Paris was to make sure that the same orders were given to the French troops as to the British. The three British divisions now holding the centre would cover the evacuation of all the Allied forces. That, and the sea-transport, would be the British contribution to offset the heavy Allied losses which must now be faced. His Majesty’s Government had felt it necessary in the dire circumstances to order Lord Gort to take off fighting men and leave the wounded behind. If present hopes were confirmed, 200,000 able-bodied troops might be got away. This would be almost a miracle. Four days ago I would not have wagered on more than 50,000 as a maximum. I dwelt upon our terrible losses in equipment. Reynaud paid a handsome tribute to the work of the British Navy and Air Force, for which I thanked him. We then spoke at some length upon what could be done to rebuild the British forces in France.

Meanwhile, Admiral Darlan had drafted a telegram to Admiral Abrial at Dunkirk:

(1) A bridgehead shall be held round Dunkirk with the divisions under your command and those under British command.

(2) As soon as you are convinced that no troops outside the bridgehead can make their way to the points of embarkation, the troops holding the bridgehead shall withdraw and embark, the British forces embarking first.

I intervened at once to say that the British would not embark first, but that the evacuation should proceed on equal terms between the British and the French—“Bras-dessus, bras-dessous.” The British would form the rearguard. This was agreed.

The conversation next turned to Italy. I expressed the British view that if Italy came in we should strike at her at once in the most effective manner. Many Italians were opposed to war, and all should be made to realise its severity. I proposed that we should strike by air-bombing at the northwestern industrial triangle enclosed by the three cities of Milan, Turin, and Genoa. Reynaud agreed that the Allies must strike at once; and Admiral Darlan said he had a plan ready for the naval and aerial bombardment of Italy’s oil supplies, largely stored along the coast between the frontier and Naples. The necessary technical discussions were arranged.

I then mentioned my desire that more Ministers of the Administration I had just formed should become acquainted with their French opposite numbers as soon as possible. For instance, I should like Mr. Bevin, the Minister of Labour and trade-union leader, to visit Paris. Mr. Bevin was showing great energy, and under his leadership the British working class was now giving up holidays and privileges to a far greater extent than in the last war. Reynaud cordially assented.

After some talk about Tangier and the importance of keeping Spain out of the war, I spoke on the general outlook. I said:

The Allies must maintain an unflinching front against all their enemies. . . . The United States had been roused by recent events, and even if they did not enter the war, would soon be prepared to give us powerful aid. An invasion of England, if it took place, would have a still more profound effect on the United States. England did not fear invasion, and would resist it most fiercely in every village and hamlet. It was only after her essential need of troops had been met that the balance of her armed forces could be put at the disposal of her French ally. . . . I was absolutely convinced we had only to carry on the fight to conquer. Even if one of us should be struck down, the other must not abandon the struggle. The British Government were prepared to wage war from the New World, if through some disaster England herself were laid waste. If Germany defeated either ally or both, she would give no mercy; we should be reduced to the status of vassals and slaves forever. It would be better far that the civilisation of Western Europe with all its achievements should come to a tragic but splendid end than that the two great democracies should linger on, stripped of all that made life worth living.

Mr. Attlee then said that he entirely agreed with my view.

The British people now realise the danger with which they are faced, and know that in the event of a German victory everything they have built up will be destroyed. The Germans kill not only men, but ideas. Our people are resolved as never before in their history.

Reynaud thanked us for what we had said. He was sure that the morale of the German people was not up to the level of the momentary triumph of their army. If France could hold the Somme with the help of Britain and if American industry came in to make good the disparity in arms, then we could be sure of victory. He was most grateful, he said, for my renewed assurance that if one country went under the other would not abandon the struggle.

The formal meeting then ended.

After we rose from the table, some of the principals talked together in the bay window in a somewhat different atmosphere. Chief among these was Marshal Pétain. Spears was with me helping me out with my French and speaking himself. The young Frenchman, Captain de Margerie, had already spoken about fighting it out in Africa. But Marshal Pétain’s attitude, detached and sombre, gave me the feeling that he would face a separate peace. The influence of his personality, his reputation, his serene acceptance of the march of adverse events, apart from any words he used, was almost overpowering to those under his spell. One of the Frenchmen, I cannot remember who, said in their polished way that a continuance of military reverses might in certain eventualities enforce a modification of foreign policy upon France. Here Spears rose to the occasion, and addressing himself particularly to Marshal Pétain said in perfect French: “I suppose you understand, M. le Maréchal, that that would mean blockade?” Someone else said: “That would perhaps be inevitable.” But then Spears to Pétain’s face: “That would not only mean blockade but bombardment of all French ports in German hands.” I was glad to have this said. I sang my usual song: we would fight on whatever happened or whoever fell out.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Again we had a night of petty raids, and in the morning I departed. Here was the information that awaited me on my return:

Prime Minister to General Weygand. 1.VI.40.

Crisis in evacuation now reached. Five Fighter Squadrons, acting almost continuously, is the most we can do, but six ships, several filled with troops, sunk by bombing this morning. Artillery fire menacing only practicable channel. Enemy closing in on reduced bridgehead. By trying to hold on till tomorrow we may lose all. By going tonight much may certainly be saved, though much will be lost. Nothing like numbers of effective French troops you mention believed in bridgehead now, and we doubt whether such large numbers remain in area. Situation cannot be fully judged by Admiral Abrial in the fortress, nor by you, nor by us here. We have therefore ordered General Alexander, commanding British sector of bridgehead, to judge, in consultation with Admiral Abrial, whether to try to stay over tomorrow or not. Trust you will agree.

May 31 and June 1 saw the climax though not the end at Dunkirk. On these two days over 132,000 men were safely landed in England, nearly one-third of them having been brought from the beaches in small craft under fierce air attack and shell fire. On June 1 from early dawn onward the enemy bombers made their greatest efforts, often timed when our own fighters had withdrawn to refuel. These attacks took heavy toll of the crowded shipping, which suffered almost as much as in all the previous week. On this single day our losses by air attack, by mines, E-boats, or other misadventure were thirty-one ships sunk and eleven damaged.

The final phase was carried through with much skill and precision. For the first time it became possible to plan ahead instead of being forced to rely on hourly improvisations. At dawn on June 2, about four thousand British with seven anti-aircraft guns and twelve anti-tank guns remained with the considerable French forces holding the contracting perimeter of Dunkirk. Evacuation was now possible only in darkness, and Admiral Ramsay determined to make a massed descent on the harbour that night with all his available resources. Besides tugs and small craft, forty-four ships were sent that evening from England, including eleven destroyers and fourteen minesweepers. Forty French and Belgian vessels also participated. Before midnight the British rearguard was embarked.

This was not, however, the end of the Dunkirk story. We had been prepared to carry considerably greater numbers of French that night than had offered themselves. The result was that when our ships, many of them still empty, had to withdraw at dawn, great numbers of French troops, many still in contact with the enemy, remained ashore. One more effort had to be made. Despite the exhaustion of ships’ companies after so many days without rest or respite, the call was answered. On June 4, 26,175 Frenchmen were landed in England, over 21,000 of them in British ships.

British and Allied Troops Landed in England

DateFrom the BeachesFrom Dunkirk HarbourTotalAccumulated Total
May27Nil7,6697,6697,669 
285,93011,87417,80425,473 
2913,75233,55847,31072,783 
3029,51224,31153,823126,606 
3122,94245,07268,014194,620 
June117,34847,08164,429259,049 
26,69519,56126,256285,305 
31,87024,87626,746312,051 
462225,55326,175338,226 
Grand total98,780239,446338,226   
Note: These figures are taken from a final analysis of the Admiralty records. The War Office figure for the total number of men landed in England is 336,427.

Finally, at 2.23 P.M. that day the Admiralty in agreement with the French announced that “Operation Dynamo” was now completed.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Parliament assembled on June 4, and it was my duty to lay the story fully before them both in public and later in secret session. The narrative requires only a few extracts from my speech, which is extant. It was imperative to explain not only to our own people but to the world that our resolve to fight on was based on serious grounds, and was no mere despairing effort. It was also right to lay bare my own reasons for confidence.

We must be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations. But there was a victory inside this deliverance, which should be noted. It was gained by the Air Force. Many of our soldiers coming back have not seen the Air Force at work; they saw only the bombers which escaped its protective attack. They underrate its achievements. I have heard much talk of this; that is why I go out of my way to say this. I will tell you about it.

This was a great trial of strength between the British and German Air Forces. Can you conceive a greater objective for the Germans in the air than to make evacuation from these beaches impossible, and to sink all these ships which were displayed, almost to the extent of thousands? Could there have been an objective of greater military importance and significance for the whole purpose of the war than this? They tried hard, and they were beaten back; they were frustrated in their task. We got the Army away; and they have paid fourfold for any losses which they have inflicted. . . . All of our types and all our pilots have been vindicated as superior to what they have at present to face.

When we consider how much greater would be our advantage in defending the air above this island against an overseas attack, I must say that I find in these facts a sure basis upon which practical and reassuring thoughts may rest. I will pay my tribute to these young airmen. The great French Army was very largely, for the time being, cast back and disturbed by the onrush of a few thousands of armoured vehicles. May it not also be that the cause of civilisation itself will be defended by the skill and devotion of a few thousand airmen?

We are told that Herr Hitler has a plan for invading the British Isles. This has often been thought of before. When Napoleon lay at Boulogne for a year with his flat-bottomed boats and his Grand Army, he was told by someone, “There are bitter weeds in England.” There are certainly a great many more of them since the British Expeditionary Force returned.

The whole question of Home Defence against invasion is, of course, powerfully affected by the fact that we have for the time being in this island incomparably stronger military forces than we have ever had at any moment in this war or the last. But this will not continue. We shall not be content with a defensive war. We have our duty to our Ally. We have to reconstitute and build up the British Expeditionary Force once again, under its gallant Commander-in-Chief, Lord Gort. All this is in train; but in the interval we must put our defences in this island into such a high state of organisation that the fewest possible numbers will be required to give effective security and that the largest possible potential of offensive effort may be realised. On this we are now engaged.

I ended in a passage which was to prove, as will be seen, a timely and important factor in United States decisions.

Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight in the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing-grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the Old.

6
The Rush for the Spoils

Traditional British and Italian Friendship—Advantages to Italy and Mussolini of Neutrality—My Message to Mussolini on Becoming Prime Minister—His Hard Response—Reynaud’s Visit to London of May 26—France and Britain Invite President Roosevelt to Intervene—My Telegram Conveying the Cabinet Decision of May 28—Preparations to Strike at Italy Should She Declare War—Italy and Yugoslavia—The Italian Declaration of War—The Attack on the Alpine Front Stopped by the French Army—Ciano’s Letter to Me of December 23, 1943—President Roosevelt’s Denunciation of Italy—My Telegram to Him of June 11—Anglo-Soviet Relations—Molotov’s Congratulations upon German Victories—Sir Stafford Cripps Appointed Ambassador to Moscow—My Letter to Stalin of June 25, 1940—The Soviet Share of the Spoil.

The friendship between the British and Italian peoples sprang from the days of Garibaldi and Cavour. Every stage in the liberation of Northern Italy from Austria and every step towards Italian unity and independence had commanded the sympathies of Victorian Liberalism. This had bred a warm and enduring response. The declaration in the original Treaty of Triple Alliance between Italy, Germany, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire stipulated that in no circumstances should Italy be drawn into war with Great Britain. British influence had powerfully contributed to the Italian accession to the Allied cause in the First World War. The rise of Mussolini and the establishment of Fascism as a counter to Bolshevism had in its early phases divided British opinion on party lines, but had not affected the broad foundations of good will between the peoples. We have seen that until Mussolini’s designs against Abyssinia had raised grave issues, he had ranged himself with Great Britain in opposition to Hitlerism and German ambitions. I have told in the previous volume the sad tale of how the Baldwin-Chamberlain policy about Abyssinia brought us the worst of both worlds, how we estranged the Italian dictator without breaking his power and how the League of Nations was injured without Abyssinia being saved. We have also seen the earnest but futile efforts made by Mr. Chamberlain, Sir Samuel Hoare, and Lord Halifax to win back during the period of appeasement Mussolini’s lost favour. And finally there was the growth of Mussolini’s conviction that Britain’s sun had set and that Italy’s future could with German help be founded on the ruins of the British Empire. This had been followed by the creation of the Berlin-Rome Axis, in accordance with which Italy might well have been expected to enter the war against Britain and France on its very first day.

It was certainly only common prudence for Mussolini to see how the war would go before committing himself and his country irrevocably. The process of waiting was by no means unprofitable. Italy was courted by both sides, and gained much consideration for her interests, many profitable contracts, and time to improve her armaments. Thus the twilight months had passed. It is an interesting speculation what the Italian fortunes would have been if this policy had been maintained. The United States with its large Italian vote might well have made it clear to Hitler that an attempt to rally Italy to his side by force of arms would raise the gravest issues. Peace, prosperity, and growing power would have been the prize of a persistent neutrality. Once Hitler was embroiled with Russia, this happy state might have been almost indefinitely prolonged with ever growing benefits, and Mussolini might have stood forth in the peace or in the closing year of the war as the wisest statesman the sunny peninsula and its industrious and prolific people had known. This was a more agreeable situation than that which in fact awaited him.

At the time when I was Chancellor of the Exchequer under Mr. Baldwin in the years after 1924, I did what I could to preserve the traditional friendship between Italy and Britain. I made a debt settlement with Count Volpi which contrasted very favourably with the arrangements made with France. I received the warmest expressions of gratitude from the Duce, and with difficulty escaped the highest decoration. Moreover, in the conflict between Fascism and Bolshevism there was no doubt where my sympathies and convictions lay. On the two occasions in 1927 when I met Mussolini our personal relations had been intimate and easy. I would never have encouraged Britain to make a breach with him about Abyssinia or roused the League of Nations against him unless we were prepared to go to war in the last extreme. He, like Hitler, understood and in a way respected my campaign for British rearmament, though he was very glad British public opinion did not support my view.

In the crisis we had now reached of the disastrous Battle of France, it was clearly my duty as Prime Minister to do my utmost to keep Italy out of the conflict, and though I did not indulge in vain hopes, I at once used what resources and influence I might possess. Six days after becoming Head of the Government I wrote at the Cabinet’s desire the appeal to Mussolini which, together with his answer, was published two years later in very different circumstances.

Prime Minister to Signor Mussolini. 16.V.40.

Now that I have taken up my office as Prime Minister and Minister of Defence, I look back to our meetings in Rome and feel a desire to speak words of good will to you as Chief of the Italian nation across what seems to be a swiftly widening gulf. Is it too late to stop a river of blood from flowing between the British and Italian peoples? We can no doubt inflict grievous injuries upon one another and maul each other cruelly, and darken the Mediterranean with our strife. If you so decree, it must be so; but I declare that I have never been the enemy of Italian greatness, nor ever at heart the foe of the Italian lawgiver. It is idle to predict the course of the great battles now raging in Europe, but I am sure that, whatever may happen on the Continent, England will go on to the end, even quite alone, as we have done before, and I believe with some assurance that we shall be aided in increasing measure by the United States, and, indeed, by all the Americas.

I beg you to believe that it is in no spirit of weakness or of fear that I make this solemn appeal, which will remain on record. Down the ages above all other calls comes the cry that the joint heirs of Latin and Christian civilisation must not be ranged against one another in mortal strife. Hearken to it, I beseech you in all honour and respect, before the dread signal is given. It will never be given by us.

The response was hard. It had at least the merit of candour.

Signor Mussolini to Prime Minister. 18.V.40.

I reply to the message which you have sent me in order to tell you that you are certainly aware of grave reasons of an historical and contingent character which have ranged our two countries in opposite camps. Without going back very far in time I remind you of the initiative taken in 1935 by your Government to organise at Geneva sanctions against Italy, engaged in securing for herself a small space in the African sun without causing the slightest injury to your interests and territories or those of others. I remind you also of the real and actual state of servitude in which Italy finds herself in her own sea. If it was to honour your signature that your Government declared war on Germany, you will understand that the same sense of honour and of respect for engagements assumed in the Italian-German Treaty guides Italian policy today and tomorrow in the face of any event whatsoever.

From this moment we could have no doubt of Mussolini’s intention to enter the war at his most favourable moment. His resolve had in fact been made as soon as the defeat of the French armies was obvious. On May 13 he had told Ciano that he would declare war on France and Britain within a month. His official decision to declare war on any date suitable after June 5 was imparted to the Italian Chiefs of Staff on May 29. At Hitler’s request the date was postponed to June 10.

      *      *      *      *      *      

On May 26, while the fate of the Northern Armies hung in the balance and no one could be sure that any would escape, Reynaud flew over to England to have a talk with us about this topic which had not been absent from our minds. The Italian declaration of war must be expected at any moment. Thus France would burn upon another front, and a new foe would march hungrily upon her in the South. Could anything be done to buy off Mussolini? That was the question posed. I did not think, there was the slightest chance, and every fact that the French Premier used as an argument for trying only made me surer there was no hope. However, Reynaud was under strong pressure at home, and we on our side wished to give full consideration to our Ally, whose one vital weapon, her Army, was breaking in her hand. M. Reynaud has published a full account of his visit, and especially of his conversations.[1] Lord Halifax, Mr. Chamberlain, Mr. Attlee, and Mr. Eden were also at our meetings. Although there was no need to marshal the grave facts, M. Reynaud dwelt not obscurely upon the possible French withdrawal from the war. He himself would fight on, but there was always the possibility that he might soon be replaced by others of a different temper.

We had already on May 25 at the instance of the French Government made a joint request to President Roosevelt to intervene. In this message Britain and France authorised him to state that we understood Italy had territorial grievances against them in the Mediterranean, that we were disposed to consider at once any reasonable claims, that the Allies would admit Italy to the Peace Conference with a status equal to that of any belligerent, and that we would invite the President to see that any agreement reached now would be carried out. The President acted accordingly; but his addresses were repulsed by the Italian dictator in the most abrupt manner. At our meeting with Reynaud we had already this answer before us. The French Premier now suggested more precise proposals. Obviously, if these were to remedy Italy’s “state of servitude in her own sea,” they must affect the status both of Gibraltar and Suez. France was prepared to make similar concessions about Tunis.

We were not able to show any favour to these ideas. This was not because it was wrong to examine them or because it did not seem worth while at this moment to pay a heavy price to keep Italy out of the war. My own feeling was that at the pitch in which our affairs lay, we had nothing to offer which Mussolini could not take for himself or be given by Hitler if we were defeated. One cannot easily make a bargain at the last gasp. Once we started negotiating for the friendly mediation of the Duce, we should destroy our power of fighting on. I found my colleagues very stiff and tough. All our minds ran much more on bombing Milan and Turin the moment Mussolini declared war, and seeing how he liked that. Reynaud, who did not at heart disagree, seemed convinced or at least content. The most we could promise was to bring the matter before the Cabinet and send a definite answer the next day. Reynaud and I lunched alone together at the Admiralty. The following telegram, the greater part of which is my own wording, embodies the conclusions of the War Cabinet:

Prime Minister to M. Reynaud. 28.V.40.

I have with my colleagues examined with the most careful and sympathetic attention the proposal for an approach by way of precise offer of concessions to Signor Mussolini that you have forwarded to me today, fully realising the terrible situation with which we are both faced at this moment.

2. Since we last discussed this matter the new fact which has occurred, namely, the capitulation of the Belgian Army, has greatly changed our position for the worse, for it is evident that the chance of withdrawing the armies of Generals Blanchard and Gort from the Channel ports has become very problematical. The first effect of such a disaster must be to make it impossible at such a moment for Germany to put forward any terms likely to be acceptable, and neither we nor you would be prepared to give up our independence without fighting for it to the end.

3. In the formula prepared last Sunday by Lord Halifax it was suggested that if Signor Mussolini would co-operate with us in securing a settlement of all European questions which would safeguard our independence and form the basis of a just and durable peace for Europe, we should be prepared to discuss his claims in the Mediterranean. You now propose to add certain specific offers, which I cannot suppose would have any chance of moving Signor Mussolini, and which once made could not be subsequently withdrawn, in order to induce him to undertake the rôle of mediator, which the formula discussed on Sunday contemplated.

4. I and my colleagues believe that Signor Mussolini has long had it in mind that he might eventually fill this rôle, no doubt counting upon substantial advantages for Italy in the process. But we are convinced that at this moment, when Hitler is flushed with victory and certainly counts on early and complete collapse of Allied resistance, it would be impossible for Signor Mussolini to put forward proposals for a conference with any success. I may remind you also that the President of the U.S.A. has received a wholly negative reply to the proposal which we jointly asked him to make and that no response has been made to the approach which Lord Halifax made to the Italian Ambassador here last Saturday.

5. Therefore, without excluding the possibility of an approach to Signor Mussolini at some time, we cannot feel that this would be the right moment, and I am bound to add that in my opinion the effect on the morale of our people, which is now firm and resolute, would be extremely dangerous. You yourself can best judge what would be the effect in France.

6. You will ask, then, how is the situation to be improved? My reply is that by showing that after the loss of our two [Northern] armies and the support of our Belgian ally we still have stout hearts and confidence in ourselves, we shall at once strengthen our hands in negotiations and draw the admiration and perhaps the material help of the U.S.A. Moreover, we feel that as long as we stand together our undefeated Navy and our Air Force, which is daily destroying German fighters and bombers at a formidable rate, afford us the means of exercising in our common interest a continuous pressure upon Germany’s internal life.

7. We have reason to believe that the Germans too are working to a time-table, and that their losses and the hardships imposed on them together with the fear of our air raids is undermining their courage. It would indeed be a tragedy if by too hasty an acceptance of defeat we threw away a chance that was almost within our grasp of securing an honourable issue from the struggle.

8. In my view if we both stand out we may yet save ourselves from the fate of Denmark or Poland. Our success must depend first on our unity, then on our courage and endurance.

This did not prevent the French Government from making a few days later a direct offer of their own to Italy of territorial concessions, which Mussolini treated with disdain. “He was not interested,” said Ciano to the French Ambassador on June 3, “in recovering any French territories by peaceful negotiation. He had decided to make war on France.”[2] This was only what we had expected.

      *      *      *      *      *      

I now gave daily a series of directions to make sure that if we were subjected to this odious attack by Mussolini we should be able to strike back at once.

Prime Minister to General Ismay. 28.V.40.

Pray bring the following before the C.O.S. Committee:

What measures have been taken, in the event of Italy’s going to war, to attack Italian forces in Abyssinia, sending rifles and money to the Abyssinian insurgents, and generally to disturb that country?

I understand General Smuts has sent a Union brigade to East Africa. Is it there yet? When will it be? What other arrangements are made? What is the strength of the Khartoum garrison, including troops in the Blue Nile Province? This is the opportunity for the Abyssinians to liberate themselves with Allied help.

2. If France is still our ally after an Italian declaration of war, it would appear extremely desirable that the combined fleets, acting from opposite ends of the Mediterranean, should pursue an active offensive against Italy. It is important that at the outset collision should take place both with the Italian Navy and Air Force, in order that we can see what their quality really is, and whether it has changed at all since the last war. The purely defensive strategy contemplated by Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean ought not to be accepted. Unless it is found that the fighting qualities of the Italians are high, it will be much better that the Fleet at Alexandria should sally forth and run some risks than that it should remain in a posture so markedly defensive. Risks must be run at this juncture in all theatres.

3. I presume that the Admiralty have a plan in the event of France becoming neutral.

Prime Minister to General Ismay (and others). 29.V.40.

We must have eight battalions from Palestine home at the earliest moment. I regard the Mediterranean as closed to troopships. The choice is therefore between the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. Let this alternative route [across the desert to the Gulf] be examined this afternoon, and Admiralty be consulted, and report to me on relative times and safety. The Australians can be left in Palestine for the moment, but the High Commissioner, like others, must conform to the supreme requirements of the State.

Admiralty should say whether it would be possible to pick these men up at the Cape in the big liners for extra speed.

Prime Minister to First Lord of the Admiralty. 30.V.40.

What measures have been taken to seize all Italian ships at the moment of war? How many are there in British ports, and what can be done about them on the seas or in foreign ports? Will you kindly pass this to the proper Department immediately.

At the Supreme War Council in Paris on May 31, which has already been described, it was agreed that the Allies should undertake offensive operations against selected objectives in Italy at the earliest possible moment and that the French and British naval and air staffs should concert their plans. We had also agreed that in the event of Italian aggression against Greece, of which there were indications, we should make sure that Crete did not fall into enemy hands. I pursued the same theme in my minutes.

Prime Minister to Secretary of State for Air and Chief of Air Staff. 2.VI.40.

It is of the utmost importance, in view of the [possible] raids on Lyons and Marseilles, that we should be able to strike back with our heavy bombers at Italy the moment she enters the war. I consider therefore that these squadrons should be flown to their aerodromes in Southern France at the earliest moment when French permission can be obtained and when the servicing units are ready for their reception.

Pray let me know at our meeting tonight what you propose.

Prime Minister to S. of S. for Air and C.A.S. 6.VI.40.

It is of the highest importance that we should strike at Italy the moment war breaks out, or an overbearing ultimatum is received. Please let me know the exact position of the servicing units which are on their way to the southern aerodromes in France.

An early Italian plan, favoured particularly by Ciano, had been that Italian action in Europe should be confined to the launching of an attack on Yugoslavia, thus consolidating Italy’s power in Eastern Europe and strengthening her potential economic position. Mussolini himself was for a time won over to this idea. Graziani records that at the end of April the Duce told him, “We must bring Yugoslavia to her knees; we have need of raw materials and it is in her mines that we must find them. In consequence my strategic directive is—defensive in the west (France) and offensive in the east (Yugoslavia). Prepare a study of the problem.”[3] Graziani claims that he advised strongly against committing the Italian armies, short as they were of equipment, particularly of artillery, to a repetition of the Isonzo campaign of 1915. There were also political arguments against the Yugoslav plan. The Germans were anxious at this moment to avoid disturbing Eastern Europe. They feared it would provoke British action in the Balkans and might inadvertently tempt Russia to further activity in the East. I was not aware of this aspect of Italian policy.

Prime Minister to Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. 6.VI.40.

I have hitherto argued against going to war with Italy because she attacked [i.e., if she were to attack] Yugoslavia, and have wished to see whether it was a serious attack upon Yugoslavian independence or merely taking some naval bases in the Adriatic. However, this situation has changed. Italy is continually threatening to go to war with England and France, and not by “the back door.” We are so near a break with Italy on grounds which have nothing to do with Yugoslavia, that it would seem that our main aim might well be now to procure this Balkan mobilisation. Will you think this over?

      *      *      *      *      *      

In spite of the extreme efforts made by the United States, of which Mr. Hull has given an impressive account in his memoirs,[4] nothing could turn Mussolini from his course. Our preparations to meet the new assault and complication were well advanced when the moment came. On June 10 at 4.45 P.M. the Italian Minister for Foreign Affairs informed the British Ambassador that Italy would consider herself at war with the United Kingdom from 1 A.M. the next day. A similar communication was made to the French Government. When Ciano delivered his note to the French Ambassador, M. François-Poncet remarked as he reached the door: “You too will find the Germans are hard masters.” The British Ambassador, Sir Percy Loraine, received the announcement with perfect composure and apparent indifference. He asked only one question: Was Ciano’s statement early news or was it in fact the declaration of war? Ciano replied it was the latter. Loraine then made a formal bow and left the room without another word.[5] From his balcony in Rome Mussolini announced to well-organised crowds that Italy was at war with France and Britain. It was, as Ciano is said to have apologetically remarked later on, “A chance which comes only once in five thousand years.” Such chances, though rare, are not necessarily good.

Forthwith the Italians attacked the French troops on the Alpine front and Great Britain reciprocally declared war on Italy. The five Italian ships detained at Gibraltar were seized and orders were given to the Navy to intercept and bring into controlled ports all Italian vessels at sea. On the night of the 12th our bomber squadrons, after a long flight from England which meant light loads, dropped their first bombs upon Turin and Milan. We looked forward, however, to a much heavier delivery as soon as we could use the French airfields at Marseilles.

It may be convenient at this point to dispose of the brief Franco-Italian campaign. The French could only muster three divisions with fortress troops equivalent to three more to meet invasion over the Alpine passes and along the Riviera coast by the western group of Italian armies. These comprised thirty-two divisions under Prince Umberto. Moreover, strong German armour, rapidly descending the Rhone Valley, soon began to traverse the French rear. Nevertheless the Italians were still confronted and even pinned down at every point on the new front by the French Alpine units, even after Paris had fallen and Lyons was in German hands. When on June 18, Hitler and Mussolini met at Munich the Duce had little cause to boast. A new Italian offensive was therefore launched on June 21. The French Alpine positions, however, proved impregnable, and the major Italian effort towards Nice was halted in the suburbs of Mentone. But although the French army on the southeastern borders saved its honour, the German march to the south behind them made further fighting impossible, and the conclusion of the armistice with Germany was linked with a French request to Italy for the cessation of hostilities.

      *      *      *      *      *      

My account of this Italian tragedy may fittingly be closed here by the letter which the unlucky Ciano wrote me shortly before his execution at the orders of his father-in-law.

Verona, December 23, 1943.

Signor Churchill.

You will not be surprised that as I approach the hour of my death I should turn to you whom I profoundly admire as the champion of a crusade, though you did at one time make an unjust statement against me.

I was never Mussolini’s accomplice in that crime against our country and humanity, that of fighting side by side with the Germans. Indeed the opposite is the truth, and if last August I vanished from Rome it was because the Germans had convinced me that my children were in imminent danger. After they had pledged themselves to take me to Spain, they deported me and my family, against my will, to Bavaria. Now, I have been nearly three months in the prisons of Verona abandoned to the barbarous treatment of the S.S. My end is near, and I have been told that in a few days my death will be decided, which to me will be no more nor less [than] a release from this daily martyrdom. And I prefer death to witnessing the shame and irreparable damage of an Italy which has been under Hun domination.

The crime which I am now about to expiate is that of having witnessed and been disgusted by the cold, cruel, and cynical preparation for this war by Hitler and the Germans. I was the only foreigner to see at close quarters this loathsome clique of bandits preparing to plunge the world into a bloody war. Now, in accordance with gangster rule, they are planning to suppress a dangerous witness. But they have miscalculated, for already a long time ago I put a diary of mine and various documents in a safe place which will prove, more than I myself could, the crimes committed by those people with whom later that tragic and vile puppet Mussolini associated himself through his vanity and disregard of moral values.

I have made arrangements that as soon as possible after my death these documents, of the existence of which Sir Percy Loraine was aware at the time of his Mission in Rome, should be put at the disposal of the Allied Press.

Perhaps what I am offering you today is but little, but that and my life are all I can offer to the cause of liberty and justice, in the triumph of which I fanatically believe.

This testimony of mine should be brought to light so that the world may know, may hate and may remember, and that those who will have to judge the future should not be ignorant of the fact that the misfortune of Italy was not the fault of her people but due to the shameful behaviour of one man.

Yours sincerely

G. Ciano

      *      *      *      *      *      

A speech from President Roosevelt had been announced for the night of the 10th. About midnight I listened to it with a group of officers in the Admiralty War Room, where I still worked. When he uttered the scathing words about Italy, “On this tenth day of June, 1940, the hand that held the dagger has struck it into the back of its neighbor,” there was a deep growl of satisfaction. I wondered about the Italian vote in the approaching presidential election; but I knew that Roosevelt was a most experienced American party politician, although never afraid to run risks for the sake of his resolves. It was a magnificent speech, instinct with passion and carrying to us a message of hope. While the impression was strong upon me, and before going to bed, I expressed my gratitude.

Former Naval Person to President Roosevelt. 11.VI.40.

We all listened to you last night and were fortified by the grand scope of your declaration. Your statement that the material aid of the United States will be given to the Allies in their struggle is a strong encouragement in a dark but not unhopeful hour. Everything must be done to keep France in the fight and to prevent any idea of the fall of Paris, should it occur, becoming the occasion of any kind of parley. The hope with which you inspire them may give them the strength to persevere. They should continue to defend every yard of their soil and use the full fighting force of their Army. Hitler, thus baffled of quick results, will turn upon us, and we are preparing ourselves to resist his fury and defend our island. Having saved the B.E.F., we do not lack troops at home, and as soon as divisions can be equipped on the much higher scale needed for Continental service they will be despatched to France. Our intention is to have a strong army fighting in France for the campaign of 1941. I have already cabled you about aeroplanes, including flying-boats, which are so needful to us in the impending struggle for the life of Great Britain. But even more pressing is the need for destroyers. The Italian outrage makes it necessary for us to cope with a much larger number of submarines which may come out into the Atlantic and perhaps be based on Spanish ports. To this the only counter is destroyers. Nothing is so important as for us to have the thirty or forty old destroyers you have already had reconditioned. We can fit them very rapidly with our Asdics, and they will bridge the gap of six months before our wartime new construction comes into play. We will return them or their equivalents to you, without fail, at six months’ notice if at any time you need them. The next six months are vital. If while we have to guard the East Coast against invasion a new heavy German-Italian submarine attack is launched against our commerce, the strain may be beyond our resources, and the ocean traffic by which we live may be strangled. Not a day should be lost. I send you my heartfelt thanks and those of my colleagues for all you are doing and seeking to do for what we may now, indeed, call the Common Cause.

      *      *      *      *      *      

The rush for the spoils had begun. But Mussolini was not the only hungry animal seeking prey. To join the Jackal came the Bear.

I have recorded in the previous volume the course of Anglo-Soviet relations up till the outbreak of war and the hostility, verging upon an actual breach with Britain and France, which arose during the Russian invasion of Finland. Germany and Russia now worked together as closely as their deep divergences of interest permitted. Hitler and Stalin had much in common as totalitarians, and their systems of government were akin. M. Molotov beamed on the German Ambassador, Count Schulenburg, on every important occasion, and was forward and fulsome in his approval of German policy and praise for Hitler’s military measures. When the German assault had been made upon Norway he had said (April 7) that “the Soviet Government understood the measures which were forced upon Germany. The English had certainly gone much too far. They had disregarded completely the rights of neutral nations. . . . We wish Germany complete success in her defensive measures.[6] Hitler had taken pains to inform Stalin on the morning of May 10 of the onslaught he had begun upon France and the neutral Low Countries. “I called on Molotov,” wrote Schulenburg. “He appreciated the news, and added that he understood that Germany had to protect herself against Anglo-French attack. He had no doubt of our success.”[7]

Although these expressions of their opinion were of course unknown till after the war, we were under no illusions about the Russian attitude. We nonetheless pursued a patient policy of trying to re-establish relations of a confidential character with Russia, trusting to the march of events and to their fundamental antagonisms to Germany. It was thought wise to use the abilities of Sir Stafford Cripps as Ambassador to Moscow. He willingly accepted this bleak and unpromising task. We did not at that time realise sufficiently that Soviet Communists hate extreme left-wing politicians even more than they do Tories or Liberals. The nearer a man is to Communism in sentiment, the more obnoxious he is to the Soviets unless he joins the party. The Soviet Government agreed to receive Cripps as Ambassador, and explained this step to their Nazi confederates. “The Soviet Union,” wrote Schulenburg to Berlin on May 29, “is interested in obtaining rubber and tin from England in exchange for lumber. There is no reason for apprehension concerning Cripps’s mission, since there is no reason to doubt the loyal attitude of the Soviet Union towards us, and since the unchanged direction of Soviet policy towards England precludes damage to Germany or vital German interests. There are no indications of any kind here for belief that the latest German successes cause alarm or fear of Germany in the Soviet Government.”[8]

The collapse of France and the destruction of the French armies and of all counter-poise in the West ought to have produced some reaction in Stalin’s mind, but nothing seemed to warn the Soviet leaders of the gravity of their own peril. On June 18, when the French defeat was total, Schulenburg reported, “Molotov summoned me this evening to his office and expressed the warmest congratulations of the Soviet Government on the splendid success of the German armed forces.”[9] This was almost exactly a year from the date when these same armed forces, taking the Soviet Government by complete surprise, fell upon Russia in cataracts of fire and steel. We now know that only four months later in 1940 Hitler definitely decided upon a war of extermination against the Soviets, and began the long, vast, stealthy movement of these much-congratulated German armies to the East. No recollection of their miscalculation and former conduct ever prevented the Soviet Government and its Communist agents and associates all over the world from screaming for a Second Front, in which Britain, whom they had consigned to ruin and servitude, was to play a leading part.

However, we comprehended the future more truly than these cold-blooded calculators, and understood their dangers and their interest better than they did themselves. I now addressed myself for the first time to Stalin.

Prime Minister to Monsieur Stalin. 25.VI.40.

At this time, when the face of Europe is changing hourly, I should like to take the opportunity of your receiving His Majesty’s new Ambassador to ask the latter to convey to you a message from myself.

Geographically our two countries lie at the opposite extremities of Europe, and from the point of view of systems of government it may be said that they stand for widely differing systems of political thought. But I trust that these facts need not prevent the relations between our two countries in the international sphere from being harmonious and mutually beneficial.

In the past—indeed in the recent past—our relations have, it must be acknowledged, been hampered by mutual suspicions; and last August the Soviet Government decided that the interests of the Soviet Union required that they should break off negotiations with us and enter into a close relation with Germany. Thus Germany became your friend almost at the same moment as she became our enemy.

But since then a new factor has arisen which I venture to think makes it desirable that both our countries should re-establish our previous contact, so that if necessary we may be able to consult together as regards those affairs in Europe which must necessarily interest us both. At the present moment the problem before all Europe—our two countries included—is how the States and peoples of Europe are going to react towards the prospect of Germany establishing a hegemony over the Continent.

The fact that both our countries lie not in Europe but on her extremities puts them in a special position. We are better enabled than others less fortunately placed to resist Germany’s hegemony, and as you know the British Government certainly intend to use their geographical position and their great resources to this end.

In fact, Great Britain’s policy is concentrated on two objects—one, to save herself from German domination, which the Nazi Government wishes to impose, and the other, to free the rest of Europe from the domination which Germany is now in process of imposing on it.

The Soviet Union is alone in a position to judge whether Germany’s present bid for the hegemony of Europe threatens the interests of the Soviet Union, and if so how best these interests can be safeguarded. But I have felt that the crisis through which Europe, and indeed the world, is passing is so grave as to warrant my laying before you frankly the position as it presents itself to the British Government. This, I hope, will ensure that in any discussion that the Soviet Government may have with Sir S. Cripps there should be no misunderstanding as to the policy of His Majesty’s Government or of their readiness to discuss fully with the Soviet Government any of the vast problems created by Germany’s present attempt to pursue in Europe a methodical process by successive stages of conquest and absorption.

There was, of course, no answer. I did not expect one. Sir Stafford Cripps reached Moscow safely, and even had an interview of a formal and frigid character with M. Stalin.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Meanwhile the Soviet Government was busy collecting its spoils. On June 14, the day Paris fell, Moscow had sent an ultimatum to Lithuania accusing her and the other Baltic States of military conspiracy against the U.S.S.R. and demanding radical changes of government and military concessions. On June 15, Red Army troops invaded the country and the President, Smetona, fled into East Prussia. Latvia and Estonia were exposed to the same treatment. Pro-Soviet Governments must be set up forthwith and Soviet garrisons admitted into these small countries. Resistance was out of the question. The President of Latvia was deported to Russia, and Mr. Vyshinsky arrived to nominate a Provisional Government to manage new elections. In Estonia the pattern was identical. On June 19, Zhdanov arrived in Tallinn to install a similar régime. On August 3/6, the pretense of pro-Soviet friendly and democratic Governments was swept away, and the Kremlin annexed the Baltic States to the Soviet Union.

The Russian ultimatum to Rumania was delivered to the Rumanian Minister in Moscow at 10 P.M. on June 26. The cession of Bessarabia and the northern part of the province of Bukovina was demanded, and an immediate reply requested by the following day. Germany, though annoyed by this precipitate action of Russia, which threatened her economic interests in Rumania, was bound by the terms of the German-Soviet pact of August, 1939, which recognised the exclusive political interest of Russia in these areas of Southeast Europe. The German Government, therefore, counselled Rumania to yield.


Reynaud, La France a sauvé l’Europe, volume II, page 200 ff.

See Reynaud, op. cit., volume II, page 209.

Graziani, Ho Difeso la Patria, page 189.

The Memoirs of Cordell Hull, volume I, chapter 56.

Ciano, Diaries, pages 263-64.

Nazi-Soviet Relations, 1939-1941, page 138.

Ibid., page 142.

Ibid., pages 142-43.

Ibid., page 154.

7
Back to France

June 4 to June 12

High Morale of the Army—My First Thoughts and Directive, June 2, 1940—The Lost Equipment—The President, General Marshall, and Mr. Stettinius—An Act of Faith—The Double Tensions of June—Reconstitution of the British Army—Its Fearful Lack of Modern Weapons—Decision to Send Our Only Two Well-Armed Divisions to France—The Battle of France: Final Phase—Destruction of the Fifty-First Highland Division, June 11/12—“Auld Scotland Stands for Something Still”—My Fourth Visit to France: Briare—Weygand and Pétain—General Georges Summoned—Mussolini Strikes—My Discussion with Weygand—The French Prevent the Royal Air Force from Bombing Milan and Turin—The Germans Enter Paris—Renewed Conference Next Morning—Admiral Darlan’s Promise—Farewell to G.Q.G.—Our Journey Home—My Report to the War Cabinet of the Conference.

When it was known how many men had been rescued from Dunkirk, a sense of deliverance spread in the island and throughout the Empire. There was a feeling of intense relief, melting almost into triumph. The safe homecoming of a quarter of a million men, the flower of our Army, was a milestone in our pilgrimage through years of defeat. The achievement of the Southern Railway and the Movements Branch of the War Office, of the staffs at the ports in the Thames Estuary, and above all at Dover, where over two hundred thousand men were handled and rapidly distributed throughout the country, is worthy of the highest praise. The troops returned with nothing but rifles and bayonets and a few hundred machine guns, and were forthwith sent to their homes for seven days’ leave. Their joy at being once again united with their families did not overcome a stern desire to engage the enemy at the earliest moment. Those who had actually fought the Germans in the field had the belief that, given a fair chance, they could beat them. Their morale was high, and they rejoined their regiments and batteries with alacrity.

All the Ministers and departmental officers, permanent or newly chosen, acted with confidence and vigour night and day, and there are many tales to be told besides this one. Personally I felt uplifted, and my mind drew easily and freely from the knowledge I had gathered in my life. I was exhilarated by the salvation of the Army. I present, for what they are worth, the directives to the Departments and submissions to the War Cabinet which I issued day by day. Ismay carried them to the Chiefs of Staff, and Bridges to the War Cabinet and the Departments. Mistakes were corrected and gaps filled. Amendments and improvements were often made, but in the main, to the degree perhaps of ninety per cent, action was taken, and with a speed and effectiveness which no dictatorship could rival.

Here were my first thoughts at the moment when it became certain that the Army had escaped.

Prime Minister to General Ismay. 2.VI.40.

Notes for C.O.S., etc., by the Minister of Defence.

The successful evacuation of the B.E.F. has revolutionised the Home Defence position. As soon as the B.E.F. units can be reformed on a Home Defence basis we have a mass of trained troops in the country which would require a raid to be executed on a prohibitively large scale. Even 200,000 men would not be beyond our compass. The difficulties of a descent and its risks and losses increase with every addition to the first 10,000. We must at once take a new view of the situation. Certain questions must be considered, chiefly by the War Office, but also by the Joint Staffs:

1. What is the shortest time in which the B.E.F. can be given a new fighting value?

2. Upon what scheme would they be organised? Will it be for service at Home in the first instance and only secondarily despatch to France? On the whole, I prefer this.

3. The B.E.F. in France must immediately be reconstituted, otherwise the French will not continue in the war. Even if Paris is lost, they must be adjured to continue a gigantic guerrilla. A scheme should be considered for a bridgehead and area of disembarkation in Brittany, where a large army can be developed. We must have plans worked out which will show the French that there is a way through if they will only be steadfast.

4. As soon as the B.E.F. is reconstituted for Home Defence, three divisions should be sent to join our two divisions south of the Somme, or wherever the French left may be by then. It is for consideration whether the Canadian Division should not go at once. Pray let me have a scheme.

5. Had we known a week ago what we now know about the Dunkirk evacuation, Narvik would have presented itself in a different light. Even now the question of maintaining a garrison there for some weeks on a self-contained basis should be reconsidered. I am deeply impressed with the vice and peril of chopping and changing. The letter of the Minister of Economic Warfare as well as the telegram of some days ago from the C.-in-C. must, however, receive one final weighing.

6. Ask Admiralty to supply a latest return of the state of the destroyer flotillas, showing what reinforcements have arrived or are expected within the month of June, and how many will come from repair.

7. It should now be possible to allow the eight Regular battalions in Palestine to be relieved by the eight native battalions from India before they are brought home, as brought home they must be, to constitute the cadres of the new B.E.F.

8. As soon as the Australians land, the big ships should be turned round and should carry eight or ten Territorial battalions to Bombay. They should bring back a second eight Regular battalions from India, and afterwards carry to India a second eight or ten Territorial battalions from England. It is for consideration how far the same principle should be applied to batteries in India.

9. Our losses in equipment must be expected to delay the fruition of our expansion of the B.E.F. from the twenty divisions formerly aimed at by Z[1] + 12 months, to no more than fifteen divisions by Z + 18; but we must have a project to put before the French. The essence of this should be the armoured division, the 51st, the Canadians, and two Territorial divisions under Lord Gort by mid-July, and the augmenting of this force by six divisions formed from the twenty-four Regular battalions in conjunction with Territorials, a second Canadian division, an Australian division, and two Territorial divisions by Z + 18. Perhaps we may even be able to improve on this.

10. It is of the highest urgency to have at least half a dozen Brigade groups formed from the Regulars of the B.E.F. for Home Defence.

11. What air co-operation is arranged to cover the final evacuation tonight? It ought to be possible to reduce the pressure on the rearguard at this critical moment.

I close with a general observation. As I have personally felt less afraid of a German attempt at invasion than of the piercing of the French line on the Somme or Aisne and the fall of Paris, I have naturally believed the Germans would choose the latter. This probability is greatly increased by the fact that they will realise that the armed forces in Great Britain are now far stronger than they have ever been, and that their raiding parties would not have to meet half-trained formations, but the men whose mettle they have already tested, and from whom they have recoiled, not daring seriously to molest their departure. The next few days, before the B.E.F. or any substantial portion of it can be reorganised, must be considered as still critical.

      *      *      *      *      *      

There was of course a darker side to Dunkirk. We had lost the whole equipment of the Army to which all the firstfruits of our factories had hitherto been given:

7,000tons of ammunition
90,000rifles
2,300guns
120,000vehicles
8,000Bren guns
400anti-tank rifles

Many months must elapse, even if the existing programmes were fulfilled without interruption by the enemy, before this loss could be repaired.

However, across the Atlantic in the United States strong emotions were already stirring in the breasts of its leading men. A precise and excellent account of these events is given by Mr. Stettinius,[2] the worthy son of my old Munitions colleague of the First World War, one of our truest friends. It was at once realised that the bulk of the British Army had got away only with the loss of all their equipment. As early as June 1 the President sent out orders to the War and Navy Departments to report what weapons they could spare for Britain and France. At the head of the American Army as Chief of Staff was General Marshall, not only a soldier of proved quality, but a man of commanding vision. He instantly directed his Chief of Ordnance and his Assistant Chief of Staff to survey the entire list of the American reserve ordnance and munitions stocks. In forty-eight hours the answers were given, and on June 3 Marshall approved the lists. The first list comprised half a million .30 calibre rifles out of two million manufactured in 1917 and 1918 and stored in grease for more than twenty years. For these there were about 250 cartridges apiece. There were 900 soixante-quinze field guns with a million rounds, 80,000 machine guns, and various other items. In his excellent book about American supplies Mr. Stettinius says: “Since every hour counted, it was decided that the Army should sell (for 37 million dollars) everything on the list to one concern which could in turn resell immediately to the British and French.” The Chief of Ordnance, Major-General Wesson, was told to handle the matter, and immediately on June 3 all the American Army depots and arsenals started packing the material for shipment. By the end of the week more than six hundred heavily loaded freight cars were rolling towards the Army docks at Raritan, New Jersey, up the river from Gravesend Bay. By June 11 a dozen British merchant ships moved into the bay and anchored, and loading from lighters began.

By these extraordinary measures the United States left themselves with the equipment for only 1,800,000 men, the minimum figure stipulated by the American Army Mobilisation Plan. All this reads easily now, but at that time it was a supreme act of faith and leadership for the United States to deprive themselves of this very considerable mass of arms for the sake of a country which many deemed already beaten. They never had need to repent of it. As will presently be recounted, we ferried these precious weapons safely across the Atlantic during July, and they formed not only a material gain, but an important factor in all calculations made by friend or foe about invasion.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Mr. Cordell Hull has a passage in his memoirs[3] which is relevant at this point:

In response to Reynaud’s almost pitiful pleas for backing, the President urged Mr. Churchill to send planes to France; but the Prime Minister refused. Bullitt [the United States Ambassador in Paris], outraged by this decision, communicated to the President and me on June 5 his fear that the British might be conserving their Air Force and Fleet so as to use them as bargaining points in negotiations with Hitler. The President and I, however, thought differently. France was finished, but we were convinced that Britain, under Churchill’s indomitable leadership, intended to fight on. There would be no negotiations between London and Berlin. Only the day before Bullitt’s telegram, Churchill had made his magnificent speech in the House of Commons. The President and I believed Mr. Churchill meant what he said. Had we had any doubt of Britain’s determination to keep on fighting, we would not have taken the steps we did to get material aid to her. There would have been no logic in sending arms to Britain if we had thought that, before they arrived there, Churchill’s Government would surrender to Germany.

      *      *      *      *      *      

The month of June was particularly trying to all of us, because of the dual and opposite stresses to which in our naked condition we were subjected by our duty to France on the one hand and the need to create an effective army at home and to fortify the island on the other. The double tension of antagonistic but vital needs was most severe. Nevertheless, we followed a firm and steady policy without undue excitement. First priority continued to be given to sending whatever trained and equipped troops we had, in order to reconstitute the British Expeditionary Force in France. After that our efforts were devoted to the defence of the island; first, by re-forming and re-equipping the Regular Army; secondly, by fortifying the likely landing places; thirdly, by arming and organising the population, so far as was possible; and of course by bringing home whatever forces could be gathered from the Empire. At this time the most imminent dangers seemed to be the landing of comparatively small but highly mobile German tank forces which would rip us up and disorganise our defence, and also parachute descents. In close contact with the new Secretary of State for War, Anthony Eden, I busied myself on all this.

The following scheme was devised by the Secretary of State and the War Office for reconstituting the Army in accordance with the directives which had been issued. Seven mobile brigade groups were already in existence. The divisions returned from Dunkirk were reconstituted, re-equipped as fast as possible, and took up their stations. In time the seven brigade groups were absorbed into the re-formed divisions. There were available fourteen Territorial divisions of high-quality men who had been nine months ardently training under war conditions and were partly equipped. One of these, the 52d, was already fit for service overseas. There was a second armoured division and four Army tank brigades in process of formation, but without tanks. There was the 1st Canadian Division fully equipped.

It was not men that were lacking, but arms. Over eighty thousand rifles were retrieved from the communications and bases south of the Seine, and by the middle of June every fighting man in the Regular forces had at least a personal weapon in his hand. We had very little field artillery, even for the Regular Army. Nearly all the new 25-pounders had been lost in France. There remained about five hundred 18-pounders, 4.5-inch and 6-inch howitzers. There were only 103 cruiser, 132 infantry, and 252 light tanks. Fifty of the infantry tanks were at home in a battalion of the Royal Tank Regiment, and the remainder were in training-schools. Never has a great nation been so naked before her foes.

      *      *      *      *      *      

From the beginning I kept in the closest contact with my old friends now at the head of the Governments of Canada and South Africa.

Prime Minister to Mr. Mackenzie King. 5.VI.40.

British situation vastly improved by miraculous evacuation of B.E.F., which gives us an army in the island more than capable, when re-equipped, of coping with any invading force likely to be landed. Also evacuation was a main trial of strength between British and German Air Forces. Germans have been unable to prevent evacuation, though largely superior in numbers, and have suffered at least three times our loss. For technical reasons, British Air Force would have many more advantages in defending the air above the island than in operating overseas. Principal remaining danger is of course air[craft] factories, but if our air defence is so strong that enemy can only come on dark nights precision will not be easy. I therefore feel solid confidence in British ability to continue the war, defend the island and the Empire, and maintain the blockade.

I do not know whether it will be possible to keep France in the war or not. I hope they will, even at the worst, maintain a gigantic guerrilla. We are reconstituting the B.E.F. out of other units.

We must be careful not to let Americans view too complacently prospect of a British collapse, out of which they would get the British Fleet and the guardianship of the British Empire, minus Great Britain. If United States were in the war and England [were] conquered locally, it would be natural that events should follow the above course. But if America continued neutral, and we were overpowered, I cannot tell what policy might be adopted by a pro-German administration such as would undoubtedly be set up.

Although President is our best friend, no practical help has [reached us] from the United States as yet. We have not expected them to send military aid, but they have not even sent any worthy contribution in destroyers or planes, or by a visit of a squadron of their Fleet to southern Irish ports. Any pressure which you can apply in this direction would be invaluable.

We are most deeply grateful to you for all your help and for [the four Canadian] destroyers, which have already gone into action against a U-boat. Kindest regards.

Smuts, far off in South Africa and without the latest information upon the specialised problems of Insular Air Defence, naturally viewed the tragedy of France according to orthodox principles: “Concentrate everything at the decisive point.” I had the advantage of knowing the facts, and of the detailed advice of Air Marshal Dowding, head of Fighter Command. If Smuts and I had been together for half an hour, and I could have put the data before him, we should have agreed, as we always did on large military issues.

Prime Minister to General Smuts. 9.VI.40.

We are of course doing all we can both from the air and by sending divisions as fast as they can be equipped to France. It would be wrong to send the bulk of our fighters to this battle, and when it was lost, as is probable, be left with no means of carrying on the war. I think we have a harder, longer, and more hopeful duty to perform. Advantages of resisting German air attack in this island, where we can concentrate very powerful fighter strength, and hope to knock out four or five hostiles to one of ours, are far superior to fighting in France, where we are inevitably outnumbered and rarely exceed two to one ratio of destruction, and where our aircraft are often destroyed at exposed aerodromes. This battle does not turn on the score or so of fighter squadrons we could transport with their plant in the next month. Even if by using them up we held the enemy, Hitler could immediately throw his whole [air] strength against our undefended island and destroy our means of future production by daylight attack. The classical principles of war which you mention are in this case modified by the actual quantitative data. I see only one way through now, to wit, that Hitler should attack this country, and in so doing break his air weapon. If this happens, he will be left to face the winter with Europe writhing under his heel, and probably with the United States against him after the presidential election is over.

Am most grateful to you for cable. Please always give me your counsel, my old and valiant friend.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Apart from our last twenty-five Fighter Squadrons, on which we were adamant, we regarded the duty of sending aid to the French Army as paramount. The movement of the 52d Division to France, under previous orders, was due to begin on June 7. These orders were confirmed. The 3d Division, under General Montgomery, was put first in equipment and assigned to France. The leading division of the Canadian Army, which had concentrated in England early in the year and was well-armed, was directed, with the full assent of the Dominion Government, to Brest to begin arriving there on June 11 for what might by this time already be deemed a forlorn hope. The two French light divisions evacuated from Norway were also sent home, together with all the French units and individuals we had carried away from Dunkirk.

That we should have sent our only two formed divisions, the 52d Lowland Division and the 1st Canadian Division, over to our failing French ally in this mortal crisis, when the whole fury of Germany must soon fall upon us, must be set to our credit against the very limited forces we had been able to put in France in the first eight months of war. Looking back on it, I wonder how, when we were resolved to continue the war to the death, and under the threat of invasion, and France was evidently falling, we had the nerve to strip ourselves of the remaining effective military formations we possessed. This was only possible because we understood the difficulties of the Channel crossing without the command of the sea or the air, or the necessary landing craft.

      *      *      *      *      *      

We had still in France, behind the Somme, the 51st Highland Division, which had been withdrawn from the Maginot Line and was in good condition, and the 52d Lowland Division, which was arriving in Normandy. There was also our 1st (and only) Armoured Division, less the tank battalion and the support group which had been sent to Calais. This, however, had lost heavily in attempts to cross the Somme as part of Weygand’s plan. By June 1 it was reduced to one-third of its strength, and was sent back across the Seine to refit. At the same time a composite force known as “Beauman Force” was scraped together from the bases and lines of communication in France. It consisted of nine improvised infantry battalions, armed mainly with rifles, and very few anti-tank weapons. It had neither transport nor signals.

The Tenth French Army, with this British contingent, tried to hold the line of the Somme. The 51st Division alone had a front of sixteen miles, and the rest of the army was equally strained. On June 4, with a French division and French tanks, they attacked the German bridgehead at Abbeville, but without success.

On June 5 the final phase of the Battle of France began. The French front consisted of the Second, Third, and Fourth Groups of Armies. The Second defended the Rhine front and the Maginot Line; the Fourth stood along the Aisne; and the Third from the Aisne to the mouth of the Somme. This Third Army Group comprised the Sixth, Seventh, and Tenth Armies; and all the British forces in France formed part of the Tenth Army. All this immense line, in which there stood at this moment nearly one and a half million men, or perhaps sixty-five divisions, was now to be assaulted by one hundred and twenty-four German divisions, also formed in three army groups, namely: Coastal Sector, Bock; Central Sector, Rundstedt; Eastern Sector, Leeb. These attacked on June 5, June 9, and June 15 respectively. On the night of June 5 we learned that a German offensive had been launched that morning on a seventy-mile front from Amiens to the Laon-Soissons road. This was war on the largest scale.

We have seen how the German armour had been hobbled and held back in the Dunkirk battle, in order to save it for the final phase in France. All this armour now rolled forward upon the weak and improvised or quivering French front between Paris and the sea. It is here only possible to record the battle on the coastal flank, in which we played a part. On June 7 the Germans renewed their attack, and two armoured divisions drove towards Rouen so as to split the Tenth French Army. The left French Ninth Corps, including the Highland Division, two French infantry divisions, and two cavalry divisions, or what was left of them, were separated from the rest of the Tenth Army front. “Beauman Force,” supported by thirty British tanks, now attempted to cover Rouen. On June 8 they were driven back to the Seine, and that night the Germans entered the city. The 51st Division, with the remnants of the French Ninth Corps, was cut off in the Rouen-Dieppe cul-de-sac.

We had been intensely concerned lest this division should be driven back to the Havre peninsula and thus be separated from the main armies, and its commander, Major-General Fortune, had been told to fall back if necessary in the direction of Rouen. This movement was forbidden by the already disintegrating French command. Repeated urgent representations were made by us, but they were of no avail. A dogged refusal to face facts led to the ruin of the French Ninth Corps and our 51st Division. On June 9, when Rouen was already in German hands, our men had but newly reached Dieppe, thirty-five miles to the north. Only then were orders received to withdraw to Havre. A force was sent back to cover the movement, but before the main bodies could move the Germans interposed. Striking from the east, they reached the sea, and the greater part of the 51st Division, with many of the French, was cut off. It was a case of gross mismanagement, for this very danger was visible a full three days before.

On the 10th, after sharp fighting, the division fell back, together with the French Ninth Corps, to the perimeter of St. Valéry, expecting to be evacuated by sea. Meanwhile all our other forces in the Havre peninsula were embarking speedily and safely. During the night of the 11th and 12th fog prevented the ships from evacuating the troops from St. Valéry. By morning on the 12th the Germans had reached the sea cliffs to the south and the beach was under direct fire. White flags appeared in the town. The French corps capitulated at eight o’clock, and the remains of the Highland Division were forced to do so at 10.30 A.M. Only 1350 British officers and men and 930 French escaped; eight thousand fell into German hands. I was vexed that the French had not allowed our division to retire on Rouen in good time, but had kept it waiting till it could neither reach Havre nor retreat southward, and thus forced it to surrender with their own troops. The fate of the Highland Division was hard, but in after years not unavenged by those Scots who filled their places, re-created the division by merging it with the 9th Scottish, and marched across all the battlefields from Alamein to final victory beyond the Rhine.

Some lines of Dr. Charles Murray’s, written in the First World War, came into my mind, and it is fitting to print them here:

Half-mast the castle banner droops,

  The Laird’s lament was played yestreen,

An’ mony a widowed cottar wife

  Is greetin’ at her shank aleen.

 

In Freedom’s cause, for ane that fa’s,

  We’ll glean the glens an’ send them three,

To clip the reivin’ eagle’s claws

  An’ drook his feathers i’ the sea.

For gallant loons, in brochs an’ toons,

  Are leavin’ shop an’ yaird an’ mill,

A’ keen to show baith friend an’ foe

  Auld Scotland counts for something still.

      *      *      *      *      *      

About eleven o’clock the morning of June 11 there was a message from Reynaud, who had also cabled to the President. The French tragedy had moved and slid downward. For several days past I had pressed for a meeting of the Supreme Council. We could no longer meet in Paris. We were not told what were the conditions there. Certainly the German spearheads were very close. I had had some difficulty in obtaining a rendezvous, but this was no time to stand on ceremony. We must know what the French were going to do. Reynaud now told me that he could receive us at Briare, near Orléans. The seat of government was moving from Paris to Tours. Grand Quartier Général was near Briare. He specified the airfield to which I should come. Nothing loth, I ordered the Flamingo to be ready at Hendon after luncheon, and having obtained the approval of my colleagues at the morning Cabinet, we started about two o’clock. Before leaving I cabled to the President.

Former Naval Person to President Roosevelt. 11.VI.40.

The French have sent for me again, which means that crisis has arrived. Am just off. Anything you can say or do to help them now may make the difference.

We are also worried about Ireland. An American Squadron at Berehaven would do no end of good, I am sure.

      *      *      *      *      *      

This was my fourth journey to France; and since military conditions evidently predominated, I asked the Secretary of State for War, Mr. Eden, to come with me, as well as General Dill, now C.I.G.S., and of course Ismay. The German aircraft were now reaching far down into the Channel, and we had to make a still wider sweep. As before, the Flamingo had an escort of twelve Hurricanes. After a couple of hours we alighted at a small landing-ground. There were a few Frenchmen about, and soon a colonel arrived in a motor-car. I displayed the smiling countenance and confident air which are thought suitable when things are very bad, but the Frenchman was dull and unresponsive. I realised immediately how very far things had fallen even since we were in Paris a week before. After an interval we were conducted to the château, where we found M. Reynaud, Marshal Pétain. General Weygand, the Air General Vuillemin, and some others, including the relatively junior General de Gaulle, who had just been appointed Under-Secretary for National Defence. Hard by on the railway was the Headquarters train, in which some of our party were accommodated. The château possessed but one telephone, in the lavatory. It was kept very busy, with long delays and endless shouted repetitions.

At seven o’clock we entered into conference. General Ismay kept a record. I merely reproduce my lasting impressions, which in no way disagree with it. There were no reproaches or recriminations. We were all up against brute facts. We British did not know where exactly the front line lay, and certainly there was anxiety about some dart by the German armour—even upon us. In effect, the discussion ran on the following lines: I urged the French Government to defend Paris. I emphasised the enormous absorbing power of the house-to-house defence of a great city upon an invading army. I recalled to Marshal Pétain the nights we had spent together in his train at Beauvais after the British Fifth Army disaster in 1918, and how he, as I put it, not mentioning Marshal Foch, had restored the situation. I also reminded him how Clemenceau had said, “I will fight in front of Paris, in Paris, and behind Paris.” The Marshal replied very quietly and with dignity that in those days he had a mass of manoeuvre of upwards of sixty divisions; now there was none. He mentioned that there were then sixty British divisions in the line. Making Paris into a ruin would not affect the final event.

Then General Weygand exposed the military position, so far as he knew it, in the fluid battle proceeding fifty or sixty miles away, and he paid a high tribute to the prowess of the French Army. He requested that every reinforcement should be sent—above all, that every British fighter air squadron should immediately be thrown into the battle. “Here,” he said, “is the decisive point. Now is the decisive moment. It is therefore wrong to keep any squadrons back in England.” But in accordance with the Cabinet decision, taken in the presence of Air Marshal Dowding, whom I had brought specially to a Cabinet meeting, I replied: “This is not the decisive point and this is not the decisive moment. That moment will come when Hitler hurls his Luftwaffe against Great Britain. If we can keep command of the air, and if we can keep the seas open, as we certainly shall keep them open, we will win it all back for you.”[4] Twenty-five fighter squadrons must be maintained at all costs for the defence of Britain and the Channel, and nothing would make us give up these. We intended to continue the war whatever happened, and we believed we could do so for an indefinite time, but to give up these squadrons would destroy our chance of life. At this stage I asked that General Georges, the Commander-in-Chief of the Northwestern Front, who was in the neighbourhood, should be sent for, and this was accordingly done.

Presently General Georges arrived. After being apprised of what had passed, he confirmed the account of the French front which had been given by Weygand. I again urged my guerrilla plan. The German Army was not so strong as might appear at their points of impact. If all the French armies, every division and brigade, fought the troops on their front with the utmost vigour, a general standstill might be achieved. I was answered by statements of the frightful conditions on the roads, crowded with refugees harried by unresisted machine-gun fire from the German aeroplanes, and of the wholesale flight of vast numbers of inhabitants and the increasing breakdown of the machinery of government and of military control. At one point General Weygand mentioned that the French might have to ask for an armistice. Reynaud at once snapped at him: “That is a political affair.” According to Ismay I said: “If it is thought best for France in her agony that her Army should capitulate, let there be no hesitation on our account, because whatever you may do we shall fight on forever and ever and ever.” When I said that the French Army, fighting on, wherever it might be, could hold or wear out a hundred German divisions, General Weygand replied: “Even if that were so, they would still have another hundred to invade and conquer you. What would you do then?” On this I said that I was not a military expert, but that my technical advisers were of opinion that the best method of dealing with German invasion of the island of Britain was to drown as many as possible on the way over and knock the others on the head as they crawled ashore. Weygand answered with a sad smile, “At any rate I must admit you have a very good anti-tank obstacle.” These were the last striking words I remember to have heard from him. In all this miserable discussion it must be borne in mind that I was haunted and undermined by the grief I felt that Britain, with her forty-eight million population, had not been able to make a greater contribution to the land war against Germany, and that so far nine-tenths of the slaughter and ninety-nine-hundredths of the suffering had fallen upon France and upon France alone.

After another hour or so we got up and washed our hands while a meal was brought to the conference table. In this interval I talked to General Georges privately, and suggested first the continuance of fighting everywhere on the home front and a prolonged guerrilla in the mountainous regions, and secondly the move to Africa, which a week before I had regarded as “defeatist.” My respected friend, who, although charged with much direct responsibility, had never had a free hand to lead the French armies, did not seem to think there was much hope in either of these.

I have written lightly of the happenings of these days, but here to all of us was real agony of mind and soul.

      *      *      *      *      *      

At about ten o’clock everyone took his place at the dinner. I sat on M. Reynaud’s right and General de Gaulle was on my other side. There was soup, an omelette or something, coffee and light wine. Even at this point in our awful tribulation under the German scourge we were quite friendly. But presently there was a jarring interlude. The reader will recall the importance I had attached to striking hard at Italy the moment she entered the war, and the arrangement that had been made with full French concurrence to move a force of British heavy bombers to the French airfields near Marseilles in order to attack Turin and Milan. All was now in readiness to strike. Scarcely had we sat down when Air Vice-Marshal Barratt, commanding the British Air Force in France, rang up Ismay on the telephone to say that the local authorities objected to the British bombers taking off, on the grounds that an attack on Italy would only bring reprisals upon the South of France, which the British were in no position to resist or prevent. Reynaud, Weygand, Eden, Dill, and I left the table, and, after some parleying, Reynaud agreed that orders should be sent to the French authorities concerned that the bombers were not to be stopped. But later that night Air Marshal Barratt reported that the French people near the airfields had dragged all kinds of country carts and lorries onto them, and that it had been impossible for the bombers to start on their mission.

Presently, when we left the dinner table and sat with some coffee and brandy, M. Reynaud told me that Marshal Pétain had informed him that it would be necessary for France to seek an armistice, and that he had written a paper upon the subject which he wished him to read. “He has not,” said Reynaud, “handed it to me yet. He is still ashamed to do it.” He ought also to have been ashamed to support even tacitly Weygand’s demand for our last twenty-five squadrons of fighters, when he had made up his mind that all was lost and that France should give in. Thus we all went unhappily to bed in this disordered château or in the military train a few miles away. The Germans entered Paris on the 14th.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Early in the morning we resumed our conference. Air Marshal Barratt was present. Reynaud renewed his appeal for five more squadrons of fighters to be based in France, and General Weygand said that he was badly in need of day bombers to make up for his lack of troops. I gave them an assurance that the whole question of increased air support for France would be examined carefully and sympathetically by the War Cabinet immediately I got back to London; but I again emphasised that it would be a vital mistake to denude the United Kingdom of its essential Home defences.

Towards the end of this short meeting I put the following specific questions:

(1) Will not the mass of Paris and its suburbs present an obstacle dividing and delaying the enemy as in 1914, or like Madrid?

(2) May this not enable a counter-stroke to be organised with British and French forces across the lower Seine?

(3) If the period of co-ordinated war ends, will that not mean an almost equal dispersion of the enemy forces? Would not a war of columns and [attacks] upon the enemy communications be possible? Are the enemy resources sufficient to hold down all the countries at present conquered as well as a large part of France, while they are fighting the French Army and Great Britain?

(4) Is it not possible thus to prolong the resistance until the United States come in?

General Weygand, while agreeing with the conception of the counter-stroke on the lower Seine, said that he had inadequate forces to implement it. He added that, in his judgment, the Germans had got plenty to spare to hold down all the countries at present conquered as well as a large part of France. Reynaud added that the Germans had raised fifty-five divisions and had built four thousand to five thousand heavy tanks since the outbreak of war. This was of course an immense exaggeration of what they had built.

In conclusion, I expressed in the most formal manner my hope that if there was any change in the situation the French Government would let the British Government know at once, in order that they might come over and see them at any convenient spot, before they took any final decisions which would govern their action in the second phase of the war.

We then took leave of Pétain, Weygand, and the staff of G.Q.G., and this was the last we saw of them. Finally I took Admiral Darlan apart and spoke to him alone. “Darlan, you must never let them get the French Fleet.” He promised solemnly that he would never do so.

      *      *      *      *      *      

The morning was cloudy, thus making it impossible for the twelve Hurricanes to escort us. We had to choose between waiting till it cleared up or taking a chance in the Flamingo. We were assured that it would be cloudy all the way. It was urgently necessary to get back home. Accordingly we started alone, calling for an escort to meet us, if possible, over the Channel. As we approached the coast, the skies cleared and presently became cloudless. Eight thousand feet below us on our right hand was Havre, burning. The smoke drifted away to the eastward. No new escort was to be seen. Presently I noticed some consultations going on with the captain, and immediately after we dived to a hundred feet or so above the calm sea, where aeroplanes are often invisible. What had happened? I learned later that they had seen two German aircraft below us firing at fishing-boats. We were lucky that their pilots did not look upward. The new escort met us as we approached the English shore, and the faithful Flamingo alighted safely at Hendon.

      *      *      *      *      *      

At five o’clock that evening I reported to the War Cabinet the results of my mission.

I described the condition of the French armies as it had been reported to the conference by General Weygand. For six days they had been fighting night and day, and they were now almost wholly exhausted. The enemy attack, launched by one hundred and twenty divisions with supporting armour, had fallen on forty French divisions, which had been outmanoeuvred and outmatched at every point. The enemy’s armoured forces had caused great disorganisation among the headquarters of the higher formations, which were unwieldy and, when on the move, unable to exercise control over the lower formations. The French armies were now on the last line on which they could attempt to offer an organised resistance. This line had already been penetrated in two or three places; and, if it collapsed, General Weygand would not be responsible for carrying on the struggle.

General Weygand evidently saw no prospect of the French going on fighting, and Marshal Pétain had quite made up his mind that peace must be made. He believed that France was being systematically destroyed by the Germans, and that it was his duty to save the rest of the country from this fate. I mentioned his memorandum to this effect, which he had shown to Reynaud but had not left with him. “There could be no doubt,” I said, “that Pétain was a dangerous man at this juncture: he had always been a defeatist, even in the last war.” On the other hand, M. Reynaud had seemed quite determined to fight on, and General de Gaulle, who had attended the conference with him, was in favour of carrying on a guerrilla warfare. He was young and energetic and had made a very favourable impression on me. I thought it probable that, if the present line collapsed, Reynaud would turn to him to take command. Admiral Darlan also had declared that he would never surrender the French Navy to the enemy: in the last resort, he had said, he would send it over to Canada, but in this he might be overruled by the French politicians.

It was clear that France was near the end of organised resistance, and a chapter in the war was now closing. The French might by some means continue the struggle. There might even be two French Governments, one which made peace, and one which organised resistance from the French colonies, carrying on the war at sea through the French Fleet and in France through guerrillas. It was too early yet to tell. Though for a period we might still have to send some support to France, we must now concentrate our main efforts on the defence of our island.


“Z” means the beginning of the war, September 3, 1939.

In Lease-Lend—Weapon for Victory, 1944.

The Memoirs of Cordell Hull, volume I, chapter 55.

I am obliged to General Ismay for his recollection of these words.

8
Home Defence

June

Intense British Effort—Imminent Dangers—The Question of “Commandos”—Local Defence Volunteers Renamed “Home Guard”—Lack of Means of Attacking Enemy Tanks—Major Jefferis’ Experimental Establishment—The “Sticky” Bomb—Help for de Gaulle’s Free French—Arrangements for Repatriation of Other French Troops—Care of French Wounded—Freeing British Troops for Intensive Training—The Press and Air Raids—Danger of German Use of Captured European Factories—Questions Arising in the Middle East and India—Question of Arming the Jewish Colonists in Palestine—Progress of Our Plan of Defence—The Great Anti-Tank Obstacle and Other Measures.

The reader of these pages in future years should realise how dense and baffling is the veil of the Unknown. Now in the full light of the after-time it is easy to see where we were ignorant or too much alarmed, where we were careless or clumsy. Twice in two months we had been taken completely by surprise. The overrunning of Norway and the break-through at Sedan, with all that followed from these, proved the deadly power of the German initiative. What else had they got ready—prepared and organised to the last inch? Would they suddenly pounce out of the blue with new weapons, perfect planning, and overwhelming force upon our almost totally unequipped and disarmed island at any one of a dozen or score of possible landing places? Or would they go to Ireland? He would have been a very foolish man who allowed his reasoning, however clean-cut and seeming sure, to blot out any possibility against which provision could be made.

“Depend upon it,” said Doctor Johnson, “when a man knows he is going to be hanged in a month, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” I was always sure we should win, but nevertheless I was highly geared-up by the situation, and very thankful to be able to make my views effective. June 6 seems to have been for me an active and not barren day. My minutes, dictated as I lay in bed in the morning and pondered on the dark horizon, show the variety of topics upon which it was necessary to give directions.

First I called upon the Minister of Supply (Mr. Herbert Morrison) for an account of the progress of various devices connected with our rockets and sensitive fuzes for use against aircraft, on which some progress had been made, and upon the Minister of Aircraft Production (Lord Beaverbrook) for weekly reports on the design and production of automatic bomb-sights and low-altitude R.D.F. (Radio Direction Finding) and A.I. (Air Interception). I did this to direct the attention of these two new Ministers with their vast departments to those topics in which I had already long been especially interested. I asked the Admiralty to transfer at least fifty trained and half-trained pilots temporarily to Fighter Command. Fifty-five actually took part in the great air battle. I called for a plan to be prepared to strike at Italy by air raids on Turin and Milan, should she enter the war against us. I asked the War Office for plans for forming a Dutch Brigade in accordance with the desires of the exiled Netherlands Government, and pressed the Foreign Secretary for the recognition of the Belgian Government, apart from the prisoner King, as the sole constitutional Belgian authority, and for the encouragement of mobilisation in Yugoslavia as a counter to Italian threats. I asked that the aerodromes at Bardufosse and Skaarnlands, which we had constructed in the Narvik area and were about to abandon, should be made unusable for as long as possible by means of delayed-action bombs buried in them. I remembered how effectively the Germans had by this method delayed our use in 1918 of the railways when they finally retreated. Alas! we had no bombs of long-delay in any numbers. I was worried about the many ships lying in Malta Harbour under various conditions of repair in view of impending Italian hostility. I wrote a long minute to the Minister of Supply about timber felling and production at home. This was one of the most important methods of reducing the tonnage of our imports. Besides, we should get no more timber from Norway for a long time to come. Many of these minutes will be found in the Appendix.

I longed for more Regular troops with which to rebuild and expand the Army. Wars are not won by heroic militias.

Prime Minister to Secretary of State for War. 6.VI.40.

1. It is more than a fortnight since I was told that eight battalions could leave India and arrive in this country in forty-two days from the order’s being given. The order was given. Now it is not till June 6 [i.e., today] that the first eight battalions leave India on their voyage round the Cape, arriving only July 25.

2. The Australians are coming in the big ships, but they seem to have wasted a week at Capetown, and are now only proceeding at eighteen knots, instead of the twenty I was assured were possible. It is hoped they will be here about the 15th. Is this so? At any rate, whenever they arrive, the big ships should be immediately filled with Territorials—the more the better—preferably twelve battalions, and sent off to India at full speed. As soon as they arrive in India, they should embark another eight Regular battalions for this country, making the voyage again at full speed. They should then take another batch of Territorials to India. Future transferences can be discussed later. . . . All I am asking now is that the big ships should go to and fro at full speed.

3. I am very sorry indeed to find the virtual deadlock which local objections have imposed upon the battalions from Palestine. It is quite natural that General Wavell should look at the situation only from his own viewpoint. Here we have to think of building up a good army in order to make up, as far as possible, for the lamentable failure to support the French by an adequate B.E.F. during the first year of the war. Do you realise that in the first year of the late war we brought forty-seven divisions into action, and that these were divisions of twelve battalions plus one Pioneer battalion, not nine as now? We are indeed the victims of a feeble and weary departmentalism.

4. Owing to the saving of the B.E.F., I have been willing to wait for the relief of the eight battalions from Palestine by eight native Indian battalions, provided these latter were sent at once; but you give me no time-table for this. I have not yet received any report on whether it is possible to send these British battalions and their Indian relief via Basra and the Persian Gulf. Perhaps you would very kindly let me have this in the first instance.

5. I am prepared also to consider as an alternative, or an immediate step, the sending home [i.e., to Britain] of the rest of the Australian Corps. Perhaps you will let me have a note on this, showing especially dates at which the moves can be made.

6. You must not think I am ignoring the position in the Middle East. On the contrary, it seems to me that we should draw upon India much more largely, and that a ceaseless stream of Indian units should be passing into Palestine and Egypt via Bombay and [by] Karachi across the desert route. India is doing nothing worth speaking of at the present time. In the last war not only did we have all the [British] Regular troops out [of India] in the first nine months (many more than are there now), but also an Indian Corps fought by Christmas in France. Our weakness, slowness, lack of grip and drive are very apparent on the background of what was done twenty-five years ago. I really think that you, Lloyd, and Amery ought to be able to lift our affairs in the East and Middle East out of the catalepsy by which they are smitten.

      *      *      *      *      *      

This was a time when all Britain worked and strove to the utmost limit and was united as never before. Men and women toiled at the lathes and machines in the factories till they fell exhausted on the floor and had to be dragged away and ordered home, while their places were occupied by newcomers ahead of time. The one desire of all the males and many women was to have a weapon. The Cabinet and Government were locked together by bonds the memory of which is still cherished by all. The sense of fear seemed entirely lacking in the people, and their representatives in Parliament were not unworthy of their mood. We had not suffered like France under the German flail. Nothing moves an Englishman so much as the threat of invasion, the reality unknown for a thousand years. Vast numbers of people were resolved to conquer or die. There was no need to rouse their spirit by oratory. They were glad to hear me express their sentiments and give them good reasons for what they meant to do, or try to do. The only possible divergence was from people who wished to do even more than was possible, and had the idea that frenzy might sharpen action.

Our decision to send our only two well-armed divisions back to France made it all the more necessary to take every possible measure to defend the island against direct assault. Our most imminent dangers at home seemed to be parachute descents; or, even worse, the landing of comparatively small but highly mobile German tank forces which would rip up and disorganise our defence, as they had done when they got loose in France. In close contact with the new Secretary of State for War, my thoughts and directions were increasingly concerned with Home Defence. The fact that we were sending so much to France made it all the more necessary to make the best of what we had left for ourselves.

Prime Minister to General Ismay. 18.VI.40.

I should like to be informed upon (1) the coastal watch and coastal batteries; (2) the gorging of the harbours and defended inlets (i.e., the making of the landward defences); (3) the troops held in immediate support of the foregoing; (4) the mobile columns and brigade groups; (5) the General Reserve.

Someone should explain to me the state of these different forces, including the guns available in each area. I gave directions that the 8th Tank Regiment should be immediately equipped with the supply of infantry and cruiser tanks until they have fifty-two new tanks, all well armoured and well gunned. What has been done with the output of this month and last month? Make sure it is not languishing in depots, but passes swiftly to troops. General Carr is responsible for this. Let him report.

What are the ideas of C.-in-C., H.F., about Storm Troops? We have always set our faces against this idea, but the Germans certainly gained in the last war by adopting it, and this time it has been a leading cause of their victory. There ought to be at least twenty thousand Storm Troops or “Leopards” [eventually called “Commandos”] drawn from existing units, ready to spring at the throat of any small landings or descents. These officers and men should be armed with the latest equipment, tommy-guns, grenades, etc., and should be given great facilities in motor-cycles and armoured cars.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Mr. Eden’s plan of raising Local Defence Volunteers, which he had proposed to the Cabinet on May 13, met with an immediate response in all parts of the country.

Prime Minister to Secretary of State for War. 22.VI.40.

Could I have a brief statement of the L.D.V. position, showing the progress achieved in raising and arming them, and whether they are designed for observation or for serious fighting. What is their relationship to the police, the Military Command, and the Regional Commissioners? From whom do they receive their orders, and to whom do they report? It would be a great comfort if this could be compressed on one or two sheets of paper.

I had always hankered for the name “Home Guard.” I had indeed suggested it in October, 1939.

Prime Minister to Secretary of State for War. 26.VI.40.

I don’t think much of the name “Local Defence Volunteers” for your very large new force. The word “local” is uninspiring. Mr. Herbert Morrison suggested to me today the title “Civic Guard,” but I think “Home Guard” would be better. Don’t hesitate to change on account of already having made armlets, etc., if it is thought the title of Home Guard would be more compulsive.

Prime Minister to Secretary of State for War. 27.VI.40.

I hope you like my suggestion of changing the name “Local Defence Volunteers,” which is associated with Local Government and Local Option, to “Home Guard.” I found everybody liked this in my tour yesterday.

The change was accordingly made, and the mighty organisation, which presently approached one and a half million men and gradually acquired good weapons, rolled forward.

      *      *      *      *      *      

In these days my principal fear was of German tanks coming ashore. Since my mind was attracted to landing tanks on their coasts, I naturally thought they might have the same idea. We had hardly any anti-tank guns or ammunition, or even ordinary field artillery. The plight to which we were reduced in dealing with this danger may be measured from the following incident. I visited our beaches in St. Margaret’s Bay, near Dover. The Brigadier informed me that he had only three anti-tank guns in his brigade, covering four or five miles of this highly menaced coastline. He declared that he had only six rounds of ammunition for each gun, and he asked me with a slight air of challenge whether he was justified in letting his men fire one single round for practice in order that they might at least know how the weapon worked. I replied that we could not afford practice rounds, and that fire should be held for the last moment at the closest range.

This was therefore no time to proceed by ordinary channels in devising expedients. In order to secure quick action free from departmental processes upon any bright idea or gadget. I decided to keep under my own hand as Minister of Defence the experimental establishment formed by Major Jefferis at Whitchurch. While engaged upon the fluvial mines in 1939 I had had useful contacts with this brilliant officer, whose ingenious, inventive mind proved, as will be seen, fruitful during the whole war. Lindemann was in close touch with him and me. I used their brains and my power. Major Jefferis and others connected with him were at work upon a bomb which could be thrown at a tank, perhaps from a window, and would stick upon it. The impact of a very high explosive in actual contact with a steel plate is particularly effective. We had the picture in mind that devoted soldiers or civilians would run close up to the tank and even thrust the bomb upon it, though its explosion cost them their lives. There were undoubtedly many who would have done it. I thought also that the bomb fixed on a rod might be fired with a reduced charge from rifles.

Prime Minister to General Ismay. 6.VI.40.

It is of the utmost importance to find some projectile which can be fired from a rifle at a tank, like a rifle grenade, or from an anti-tank rifle, like a trench-mortar bomb. The “sticky” bomb seems to be useful for the first of these, but perhaps this is not so. Anyhow, concentrate attention upon finding something that can be fired from anti-tank rifles or from ordinary rifles.

I pressed the matter hard.

Prime Minister to General Ismay. 16.VI.40.

Who is responsible for making the “sticky” bomb? I am told that a great sloth is being shown in pressing this forward. Ask General Carr to report today upon the position, and to let me have on one sheet of paper the back history of the subject from the moment when the question was first raised.

The matter is to be pressed forward from day to day, and I wish to receive a report every three days.

Prime Minister to General Ismay. 24.VI.40.

I minuted some days ago about the “sticky” bombs. All preparations for manufacture should proceed in anticipation that the further trials will be successful. Let me have a time-table showing why it is that delay has crept into all this process which is so urgent.

Prime Minister to General Ismay. 24.VI.40.

I understand that the trials were not entirely successful and the bomb failed to stick on tanks which were covered with dust and mud. No doubt some more sticky mixture can be devised, and Major Jefferis should persevere.

Any chortling by officials, who have been slothful in pushing this bomb, over the fact that at present it has not succeeded will be viewed with great disfavour by me.

In the end the “sticky” bomb was accepted as one of our best emergency weapons. We never had to use it at home; but in Syria, where equally primitive conditions prevailed, it proved its value.

      *      *      *      *      *      

We had evidently to do our utmost to form French forces which might aid General de Gaulle in keeping the true personification of France alive.

Prime Minister to First Lord of the Admiralty and other Service Ministers. 27.VI.40.

1. The French naval personnel at Aintree Camp, numbering 13,600, equally with the 5530 military at Trentham Park, the 1900 at Arrow Park, and the details at Blackpool, are to be immediately repatriated to French territory, i.e., Morocco, in French ships now in our hands.

2. They should be told we will take them to French Africa because all French metropolitan ports are in German hands, and that the French Government will arrange for their future movements.

3. If, however, any wish to remain here to fight against Germany, they must immediately make this clear. Care must be taken that no officer or man is sent back into French jurisdiction against his will. The shipping is to be ready tomorrow. The troops should move under their own officers, and carry their personal arms, but as little ammunition as possible. Some arrangements should be made for their pay. The French material on board ships from Narvik will be taken over by us with the ammunition from the Lombardy and other ships as against expenses to which we are put.

4. Great care is to be taken of the French wounded. All who can be moved without danger should be sent back direct to France if possible. The French Government should be asked where they wish them delivered, and if at French metropolitan ports, should arrange with the Germans for their safe entry; otherwise Casablanca. All dangerous cases must be dealt with here.

5. Apart from any volunteers in the above groups of personnel who may wish to stay, there must be many individuals who have made their way here, hoping to continue to fight. These also should be given the option of returning to France, or serving in the French units under General de Gaulle, who should be told of our decisions, and given reasonable facilities to collect his people. I have abandoned the hope that he could address the formed bodies, as their morale has deteriorated too fast.

      *      *      *      *      *      

My desire that our own Army should regain its poise and fighting quality was at first hampered because so many troops were being absorbed in fortifying their own localities or sectors of the coast.

Prime Minister to Secretary of State for War. 25.VI.40.

It is shocking that only 57,000 men [civilians] are being employed on all these [defence] works. Moreover, I fear that the troops are being used in large numbers on fortifications. At the present stage they should be drilling and training for at least eight hours a day, including one smart parade every morning. All the labour necessary should be found from civilian sources. I found it extremely difficult to see even a single battalion on parade in East Anglia during my visit. The fighting troops in the Brigade Groups should neither be used for guarding vulnerable points nor for making fortifications. Naturally a change like this cannot be made at once, but let me have your proposals for bringing it about as soon as possible.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Prime Minister to Minister of Information. 26.VI.40.

The press and broadcast should be asked to handle air raids in a cool way and on a diminishing tone of public interest. The facts should be chronicled without undue prominence or headlines. The people should be accustomed to treat air raids as a matter of ordinary routine. Localities affected should not be mentioned with any precision. Photographs showing shattered houses should not be published unless there is something very peculiar about them, or to illustrate how well the Anderson shelters work. It must be clear that the vast majority of people are not at all affected by any single air raid, and would hardly sustain any evil impression if it were not thrust before them. Everyone should learn to take air raids and air-raid alarms as if they were no more than thunderstorms. Pray try to impress this upon the newspaper authorities, and persuade them to help. If there is difficulty in this, I would myself see the Newspaper Proprietors’ Association, but I hope this will not be necessary. The press should be complimented on their work so far in this matter.

Prime Minister to Secretary of State for War. 27.VI.40.

Enclosed [dates of troop convoys from India] make me anxious to know how you propose to use these eight fine Regular battalions. Obviously, they will be a reinforcement for your shock troops. One would suppose they might make the infantry of two divisions, with five good Territorial battalions added to each division, total eighteen. Should they not also yield up a certain number of officers and N.C.O.’s to stiffen the Territorial battalions so attached? You would thus have six brigades of infantry quite soon. Alas, I fear the artillery must lag behind, but not I trust for long.

As rumours grew of peace proposals and a message was sent to us from the Vatican through Berne, I thought it right to send the following minute to the Foreign Secretary:

28.VI.40.

I hope it will be made clear to the Nuncio that we do not desire to make any inquiries as to terms of peace with Hitler, and that all our agents are strictly forbidden to entertain any such suggestions.

But here is the record of a qualm.

Prime Minister to Professor Lindemann. 29.VI.40.

While we are hastening our preparations for air mastery, the Germans will be organising the whole industries of the captured countries for air production and other war production suitable [for use] against us. It is therefore a race. They will not be able to get the captured factories working immediately, and meanwhile we shall get round the invasion danger through the growth of our defences and Army strength. But what sort of relative outputs must be faced next year unless we are able to bomb the newly acquired German plants? Germany also, being relieved from the need of keeping a gigantic army in constant contact with the French Army, must have spare capacity for the air and other methods of attacking us. Must we not expect this will be very great? How soon can it come into play? Hitherto I have been looking at the next three months because of the emergency, but what about 1941? It seems to me that only immense American supplies can be of use in turning the corner.

      *      *      *      *      *      

As the month of June ground itself out, the sense of potential invasion at any moment grew upon us all.

Prime Minister to General Ismay. 30.VI.40.

The Admiralty charts of tides and state of the moon, Humber, Thames Estuary, Beachy Head, should be studied with a view to ascertaining on which days conditions will be most favourable to a sea-borne landing. The Admiralty view is sought.

A landing or descent in Ireland was always a deep anxiety to the Chiefs of Staff. But our resources seemed to me too limited for serious troop movements.

Prime Minister to General Ismay. 30.VI.40.

It would be taking an undue risk to remove one of our only two thoroughly equipped divisions out of Great Britain at this juncture. Moreover, it is doubtful whether the Irish situation will require the use of divisional formations complete with their technical vehicles as if for Continental war. The statement that it would take ten days to transport a division from this country to Ireland, even though every preparation can be made beforehand, is not satisfactory. Schemes should be prepared to enable two or three lightly equipped brigades to move at short notice, and in not more than three days, into Northern Ireland. Duplicate transport should be sent on ahead. It would be a mistake to send any large force of artillery to Ireland. It is not at all likely that a naval descent will be effected there. Air-borne descents cannot carry much artillery. Finally, nothing that can happen in Ireland can be immediately decisive.

      *      *      *      *      *      

In bringing home the troops from Palestine I had difficulties with both my old friends, the Secretary of State for India, Mr. Amery, and the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Lloyd, who was a convinced anti-Zionist and pro-Arab. I wished to arm the Jewish colonists. Mr. Amery at the India Office had a different view from mine about the part which India should play. I wanted Indian troops at once to come into Palestine and the Middle East, whereas the Viceroy and the India Office were naturally inclined to a long-term plan of creating a great Indian Army based upon Indian munition factories.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Prime Minister to Secretary of State for India (Mr. Amery) 22.VI.40.

1. We have already very large masses of troops in India of which no use is being made for the general purposes of the war. The assistance of India this time is incomparably below that of 1914-18. . . . It seems to me very likely that the war will spread to the Middle East, and the climates of Iraq, Palestine, and Egypt are well suited to Indian troops. I recommend their organisation in brigade groups, each with a proportion of artillery on the new British model. I should hope that six or eight of these groups could be ready this winter. They should include some brigades of Gurkhas.

2. The process of liberating the Regular British battalions must continue, and I much regret that a fortnight’s delay has become inevitable in returning you the Territorial battalions in exchange. You should reassure the Viceroy that it is going forward.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Prime Minister to Secretary of State for the Colonies 28.VI.40.

(Lord Lloyd).

The failure of the policy which you favour is proved by the very large numbers of sorely needed troops you [we] have to keep in Palestine:

6battalions of infantry
9regiments of yeomanry
8battalions of Australian infantry

—the whole probably more than twenty thousand men. This is the price we have to pay for the anti-Jewish policy which has been persisted in for some years. Should the war go heavily into Egypt, all these troops will have to be withdrawn, and the position of the Jewish colonists will be one of the greatest danger. Indeed I am sure that we shall be told we cannot withdraw these troops, though they include some of our best, and are vitally needed elsewhere. If the Jews were properly armed, our forces would become available, and there would be no danger of the Jews attacking the Arabs, because they are entirely dependent upon us and upon our command of the seas. I think it is little less than a scandal that at a time when we are fighting for our lives these very large forces should be immobilised in support of a policy which commends itself only to a section of the Conservative Party.

I had hoped you would take a broad view of the Palestine situation, and would make it an earnest objective to set the British garrison free. I could certainly not associate myself with such an answer as you have drawn up for me. I do not at all admit that Arab feeling in the Near East and India would be prejudiced in the manner you suggest. Now that we have the Turks in such a friendly relationship, the position is much more secure.

      *      *      *      *      *      

For the first time in a hundred and twenty-five years a powerful enemy was now established across the narrow waters of the English Channel. Our re-formed Regular Army, and the larger but less well-trained Territorials, had to be organised and deployed to create an elaborate system of defences, and to stand ready, if the invader came, to destroy him—for there could be no escape. It was for both sides “Kill or Cure.” Already the Home Guard could be included in the general framework of defence. On June 25, General Ironside, Commander-in-Chief Home Forces, exposed his plans to the Chiefs of Staff. They were, of course, scrutinised with anxious care by the experts, and I examined them myself with no little attention. On the whole they stood approved. There were three main elements in this early outline of a great future plan: first, an entrenched “crust” on the probable invasion beaches of the coast, whose defenders should fight where they stood, supported by mobile reserves for immediate counter-attack; secondly, a line of anti-tank obstacles, manned by the Home Guard, running down the east centre of England and protecting London and the great industrial centres from inroads by armoured vehicles; thirdly, behind that line, the main reserves for major counter-offensive action.

Ceaseless additions and refinements to this first plan were effected as the weeks and months passed; but the general conception remained. All troops, if attacked, should stand firm, not in linear only but in all-round defence, whilst others moved rapidly to destroy the attackers, whether they came from sea or air. Men who had been cut off from immediate help would not have merely remained in position. Active measures were prepared to harass the enemy from behind; to interfere with his communications and to destroy material, as the Russians did with great results when the German tide flowed over their country a year later. Many people must have been bewildered by the innumerable activities all around them. They could understand the necessity for wiring and mining the beaches, the anti-tank obstacles at the defiles, the concrete pillboxes at the crossroads, the intrusions into their houses to fill an attic with sandbags, onto their golf-courses or most fertile fields and gardens to burrow out some wide anti-tank ditch. All these inconveniences, and much more, they accepted in good part. But sometimes they must have wondered if there was a general scheme, or whether lesser individuals were not running amok in their energetic use of newly granted powers of interference with the property of the citizen.

There was, however, a central plan, elaborate, co-ordinated, and all-embracing. As it grew, it shaped itself thus: the overall command was maintained at General Headquarters in London. All Great Britain and Northern Ireland were divided into seven commands; these again into areas of corps and divisional commands. Commands, corps, and divisions were each required to hold a proportion of their resources in mobile reserve, only the minimum being detailed to hold their own particular defences. Gradually there were built up in rear of the beaches zones of defence in each divisional area, behind these similar corps zones and command zones, the whole system amounting in depth to a hundred miles or more. And behind these was established the main anti-tank obstacle running across Southern England and northward into Nottinghamshire. Above all was the final reserve directly under the Commander-in-Chief of the Home Forces. This it was our policy to keep as large and mobile as possible.

Within this general structure were many variations. Each of our ports on the east and south coasts was a special study. Direct frontal attack upon a defended port seemed an unlikely contingency, and all were made into strong-points equally capable of defence from the landward or the seaward side. It astonishes me that when this principle of fortifying the gorges was so universally accepted and rigorously enforced by all military authorities at home, no similar measures were adopted at Singapore by the succession of high officers employed there. But this is a later story. Obstacles were placed on many thousand square miles of Britain to impede the landing of air-borne troops. All our aerodromes, radar stations, and fuel depots, of which even in the summer of 1940 there were three hundred and seventy-five, needed defence by special garrisons and by their own airmen. Many thousands of “vulnerable points”—bridges, power-stations, depots, vital factories, and the like—had to be guarded day and night from sabotage or sudden onset. Schemes were ready for the immediate demolition of resources helpful to the enemy, if captured. The destruction of port facilities, the cratering of key roads, the paralysis of motor transport and of telephones and telegraph stations, of rolling stock or permanent way, before they passed out of our control, were planned to the last detail. Yet, despite all these wise and necessary precautions, in which the civilian departments gave unstinted help to the military, there was no question of a “scorched-earth policy”; England was to be defended by its people, not destroyed.

9
The French Agony

Telegram to President Roosevelt—My Visit to Tours—Increasing Degeneration—M. Baudouin—The Great Mandel—Conversation with Reynaud—My Refusal to Release France from the Obligation of March 28, 1940—Resolute Attitude of MM. Herriot and Jeanneney—“L’Homme du Destin”—French Government Decide to Move to Bordeaux—President Roosevelt to M. Reynaud, June 13—My Telegram to the President—And to Reynaud—“Indissoluble Union of France and Britain”—Disappointing Telegram from the President—My Telegram to the President of June 14/15—A Grave Suggestion—Great Battle of June 9 Along the Aisne—Defeat of the French—Forlorn Resistance on the Maginot Line—Our Slender Contribution—General Brooke’s New Command—Talk of a Bridgehead in Brittany—Brooke Declares the Military Situation Hopeless—I Agree—Our Troops Withdraw and Re-embark, June 16/17—The Pétain Government Asks for an Armistice—A Second Dunkirk Evacuation—A Hundred and Fifty Thousand British and Forty-two Thousand Poles Carried to Britain—The “Lancastria” Horror—My Message of June 16 to the Dominion Prime Ministers—My Hopes of the Air Battle over Britain.

Future generations may deem it noteworthy that the supreme question of whether we should fight on alone never found a place upon the War Cabinet agenda. It was taken for granted and as a matter of course by these men of all parties in the State, and we were much too busy to waste time upon such unreal, academic issues. We were united also in viewing the new phase with good confidence. It was decided to tell the Dominions the whole facts. I was invited to send a message in the same sense to President Roosevelt, and also to sustain the determination of the French Government and assure them of our utmost support.

Former Naval Person to President Roosevelt. 12.VI.40.

I spent last night and this morning at the French G.Q.G., where the situation was explained to me in the gravest terms by Generals Weygand and Georges. You have no doubt received full particulars from Mr. Bullitt. The practical point is what will happen when and if the French front breaks, Paris is taken, and General Weygand reports formally to his Government that France can no longer continue what he calls “co-ordinated war.” The aged Marshal Pétain, who was none too good in April and July, 1918, is, I fear, ready to lend his name and prestige to a treaty of peace for France. Reynaud, on the other hand, is for fighting on, and he has a young General de Gaulle, who believes much can be done. Admiral Darlan declares he will send the French Fleet to Canada. It would be disastrous if the two big modern ships fell into bad hands. It seems to me that there must be many elements in France who will wish to continue the struggle either in France or in the French colonies, or in both. This, therefore, is the moment for you to strengthen Reynaud the utmost you can, and try to tip the balance in favour of the best and longest possible French resistance. I venture to put this point before you, although I know you must understand it as well as I do.

      *      *      *      *      *      

On June 13 I made my last visit to France for four years almost to a day. The French Government had now withdrawn to Tours, and tension had mounted steadily. I took Edward Halifax and General Ismay with me, and Max Beaverbrook volunteered to come too. In trouble he is always buoyant. This time the weather was cloudless, and we sailed over in the midst of our Hurricane squadron, making, however, a rather wider sweep to the southward than before. Arrived over Tours, we found the airport had been heavily bombed the night before, but we and all our escort landed smoothly in spite of the craters. Immediately one sensed the increasing degeneration of affairs. No one came to meet us or seemed to expect us. We borrowed a service car from the Station Commander and motored into the city, making for the préfecture, where it was said the French Government had their headquarters. No one of consequence was there, but Reynaud was reported to be motoring in from the country, and Mandel was also to arrive soon.

It being already nearly two o’clock, I insisted upon luncheon, and after some parleyings we drove through streets crowded with refugees’ cars, most of them with a mattress on top and crammed with luggage. We found a café, which was closed but after explanations we obtained a meal. During luncheon I was visited by M. Baudouin, an official of the French Foreign Office, whose influence had risen in these latter days. He began at once in his soft, silky manner about the hopelessness of the French resistance. If the United States would declare war on Germany, it might be possible for France to continue. What did I think about this? I did not discuss the question further than to say that I hoped America would come in, and that we should certainly fight on. He afterwards, I was told, spread it about that I had agreed that France should surrender unless the United States came in.

We then returned to the préfecture, where Mandel, Minister of the Interior, awaited us. This faithful former secretary of Clemenceau, and a bearer forward of his life’s message, seemed in the best of spirits. He was energy and defiance personified. His luncheon, an attractive chicken, was uneaten on the tray before him. He was a ray of sunshine. He had a telephone in each hand, through which he was constantly giving orders and decisions. His ideas were simple: fight on to the end in France, in order to cover the largest possible movement into Africa. This was the last time I saw this valiant Frenchman. The restored French Republic rightly shot to death the hirelings who murdered him. His memory is honoured by his countrymen and their Allies.

Presently M. Reynaud arrived. At first he seemed depressed. General Weygand had reported to him that the French armies were exhausted. The line was pierced in many places; refugees were pouring along all the roads through the country, and many of the troops were in disorder. The Generalissimo felt it was necessary to ask for an armistice while there were still enough French troops to keep order until peace could be made. Such was the military advice. He would send that day a further message to Mr. Roosevelt saying that the last hour had come and that the fate of the Allied cause lay in America’s hand. Hence arose the alternative of armistice and peace.

M. Reynaud proceeded to say that the Council of Ministers had on the previous day instructed him to inquire what would be Britain’s attitude should the worst come. He himself was well aware of the solemn pledge that no separate peace would be entered into by either ally. General Weygand and others pointed out that France had already sacrificed everything in the common cause. She had nothing left; but she had succeeded in greatly weakening the common foe. It would in those circumstances be a shock if Britain failed to concede that France was physically unable to carry on, if France was still expected to fight on and thus deliver up her people to the certainty of corruption and evil transformation at the hands of ruthless specialists in the art of bringing conquered peoples to heel. That then was the question which he had to put. Would Great Britain realise the hard facts with which France was faced?

The official British record reads as follows:

Mr. Churchill said that Great Britain realised how much France had suffered and was suffering. Her own turn would come, and she was ready. She grieved to find that her contribution to the land struggle was at present so small, owing to the reverses which had been met with as a result of applying an agreed strategy in the North. The British had not yet felt the German lash, but were aware of its force. They nevertheless had but one thought: to win the war and destroy Hitlerism. Everything was subordinate to that aim; no difficulties, no regrets, could stand in the way. He was well assured of British capacity for enduring and persisting, for striking back till the foe was beaten. They would therefore hope that France would carry on fighting south of Paris down to the sea, and if need be from North Africa. At all costs time must be gained. The period of waiting was not limitless: a pledge from the United States would make it quite short. The alternative course meant destruction for France quite as certainly. Hitler would abide by no pledges. If, on the other hand, France remained in the struggle, with her fine Navy, her great Empire, her Army still able to carry on guerrilla warfare on a gigantic scale, and if Germany failed to destroy England, which she must do or go under, if then Germany’s might in the air was broken, then the whole hateful edifice of Nazidom would topple over. Given immediate help from America, perhaps even a declaration of war, victory was not so far off. At all events England would fight on. She had not and would not alter her resolve: no terms, no surrender. The alternatives for her were death or victory. That was his answer to M. Reynaud’s question.

M. Reynaud replied that he had never doubted England’s determination. He was, however, anxious to know how the British Government would react in a certain contingency. The French Government—the present one or another—might say: “We know you will carry on. We would also, if we saw any hope of a victory. But we see no sufficient hopes of an early victory. We cannot count on American help. There is no light at the end of the tunnel. We cannot abandon our people to indefinite German domination. We must come to terms. We have no choice. . . .” It was already too late to organise a redoubt in Brittany. Nowhere would a genuine French Government have a hope of escaping capture on French soil. . . . The question to Britain would therefore take the form: “Will you acknowledge that France has given her best, her youth and life-blood; that she can do no more: and that she is entitled, having nothing further to contribute to the common cause, to enter into a separate peace while maintaining the solidarity implicit in the solemn agreement entered into three months previously?”

Mr. Churchill said that in no case would Britain waste time and energy in reproaches and recriminations. That did not mean that she would consent to action contrary to the recent agreement. The first step ought to be M. Reynaud’s further message putting the present position squarely to President Roosevelt. Let them await the answer before considering anything else. If England won the war, France would be restored in her dignity and in her greatness.

All the same I thought the issue raised at this point was so serious that I asked to withdraw with my colleagues before answering it. So Lords Halifax and Beaverbrook and the rest of our party went out into a dripping but sunlit garden and talked things over for half an hour. On our return I restated our position. We could not agree to a separate peace however it might come. Our war aim remained the total defeat of Hitler, and we felt that we could still bring this about. We were therefore not in a position to release France from her obligation. Whatever happened, we would level no reproaches against France; but that was a different matter from consenting to release her from her pledge. I urged that the French should now send a new appeal to President Roosevelt, which we would support from London. M. Reynaud agreed to do this, and promised that the French would hold on until the result of his final appeal was known.

Before leaving, I made one particular request to M. Reynaud. Over four hundred German pilots, the bulk of whom had been shot down by the R.A.F., were prisoners in France. Having regard to the situation, they should be handed over to our custody. M. Reynaud willingly gave this promise, but soon he had no power to keep it. These German pilots all became available for the Battle of Britain, and we had to shoot them down a second time.

      *      *      *      *      *      

At the end of our talk, M. Reynaud took us into the adjoining room, where MM. Herriot and Jeanneney, the Presidents of the Chamber and Senate respectively, were seated. Both these French patriots spoke with passionate emotion about fighting on to the death. As we went down the crowded passage into the courtyard, I saw General de Gaulle standing stolid and expressionless at the doorway. Greeting him, I said in a low tone, in French: “L’homme du destin.” He remained impassive. In the courtyard there must have been more than a hundred leading Frenchmen in frightful misery. Clemenceau’s son was brought up to me. I wrung his hand. The Hurricanes were already in the air, and I slept sound on our swift and uneventful journey home. This was wise, for there was a long way to go before bedtime.

      *      *      *      *      *      

After our departure from Tours at about half-past five, M. Reynaud met his Cabinet again at Cangé. They were vexed that I and my colleagues had not come there to join them. We should have been very willing to do so, no matter how late we had to fly home. But we were never invited; nor did we know there was to be a French Cabinet meeting.

At Cangé the decision was taken to move the French Government to Bordeaux, and Reynaud sent off his telegram to Roosevelt with its desperate appeal for the entry on the scene at least of the American Fleet.

At 10.15 P.M. I made my new report to the Cabinet. My account was endorsed by my two companions. While we were still sitting, Ambassador Kennedy arrived with President Roosevelt’s reply to Reynaud’s appeal of June 10.

President Roosevelt to M. Reynaud. 13.VI.40.

Your message of June 10 has moved me very deeply. As I have already stated to you and to Mr. Churchill, this Government is doing everything in its power to make available to the Allied Governments the material they so urgently require, and our efforts to do still more are being redoubled. This is so because of our faith in and our support of the ideals for which the Allies are fighting.

The magnificent resistance of the French and British Armies has profoundly impressed the American people.

I am, personally, particularly impressed by your declaration that France will continue to fight on behalf of Democracy, even if it means slow withdrawal, even to North Africa and the Atlantic. It is most important to remember that the French and British Fleets continue [in] mastery of the Atlantic and other oceans; also to remember that vital materials from the outside world are necessary to maintain all armies.

I am also greatly heartened by what Prime Minister Churchill said a few days ago about the continued resistance of the British Empire, and that determination would seem to apply equally to the great French Empire all over the world. Naval power in world affairs still carries the lessons of history, as Admiral Darlan well knows.

We all thought the President had gone a very long way. He had authorised Reynaud to publish his message of June 10, with all that that implied, and now he had sent this formidable answer. If, upon this, France decided to endure the further torture of the war, the United States would be deeply committed to enter it. At any rate, it contained two points which were tantamount to belligerence: first, a promise of all material aid, which implied active assistance; secondly, a call to go on fighting even if the Government were driven right out of France. I sent our thanks to the President immediately, and I also sought to commend the President’s message to Reynaud in the most favourable terms. Perhaps these points were stressed unduly; but it was necessary to make the most of everything we had or could get.

Former Naval Person to President Roosevelt. 13.VI.40.

Ambassador Kennedy will have told you about the British meeting today with the French at Tours, of which I showed him our record. I cannot exaggerate its critical character. They were very nearly gone. Weygand had advocated an armistice while he still has enough troops to prevent France from lapsing into anarchy. Reynaud asked us whether, in view of the sacrifices and sufferings of France, we would release her from the obligation about not making a separate peace. Although the fact that we have unavoidably been out of this terrible battle weighed with us, I did not hesitate in the name of the British Government to refuse consent to an armistice or separate peace. I urged that this issue should not be discussed until a further appeal had been made by Reynaud to you and the United States, which I undertook to second. Agreement was reached on this, and a much better mood prevailed for the moment in Reynaud and his Ministers.

Reynaud felt strongly that it would be beyond his power to encourage his people to fight on without hope of ultimate victory, and that that hope could only be kindled by American intervention up to the extreme limit open to you. As he put it, they wanted to see light at the end of the tunnel.

While we were flying back here your magnificent message was sent, and Ambassador Kennedy brought it to me on my arrival. The British Cabinet were profoundly impressed, and desire me to express their gratitude for it, but, Mr. President, I must tell you that it seems to me absolutely vital that this message should be published tomorrow, June 14, in order that it may play the decisive part in turning the course of world history. It will, I am sure, decide the French to deny Hitler a patched-up peace with France. He needs this peace in order to destroy us and take a long step forward to world mastery. All the far-reaching plans, strategic, economic, political, and moral, which your message expounds, may be still-born if the French cut out now. Therefore, I urge that the message should be published now. We realise fully that the moment Hitler finds he cannot dictate a Nazi peace in Paris, he will turn his fury onto us. We shall do our best to withstand it, and if we succeed wide new doors are open upon the future and all will come out even at the end of the day.

To M. Reynaud I sent this message:

13.VI.40.

On returning here we received a copy of President Roosevelt’s answer to your appeal of June 10. Cabinet is united in considering this magnificent document as decisive in favour of the continued resistance of France in accordance with your own declaration of June 10 about fighting before Paris, behind Paris, in a province, or, if necessary, in Africa or across the Atlantic. The promise of redoubled material aid is coupled with definite advice and exhortation to France to continue the struggle even under the grievous conditions which you mentioned. If France on this message of President Roosevelt’s continues in the field and in the war, we feel that the United States is committed beyond recall to take the only remaining step, namely, becoming a belligerent in form as she already has constituted herself in fact. Constitution of United States makes it impossible, as you foresaw, for the President to declare war himself, but, if you act on his reply now received, we sincerely believe that this must inevitably follow. We are asking the President to allow publication of the message, but, even if he does not agree to this for a day or two, it is on the record and can afford the basis for your action. I do beg you and your colleagues, whose resolution we so much admired today, not to miss this sovereign opportunity of bringing about the world-wide oceanic and economic coalition which must be fatal to Nazi domination. We see before us a definite plan of campaign, and the light which you spoke of shines at the end of the tunnel.

Finally, in accordance with the Cabinet’s wishes, I sent a formal message of good cheer to the French Government in which the note of an indissoluble union between our two countries was struck for the first time.

Prime Minister to M. Reynaud. 13.VI.40.

In this solemn hour for the British and French nations and for the cause of Freedom and Democracy to which they have avowed themselves, His Majesty’s Government desire to pay to the Government of the French Republic the tribute which is due to the heroic fortitude and constancy of the French armies in battle against enormous odds. Their effort is worthy of the most glorious traditions of France, and has inflicted deep and long-lasting injury upon the enemy’s strength. Great Britain will continue to give the utmost aid in her power. We take this opportunity of proclaiming the indissoluble union of our two peoples and of our two Empires. We cannot measure the various forms of tribulation which will fall upon our peoples in the near future. We are sure that the ordeal by fire will only fuze them together into one unconquerable whole. We renew to the French Republic our pledge and resolve to continue the struggle at all costs in France, in this island, upon the oceans, and in the air, wherever it may lead us, using all our resources to the utmost limit and sharing together the burden of repairing the ravages of war. We shall never turn from the conflict until France stands safe and erect in all her grandeur, until the wronged and enslaved states and peoples have been liberated, and until civilisation is freed from the nightmare of Nazidom. That this day will dawn we are more sure than ever. It may dawn sooner than we now have the right to expect.

All these three messages were drafted by me before I went to bed after midnight on the 13th. They were written actually in the small hours of the 14th.

The next day arrived a telegram from the President explaining that he could not agree to the publication of his message to Reynaud. He himself, according to Mr. Kennedy, had wished to do so, but the State Department, while in full sympathy with him, saw the gravest dangers. The President thanked me for my account of the meeting at Tours and complimented the British and French Governments on the courage of their troops. He renewed the assurances about furnishing all possible material and supplies; but he then said he had told Ambassador Kennedy to inform me that his message of the 14th was in no sense intended to commit and did not commit the Government of the United States to military participation. There was no authority under the American Constitution except Congress which could make any commitment of that nature. He bore particularly in mind the question of the French Fleet. Congress, at his desire, had appropriated fifty million dollars for the purpose of supplying food and clothing to civilian refugees in France. Finally he assured me that he appreciated the significance and weight of what I had set forth in my message.

This was a disappointing telegram.

Around our table we all fully understood the risks the President ran of being charged with exceeding his constitutional authority, and consequently of being defeated on this issue at the approaching election, on which our fate, and much more, depended. I was convinced that he would give up life itself, to say nothing of public office, for the cause of world freedom now in such awful peril. But what would have been the good of that? Across the Atlantic I could feel his suffering. In the White House the torment was of a different character from that of Bordeaux or London. But the degree of personal stress was not unequal.

In my reply I tried to arm the President with some arguments which he could use to others about the danger to the United States if Europe fell and Britain failed. This was no matter of sentiment, but of life and death.

Former Naval Person to President Roosevelt. 14-15.VI.40.

I am grateful to you for your telegram and I have reported its operative passages to Reynaud, to whom I had imparted a rather more sanguine view. He will, I am sure, be disappointed at non-publication. I understand all your difficulties with American public opinion and Congress, but events are moving downward at a pace where they will pass beyond the control of American public opinion when at last it is ripened. Have you considered what offers Hitler may choose to make to France? He may say, “Surrender the Fleet intact and I will leave you Alsace-Lorraine,” or alternatively, “If you do not give me your ships, I will destroy your towns.” I am personally convinced that America will in the end go to all lengths, but this moment is supremely critical for France. A declaration that the United States will if necessary enter the war might save France. Failing that, in a few days French resistance may have crumpled and we shall be left alone.

Although the present Government and I personally would never fail to send the Fleet across the Atlantic if resistance was beaten down here, a point may be reached in the struggle where the present Ministers no longer have control of affairs and when very easy terms could be obtained for the British island by their becoming a vassal state of the Hitler Empire. A pro-German Government would certainly be called into being to make peace, and might present to a shattered or a starving nation an almost irresistible case for entire submission to the Nazi will. The fate of the British Fleet, as I have already mentioned to you, would be decisive on the future of the United States, because, if it were joined to the fleets of Japan, France, and Italy and the great resources of German industry, overwhelming sea power would be in Hitler’s hands. He might of course use it with a merciful moderation. On the other hand, he might not. This revolution in sea power might happen very quickly, and certainly long before the United States would be able to prepare against it. If we go down you may have a United States of Europe under the Nazi command far more numerous, far stronger, far better armed than the New World.

I know well, Mr. President, that your eye will already have searched these depths, but I feel I have the right to place on record the vital manner in which American interests are at stake in our battle and that of France.

I am sending you through Ambassador Kennedy a paper on destroyer strength prepared by the Naval Staff for your information. If we have to keep, as we shall, the bulk of our destroyers on the East Coast to guard against invasion, how shall we be able to cope with a German-Italian attack on the food and trade by which we live? The sending of the thirty-five destroyers as I have already described will bridge the gap until our new construction comes in at the end of the year. Here is a definite practical and possibly decisive step which can be taken at once, and I urge most earnestly that you will weigh my words.

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Meanwhile the situation on the French front went from bad to worse. The German operations northwest of Paris, in which our 51st Division had been lost, had brought the enemy, by June 9, to the lower reaches of the Seine and the Oise. On the southern banks the dispersed remnants of the Tenth and Seventh French Armies were hastily organising a defence; they had been riven asunder, and to close the gap the garrison of the capital, the so-called Armée de Paris, had been marched out and interposed.

Farther to the east, along the Aisne, the Sixth, Fourth, and Second Armies were in far better shape. They had had three weeks in which to establish themselves and to absorb such reinforcements as had been sent. During all the period of Dunkirk and of the drive to Rouen they had been left comparatively undisturbed, but their strength was small for the hundred miles they had to hold, and the enemy had used the time to concentrate against them a great mass of divisions to deliver the final blow. On June 9 it fell. Despite a dogged resistance, for the French were now fighting with great resolution, bridgeheads were established south of the river from Soissons to Rethel, and in the next two days these were expanded until the Marne was reached. German Panzer divisions which had played so decisive a part in the drive down the coast were brought across to join the new battle. Eight of these, in two great thrusts, turned the French defeat into a rout. The French armies, decimated and in confusion, were quite unable to withstand this powerful assembly of superior numbers, equipment, and technique. In four days, by June 16, the enemy had reached Orléans and the Loire; while to the east the other thrust had passed through Dijon and Besançon, almost to the Swiss frontier.

West of Paris the remains of the Tenth Army, the equivalent of no more than two divisions, had been pressed back southwestward from the Seine towards Alençon. The capital fell on the 14th; its defending armies, the Seventh and the Armée de Paris, were scattered; a great gap now separated the exiguous French and British forces in the west from the rest and the remains of the once proud Army of France.

And what of the Maginot Line, the shield of France, and its defenders? Until June 14 no direct attack was made, and already some of the active formations, leaving behind the garrison troops, had started to join, if they could, the fast-withdrawing armies of the centre. But it was too late. On that day the Maginot Line was penetrated before Saarbruecken and across the Rhine by Colmar; the retreating French were caught up in the battle and unable to extricate themselves. Two days later the German penetration to Besançon had cut off their retreat. More than four hundred thousand men were surrounded without hope of escape. Many encircled garrisons held out desperately; they refused to surrender until after the armistice, when French officers were despatched to give them the order. The last forts obeyed on June 30, the commander protesting that his defences were still intact at every point.

Thus the vast disorganised battle drew to its conclusion all along the French front. It remains only to recount the slender part which the British were able to play.

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General Brooke had won distinction in the retreat to Dunkirk, and especially by his battle in the gap opened by the Belgian surrender. We had therefore chosen him to command the British troops which remained in France and all reinforcements until they should reach sufficient numbers to require the presence of Lord Gort as an Army Commander. Brooke had now arrived in France, and on the 14th he met Generals Weygand and Georges. Weygand stated that the French forces were no longer capable of organised resistance or concerted action. The French Army was broken into four groups, of which its Tenth Army was the westernmost. Weygand also told him that the Allied Governments had agreed that a bridgehead should be created in the Brittany peninsula, to be held jointly by the French and British troops on a line running roughly north and south through Rennes. He ordered him to deploy his forces on a defensive line running through this town. Brooke pointed out that this line of defence was a hundred and fifty kilometres long and required at least fifteen divisions. He was told that the instructions he was receiving must be regarded as an order.

It is true that on June 11 at Briare, Reynaud and I had agreed to try to draw a kind of “Torres Vedras line” across the foot of the Brittany peninsula. Everything, however, was dissolving at the same time, and the plan, for what it was worth, never reached the domain of action. In itself the idea was sound, but there were no facts to clothe it with reality. Once the main French armies were broken or destroyed, this bridgehead, precious though it was, could not have been held for long against concentrated German attack. But even a few weeks’ resistance here would have maintained contact with Britain and enabled large French withdrawals to Africa from other parts of the immense front, now torn to shreds. If the battle in France was to continue, it could be only in the Brest peninsula and in wooded or mountainous regions like the Vosges. The alternative for the French was surrender. Let none, therefore, mock at the conception of a bridgehead in Brittany. The Allied armies under Eisenhower, then an unknown American colonel, bought it back for us later at a high price.

General Brooke, after his talk with the French commanders, and having measured from his own headquarters a scene which was getting worse every hour, reported to the War Office and by telephone to Mr. Eden that the position was hopeless. All further reinforcements should be stopped, and the remainder of the British Expeditionary Force, now amounting to a hundred and fifty thousand men, should be re-embarked at once. On the night of June 14, as I was thought to be obdurate, he rang me up on a telephone line which by luck and effort was open, and pressed this view upon me. I could hear quite well, and after ten minutes I was convinced that he was right and we must go. Orders were given accordingly. He was released from French command. The back-loading of great quantities of stores, equipment, and men began. The leading elements of the Canadian Division which had landed got back into their ships, and the 52d Division, which, apart from its 157th Brigade, had not yet been committed to action, retreated on Brest. No British troops operating under the Tenth French Army were withdrawn; but all else of ours took to the ships at Brest, Cherbourg, St. Malo, and St. Nazaire. On June 15 our troops were released from the orders of the Tenth French Army, and next day, when it carried out a further withdrawal to the south, they moved towards Cherbourg. The 157th Brigade, after heavy fighting, was extricated that night, and, retiring in their lorries, embarked during the night of June 17/18. On June 17 it was announced that the Pétain Government had asked for an armistice, ordering all French forces to cease fighting, without even communicating this information to our troops. General Brooke was consequently told to come away with all men he could embark and any equipment he could save.

We repeated now on a considerable scale, though with larger vessels, the Dunkirk evacuation. Over twenty thousand Polish troops who refused to capitulate cut their way to the sea and were carried by our ships to Britain. The Germans pursued our forces at all points. In the Cherbourg peninsula they were in contact with our rearguard ten miles south of the harbour on the morning of the 18th. The last ship left at 4 P.M., when the enemy were within three miles of the port. Very few prisoners were caught.

In all there were evacuated from all French harbours 136,000 British troops and 310 guns; a total, with the Poles, of 156,000 men. This reflects great credit on General Brooke’s embarkation staff, of whom the chief, General de Fonblanque, a British officer, died shortly afterwards as the result of his exertions.

At Brest and the Western ports the evacuations were numerous. The German air attack on the transports was heavy. One frightful incident occurred on the 17th at St. Nazaire. The 20,000-ton liner Lancastria, with five thousand men on board, was bombed and set on fire just as she was about to leave. A mass of flaming oil spread over the water round the ship, and upwards of three thousand men perished. The rest were rescued under continued air attack by the devotion of the small craft. When this news came to me in the quiet Cabinet Room during the afternoon, I forbade its publication, saying, “The newspapers have got quite enough disaster for today at least.” I had intended to release the news a few days later, but events crowded upon us so black and so quickly that I forgot to lift the ban, and it was some years before the knowledge of this horror became public.

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To lessen the shock of the impending French surrender, it was necessary at this time to send a message to the Dominion Prime Ministers showing them that our resolve to continue the struggle although alone was not based upon mere obstinacy or desperation, and to convince them by practical and technical reasons, of which they might well be unaware, of the real strength of our position. I therefore dictated the following statement on the afternoon of June 16, a day already filled with much business.

Prime Minister to the Prime Ministers of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. 16.VI.40.

[After some sentences of introduction particular to each:]

I do not regard the situation as having passed beyond our strength. It is by no means certain that the French will not fight on in Africa and at sea, but, whatever they do, Hitler will have to break us in this island or lose the war. Our principal danger is his concentrated air attack by bombing, coupled with parachute and air-borne landings and attempts to run an invading force across the sea. This danger has faced us ever since the beginning of the war, and the French could never have saved us from it, as he could always switch onto us. Undoubtedly, it is aggravated by the conquests Hitler has made upon the European coast close to our shores. Nevertheless, in principle the danger is the same. I do not see why we should not be able to meet it. The Navy has never pretended to prevent a raid of five or ten thousand men, but we do not see how a force of, say, eighty to a hundred thousand could be transported across the sea, and still less maintained, in the teeth of superior sea power. As long as our Air Force is in being it provides a powerful aid to the Fleet in preventing sea-borne landings and will take a very heavy toll of air-borne landings.

Although we have suffered heavy losses by assisting the French and during the Dunkirk evacuation, we have managed to husband our air-fighter strength in spite of poignant appeals from France to throw it improvidently into the great land battle, which it could not have turned decisively. I am happy to tell you that it is now as strong as it has ever been, and that the flow of machines is coming forward far more rapidly than ever before; in fact, pilots have now become the limiting factor at the moment. Our fighter aircraft have been wont to inflict a loss of two or two and a half to one even when fighting under the adverse conditions in France. During the evacuation of Dunkirk, which was a sort of No Man’s Land, we inflicted a loss of three or four to one, and often saw German formations turn away from a quarter of their numbers of our planes. But all air authorities agree that the advantage in defending this country against an oversea air attack will be still greater because, first, we shall know pretty well by our various devices where they are coming, and because our squadrons lie close enough together to enable us to concentrate against the attackers and provide enough to attack both the bombers and the protecting fighters at the same time. All their shot-down machines will be total losses; many of ours and our pilots will fight again. Therefore, I do not think it by any means impossible that we may so maul them that they will find daylight attacks too expensive.

The major danger will be from night attack on our aircraft factories, but this, again, is far less accurate than daylight attack, and we have many plans for minimising its effect. Of course, their numbers are much greater than ours, but not so much greater as to deprive us of a good and reasonable prospect of wearing them out after some weeks or even months of air struggle. Meanwhile, of course, our bomber force will be striking continually at their key points, especially oil refineries and air factories and at their congested and centralised war industry in the Ruhr. We hope our people will stand up to this bombardment as well as the enemy. It will, on both sides, be on an unprecedented scale. All our information goes to show that the Germans have not liked what they have got so far.

It must be remembered that, now that the B.E.F. is home and largely rearmed or rearming, if not upon a Continental scale, at any rate good enough for Home defence, we have far stronger military forces in this island than we have ever had in the late war or in this war. Therefore, we hope that such numbers of the enemy as may be landed from the air or by sea-borne raid will be destroyed and be an example to those who try to follow. No doubt we must expect novel forms of attack and attempts to bring tanks across the sea. We are preparing ourselves to deal with these as far as we can foresee them. No one can predict or guarantee the course of a life-and-death struggle of this character, but we shall certainly enter upon it in good heart.

I have given you this full explanation to show you that there are solid reasons behind our resolve not to allow the fate of France, whatever it may be, to deter us from going on to the end. I personally believe that the spectacle of the fierce struggle and carnage in our island will draw the United States into the war, and even if we should be beaten down through the superior numbers of the enemy’s Air Force, it will always be possible, as I indicated to the House of Commons in my last speech, to send our fleets across the oceans, where they will protect the Empire and enable it to continue the war and the blockade, I trust in conjunction with the United States, until the Hitler regime breaks under the strain. We shall let you know at every stage how you can help, being assured that you will do all in human power, as we, for our part, are entirely resolved to do.

I composed this in the Cabinet Room, and it was typed as I spoke. The door to the garden was wide open, and outside the sun shone warm and bright. Air Chief Marshal Newall, the Chief of the Air Staff, sat on the terrace meanwhile, and when I had finished revising the draft, I took it out to him in case there were any improvements or corrections to be made. He was evidently moved, and presently said he agreed with every word. I was comforted and fortified myself by putting my convictions upon record, and when I read the message over the final time before sending it off, I felt a glow of sober confidence. This was certainly justified by what happened. All came true.

10
The Bordeaux Armistice

The French Government Moves to Bordeaux—General Weygand’s Attitude—Weygand and Reynaud—M. Chautemps’ Insidious Proposal—The French Decision to Ask for Terms—British Insistence on the Safeguarding of the French Fleet—My Telegram to Reynaud of June 16—A New Issue Arises—British Offer of Indissoluble Union with France—High Hopes of General de Gaulle that This Would Strengthen M. Reynaud—M. Reynaud’s Satisfaction—My Telegram of June 16 Suspended—Plan for Me to Visit Bordeaux by Cruiser with the Labour and Liberal Party Leaders Frustrated—Unfavourable Reception of the British Offer—Fall of the Reynaud Cabinet—Reynaud’s Resignation—A Conversation with M. Monnet and General de Gaulle in Downing Street—Marshal Pétain Forms a French Government for an Armistice—My Message to Marshal Pétain and General Weygand, June 17—My Broadcast of June 17—General Spears Plans the Escape of General de Gaulle—Further Talk of Resistance in Africa—Mandel’s Intentions—Admiral Darlan’s Trap—Voyage of the “Massilia”—Mandel at Casablanca—Mr. Duff Cooper’s Mission—Fate of the French Patriots—A Hypothetical Speculation—My Settled Conviction.

We must now quit the field of military disaster for the convulsions in the French Cabinet and the personages who surrounded it at Bordeaux.

It is not easy to establish the exact sequence of events. The British War Cabinet sat almost continuously, and messages were sent off from time to time as decisions were taken. As they took two or three hours to transmit in cipher, and probably another hour to deliver, the telephone was freely used by the officials of the Foreign Office to convey the substance to our Ambassador; and he also used the telephone frequently in reply. Therefore there are overlaps and short-circuits which are confusing. Events were moving at such a speed on both sides of the Channel that it would be misleading to present the tale as if it were an orderly flow of argument and decision.

M. Reynaud reached the new seat of government from Tours in the evening of the 14th. He received the British Ambassador about nine o’clock. Sir Ronald Campbell informed him that His Majesty’s Government intended to insist on the terms of the agreement of March 28, binding both parties not to make any terms with the enemy. He also offered to provide all the necessary shipping in the event of the French Government resolving to move to North Africa. Both these statements were in accordance with the Ambassador’s current instructions.

On the morning of the 15th, Reynaud again received the Ambassador and told him that he had definitely decided to divide the Government in half and to establish a centre of authority beyond the sea. Such a policy would obviously carry with it the removal of the French Fleet to ports beyond German power. Later that morning, President Roosevelt’s reply to Reynaud’s appeal of June 13 was received. Although I had made the best of it in my telegram to the French Premier, I knew it was bound to disappoint him. Material aid, if Congress approved, was offered; but there was no question of any American entry into the war. France had no reason to expect such a declaration at this moment, and the President had not either the power to give it himself or to obtain it from Congress. There had been no meetings of the Council of Ministers since that at Cangé, near Tours, on the evening of the 13th. The Ministers having now all reached Bordeaux, the Council was summoned for the afternoon.

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General Weygand had been for some days convinced that all further resistance was vain. He therefore wished to force the French Government to ask for an armistice while the French Army still retained enough discipline and strength to maintain internal order on the morrow of defeat. He had a profound, lifelong dislike of the parliamentary régime of the Third Republic. As an ardently religious Catholic, he saw in the ruin which had overwhelmed his country the chastisement of God for its abandonment of the Christian faith. He therefore used the power of his supreme military position far beyond the limits which his professional responsibilities, great as they were, justified or required. He confronted the Prime Minister with declarations that the French armies could fight no more, and that it was time to stop a horrible and useless massacre before general anarchy supervened.

Paul Reynaud, on the other hand, realised that the battle in France was over, but still hoped to carry on the war from Africa and the French Empire and with the French Fleet. None of the other states overrun by Hitler had withdrawn from the war. Physically in their own lands they were gripped, but from overseas their Governments had kept the flag flying and the national cause alive. Reynaud wished to follow their example, and with much more solid resources. He sought a solution on the lines of the Dutch capitulation. This, while it left the Army, whose chiefs had refused to fight any longer, free to lay down its arms wherever it was in contact with the enemy, nevertheless preserved to the State its sovereign right to continue the struggle by all the means in its power.

This issue was fought out between the Premier and the Generalissimo at a stormy interview before the Council meeting. Reynaud offered Weygand written authority from the Government to order the “Cease Fire.” Weygand refused with indignation the suggestion of a military surrender. “He would never accept the casting of this shame upon the banners of the French Army.” The act of surrender, which he deemed imperative, must be that of the Government and of the State, to which the army he commanded would dutifully conform. In so acting General Weygand, though a sincere and unselfish man, behaved wrongly. He asserted the right of a soldier to dominate the duly constituted Government of the Republic, and thus to bring the whole resistance, not only of France but of her Empire, to an end contrary to the decision of his political and lawful chief.

Apart from these formalities and talk about the honour of the French Army there stood a practical point. An armistice formally entered into by the French Government would mean the end of the war for France. By negotiation part of the country might be left unoccupied and part of the Army free; whereas, if the war were continued from overseas, all who had not escaped from France would be controlled directly by the Germans, and millions of Frenchmen would be carried off to Germany as prisoners of war without the protection of any agreement. This was a substantial argument, but it belonged to the Government of the Republic and not to the Commander-in-Chief of the Army to decide upon it. Weygand’s position that because the Army under his orders would in his opinion fight no more, the French Republic must give in and order its armed forces to obey an order which he was certainly willing to carry out, finds no foundation in the law and practice of civilised states or in the professional honour of a soldier. In theory at least the Prime Minister had his remedy. He could have replied: “You are affronting the Constitution of the Republic. You are dismissed from this moment from your command. I will obtain the necessary sanction from the President.”

Unfortunately, M. Reynaud was not sufficiently sure of his position. Behind the presumptuous General loomed the illustrious Marshal Pétain, the centre of the band of defeatist Ministers whom Reynaud had so recently and so improvidently brought into the French Government and Council, and who were all resolved to stop the war. Behind these again crouched the sinister figure of Laval, who had installed himself at Bordeaux City Hall, surrounded by a clique of agitated Senators and Deputies. Laval’s policy had the force and merit of simplicity. France must not only make peace with Germany, she must change sides; she must become the ally of the conqueror, and by her loyalty and services against the common foe across the Channel save her interests and her provinces and finish up on the victorious side. Evidently M. Reynaud, exhausted by the ordeals through which he had passed, had not the life or strength for so searching a personal ordeal, which would indeed have taxed the resources of an Oliver Cromwell or of a Clemenceau, of Stalin or of Hitler.

In the discussions on the afternoon of the 15th, at which the President of the Republic was present, Reynaud, having explained the situation to his colleagues, appealed to Marshal Pétain to persuade General Weygand to the Cabinet view. He could not have chosen a worse envoy. The Marshal left the room. There was an interval. After a while he returned with Weygand, whose position he now supported. At this serious juncture M. Chautemps, an important Minister, slid in an insidious proposal which wore the aspect of a compromise and was attractive to the waverers. He stated in the name of the Leftist elements of the Cabinet that Reynaud was right in affirming that an agreement with the enemy was impossible, but that it would be prudent to make a gesture which would unite France. They should ask the Germans what the conditions of armistice would be, remaining entirely free to reject them. It was not of course possible to embark on this slippery slope and stop. The mere announcement that the French Government were asking the Germans on what terms an armistice would be granted was sufficient in itself to destroy what remained of the morale of the French Army. How could the soldier be ordered to cast away his life in obdurate resistance after so fatal a signal had been given? However, combined with the demonstration which they had witnessed from Pétain and Weygand, the Chautemps suggestion had a deadly effect on the majority. It was agreed to ask His Majesty’s Government how they would view such a step, informing them at the same time that in no circumstances would the surrender of the Fleet be allowed. Reynaud now rose from the table and declared his intention to resign. But the President of the Republic restrained him, and declared that if Reynaud went he would go too. When the confused discussion was resumed, no clear distinction was drawn between declining to surrender the French Fleet to the Germans and putting it out of German power by sailing it to ports outside France. It was agreed that the British Government should be asked to consent to the inquiry about the German terms. The message was immediately despatched.

      *      *      *      *      *      

The next morning Reynaud received the British Ambassador again, and was told that the British would accept the French request on the condition that the French Fleet was placed beyond German power—in fact, that it should be directed to British ports. These instructions had been telephoned to Campbell from London to save time. At eleven o’clock the distracted Council of Ministers met again, President Lebrun being present. The President of the Senate, M. Jeanneney, was brought in to endorse, both on his own behalf and on that of his colleague the President of the Chamber, M. Herriot, the proposal of the Premier to transfer the Government to North Africa. Up rose Marshal Pétain and read a letter, which it is believed had been written for him by another hand, resigning from the Cabinet. Having finished his speech, he prepared to leave the room. He was persuaded by the President of the Republic to remain on the condition that an answer would be given to him during the day. The Marshal had also complained of the delay in asking for an armistice. Reynaud replied that if one asked an ally to free one from an obligation it was customary to await the answer. The session then closed. After luncheon the Ambassador brought to Reynaud the textual answer of the British Government, of which he had already given the telephoned purport in his conversation of the morning.

      *      *      *      *      *      

In these days the War Cabinet were in a state of unusual emotion. The fall and the fate of France dominated their minds. Our own plight, and what we should have to face and face alone, seemed to take a second place. Grief for our ally in her agony, and desire to do anything in human power to aid her, was the prevailing mood. There was also the overpowering importance of making sure of the French Fleet. It was in this spirit that a proposal for “an indissoluble union” between France and Britain was conceived.

I was not the prime mover. I first heard of a definite plan at a luncheon at the Carlton Club on the 15th, at which were present Lord Halifax, M. Corbin, Sir Robert Vansittart, and one or two others. It was evident that there had been considerable discussion beforehand. On the 14th, Vansittart and Desmond Morton had met M. Monnet and M. Pleven (members of the French Economic Mission in London), and been joined by General de Gaulle, who had flown over to make arrangements for shipping to carry the French Government and as many French troops as possible to Africa. These gentlemen had evolved the outline of a declaration for a Franco-British Union with the object, apart from its general merits, of giving M. Reynaud some new fact of a vivid and stimulating nature with which to carry a majority of his Cabinet into the move to Africa and the continuance of the war. My first reaction was unfavourable. I asked a number of questions of a critical character, and was by no means convinced. However, at the end of our long Cabinet that afternoon the subject was raised. I was somewhat surprised to see the staid, stolid, experienced politicians of all parties engage themselves so passionately in an immense design whose implications and consequences were not in any way thought out. I did not resist, but yielded easily to these generous surges which carried our resolves to a very high level of unselfish and undaunted action.

When the War Cabinet met the next morning, we first addressed ourselves to the answer to be given to M. Reynaud’s request sent the night before for the formal release of France from her obligations under the Anglo-French Agreement. The Cabinet authorised the following reply, which at their request I went into the next room and drafted myself. It was despatched from London at 12.35 P.M. on the 16th. It endorsed and repeated in a formal manner the telephoned instructions sent to Campbell early in the morning.

Foreign Office to Sir R. Campbell.

Please give M. Reynaud the following message, which has been approved by the Cabinet:

Mr. Churchill to M. Reynaud. 16 June, 1940, 12.35 P.M.

Our agreement forbidding separate negotiations, whether for armistice or peace, was made with the French Republic, and not with any particular French administration or statesman. It therefore involves the honour of France. Nevertheless, provided, but only provided, that the French Fleet is sailed forthwith for British harbours pending negotiations, His Majesty’s Government give their full consent to an inquiry by the French Government to ascertain the terms of an armistice for France. His Majesty’s Government, being resolved to continue the war, wholly exclude themselves from all part in the above-mentioned inquiry concerning an armistice.

Early in the afternoon a second message in similar terms was sent by the Foreign Office to Sir Ronald Campbell (June 16, 3.10 P.M.).

Both messages were stiff, and embodied the main purpose of the War Cabinet at their morning meeting.

Foreign Office to Sir R. Campbell.

You should inform M. Reynaud as follows:

We expect to be consulted as soon as any armistice terms are received. This is necessary not merely in virtue of Treaty forbidding separate peace or armistice, but also in view of vital consequences of any armistice to ourselves, having regard especially to the fact that British troops are fighting with French Army. You should impress on French Government that in stipulating for removal of French Fleet to British ports we have in mind French interests as well as our own, and are convinced that it will strengthen the hands of the French Government in any armistice discussions if they can show that the French Navy is out of reach of the German forces. As regards the French Air Force, we assume that every effort will be made to fly it to North Africa, unless indeed the French Government would prefer to send it to this country.

We count on the French Government doing all they can both before and during any armistice discussions to extricate the Polish, Belgian, and Czech troops at present in France, and to send them to North Africa. Arrangements are being made to receive Polish and Belgian Governments in this country.

      *      *      *      *      *      

We reassembled at three o’clock that same afternoon. I recalled to the Cabinet that at the conclusion of our meeting the day before there had been some discussion on a proposal for the issue of some further declaration of closer union between France and Great Britain. I had seen General de Gaulle in the morning, and he had impressed on me that some dramatic move was essential to give M. Reynaud the support which he needed to keep his Government in the war, and suggested that a proclamation of the indissoluble union of the French and British peoples would serve the purpose. Both General de Gaulle and M. Corbin had been concerned at the sharpness of the decision reached by the War Cabinet that morning, and embodied in the telegrams already despatched. I had heard that a new declaration had been drafted for consideration, and that General de Gaulle had telephoned to M. Reynaud. As a result it had seemed advisable to suspend action for the moment. A telegram had therefore been sent to Sir Ronald Campbell instructing him to suspend delivery accordingly.

The Foreign Secretary then said that after our morning meeting he had seen Sir Robert Vansittart, whom he had previously asked to draft some dramatic announcement which might strengthen M. Reynaud’s hand. Vansittart had been in consultation with General de Gaulle, M. Monnet, M. Pleven, and Major Morton. Between them they had drafted a proclamation. General de Gaulle had impressed upon them the need for publishing the document as quickly as possible, and wished to take the draft back with him to France that night. De Gaulle had also suggested that I should go to meet M. Reynaud next day.

The draft statement was passed round, and everyone read it with deep attention. All the difficulties were immediately apparent, but in the end a Declaration of Union seemed to command general assent. I stated that my first instinct had been against the idea, but that in this crisis we must not let ourselves be accused of lack of imagination. Some dramatic announcement was clearly necessary to keep the French going. The proposal could not be lightly turned aside, and I was encouraged at finding so great a body of opinion in the War Cabinet favourable to it.

At 3.55 P.M. we were told that the French Council of Ministers would meet at five to decide whether further resistance was possible. Secondly, General de Gaulle had been informed by M. Reynaud on the telephone that if a favourable answer on the proposed proclamation of unity was received by five o’clock, M. Reynaud felt he could hold the position. On this the War Cabinet approved the final draft proclamation of an Anglo-French Union, and authorised its despatch to M. Reynaud by the hand of General de Gaulle. This was telephoned to M. Reynaud forthwith. The War Cabinet further invited me, Mr. Attlee, and Sir Archibald Sinclair, representing the three British parties, to meet M. Reynaud at the earliest moment to discuss the draft proclamation and related questions.

Here is the final draft:

Declaration of Union

At this most fateful moment in the history of the modern world, the Governments of the United Kingdom and the French Republic make this declaration of indissoluble union and unyielding resolution in their common defence of justice and freedom against subjection to a system which reduces mankind to a life of robots and slaves.

The two Governments declare that France and Great Britain shall no longer be two nations, but one Franco-British Union.

The constitution of the Union will provide for joint organs of defence, foreign, financial, and economic policies.

Every citizen of France will enjoy immediately citizenship of Great Britain; every British subject will become a citizen of France.

Both countries will share responsibility for the repair of the devastation of war, wherever it occurs in their territories, and the resources of both shall be equally, and as one, applied to that purpose.

During the war there shall be a single War Cabinet, and all the forces of Britain and France, whether on land, sea, or in the air, will be placed under its direction. It will govern from wherever it best can. The two Parliaments will be formally associated. The Nations of the British Empire are already forming new armies. France will keep her available forces in the field, on the sea, and in the air. The Union appeals to the United States to fortify the economic resources of the Allies, and to bring her powerful material aid to the common cause.

The Union will concentrate its whole energy against the power of the enemy, no matter where the battle may be.

And thus we shall conquer.

Of all this Parliament was informed in due course. But the issue by then had ceased to count.

I did not, as has been seen, draft the statement myself. It was composed around the table, and I made my contribution to it. I then took it into the next room, where de Gaulle was waiting with Vansittart, Desmond Morton, and M. Corbin. The General read it with an air of unwonted enthusiasm, and, as soon as contact with Bordeaux could be obtained, began to telephone it to M. Reynaud. He hoped with us that this solemn pledge of union and brotherhood between the two nations and empires would give the struggling French Premier the means to carry his Government to Africa with all possible forces and order the French Navy to sail for harbours outside impending German control.

      *      *      *      *      *      

We must now pass to the other end of the wire. The British Ambassador delivered the two messages in answer to the French request to be released from their obligation of March 28. According to his account, M. Reynaud, who was in a dejected mood, did not take them well. He at once remarked that the withdrawal of the French Mediterranean Fleet to British ports would invite the immediate seizure of Tunis by Italy, and also create difficulties for the British Fleet. He had got no further than this when my message, telephoned by General de Gaulle, came through. “It acted,” said the Ambassador, “like a tonic.” Reynaud said that for a document like that he would fight to the last. In came at that moment M. Mandel and M. Marin. They obviously were equally relieved. M. Reynaud then left “with a light step” to read the document to the President of the Republic. He believed that, armed with this immense guarantee, he would be able to carry his Council with him on the policy of retiring to Africa and waging war. My telegram instructing the Ambassador to delay the presentation of the two stiff messages, or anyhow to suspend action upon them, arrived immediately after the Premier had gone. A messenger was therefore sent after him to say that the two earlier messages should be considered as “cancelled.” “Suspended” would have been a better word. The War Cabinet had not altered its position in any respect. We felt, however, that it would be better to give the Declaration of Union its full chance under the most favourable conditions. If the French Council of Ministers were rallied by it, the greater would carry the less, and the removal of the Fleet from German power would follow automatically. If our offer did not find favour, our rights and claims would revive in their full force. We could not tell what was going on inside the French Government, nor know that this was the last time we should ever be able to deal with M. Reynaud.

I had spoken to him on the telephone some time this day proposing that I should come out immediately to see him. In view of the uncertainty about what was happening or about to happen at Bordeaux, my colleagues in the War Cabinet wished me to go in a cruiser, and a rendezvous was duly arranged for the next day off the Brittany coast. I ought to have flown. But even so it would have been too late.

The following was sent from the Foreign Office:

To Sir R. Campbell, Bordeaux. June 16, 6.45 P.M.

The P.M., accompanied by the Lord Privy Seal, Secretary of State for Air, and three Chiefs of Staff and certain others, arrive at Concarneau at 12 noon tomorrow, the 17th, in a cruiser for a meeting with M. Reynaud. General de Gaulle has been informed of the above and has expressed the view that time and rendezvous would be convenient. We suggest the meeting be held on board as arousing less attention. H.M.S. Berkeley has been warned to be at the disposal of M. Reynaud and party if desired.

And also from the Foreign Secretary by telephone at 8 P.M., June 16:

Following is reason why you have been asked to suspend action on my last two telegrams.

After consultation with General de Gaulle, P.M. has decided to meet M. Reynaud tomorrow in Brittany to make a further attempt to dissuade the French Government from asking for an armistice. For this purpose, on the advice of General de Gaulle, he will offer to M. Reynaud to join in issuing forthwith a declaration announcing immediate constitution of closest Anglo-French Union in all spheres in order to carry on the war. Text of draft declaration as authorised by H.M.G. is contained in my immediately following telegram. You should read this text to M. Reynaud at once.

An outline of this proposed declaration has already been telephoned by General de Gaulle to M. Reynaud, who has replied that such a declaration by the two Governments would make all the difference to the decision of the French Government. General is returning tonight with copy.

Our War Cabinet sat until six o’clock on the 16th, and thereafter I set out on my mission. I took with me the leaders of the Labour and Liberal Parties, the three Chiefs of Staff, and various important officers and officials. A special train was waiting at Waterloo. We could reach Southampton in two hours, and a night of steaming at thirty knots in the cruiser would bring us to the rendezvous by noon on the 17th. We had taken our seats in the train. My wife had come to see me off. There was an odd delay in starting. Evidently some hitch had occurred. Presently my private secretary arrived from Downing Street breathless with the following message from Campbell at Bordeaux:

Ministerial crisis has opened. . . . Hope to have news by midnight. Meanwhile meeting arranged for tomorrow impossible.

On this I returned to Downing Street with a heavy heart.

      *      *      *      *      *      

The final scene in the Reynaud Cabinet was as follows.

The hopes which M. Reynaud had founded upon the Declaration of Union were soon dispelled. Rarely has so generous a proposal encountered such a hostile reception. The Premier read the document twice to the Council. He declared himself strongly for it, and added that he was arranging a meeting with me for the next day to discuss the details. But the agitated Ministers, some famous, some nobodies, torn by division and under the terrible hammer of defeat, were staggered. Some, we are told, had heard about it by a tapping of telephones. These were the defeatists. Most were wholly unprepared to receive such far-reaching themes. The overwhelming feeling of the Council was to reject the whole plan. Surprise and mistrust dominated the majority, and even the most friendly and resolute were baffled. The Council had met expecting to receive the answer to the French request, on which they had all agreed, that Britain should release France from her obligations of March 28, in order that the French might ask the Germans what their terms of armistice would be. It is possible, even probable, that if our formal answer had been laid before them, the majority would have accepted our primary condition about sending their Fleet to Britain, or at least would have made some other suitable proposal and thus have freed them to open negotiations with the enemy, while reserving to themselves a final option of retirement to Africa if the German conditions were too severe. But now there was a classic example of “Order, counter-order, disorder.”

Paul Reynaud was quite unable to overcome the unfavourable impression which the proposal of Anglo-French Union created. The defeatist section, led by Marshal Pétain, refused even to examine it. Violent charges were made. “It was a last-minute plan,” “a surprise,” “a scheme to put France in tutelage, or to carry off her colonial empire.” It relegated France, so they said, to the position of a Dominion. Others complained that not even equality of status was offered to the French, because Frenchmen were to receive only the citizenship of the British Empire instead of that of Great Britain, while the British were to be citizens of France. This suggestion is contradicted by the text.

Beyond these came other arguments. Weygand had convinced Pétain without much difficulty that England was lost. High French military authorities—perhaps Weygand himself—had advised: “In three weeks England will have her neck wrung like a chicken.” To make a union with Great Britain was, according to Pétain, “fusion with a corpse.” Ybarnegaray, who had been so stout in the previous war, exclaimed: “Better be a Nazi province. At least we know what that means.” Senator Reibel, a personal friend of General Weygand’s, declared that this scheme meant complete destruction for France, and anyhow definite subordination to England. In vain did Reynaud reply: “I prefer to collaborate with my allies rather than with my enemies.” And Mandel: “Would you rather be a German district than a British Dominion?” But all was in vain.

We are assured that Reynaud’s statement of our proposal was never put to a vote in the Council. It collapsed of itself. This was a personal and fatal reverse for the struggling Premier which marked the end of his influence and authority upon the Council. All further discussion turned upon the armistice, and asking the Germans what terms they would give, and in this M. Chautemps was cool and steadfast. Our two telegrams about the Fleet were never presented to the Council. The demand that it should be sailed to British ports as a prelude to the negotiations with the Germans was never considered by the Reynaud Cabinet, which was now in complete decomposition. Here again there was no vote. At about eight o’clock Reynaud, utterly exhausted by the physical and mental strain to which he had for so many days been subjected, sent his resignation to the President, and advised him to send for Marshal Pétain. This action must be judged precipitate. He still seems to have cherished the hope that he could keep his rendezvous with me the next day, and spoke of this to General Spears. “Tomorrow there will be another Government, and you will no longer speak for anyone,” said Spears.

According to Campbell (sent by telephone, June 16):

M. Reynaud, who had been so heartened this afternoon by P.M.’s magnificent message, told us later that forces in favour of ascertaining terms of armistice had become too strong for him. He had read the message twice to Council of Ministers and explained its import and the hope which it held out for the future. It had been of no avail.

We worked on him for half an hour, encouraging him to try to get rid of the evil influences among his colleagues. After seeing M. Mandel for a moment we then called for second time today on the President of Senate, M. Jeanneney, whose views (like those of President of Chamber) are sound, in hope of his being able to influence President of Republic to insist on M. Reynaud forming new Government.

We begged him to make it very clear to President that offer contained in P.M.’s message would not be extended to a Government which entered into negotiation with enemy.

An hour or so later M. Reynaud informed us that he was beaten and had handed in his resignation. Combination of Marshal Pétain and General Weygand (who were living in another world and imagined they could sit round a green table discussing armistice terms in the old manner) had proved too much for weak members of Government, on whom they worked by waving the spectre of revolution.

      *      *      *      *      *      

On the afternoon of June 16, M. Monnet and General de Gaulle visited me in the Cabinet Room. The General in his capacity of Under-Secretary of State for National Defence had just ordered the French ship Pasteur, which was carrying weapons to Bordeaux from America, to proceed instead to a British port. Monnet was very active upon a plan to transfer all French contracts for munitions in America to Britain if France made a separate peace. He evidently expected this, and wished to save as much as possible from what seemed to him to be the wreck of the world. His whole attitude in this respect was most helpful. Then he turned to our sending all our remaining fighter air squadrons to share in the final battle in France, which was of course already over. I told him that there was no possibility of this being done. Even at this stage he used the usual arguments—“the decisive battle,” “now or never,” “if France falls, all falls,” and so forth. But I could not do anything to oblige him in this field. My two French visitors then got up and moved towards the door, Monnet leading. As they reached it, de Gaulle, who had hitherto scarcely uttered a single word, turned back, and, taking two or three paces towards me, said in English: “I think you are quite right.” Under an impassive, imperturbable demeanour he seemed to me to have a remarkable capacity for feeling pain. I preserved the impression, in contact with this very tall, phlegmatic man, “Here is the Constable of France.” He returned that afternoon in a British aeroplane, which I had placed at his disposal, to Bordeaux. But not for long.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Forthwith Marshal Pétain formed a French Government with the main purpose of seeking an immediate armistice from Germany. Late on the night of June 16, the defeatist group of which he was the head was already so shaped and knit together that the process did not take long. M. Chautemps (“to ask for terms is not necessarily to accept them”) was Vice-President of the Council. General Weygand, whose view was that all was over, held the Ministry of Defence. Admiral Darlan was Minister of Marine, and M. Baudouin Minister for Foreign Affairs.

The only hitch apparently arose over M. Laval. The Marshal’s first thought had been to offer him the post of Minister of Justice. Laval brushed this aside with disdain. He demanded the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, from which position alone he conceived it possible to carry out his plan of reversing the alliances of France, finishing up England, and joining as a minor partner the New Nazi Europe. Marshal Pétain surrendered at once to the vehemence of this formidable personality. M. Baudouin, who had already undertaken the Foreign Office, for which he knew himself to be utterly inadequate, was quite ready to give it up. But when he mentioned the fact to M. Charles-Roux, Permanent Under-Secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the latter was indignant. He enlisted the support of Weygand. When Weygand entered the room and addressed the illustrious Marshal, Laval became so furious that both the military chiefs were overwhelmed. The General fled and the Marshal submitted. The permanent official, however, stood firm. He refused point-blank to serve under Laval. Confronted with this, the Marshal again subsided, and after a violent scene Laval departed in wrath and dudgeon.

This was a critical moment. When four months later, on October 28, Laval eventually became Foreign Minister, there was a new consciousness of military values. British resistance to Germany was by then a factor. Apparently the island could not be entirely discounted. Anyhow, its neck had not been “wrung like a chicken’s in three weeks.” This was a new fact; and a fact at which the whole French nation rejoiced.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Our telegram of the 16th had made our assent to inquiries about an armistice conditional upon the sailing of the French Fleet to British harbours. It had already been presented formally to Marshal Pétain. The War Cabinet approved, at my suggestion, a further message emphasising the point. But we were talking to the void.

On the 17th also I sent a personal message to Marshal Pétain and General Weygand, of which copies were to be furnished by our Ambassador to the French President and Admiral Darlan:

I wish to repeat to you my profound conviction that the illustrious Marshal Pétain and the famous General Weygand, our comrades in two great wars against the Germans, will not injure their ally by delivering over to the enemy the fine French Fleet. Such an act would scarify their names for a thousand years of history. Yet this result may easily come by frittering away these few precious hours when the Fleet can be sailed to safety in British or American ports, carrying with it the hope of the future and the honour of France.

In order that these appeals might not lack personal reinforcement on the spot, we sent the First Sea Lord, who believed himself to be in intimate personal and professional touch with Admiral Darlan, the First Lord, Mr. A. V. Alexander, and Lord Lloyd, Secretary of State for the Colonies, so long known as a friend of France. All these three laboured to make what contacts they could with the new Ministers during the 19th. They received many solemn assurances that the Fleet would never be allowed to fall into German hands. But no more French warships moved beyond the reach of the swiftly approaching German power.

      *      *      *      *      *      

At the desire of the Cabinet I had broadcast the following statement on the evening of June 17:

The news from France is very bad, and I grieve for the gallant French people who have fallen into this terrible misfortune. Nothing will alter our feelings towards them or our faith that the genius of France will rise again. What has happened in France makes no difference to our actions and purpose. We have become the sole champions now in arms to defend the world cause. We shall do our best to be worthy of this high honour. We shall defend our island home, and with the British Empire we shall fight on unconquerable until the curse of Hitler is lifted from the brows of mankind. We are sure that in the end all will come right.

      *      *      *      *      *      

On the morning of the 17th, I mentioned to my colleagues in the Cabinet a telephone conversation which I had had during the night with General Spears, who said he did not think he could perform any useful service in the new structure at Bordeaux. He spoke with some anxiety about the safety of General de Gaulle. Spears had apparently been warned that as things were shaping it might be well for de Gaulle to leave France. I readily assented to a good plan being made for this. So that very morning—the 17th—de Gaulle went to his office in Bordeaux, made a number of engagements for the afternoon as a blind, and then drove to the airfield with his friend Spears to see him off. They shook hands and said good-bye, and as the plane began to move, de Gaulle stepped in and slammed the door. The machine soared off into the air, while the French police and officials gaped. De Gaulle carried with him, in this small aeroplane, the honour of France.

That same evening he made his memorable broadcast to the French people. One passage should be quoted here:

France is not alone. She has a vast Empire behind her. She can unite with the British Empire, which holds the seas, and is continuing the struggle. She can utilise to the full, as England is doing, the vast industrial resources of the United States.

Other Frenchmen who wished to fight on were not so fortunate. When the Pétain Government was formed, the plan of going to Africa to set up a centre of power outside German control was still open. It was discussed at a meeting of the Pétain Cabinet on June 18. The same evening President Lebrun, Pétain, and the Presidents of the Senate and the Chamber met together. There seems to have been general agreement at least to send a representative body to North Africa. Even the Marshal was not hostile. He himself intended to stay, but saw no reason why Chautemps, Vice-President of the Council, should not go and act in his name. When rumours of an impending exodus ran round agitated Bordeaux, Weygand was hostile. Such a move, he thought, would wreck the “honourable” armistice negotiations which had already been begun by way of Madrid, on French initiative, on June 17. Laval was deeply alarmed. He feared that the setting-up of an effective resistance administration outside France would frustrate the policy on which he was resolved. Weygand and Laval set to work on the clusters of Deputies and Senators crowded into Bordeaux.

Darlan, as Minister of Marine, took a different view. To pack off all the principal critics of his conduct in a ship seemed at the moment to him a most convenient solution of many difficulties. Once aboard, all those who went would be in his power, and there would be plenty of time for the Government to settle what to do. With the approval of the new Cabinet, he offered passages on the armed auxiliary cruiser Massilia to all political figures of influence who wished to go to Africa. The ship was to sail from the mouth of the Gironde on the 20th. Many, however, who had planned to go to Africa, including Jeanneney and Herriot, suspected a trap, and preferred to travel overland through Spain. The final party, apart from refugees, consisted of twenty-four Deputies and one Senator, and included Mandel, Campinchi, and Daladier, who had all been actively pressing for the move to Africa. On the afternoon of the 21st, the Massilia sailed. On the 23d, the ship’s radio announced that the Pétain Government had accepted and signed the armistice with Germany. Campinchi immediately tried to persuade the captain to set his course for England, but this officer no doubt had his instructions and met his former political chief of two days before with a bleak refusal. The unlucky band of patriots passed anxious hours till on the evening of June 24 the Massilia anchored at Casablanca.

Mandel now acted with his usual decision. He had with Daladier drafted a proclamation setting up a resistance administration in North Africa with himself as Premier. He went on shore, and, after calling on the British Consul, established himself at the Hôtel Excelsior. He then attempted to send his proclamation out through the Havas Agency. When General Noguès read its text, he was disturbed. He intercepted the message, and it was telegraphed not to the world but to Darlan and Pétain. They had now made up their minds to have no alternative and potentially rival Government outside German power. Mandel was arrested at his hotel and brought before the local court, but the magistrate, afterwards dismissed by Vichy, declared there was no case against him and set him free. He was, however, by the orders of Governor-General Noguès rearrested and put back on the Massilia, which henceforth was detained in the harbour under strict control without its passengers having any communication with the shore.

Without, of course, knowing any of the facts here set forth, I was already concerned about the fate of Frenchmen who wished to fight on.

Prime Minister to General Ismay. 24.VI.40.

It seems most important to establish now before the trap closes an organisation for enabling French officers and soldiers, as well as important technicians, who wish to fight, to make their way to various ports. A sort of “underground railway” as in the olden days of slavery should be established and a Scarlet Pimpernel organisation set up. I have no doubt there will be a steady flow of determined men, and we need all we can get for the defence of the French colonies. The Admiralty and Air Force must co-operate. General de Gaulle and his Committee would, of course, be the operative authority.

At our meeting of the War Cabinet late at night on June 25, we heard among other things that a ship with a large number of prominent French politicians on board had passed Rabat. We decided to establish contact with them at once. Mr. Duff Cooper, the Minister of Information, accompanied by Lord Gort, started for Rabat at dawn in a Sunderland flying-boat. They found the town in mourning. Flags were flying at half-mast, church bells were tolling, and a solemn service was taking place in the cathedral to bewail the defeat of France. All their attempts to get in touch with Mandel were prevented. The Deputy Governor, named Morice, declared, not only on the telephone, but in a personal interview which Duff Cooper demanded, that he had no choice but to obey the orders of his superiors. “If General Noguès tells me to shoot myself, I will gladly obey. Unfortunately, the orders he has given me are more cruel.” The former French Ministers and Deputies were in fact to be treated as escaped prisoners. Our mission had no choice but to return the way they came. A few days later (July 1) I gave instructions to the Admiralty to try to cut out the Massilia and rescue those on board. No plan could, however, be made, and for nearly three weeks she lay under the batteries of Casablanca, after which the whole party were brought back to France and disposed of as the Vichy Government thought convenient to themselves and agreeable to their German masters. Mandel began his long and painful internment which ended in his murder by German orders at the end of 1944. Thus perished the hope of setting up a strong representative French Government, either in Africa or in London.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Although vain, the process of trying to imagine what would have happened if some important event or decision had been different is often tempting and sometimes instructive. The manner of the fall of France was decided on June 16 by a dozen chances, each measured by a hair’s-breadth. If Paul Reynaud had survived the 16th, I should have been with him at noon on the 17th, accompanied by the most powerful delegation that has ever left our shores, armed with plenary powers in the name of the British nation. Certainly we should have confronted Pétain, Weygand, Chautemps, and the rest with our blunt proposition: “No release from the obligation of March 28 unless the French Fleet is sailed to British ports. On the other hand, we offer an indissoluble Anglo-French Union. Go to Africa and let us fight it out together.” Surely we should have been aided by the President of the Republic, by the Presidents of the two French Chambers, and by all that resolute band who gathered behind Reynaud, Mandel, and de Gaulle. It seems to me probable that we should have uplifted and converted the defeatists round the table, or left them in a minority or even under arrest.

But let us pursue this ghostly speculation further. The French Government would have retired to North Africa. The Anglo-French Super-State or Working Committee, to which it would probably in practice have reduced itself, would have faced Hitler. The British and French Fleets from their harbours would have enjoyed complete mastery of the Mediterranean, and free passage through it for all troops and supplies. Whatever British air force could be spared from the defence of Britain, and what was left of the French air force, nourished by American production and based on the French North African airfields, would soon have become an offensive factor of the first importance. Malta, instead of being for so long a care and peril, would at once have taken its place as our most active naval base. Italy could have been attacked with heavy bombing from Africa far easier than from England. Her communications with the Italian armies in Libya and Tripolitania would have been effectively severed. Using no more fighter aircraft than we actually employed in the defence of Egypt and sending to the Mediterranean theatre no more troops than we actually sent, or held ready to send, we might well, with the remains of the French Army, have transferred the war from the East to the Central Mediterranean, and during 1941 the entire North African shore might have been cleared of Italian forces.

France would never have ceased to be one of the principal belligerent allies and would have been spared the fearful schism which rent and still rends her people. Her homeland no doubt would have lain prostrate under the German rule, but that was only what actually happened after the Anglo-American descent in November, 1942.

Now that the whole story is before us, no one can doubt that the armistice did not spare France a pang.

It is still more shadowy to guess what Hitler would have done. Would he have forced his way through Spain, with or without Spanish agreement, and, after assaulting and perhaps capturing Gibraltar, have invaded Tangier and Morocco? This was an area which deeply concerned the United States, and was ever prominent in President Roosevelt’s mind. How could Hitler have made this major attack through Spain on Africa and yet fight the Battle of Britain? He would have had to choose. If he chose Africa, we, with the command of the sea and the French bases, could have moved both troops and air forces into Morocco and Algeria quicker than he, and in greater strength. We should certainly have welcomed in the autumn and winter of 1940 a vehement campaign in or from a friendly French Northwest Africa.

Surveying the whole scene in the after-light, it seems unlikely that Hitler’s main decision and the major events of the war, namely, the Battle of Britain and the German surge to the East, would have been changed by the retirement of the French Government to North Africa. After the fall of Paris, when Hitler danced his jig of joy, he naturally dealt with very large propositions. Once France was prostrate, he must if possible conquer or destroy Great Britain. His only other choice was Russia. A major operation through Spain into Northwest Africa would have prejudiced both these tremendous adventures, or at least have prevented his attack on the Balkans. I have no doubt that it would have been better for all the Allies if the French Government had gone to North Africa. And that this would have remained true whether Hitler followed them and us thither or not.

One day when I was convalescing at Marrakech in January, 1944, General Georges came to luncheon. In the course of casual conversation I aired the fancy that perhaps the French Government’s failure to go to Africa in June, 1940, had all turned out for the best. At the Pétain trial in August, 1945, the General thought it right to state this in evidence. I make no complaint, but my hypothetical speculation on this occasion does not represent my considered opinion either during the war or now.

11
Admiral Darlan and the French Fleet:

Oran

Would Britain Surrender?—My Speech of June 18—Strong Rally of the Dominions—Enduring Comradeship with the French People—“Their Finest Hour”—Words and Deeds—Reply to Lord Lothian, June 22—Telegram to Mr. Mackenzie King, June 24—Telegram of June 27 to General Smuts—To Lord Lothian, June 28—Admiral Darlan’s Opportunity—His Obsession—His Fatal Choice—Solid Reasons for Confidence of War Cabinet and Chiefs of Staff—The French Navy—Armistice, Article 8—A Dire Decision—“Operation Catapult,” Zero Day, July 3—Distribution of the French Fleet at the End of June—Portsmouth and Plymouth—Distress of the British Admirals at Gibraltar—The War Cabinet Inflexible—Our Terms to the French—The Tragedy of Oran—Alexandria, Dakar, and Martinique—My Report to Parliament, July 4—Admonition to All British Ministers and Officials—Tumultuous Approval of the House of Commons—World Impression on Elimination of French Navy—His Majesty’s Government Would Stop at Nothing—The Genius of France—Appendix to Chapter: Admiral Darlan’s Final Letter to Me.

After the collapse of France the question which arose in the minds of all our friends and foes was, “Would Britain surrender too?” So far as public statements count in the teeth of events, I had in the name of His Majesty’s Government repeatedly declared our resolve to fight on alone. After Dunkirk, on June 4 I had used the expression, “if necessary for years, if necessary alone.” This was not inserted without design, and the French Ambassador in London had been instructed the next day to inquire what I actually meant. He was told “exactly what was said.” I could remind the House of my remark when I addressed it on June 18, the morrow of the Bordeaux collapse. I then gave “some indication of the solid practical grounds on which we based our inflexible resolve to continue the war.” I was able to assure Parliament that our professional advisers of the three Services were confident that there were good and reasonable hopes of ultimate victory. I told them that I had received from all the four Dominion Prime Ministers messages in which they endorsed our decision to fight on and declared themselves ready to share our fortunes. “In casting up this dread balance-sheet and contemplating our dangers with a disillusioned eye I see great reasons for vigilance and exertion, but none whatever for panic or fear.” I added:

During the first four years of the last war the Allies experienced nothing but disaster and disappointment. . . . We repeatedly asked ourselves the question “How are we going to win?” and no one was ever able to answer it with much precision, until at the end, quite suddenly, quite unexpectedly, our terrible foe collapsed before us, and we were so glutted with victory that in our folly we threw it away.

However matters may go in France or with the French Government or other French Governments, we in this island and in the British Empire will never lose our sense of comradeship with the French people. . . . If final victory rewards our toils they shall share the gains—aye, and freedom shall be restored to all. We abate nothing of our just demands; not one jot or tittle do we recede. . . . Czechs, Poles, Norwegians, Dutch, Belgians, have joined their causes to our own. All these shall be restored.

What General Weygand called the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age, made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will say, “This was their finest hour.”

All these often-quoted words were made good in the hour of victory. But now they were only words. Foreigners who do not understand the temper of the British race all over the globe when its blood is up might suppose that they were only a bold front, set up as a good prelude for peace negotiations. Hitler’s need to finish the war in the West was obvious. He was in a position to offer the most tempting terms. To those who like myself had studied his moves, it did not seem impossible that he would consent to leave Britain and her Empire and Fleet intact and make a peace which would have secured him that free hand in the East of which Ribbentrop had talked to me in 1937, and which was his heart’s main desire. So far we had not done him much harm. We had indeed only added our own defeat to his triumph over France. Can one wonder that astute calculators in many countries, ignorant as they mostly were of the problems of overseas invasion, and of the quality of our air force, and who dwelt under the overwhelming impression of German might and terror, were not convinced? Not every Government called into being by Democracy or by Despotism, and not every nation, while quite alone, and as it seemed abandoned, would have courted the horrors of invasion and disdained a fair chance of peace for which many plausible excuses could be presented. Rhetoric was no guarantee. Another administration might come into being. “The warmongers have had their chance and failed.” America had stood aloof. No one was under any obligation to Soviet Russia. Why should not Britain join the spectators who, in Japan and in the United States, in Sweden, and in Spain, might watch with detached interest, or even relish, a mutually destructive struggle between the Nazi and Communist Empires? Future generations will find it hard to believe that the issues I have summarised here were never thought worth a place upon the Cabinet agenda, or even mentioned in our most private conclaves. Doubts could be swept away only by deeds. The deeds were to come.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Meanwhile I telegraphed to Lord Lothian, who, at the desire of the United States naval authorities, had asked anxiously whether ammunition for the British Fleet and material for its repair ought not to be sent from England across the Atlantic:

22.VI.40.

There is no warrant for such precautions at the present time.

I also sent the following telegrams to my Dominion friends:

To Mr. Mackenzie King. 24.VI.40.

If you will read again my telegram of June 5 you will see that there is no question of trying to make a bargain with the United States about their entry into the war and our despatch of the Fleet across the Atlantic should the Mother Country be defeated. On the contrary, I doubt very much the wisdom of dwelling upon the last contingency at the present time. I have good confidence in our ability to defend this island, and I see no reason to make preparation for or give any countenance to the transfer of the British Fleet. I shall myself never enter into any peace negotiations with Hitler, but obviously I cannot bind a future Government which, if we were deserted by the United States and beaten down here, might very easily be a kind of Quisling affair ready to accept German overlordship and protection. It would be a help if you would impress this danger upon the President, as I have done in my telegrams to him.

All good wishes, and we are very glad your grand Canadian Division is with us in our fight for Britain.

To Smuts I cabled again:

27.VI.40.

Obviously, we have first to repulse any attack on Great Britain by invasion, and show ourselves able to maintain our development of air power. This can only be settled by trial. If Hitler fails to beat us here, he will probably recoil eastward. Indeed, he may do this even without trying invasion, to find employment for his Army, and take the edge off the winter strain upon him.

I do not expect the winter strain will prove decisive, but to try to hold all Europe down in a starving condition with only Gestapo and military occupation and no large theme appealing to the masses is not an arrangement which can last long.

Development of our air power, particularly in regions unaffected by bombing, should cause him ever-increasing difficulties, possibly decisive difficulties, in Germany, no matter what successes he has in Europe or Asia.

Our large Army now being created for Home Defence is being formed on the principle of attack, and opportunity for large-scale offensive amphibious operations may come in 1940 and 1941. We are still working on the fifty-five-division basis here, but as our munitions supply expands and Empire resources are mobilised larger numbers may be possible. After all, we are now at last on interior lines. Hitler has vast hungry areas to defend, and we have the command of the seas. Choice of objectives in Western Europe is therefore wide.

I send you these personal notes in order to keep in closest contact with your thoughts, which ever weigh with me.

It was with good confidence that we entered upon the supreme test.

Prime Minister to Lord Lothian (Washington). 28.VI.40.

No doubt I shall make some broadcast presently, but I don’t think words count for much now. Too much attention should not be paid to eddies of United Slates opinion. Only force of events can govern them. Up till April they were so sure the Allies would win that they did not think help necessary. Now they are so sure we shall lose that they do not think it possible. I feel good confidence we can repel invasion and keep alive in the air. Anyhow, we are going to try. Never cease to impress on President and others that, if this country were successfully invaded and largely occupied after heavy fighting, some Quisling Government would be formed to make peace on the basis of our becoming a German Protectorate. In this case the British Fleet would be the solid contribution with which this Peace Government would buy terms. Feeling in England against United States would be similar to French bitterness against us now. We have really not had any help worth speaking of from the United States so far. [The rifles and field guns did not arrive till the end of July. The destroyers had been refused.] We know President is our best friend, but it is no use trying to dance attendance upon Republican and Democratic Conventions. What really matters is whether Hitler is master of Britain in three months or not. I think not. But this is a matter which cannot be argued beforehand. Your mood should be bland and phlegmatic. No one is downhearted here.

      *      *      *      *      *      

In the closing days at Bordeaux, Admiral Darlan became very important. My contacts with him had been few and formal. I respected him for the work he had done in re-creating the French Navy, which after ten years of his professional control was more efficient than at any time since the French Revolution. When in December, 1939, he had visited England, we gave him an official dinner at the Admiralty. In response to the toast, he began by reminding us that his great-grandfather had been killed at the Battle of Trafalgar. I therefore thought of him as one of those good Frenchmen who hate England. Our Anglo-French naval discussions in January had also shown how very jealous the Admiral was of his professional position in relation to whoever was the political Minister of Marine. This had become a positive obsession, and I believe played a definite part in his action.

For the rest, Darlan had been present at most of the conferences which I have described, and as the end of the French resistance approached, he had repeatedly assured me that whatever happened the French Fleet should never fall into German hands. Now at Bordeaux came the fateful moment in the career of this ambitious, self-seeking, and capable Admiral. His authority over the Fleet was for all practical purposes absolute. He had only to order the ships to British, American, or French colonial harbours—some had already started—to be obeyed. In the morning of June 17, after the fall of M. Reynaud’s Cabinet, he declared to General Georges that he was resolved to give the order. The next day Georges met him in the afternoon and asked him what had happened. Darlan replied that he had changed his mind. When asked why, he answered simply, “I am now Minister of Marine.” This did not mean that he had changed his mind in order to become Minister of Marine, but that being Minister of Marine he had a different point of view.

How vain are human calculations of self-interest! Rarely has there been a more convincing example. Admiral Darlan had but to sail in any one of his ships to any port outside France to become the master of all French interests beyond German control. He would not have come like General de Gaulle with only an unconquerable heart and a few kindred spirits. He would have carried with him outside the German reach the fourth Navy in the world, whose officers and men were personally devoted to him. Acting thus, Darlan would have become the chief of the French Resistance with a mighty weapon in his hand. British and American dockyards and arsenals would have been at his disposal for the maintenance of his fleet. The French gold reserve in the United States would have assured him, once recognised, of ample resources. The whole French Empire would have rallied to him. Nothing could have prevented him from being the Liberator of France. The fame and power which he so ardently desired were in his grasp. Instead, he went forward through two years of worrying and ignominious office to a violent death, a dishonoured grave, and a name long to be execrated by the French Navy and the nation he had hitherto served so well.

      *      *      *      *      *      

There is a final note which should be struck at this point. In a letter which Darlan wrote to me on December 4, 1942,[1] just three weeks before his assassination, he vehemently claimed that he had kept his word. As this letter states his case and should be on record, I print it at the end of this chapter. It cannot be disputed that no French ship was ever manned by the Germans or used against us by them in the war. This was not entirely due to Admiral Darlan’s measures: but he had certainly built up in the minds of the officers and men of the French Navy that at all costs their ships should be destroyed before being seized by the Germans, whom he disliked as much as the English.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Those of us who were responsible at the summit in London understood the physical structure of our island strength and were sure of the spirit of the nation. The confidence with which we faced the immediate future was not founded, as was commonly supposed abroad, upon audacious bluff or rhetorical appeal, but upon a sober consciousness and calculation of practical facts. When I spoke in the House of Commons, I founded myself upon realities which I and others had carefully studied—some for many years. I will presently analyse in detail the invasion problem as I and my expert advisers saw it in these memorable days. But first of all there was one step to take. It was obvious, and it was dire.

The addition of the French Navy to the German and Italian Fleets, with the menace of Japan measureless upon the horizon, confronted Great Britain with mortal dangers and gravely affected the safety of the United States. Article 8 of the Armistice prescribed that the French Fleet, except that part left free for safeguarding French Colonial interests, “shall be collected in ports to be specified and there demobilised and disarmed under German or Italian control.” It was therefore clear that the French war vessels would pass into that control while fully armed. It was true that in the same article the German Government solemnly declared that they had no intention of using them for their own purposes during the war. But who in his senses would trust the word of Hitler after his shameful record and the facts of the hour? Furthermore, the article excepted from this assurance “those units necessary for coast surveillance and minesweeping.” The interpretation of this lay with the Germans. Finally, the Armistice could at any time be voided on any pretext of non-observance. There was in fact no security for us at all. At all costs, at all risks, in one way or another, we must make sure that the Navy of France did not fall into wrong hands, and then perhaps bring us and others to ruin.

The War Cabinet never hesitated. Those Ministers who, the week before, had given their whole hearts to France and offered common nationhood, resolved that all necessary measures should be taken. This was a hateful decision, the most unnatural and painful in which I have ever been concerned. It recalled the episode of the destruction of the Danish Fleet in Copenhagen Harbour by Nelson in 1801; but now the French had been only yesterday our dear allies, and our sympathy for the misery of France was sincere. On the other hand, the life of the State and the salvation of our cause were at stake. It was Greek tragedy. But no act was ever more necessary for the life of Britain and for all that depended upon it. I thought of Danton in 1793: “The coalesced Kings threaten us, and we hurl at their feet as a gage of battle the head of a King.” The whole event was in this order of ideas.

      *      *      *      *      *      

The French Navy was disposed in the following manner: Two battleships, four light cruisers (or contre-torpilleurs), some submarines, including a very large one, the Surcouf, eight destroyers, and about two hundred smaller but valuable minesweeping and anti-submarine craft, lay for the most part at Portsmouth and Plymouth. These were in our power. At Alexandria there were a French battleship, four French cruisers, three of them modern eight-inch-gun cruisers, and a number of smaller ships. These were covered by a strong British battle squadron. At Oran, at the other end of the Mediterranean, and at its adjacent military port of Mers-el-Kebir, were two of the finest vessels of the French fleet, the Dunkerque and the Strasbourg, modern battle-cruisers much superior to the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and built for the express purpose of being superior to them. These vessels in German hands on our trade routes would have been most disagreeable. With them were two French battleships, several light cruisers, and a number of destroyers, submarines, and other vessels. At Algiers were seven cruisers, of which four were eight-inch armed, and at Martinique an aircraft-carrier and two light cruisers. At Casablanca lay the Jean Bart, newly arrived from Saint Nazaire, but without her guns. This was one of the key ships in the computation of world naval strength. It was unfinished, and could not be finished at Casablanca. It must not go elsewhere. The Richelieu, which was far nearer completion, had reached Dakar. She could steam, and her fifteen-inch guns could fire. There were many other French ships of minor importance in various ports. Finally, at Toulon a number of warships were beyond our reach. “Operation Catapult” comprised the simultaneous seizure, control, or effective disablement or destruction of all the accessible French Fleet.

Prime Minister to General Ismay. 1.VII.40.

1. The Admiralty are retaining Nelson and her four destroyers in home waters, and “Operation Catapult” should go forward, aiming at daybreak the 3d.

2. During the night of 2d/3d all necessary measures should be taken at Portsmouth and Plymouth, at Alexandria, and if possible at Martinique, on the same lines as Catapult. The reactions to these measures at Dakar and Casablanca must be considered, and every precaution taken to prevent the escape of valuable units.

On account of the pressure of events, I added also:

The Admiralty should endeavour to raise the flotillas in the narrow seas to a strength of forty destroyers, with additional cruiser support. An effort should be made to reach this strength during the next two or three days and hold it for the following fortnight, when the position can be reviewed. The losses in the Western approaches must be accepted meanwhile. I should like also a daily return of the numbers of craft on patrol or available between Portsmouth and the Tyne.

      *      *      *      *      *      

In the early morning of July 3, all the French vessels at Portsmouth and Plymouth were taken under British control. The action was sudden and necessarily a surprise. Overwhelming force was employed, and the whole transaction showed how easily the Germans could have taken possession of any French warships lying in ports which they controlled. In Britain the transfer, except in the Surcouf, was amicable, and the crews came willingly ashore. In the Surcouf two British officers were wounded, one leading seaman killed and an able seaman wounded. One Frenchman was killed in the scuffle, but the utmost endeavours were made with success to reassure and comfort the French sailors. Many hundreds volunteered to join us. The Surcouf, after rendering distinguished service, perished on February 19, 1942, with all her gallant French crew.

      *      *      *      *      *      

The deadly stroke was in the Western Mediterranean. Here, at Gibraltar, Vice-Admiral Somerville with “Force H,” consisting of the battle-cruiser Hood, the battleships Valiant and Resolution, the aircraft-carrier Ark Royal, two cruisers and eleven destroyers, received orders sent from the Admiralty at 2.25 A.M. on July 1:

Be prepared for “Catapult” July 3.

Among Somerville’s officers was Captain Holland, a gallant and distinguished officer, lately Naval Attaché in Paris and with keen French sympathies, who was influential. In the early afternoon of July 1 the Vice-Admiral telegraphed:

After talk with Holland and others Vice-Admiral “Force H” is impressed with their view that the use of force should be avoided at all costs. Holland considers offensive action on our part would alienate all French wherever they are.

To this the Admiralty replied at 6.20 P.M.:

Firm intention of H.M.G. that if French will not accept any of your alternatives they are to be destroyed.

Shortly after midnight (1.08 A.M., July 2) Admiral Somerville was sent the following carefully conceived text of the communication to be made to the French Admiral:

It is impossible for us, your comrades up to now, to allow your fine ships to fall into the power of the German or Italian enemy. We are determined to fight on to the end, and if we win, as we think we shall, we shall never forget that France was our Ally, that our interests are the same as hers, and that our common enemy is Germany. Should we conquer, we solemnly declare that we shall restore the greatness and territory of France. For this purpose, we must make sure that the best ships of the French Navy are not used against us by the common foe. In these circumstances, His Majesty’s Government have instructed me to demand that the French Fleet now at Mers-el-Kebir and Oran shall act in accordance with one of the following alternatives:

(a) Sail with us and continue to fight for victory against the Germans and Italians.

(b) Sail with reduced crews under our control to a British port. The reduced crews will be repatriated at the earliest moment.

If either of these courses is adopted by you, we will restore your ships to France at the conclusion of the war or pay full compensation, it they are damaged meanwhile.

(c) Alternatively, if you feel bound to stipulate that your ships should not be used against the Germans or Italians unless these break the Armistice, then sail them with us with reduced crews to some French port in the West Indies—Martinique, for instance—where they can be demilitarised to our satisfaction, or perhaps be entrusted to the United States and remain safe until the end of the war, the crews being repatriated.

If you refuse these fair offers, I must, with profound regret, require you to sink your ships within six hours.

Finally, failing the above, I have the orders of His Majesty’s Government to use whatever force may be necessary to prevent your ships from falling into German or Italian hands.

In the evening of the 2d, I requested the Admiralty to send the Vice-Admiral the following message (despatched 10.55 P.M.):

You are charged with one of the most disagreeable and difficult tasks that a British Admiral has ever been faced with, but we have complete confidence in you and rely on you to carry it out relentlessly.

The Admiral sailed at daylight and was off Oran at about 9.30. He sent Captain Holland himself in a destroyer to wait upon the French Admiral Gensoul. After being refused an interview, Holland sent by messengers the document already quoted. Admiral Gensoul replied in writing that in no case would the French warships be allowed to fall intact into German and Italian hands, and that force would be met with force.

All day negotiations continued, Captain Holland waiting in his destroyer off the boom. The distress of the British Admiral and his principal officers was evident to us from the signals which had passed. Nothing but the most direct orders compelled them to open fire on those who had been so lately their comrades. At the Admiralty also there was manifest emotion. But there was no weakening in the resolve of the War Cabinet. I sat all the afternoon in the Cabinet Room in frequent contact with my principal colleagues and the First Lord and First Sea Lord. A final signal was despatched at 6.26 P.M.

French ships must comply with our terms or sink themselves or be sunk by you before dark.

But the action had already begun. At 5.54 Admiral Somerville opened fire upon this powerful French fleet, which was also protected by its shore batteries. At 6.0 P.M. he reported that he was heavily engaged. The bombardment lasted for some ten minutes, and was followed by heavy attacks by our naval aircraft, launched from the Ark Royal. The battleship Bretagne was blown up. The Dunkerque ran aground. The battleship Provence was beached. The Strasbourg escaped, and, though attacked and damaged by torpedo aircraft, reached Toulon, as did also the cruisers from Algiers.

At Alexandria, after protracted negotiations with Admiral Cunningham, the French Admiral Godfroy agreed to discharge his oil fuel, to remove important parts of his gun-mechanisms, and to repatriate some of his crews. At Dakar on July 8 an attack was made on the battleship Richelieu by the aircraft-carrier Hermes, and most gallantly by a motor-boat. The Richelieu was hit by an air torpedo and seriously damaged. The French aircraft-carrier and two light cruisers in the French West Indies were immobilised after long-drawn-out discussions under an agreement with the United States.

On July 4 I reported at length to the House of Commons what we had done. Although the battle-cruiser Strasbourg had escaped from Oran and the effective disablement of the Richelieu had not then been reported, the measures we had taken had removed the French Navy from major German calculations. I spoke for an hour or more that afternoon, and gave a detailed account of all these sombre events as they were known to me. I have nothing to add to the account which I then gave to Parliament and to the world. I thought it better for the sake of proportion to end upon a note which placed this mournful episode in true relation with the plight in which we stood. I therefore read to the House the admonition which I had, with Cabinet approval, circulated through the inner circles of the governing machine the day before.

On what may be the eve of an attempted invasion or battle for our native land, the Prime Minister desires to impress upon all persons holding responsible positions in the Government, in the Fighting Services or in the Civil Departments, their duty to maintain a spirit of alert and confident energy. While every precaution must be taken that time and means afford, there are no grounds for supposing that more German troops can be landed in this country, either from the air or across the sea, than can be destroyed or captured by the strong forces at present under arms. The Royal Air Force is in excellent order and at the highest strength yet attained. The German Navy was never so weak, nor the British Army at home so strong as now. The Prime Minister expects all His Majesty’s servants in high places to set an example of steadiness and resolution. They should check and rebuke the expression of loose and ill-digested opinions in their circles, or by their subordinates. They should not hesitate to report, or if necessary remove, any persons, officers, or officials who are found to be consciously exercising a disturbing or depressing influence, and whose talk is calculated to spread alarm and despondency. Thus alone will they be worthy of the fighting men who, in the air, on the sea, and on land, have already met the enemy without any sense of being outmatched in martial qualities.

The House was very silent during the recital, but at the end there occurred a scene unique in my own experience. Everybody seemed to stand up all around, cheering, for what seemed a long time. Up till this moment the Conservative Party had treated me with some reserve, and it was from the Labour benches that I received the warmest welcome when I entered the House or rose on serious occasions. But now all joined in solemn stentorian accord.

The elimination of the French Navy as an important factor almost at a single stroke by violent action produced a profound impression in every country. Here was this Britain which so many had counted down and out, which strangers had supposed to be quivering on the brink of surrender to the mighty power arrayed against her, striking ruthlessly at her dearest friends of yesterday and securing for a while to herself the undisputed command of the sea. It was made plain that the British War Cabinet feared nothing and would stop at nothing. This was true.

      *      *      *      *      *      

The Pétain Government had moved to Vichy on July 1, and proceeded to set itself up as the Government of Unoccupied France. On receiving the news of Oran they ordered retaliation by air upon Gibraltar, and a few bombs were dropped upon the harbour from their African stations. On July 5 they formally broke off relations with Great Britain. On July 11 President Lebrun gave place to Marshal Pétain, who was installed as Chief of the State by an enormous majority of 569 against 80, with 17 abstentions and many absentees.

The genius of France enabled her people to comprehend the whole significance of Oran, and in her agony to draw new hope and strength from this additional bitter pang. General de Gaulle, whom I did not consult beforehand, was magnificent in his demeanour, and France liberated and restored has ratified his conduct. I am indebted to M. Teitgen for a tale which should be told. In a village near Toulon dwelt two peasant families, each of whom had lost their sailor son by British fire at Oran. A funeral service was arranged to which all their neighbours sought to go. Both families requested that the Union Jack should lie upon the coffins side by side with the Tricolour, and their wishes were respectfully observed. In this we may see how the comprehending spirit of simple folk touches the sublime.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Immense relief spread through the high Government circles in the United States. The Atlantic Ocean seemed to regain its sheltering power, and a long vista of time opened out for the necessary preparations for the safety of the great Republic. Henceforth there was no more talk about Britain giving in. The only question was, would she be invaded and conquered? That was the issue which was now to be put to the proof.

Appendix

Admiral Darlan to Mr. Churchill[2]

Algiers, December 4, 1942.

Dear Mr. Prime Minister,

On June 12, 1910, at Briare, at the Headquarters of General Weygand, you took me aside and said to me: “Darlan, I hope that you will never surrender the Fleet.” I answered you: “There is no question of doing so; it would be contrary to our naval traditions and honour.” The First Lord of the Admiralty, Alexander, and the First Sea Lord, Pound received the same reply on June 17, 1940, at Bordeaux, as did Lord Lloyd. If I did not consent to authorise the French Fleet to proceed to British ports, it was because I knew that such a decision would bring about the total occupation of Metropolitan France as well as North Africa.

I admit having been overcome by a great bitterness and a great resentment against England as the result of the painful events which touched me as a sailor; furthermore, it seemed to me that you did not believe my word. One day Lord Halifax sent me word by M. Dupuy that in England my word was not doubted, but that it was believed that I should not be able to keep it. The voluntary destruction of the Fleet at Toulon has just proved that I was right, because even though I no longer commanded, the Fleet executed the orders which I had given and maintained, contrary to the wishes of the Laval Government. On the orders of my Chief the Marshal, I was obliged from January, 1941, to April, 1942, to adopt a policy which would prevent France and its Empire from being occupied and crushed by the Axis Powers. This policy was by the force of events opposed to yours. What else could I do? At that time you were not able to help us, and any gesture towards you would have led to the most disastrous consequences for my country. If we had not assumed the obligation to defend the Empire by our own forces (I always refused German aid, even in Syria), the Axis would have come to Africa and our own Army would have been discarded; the First British Army undoubtedly would not be before Tunis today with French troops at its side to combat the Germans and Italians.

When the Allied forces landed in Africa on November 8, I at first executed the orders I had received. Then, as soon as this became impossible, I ordered the cessation of the fighting in order to avoid unnecessary bloodshed and a fight which was contrary to the intimate sentiments of those engaged. Disavowed by Vichy and not wishing to resume the fight, I placed myself at the disposition of the American military authorities, only in that way being able to remain faithful to my oath. On November 11, I learned of the violation of the Armistice Convention by the Germans, the occupation of France, and the solemn protest of the Marshal. I then considered that I could resume my liberty of action, and that, remaining faithful to the person of the Marshal, I could follow that road which was most favourable to the welfare of the French Empire, that of the fight against the Axis. Supported by the high authorities of French Africa and by public opinion, and acting as the eventual substitute of the Chief of State, I formed the High Commissariat in Africa and ordered the French forces to fight at the side of the Allies. Since then French West Africa has recognised my authority. I should never have been able to accomplish this result if I had not acted under the aegis of the Marshal and if I were simply represented as a dissident. I have the conviction that all Frenchmen who now fight against Germany each in his own manner will finally achieve a general reconciliation, but I believe that for the moment they must continue their separate action. There is a certain resentment, notably in French West Africa which is too active for me to obtain more, as you know. I follow my rôle without attacking anyone, I ask for reciprocity. For the moment the only thing which counts is to defeat the Axis; the French people when liberated will later choose their political régime and their leaders.

I thank you, Mr. Prime Minister, for having associated yourself with President Roosevelt in declaring that, like the United States, Great Britain wishes the integral re-establishment of French sovereignty as it existed in 1939. When my country has recovered its integrity and its liberty, my only ambition will be to retire with the sentiment of having served it well.

Please accept, Mr. Prime Minister, the assurances of my highest consideration.

François Darlan, Admiral of the Fleet.


See Appendix to this chapter.

Translated.

12
The Apparatus of Counter-Attack

1940

My Own Reactions After Dunkirk—Minute to General Ismay of June 4—Work of June 6—A Retrogression—My Old Plans of July, 1917—An Early Idea of Tank-Landing Craft—The Germ of the “Mulberry” Harbours of 1944—Directive to General Ismay on Counter-Attack—“Commandos”—Tank-Landing Craft and Parachutists—My Minute of July 7, 1940, Calling for Beach Landing Craft for Six or Seven Hundred Tanks—Minute of August 5, 1940, on Programme of Armoured Divisions—Overseas Transportation for Two Divisions at a Time—Creation of the Combined Operations Command—Appointment of Sir Roger Keyes—The Joint Planning Committee Is Placed Directly Under the Minister of Defence—Progress of the Landing-Craft Construction in 1940 and 1941—My Telegram to President Roosevelt of July 25, 1941—My Consistent Purpose to Land Large Armies in Europe.

My first reaction to the “Miracle of Dunkirk” had been to turn it to proper use by mounting a counter-offensive. When so much was uncertain, the need to recover the initiative glared forth. June 4 was much occupied for me by the need to prepare and deliver the long and serious speech to the House of Commons of which some account has been given, but as soon as this was over I made haste to strike the note which I thought should rule our minds and inspire our actions at this moment.

Prime Minister to General Ismay. 4.VI.40.

We are greatly concerned—and it is certainly wise to be so—with the dangers of the German landing in England in spite of our possessing the command of the seas and having very strong defence by fighters in the air. Every creek, every beach, every harbour has become to us a source of anxiety. Besides this the parachutists may sweep over and take Liverpool or Ireland, and so forth. All this mood is very good if it engenders energy. But if it is so easy for the Germans to invade us in spite of sea-power, some may feel inclined to ask the question, “Why should it be thought impossible for us to do anything of the same kind to them?” The completely defensive habit of mind which has ruined the French must not be allowed to ruin all our initiative. It is of the highest consequence to keep the largest numbers of German forces all along the coasts of the countries they have conquered, and we should immediately set to work to organise raiding forces on these coasts where the populations are friendly. Such forces might be composed of self-contained, thoroughly equipped units of say one thousand up to not more than ten thousand when combined. Surprise would be ensured by the fact that the destination would be concealed until the last moment. What we have seen at Dunkirk shows how quickly troops can be moved off (and I suppose on) to selected points if need be. How wonderful it would be if the Germans could be made to wonder where they were going to be struck next, instead of forcing us to try to wall in the island and roof it over! An effort must be made to shake off the mental and moral prostration to the will and initiative of the enemy from which we suffer.

Ismay conveyed this to the Chiefs of Staff, and in principle it received their cordial approval and was reflected in many of the decisions which we took. Out of it gradually sprang a policy. My thought was at this time firmly fixed on tank warfare, not merely defensive but offensive. This required the construction of large numbers of tank-landing vessels, which henceforward became one of my constant cares. As all this was destined to become of major importance in the future, I must now make a retrogression into a subject which had long ago lain in my mind and was now revived.

      *      *      *      *      *      

I had always been fascinated by amphibious warfare, and the idea of using tanks to run ashore from specially constructed landing craft on beaches where they were not expected had long been in my mind. Ten days before I rejoined Mr. Lloyd George’s Government as Minister of Munitions on July 17, 1917, I had prepared, without expert assistance, a scheme for the capture of the two Frisian islands Borkum and Sylt. The object was to secure an overseas base for flotillas and cruisers and for such air forces as were available in those days, in order to force the naval fighting, in which we had a great numerical superiority, and by re-establishing close blockade relieve the pressure of the U-boat war, then at its height, against our Atlantic supply-line and the movement of the American armies to France. Mr. Lloyd George was impressed with the plan, and had it specially printed for the Admiralty and the War Cabinet.

It contained the following paragraph, 22c, which has never yet seen the light of day:

The landing of the troops upon the island [of Borkum or Sylt] under cover of the guns of the Fleet [should be] aided by gas and smoke from torpedo-proof transports by means of bullet-proof lighters. Approximately one hundred should be provided for landing a division. In addition a number—say fifty—tank-landing lighters should be provided, each carrying a tank or tanks [and] fitted for wire-cutting in its bow. By means of a drawbridge or shelving bow [the tanks] would land under [their] own power, and prevent the infantry from being held up by wire when attacking the gorges of the forts and batteries. This is a new feature, and removes one of the very great previous difficulties, namely, the rapid landing of [our] field artillery to cut wire.

And further, paragraph 27:

There is always the danger of the enemy getting wind of our intentions and reinforcing his garrisons with good troops beforehand, at any rate so far as Borkum, about which he must always be very sensitive, is concerned. On the other hand, the landing could be effected under the shields of lighters, proof against machine-gun bullets, and too numerous to be seriously affected by heavy gunfire [i.e., the fire of heavy guns]: and tanks employed in even larger numbers than are here suggested, especially the quick-moving tank and lighter varieties, would operate in an area where no preparations could have been made to receive them. These may be thought new and important favourable considerations.

      *      *      *      *      *      

In this paper also I had an alternative plan for making an artificial island in the shallow waters of Horn Reef (to the northward):

Paragraph 30. One of the methods suggested for investigation is as follows: A number of flat-bottomed barges or caissons, made not of steel, but of concrete, should be prepared in the Humber, at Harwich, and in the Wash, the Medway, and the Thames. These structures would be adapted to the depths in which they were to be sunk, according to a general plan. They would float when empty of water, and thus could be towed across to the site of the artificial island. On arrival at the buoys marking the island, seacocks would be opened, and they would settle down on the bottom. They could subsequently be gradually filled with sand, as opportunity served, by suction dredgers. These structures would range in size from 50´ × 40´ × 20´ to 120´ × 80´ × 40´. By this means a torpedo- and weather-proof harbour, like an atoll, would be created in the open sea, with regular pens for the destroyers and submarines, and alighting platforms for aeroplanes.

This project, if feasible, is capable of great elaboration, and it might be applied in various places. Concrete vessels can perhaps be made to carry a complete heavy-gun turret, and these, on the admission of water to their outer chambers, would sit on the sea floor, like the Solent forts, at the desired points. Other sinkable structures could be made to contain storerooms, oil tanks, or living chambers. It is not possible, without an expert inquiry, to do more here than indicate the possibilities, which embrace nothing less than the creation, transportation in pieces, assemblement, and posing of an artificial island and destroyer base.

31. Such a scheme, if found mechanically sound, avoids the need of employing troops and all the risks of storming a fortified island. It could be applied as a surprise, for although the construction of these concrete vessels would probably be known in Germany, the natural conclusion would be that they were intended for an attempt to block up the river mouths, which indeed is an idea not to be excluded. Thus, until the island or system of breakwaters actually began to grow, the enemy would not penetrate the design.

A year’s preparation would, however, be required.

For nearly a quarter of a century this paper had slumbered in the archives of the Committee of Imperial Defence. I did not print it in The World Crisis, of which it was to have been a chapter, for reasons of space, and because it was never put into effect. This was fortunate, because the ideas expressed were in this war more than ever vital; and the Germans certainly read my war books with attention. Indeed a staff study of the writings of anyone in my position would be a matter of normal routine. The underlying conceptions of this old paper were deeply imprinted in my mind, and in the new emergency formed the foundation of action which, alter a long interval, found memorable expression in the vast fleet of tank-landing craft of 1943 and in the “Mulberry” harbours of 1944.

      *      *      *      *      *      

On this same not unfertile 6th of June, 1940, flushed with the sense of deliverance and the power to plan ahead, I began a long series of Minutes in which the design and construction of tank-landing craft was ordered and steadily pressed.

Prime Minister to General Ismay. 6.VI.40.

Further to my Minute of yesterday [dated June 4] about offensive action: when the Australians arrive it is a question whether they should not be organised in detachments of 250, equipped with grenades, trench-mortars, tommy-guns, armoured vehicles and the like, capable of acting against an attack in this country, but also capable of landing on the friendly coasts now held by the enemy. We have got to get out of our minds the idea that the Channel ports and all the country between them are enemy territory. What arrangements are being made for good agents in Denmark, Holland, Belgium, and along the French coast? Enterprises must be prepared, with specially trained troops of the hunter class, who can develop a reign of terror down these coasts, first of all on the “butcher and bolt” policy; but later on, or perhaps as soon as we are organised, we could surprise Calais or Boulogne, kill and capture the Hun garrison, and hold the place until all the preparations to reduce it by siege or heavy storm have been made, and then away. The passive-resistance war, in which we have acquitted ourselves so well, must come to an end. I look to the Joint Chiefs of the Staff to propose me measures for a vigorous, enterprising, and ceaseless offensive against the whole German-occupied coastline. Tanks and A.F.V.s [Armoured Fighting Vehicles] must be made in flat-bottomed boats, out of which they can crawl ashore, do a deep raid inland, cutting a vital communication, and then back, leaving a trail of German corpses behind them. It is probable that when the best troops go on to the attack of Paris, only the ordinary German troops of the line will be left. The lives of these must be made an intense torment. The following measures should be taken:

1. Proposals for organising the striking companies.

2. Proposals for transporting and landing tanks on the beach, observing that we are supposed to have the command of the sea, while the enemy have not.

3. A proper system of espionage and intelligence along the whole coasts.

4. Deployment of parachute troops on a scale equal to five thousand.

5. Half a dozen of our fifteen-inch guns should be lined up [i.e., with inner tubes] immediately to fire fifty or sixty miles, and should be mounted either on railway mountings or on steel and concrete platforms, so as to break up the fire of the German guns that will certainly in less than four months be firing across the Channel.

Action in many directions followed accordingly. The “Striking Companies” emerged under the name of “Commandos,” ten of which were now raised from the Regular Army and the Royal Marines. The nucleus of this organisation had begun to take shape in the Norwegian campaign. An account will be given in its proper place of the cross-Channel heavy guns. I regret, however, that I allowed the scale I had proposed for British parachute troops to be reduced from five thousand to five hundred.

      *      *      *      *      *      

I recurred at intervals to the building of landing craft, on which my mind constantly dwelt both as a peril to us and in the future a project against the enemy. Development of small assault craft had been started before the outbreak of war, and a few had been employed at Narvik. Most of these had been lost either there or at Dunkirk. Now we required not only the small craft which could be lifted in the troop-carrying ships, but seagoing vessels capable themselves of transporting tanks and guns to the assault and landing them onto the beaches.

Prime Minister to Minister of Supply. 7.VII.40.

What is being done about designing and planning vessels to transport tanks across the sea for a British attack on enemy countries? This might well be remitted as a study to Mr. Hopkins, former Chief Constructor of the Navy, who must have leisure now that Cultivator No. 6[1] is out of fashion. These must be able to move six or seven hundred vehicles in one voyage and land them on the beach, or, alternatively, take them off the beaches, as well, of course, as landing them on quays—if it be possible to combine the two.

Prime Minister to General Ismay. 5.VIII.40.

I asked the other day for a forecast of the development of the armoured divisions which will be required in 1941—namely, five by the end of March and one additional every month until a total of ten is reached at the end of August, 1941; and also for the composition of each division in armoured and ancillary vehicles of all kinds.

Pray let me know how far the War Office plans have proceeded, and whether the number of tanks ordered corresponds with a programme of these dimensions.

Let me further have a report on the progress of the means of transportation overseas, which should be adequate to the movement at one moment of two armoured divisions. Who is doing this—Admiralty or Ministry of Supply? I suggested that Mr. Hopkins might have some spare time available.

Prime Minister to General Ismay. 9.VIII.40.

Get me a further report about the designs and types of vessels to transport armoured vehicles by sea and land on[to] beaches.

In July I created a separate Combined Operations Command under the Chiefs of Staff for the study and exercise of this form of warfare, and Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger Keyes became its chief. His close personal contact with me and with the Defence Office served to overcome any departmental difficulties arising from this unusual appointment.

Prime Minister to General Ismay and Sir Edward Bridges. 17.VII.40

I have appointed Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger Keyes as Director of Combined Operations. He should take over the duties and resources now assigned to General Bourne. General Bourne should be informed that, owing to the larger scope now to be given to these operations, it is essential to have an officer of higher rank in charge, and that the change in no way reflects upon him or those associated with him. Evidently he will have to co-operate effectively. I formed a high opinion of this officer’s work as Adjutant-General Royal Marines, and in any case the Royal Marines must play a leading part in this organisation.

Pending any further arrangements, Sir Roger Keyes will form contact with the Service Departments through General Ismay as representing the Minister of Defence.

      *      *      *      *      *      

I have already explained how smoothly the office of Minister of Defence came into being and grew in authority. At the end of August, I took the only formal step which I ever found necessary. Hitherto the Joint Planning Committee had worked under the Chiefs of Staff and looked to them as their immediate and official superiors. I felt it necessary to have this important, though up till now not very effective, body under my personal control. Therefore, I asked the War Cabinet to give approval to this definite change in our war machine. This was readily accorded me by all my colleagues, and I gave the following instructions:

Prime Minister to General Ismay and Sir Edward Bridges. 24.VIII.40.

1. The Joint Planning Committee will from Monday next work directly under the orders of the Minister of Defence and will become a part of the Minister of Defence’s office—formerly the C.I.D. Secretariat. Accommodation will be found for them at Richmond Terrace. They will retain their present positions in and contacts with the three Service Departments. They will work out the details of such plans as are communicated to them by the Minister of Defence. They may initiate plans of their own after reference to General Ismay. They will, of course, be at the service of the Chiefs of Staff Committee for the elaboration of any matters sent to them.

2. All plans produced by the Joint Planning Committee or elaborated by them under instructions as above will be referred to the Chiefs of Staff Committee for their observations.

3. Thereafter should doubts and differences exist, or in important cases, all plans will be reviewed by the Defence Committee of the War Cabinet, which will consist of the Prime Minister, the Lord Privy Seal, and Lord Beaverbrook, and the three Service Ministers; the three Chiefs of the Staff with General Ismay being in attendance.

4. The Prime Minister assumes the responsibility of keeping the War Cabinet informed of what is in hand; but the relation of the Chiefs of Staff to the War Cabinet is unaltered.

The Chiefs of Staff accepted this change without serious demur. Sir John Dill, however, wrote a Minute to the Secretary of State for War on which I was able to reassure him.

Prime Minister to Secretary of State for War. 31.VIII.40.

There is no question of the Joint Planning Committee “submitting military advice” to me. They are merely to work out plans in accordance with directions which I shall give. The advice as to whether these plans or any variants of them should be adopted will rest as at present with the Chiefs of Staff. It is quite clear that the Chiefs of Staff also have their collective responsibility for advising the Cabinet as well as the Prime Minister or Minister of Defence. It has not been thought necessary to make any alteration in their constitutional position. Moreover, I propose to work with and through them as heretofore.

I have found it necessary to have direct access to and control of the Joint Planning Staffs because after a year of war I cannot recall a single plan initiated by the existing machinery. I feel sure that I can count upon you and the other two Service Ministers to help me in giving a vigorous and positive direction to the conduct of the war, and in overcoming the dead weight or inertia and delay which has so far led us to being forestalled on every occasion by the enemy.

It will, of course, be necessary from time to time to increase the number of the Joint Planning Staffs.

In practice the new procedure worked in an easy and agreeable manner, and I cannot recall any difficulties which arose.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Henceforth intense energy was imparted to the development of all types of landing craft and a special department was formed in the Admiralty to deal with these matters. By October, 1940, the trials of the first Landing-Craft Tank (L.C.T.) were in progress. Only about thirty of these were built, as they proved too small. An improved design followed, many of which were built in sections for more convenient transport by sea to the Middle East, where they began to arrive in the summer of 1941. These proved their worth, and as we gained experience the capabilities of later editions of these strange craft steadily improved. The Admiralty were greatly concerned at the inroads which this new form of specialised production might make into the resources of the shipbuilding industry. Fortunately it proved that the building of L.C.T. could be delegated to constructional engineering firms not engaged in shipbuilding, and thus the labour and plant of the larger shipyards need not be disturbed. This rendered possible the large-scale programme which we contemplated, but also placed a limit on the size of the craft.

The L.C.T. was suitable for cross-Channel raiding operations or for more extended work in the Mediterranean, but not for long voyages in the open sea. The need arose for a larger, more seaworthy vessel which, besides transporting tanks and other vehicles on ocean voyages, could also land them over beaches like the L.C.T. I gave directions for the design of such a vessel, which was first called an “Atlantic L.C.T.,” but was soon renamed “Landing Ship Tank” (L.S.T.). The building of these inevitably impinged on the resources of our hard pressed shipyards. Thus, of the first design, nicknamed in the Admiralty the “Winette,” only three were built; others were ordered in the United States and Canada, but were superseded by a later design. Meanwhile we converted three shallow-draft tankers to serve the same purpose, and these too rendered useful service later on.

By the end of 1940 we had a sound conception of the physical expression of amphibious warfare. The production of specialised craft and equipment of many kinds was gathering momentum, and the necessary formations to handle all this new material were being developed and trained under the Combined Operations Command. Special training centres for this purpose were established both at home and in the Middle East. All these ideas and their practical manifestation we presented to our American friends as they took shape. The results grew steadily across the years of struggle, and thus in good time they formed the apparatus which eventually played an indispensable part in our greatest plans and deeds. Our work in this field in these earlier years had such a profound effect on the future of the war that I must anticipate events by recording some of the material progress which we made later.

In the summer of 1941, the Chiefs of Staff pointed out that the programme of landing-craft construction was related only to small-scale operations and that our ultimate return to the Continent would demand a much greater effort than we could then afford. By this time the Admiralty had prepared a new design of the landing ship tank (L.S.T.), and this was taken to the United States, where the details were jointly worked out. In February, 1942, this vessel was put into production in America on a massive scale. It became the L.S.T.(2), which figured so prominently in all our later operations, making perhaps the greatest single contribution to the solution of the stubborn problem of landing heavy vehicles over beaches. Ultimately over a thousand of these were built.

Meanwhile the production of small craft of many types for use in a Continental assault was making steady progress on both sides of the Atlantic. All these required transport to the scene of action in the ships carrying the assaulting troops. Thus an immense conversion programme was initiated to fit British and American troopships to carry these craft as well as great quantities of other specialised equipment. These ships became known as “Landing Ships Infantry” (L.S.I.). Some were commissioned into the Royal Navy, others preserved their mercantile status, and their masters and crews served them with distinction in all our offensive operations. Such ships could ill be spared from the convoys carrying the endless stream of reinforcements to the Middle East and elsewhere, yet this sacrifice had to be made. In 1940 and 1941 our efforts in this field were limited by the demands of the U-boat struggle. Not more than seven thousand men could be spared for landing-craft production up to the end of 1940, nor was this number greatly exceeded in the following year. However, by 1944, no less than seventy thousand men in Britain alone were dedicated to this stupendous task, besides much larger numbers in the United States.

      *      *      *      *      *      

As all our work in this sphere had a powerful bearing on the future of the war, I print at this point a telegram which I sent to President Roosevelt in 1941:

25.VII.41.

We have been considering here our war plans, not only for the fighting of 1942, but also for 1943. After providing for the security of essential bases, it is necessary to plan on the largest scale the forces needed for victory. In broad outline we must aim first at intensifying the blockade and propaganda. Then we must subject Germany and Italy to a ceaseless and ever-growing air bombardment. These measures may themselves produce an internal convulsion or collapse. But plans ought also to be made for coming to the aid of the conquered populations by landing armies of liberation when opportunity is ripe. For this purpose it will be necessary not only to have great numbers of tanks, but also of vessels capable of carrying them and landing them direct onto beaches. It ought not to be difficult for you to make the necessary adaptation in some of the vast numbers of merchant vessels you are building so as to fit them for tank-landing ships.

And a little later:

Prime Minister to First Sea Lord. 8.IX.41.

My idea was not that the President should build Winettes as such, apart from any already arranged for, but that, out of the great number of merchant vessels being constructed in the United States for 1942, he would fit out a certain number with bows and side-ports to enable tanks to be landed from them on beaches, or into tank-landing craft which would take them to the beaches.

Please help me to explain this point to him, showing what kind of alteration would be required in the American merchant ships now projected.

In view of the many accounts which are extant and multiplying of my supposed aversion from any kind of large-scale opposed-landing, such as took place in Normandy in 1944, it may be convenient if I make it clear that from the very beginning I provided a great deal of the impulse and authority for creating the immense apparatus and armada for the landing of armour on beaches, without which it is now universally recognised that all such major operations would have been impossible. I shall unfold this theme step by step in these volumes by means of documents written by me at the time, which show a true and consistent purpose on my part in harmony with the physical facts, and a close correspondence with what was actually done.


A trench-cutting machine for attacking fortified lines.

13
At Bay

July, 1940

Can Britain Survive?—Anxiety in the United States—Resolute Demeanour of the British Nation—The Relief of Simplicity—Hitler’s Peace Offer, July 19—Our Response—German Diplomatic Approaches Rejected—The King of Sweden’s Démarche—I Visit the Threatened Coasts—General Montgomery and the Third Division at Brighton—The Importance of Buses—My Contacts with General Brooke—Brooke Succeeds Ironside in Command of the Home Army—Stimulus of Invasion Excitement—Some Directives and Minutes of July—The Defence of London—Conditions in the Threatened Coastal Zones—Statistics on the Growth and Equipment of the Army—Lindemann’s Diagrams—The Canadian Second Division Retrieved from Iceland—Need to Prevent Enemy Concentration of Shipping in the Channel—Arrival of the American Rifles—Special Precautions—The French Seventy-Fives—The Growth of the German Channel Batteries—Our Counter-Measures—My Visits to Admiral Ramsay at Dover—Progress of Our Batteries Coaxed and Urged—The Monitor “Erebus”—The Defence of the Kentish Promontory—British Heavy-Gun Concentration, September—Our Rising Strength—An Ordeal Averted.

In these summer days of 1940 after the fall of France we were all alone. None of the British Dominions or India or the Colonies could send decisive aid, or send what they had in time. The victorious, enormous German armies, thoroughly equipped and with large reserves of captured weapons and arsenals behind them, were gathering for the final stroke. Italy, with numerous and imposing forces, had declared war upon us, and eagerly sought our destruction in the Mediterranean and in Egypt. In the Far East, Japan glared inscrutably, and pointedly requested the closing of the Burma Road against supplies for China. Soviet Russia was bound to Nazi Germany by her pact, and lent important aid to Hitler in raw materials. Spain, which had already occupied the International Zone of Tangier, might turn against us at any moment and demand Gibraltar, or invite the Germans to help her attack it, or mount batteries to hamper passage through the Straits. The France of Pétain and Bordeaux, soon moved to Vichy, might any day be forced to declare war upon us. What was left at Toulon of the French Fleet seemed to be in German power. Certainly we had no lack of foes.

After Oran it became clear to all countries that the British Government and nation were resolved to fight on to the last. But even if there were no moral weakness in Britain, how could the appalling physical facts be overcome? Our armies at home were known to be almost unarmed except for rifles. There were in fact hardly five hundred field guns of any sort and hardly two hundred medium or heavy tanks in the whole country. Months must pass before our factories could make good even the munitions lost at Dunkirk. Can one wonder that the world at large was convinced that our hour of doom had struck?

Deep alarm spread through the United States, and indeed through all the surviving free countries. Americans gravely asked themselves whether it was right to cast away any of their own severely limited resources to indulge a generous though hopeless sentiment. Ought they not to strain every nerve and nurse every weapon to remedy their own unpreparedness? It needed a very sure judgment to rise above these cogent, matter-of-fact arguments. The gratitude of the British nation is due to the noble President and his great officers and high advisers for never, even in the advent of the third-term presidential election, losing their confidence in our fortunes or our will.

The buoyant and imperturbable temper of Britain, which I had the honour to express, may well have turned the scale. Here was this people, who in the years before the war had gone to the extreme bounds of pacifism and improvidence, who had indulged in the sport of party politics, and who, though so weakly armed, had advanced lightheartedly into the centre of European affairs, now confronted with the reckoning alike of their virtuous impulses and neglectful arrangements. They were not even dismayed. They defied the conquerors of Europe. They seemed willing to have their island reduced to a shambles rather than give in. This would make a fine page in history. But there were other tales of this kind. Athens had been conquered by Sparta. The Carthaginians made a forlorn resistance to Rome. Not seldom in the annals of the past—and how much more often in tragedies never recorded or long-forgotten—had brave, proud, easygoing states, and even entire races, been wiped out, so that only their name or even no mention of them remains.

Few British and very few foreigners understood the peculiar technical advantages of our insular position; nor was it generally known how even in the irresolute years before the war the essentials of sea and latterly air defence had been maintained. It was nearly a thousand years since Britain had seen the fires of a foreign camp on English soil. At the summit of British resistance everyone remained calm, content to set their lives upon the cast. That this was our mood was gradually recognised by friends and foes throughout the whole world. What was there behind the mood? That could only be settled by brute force.

      *      *      *      *      *      

There was also another aspect. One of our greatest dangers during June lay in having our last reserves drawn away from us into a wasting, futile French resistance in France, and the strength of our air forces gradually worn down by their flights or transference to the Continent. If Hitler had been gifted with supernatural wisdom, he would have slowed down the attack on the French front, making perhaps a pause of three or four weeks after Dunkirk on the line of the Seine, and meanwhile developing his preparations to invade England. Thus he would have had a deadly option, and could have tortured us with the hooks of either deserting France in her agony or squandering the last resources for our future existence. The more we urged the French to fight on, the greater was our obligation to aid them, and the more difficult it would have become to make any preparations for defence in England, and above all to keep in reserve the twenty-five squadrons of fighter aircraft on which all depended. On this point we should never have given way, but the refusal would have been bitterly resented by our struggling ally, and would have poisoned all our relations. It was even with an actual sense of relief that some of our high commanders addressed themselves to our new and grimly simplified problem. As the commissionaire at one of the Service clubs in London said to a rather downcast member, “Anyhow, sir, we’re in the Final, and it’s to be played on the Home Ground.”

      *      *      *      *      *      

The strength of our position was not, even at this date, underrated by the German High Command. Ciano tells how when he visited Hitler in Berlin on July 7, 1940, he had a long conversation with General von Keitel. Keitel, like Hitler, spoke to him about the attack on England. He repeated that up to the present nothing definite had been decided. He regarded the landing as possible, but considered it an “extremely difficult operation, which must be approached with the utmost caution, in view of the fact that the intelligence available on the military preparedness of the island and on the coastal defences is meagre and not very reliable.”[1] What would appear to be easy and also essential was a major air attack upon the airfields, factories, and the principal communication centres in Great Britain. It was necessary, however, to bear in mind that the British Air Force was extremely efficient. Keitel calculated that the British had about fifteen hundred machines ready for defence and counter-attack. He admitted that recently the offensive action of the British Air Force had been greatly intensified. Bombing missions were carried out with noteworthy accuracy, and the groups of aircraft which appeared numbered up to eighty machines at a time. There was, however, in England a great shortage of pilots, and those who were now attacking the German cities could not be replaced by the new pilots, who were completely untrained. Keitel also insisted upon the necessity of striking at Gibraltar in order to disrupt the British imperial system. Neither Keitel nor Hitler made any reference to the duration of the war. Only Himmler said incidentally that the war ought to be finished by the beginning of October.

Such was Ciano’s report. He also offered Hitler, at “the earnest wish of the Duce,” an army of ten divisions and an air component of thirty squadrons to take part in the invasion. The army was politely declined. Some of the air squadrons came, but, as will be presently related, fared ill.

      *      *      *      *      *      

On July 19, Hitler delivered his triumphant speech in the Reichstag, in which, after predicting that I would shortly take refuge in Canada, he made what has been called his Peace Offer. The operative sentences were:

In this hour I feel it to be my duty before my own conscience to appeal once more to reason and common sense in Great Britain as much as elsewhere. I consider myself in a position to make this appeal, since I am not a vanquished foe begging favours, but the victor, speaking in the name of reason. I can see no reason why this war need go on. I am grieved to think of the sacrifices it must claim. . . . Possibly Mr. Churchill will brush aside this statement of mine by saying it is merely born of fear and doubt of final victory. In that case I shall have relieved my conscience in regard to the things to come.

This gesture was accompanied during the following days by diplomatic representations through Sweden, the United States, and at the Vatican. Naturally Hitler would be very glad, after having subjugated Europe to his will, to bring the war to an end by procuring British acceptance of what he had done. It was in fact an offer not of peace but of readiness to accept the surrender by Britain of all she had entered the war to maintain. As the German Chargé d’Affaires in Washington had attempted some communication with our Ambassador there, I sent the following telegram:

20.VII.40.

I do not know whether Lord Halifax is in town today, but Lord Lothian should be told on no account to make any reply to the German Chargé d’Affaires’ message.

My first thought, however, was a solemn, formal debate in both Houses of Parliament. I therefore wrote at the same time to Mr. Chamberlain and Mr. Attlee:

20.VII.40.

It might be worth while meeting Hitler’s speech by resolutions in both Houses. These resolutions should be proposed by private Peers and Members. On the other hand, the occasion will add to our burdens. What do you say?

My colleagues thought that this would be making too much of the matter, upon which we were all of one mind. It was decided instead that the Foreign Secretary should dismiss Hitler’s gesture in a broadcast. On the night of the 22d he “brushed aside” Hitler’s “summons to capitulate to his will.” He contrasted Hitler’s picture of Europe with the picture of the Europe for which we were fighting, and declared that “we shall not stop fighting until Freedom is secure.” In fact, however, the rejection of any idea of a parley had already been given by the British press and by the B.B.C., without any prompting from His Majesty’s Government, as soon as Hitler’s speech was heard over the radio.

Ciano, in his account of another meeting with Hitler on July 20, observes:

The reaction of the English Press to yesterday’s speech has been such as to allow of no prospect of an understanding. Hitler is therefore preparing to strike the military blow at England. He stresses that Germany’s strategic position, as well as her sphere of influence and of economic control, are such as to have already greatly weakened the possibilities of resistance by Great Britain, which will collapse under the first blows. The air attack already began some days ago, and is continually growing in intensity. The reaction of the anti-aircraft defences and of the British fighters is not seriously hindering the German air attack. The decisive offensive operation is now being studied, since the fullest preparations have been made.[2]

Ciano also records in his diaries that “Late in the evening of the 19th, when the first cold British reaction to the speech arrived, a sense of ill-concealed disappointment spread among the Germans.” Hitler “would like an understanding with Great Britain. He knows that war with the British will be hard and bloody, and knows also that people everywhere are averse from bloodshed.” Mussolini, on the other hand, “fears that the English may find in Hitler’s much too cunning speech a pretext to begin negotiations.” “That,” remarks Ciano, “would be sad for Mussolini, because now more than ever he wants war.”[3] He need not have fretted himself. He was not to be denied all the war he wanted.

There was no doubt continuous German diplomatic activity behind the scenes, and, when on August 3, the King of Sweden thought fit to address us on the subject, I suggested to the Foreign Secretary the following reply, which formed the basis of the official answer:

On October 12, 1939, His Majesty’s Government defined at length their position towards German peace offers in maturely considered statements to Parliament. Since then a number of new hideous crimes have been committed by Nazi Germany against the smaller States upon her borders. Norway has been overrun, and is now occupied by a German invading army. Denmark has been seized and pillaged. Belgium and Holland, after all their efforts to placate Herr Hitler, and in spite of all the assurances given to them by the German Government that their neutrality would be respected, have been conquered and subjugated. In Holland particularly, acts of long-prepared treachery and brutality culminated in the massacre of Rotterdam, where many thousands of Dutchmen were slaughtered, and an important part of the city destroyed.

These horrible events have darkened the pages of European history with an indelible stain. His Majesty’s Government see in them not the slightest cause to recede in any way from their principles and resolves as set forth in October, 1939. On the contrary, their intention to prosecute the war against Germany by every means in their power until Hitlerism is finally broken and the world relieved from the curse which a wicked man has brought upon it has been strengthened to such a point that they would rather all perish in the common ruin than fail or falter in their duty. They firmly believe, however, that with the help of God they will not lack the means to discharge their task. This task may be long; but it will always be possible for Germany to ask for an armistice, as she did in 1918, or to publish her proposals for peace. Before, however, any such requests or proposals could even be considered, it would be necessary that effective guarantees by deeds, not words, should be forthcoming from Germany which would ensure the restoration of the free and independent life of Czechoslovakia, Poland, Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, and above all France, as well as the effectual security of Great Britain and the British Empire in a general peace.

I added:

The ideas set forth in the Foreign Office memo. appear to me to err in trying to be too clever, and to enter into refinements of policy unsuited to the tragic simplicity and grandeur of the times and the issues at stake. At this moment, when we have had no sort of success, the slightest opening will be misjudged. Indeed, a firm reply of the kind I have outlined is the only chance of extorting from Germany any offers which are not fantastic.

On the same day I issued the following statement to the press:

3.VIII.40.

The Prime Minister wishes it to be known that the possibility of German attempts at invasion has by no means passed away. The fact that the Germans are now putting about rumours that they do not intend an invasion should be regarded with a double dose of the suspicion which attaches to all their utterances. Our sense of growing strength and preparedness must not lead to the slightest relaxation of vigilance or moral alertness.

      *      *      *      *      *      

At the end of June, the Chiefs of Staff through General Ismay had suggested to me at the Cabinet that I should visit the threatened sectors of the east and south coasts. Accordingly I devoted a day or two every week to this agreeable task, sleeping when necessary in my train, where I had every facility for carrying on my regular work and was in constant contact with Whitehall. I inspected the Tyne and the Humber and many possible landing places. The Canadian Division, soon to be reinforced to a corps by the division sent to Iceland, did an exercise for me in Kent. I examined the landward defences of Harwich and Dover. One of my earliest visits was to the 3d Division, commanded by General Montgomery, an officer whom I had not met before. My wife came with me. The 3d Division was stationed near Brighton. It had been given the highest priority in re-equipment, and had been about to sail for France when the French resistance ended. General Montgomery’s headquarters were at Lancing College, near which he showed me a small exercise of which the central feature was a flanking movement of Bren-gun carriers, of which he could at that moment muster only seven or eight. After this we drove together along the coast through Shoreham and Hove till we came to the familiar Brighton front, of which I had so many schoolboy memories. We dined in the Royal Albion Hotel, which stands opposite the end of the pier. The hotel was entirely empty, a great deal of evacuation having taken place; but there were still a number of people airing themselves on the beaches or the parade. I was amused to see a platoon of the Grenadier Guards making a sandbag machine-gun post in one of the kiosks of the pier, like those where in my childhood I had often admired the antics of the performing fleas. It was lovely weather. I had very good talks with the General, and enjoyed my outing thoroughly. However:

(Action this Day.)

Prime Minister to Secretary of State for War. 3.VII.40.

I was disturbed to find the 3d Division spread along thirty miles of coast, instead of being as I had imagined held back concentrated in reserve, ready to move against any serious head of invasion. But much more astonishing was the fact that the infantry of this division, which is otherwise fully mobile, are not provided with the buses necessary to move them to the point of action.[4] This provision of buses, waiting always ready and close at hand, is essential to all mobile units, and to none more than the 3d Division while spread about the coast.

I heard the same complaint from Portsmouth that the troops there had not got their transport ready and close at hand. Considering the great masses of transport, both buses and lorries, which there are in this country, and the large numbers of drivers brought back from the B.E.F., it should be possible to remedy these deficiencies at once. I hope, at any rate, that the G.O.C. 3d Division will be told today to take up, as he would like to do, the large number of buses which are even now plying for pleasure traffic up and down the sea-front at Brighton.

      *      *      *      *      *      

In mid-July the Secretary of State for War recommended that General Brooke should replace General Ironside in command of our Home Forces. On July 19, in the course of my continuous inspection of the invasion sectors, I visited the Southern Command. Some sort of tactical exercise was presented to me in which no fewer than twelve tanks (!) were able to participate. All the afternoon I drove with General Brooke, who commanded this front. His record stood high. Not only had he fought the decisive flank-battle near Ypres during the retirement to Dunkirk, but he had acquitted himself with singular firmness and dexterity, in circumstances of unimaginable difficulty and confusion, when in command of the new forces we had sent to France during the first three weeks of June. I also had a personal link with Alan Brooke through his two gallant brothers—the friends of my early military life.[5]

These connections and memories did not decide my opinion on the grave matters of selection; but they formed a personal foundation upon which my unbroken wartime association with Alan Brooke was maintained and ripened. We were four hours together in the motor-car on this July afternoon, 1940, and we seemed to be in agreement on the methods of Home Defence. After the necessary consultations with others, I approved the Secretary of State for War’s proposal to place Brooke in command of the Home Forces in succession to General Ironside. Ironside accepted his retirement with the soldierly dignity which on all occasions characterised his actions. During the invasion menace for a year and a half, Brooke organised and commanded the Home Armies, and thereafter when he had become C.I.G.S. we continued together for three and a half years until victory was won. I shall presently narrate the benefits which I derived from his advice in the decisive changes of command in Egypt and the Middle East in August, 1942, and also the heavy disappointment which I had to inflict upon him about the command of the cross-Channel invasion “Operation Overlord” in 1944. His long tenure as chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee during the greater part of the war and his work as C.I.G.S. enabled him to render services of the highest order, not only to the British Empire, but also to the Allied Cause. These volumes will record occasional differences between us, but also an overwhelming measure of agreement, and will witness to a friendship which I cherish.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Meanwhile we all faced in ever-increasing detail and tenacity the possibility of invasion. Some of my Minutes illustrate this process.

(Action this Day.)

Prime Minister to Secretary of State for Air and C.A.S. 3.VII.40.

I hear from every side of the need for throwing your main emphasis on bombing the ships and barges in all the ports under German control.

Prime Minister to General Ismay. 2.VII.40.

See the letter [on the defence of London] from Mr. Wedgwood, M.P., which is interesting and characteristic. What is the position about London? I have a very clear view that we should fight every inch of it, and that it would devour quite a large invading army.

Prime Minister to Mr. Wedgwood. 5.VII.40.

Many thanks for your letters. I am hoping to get a great many more rifles very soon, and to continue the process of arming the Home Guard (L.D.V.). You may rest assured that we should fight every street of London and its suburbs. It would devour an invading army, assuming one ever got so far. We hope, however, to drown the bulk of them in the salt sea.

It is curious that the German Army Commander charged with the invasion plan used this same word “devour” about London, and determined to avoid it.

Prime Minister to General Ismay. 4.VII.40.

What is being done to encourage and assist the people living in threatened seaports to make suitable shelters for themselves in which they could remain during an invasion? Active measures must be taken forthwith. Officers or representatives of the local authority should go round explaining to families that if they decide not to leave in accordance with our general advice, they should remain in the cellars, and arrangements should be made to prop up the building overhead. They should be assisted in this both with advice and materials. Their gas-masks should be inspected. All this must be put actively in operation from today. The process will stimulate voluntary evacuation, and at the same time make reasonable provision for those who remain.

Prime Minister to General Ismay. 5.VII.40.

Clear instructions should now be issued about the people living in the threatened coastal zones. They should be encouraged as much as possible to depart voluntarily, both by the pressure of a potential compulsory order hanging over them, and also by local (not national) propaganda through their Regional Commissioners or local bodies. Those who wish to stay, or can find nowhere to go on their own, should be told that if invasion impact occurs in their town or village on the coast they will not be able to leave till the battle is over. They should therefore be encouraged and helped to put their cellars in order so that they have fairly safe places to go to. They should be supplied with whatever form of Anderson shelter is now available (I hear there are new forms not involving steel). Only those who are trustworthy should be allowed to stay. All doubtful elements should be removed.

Pray have precise proposals formulated upon these lines for my approval.

Prime Minister to Professor Lindemann. 7.VII.40.

(Copy to General Ismay.)

I want my “S” Branch to make a chart of all the thirty divisions, showing their progress towards complete equipment. Each division would be represented by a square divided into sections: officers and men, rifles, Bren guns, Bren-gun carriers, anti-tank rifles, anti-tank guns, field artillery, medium ditto (if any), transport sufficient to secure mobility of all three brigades simultaneously, etc. As and when a proportion of these subsidiary squares is completed, a chart can be painted red. I should like to see this chart every week. A similar diagram can be prepared for the Home Guard. In this case it is only necessary to show rifles and uniforms.

Prime Minister to Secretary of State for War. 7.VII.40.

You shared my astonishment yesterday at the statement made to us by General McNaughton that the whole of the 2d Canadian Division was destined for Iceland. It would surely be a very great mistake to allow these fine troops to be employed in so distant a theatre. Apparently the first three battalions have already gone there. No one was told anything about this. We require two Canadian divisions to work as a corps as soon as possible.

I am well aware of the arguments about training, etc., but they did not convince me. We ought to have another thorough re-examination of this point. Surely it should be possible to send second-line Territorial troops to Iceland, where they should fortify themselves at the key points, and then to have, say, one very high-class battalion of the “Gubbins” type in order to strike at any landing. I should be most grateful if you would deal with this.

Prime Minister to First Lord and First Sea Lord. 7.VII.40.

1. I cannot understand how we can tolerate the movement at sea along the French coast of any vessels without attacking them. It is not sufficient surely to use the air only. Destroyers should be sent under air escort. Are we really to resign ourselves to the Germans building up a large armada under our noses in the Channel, and conducting vessels through the Straits of Dover with impunity? This is the beginning of a new and very dangerous threat which must be countered.

2. I should be glad of a report not only on the points mentioned above, but also on the state of our minefield there, and how it is to be improved. Is it true the mines have become defective after ten months? If so, several new rows should be laid. Why should not an effort be made to lay a minefield by night in the French passage, and lie in wait for any craft sent to sweep a channel through it? We really must not be put off from asserting our sea power by the fact that the Germans are holding the French coast. If German guns open upon us, a heavy ship should be sent to bombard them under proper air protection.

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During this month of July, American weapons in considerable quantities were safely brought across the Atlantic. This seemed to me so vital that I issued reiterated injunctions for care in their transportation and reception.

Prime Minister to Secretary of State for War. 7.VII.40.

I have asked the Admiralty to make very special arrangements for bringing in your rifle convoys. They are sending four destroyers far out to meet them, and all should arrive during the 9th. You can ascertain the hour from the Admiralty. I was so glad to hear that you were making all preparations for the unloading, reception, and distribution of these rifles. At least one hundred thousand ought to reach the troops that very night, or in the small hours of the following morning. Special trains should be used to distribute them and the ammunition according to a plan worked out beforehand exactly, and directed from the landing-port by some high officer thoroughly acquainted with it. It would seem likely that you would emphasise early distribution to the coastal districts, so that all the Home Guard in the danger areas should be the first served. Perhaps you would be good enough to let me know beforehand what you decide.

Prime Minister to General Ismay. 8.VII.40.

Have any steps been taken to load the later portions of American ammunition, rifles, and guns upon faster ships than was the case last time? What are the ships in which the latest consignments are being packed, and what are their speeds? Will you kindly ascertain this from the Admiralty.

Prime Minister to First Lord. 27.VII.40.

The great consignments of rifles and guns, together with their ammunition, which are now approaching this country are entirely on a different level from anything else we have transported across the ocean except the Canadian Division itself. Do not forget that two hundred thousand rifles mean two hundred thousand men, as the men are waiting for the rifles. The convoys approaching on July 31 are unique, and a special effort should be made to ensure their safe arrival. The loss of these rifles and field guns would be a disaster of the first order.

When the ships from America approached our shores with their priceless arms, special trains were waiting in all the ports to receive their cargoes. The Home Guard in every county, in every town, in every village, sat up all through the nights to receive them. Men and women worked night and day making them fit for use. By the end of July we were an armed nation, so far as parachute or air-borne landings were concerned. We had become a “hornet’s nest.” Anyhow, if we had to go down fighting (which I did not anticipate), a lot of our men and some women had weapons in their hands. The arrival of the first instalment of the half-million .303 rifles for the Home Guard (albeit with only about fifty cartridges apiece, of which we dared only issue ten, and no factories yet set in motion) enabled us to transfer three hundred thousand .303 British-type rifles to the rapidly expanding formations of the Regular Army.

At the seventy-fives, with their thousand rounds apiece, some fastidious experts presently turned their noses up. There were no limbers and no immediate means of procuring more ammunition. Mixed calibres complicate operations. But I would have none of this, and during all 1940 and 1941 these nine hundred seventy-fives were a great addition to our military strength for Home Defence. Arrangements were devised and men were drilled to run them up on planks into lorries for movement. When you are fighting for existence, any cannon is better than no cannon at all, and the French seventy-five, although outdated by the British twenty-five-pounder and the German field gun-howitzer, was still a splendid weapon.

      *      *      *      *      *      

We had watched with attention the growth of the German heavy batteries along the Channel coast during August and September. By far the strongest concentration of this artillery was around Calais and Cape Gris-Nez, with the apparent purpose not only of forbidding the Straits to our warships, but also of commanding the shortest route across them. We now know that by the middle of September the following batteries were already mounted and ready for use in this region alone:

(a)

Siegfried battery, south of Gris-Nez, with four 38-cm. guns.

(b)

Friedrich-August battery, north of Boulogne, with three 30.5-cm. guns.

(c)

Grosser Kurfuerst battery, at Gris-Nez, with four 28-cm. guns.

(d)

Prinz Heinrich battery, between Calais and Blanc-Nez, with two 28-cm. guns.

(e)

Oldenburg battery, east of Calais, with two 24-cm. guns.

(f)

M.1, M.2, M.3, M.4 batteries, in the sector of Gris-Nez—Calais, with a total of 14 17-cm. guns.

 

Besides this, no fewer than thirty-five heavy and medium batteries of the German Army, as well as seven batteries of captured guns, were sited along the French coast for defensive purposes by the end of August.

The orders which I had given in June for arming the Dover promontory with guns that could fire across the Channel had borne fruit, though not on the same scale. I took a personal interest in the whole of this business. I visited Dover several times in these anxious summer months. In the citadel of the castle large underground galleries and chambers had been cut in the chalk, and there was a wide balcony from which on clear days the shores of France, now in the hands of the enemy, could be seen. Admiral Ramsay, who commanded, was a friend of mine. He was the son of a colonel of the 4th Hussars under whom I had served in my youth, and I had often seen him as a child on the Barrack Square at Aldershot. When three years before the war he had resigned his position as Chief of the Staff to the Home Fleet through a difference with its Commander-in-Chief, it was to me that he had come to seek advice. I had long talks with him, and together with the Dover Fortress Commander visited our rapidly improving defences.

I carefully studied there and at home the Intelligence reports, which almost daily showed the progress of the German batteries. The series of Minutes which I dictated about the Dover guns during August show my very great desire to break up some of the heaviest battery-sites before their guns could reply. I certainly thought this ought to have been done in August, as we had at least three of the very heaviest guns capable of firing across the Channel. Later on the Germans became too strong for us to court a duel.

Prime Minister to General Ismay. 3.VIII.40.

1. The fourteen-inch gun I ordered to be mounted at Dover should be ready in ample time to deal with this new German battery. It certainly should not fire until all the guns are in position. The plan for the shoot may, however, now be made, and I should like to know what arrangements for spotting aircraft, protected by Fighters in strength, will be prepared for that joyous occasion. Also, when the two guns, 13.5’s on railway mountings, will be ready, and whether they can reach the target mentioned. Several other camouflaged guns should be put up at various points, with arrangements to make suitable flashes, smoke, and dust. Let me know what arrangements can be devised. I presume work on the railway extensions for the 13.5’s is already in hand. Please report.

2. The movement of the German warships southward to Kiel creates a somewhat different situation from that dealt with in C.-in-C. Home Fleet’s appreciation asked for some time ago about an invasion across the narrow waters supported by heavy ships. The Admiralty should be asked whether C.-in-C.’s attention should not be drawn to the altered dispositions of the enemy, in case has anything further to say.

Prime Minister to First Lord. 8.VIII.40

I am impressed by the speed and efficiency with which the placement for the fourteen-inch gun at Dover has been prepared and the gun itself mounted. Will you tell all those who have helped in this achievement how much I appreciate the sterling effort they have made.

The enemy batteries first opened fire on August 22, engaging a convoy without effect and later firing on Dover. They were replied to by one of our fourteen-inch guns which was now in action. Thenceforward there were artillery duels at irregular intervals. Dover was engaged six times in September, the heaviest day being September 9, when over a hundred and fifty shells were fired. Very little damage was done to convoys.

Prime Minister to First Lord and First Sea Lord. 25.VIII.40.

I shall be much obliged if you will make proposals for a shoot by Erebus[6] against the German batteries at Gris-Nez. I was very glad to hear you thought this practicable. It is most desirable. There is no reason why it should wait for the railway guns, though, of course, if they were ready they could follow on with the fourteen-inch at daybreak. We ought to smash these batteries. I hope we have not got to wait for the next moon for Erebus, and I shall be glad to know what are the moon-conditions which you deem favourable.

Prime Minister to General Ismay and C.O.S. Committee. 27.VIII.40.

It would not seem unreasonable that the enemy should attempt gradually to master the Dover promontory and command the Channel at its narrowest point. This would be a natural preliminary to invasion. It would give occasion for continued fighting with our Air Force in the hope of exhausting them by numbers. It would tend to drive our warships from all the Channel bases. The concentration of many batteries on the French coast must be expected. What are we doing in defence of the Dover promontory by heavy artillery? Ten weeks ago I asked for heavy guns. One has been mounted. Two railway guns are expected. Now we are told these will be very inaccurate on account of super-charging. We ought to have a good many more heavy guns lined up inside to smaller calibre with stiffer rifling and a range of at least fifty miles, and firing at twenty-five or thirty miles would then become more accurate. I do not understand why I have not yet received proposals on this subject. We must insist upon maintaining superior artillery positions on the Dover promontory, no matter what form of attack they are exposed to. We have to fight for the command of the Straits by artillery, to destroy the enemy’s batteries, and to multiply and fortify our own.

I have sent on other papers a request for a surprise attack by Erebus, which should be able to destroy the batteries at Gris-Nez. She has an armoured deck against air-bombing. What is being done about this? When is she going into action? The Air Ministry should, of course, co-operate. The operation would take an offensive turn. We should require spotting aircraft by day. It may be that the first squadrons of Hurricanes fitted with Merlin 20 would be the best for this. If Erebus is attacked from the air, she should be strongly defended, and action sought with the enemy air force.

Pray let me have your plans.

Prime Minister to General Ismay, for C.O.S. Committee. 30.VIII.40.

Further to my previous Minute on defence of the Kentish promontory, we must expect that very powerful batteries in great numbers will be rapidly brought into being on the French coast. It would be a natural thought for the Germans to try to dominate the Straits by artillery. At present we are ahead of them with our fourteen-inch and two 13.5 railway guns. The Admiral at Dover should be furnished in addition, as soon as possible, with a large number of the most modern six-inch or eight-inch guns. I understand the Admiralty is considering taking guns from [H.M.S.] Newcastle or Glasgow, which are under long repair. A record evolution should be made of getting one or two of these turrets mounted. Report to me about this and dates. There is a 9.2 Army experimental gun and mounting, and surely we have some twelve-inch on railway mountings. If our ships cannot use the Straits, the enemy must not be able to. Even if guns cannot fire onto the French shore, they are none the less very valuable.

Some of our heavy artillery—the eighteen-inch howitzer and the 9.2’s—should be planted in positions whence they could deny the ports and landings to the enemy, and as C.I.G.S. mentioned, support the counter-attack which would be launched against any attempted bridgehead. Much of this mass of artillery I saved from the last war has done nothing, and has been under reconditioning for a whole year.

Let me have a good programme for using it to support counter-strokes and deny landings, both north and south of the Thames. Farther north I have seen already some very good heavy batteries.

I should like also to be informed of the real [actual] lines of defence drawn up between Dover and London and Harwich and London. Now that the coast is finished, there is no reason why we should not develop these lines, which in no way detract from the principle of vehement counter-attack.

But the most urgent matter is one or two modern six-inch to shoot all German craft up to thirty-five thousand yards.

I am also endeavouring to obtain from United States at least a pair of their sixteen-inch coast-defence weapons. These fire forty-five thousand yards, throwing a ton and a quarter, without being super-charged. They should therefore be very accurate. General Strong, United States Army, mentioned this to me as a promising line. He thought, without committing his Government, that the United States Army might be prepared to take a couple of these guns and their carriages away from some of their twin batteries.

Let me know all details about these guns. It ought to be possible to make the concrete foundation in three months, and I expect it would take as long to get these guns over here. There are very few ships that can carry them on their decks.

Prime Minister to General Ismay and First Sea Lord. 31.VIII.40.

It becomes particularly urgent to attack the batteries on the French shore. Yesterday’s photographs show guns being actually hoisted up into position, and it will be wise to fire on them before they are able to reply. There are quite enough guns in position already. I trust, therefore, Erebus will not be delayed, as every day our task will become harder.

It seems most necessary to damage and delay the development of the hostile batteries in view of the fact that we are so far behind-hand with our own.

At the beginning of September our heavy-gun strength towards the sea was:

Pre-War Coast Defence
9.2-inchtwo
6-inchsix
Recent Additions
14-inch (Naval)one
9.2-inchtwo (railway mountings)
6-inch (Naval)two
4-inch (Naval)two

These were soon to be further reinforced by two 13.5-inch guns from the old battleship Iron Duke, which were being erected on railway mountings, and a battery of four 5.5-inch guns from H.M.S. Hood. Many of these additional guns were manned by the Royal Navy and Royal Marines.

Although still inferior in numbers to the enemy we thus had a powerful fire concentration.

In addition one of the eighteen-inch howitzers I had saved after the First World War and twelve twelve-inch howitzers were installed for engaging enemy landings. All these were mobile and would have brought a terrible fire on any landing-area.

      *      *      *      *      *      

As the months of July and August passed without any disaster, we settled ourselves down with increasing assurance that we could make a long and hard fight. Our gains of strength were borne in upon us from day to day. The entire population laboured to the last limit of its strength, and felt rewarded when they fell asleep after their toil or vigil by a growing sense that we should have time and that we should win. All the beaches now bristled with defences of various kinds. The whole country was organised in defensive localities. The factories poured out their weapons. By the end of August we had over two hundred and fifty new tanks! The fruits of the American “Act of Faith” had been gathered. The whole trained professional British Army and its Territorial comrades drilled and exercised from morn till night, and longed to meet the foe. The Home Guard overtopped the million mark, and when rifles were lacking grasped lustily the shotgun, the sporting rifle, the private pistol, or, when there was no firearm, the pike and the club. No Fifth Column existed in Britain, though a few spies were carefully rounded up and examined. What few Communists there were lay low. Everyone else gave all they had to give.

When Ribbentrop visited Rome in September, he said to Ciano: “The English Territorial defence is non-existent. A single German division will suffice to bring about a complete collapse.” This merely shows his ignorance. I have often wondered, however, what would have happened if two hundred thousand German storm troops had actually established themselves ashore. The massacre would have been on both sides grim and great. There would have been neither mercy nor quarter. They would have used terror, and we were prepared to go all lengths. I intended to use the slogan, “You can always take one with you.” I even calculated that the horrors of such a scene would in the last resort turn the scale in the United States. But none of these emotions was put to the proof. Far out on the grey waters of the North Sea and the Channel coursed and patrolled the faithful, eager flotillas peering through the night. High in the air soared the fighter pilots, or waited serene at a moment’s notice around their excellent machines. This was a time when it was equally good to live or die.


Ciano, Diplomatic Papers, page 378.

Ciano, Diplomatic Papers, page 381.

Ciano, Diaries, pages 277-78.

This was an old device which I had used for the Marine Brigade of the Royal Naval Division when we landed on the French coast in September, 1914. We took fifty of them from the London streets, and the Admiralty carried them across in a night.

His brother Victor was a subaltern in the 9th Lancers when I joined the 4th Hussars, and I formed a warm friendship with him in 1895 and 1896. His horse reared up and fell over backwards, breaking his pelvis, and he was sorely stricken for the rest of his life. However, he continued to be able to serve and ride, and perished gloriously from sheer exhaustion whilst acting as liaison officer with the French Cavalry Corps in the retreat from Mons in 1914.

General Brooke had another brother, Ronnie. He was older than Victor and several years older than I. In the years 1895-1898 he was thought to be a rising star in the British Army. Not only did he serve with distinction in all the campaigns which occurred, but he shone at the Staff College among his contemporaries. In the Boer War he was Adjutant of the South African Light Horse, and I for some months during the relief of Ladysmith was Assistant Adjutant, the regiment having six squadrons. Together we went through the fighting at Spion Kop, Vaal Krantz, and the Tugela. I learned much about tactics from him. Together we galloped into Ladysmith on the night of its liberation. Later on in 1903, although I was only a youthful Member of Parliament, I was able to help him to the Somaliland campaign, in which he added to his high reputation. He was stricken down by arthritis at an early age, and could only command a reserve brigade at home during the First World War. Our friendship continued till his premature death in 1925.

H.M.S. Erebus was a monitor of the First World War mounting two fifteen-inch guns. After being refitted, she went to Scapa for target practice in August. Delay arose in her working up practices through defects and bad weather and she did not reach Dover until late in September. It was therefore not until the night of September 29/30 that she carried out a bombardment of Calais.

14
The Invasion Problem

Former Studies of Invasion—The New Air Power—My Statement to Parliament of June 18—The First Rumours, June 27, 1940—My Note of June 28—My Note on “Invasion” of July 10—Importance of Mobile Reserves—Two Thousand Miles of British Coastline—The First Sea Lord’s Memorandum—Distribution of Potential Attack—I Double His Estimate for Safety—My Minute of August 5, 1940—My Suggested Distribution of Our Army—Coincidence of Chiefs of Staff View—Our Emphasis on East Coast—The Germans Choose the South Coast—We Turn Our Front—Change in Our Dispositions Between August and September—Persisting Dangers from Across the North Sea—Tension in July and August.

After Dunkirk, and still more when three weeks later the French Government capitulated, the questions whether Hitler would, or secondly could, invade and conquer our island rose, as we have seen, in all British minds. I was no novice at this problem. As First Lord I had for three years before the First Great War taken part in all the discussions of the Committee of Imperial Defence upon the point. On behalf of the Admiralty I had always argued that at least two divisions out of our Expeditionary Force of six should be kept at home until the Territorial Army and other wartime forces became militarily effective. As Admiral “Tug” Wilson put it, “The Navy cannot play international football without a goal-keeper.” However, when at the outbreak of that war we found ourselves with the Navy fully mobilised, the Grand Fleet safe beyond hostile ken at sea, all surprises, treacheries, and accidents left behind us, we felt ourselves able at the Admiralty to be better than our word. At the extraordinary meeting of Ministers and high military authorities which Mr. Asquith summoned to the Cabinet Room on August 5, 1914, I declared formally, with the full agreement of the First Sea Lord (Prince Louis of Battenberg), that the Navy would guarantee the protection of the island against invasion or serious raid even if all the Regular troops were immediately sent to the great battle impending in France. So far as we were concerned, the whole Army could go. In the course of the first six weeks all the six divisions went.

Sea-power, when properly understood, is a wonderful thing. The passage of an army across salt water in the face of superior fleets and flotillas is an almost impossible feat. Steam had added enormously to the power of the Navy to defend Great Britain. In Napoleon’s day the same wind which would carry his flat-bottomed boats across the Channel from Boulogne would drive away our blockading squadrons. But everything that had happened since then had magnified the power of the superior navy to destroy the invaders in transit. Every complication which modern apparatus had added to armies made their voyage more cumbrous and perilous, and the difficulties of their maintenance when landed probably insuperable. At that former crisis in our island fortunes we possessed superior and, as it proved, ample sea-power. The enemy was unable to gain a major sea battle against us. He could not face our cruiser forces. In flotillas and light craft we outnumbered him tenfold. Against this must be set the incalculable chances of weather, particularly fog. But even if this were adverse and a descent were effected at one or more points, the problem of maintaining a hostile line of communication and of nourishing any lodgments remained unsolved. Such was the position in the First Great War.

But now there was the air. What effect had this sovereign development produced upon the invasion problem? Evidently if the enemy could dominate the narrow seas, on both sides of the Straits of Dover, by superior air power, the losses of our flotillas would be very heavy and might eventually be fatal. No one would wish, except on a supreme occasion, to bring heavy battleships or large cruisers into waters commanded by the German bombers. We did not in fact station any capital ships south of the Forth or east of Plymouth. But from Harwich, the Nore, Dover, Portsmouth, and Portland we maintained a tireless, vigilant patrol of light fighting vessels which steadily increased in number. By September they exceeded eight hundred, which only a hostile air power could destroy, and then only by degrees.

But who had the power in the air? In the Battle of France we had fought the Germans at two and three to one and inflicted losses in similar proportion. Over Dunkirk, where we had to maintain continuous patrol to cover the escape of the Army, we had fought at four or five to one with success and profit. Over our own waters and exposed coasts and counties Air Chief Marshal Dowding contemplated profitable fighting at seven or eight to one. The strength of the German Air Force at this time, taken as a whole, so far as we knew—and we were well informed—apart from particular concentrations, was about three to one. Although these were heavy odds at which to fight the brave and efficient German foe, I rested upon the conclusion that in our own air, over our own country and its waters, we could beat the German Air Force. And if this were true, our naval power would continue to rule the seas and oceans, and would destroy all enemies who set their course towards us.

There was, of course, a third potential factor. Had the Germans with their renowned thoroughness and foresight secretly prepared a vast armada of special landing craft, which needed no harbours or quays, but could land tanks, cannon, and motor-vehicles anywhere on the beaches, and which thereafter could supply the landed troops? As had been shown, such ideas had risen in my mind long ago in 1917, and were now being actually developed as the result of my directions. We had, however, no reason to believe that anything of this kind existed in Germany, though it is always best when counting the cost not to exclude the worst. It took us four years of intense effort and experiment and immense material aid from the United States to provide such equipment on a scale equal to the Normandy landing. Much less would have sufficed the Germans at this moment. But they had only a few Siebel ferries.

Thus the invasion of England in the summer and autumn of 1940 required from Germany local naval superiority and air superiority and immense special fleets and landing craft. But it was we who had the naval superiority; it was we who conquered the mastery in the air; and finally we believed, as we now know rightly, that they had not built or conceived any special craft. These were the foundations of my thought about invasion in 1940, from which I gave from day to day the instructions and directives which these chapters contain.

      *      *      *      *      *      

I laid the broad outlines plainly before Parliament on June 18:

The Navy has never pretended to be able to prevent raids by bodies of five or ten thousand men flung suddenly across and thrown ashore at several points on the coast some dark night or foggy morning. The efficacy of sea-power, especially under modern conditions, depends upon the invading force being of large size. It has to be of large size, in view of our military strength, to be of any use. If it is of large size, then the Navy have something they can find and meet and, as it were, bite on. Now we must remember that even five divisions, however lightly equipped, would require two hundred to two hundred and fifty ships, and with modern air reconnaissance and photography it would not be easy to collect such an armada, marshal it, and conduct it across the sea with any powerful naval forces to escort it; and there would be very great possibilities, to put it mildly, that this armada would be intercepted long before it reached the coast, and all the men drowned in the sea or, at the worst, blown to pieces with their equipment while trying to land.

      *      *      *      *      *      

As early as the end of June, some reports indicated that the enemy’s plans might include the Channel, and I immediately called for inquiry.

Prime Minister to General Ismay. 27.VI.40.

It seems difficult to believe that any large force of transports could be brought to the Channel ports without our being aware of it, or that any system of mining would prevent our sweepers from clearing a way for attack on such transports on passage. However, it would be well if the Chiefs of the Staff gave their attention to this rumour.

Anyhow, the possibility of a cross-Channel invasion, improbable though it was at that time, had to be most closely examined. I was not entirely satisfied with the military dispositions. It was imperative that the Army should know the exact task assigned to it, and above all should not fritter away strength in a sedentary dispersion along the threatened coasts or exhaust the national resources by manning unduly all the coasts. Therefore I wrote:

Prime Minister to General Ismay. 28.VI.40.

Note by the Prime Minister to C.O.S. Committee.

1. See papers by Vice-Chiefs of Staff and further papers by C.O.S. Committee.

2. It is prudent to block off likely sections of the beaches with a good defence and to make secure all creeks and harbours on the east coast. The south coast is less immediately dangerous. No serious invasion is possible without a harbour with its quays, etc. No one can tell, should the Navy fail, on what part of the east coast the impact will fall. Perhaps there will be several lodgments. Once these are made, all troops employed on other parts of the coastal crust will be as useless as those in the Maginot Line. Although fighting on the beaches is favourable to the defence, this advantage cannot be purchased by trying to guard all the beaches. The process must be selective. But if time permits, defended sectors may be widened and improved.

3. Every effort should be made to man coast defences with sedentary troops, well sprinkled with experienced late-war officers. The safety of the country depends [however] on having a large number (now only nine, but should soon be fifteen) “Leopard” brigade groups which can be directed swiftly, i.e., within four hours, to the points of lodgment. Difficulties of landing on beaches are serious, even when the invader has reached them; but difficulties of nourishing a lodgment when exposed to heavy attack by land, air, and sea are far greater. All therefore depends on rapid, resolute engagement of any landed forces which may slip through the sea-control. This should not be beyond our means provided the field troops are not consumed in beach defences, and are kept in a high condition of mobility, crouched and ready to spring.

4. In the unhappy event of the enemy capturing a port, larger formations with artillery will be necessary. There should be four or five good divisions held in general reserve to deal with such an improbable misfortune. The scale of lodgment to be anticipated should be not more than ten thousand men landed at three points simultaneously—say thirty thousand in all; the scale of air attack not more than fifteen thousand landed simultaneously at two or three points in all. The enemy will not have strength to repeat such descents often. It is very doubtful whether air-borne troops can be landed in force by night; by day they should be an easy prey [to our Air Force].

5. The tank story is somewhat different, and it is right to minimise by local cannon and obstacles the landing places of tanks. The Admiralty should report upon the size, character, and speed of potential tank-carrying barges or floats, whether they will be self-propelled or towed and by what craft. As they can hardly go above seven miles an hour, they should be detected in summertime after they have started, and even in fog or haze the R.D.F. stations should give warning while they are still several hours from land. The destroyers issuing from the sally-ports must strike at these with gusto. The arrangement of stops and blocks held by local sedentary forces should be steadily developed, and anti-tank squads formed. Our own tank reserve must engage the surviving invader tanks, and no doubt it is held in a position which allows swift railing [transport by rail] to the attacked area.

6. Parachutists, Fifth Columnists, and enemy motor-cyclists who may penetrate or appear in disguise in unexpected places must be left to the Home Guard, reinforced by special squads. Much thought must be given to the [enemy] trick of wearing British uniform.

7. In general I find myself in agreement with the Commander-in-Chief’s plan, but all possible field troops must be saved from the beaches and gathered into the “Leopard” brigades and other immediate mobile supports. Emphasis should be laid upon the main reserve. The battle will be won or lost, not on the beaches, but by the mobile brigades and the main reserve. Until the Air Force is worn down by prolonged air fighting and destruction of aircraft supply, the power of the Navy remains decisive against any serious invasion.

8. The above observations apply only to the immediate summer months. We must be much better equipped and stronger before the autumn.

In July there was growing talk and anxiety on the subject both inside the British Government and at large. In spite of ceaseless reconnaissance and all the advantages of air photography, no evidence had yet reached us of large assemblies of transport in the Baltic or in the Rhine or Scheldt harbours, and we were sure that no movement either of shipping or self-propelled barges through the Straits into the Channel had taken place. Nevertheless, preparation to resist invasion was the supreme task before us all, and intense thought was devoted to it throughout our war circle and Home Command.

Invasion

 

NOTE BY THE PRIME MINISTER

 

Prime Minister to C.-in-C., Home Forces, C.I.G.S., and General Ismay. 10.VII.40.

I find it very difficult to visualise the kind of invasion all along the coast by troops carried in small craft, and even in boats. I have not seen any serious evidence of large masses of this class of craft being assembled, and, except in very narrow waters, it would be a most hazardous and even suicidal operation to commit a large army to the accidents of the sea in the teeth of our very numerous armed patrolling forces. The Admiralty have over a thousand armed patrolling vessels, of which two or three hundred are always at sea, the whole being well manned by competent seafaring men. A surprise crossing should be impossible, and in the broader parts of the North Sea the invaders should be an easy prey, as part of their voyage would be made by daylight. Behind these patrolling craft are the flotillas of destroyers, of which forty destroyers are now disposed between the Humber and Portsmouth, the bulk being in the narrowest waters. The greater part of these are at sea every night, and rest in the day. They would, therefore, probably encounter the enemy vessels in transit during the night, but also could reach any landing point or points on the front mentioned in two or three hours. They could immediately break up the landing craft, interrupt the landing, and fire upon the landed troops, who, however lightly equipped, would have to have some proportion of ammunition and equipment carried onto the beaches from their boats. The flotillas would, however, need strong air support from our fighter aircraft during their intervention from dawn onward. The provision of the air-fighter escort for our destroyers after daybreak is essential to their most powerful intervention on the beaches.

2. You should see the Commander-in-Chief’s (Home Fleet) reply to the question put to him by the desire of the Cabinet, i.e., what happens if the enemy cover the passage of their invading army with their heavy warships? The answer is that, as far as we know at present, they have no heavy ships not under long repair except those at Trondheim,[1] which are closely watched by our very largely superior forces. When the Nelson and Barham are worked up after refit in a few days’ time (the 13th and 16th), it would be easily possible to make two forces of British heavy ships, either of which would be sufficiently strong; thus the danger of a northern outbreak could be contained, and at the same time a dart to the south by the Trondheim ships could be rapidly countered. Moreover, the cruisers in the Thames and Humber are themselves strong enough, with the flotillas, to attack effectively any light cruisers with which the enemy could cover an invasion. I feel, therefore, that it will be very difficult for the enemy to place large well-equipped bodies of troops on the east coast of England, whether in formed bodies or flung piecemeal on the beaches as they get across. Even greater difficulties would attend expeditions in larger vessels seeking to break out to the northward. It may further be added that at present there are no signs of any assemblies of ships or small craft sufficient to cause anxiety, except perhaps in Baltic ports. Frequent reconnaissance by the air and the constant watching by our submarines should give timely warning, and our minefields are an additional obstruction.

3. Even more unlikely is it that the south coast would be attacked. We know that no great mass of shipping exists in the French ports, and that the numbers of small boats there are not great. The Dover barrage is being replenished and extended to the French shore. This measure is of the utmost consequence, and the Admiralty are being asked to press it forward constantly and rapidly. They do not think that any important vessels, warships or transports, have come through the Straits of Dover. Therefore, I find it difficult to believe that the south coast is in serious danger at the present time. Of course, a small raid might be made upon Ireland from Brest. But this also would be dangerous to the raiders while at sea.

4. The main danger is from the Dutch and German harbours, which bear principally upon the coast from Dover to the Wash. As the nights lengthen, this danger zone will extend northward, but then, again, the weather becomes adverse and the “fishing-boat invasion” far more difficult. Moreover, with cloud, the enemy air support may be lacking at the moment of his impact.

5. I hope, therefore, relying on the above reasoning, which should be checked with the Admiralty, that you will be able to bring an ever larger proportion of your formed divisions back from the coast into support or reserve, so that their training may proceed in the highest forms of offensive warfare and counter-attack, and that the coast, as it becomes fortified, will be increasingly confided to troops other than those of the formed divisions, and also to the Home Guard. I am sure you will be in agreement with this view in principle, and the only question open would be the speed of the transformation. Here, too, I hope we shall be agreed that the utmost speed shall rule.

6. Air-borne attack is not dealt with in this note. It does not alter its conclusions.

      *      *      *      *      *      

It will be noted that my advisers and I deemed the east coast more likely to be attacked during July and August than the south coast. There was in fact no chance of either assault during these two months. As will presently be described, the German plan was to invade across the Channel with medium ships (four thousand to five thousand tons) and small craft, and we now know that they never had any hope or intention of moving an army from the Baltic and North Sea ports in large transports; still less did they make any plans for an invasion from the Biscay ports. This does not mean that in choosing the south coast as their target they were thinking rightly and we wrongly. The east-coast invasion was by far the more formidable if the enemy had had the means to attempt it. There could, of course, be no south-coast invasion unless or until the necessary shipping had passed southward through the Straits of Dover and had been assembled in the French Channel ports. Of this, during July, there was no sign.

We had nonetheless to prepare against all variants, and yet at the same time avoid the dispersion of our mobile forces, and to gather reserves. This nice and difficult problem could only be solved in relation to the news and events from week to week. The British coastline, indented with innumerable inlets, is over two thousand miles in circumference, without including Ireland. The only way of defending so vast a perimeter, any part or parts of which may be simultaneously or successively attacked, is by lines of observation and resistance around the coast or frontiers with the object of delaying an enemy and meanwhile creating the largest possible reserves of highly trained mobile troops so disposed as to be able to reach any point assailed in the shortest time for strong counter-attack. When in the last phases of the war Hitler found himself encircled and confronted with a similar problem, he made, as we shall see, the gravest possible mistakes in handling it. He had created a spider’s web of communications, but he forgot the spider. With the example of the unsound French dispositions for which such a fatal penalty had just been exacted fresh in our memories, we did not forget the “mass of manoeuvre”; and I ceaselessly inculcated this policy to the utmost extent that our glowing resources would allow.

The views in my paper of July 10 were in general harmony with Admiralty thought, and two days later Admiral Pound sent me a full and careful statement which he and the Naval Staff had drawn up in pursuance of it. Naturally and properly, the dangers we had to meet were forcefully stated.

But in summing up Admiral Pound said:

It appears probable that a total of some hundred thousand men might reach these shores without being intercepted by naval forces . . . but the maintenance of their line of supply, unless the German Air Force had overcome both our Air Force and our Navy, seems practically impossible. . . . If the enemy undertook this operation, he would do so in the hope that he could make a quick rush on London, living on the country as he went, and force the Government to capitulate.

The First Sea Lord divided the hundred-thousand maximum figure both as to enemy ports of departure and the possible impact on our coasts as in the following table:

South coast from Bay of Biscay ports20,000
South coast from Channel ports5,000
East coast from Dutch and Belgian ports12,000
East coast from German ports50,000
Shetlands, Iceland, and coast of Scotland from Norwegian ports10,000
------
97,000

I was content with this estimate. As the enemy could not bring heavy weapons with them, and would speedily have the supply lines of any lodgments cut, the invading strength seemed even in July to be well within the capacity of our rapidly improving army. I remitted the two documents to the Staffs and Home Command.

Minute by the Prime Minister

15.VII.40.

The Chiefs of Staff and Home Defence should consider these papers. The First Sea Lord’s memorandum may be taken as a working basis, and although I personally believe that the Admiralty will in fact be better than their word, and that the invaders’ losses in transit would further reduce the scale of attack, yet the preparations of the land forces should be such as to make assurance doubly sure. Indeed, for the land forces the scale of attack might well be doubled, namely, 200,000 men distributed as suggested [i.e., in the proportion suggested] by the First Sea Lord. Our Home Army is already at a strength when it should be able to deal with such an invasion, and its strength is rapidly increasing.

I should be very glad if our plans to meet invasion on shore could be reviewed on this basis, so that the Cabinet may be informed of any modifications. It should be borne in mind that although the heaviest attack would seem likely to fall in the north, yet the sovereign importance of London and the narrowness of the seas in this quarter make the south the theatre where the greatest precautions must be taken.

There was general acceptance of this basis, and for the next few weeks we proceeded upon it. Upon the action to be taken by our main Fleet in the narrow waters precise orders were issued with which I was in full agreement. On July 20, after considerable discussion with Admiral Forbes, the Commander-in-Chief, the following decisions were promulgated by the Admiralty:

(1) Their Lordships do not expect our heavy ships to go south to break up an expedition landing on our coast in the absence of any reports indicating the presence of enemy heavy ships.

(2) If enemy heavy ships support an expedition, accepting the risks involved in an approach to our coast in the southern part of the North Sea, then it is essential that our heavy ships should move south against them, also accepting risks.

In order to reach more definite conclusions about the varying probabilities and scales of attack on our extended coastline, so as to avoid undue spreading of our forces, I sent the Chiefs of the Staff a further Minute early in August.

Defence Against Invasion

 

MINUTE BY THE PRIME MINISTER AND MINISTER OF DEFENCE

 

5.VIII.40.

Bearing in mind the immense cost in war energy and the disadvantages of attempting to defend the whole coast of Great Britain, and the dangers of being unduly committed to systems of passive defence, I should be glad if the following notes could be borne in mind:

1. Our first line of defence against invasion must be as ever the enemy’s ports. Air reconnaissance, submarine watching, and other means of obtaining information should be followed by resolute attacks with all our forces available and suitable upon any concentrations of enemy shipping.

2. Our second line of defence is the vigilant patrolling of the sea to intercept any invading expedition, and to destroy it in transit.

3. Our third line is the counter-attack upon the enemy when he makes any landfall, and particularly while he is engaged in the act of landing. This attack, which has long been ready from the sea, must be reinforced by air action; and both sea and air attacks must be continued so that it becomes impossible for the invader to nourish his lodgments.

4. The land defences and the Home Army are maintained primarily for the purpose of making the enemy come in such large numbers as to afford a proper target to the sea and air forces above mentioned, and to make hostile preparations and movements noticeable to air and other forms of reconnaissance.

5. However, should the enemy succeed in landing at various points, he should be made to suffer as much as possible by local resistance on the beaches, combined with the aforesaid attack from the sea and the air. This forces him to use up his ammunition, and confines him to a limited area. The defence of any part of the coast must be measured, not by the forces on the coast, but by the number of hours within which strong counter-attacks by mobile troops can be brought to bear upon the landing places. Such attacks should be hurled with the utmost speed and fury upon the enemy at his weakest moment, which is not, as is sometimes suggested, when actually getting out of his boats, but when sprawled upon the shore with his communications cut and his supplies running short. It ought to be possible to concentrate ten thousand men fully equipped within six hours, and twenty thousand men within twelve hours, upon any point where a serious lodgment has been effected. The withholding of the reserves until the full gravity of the attack is known is a nice problem for the Home Command.

6. It must be admitted that the task of the Navy and Air Force in preventing invasion becomes more difficult in the Narrow Seas, namely, from the Wash to Dover. This sector of the coast front is also nearest to the supreme enemy objective, London. The sector from Dover to Land’s End is far less menaced, because the Navy and Air Force must make sure that no mass of shipping, still less protecting warships, can be passed into the French Channel ports. At present the scale of attack on this wide front is estimated by the Admiralty at no more than five thousand men.[2] Doubling this for greater security, it should be possible to make good arrangements for speedy counter-attack in superior numbers, and at the same time to achieve large economies of force on this southern sector, in which the beach troops should be at their minimum and the mobile reserves at their maximum. These mobile reserves must be available to move to the southeastern sectors at short notice. Evidently this situation can be judged only from week to week.

7. When we come to the west coast of Britain, a new set of conditions rules. The enemy must commit himself to the broad seas, and there will be plenty of time, if his approach is detected, to attack him with cruisers and flotillas. The Admiralty dispositions should conform to this need. The enemy has at present no warships to escort him. Should we, for instance, care to send twelve thousand men unescorted in merchant ships to land on the Norwegian coast, or in the Skagerrak and Kattegat, in face of superior sea-power and air-power? It would be thought madness.

8. However, to make assurance triply sure, the Admiralty should pursue their plan of laying a strong minefield from Cornwall to Ireland, covering the Bristol Channel and the Irish Sea from southward attack. This minefield is all the more necessary now that by the adoption of the northabout route for commerce we have transferred a large part of our patrolling craft from the [south-]western approaches, which have become permanently more empty and unwatched.

9. The establishment of this minefield will simplify and mitigate all questions of local defence north of its point of contact with Cornwall. We must consider this sector from Cornwall to the Mull of Cantyre as the least vulnerable to sea-borne invasion. Here the works of defence should be confined to guarding by a few guns or land torpedo tubes the principal harbours, and giving a moderate scale of protection to their gorges.[3] It is not admissible to lavish our limited resources upon this sector.

10. North of the Mull of Cantyre to Scapa Flow, the Shetlands and the Faroes, all lies in the orbit of the main Fleet. The voyage of an expedition from the Norwegian coast would be very hazardous, and its arrival anywhere right round to Cromarty Firth would not raise immediately decisive issues. The enemy, who is now crouched, would then be sprawled. His advance would lie in difficult and sparsely inhabited country. He could be contained until sufficient forces were brought to bear and his communications immediately cut from the sea. This would make his position all the more difficult, as the distances to any important objective are much longer and he would require considerable wheeled transport. It would be impossible to fortify all landing points in this sector, and it would be a waste of energy to attempt to do so. A much longer period may be allowed for counter-attack than in the southeast opposite London.

11. From Cromarty Firth to the Wash is the second most important sector, ranking next after the Wash to Dover. Here, however, all the harbours and inlets are defended, both from the sea and from the rear, and it should be possible to counter-attack in superior force within twenty-four hours. The Tyne must be regarded as the second major objective after London, for here (and to a lesser extent at the Tees) grievous damage could be done by an invader or large-scale raider in a short time. On the other hand, the sea and air conditions are more favourable to us than to the southward.

12. The Combined Staffs should endeavour to assign to all these sectors their relative scales of vulnerability and defence, both in the number of men employed in the local defence of beaches and of harbours, and also in the number of days or hours within which heavy counter-attacks should be possible. As an indication of these relative scales of attack and defence, I set down for consideration the following:

Cromarty Firth to Wash inclusive[4]3
Wash to Dover promontory5
Dover promontory to Land’s End, and round to start of minefield
Start of minefield to the Mull of Cantyre¼
Mull of Cantyre northabout to Cromarty Firth½

The Chiefs of Staff Committee, after another review of all our information, replied to this paper by a report from Colonel Hollis, who acted as their Secretary.

Defence Against Invasion

Prime Minister. 13.VIII.40.

The Chiefs of Staff have examined, in consultation with the Commander-in-Chief Home Forces, your Minute [of August 5], and find themselves in complete agreement with the principles enunciated in paragraphs 1 to 5.

2. The Commander-in-Chief assures us that the paramount importance of immediate counter-attack upon the enemy, should he obtain a temporary footing on these shores, has been impressed on all ranks, and that it is his policy to bring back divisions into reserve as soon as they are adequately trained and equipped for offensive operations.

3. The Chiefs of Staff also agree with your assessment of the relative scales of vulnerability to sea-borne attack of the various sectors of the coast. Indeed, it is remarkable how closely the present distribution of Home Defence divisions corresponds with your figures in paragraph 12. This is worked out as follows:

4. Your theoretical scales of defence are:

Cromarty Firth to Wash3
Wash to Dover5
Dover to North Cornwall
North Cornwall to Mull of Cantyre¼
Mull of Cantyre to Cromarty Firth½
---
Total10¼

5. A force of ten divisions, if distributed in the above proportions, would give three divisions on Sector Forth-Wash, five divisions on Sector Wash-Dover, and so on. There are, in fact, twenty-six active divisions in this island, and, if your figures are multiplied by 2.6 and compared with actual distribution of these twenty-six divisions, the following picture results:



Sector
Distribution in accordance with Prime Minister’s assessment of vulnerability
Actual distribution of divisions
     
Cromarty-Wash
Wash-Dover12½7-10
Dover-North Cornwall5-8
North Cornwall-Mull of Cantyre½2
Mull of Cantyre-Cromarty½

6. The similarity between the two sets of figures is even closer than appears at first sight, by reason of the fact that the reserve divisions located immediately north and northwest of London are available for deployment in either the sector Wash-Dover or the sector Dover-Portsmouth, and therefore the number of “available” divisions for these two sectors is variable. A total of fifteen divisions is available on the combined sectors against your suggested requirements of 16.75.

7. The Chiefs of Staff point out that your figures are based on scales of sea-borne attack, whereas the actual distribution takes into account the threat from air-borne attack as well. Thus, although we may seem at present to be slightly overinsured along the south coast, the reason for this is that our defences there can be brought under the enemy fighter “umbrella” and can be subjected to assault across the Channel at comparatively short range.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Even while these documents were being considered and printed, the situation had begun to change in a decisive manner. Our excellent Intelligence confirmed that the “Operation Sea Lion” had been definitely ordered by Hitler and was in active preparation. It seemed certain that the man was going to try. Moreover, the front to be attacked was altogether different from, or additional to, the east coast, on which the Chiefs of the Staff, the Admiralty and I, in full agreement, still laid the major emphasis.

But thereafter came a rapid transformation. A large number of self-propelled barges and motor-boats began to pass by night though the Straits of Dover, creeping along the French coast and gradually assembling in all the French Channel ports from Calais to Brest. Our daily photographs showed this movement with precision. It had not been found possible to relay our minefields close to the French shore. We immediately began to attack the vessels in transit with our small craft, and Bomber Command was concentrated upon the new set of invasion ports now opening upon us. At the same time a great deal of information came to hand about the assembly of a German Army or Armies of Invasion along this stretch of the hostile coast, of movement on the railways, and of large concentrations in the Pas de Calais and Normandy. Later on, two mountain divisions with mules evidently meant to scale the Folkestone cliffs were reported near Boulogne. Meanwhile large numbers of powerful long-range batteries all along the French Channel coast came into existence.

In response to the new menace, we began to shift our weight from one leg to the other and to improve all our facilities for moving our increasingly large mobile reserves towards the southern front. About the end of the first week of August, General Brooke, now Commander-in-Chief Home Forces, pointed out that the threat of invasion was developing equally on the south coast. All the time our forces were increasing in numbers, efficiency, mobility, and equipment.

      *      *      *      *      *      

The change in our dispositions between August and September was as follows:

AugustSeptember
  
Wash-Thames7 divisions4 divisions plus 1 armoured brigade
South Coast5 divisions9 divisions plus 2 armoured brigades
Reserve for either sector3 divisions3 divisions plus 2 armoured divisions plus 1 division (equivalent) London District
Total available South Coast8 divisions13 divisions plus 3 armoured divisions

Thus, in the last half of September we were able to bring into action on the south coast front, including Dover, sixteen divisions of high quality, of which three were armoured divisions or their equivalent in brigades, all of which were additional to the local coastal defence and could come into action with great speed against any invasion landing. This provided us with a punch or series of punches which General Brooke was well poised to deliver as might be required; and no one more capable.

      *      *      *      *      *      

All this while we could not feel any assurance that the inlets and river mouths from Calais to Terschelling and Heligoland, with all that swarm of islands off the Dutch and Belgian coasts (the “Riddle of the Sands” of the previous war), might not conceal other large hostile forces with small or moderate-sized ships. An attack from Harwich right round to Portsmouth, Portland, or even Plymouth, centring upon the Kent promontory, seemed to impend. We had nothing but negative evidence that a third wave of invasion, harmonised with the others, might not be launched from the Baltic through the Skagerrak in large ships. This was indeed essential to a German success, because in no other way could heavy weapons reach the landed armies or large depots of supply be established in and around storeships stranded near the east-coast beaches.

We now entered upon a period of extreme tension and vigilance. We had, of course, all this time to maintain heavy forces north of the Wash, right up to Cromarty; and arrangements were perfected to draw from these should the assault declare itself decidedly in the south. The abundant intricate railway system of the island and our continued mastery of our home air would have enabled us to move with certainty another four or five divisions to reinforce the southern defence if it were necessary on the fourth, fifth, and sixth days after the enemy’s full effort had been exposed.

A very careful study was made of the moon and the tides. We thought that the enemy would like to cross by night and land at dawn; and we now know the German Army Command felt like this too. They would also be glad of a half-moonlight on the way over, so as to keep their order and make their true landfall. Measuring it all with precision, the Admiralty thought the most favourable conditions for the enemy would arise between the 15th and 30th of September. Here also we now find that we were in agreement with our foes. We had little doubt of our ability to destroy anything that got ashore on the Dover promontory or on the sector of coast from Dover to Portsmouth, or even Portland. As all our thoughts at the summit moved together in harmonious and detailed agreement, one could not help liking the picture which presented itself with growing definition. Here perhaps was the chance of striking a blow at the mighty enemy which would resound throughout the world. One could not help being inwardly excited alike by the atmosphere and the evidence of Hitler’s intentions which streamed in upon us. There were, indeed, some who, on purely technical grounds, and for the sake of the effect the total defeat and destruction of his expedition would have on the general war, were quite content to see him try.

In July and August we had asserted air mastery over Great Britain, and were especially powerful and dominant over the home counties of the southeast. The Canadian Army Corps stood most conveniently posted between London and Dover. Their bayonets were sharp, and their hearts were high. Proud would they have been to strike the decisive blow for Britain and Freedom. Similar passions burned in all breasts. Vast intricate systems of fortifications, defended localities, anti-tank obstacles, block-houses, pillboxes and the like, laced the whole area. The coastline bristled with defences and batteries, and at the cost of heavier losses through reduced escorts in the Atlantic, and also by new construction coming into commission, the flotillas grew substantially in numbers and quality. We had brought the battleship Revenge and the old target-ship and dummy-battleship Centurion and a cruiser to Plymouth. The Home Fleet was at its maximum strength and could operate without much risk to the Humber and even to the Wash. In all respects, therefore, we were fully prepared.

Finally, we were already not far from the equinoctial gales customary in October. Evidently September was the month for Hitler to strike if he dared, and the tides and the moon-phase were favourable in the middle of that month.

      *      *      *      *      *      

There was some talk in Parliament after the danger had passed away of the “invasion scare.” Certainly those who knew most were the least scared. Apart from mastery of the air and command of the sea, we had as large (if not so well-equipped) an army, fresh and ardent, as that which Germany assembled in Normandy four years later to oppose our return to the Continent. In that case, although we landed a million men in the first month, with vast apparatus, and with every other condition favourable, the battle was long and severe, and nearly three months were required to enlarge the area originally seized and break out into the open field. But these were values only to be tested and known in the future.

      *      *      *      *      *      

It is time to go over to the other camp and set forth the enemy’s preparations and plans as we now know them.


Actually the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau which had been at Trondheim had both been torpedoed and were out of action.

Here I omitted to mention the twenty thousand which might come from the distant Biscay ports; but, as will be seen, my proposed disposition of our forces guarded against this potential, but, as we now know, non-existent, danger.

That is, their approaches from the rear.

These are, of course, proportions, not divisional formations.

15
Operation Sea Lion

Plan of the German Admiralty—Their Conditions Met by the Conquest of France and the Low Countries—Meeting with the Fuehrer of July 21—Hitler Comprehends the Difficulties but Gives the Order—Controversy Between the German Navy and Army Staffs—Raeder and Halder at Variance—The Compromise Plan Agreed—Further Misgivings of the German Admiralty—Both German Navy and Army Chiefs Cast the Burden on Goering and the Air—Goering Accepts—Hitler Postpones D-Day—British Counter-Activities—The “Cromwell” Order of September 7—A Healthy Tonic—German Ignorance of Amphibious Warfare—Service Disunion—The Germans Stake All on the Air Battle.

Soon after war broke out on September 3, 1939, the German Admiralty, as we have learnt from their captured archives, began their staff study of the invasion of Britain. Unlike us, they had no doubt that the only way was across the narrow waters of the English Channel. They never considered any other alternative. If we had known this, it would have been an important relief. An invasion across the Channel came upon our best-defended coast, the old sea-front against France, where all the ports were fortified and our main flotilla bases, and in later times most of our airfields and air-control stations for the defence of London, were established. There was no part of the island where we could come into action quicker or in such great strength with all three Services. Admiral Raeder was anxious not to be found wanting should the demand to invade Britain be made upon the German Navy. At the same time he asked for a lot of conditions. The first of these was the entire control of the French, Belgian, and Dutch coasts, harbours, and river mouths. Therefore, the project slumbered during the Twilight War.

Suddenly all these conditions were surprisingly fulfilled, and it must have been with some misgivings but also satisfaction that on the morrow of Dunkirk and the French surrender he could present himself to the Fuehrer with a plan. On May 21 and again on June 20, he spoke to Hitler on the subject, not with a view to proposing an invasion, but in order to make sure that if it were ordered the planning in detail should not be rushed. Hitler was sceptical, saying that “he fully appreciated the exceptional difficulties of such an undertaking.” He also nursed the hope that England would sue for peace. It was not until the last week in June that the Supreme Headquarters turned to this idea, nor till July 2 that the first directive was issued for planning the invasion of Britain as a possible event. “The Fuehrer has decided that under certain conditions—the most important of which is achieving air superiority—a landing in England may take place.” On July 16, Hitler issued his directive: “Since England, in spite of her militarily hopeless position, shows no sign of coming to terms, I have decided to prepare a landing operation against England, and if necessary to carry it out. . . . The preparations for the entire operation must be completed by mid-August.” Active measures in every direction were already in progress.

      *      *      *      *      *      

The German Navy Plan, of which it is clear I had received an inkling in June, was essentially mechanical. Under the cover of heavy-gun batteries firing from Gris-Nez towards Dover, and a very strong artillery protection along the French coast in the Straits, they proposed to make a narrow corridor across the Channel on the shortest convenient line and to wall this in by minefields on either side, with outlying U-boat protection. Through this the Army was to be ferried over and supplied in a large number of successive waves. There the Navy stopped, and on this the German Army Chiefs were left to address themselves to the problem.

Considering that we could, with our overwhelming naval superiority, tear these minefields to pieces with small craft under superior air power and also destroy the dozen or score of U-boats concentrated to protect them, this was at the outset a bleak proposition. Nevertheless, after the fall of France anyone could see that the only hope of avoiding a long war, with all that it might entail, was to bring Britain to her knees. The German Navy itself had been, as we have recorded, knocked about in a most serious manner in the fighting off Norway; and in their crippled condition they could not offer more than minor support to the Army. Still, they had their plan, and no one could say that they had been caught unawares by good fortune.

The German Army Command had from the first regarded the invasion of England with considerable qualms. They had made no plans or preparations for it; and there had been no training. As the weeks of prodigious, delirious victory succeeded one another, they were emboldened. The responsibility for the safe crossing was not departmentally theirs, and, once landed in strength, they felt that the task was within their power. Indeed, already in August Admiral Raeder felt it necessary to draw their attention to the dangers of the passage, during which perhaps the whole of the army forces employed might be lost. Once the responsibility for putting the Army across was definitely thrust upon the Navy, the German Admiralty became consistently pessimistic.

On July 21 the heads of the three Services met the Fuehrer. He informed them that the decisive stage of the war had already been reached, but that England had not yet recognised it and still hoped for a turn of fate. He spoke of the support of England by the United States and of a possible change in German political relations with Soviet Russia. The execution of “Sea Lion,” he said, must be regarded as the most effective means of bringing about a rapid conclusion of the war. After his long talks with Admiral Raeder, Hitler had begun to realise what the crossing of the Channel, with its tides and currents, and all the mysteries of the sea, involved. He described “Sea Lion” as “an exceptionally bold and daring undertaking.” “Even if the way is short, this is not just a river crossing, but the crossing of a sea which is dominated by the enemy. This is not a case of a single-crossing operation, as in Norway; operational surprise cannot be expected; a defensively prepared and utterly determined enemy faces us and dominates the sea area which we must use. For the Army operation forty divisions will be required. The most difficult part will be the material reinforcements and stores. We cannot count on supplies of any kind being available to us in England.” The prerequisites were complete mastery of the air, the operational use of powerful artillery in the Dover Straits, and protection by minefields. “The time of year,” he said, “is an important factor, since the weather in the North Sea and in the Channel during the second half of September is very bad, and the fogs begin in the middle of October. The main operation must therefore be completed by September 15, for after that date co-operation between the Luftwaffe and the heavy weapons becomes too unreliable. But as air co-operation is decisive, it must be regarded as the principal factor in fixing the date.”

A vehement controversy, conducted with no little asperity, arose in the German staffs about the width of the front and the number of points to be attacked. The Army demanded a series of landings along the whole English southern coast from Dover to Lyme Regis, west of Portland. They also desired an ancillary landing north of Dover at Ramsgate. The German Naval Staff now stated that the most suitable area for the safe crossing of the English Channel was between the North Foreland and the western end of the Isle of Wight. On this the Army Staff developed a plan for a landing of 100,000 men, followed almost immediately by 160,000 more at various points from Dover westward to Lyme Bay. Colonel-General Halder, Chief of the Army Staff, declared that it was necessary to land at least four divisions in the Brighton area. He also required landings in the area Deal-Ramsgate; at least thirteen divisions must be deployed, as far as possible simultaneously, at points along the whole front. In addition, the Luftwaffe demanded shipping to transport fifty-two A.A. batteries with the first wave.

The Chief of the Naval Staff, however, made it clear that nothing like so large or rapid a movement was possible. He could not physically undertake to escort a landing fleet across the whole width of the area mentioned. All he had meant was that within these limits the Army should pick the best place. The Navy had not enough strength, even with air supremacy, to protect more than one passage at a time, and they thought the narrowest parts of the Straits of Dover the least difficult. To carry the whole of the 160,000 men of the second wave and their equipment in a single operation would require two million tons of shipping. Even if this fantastic requirement could have been met, such quantities of shipping could not have been accommodated in the area of embarkation. Only the first échelons could be thrown across for the formation of narrow bridgeheads, and at least two days would be needed to land the second échelons of these divisions, to say nothing of the second six divisions which were thought indispensable. He further pointed out that a broad-front landing would mean three to five and a half hours’ difference in the times of high water at the various points selected. Either, therefore, unfavourable tide conditions must be accepted at some places, or simultaneous landings renounced. This objection must have been very difficult to answer.

Much valuable time had been consumed in these exchanges of memoranda. It was not until August 7 that the first verbal discussion took place between General Halder and the Chief of the Naval Staff. At this meeting Halder said: “I utterly reject the Navy’s proposals. From the Army viewpoint I regard it as complete suicide. I might just as well put the troops that have been landed straight through the sausage-machine.” The Naval Chief of Staff rejoined that he must equally reject the landing on a broad front, as that would lead only to a sacrifice of the troops on the passage over. In the end a compromise decision was given by Hitler which satisfied neither the Army nor the Navy. A Supreme Command Directive, issued on August 27, decided that “the Army operations must allow for the facts regarding available shipping space and security of the crossing and disembarkation.” All landings in the Deal-Ramsgate area were abandoned, but the front was extended from Folkestone to Bognor. Thus it was nearly the end of August before even this measure of agreement was reached; and of course everything was subject to victory being gained in the air battle, which had now been raging for six weeks.

On the basis of the frontage at last fixed, the final plan was made. The military command was entrusted to Rundstedt, but shortage of shipping reduced his force to thirteen divisions, with twelve in reserve. The Sixteenth Army, from ports between Rotterdam and Boulogne, were to land in the neighbourhood of Hythe, Rye, Hastings, and Eastbourne; the Ninth Army, from ports between Boulogne and Havre, attacking between Brighton and Worthing. Dover was to be captured from the landward side; then both armies would advance to the covering line of Canterbury-Ashford-Mayfield-Arundel. In all, eleven divisions were to be landed in the first waves. A week after the landing it was hoped, optimistically, to advance yet farther, to Gravesend, Reigate, Petersfield, Portsmouth. In reserve lay the Sixth Army, with divisions ready to reinforce, or, if circumstances allowed, to extend the frontage of attack to Weymouth. It would have been easy to increase these three armies, once the bridgeheads were gained, “because,” says General Halder, “no military forces were facing the Germans on the Continent.” There was indeed no lack of fierce and well-armed troops, but they required shipping and safe conveyance.

On the Naval Staff fell the heaviest initial task. Germany had about 1,200,000 tons of seagoing shipping available to meet all her needs. To embark the invasion force would require more than half this amount, and would involve great economic disturbance. By the beginning of September the Naval Staff were able to report that the following had been requisitioned:

168transports (of 700,000 tons)
1910barges
419tugs and trawlers
1600motor-boats

All this armada had to be manned, and brought to the assembly ports by sea and canal. Meanwhile, since early July we had made a succession of attacks on the shipping in Wilhelmshaven, Kiel, Cuxhaven, Bremen, and Emden; and raids were made on small craft and barges in French ports and Belgian canals. When on September 1 the great southward flow of invasion shipping began, it was watched, reported, and violently assailed by the Royal Air Force along the whole front from Antwerp to Havre. The German Naval Staff recorded:

The enemy’s continuous fighting defence off the coast, his concentration of bombers on the “Sea Lion” embarkation ports, and his coastal reconnaissance activities, indicate that he is now expecting an immediate landing.

And again:

The English bombers, however, and the minelaying forces of the British Air Force . . . are still at full operational strength, and it must be confirmed that the activity of the British forces has undoubtedly been successful even if no decisive hindrance has yet been caused to German transport movement.

Yet, despite delays and damage, the German Navy completed the first part of their task. The ten per cent margin for accidents and losses they had provided was fully expended. What survived, however, did not fall short of the minimum they had planned to have for the first stage.

Both Navy and Army now cast their burden on the German Air Force. All this plan of the corridor, with its balustrades of minefields to be laid and maintained under the German Air Force canopy against the overwhelming superiority of the British flotillas and small craft, depended upon the defeat of the British Air Force and the complete mastery of the air by Germany over the Channel and Southeast England, and not only over the crossing but over the landing points. Both the older Services passed the buck to Reichsmarshal Goering.

Goering was by no means unwilling to accept this responsibility, because he believed that the German Air Force, with its large numerical superiority, would, after some weeks of hard fighting, beat down the British air defence, destroy their airfields in Kent and Sussex, and establish a complete domination of the Channel. But apart from this, he felt assured that the bombing of England, and particularly of London, would reduce the decadent peace-loving British to a condition in which they would sue for peace, more especially if the threat of invasion grew steadily upon their horizon.

The German Admiralty were by no means convinced, indeed their misgivings were profound. They considered “Sea Lion” should be launched only in the last resort, and in July they had recommended the postponement of the operation till the spring of 1941, unless the unrestricted air attack and the unlimited U-boat warfare should “cause the enemy to negotiate with the Fuehrer on his own terms.” But Feldmarshal Keitel and General Jodl were glad to find the Air Supreme Commander so confident.

These were great days for Nazi Germany. Hitler had danced his jig of joy before enforcing the humiliation of the French Armistice at Compiègne. The German Army marched triumphantly through the Arc de Triomphe and down the Champs Elysées. What was there they could not do? Why hesitate to play out a winning hand? Thus each of the three Services involved in the operation “Sea Lion” worked upon the hopeful factors in their own theme and left the ugly side to their companions.

As the days passed, doubts and delays appeared and multiplied. Hitler’s order of July 16 had laid down that all preparations were to be completed by the middle of August. All three Services saw that this was impossible. And at the end of July, Hitler accepted September 15 as the earliest D-Day, reserving his decision for action until the results of the projected intensified air battle could be known.

On August 30, the Naval Staff reported that owing to British counteraction against the invasion fleet preparations could not be completed by September 15. At their request D-Day was postponed to September 21, with a proviso of ten days’ previous warning. This meant that the preliminary order had to be issued on September 11. On September 10, the Naval Staff again reported their various difficulties from the weather, which is always tiresome, and from British counter-bombing. They pointed out that, although the necessary naval preparations could in fact be completed by the 21st, the stipulated operational condition of undisputed air superiority over the Channel had not been achieved. On the 11th, therefore, Hitler postponed the preliminary order by three days, thus setting back the earliest D-Day to the 24th; on the 14th he further put it off.

      *      *      *      *      *      

On the 14th, Admiral Raeder expressed the view that:

(1) The present air situation does not provide conditions for carrying out the operation, as the risk is still too great.

(2) If the “Sea Lion” operation fails, this will mean a great gain in prestige for the British; and the powerful effect of our attacks will thus be annulled.

(3) Air attacks on England, particularly on London, must continue without interruption. If the weather is favourable an intensification of the attacks is to be aimed at, without regard to “Sea Lion.” The attacks must have a decisive outcome.

(4) “Sea Lion,” however, must not yet be cancelled, as the anxiety of the British must be kept up; if cancellation became known to the outside world, this would be a great relief to the British.

On the 17th, the postponement became indefinite, and for good reason, in their view as in ours. Raeder continues:

(1) The preparations for a landing on the Channel coast are extensively known to the enemy, who is increasingly taking counter-measures. Symptoms are, for example, operational use of his aircraft for attacks and reconnaissances over the German operational harbours, frequent appearance of destroyers off the south coast of England, in the Straits of Dover, and on the Franco-Belgian coast, stationing of his patrol vessels off the north coast of France, Churchill’s last speech, etc.

(2) The main units of the Home Fleet are being held in readiness to repel the landing, though the majority of the units are still in western bases.

(3) Already a large number of destroyers (over thirty) have been located by air reconnaissance in the southern and southeastern harbours.

(4) All available information indicates that the enemy’s naval forces are solely occupied with this theatre of operations.

      *      *      *      *      *      

During August the corpses of about forty German soldiers were washed up at scattered points along the coast between the Isle of Wight and Cornwall. The Germans had been practising embarkations in the barges along the French coast. Some of these barges put out to sea in order to escape British bombing and were sunk, either by bombing or bad weather. This was the source of a widespread rumour that the Germans had attempted an invasion and had suffered very heavy losses either by drowning or by being burnt in patches of sea covered with flaming oil. We took no steps to contradict such tales, which spread freely through the occupied countries in a wildly exaggerated form, and gave much encouragement to the oppressed populations. In Brussels, for instance, a shop exhibited men’s bathing-suits marked “For Channel swimming.”

On September 7, the information before us showed that the westerly and southerly movement of barges and small ships to posts between Ostend and Havre was in progress, and as these assembly harbours were under heavy British air attack, it was not likely the ships would be brought to them until shortly before the actual attempt. The striking strength of the German Air Force between Amsterdam and Brest had been increased by the transfer of a hundred and sixty bomber aircraft from Norway; and short-range dive-bomber units were observed on the forward airfields in the Pas de Calais area. Four Germans captured a few days earlier after landing from a rowing-boat on the southeast coast had confessed to being spies, and said that they were to be ready at any time during the next fortnight to report the movement of British reserve formations in the area Ipswich-London-Reading-Oxford. Moon and tide conditions between the 8th and 10th of September were favourable for invasion on the southeast coast. On this the Chiefs of Staff concluded that the possibility of invasion had become imminent and that the defence forces should stand by at immediate notice.

There was, however, at that time no machinery at General Headquarters, Home Forces, by which the existing eight hours’ notice for readiness could be brought to “readiness for immediate action” by intermediate stages. The code-word “Cromwell,” which meant “invasion imminent,” was therefore issued by Home Forces at 8 P.M., September 7, to the eastern and southern commands, implying action stations for the forward coastal divisions. It was also sent to all formations in the London area and to the 4th and 7th Corps in G.H.Q. Reserve. It was repeated for information to all other commands in the United Kingdom. On this, in some parts of the country, the Home Guard commanders, acting on their own initiative, called out the Home Guard by ringing the church bells. This led to rumours of enemy parachutist landings, and also that German E-boats were approaching the coast. Neither I nor the Chiefs of Staff were aware that the decisive code-word “Cromwell” had been used, and the next morning instructions were given to devise intermediate stages by which vigilance could be increased on future occasions without declaring an invasion imminent. Even on receipt of the code-word “Cromwell,” the Home Guard were not to be called out except for special tasks; and also church bells were to be rung only by order of a Home Guard who had himself seen as many as twenty-five parachutists landing, and not because other bells had been heard or for any other reason. As may be imagined, this incident caused a great deal of talk and stir, but no mention of it was made in the newspapers or Parliament. It served as a useful tonic and rehearsal for all concerned.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Having traced the German invasion preparations steadily mounting to a climax, we have seen how the early mood of triumph changed gradually to one of doubt and finally to complete loss of confidence in the outcome. Confidence was in fact already destroyed in 1940, and, despite the revival of the project in 1941, it never again held the imagination of the German leaders as it had done in the halcyon days following the fall of France. During the fateful months of July and August, we see the Naval Commander, Raeder, endeavouring to teach his military and air colleagues about the grave difficulties attending large-scale amphibious war. He realised his own weakness and the lack of time for adequate preparation, and sought to impose limits on the grandiose plans advanced by Halder for landing immense forces simultaneously over a wide front. Meanwhile, Goering with soaring ambition was determined to achieve spectacular victory with his air force alone and was disinclined to play the humbler rôle of working to a combined plan for the systematic reduction of opposing sea and air forces in the invasion area.

It is apparent from the records that the German High Command were very far from being a co-ordinated team working together with a common purpose and with a proper understanding of each other’s capabilities and limitations. Each wished to be the brightest star in the firmament. Friction was apparent from the outset, and so long as Halder could thrust responsibility onto Raeder, he did little to bring his own plans into line with practical possibilities. Intervention by the Fuehrer was necessary, but seems to have done little to improve the relations between the Services. In Germany the prestige of the Army was paramount and the military leaders regarded their naval colleagues with some condescension. It is impossible to resist the conclusion that the German Army was reluctant to place itself in the hands of its sister Service in a major operation. When questioned after the war about these plans, General Jodl impatiently remarked, “Our arrangements were much the same as those of Julius Caesar.” Here speaks the authentic German soldier in relation to the sea affair, having little conception of the problems involved in landing and deploying large military forces on a defended coast exposed to all the hazards of the sea.

In Britain, whatever our shortcomings, we understood the sea affair very thoroughly. For centuries it has been in our blood, and its traditions stir not only our sailors but the whole race. It was this above all things which enabled us to regard the menace of invasion with a steady gaze. The system of control of operations by the three Chiefs of Staff concerted under a Minister of Defence produced a standard of team-work, mutual understanding, and ready co-operation unrivalled in the past. When in course of time our opportunity came to undertake great invasions from the sea, it was upon a foundation of solid achievement in preparation for the task and with a full understanding of the technical needs of such vast and hazardous undertakings. Had the Germans possessed in 1940 well-trained amphibious forces equipped with all the apparatus of modern amphibious war their task would still have been a forlorn hope in the face of our sea and air power. In fact, they had neither the tools nor the training.

      *      *      *      *      *      

We have seen how our many anxieties and self-questionings led to a steady increase in the confidence with which from the beginning we had viewed the invasion project. On the other hand, the more the German High Command and the Fuehrer looked at the venture, the less they liked it. We could not, of course, know each other’s moods and valuations; but with every week from the middle of July to the middle of September, the unknown identity of views upon the problem between the German and British Admiralties, between the German Supreme Command and the British Chiefs of Staff, and also between the Fuehrer and the author of this book, became more definitely pronounced. If we could have agreed equally well about other matters, there need have been no war. It was, of course, common ground between us that all depended upon the battle in the air. The question was how this would end between the combatants; and in addition the Germans wondered whether the British people would stand up to the air bombardment, the effect of which in these days was greatly exaggerated, or whether they would crumple and force His Majesty’s Government to capitulate. About this Reichsmarshal Goering had high hopes, and we had no fears.

 

 

 

END OF BOOK ONE


Book Two

 

Alone

1
The Battle of Britain

The Decisive Struggle—Hitler’s Dilemma—Three Phases—Advantages of Fighting in One’s Own Air—“Sea Lion” and the Air Assault—The German Raid Against Tyneside—Massacre of the Heinkels—Lord Beaverbrook’s Hour—Mr. Ernest Bevin and Labour—Cabinet Solidarity—Checking German Losses—First Attacks on London—Uneasiness of the German Naval Staff—My Broadcast of September 11—The Hard Strain from August 24 to September 6—The Articulation of Fighter Command Endangered—A Quarter of Our Pilots Killed or Disabled in a Fortnight—Goering’s Mistake of Turning on London Too Soon—A Breathing Space—September 15 the Culminating Date—With Number 11 Group—Air Vice-Marshal Park—The Group Operations Room—The Attack Begins—All Reserves Employed—A Cardinal Victory—Hitler Postpones “Sea Lion,” September 17—Afterlight on Claims and Losses—Honour for All.

Our fate now depended upon victory in the air. The German leaders had recognised that all their plans for the invasion of Britain depended on winning air supremacy above the Channel and the chosen landing places on our south coast. The preparation of the embarkation ports, the assembly of the transports, the minesweeping of the passages, and the laying of the new minefields were impossible without protection from British air attack. For the actual crossing and landings, complete mastery of the air over the transports and the beaches was the decisive condition. The result, therefore, turned upon the destruction of the Royal Air Force and the system of airfields between London and the sea. We now know that Hitler said to Admiral Raeder on July 31: “If after eight days of intensive air war the Luftwaffe has not achieved considerable destruction of the enemy’s air force, harbours, and naval forces, the operation will have to be put off till May, 1941.” This was the battle that had now to be fought.

I did not myself at all shrink mentally from the impending trial of strength. I had told Parliament on June 4: “The great French Army was very largely, for the time being, cast back and disturbed by the onrush of a few thousand armoured vehicles. May it not also be that the cause of civilisation itself will be defended by the skill and devotion of a few thousand airmen?” And to Smuts, on June 9: “I see only one sure way through now—to wit, that Hitler should attack this country, and in so doing break his air weapon.” The occasion had now arrived.

Admirable accounts have been written of the struggle between the British and German Air Forces which constitutes the Battle of Britain. In Air Chief Marshal Dowding’s despatch and the Air Ministry pamphlet number 156, the essential facts are fully recorded as they were known to us in 1941 and 1943. We have now also access to the views of the German High Command and of their inner reactions in the various phases. It appears that the German losses in some of the principal combats were a good deal less than we thought at the time, and that reports on both sides were materially exaggerated. But the main features and the outline of this famous conflict, upon which the life of Britain and the freedom of the world depended, are not in dispute.

The German Air Force had been engaged to the utmost limit in the Battle of France, and, like the German Navy after the Norway Campaign, they required a period of weeks or months for recovery. This pause was convenient to us too, for all but three of our fighter squadrons had at one time or another been engaged in the Continental operations. Hitler could not conceive that Britain would not accept a peace offer after the collapse of France. Like Marshal Pétain, Weygand, and many of the French generals and politicians, he did not understand the separate, aloof resources of an island state, and like these Frenchmen he misjudged our will-power. We had travelled a long way and learned a lot since Munich. During the month of June he had addressed himself to the new situation as it gradually dawned upon him, and meanwhile the German Air Force recuperated and redeployed for their next task. There could be no doubt what this would be. Either Hitler must invade and conquer England, or he must face an indefinite prolongation of the war, with all its incalculable hazards and complications. There was always the possibility that victory over Britain in the air would bring about the end of the British resistance, and that actual invasion, even if it became practicable, would also become unnecessary, except for the occupying of a defeated country.

During June and early July, the German Air Force revived and regrouped its formations and established itself on all the French and Belgian airfields from which the assault had to be launched, and by reconnaissance and tentative forays sought to measure the character and scale of the opposition which would be encountered. It was not until July 10 that the first heavy onslaught began, and this date is usually taken as the opening of the battle. Two other dates of supreme consequence stand out, August 15 and September 15. There were also three successive but overlapping phases in the German attack. First, from July 10 to August 18, the harrying of British convoys in the Channel and of our southern ports from Dover to Plymouth; whereby our Air Force should be tested, drawn into battle, and depleted; whereby also damage should be done to those seaside towns marked as objectives for the forthcoming invasion. In the second phase, August 24 to September 27, a way to London was to be forced by the elimination of the Royal Air Force and its installations, leading to the violent and continuous bombing of the capital. This would also cut communications with the threatened shores. But in Goering’s view there was good reason to believe that a greater prize was here in sight, no less than throwing the world’s largest city into confusion and paralysis, the cowing of the Government and the people, and their consequent submission to the German will. Their Navy and Army Staffs devoutly hoped that Goering was right. As the situation developed, they saw that the R.A.F. was not being eliminated, and meanwhile their own urgent needs for the “Sea Lion” adventure were neglected for the sake of destruction in London.

And then, when all were disappointed, when invasion was indefinitely postponed for lack of the vital need, air supremacy, there followed the third and last phase. The hope of daylight victory had faded, the Royal Air Force remained vexatiously alive, and Goering in October resigned himself to the indiscriminate bombing of London and the centres of industrial production.

      *      *      *      *      *      

In the quality of the fighter aircraft there was little to choose. The Germans’ were faster, with a better rate of climb; ours more manoeuvrable, better armed. Their airmen, well aware of their greater numbers, were also the proud victors of Poland, Norway, the Low Countries, France; ours had supreme confidence in themselves as individuals and that determination which the British race displays in fullest measure when in supreme adversity. One important strategical advantage the Germans enjoyed and skilfully used: their forces were deployed on many and widely spread bases whence they could concentrate upon us in great strengths and with feints and deceptions as to the true points of attack. But the enemy may have underrated the adverse conditions of fighting above and across the Channel compared with those which had prevailed in France and Belgium. That they regarded them as serious is shown by the efforts they made to organise an efficient Sea Rescue Service. German transport planes, marked with the Red Cross, began to appear in some numbers over the Channel in July and August whenever there was an air fight. We did not recognise this means of rescuing enemy pilots who had been shot down in action, in order that they might come and bomb our civil population again. We rescued them ourselves whenever it was possible, and made them prisoners of war. But all German air ambulances were forced or shot down by our fighters on definite orders approved by the War Cabinet. The German crews and doctors on these machines professed astonishment at being treated in this way, and protested that it was contrary to the Geneva Convention. There was no mention of such a contingency in the Geneva Convention, which had not contemplated this form of warfare. The Germans were not in a strong position to complain, in view of all the treaties, laws of war, and solemn agreements which they had violated without compunction whenever it suited them. They soon abandoned the experiment, and the work of sea rescue for both sides was carried out by our small craft, on which of course the Germans fired on every occasion.

      *      *      *      *      *      

By August, the Luftwaffe had gathered 2669 operational aircraft, comprising 1015 bombers, 346 dive-bombers, 933 fighters, and 375 heavy fighters. The Fuehrer’s Directive Number 17 authorised the intensified air war against England on August 5. Goering never set much store by “Sea Lion”; his heart was in the “absolute” air war. His consequent distortion of the arrangements disturbed the German Naval Staff. The destruction of the Royal Air Force and our aircraft industry was to them but a means to an end: when this was accomplished, the air war should be turned against the enemy’s warships and shipping. They regretted the lower priority assigned by Goering to the naval targets, and they were irked by the delays. On August 6, they reported to the Supreme Command that the preparations for German minelaying in the Channel area could not proceed because of the constant British threat from the air. On August 10, the Naval Staff’s War Diary records:

Preparations for “Sea Lion,” particularly mine-clearance, are being affected by the inactivity of the Luftwaffe, which is at present prevented from operating by the bad weather, and, for reasons not known to the Naval Staff, the Luftwaffe has missed opportunities afforded by the recent very favourable weather. . . .

The continuous heavy air fighting of July and early August had been directed upon the Kent promontory and the Channel coast. Goering and his skilled advisers formed the opinion that they must have drawn nearly all our fighter squadrons into this southern struggle. They therefore decided to make a daylight raid on the manufacturing cities north of the Wash. The distance was too great for their first-class fighters, the M.E. 109’s. They would have to risk their bombers with only escorts from the Me 110’s, which, though they had the range, had nothing like the quality, which was what mattered now. This was nevertheless a reasonable step for them to take, and the risk was well run.

Accordingly, on August 15, about a hundred bombers, with an escort of forty M.E. 110’s, were launched against Tyneside. At the same time a raid of more than eight hundred planes was sent to pin down our forces in the South, where it was thought they were already all gathered. But now the dispositions which Dowding had made of the Fighter Command were signally vindicated. The danger had been foreseen. Seven Hurricane or Spitfire squadrons had been withdrawn from the intense struggle in the South to rest in and at the same time to guard the North. They had suffered severely, but were nonetheless deeply grieved to leave the battle. The pilots respectfully represented that they were not at all tired. Now came an unexpected consolation. These squadrons were able to welcome the assailants as they crossed the coast. Thirty German planes were shot down, most of them heavy bombers (Heinkel 111’s, with four trained men in each crew), for a British loss of only two pilots injured. The foresight of Air Marshal Dowding in his direction of Fighter Command deserves high praise, but even more remarkable had been the restraint and the exact measurement of formidable stresses which had reserved a fighter force in the North through all these long weeks of mortal conflict in the South. We must regard the generalship here shown as an example of genius in the art of war. Never again was a daylight raid attempted outside the range of the highest-class fighter protection. Henceforth everything north of the Wash was safe by day.

August 15 was the largest air battle of this period of the war; five major actions were fought, on a front of five hundred miles. It was indeed a crucial day. In the South all our twenty-two squadrons were engaged, many twice, some three times, and the German losses, added to those in the North, were seventy-six to our thirty-four. This was a recognisable disaster to the German Air Force.

It must have been with anxious minds that the German Air Chiefs measured the consequences of this defeat, which boded ill for the future. The German Air Force, however, had still as their target the port of London, all that immense line of docks with their masses of shipping, and the largest city in the world which did not require much accuracy to hit.

      *      *      *      *      *      

During these weeks of intense struggle and ceaseless anxiety. Lord Beaverbrook rendered signal service. At all costs the fighter squadrons must be replenished with trustworthy machines. This was no time for red tape and circumlocution, although these have their place in a well-ordered, placid system. All his remarkable qualities fitted the need. His personal buoyancy and vigour were a tonic. I was glad to be able sometimes to lean on him. He did not fail. This was his hour. His personal force and genius, combined with so much persuasion and contrivance, swept aside many obstacles. Everything in the supply pipeline was drawn forward to the battle. New or repaired airplanes streamed to the delighted squadrons in numbers they had never known before. All the services of maintenance and repair were driven to an intense degree. I felt so much his value that on August 2, with the King’s approval, I invited him to join the War Cabinet. At this time also his eldest son, Max Aitken, gained high distinction and eleven victories as a fighter-pilot.

Another Minister I consorted with at this time was Ernest Bevin, Minister of Labour and National Service, with the whole man-power, of the nation to manage and animate. All the workers in the munitions factories were ready to take his direction. In October he, too, joined the War Cabinet. The trade-unionists cast their slowly framed, jealously guarded rules and privileges upon the altar where wealth, rank, privilege, and property had already been laid. I was much in harmony with both Beaverbrook and Bevin in the white-hot weeks. Afterwards they quarrelled, which was a pity, and caused much friction. But at this climax we were all together. I cannot speak too highly of the loyalty of Mr. Chamberlain, or of the resolution and efficiency of all my Cabinet colleagues. Let me give them my salute.

      *      *      *      *      *      

I was most anxious to form a true estimate of the German losses. With all strictness and sincerity, it is impossible for pilots fighting often far above the clouds to be sure how many enemy machines they have shot down, or how many times the same machine has been claimed by others.

Prime Minister to General Ismay. 17.VIII.40.

Lord Beaverbrook told me that in Thursday’s action upwards of eighty German machines had been picked up on our soil. Is this so? If not, how many?

I asked C.-in-C. Fighter Command if he could discriminate in this action between the fighting over the land and over the sea. This would afford a good means of establishing for our own satisfaction the results which are claimed.

Prime Minister to C.A.S. 17.VIII.40.

While our eyes are concentrated on the results of the air fighting over this country, we must not overlook the serious losses occurring in the Bomber Command. Seven heavy bombers last night and also twenty-one aircraft now destroyed on the ground—the bulk at Tangmere—total twenty-eight. These twenty-eight, added to the twenty-two Fighters, make our loss fifty on the day, and very much alters the picture presented by the German loss of seventy-five. In fact, on the day we have lost two to three.

Let me know the types of machines destroyed on the ground.

Prime Minister to Secretary of State for Air. 21.VIII.40.

The important thing is to bring the German aircraft down and to win the battle, and the rate at which American correspondents and the American public are convinced that we are winning, and that our figures are true, stands at a much lower level. They will find out quite soon enough when the German air attack is plainly shown to be repulsed. It would be a pity to tease the Fighter Command at the present time, when the battle is going on from hour to hour and when continuous decisions have to be taken about air-raid warnings, etc. I confess I should be more inclined to let the facts speak for themselves. There is something rather obnoxious in bringing correspondents down to air squadrons in order that they may assure the American public that the fighter pilots are not bragging and lying about their figures. We can, I think, afford to be a bit cool and calm about all this.

I should like you to see on other papers an inquiry I have been making of my own in order to check up on the particular day when M.A.P. [Ministry of Aircraft Production] said they picked up no fewer than eighty German machines brought down over the land alone. This gives us a very good line for our own purposes. I must say I am a little impatient about the American scepticism. The event is what will decide all.

      *      *      *      *      *      

On August 20 I could report to Parliament:

The enemy is of course far more numerous than we are. But our new production already largely exceeds his, and the American production is only just beginning to flow in. Our bomber and fighter strengths now, after all this fighting, are larger than they have ever been. We believe that we should be able to continue the air struggle indefinitely and as long as the enemy pleases, and the longer it continues, the more rapid will be our approach first towards that parity, and then into that superiority, in the air, upon which in large measure the decision of the war depends.

Up till the end of August, Goering did not take an unfavourable view of the air conflict. He and his circle believed that the English ground organisation and aircraft industry and the fighting strength of the R.A.F. had already been severely damaged. They estimated that since August 8 we had lost 1115 aircraft against the German losses of 467. But of course each side takes a hopeful view, and it is in the interest of their leaders that they should. There was a spell of fine weather in September, and the Luftwaffe hoped for decisive results. Heavy attacks fell upon our aerodrome installations round London, and on the night of the 6th, sixty-eight aircraft attacked London, followed on the 7th by the first large-scale attack of about three hundred. On this and succeeding days, during which our anti-aircraft guns were doubled in numbers, very hard and continuous air fighting took place over the capital, and the Luftwaffe were still confident through their overestimation of our losses. But we now know that the German Naval Staff, in anxious regard for their own interests and responsibilities, wrote in their diary on September 10:

There is no sign of the defeat of the enemy’s air force over Southern England and in the Channel area, and this is vital to a further judgment of the situation. The preliminary attacks by the Luftwaffe have indeed achieved a noticeable weakening of the enemy’s fighter defence, so that considerable German fighter superiority can be assumed over the English area. However . . . we have not yet attained the operational conditions which the Naval Staff stipulated to the Supreme Command as being essential for the enterprise, namely, undisputed air supremacy in the Channel area and the elimination of the enemy’s air activity in the assembly area of the German naval forces and ancillary shipping. . . . It would be in conformity with the time-table preparations for “Sea Lion” if the Luftwaffe now concentrated less on London and more on Portsmouth and Dover, as well as on the naval ports in and near the operational area. . . .

As by this time Hitler had been persuaded by Goering that the major attack on London would be decisive, the Naval Staff did not venture to appeal to the Supreme Command; but their uneasiness continued, and on the 12th they reached this sombre conclusion:

The air war is being conducted as an “absolute air war,” without regard to the present requirements of the naval war, and outside the framework of operation “Sea Lion.” In its present form the air war cannot assist preparations for “Sea Lion,” which are predominantly in the hands of the Navy. In particular, one cannot discern any effort on the part of the Luftwaffe to engage the units of the British Fleet, which are now able to operate almost unmolested in the Channel, and this will prove extremely dangerous to the transportation. Thus the main safeguard against British naval forces would have to be the minefields, which, as repeatedly explained to the Supreme Command, cannot be regarded as reliable protection for shipping.

The fact remains that up to now the intensified air war has not contributed towards the landing operation; hence for operational and military reasons the execution of the landing cannot yet be considered.

      *      *      *      *      *      

I stated in a broadcast on September 11:

Whenever the weather is favourable, waves of German bombers, protected by fighters, often three or four hundred at a time, surge over this island, especially the promontory of Kent, in the hope of attacking military and other objectives by daylight. However, they are met by our fighter squadrons and nearly always broken up; and their losses average three to one in machines and six to one in pilots.

This effort of the Germans to secure daylight mastery of the air over England is, of course, the crux of the whole war. So far it has failed conspicuously. It has cost them very dear, and we have felt stronger, and actually are relatively a good deal stronger, than when the hard fighting began in July. There is no doubt that Herr Hitler is using up his fighter force at a very high rate, and that if he goes on for many more weeks he will wear down and ruin this vital part of his air force. That will give us a great advantage.

On the other hand, for him to try to invade this country without having secured mastery in the air would be a very hazardous undertaking. Nevertheless, all his preparations for invasion on a great scale are steadily going forward. Several hundreds of self-propelled barges are moving down the coasts of Europe, from the German and Dutch harbours to the ports of Northern France; from Dunkirk to Brest; and beyond Brest to the French harbours in the Bay of Biscay.

Besides this, convoys of merchant ships in tens and dozens are being moved through the Straits of Dover into the Channel, dodging along from port to port under the protection of the new batteries which the Germans have built on the French shore. There are now considerable gatherings of shipping in the German, Dutch, Belgian, and French harbours—all the way from Hamburg to Brest. Finally, there are some preparations made of ships to carry an invading force from the Norwegian harbours.

Behind these clusters of ships or barges there stand large numbers of German troops, awaiting the order to go on board and set out on their very dangerous and uncertain voyage across the seas. We cannot tell when they will try to come; we cannot be sure that in fact they will try at all; but no one should blind himself to the fact that a heavy full-scale invasion of this island is being prepared with all the usual German thoroughness and method, and that it may be launched now—upon England, upon Scotland, or upon Ireland, or upon all three.

If this invasion is going to be tried at all, it does not seem that it can be long delayed. The weather may break at any time. Besides this, it is difficult for the enemy to keep these gatherings of ships waiting about indefinitely while they are bombed every night by our bombers, and very often shelled by our warships which are waiting for them outside.

Therefore, we must regard the next week or so as a very important period in our history. It ranks with the days when the Spanish Armada was approaching the Channel, and Drake was finishing his game of bowls; or when Nelson stood between us and Napoleon’s Grand Army at Boulogne. We have read all about this in the history books; but what is happening now is on a far greater scale and of far more consequence to the life and future of the world and its civilisation than those brave old days.

      *      *      *      *      *      

In the fighting between August 24 and September 6, the scales had tilted against Fighter Command. During these crucial days the Germans had continuously applied powerful forces against the airfields of South and Southeast England. Their object was to break down the day fighter defence of the capital, which they were impatient to attack. Far more important to us than the protection of London from terror-bombing was the functioning and articulation of these airfields and the squadrons working from them. In the life-and-death struggle of the two air forces, this was a decisive phase. We never thought of the struggle in terms of the defence of London or any other place, but only who won in the air. There was much anxiety at Fighter Headquarters at Stanmore, and particularly at the headquarters of Number Eleven Fighter Group at Uxbridge. Extensive damage had been done to five of the group’s forward airfields, and also to the six sector stations. Manston and Lympne on the Kentish coast were on several occasions and for days unfit for operating fighter aircraft. Biggin Hill Sector Station, to the south of London, was so severely damaged that for a week only one fighter squadron could operate from it. If the enemy had persisted in heavy attacks against the adjacent sectors and damaged their operations rooms or telephone communications, the whole intricate organisation of Fighter Command might have been broken down. This would have meant not merely the maltreatment of London, but the loss to us of the perfected control of our own air in the decisive area. As will be seen in the Minutes printed in the Appendix, I was led to visit several of these stations, particularly Manston (August 28), and Biggin Hill, which is quite near my home. They were getting terribly knocked about, and their runways were ruined by craters. It was therefore with a sense of relief that Fighter Command felt the German attack turn on to London on September 7, and concluded that the enemy had changed his plan. Goering should certainly have persevered against the airfields, on whose organisation and combination the whole fighting power of our air force at this moment depended. By departing from the classical principles of war, as well as from the hitherto accepted dictates of humanity, he made a foolish mistake.

This same period (August 24 to September 6) had seriously drained the strength of Fighter Command as a whole. The Command had lost in this fortnight 103 pilots killed and 128 seriously wounded, while 466 Spitfires and Hurricanes had been destroyed or seriously damaged. Out of a total pilot strength of about a thousand, nearly a quarter had been lost. Their places could only be filled by 260 new, ardent, but inexperienced pilots drawn from training units, in many cases before their full courses were complete. The night attacks on London for ten days after September 7 struck at the London docks and railway centres, and killed and wounded many civilians, but they were in effect for us a breathing space of which we had the utmost need.

During this period I usually managed to take two afternoons a week in the areas under attack in Kent or Sussex in order to see for myself what was happening. For this purpose I used my train, which was now most conveniently fitted and carried a bed, a bath, an office, a connectible telephone, and an effective staff. I was thus able to work continuously, apart from sleeping, and with almost all the facilities available at Downing Street.

      *      *      *      *      *      

We must take September 15 as the culminating date. On this day the Luftwaffe, after two heavy attacks on the 14th, made its greatest concentrated effort in a resumed daylight attack on London.

It was one of the decisive battles of the war, and, like the Battle of Waterloo, it was on a Sunday. I was at Chequers. I had already on several occasions visited the headquarters of Number 11 Fighter Group in order to witness the conduct of an air battle, when not much had happened. However, the weather on this day seemed suitable to the enemy, and accordingly I drove over to Uxbridge and arrived at the Group Headquarters. Number 11 Group comprised no fewer than twenty-five squadrons covering the whole of Essex, Kent, Sussex, and Hampshire, and all the approaches across them to London. Air Vice-Marshal Park had for six months commanded this group, on which our fate largely depended. From the beginning of Dunkirk, all the daylight actions in the South of England had already been conducted by him, and all his arrangements and apparatus had been brought to the highest perfection. My wife and I were taken down to the bomb-proof Operations Room, fifty feet below ground. All the ascendancy of the Hurricanes and Spitfires would have been fruitless but for this system of underground control centres and telephone cables, which had been devised and built before the war by the Air Ministry under Dowding’s advice and impulse. Lasting credit is due to all concerned. In the South of England there were at this time Number 11 Group H.Q. and six subordinate fighter station centres. All these were, as has been described, under heavy stress. The Supreme Command was exercised from the Fighter Headquarters at Stanmore, but the actual handling of the direction of the squadrons was wisely left to Number 11 Group, which controlled the units through its fighter stations located in each county.

The Group Operations Room was like a small theatre, about sixty feet across, and with two storeys. We took our seats in the dress circle. Below us was the large-scale map-table, around which perhaps twenty highly trained young men and women, with their telephone assistants, were assembled. Opposite to us, covering the entire wall, where the theatre curtain would be, was a gigantic blackboard divided into six columns with electric bulbs, for the six fighter stations, each of their squadrons having a sub-column of its own, and also divided by lateral lines. Thus, the lowest row of bulbs showed as they were lighted the squadrons which were “Standing By” at two minutes’ notice, the next row those “At Readiness,” five minutes, then “At Available,” twenty minutes, then those which had taken off, the next row those which had reported having seen the enemy, the next—with red lights—those which were in action, and the top row those which were returning home. On the left-hand side, in a kind of glass stage-box, were the four or five officers whose duty it was to weigh and measure the information received from our Observer Corps, which at this time numbered upwards of fifty thousand men, women, and youths. Radar was still in its infancy, but it gave warning of raids approaching our coast, and the observers, with field-glasses and portable telephones, were our main source of information about raiders flying overland. Thousands of messages were therefore received during an action. Several roomfuls of experienced people in other parts of the underground headquarters sifted them with great rapidity, and transmitted the results from minute to minute directly to the plotters seated around the table on the floor and to the officer supervising from the glass stage-box.

On the right hand was another glass stage-box containing Army officers who reported the action of our anti-aircraft batteries, of which at this time in the Command there were two hundred. At night it was of vital importance to stop these batteries firing over certain areas in which our fighters would be closing with the enemy. I was not unacquainted with the general outlines of this system, having had it explained to me a year before the war by Dowding when I visited him at Stanmore. It had been shaped and refined in constant action, and all was now fused together into a most elaborate instrument of war, the like of which existed nowhere in the world.

“I don’t know,” said Park, as we went down, “whether anything will happen today. At present all is quiet.” However, after a quarter of an hour the raid-plotters began to move about. An attack of “40 plus” was reported to be coming from the German stations in the Dieppe area. The bulbs along the bottom of the wall display panel began to glow as various squadrons came to “Stand By.” Then in quick succession “20 plus,” “40 plus” signals were received, and in another ten minutes it was evident that a serious battle impended. On both sides the air began to fill.

One after another signals came in, “40 plus,” “60 plus”; there was even an “80 plus.” On the floor table below us the movement of all the waves of attack was marked by pushing discs forward from minute to minute along different lines of approach, while on the blackboard facing us the rising lights showed our fighter squadrons getting into the air, till there were only four or five left “At Readiness.” These air battles, on which so much depended, lasted little more than an hour from the first encounter. The enemy had ample strength to send out new waves of attack, and our squadrons, having gone all out to gain the upper air, would have to refuel after seventy or eighty minutes, or land to rearm after a five-minute engagement. If at this moment of refuelling or rearming, the enemy were able to arrive with fresh unchallenged squadrons, some of our fighters could be destroyed on the ground. It was, therefore, one of our principal objects to direct our squadrons so as not to have too many on the ground refuelling or rearming simultaneously during daylight.

Presently the red bulbs showed that the majority of our squadrons were engaged. A subdued hum arose from the floor, where the busy plotters pushed their discs to and fro in accordance with the swiftly changing situation. Air Vice-Marshal Park gave general directions for the disposition of his fighter force, which were translated into detailed orders to each fighter station by a youngish officer in the centre of the dress circle, at whose side I sat. Some years after I asked his name. He was Lord Willoughby de Broke. (I met him next in 1947, when the Jockey Club, of which he was a steward, invited me to see the Derby. He was surprised that I remembered the occasion.) He now gave the orders for the individual squadrons to ascend and patrol as the result of the final information which appeared on the map-table. The Air Marshal himself walked up and down behind, watching with vigilant eye every move in the game, supervising his junior executive hand, and only occasionally intervening with some decisive order, usually to reinforce a threatened area. In a little while all our squadrons were fighting, and some had already begun to return for fuel. All were in the air. The lower line of bulbs was out. There was not one squadron left in reserve. At this moment Park spoke to Dowding at Stanmore, asking for three squadrons from Number 12 Group to be put at his disposal in case of another major attack while his squadrons were rearming and refuelling. This was done. They were specially needed to cover London and our fighter aerodromes, because Number 11 Group had already shot their bolt.

The young officer, to whom this seemed a matter of routine, continued to give his orders, in accordance with the general directions of his Group Commander, in a calm, low monotone, and the three reinforcing squadrons were soon absorbed. I became conscious of the anxiety of the Commander, who now stood still behind his subordinate’s chair. Hitherto I had watched in silence. I now asked, “What other reserves have we?” “There are none,” said Air Vice-Marshal Park. In an account which he wrote about it afterwards, he said that at this I “looked grave.” Well I might. What losses should we not suffer if our refuelling planes were caught on the ground by further raids of “40 plus” or “50 plus”! The odds were great; our margins small; the stakes infinite.

Another five minutes passed, and most of our squadrons had now descended to refuel. In many cases our resources could not give them overhead protection. Then it appeared that the enemy were going home. The shifting of the discs on the table below showed a continuous eastward movement of German bombers and fighters. No new attack appeared. In another ten minutes the action was ended. We climbed again the stairways which led to the surface, and almost as we emerged the “All Clear” sounded.

“We are very glad, sir, you have seen this,” said Park. “Of course, during the last twenty minutes we were so choked with information that we couldn’t handle it. This shows you the limitation of our present resources. They have been strained far beyond their limits today.” I asked whether any results had come to hand, and remarked that the attack appeared to have been repelled satisfactorily. Park replied that he was not satisfied that we had intercepted as many raiders as he had hoped we should. It was evident that the enemy had everywhere pierced our defences. Many scores of German bombers, with their fighter escort, had been reported over London. About a dozen had been brought down while I was below, but no picture of the results of the battle or of the damage or losses could be obtained.

It was 4.30 P.M. before I got back to Chequers, and I immediately went to bed for my afternoon sleep. I must have been tired by the drama of Number 11 Group, for I did not wake till eight. When I rang, John Martin, my principal private secretary, came in with the evening budget of news from all over the world. It was repellent. This had gone wrong here; that had been delayed there; an unsatisfactory answer had been received from so-and-so; there had been bad sinkings in the Atlantic. “However,” said Martin, as he finished this account, “all is redeemed by the air. We have shot down a hundred and eighty-three for a loss of under forty.”

      *      *      *      *      *      

Although post-war information has shown that the enemy’s losses on this day were only fifty-six, September 15 was the crux of the Battle of Britain. That same night our Bomber Command attacked in strength the shipping in the ports from Boulogne to Antwerp. At Antwerp particularly heavy losses were inflicted. On September 17, as we now know, the Fuehrer decided to postpone “Sea Lion” indefinitely. It was not till October 12 that the invasion was formally called off till the following spring. In July, 1941, it was postponed again by Hitler till the spring of 1942, “by which time the Russian campaign will be completed.” This was a vain but an important imagining. On February 13, 1942, Admiral Raeder had his final interview on “Sea Lion” and got Hitler to agree to a complete “stand-down.” Thus perished “Operation Sea Lion.” And September 15 may stand as the date of its demise.

      *      *      *      *      *      

The German Naval Staff were in hearty accord with all the postponements; indeed, they instigated them. The Army leaders made no complaint. On the 17th I said in Parliament:

The process of waiting keyed up to concert pitch day after day is apt in time to lose its charm of novelty. Sunday’s action was the most brilliant and fruitful of any fought up to that date by the fighters of the Royal Air Force. . . . We may await the decision of this long air battle with sober but increasing confidence.

An impartial observer, Brigadier-General Strong, Assistant Chief of the United States War Plans Division and Head of the American Military Mission which had been sent to London to observe the results of the Luftwaffe attacks, arrived back in New York on the 19th, and reported that the Luftwaffe “had made no serious inroad on the strength of the R.A.F., that the military damage done by air bombardment had been comparatively small, and that British claims of German aircraft losses were ‘on the conservative side.’ ”

Yet the Battle of London was still to be fought out. Although invasion had been called off, it was not till September 27 that Goering gave up hope that his method of winning the war might succeed. In October, though London received its full share, the German effort was spread by day and night in frequent small-scale attacks on many places. Concentration of effort gave way to dispersion; the battle of attrition began. Attrition! But whose?

      *      *      *      *      *      

In cold blood, with the knowledge of the after-time, we may study the actual losses of the British and German Air Forces in what may well be deemed one of the decisive battles of the world. From the table on page 337 our hopes and fears may be contrasted with what happened.

No doubt we were always over-sanguine in our estimates of enemy scalps. In the upshot we got two to one of the German assailants, instead of three to one, as we believed and declared. But this was enough. The Royal Air Force, far from being destroyed, was triumphant. A strong flow of fresh pilots was provided. The aircraft factories, upon which not only our immediate need but our power to wage a long war depended, were mauled but not paralysed. The workers, skilled and unskilled, men and women alike, stood to their lathes and manned the workshops under fire, as if they were batteries in action—which, indeed, they were. At the Ministry of Supply, Herbert Morrison spurred all in his wide sphere. “Go to it,” he adjured, and to it they went. Skilful and ever-ready support was given to the air fighting by the Anti-Aircraft Command under General Pile. Their main contribution came later. The Observer Corps, devoted and tireless, were hourly at their posts. The carefully wrought organisation of Fighter Command, without which all might have been vain, proved equal to months of continuous strain. All played their part.

Aircraft Losses

British Fighters Lost by R.A.F. (complete write-off or missing)Enemy Aircraft Actually Destroyed (according to German records)Enemy Aircraft Claimed by us (Fighter Command, A.A., Balloons, etc.)
Weekly Totals: 
 
July 10-13154563 
Week to July 20223149 
Week to July 27145158 
Week to Aug. 385639 
Week to Aug. 10254464 
Week to Aug. 17134261496 
Week to Aug. 2459145251 
Week to Aug. 31141193316 
Week to Sep. 7144187375 
Week to Sep. 1467102182 
Week to Sep. 2152120268 
Week to Sep. 2872118230 
Week to Oct. 544112100 
Week to Oct. 12477366 
Week to Oct. 19296738 
Week to Oct. 26217243 
Oct 27-31215660 
 
Monthly Totals: 
 
July (from July 10)58164203 
August3606621133 
September3615821108 
October136325254 
    Totals91517332698 
Further tables will be found in Appendix C.

At the summit the stamina and valour of our fighter pilots remained unconquerable and supreme. Thus Britain was saved. Well might I say in the House of Commons, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

2
The Blitz

Successive Phases of the German Attack—Goering Assumes Command of the Air Battle—His Attempt to Conquer London—Hitler’s Boast—Fifty-Seven Nights’ Bombardment (September 7 to November 3)—General Pile’s Barrage—Some Personal Notes—Downing Street and the Annexe—Mr. Chamberlain’s Fortitude After His Major Operation—He Consents to Leave London—A Dinner at Number 10—My Lucky Inspiration—The Bomb in the Treasury Courtyard—Burning Pall Mall—Destruction of the Carlton Club—Courage of the People—The Margate Restaurant and the War Damage Insurance Scheme—Rules for the Public Departments—The “Alert” and the “Alarm”—The “Banshee Howlings”—The Cabinet Advances Its Meal Times—Our Expectation that London Would be Reduced to Rubble—Haughty Mood of Parliament—I Persuade Them to Act with Prudence—Their Good Fortune.

The German air assault on Britain is a tale of divided counsels, conflicting purposes, and never fully accomplished plans. Three or four times in these months the enemy abandoned a method of attack which was causing us severe stress, and turned to something new. But all these stages overlapped one another, and cannot be readily distinguished by precise dates. Each one merged into the next. The early operations sought to engage our air forces in battle over the Channel and the south coast; next, the struggle was continued over our southern counties, principally Kent and Sussex, the enemy aiming to destroy our air-power organisation; then nearer to and over London; then London became the supreme target; and finally, when London triumphed, there was a renewed dispersion to the provincial cities and to the sole life-line by the Mersey and the Clyde.

We have seen how very hard they had run us in the attack on the south-coast airfields in the last week of August and the first week of September. But on September 7, Goering publicly assumed command of the air battle, and turned from daylight to night attack and from the fighter airfields of Kent and Sussex to the vast built-up areas of London. Minor raids by daylight were frequent, indeed constant, and one great daylight attack was still to come; but in the main the whole character of the German offensive was altered. For fifty-seven nights the bombing of London was unceasing. This constituted an ordeal for the world’s largest city, the results of which no one could measure beforehand. Never before was so wide an expanse of houses subjected to such bombardment or so many families required to face its problems and its terrors.

The sporadic raiding of London towards the end of August was promptly answered by us in a retaliatory attack on Berlin. Because of the distance we had to travel, this could only be on a very small scale compared with attacks on London from nearby French and Belgian airfields. The War Cabinet were much in the mood to hit back, to raise the stakes, and to defy the enemy. I was sure they were right, and believed that nothing impressed or disturbed Hitler so much as his realisation of British wrath and will-power. In his heart he was one of our admirers. He took, of course, full advantage of our reprisal on Berlin, and publicly announced the previously settled German policy of reducing London and other British cities to chaos and ruin. “If they attack our cities,” he declared on September 4, “we will simply rub out theirs.” He tried his best.

The first German aim had been the destruction of our air-power; the second was to break the spirit of the Londoner, or at least render uninhabitable the world’s largest city. In these new purposes the enemy did not succeed. The victory of the Royal Air Force had been gained by the skill and daring of our pilots, by the excellence of our machines, and by their wonderful organisation. Other virtues not less splendid, not less indispensable to the life of Britain, were now to be displayed by millions of ordinary humble people, who proved to the world the strength of a community nursed in freedom.

      *      *      *      *      *      

From September 7 to November 3 an average of two hundred German bombers attacked London every night. The various preliminary raids which had been made upon our provincial cities in the previous three weeks had led to a considerable dispersion of our anti-aircraft artillery, and when London first became the main target there were but ninety-two guns in position. It was thought better to leave the air free for our night-fighters, working under Number 11 Group. Of these there were six squadrons of Blenheims and Defiants. Night-fighting was in its infancy, and very few casualties were inflicted on the enemy. Our batteries therefore remained silent for three nights in succession. Their own technique was at this time woefully imperfect. Nevertheless, in view of the weakness of our night-fighters and of their unsolved problems, it was decided that the anti-aircraft gunners should be given a free hand to fire at unseen targets, using any methods of control they liked. In forty-eight hours General Pile, commanding the Air Defence Artillery, had more than doubled the number of guns in the capital by withdrawals from the provincial cities. Our own aircraft were kept out of the way, and the batteries were given their chance.

For three nights Londoners had sat in their houses or inadequate shelters enduring what seemed to be an utterly unresisted attack. Suddenly, on September 10, the whole barrage opened, accompanied by a blaze of searchlights. This roaring cannonade did not do much harm to the enemy, but gave enormous satisfaction to the population. Everyone was cheered by the feeling that we were hitting back. From that time onward the batteries fired regularly, and of course practice, ingenuity, and grinding need steadily improved the shooting. A slowly increasing toll was taken of the German raiders. Upon occasions the batteries were silent and the night-fighters, whose methods were also progressing, came on the scene. The night raids were accompanied by more or less continuous daylight attacks by small groups or even single enemy planes, and the sirens often sounded at brief intervals throughout the whole twenty-four hours. To this curious existence the seven million inhabitants of London accustomed themselves.

      *      *      *      *      *      

In the hope that it may lighten the hard course of this narrative, I record a few personal notes about the “Blitz,” well knowing how many thousands have far more exciting tales to tell.

When the bombardment first began, the idea was to treat it with disdain. In the West End everybody went about his business and pleasure and dined and slept as he usually did. The theatres were full, and the darkened streets were crowded with casual traffic. All this was perhaps a healthy reaction from the frightful squawk which the defeatist elements in Paris had put up on the occasion when they were first seriously raided in May. I remember dining in a small company when very lively and continuous raids were going on. The large windows of Stornoway House opened upon the Green Park, which flickered with the flashes of the guns and was occasionally lit by the glare of an exploding bomb. I felt that we were taking unnecessary risks. After dinner we went to the Imperial Chemicals Building overlooking the Embankment. From these high stone balconies there was a splendid view of the river. At least a dozen fires were burning on the south side, and while we were there, several heavy bombs fell, one near enough for my friends to pull me back behind a substantial stone pillar. This certainly confirmed my opinion that we should have to accept many restrictions upon the ordinary amenities of life.

The group of Government buildings around Whitehall were repeatedly hit. Downing Street consists of houses two hundred and fifty years old, shaky and lightly built by the profiteering contractor whose name they bear. At the time of the Munich alarm, shelters had been constructed for the occupants of Number 10 and Number 11, and the rooms on the garden level had had their ceilings propped up with a wooden under-ceiling and strong timbers. It was believed that this would support the ruins if the building was blown or shaken down; but of course neither these rooms nor the shelters were effective against a direct hit. During the last fortnight of September, preparations were made to transfer my Ministerial Headquarters to the more modern and solid Government offices looking over St. James’s Park by Storey’s Gate. These quarters we called “the Annexe.” Below them were the War Room and a certain amount of bomb-proof sleeping accommodation. The bombs at this time were of course smaller than those of the later phases. Still, in the interval before the new apartments were ready, life at Downing Street was exciting. One might as well have been at a battalion headquarters in the line.

      *      *      *      *      *      

In these months we held our evening Cabinets in the War Room in the Annexe basement. To get there from Downing Street it was necessary to walk through the Foreign Office quadrangle and then clamber through the working parties who were pouring in the concrete to make the War Room and basement offices safer. I did not realise what a trial this was to Mr. Chamberlain, with all the consequences of his major operation upon him. Nothing deterred him, and he was never more spick and span or cool and determined than at the last Cabinets which he attended.

One evening in late September, 1940, I looked out of the Downing Street front door and saw workmen piling sandbags in front of the low basement windows of the Foreign Office opposite. I asked what they were doing. I was told that after his operation, Mr. Neville Chamberlain had to have special periodical treatment, and that it was embarrassing to carry this out in the shelter of Number 11, where at least twenty people were gathered during the constant raids, so a small private place was being prepared over there for him. Every day he kept all his appointments, reserved, efficient, faultlessly attired. But here was the background. It was too much. I used my authority. I walked through the passage between Number 10 and Number 11 and found Mrs. Chamberlain. I said: “He ought not to be here in this condition. You must take him away till he is well again. I will send all the telegrams to him each day.” She went off to see her husband. In an hour she sent me word. “He will do what you wish. We are leaving tonight.” I never saw him again. In less than two months he was no more. I am sure he wanted to die in harness. This was not to be.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Another evening (October 14) stands out in my mind. We were dining in the garden room of Number 10 when the usual night raid began. My companions were Archie Sinclair, Oliver Lyttelton, and Moore-Brabazon. The steel shutters had been closed. Several loud explosions occurred around us at no great distance, and presently a bomb fell, perhaps a hundred yards away, on the Horse Guards Parade, making a great deal of noise. Suddenly I had a providential impulse. The kitchen at Number 10 Downing Street is lofty and spacious, and looks out onto one of the courts of the Treasury through a large plate-glass window about twenty-five feet high. The butler and parlour maid continued to serve the dinner with complete detachment, but I became acutely aware of this big window, behind which Mrs. Landemare, the cook, and Nellie, the kitchen maid, never turning a hair, were at work. I got up abruptly, went into the kitchen, told the butler to put the dinner on the hot plate in the dining-room, and ordered the cook and other servants into the shelter, such as it was. I had been seated again at table only about three minutes when a really very loud crash, close at hand, and a violent shock showed that the house had been struck. My detective came into the room and said much damage had been done. The kitchen, the pantry, and the offices on the Treasury side were shattered.

We went into the kitchen to view the scene. The devastation was complete. The bomb had fallen fifty yards away on the Treasury, and the blast had smitten the large, tidy kitchen, with all its bright saucepans and crockery, into a heap of black dust and rubble. The big plate-glass window had been hurled in fragments and splinters across the room, and would, of course, have cut its occupants, if there had been any, to pieces. But my fortunate inspiration, which I might so easily have neglected, had come in the nick of time. The underground Treasury shelter across the court had been blown to pieces by a direct hit, and the three civil servants who were doing Home Guard night-duty there were killed. All, however, were buried under tons of brick rubble, and we did not know who was missing.

As the raid continued and seemed to grow in intensity, we put on our tin hats and went out to view the scene from the top of the Annexe buildings. Before doing so, however, I could not resist taking Mrs. Landemare and the others from the shelter to see their kitchen. They were upset at the sight of the wreck, but principally on account of the general untidiness!

Archie and I went up to the cupola of the Annexe building. The night was clear and there was a wide view of London. It seemed that the greater part of Pall Mall was in flames. At least five fierce fires were burning there, and others in St. James’s Street and Piccadilly. Farther back over the river in the opposite direction there were many conflagrations. But Pall Mall was the vivid flame-picture. Gradually the attack died down, and presently the “All Clear” sounded, leaving only the blazing fires. We went downstairs to my new apartments on the first floor of the Annexe and there found Captain David Margesson, the Chief Whip, who was accustomed to live at the Carlton Club. He told us the club had been blown to bits, and indeed we had thought, by the situation of the fires, that it must have been hit. He was in the club with about two hundred and fifty members and staff. It had been struck by a heavy bomb. The whole of the façade and the massive coping on the Pall Mall side had fallen into the street, obliterating his motor-car, which was parked near the front door. The smoking-room had been full of members, and the whole ceiling had come down upon them. When I looked at the ruins next day, it seemed incredible that most of them should not have been killed. However, by what seemed a miracle, they had all crawled out of the dust, smoke, and rubble, and though many were injured not a single life was lost. When in due course these facts came to the notice of the Cabinet, our Labour colleagues facetiously remarked, “The Devil looks after his own.” Mr. Quintin Hogg had carried his father, a former Lord Chancellor, on his shoulders from the wreck, as Aeneas had borne Pater Anchises from the ruins of Troy. Margesson had nowhere to sleep, and we found him blankets and a bed in the basement of the Annexe. Altogether it was a lurid evening, and considering the damage to buildings it was remarkable that there were not more than five hundred people killed and about a couple of thousand injured.

      *      *      *      *      *      

One day after luncheon the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Kingsley Wood, came to see me on business at Number 10, and we heard a very heavy explosion take place across the river in South London. I took him to see what had happened. The bomb had fallen in Peckham. It was a very big one—probably a land-mine. It had completely destroyed or gutted twenty or thirty small three-story houses and cleared a considerable open space in this very poor district. Already little pathetic Union Jacks had been stuck up amid the ruins. When my car was recognised, the people came running from all quarters, and a crowd of more than a thousand was soon gathered. All these folk were in a high state of enthusiasm. They crowded round us, cheering and manifesting every sign of lively affection, wanting to touch and stroke my clothes. One would have thought I had brought them some fine substantial benefit which would improve their lot in life. I was completely undermined, and wept. Ismay, who was with me, records that he heard an old woman say, “You see, he really cares. He’s crying.” They were tears not of sorrow but of wonder and admiration. “But see, look here,” they said, and drew me to the centre of the ruins. There was an enormous crater, perhaps forty yards across and twenty feet deep. Cocked up at an angle on the very edge was an Anderson shelter, and we were greeted at its twisted doorway by a youngish man, his wife and three children, quite unharmed but obviously shell-jarred. They had been there at the moment of the explosion. They could give no account of their experiences. But there they were, and proud of it. Their neighbours regarded them as enviable curiosities. When we got back into the car, a harsher mood swept over this haggard crowd. “Give it ’em back,” they cried, and “Let them have it too.” I undertook forthwith to see that their wishes were carried out; and this promise was certainly kept. The debt was repaid tenfold, twentyfold, in the frightful routine bombardment of German cities, which grew in intensity as our air power developed, as the bombs became far heavier and the explosives more powerful. Certainly the enemy got it all back in good measure, pressed down and running over. Alas for poor humanity!

      *      *      *      *      *      

Another time I visited Margate. An air raid came upon us, and I was conducted into their big tunnel, where quite large numbers of people lived permanently. When we came out, after a quarter of an hour, we looked at the still-smoking damage. A small restaurant had been hit. Nobody had been hurt, but the place had been reduced into a litter of crockery, utensils, and splintered furniture. The proprietor, his wife, and the cooks and waitresses were in tears. Where was their home? Where was their livelihood? Here is a privilege of power. I formed an immediate resolve. On the way back in my train I dictated a letter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer laying down the principle that all damage from the fire of the enemy must be a charge upon the State and compensation be paid in full and at once. Thus the burden would not fall alone on those whose homes or business premises were hit, but would be borne evenly on the shoulders of the nation. Kingsley Wood was naturally a little worried by the indefinite character of this obligation. But I pressed hard, and an insurance scheme was devised in a fortnight which afterwards played a substantial part in our affairs. In explaining this to Parliament on September 5 I said:

It is very painful to me to see, as I have seen in my journeys about the country, a small British house or business smashed by the enemy’s fire, and to see that without feeling assured that we are doing our best to spread the burden so that we all stand in together. Damage by enemy action stands on a different footing from any other kind of loss or damage, because the nation undertakes the task of defending the lives and property of its subjects and taxpayers against assaults from outside. Unless public opinion and the judgment of the House were prepared to separate damage resulting from the fire of the enemy from all other forms of war loss, and unless the House was prepared to draw the distinction very sharply between war damage by bomb and shell and the other forms of loss which are incurred, we could not attempt to deal with this matter; otherwise we should be opening up a field to which there would be no bounds. If, however, we were able to embark upon such a project as would give complete insurance, at any rate up to a certain minimum figure, for everyone against war damage by shell or bomb, I think it would be a very solid mark of the confidence which after some experience we are justified in feeling about the way in which we are going to come through this war.

The Treasury went through various emotions about this insurance scheme. First, they thought it was going to be their ruin; but when after May, 1941, the air raids ceased for over three years, they began to make a great deal of money, and considered the plan provident and statesmanlike. However, later on in the war, when the “doodle-bugs” and rockets began, the account swung the other way, and eight hundred and thirty millions have in fact already been paid out. I am very glad it is so.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Our outlook at this time was that London, except for its strong modern buildings, would be gradually and soon reduced to a rubble-heap. I was deeply anxious about the life of the people of London, the greater part of whom stayed, slept, and took a chance where they were. The brick and concrete shelters were multiplying rapidly. The Tubes offered accommodation for a good many. There were several large shelters, some of which held as many as seven thousand people, who camped there in confidence night after night, little knowing what the effect of a direct hit would have been upon them. I asked that brick traverses should be built in these as fast as possible. About the Tubes there was an argument which was ultimately resolved by a compromise.

Prime Minister to Sir Edward Bridges, Home Secretary and Minister of Transport. 21.IX.40.

1. When I asked at the Cabinet the other day why the Tubes could not be used to some extent, even at the expense of transport facilities, as air-raid shelters, I was assured that this was most undesirable, and that the whole matter had been reviewed before that conclusion was reached. I now see that the Aldwych Tube is to be used as a shelter. Pray let me have more information about this, and what has happened to supersede the former decisive arguments.

2. I still remain in favour of a widespread utilisation of the Tubes, by which I mean not only the stations but the railway lines, and I should like a short report on one sheet of paper showing the numbers that could be accommodated on various sections and the structural changes that would be required to fit these sections for their new use. Is it true, for instance, that 750,000 people could be accommodated in the Aldwych section alone? We may well have to balance the relative demands of transport and shelter.

3. I am awaiting the report of the Home Secretary on the forward policy of—

(1)

Making more shelters.

(2)

Strengthening existing basements.

(3)

Making empty basements and premises available.

(4)

Most important. Assigning fixed places by tickets to a large proportion of the people, thus keeping them where we want them, and avoiding crowding.

In this new phase of warfare it became important to extract the optimum of work, not only from the factories, but even more from the departments in London which were under frequent bombardment during both the day and night. At first, whenever the sirens gave the alarm, all the occupants of a score of Ministries were promptly collected and led down to the basements, for what these were worth. Pride even was being taken in the efficiency and thoroughness with which this evolution was performed. In many cases it was only half a dozen aeroplanes which approached—sometimes only one. Often they did not arrive. A petty raid might bring to a standstill for over an hour the whole executive and administrative machine in London.

I therefore proposed the stage “Alert,” operative on the siren warning, as distinct from the “Alarm,” which should be enforced only when the spotters on the roof, or “Jim Crows,” as they came to be called, reported “Imminent danger,” which meant that the enemy were actually overhead or very near. Schemes were worked out accordingly. In order to enforce rigorous compliance, while we lived under these repeated daylight attacks, I called for a weekly return of the number of hours spent by the staff of each department in the shelters.

Prime Minister to Sir Edward Bridges and General Ismay. 17.IX.40.

Please report by tomorrow night the number of hours on September 16 that the principal offices in London were in their dug-outs and out of action through air alarm.

2. General Ismay should find out how the Air Ministry and Fighter Command view the idea that no red warning should be given when only two or three aircraft are approaching London.

Prime Minister to Sir Horace Wilson and Sir Edward Bridges. 19.IX.40.

Let me have a further return [of time lost in Government Departments owing to air-raid warnings] for the 17th and 18th, and henceforward daily, from all Ministries, including the Service Departments. These returns will be circulated to heads of all Departments at the same time as they are sent to me. Thus it will be possible to see who are doing best. If all returns are not received on any day from some Departments, those that are should nevertheless be circulated.

      *      *      *      *      *      

This put everybody on their mettle. Eight of these returns were actually furnished. It was amusing to see that the fighting Departments were for some time in the worst position. Offended and spurred by this implied reproach, they very quickly took their proper place. The loss of hours in all Departments was reduced to a fraction. Presently our fighters made daylight attack too costly to the enemy, and this phase passed away. In spite of the almost continuous alerts and alarms which were sounded, hardly a single Government Department was hit during daylight when it was full of people, nor any loss of life sustained. But how much time might have been wasted in the functioning of the war machine if the civil and military staffs had shown any weakness, or been guided up the wrong alley!

As early as September 1, before the heavy night attacks began, I had addressed the Home Secretary and others.

Air-raid Warnings and Precautions

1. The present system of air-raid warnings was designed to cope with occasional large mass raids on definite targets, not with waves coming over several times a day, and still less with sporadic bombers roaming about at nights. We cannot allow large parts of the country to be immobilised for hours every day and to be distracted every night. The enemy must not be permitted to prejudice our war effort by stopping work in the factories which he has been unable to destroy.

2. There should be instituted, therefore, a new system of warnings:

The Alert

The Alarm

The All Clear

The Alert should not interrupt the normal life of the area. People not engaged on national work could, if they desired, take refuge or put their children in a place of safety. But in general they should learn, and they do learn, to adapt themselves to their dangers and take only such precautions as are compatible with their duties and imposed by their temperament.

3. The air-raid services should be run on an increased nucleus staff, and not all be called out every time as on a present red warning. The lookout system should be developed in all factories where war work is proceeding, and should be put into effect when the Alert is given; the lookouts would have full authority to give local factory or office alarms. The signal for the Alert might be given during the day by the hoisting of a display of yellow flags by a sufficient number of specially charged air-raid wardens. At night flickering yellow (or perhaps red) lamps could be employed. The use of electric street lighting should be studied, and the possibility of sounding special signals on the telephone.

4. The Alarm is a direct order to “Take cover” and for the full manning of all A.R.P. positions. This will very likely synchronise with, or precede by only a brief interval, the actual attack. The routine in each case must be subject to local conditions.

The signal for the Alarm would be the siren. It would probably be unnecessary to supplement this by light or telephone signals.

5. The All Clear could be sounded as at present. It would end the Alarm period. If the Alert continued, the flags would remain hoisted; if the enemy had definitely turned back, the Alert flags and lights would be removed.

The use of the Alert and Alarm signals might vary in different parts of the country. In areas subject to frequent attack, such as East Kent, South and Southeast London, Southeast Anglia, Birmingham, Derby, Liverpool, Bristol, and some other places, the Alert would be a commonplace. The Alarm would denote actual attack. This would also apply to the Whitehall district. In other parts of the country a somewhat less sparing use of the Alarm might be justified in order to keep the air-raid services from deteriorating.

6. In Government offices in London no one should be forced to take cover until actual firing has begun and the siren ordering the Alarm under the new conditions has been sounded. No one is to stop work merely because London is under Alert conditions.

      *      *      *      *      *      

I had to give way about the sirens, or “Banshee howlings,” as I described them to Parliament.

Prime Minister to Home Secretary and others concerned. 14.IX.40.

I promised the House that new regulations about air-raid warnings, sirens, whistles, Jim Crow, etc., should be considered within the past week. However, the intensification of raiding has made it inexpedient to abolish the sirens at this moment. I shall be glad, however, to have a short statement prepared of what is the practice which has in fact developed during the last week.

      *      *      *      *      *      

One felt keenly for all the poor people, most of them in their little homes, with nothing over their heads.

Prime Minister to Home Secretary. 3.IX.40.

In spite of the shortage of materials, a great effort should be made to help people to drain their Anderson shelters, which reflect so much credit on your name, and to make floors for them against the winter rain. Bricks on edge placed loosely together without mortar, covered with a piece of linoleum, would be quite good, but there must be a drain and a sump. I am prepared to help you in a comprehensive scheme to tackle this. Instruction can be given on the broadcast, and of course the Regional Commissioners and local authorities should be used. Let me have a plan.

Prime Minister to General Ismay and Private Office. 11.IX.40.

Please call for reports on whether any serious effects are being produced by the air attack on—

(1)

food supplies and distribution;

(2)

numbers of homeless, and provision therefor;

(3)

exhaustion of Fire Brigade personnel;

(4)

sewage in London area;

(5)

gas and electricity;

(6)

water supplies in London area.

(7)

General Ismay to find out what is the practical effect of the bombing on Woolwich production. See also my report from the Minister of Supply.

Prime Minister to Sir Edward Bridges. 12.IX.40.

Will you kindly convey to the Cabinet and Ministers the suggestion which I make that our hours should be somewhat advanced. Luncheon should be at one o’clock, and Cabinet times moved forward by half an hour. In principle it will be convenient if we aim at an earlier dinner-hour, say, 7.15 P.M. Darkness falls earlier, and for the next few weeks severe bombing may be expected once the protection of the fighter aircraft is withdrawn. It would be a good thing if staffs and servants could be under shelter as early as possible, and Ministers are requested to arrange to work in places of reasonable security during the night raids, and especially to find places for sleeping where they will not be disturbed by anything but a direct hit.

I propose to ask Parliament when it meets at the usual time on Tuesday to meet in these occasional sittings at 11 A.M. and separate at 4 or 5 P.M. This will allow Members to reach their homes, and I hope their shelters, by daylight. We must adapt ourselves to these conditions, which will probably be accentuated. Indeed, it is likely we shall have to move our office hours forward by another half-hour as the days shorten.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Parliament also required guidance about the conduct of its work in these dangerous days. Members felt that it was their duty to set an example. This was right, but it might have been pushed too far; I had to reason with the Commons to make them observe ordinary prudence and conform to the peculiar conditions of the time. I convinced them in secret session of the need to take necessary and well-considered precautions. They agreed that their days and hours of sitting should not be advertised, and to suspend their debates when the Jim Crow reported to the Speaker “Imminent danger.” Then they all trooped down dutifully to the crowded, ineffectual shelters that had been provided. It will always add to the renown of the British Parliament that its Members continued to sit and discharge their duties through all this period. The Commons are very touchy in such matters, and it would have been easy to misjudge their mood. When one Chamber was damaged, they moved to another, and I did my utmost to persuade them to follow wise advice with good grace. Their migrations will be recorded in due course. In short, everyone behaved with sense and dignity. It was also lucky that when the Chamber was blown to pieces a few months later, it was by night and not by day, when empty and not full. With our mastery of the daylight raids there came considerable relief in personal convenience. But during the first few months I was never free from anxiety about the safety of the Members. After all, a free sovereign Parliament, fairly chosen by universal suffrage, able to turn out the Government any day, but proud to uphold it in the darkest days, was one of the points which were in dispute with the enemy. Parliament won.

I doubt whether any of the dictators had as much effective power throughout his whole nation as the British War Cabinet. When we expressed our desires we were sustained by the people’s representatives, and cheerfully obeyed by all. Yet at no time was the right of criticism impaired. Nearly always the critics respected the national interest. When on occasions they challenged us, the Houses voted them down by overwhelming majorities, and this, in contrast with totalitarian methods, without the slightest coercion, intervention, or use of the police or Secret Service. It was a proud thought that Parliamentary Democracy, or whatever our British public life can be called, can endure, surmount, and survive all trials. Even the threat of annihilation did not daunt our Members, but this fortunately did not come to pass.

3
“London Can Take It”

Grim and Gay—Passion in the United States—The London Drains—Danger of Epidemics—Broken Windows—The Delayed-Action Bombs—Minutes Thereupon—The U.X.B. Detachments—The Peril Mastered—Heavy Parachute Mines—The Question of Reprisals—Later German Experiences Compared with Ours—Need of Security for the Central Government—“Paddock” Rehearsal—Herbert Morrison Succeeds John Anderson as Home Secretary—The Incendiary Attacks Begin—The National Fire Service—Civil Defence, a Fourth Arm of the Crown—Power of London to Take Punishment—Permanent Arrangements for Safeguarding the War Machine—I Am Placed in Safety in Piccadilly Underground—Return to the Annexe—Another Change of the German Plan—The Provincial Cities—Coventry—Birmingham—Attacks on the Ports—Great Burning of the City of London, December 29, 1940—The King at Buckingham Palace—His Majesty’s Mastery of Business—A Thought for the Future.

These were the times when the English, and particularly the Londoners, who had the place of honour, were seen at their best. Grim and gay, dogged and serviceable, with the confidence of an unconquered people in their bones, they adapted themselves to this strange new life, with all its terrors, with all its jolts and jars. One evening when I was leaving for an inspection on the east coast, on my way to King’s Cross the sirens sounded, the streets began to empty, except for long queues of very tired, pale people, waiting for the last bus that would run. An autumn mist and drizzle shrouded the scene. The air was cold and raw. Night and the enemy were approaching. I felt, with a spasm of mental pain, a deep sense of the strain and suffering that was being borne throughout the world’s largest capital city. How long would it go on? How much more would they have to bear? What were the limits of their vitality? What effects would their exhaustion have upon our productive warmaking power?[1]

Away across the Atlantic the prolonged bombardment of London, and later of other cities and seaports, aroused a wave of sympathy in the United States, stronger than any ever felt before or since in the English-speaking world. Passion flamed in American hearts, and in none more than in the heart of President Roosevelt. The temperature rose steadily in the United States. I could feel the glow of millions of men and women eager to share the suffering, burning to strike a blow. As many Americans as could get passages came, bringing whatever gifts they could, and their respect, reverence, deep love and comradeship were very inspiring. However, this was only September, and we had many months before us of this curious existence.

Under the pressure of the bombardment, the shelters and defences grew continually. I was worried principally on three counts. The first was the drains. When you had six or seven million people living in a great built-up area, the smashing of their sewers and water supply seemed to me a very great danger. Could we keep the sewage system working or would there be a pestilence? What would happen if the drains got into the water supply? Actually, early in October the main sewage outfall was destroyed and we had to let all our sewage flow into the Thames, which stank, first of sewage and afterwards of the floods of chemicals we poured into it. But all was mastered. Secondly, I feared that the long nights for millions in the crowded street-shelters—only blast-proof at that—would produce epidemics of influenza, diphtheria, the common cold, and what-not. But it appeared that Nature had already provided against this danger. Man is a gregarious animal, and apparently the mischievous microbes he exhales fight and neutralise each other. They go out and devour each other, and Man walks off unharmed. If this is not scientifically correct, it ought to be. The fact remains that during this rough winter the health of the Londoners was actually above the average. Moreover, the power of enduring suffering in the ordinary people of every country, when their spirit is roused, seems to have no bounds.

My third fear was a glass famine. Sometimes whole streets had every window-frame smashed by the blast of a single bomb. In a series of Minutes I inquired anxiously about this, and proposed to stop all export of glass forthwith. I was, however, reassured by facts and figures, and this danger also never came to pass.

      *      *      *      *      *      

In the middle of September, a new and damaging form of attack was used against us. Large numbers of delayed-action bombs were now widely and plentifully cast upon us and became an awkward problem. Long stretches of railway line, important junctions, the approaches to vital factories, airfields, main thoroughfares, had scores of times to be blocked off and denied to us in our need. These bombs had to be dug out, and exploded or rendered harmless. This was a task of the utmost peril, especially at the beginning, when the means and methods had all to be learned by a series of decisive experiences. I have already recounted in Volume I the drama of dismantling the magnetic mine, but this form of self-devotion now became commonplace while remaining sublime. I had always taken an interest in the delayed-action fuze, which had first impressed itself on me in 1918, when the Germans had used it on a large scale to deny us the use of the railways by which we planned to advance into Germany. I had urged its use by us both in Norway and in the Kiel Canal. There is no doubt that it is a most effective agent in warfare, on account of the prolonged uncertainty which it creates. We were now to taste it ourselves. A special organisation to deal with it was set up under General King, a highly capable, energetic officer, whom I interviewed myself at Chequers. In a series of Minutes I tried to stimulate the work.

Prime Minister to Secretary of State for War. 13.IX.40.

As I telephoned to you last night, it appears to be of high importance to cope with the U.X.B. [unexploded bombs] in London, and especially on the railways. The congestion in the marshalling yards is becoming acute, mainly from this cause. It would be well to bring in clearance parties both from the north and the west, and also to expand as rapidly as possible General King’s organisation. It must be planned on large enough lines to cope with this nuisance, which may soon wear a graver aspect.

Prime Minister to Minister of Supply. 21.IX.40.

The rapid disposal of unexploded bombs is of the highest importance. Any failure to grapple with this problem may have serious results on the production of aircraft and other vital war material. The work of the bomb-disposal squads must be facilitated by the provision of every kind of up-to-date equipment. The paper, which I have received from the Secretary of State for War, shows the experiments on foot, and the equipment being planned. Priority 1 (a) should be allotted to the production of the equipment required, and to any further requirements which may come to light.

Prime Minister to Secretary of State for War. 14.IX.40.

I hear that there is a special type of auger manufactured in the United Slates which is capable of boring in the space of less than an hour a hole of such a size and depth as would take two to three days to dig manually.

You should, I think, consider ordering a number of these appliances for the use of the bomb-disposal squads. The essence of this business is to reach the bomb and deal with it with the least possible delay.

These augers may perhaps be expensive, but they will pay for themselves many times over by the saving they will effect in life and properly. Besides, I consider that we owe it to these brave men to provide them with the very best technical equipment.

Prime Minister to Secretary of State for War. 28.IX.40.

I am told that there is good evidence to show that the system of dealing with time-bombs by trepanning[2] is proving very successful. In view of the serious and growing trouble that is being caused by these bombs, I should like to be assured that this method is being used on a large enough scale. Will you please let me have a report on the extent to which trepanning is being used.

Special companies were formed in every city, town and district. Volunteers pressed forward for the deadly game. Teams were formed which had good or bad luck. Some survived this phase of our ordeal. Others ran twenty, thirty, or even forty courses before they met their fate. The unexploded-bomb (U.X.B.) detachments presented themselves wherever I went on my tours. Somehow or other their faces seemed different from those of ordinary men, however brave and faithful. They were gaunt, they were haggard, their faces had a bluish look, with bright gleaming eyes and exceptional compression of the lips; withal a perfect demeanour. In writing about our hard times, we are apt to overuse the word “grim.” It should have been reserved for the U.X.B. disposal squads.[3]

One squad I remember which may be taken as symbolic of many others. It consisted of three people—the Earl of Suffolk, his lady private secretary, and his rather aged chauffeur. They called themselves “the Holy Trinity.” Their prowess and continued existence got around among all who knew. Thirty-four unexploded bombs did they tackle with urbane and smiling efficiency. But the thirty-fifth claimed its forfeit. Up went the Earl of Suffolk in his Holy Trinity. But we may be sure that, as for Mr. Valiant-for Truth, “all the trumpets sounded for them on the other side.”

Very quickly, but at heavy sacrifice of our noblest, the devotion of the U.X.B. detachments mastered the peril. In a month I could write:

Prime Minister to General Ismay. 9.X.40.

We have now heard much lately about the delayed-action bomb which threatened to give so much trouble at the beginning of September. I have a sort of feeling that things are easier in this respect. Let me have a report showing how many have been cast upon us lately, and how many have been handled successfully or remain a nuisance.

Is the easement which we feel due to the enemy’s not throwing them, or to our improved methods of handling?[4]

      *      *      *      *      *      

About the same time the enemy began to drop by parachute numbers of naval mines of a weight and explosive power never carried by aircraft before. Many formidable explosions took place. To this there was no defence except reprisal. The abandonment by the Germans of all pretence of confiding the air war to military objectives had also raised this question of retaliation. I was for it, but I encountered many conscientious scruples.

Prime Minister to V.C.A.S. 6.IX.40.

I never suggested any departure from our main policy, but I believe that moral advantage would be gained in Germany at the present time if on two or three nights in a month a number of minor, unexpected, widespread attacks were made upon the smaller German centers. You must remember that these people are never told the truth, and that wherever the air force has not been they are probably told that the German defences are impregnable. Many factors have to be taken into consideration, and some of them are those which are not entirely technical. I hope, therefore, you will consider my wish, and make me proposals for giving effect to it as opportunity serves.

Among those who demurred was my friend Admiral Tom Phillips, Vice-Chief of the Naval Staff.

Prime Minister to General Ismay, for C.O.S. Committee. 19.IX.40.

(Admiral Phillips to see.)

1. It was not solely on moral grounds that we decided against retaliation upon Germany. It pays us better to concentrate upon limited high-class military objectives. Moreover, in the indiscriminate warfare the enemy’s lack of skill in navigation, etc., does not tell against him so much.

2. However, the dropping of large mines by parachute proclaims the enemy’s entire abandonment of all pretence of aiming at military objectives. At five thousand feet he cannot have the slightest idea what he is going to hit. This, therefore, proves the “act-of-terror” intention against the civil population. We must consider whether his morale would stand up to this as well as ours. Here is a simple war thought.

3. My inclination is to say that we will drop a heavy parachute mine on German cities for everyone he drops on ours; and it might be an intriguing idea to mention a list of cities that would be black-listed for this purpose. I do not think they would like it, and there is no reason why they should not have a period of suspense.

4. The time and character of the announcement is a political decision. Meanwhile, I wish to know when the tackle could be ready. Let care be taken to make a forthcoming response to this. Let officers be set to propose the best method on a substantial scale in the shortest time. It would be better to act by parachute mines upon a number of German towns not hitherto touched, but if we have to use thousand-pound air-bombs which we have because otherwise the delay would be too long, let the case be stated.

5. I wish to know by Saturday night what is the worst form of proportionate retaliation, i.e., equal retaliation, that we can inflict upon ordinary German cities for what they are now doing to us by means of the parachute mine. Today we were informed that thirty-six had been dropped, but by tomorrow it may be a hundred. Well, let it be a hundred and make the best plan possible on that scale for action within, say, a week or ten days. If we have to wait longer, so be it, but make sure there is no obstruction.

6. Pending the above information I agree that we should not make a wail or a whine about what has happened. Let me have practical propositions by Saturday night.

A month later, I was still pressing for retaliation; but one objection after another, moral and technical, obstructed it.

Prime Minister to Secretary of State for Air and C.A.S. 16.X.40.

I see it reported that last night a large number of land mines were dropped here, many of which have not yet gone off, and that great harm was done.

Let me have your proposals forthwith for effective retaliation upon Germany.

I am informed that is quite possible to carry similar mines or large bombs to Germany, and that the squadrons wish to use them, but that the Air Ministry are refusing permission. I trust that due consideration will be given to my views and wishes. It is now about three weeks since I began pressing for similar treatment of German military objectives to that which they are meting out to us. Who is responsible for paralysing action?

It is difficult to compare the ordeal of the Londoners in the winter of 1940-41 with that of the Germans in the last three years of the war. In this later phase the bombs were much more powerful and the raids far more intense. On the other hand, long preparation and German thoroughness had enabled a complete system of bomb-poof shelters to be built, into which all were forced to go by iron routine. When eventually we got into Germany, we found cities completely wrecked, but strong buildings standing up above the ground, and spacious subterranean galleries where the inhabitants slept night after night, although their houses and property were being destroyed all round. In many cases only the rubble-heaps were stirred. But in London, although the attack was less overpowering, the security arrangements were far less developed. Apart from the Tubes there were no really safe places. There were very few basements or cellars which could withstand a direct hit. Virtually the whole mass of the London population lived and slept in their homes or in their Anderson shelters under the fire of the enemy, taking their chance with British phlegm after a hard day’s work. Not one in a thousand had any protection except against blast and splinters. But there was as little psychological weakening as there was physical pestilence. Of course, if the bombs of 1943 had been applied to the London of 1940, we should have passed into conditions which might have pulverised all human organisation. However, everything happens in its turn and in its relation, and no one has a right to say that London, which was certainly unconquered, was not also unconquerable.

Little or nothing had been done before the war or during the passive period to provide bomb-proof strongholds from which the central government could be carried on. Elaborate plans had been made to move the seat of Government from London. Complete branches of many departments had already been moved to Harrogate, Bath, Cheltenham, and elsewhere. Accommodation had been requisitioned over a wide area, providing for all Ministers and important functionaries in the event of an evacuation of London. But now under the bombardment the desire and resolve of the Government and of Parliament to remain in London was unmistakable, and I shared this feeling to the full. I, like others, had often pictured the destruction becoming so overpowering that a general move and dispersal would have to be made. But under the impact of the event, all our reactions were in the contrary sense.

Prime Minister to Sir Edward Bridges, General Ismay or Colonel Jacob, and Private Office. 14.IX.40.

1. I have not at any time contemplated wholesale movement from London of black or yellow Civil Servants.[5] Anything of this nature is so detrimental that it could only be forced upon us by Central London becoming practically uninhabitable. Moreover, new resorts of Civil Servants would soon be identified and harassed, and there is more shelter in London than anywhere else.

2. The movement of the high control from the Whitehall area to “Paddock” or other citadels stands on a different footing. We must make sure that the centre of Government functions harmoniously and vigorously. This would not be possible under conditions of almost continuous air raids. A movement to “Paddock” by échelons of the War Cabinet, War Cabinet Secretariat, Chiefs of the Staff Committee, and Home Forces G.H.Q. must now be planned, and may even begin in some minor respects. War Cabinet Ministers should visit their quarters in “Paddock” and be ready to move there at short notice. They should be encouraged to sleep there if they want quiet nights. Secrecy cannot be expected, but publicity must be forbidden.

We must expect that the Whitehall-Westminster area will be the subject of intensive air attack any time now. The German method is to make the disruption of the Central Government a vital prelude to any major assault upon the country. They have done this everywhere. They will certainly do it here, where the landscape can be so easily recognised, and the river and its high buildings afford a sure guide, both by day and night. We must forestall this disruption of the Central Government.

3. It is not necessary to move the Admiralty yet. They are well provided for. The Air Ministry should begin to get from one leg to the other. The War Office and Home Forces must have all their preparations made.

4. Pray concert forthwith all the necessary measures for moving not more than two or three hundred principal persons and their immediate assistants to the new quarters, and show how it should be done step by step. Let me have this by Sunday night, in order that I may put a well-thought-out scheme before the Cabinet on Monday. On Monday the Cabinet will meet either in the Cabinet Room or in the Central War Room, in accordance with the rules already prescribed.

      *      *      *      *      *      

On the line of sticking it out in London it was necessary to construct all kinds of strongholds under or above ground from which the Executive, with its thousands of officials, could carry out their duties. A citadel for the War Cabinet had already been prepared near Hampstead, with offices, bedrooms, and wire and fortified telephone communication. This was called “Paddock.” On September 29, I prescribed a dress rehearsal, so that everybody should know what to do if it got too hot. “I think it important that ‘Paddock’ should be broken in. Thursday next, therefore, the Cabinet will meet there. At the same time, other Departments should be encouraged to try a preliminary move of a skeleton staff. If possible, lunch should be provided for the Cabinet and those attending it.” We held a Cabinet meeting at “Paddock” far from the light of day, and each Minister was requested to inspect and satisfy himself about his sleeping and working apartments. We celebrated this occasion by a vivacious luncheon and then returned to Whitehall. This was the only time “Paddock” was ever used by Ministers. Over the War Room and offices in the basement of the Annexe we floated-in six feet of steel and concrete, and made elaborate arrangements for ventilation, water supply, and above all telephones. As these offices were far below the level of the Thames, only two hundred yards away, care had to be taken that those in them were not trapped by an inrush of water.

      *      *      *      *      *      

October came in raw and rough. But it seemed that London was adapting itself to the new peculiar conditions of existence or death. Even in some directions there was an easement.

Transport into and out of the Whitehall area became an outstanding problem, with the frequently repeated daily raids, the rush hour, and the breakdowns on the railways. I cast about for some solution.

Prime Minister to Sir Horace Wilson. 12.X.40.

About a fortnight ago I directed that the talk about four days a week for Civil Servants should stop, because I feared the effect in the factories of such an announcement. I am, however, now coming round to the idea of a five-day week, sleeping in for four nights (and where possible feeding in), and three nights and two days away at home. This, of course, would apply only to people who work in London and live in the suburbs. I see such queues at the bus stops, and no doubt it is going to become increasingly difficult to get in and out of London quickly. Each Department should work out a scheme to suit their own and their staff’s convenience. The same amount of work must be crowded into the five days as is now done. Efforts should also be made to stagger the hours of arrival and departure, so as to get as many away as possible before the rush hour and spread the traffic over the day.

Let me have your views on this, together with proposals for action in a circular to Departments.

Nothing came of this plan, which broke down under detailed examination.

      *      *      *      *      *      

The retirement of Mr. Chamberlain, enforced by grave illness, led to important Ministerial changes. Mr. Herbert Morrison had been an efficient and vigorous Minister of Supply, and Sir John Anderson had faced the Blitz of London with firm and competent management. By the early days of October, the continuous attack on the largest city in the world was so severe and raised so many problems of a social and political character in its vast harassed population that I thought it would be a help to have a long-trained Parliamentarian at the Home Office, which was now also the Ministry of Home Security. London was bearing the brunt. Herbert Morrison was a Londoner, versed in every aspect of metropolitan administration. He had unrivalled experience of London government, having been leader of the County Council, and in many ways the principal figure in its affairs. At the same time I needed John Anderson, whose work at the Home Office had been excellent, as Lord President of the Council in the wider sphere of the Home Affairs Committee, to which an immense mass of business was referred, with great relief to the Cabinet. This also lightened my own burden and enabled me to concentrate upon the military conduct of the war, in which my colleagues seemed increasingly disposed to give me latitude.

I therefore invited these two high Ministers to change their offices. It was no bed of roses which I offered Herbert Morrison. These pages certainly cannot attempt to describe the problems of London government, when often night after night ten or twenty thousand people were made homeless, and when nothing but the ceaseless vigil of the citizens as fire guards on the roofs prevented uncontrollable conflagrations; when hospitals filled with mutilated men and women were themselves struck by the enemy’s bombs; when hundreds of thousands of weary people crowded together in unsafe and insanitary shelters; when communications by road and rail were ceaselessly broken down; when drains were smashed and light, power, and gas paralysed; and when, nevertheless, the whole fighting, toiling life of London had to go forward, and nearly a million people be moved in and out for their work every night and morning. We did not know how long it would last. We had no reason to suppose that it would not go on getting worse. When I made the proposal to Mr. Morrison, he knew too much about it to treat it lightly. He asked for a few hours’ consideration; but in a short time he returned and said he would be proud to shoulder the job. I highly approved his manly decision.

In Mr. Chamberlain’s day a Civil Defence Committee of the Cabinet had already been set up. This met regularly every morning to review the whole situation. In order to make sure that the new Home Secretary was armed with all the powers of State, I also held a weekly meeting, usually on Fridays, of all authorities concerned. The topics discussed were often far from pleasant.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Quite soon after the Ministerial movements, a change in the enemy’s method affected our general policy. Till now the hostile attack had been confined almost exclusively to high-explosive bombs; but with the full moon of October 15, when the heaviest attack of the month fell upon us, about 480 German aircraft dropped 386 tons of high-explosive and in addition 70,000 incendiary bombs. Hitherto we had encouraged the Londoners to take cover, and every effort was being made to improve their protection. But now “To the basements” must be replaced by “To the roofs.” It fell to the new Minister of Home Security to institute this policy. An organisation of fire-watchers and fire-services on a gigantic scale and covering the whole of London (apart from measures taken in provincial cities) was rapidly brought into being. At first the fire-watchers were volunteers; but the numbers required were so great, and the feeling that every man should take his turn upon the roster so strong, that fire-watching soon became compulsory. This form of service had a bracing and buoyant effect upon all classes. Women pressed forward to take their share. Large-scale systems of training were developed to teach the fire-watchers how to deal with the various kinds of incendiaries which were used against us. Many became adept, and thousands of fires were extinguished before they took hold. The experience of remaining on the roof night after night under fire, with no protection but a tin hat, soon became habitual.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Mr. Morrison presently decided to consolidate the fourteen hundred local fire brigades into a single National Fire Service, and to supplement this with a great fire guard of civilians trained and working in their spare time. The fire guard, like the roof-watchers, was at first recruited on a voluntary basis, but like them it became by general consent compulsory. The National Fire Service gave us the advantages of greater mobility, a universal standard of training and equipment, and formally recognised ranks. The other Civil Defence forces produced regional columns ready at a minute’s notice to go anywhere. The name Civil Defence Service was substituted for the pre-war title of Air-Raid Precautions (A.R.P.). Good uniforms were provided for large numbers, and they became conscious of being a fourth arm of the Crown. In all this work Herbert Morrison was ably assisted by a brave woman whose death we have lately mourned, Ellen Wilkinson. She was out and about in the shelters at all hours of the day and night and took a prominent part in the organisation of the fire guard. The Women’s Voluntary Services, under the inspiring leadership of Lady Reading, also played an invaluable part.

      *      *      *      *      *      

I was glad that, if any of our cities were to be attacked, the brunt should fall on London. London was like some huge prehistoric animal, capable of enduring terrible injuries, mangled and bleeding from many wounds, and yet preserving its life and movement. The Anderson shelters were widespread in the working-class districts of two-storey houses, and everything was done to make them habitable and to drain them in wet weather. Later the Morrison shelter was developed, which was no more than a heavy kitchen table made of steel with strong wire sides, capable of holding up the ruins of a small house and thus giving a measure of protection. Many owed their lives to it. For the rest, “London could take it.” They took all they got, and could have taken more. Indeed, at this time we saw no end but the demolition of the whole metropolis. Still, as I pointed out to the House of Commons at the time, the law of diminishing returns operates in the case of the demolition of large cities. Soon many of the bombs would only fall upon houses already ruined and only make the rubble jump. Over large areas there would be nothing more to burn or destroy, and yet human beings might make their homes here and there, and carry on their work with infinite resource and fortitude. At this time anyone would have been proud to be a Londoner. The admiration of the whole country was given to London, and all the other great cities in the land braced themselves to take their bit as and when it came and not to be outdone. Indeed, many persons seemed envious of London’s distinction, and quite a number came up from the country in order to spend a night or two in town, share the task, and see the fun. We had to check this tendency for administrative reasons.

      *      *      *      *      *      

As we could see no reason why the hostile bombing of London should not go on throughout the war, it was necessary to make long-term plans for safely housing the central Government machine.

Prime Minister to Sir Edward Bridges. 22.X.40.

We now know the probable limits of the enemy air attack on London, and that it will be severe and protracted. It is probable, indeed, that the bombing of Whitehall and the centre of Government will be continuous until all old or insecure buildings have been demolished. It is, therefore, necessary to provide as soon as possible accommodation in the strongest houses and buildings that exist, or are capable of being fortified, for the large nucleus staffs and personnel connected with the governing machine and the essential Ministers and Departments concerned in the conduct of the war. This becomes inevitable as a consequence of our decision not to be beaten out of London, and to release to the War Office or other Departments the accommodation hitherto reserved in the West of England for the Black Move. We must do one thing or the other, and, having made our decision, carry it out thoroughly.

2. The accommodation at Paddock is quite unsuited to the conditions which have arisen. The War Cabinet cannot live and work there for weeks on end, while leaving the great part of their staffs less well provided for than they are now in Whitehall. Apart from the citadel of Paddock, there is no adequate accommodation or shelter, and anyone living in Neville Court would have to be running to and fro on every Jim Crow warning. Paddock should be treated as a last resort, and in the meantime should be used by some Department not needed in the very centre of London.

3. Nearly all the Government buildings and the shelters beneath them are either wholly unsafe or incapable of resisting a direct hit. The older buildings, like the Treasury, fall to pieces, as we have seen, and the shelters beneath them offer no trustworthy protection. The Foreign Office and Board of Trade blocks on either side of King Charles Street are strongly built and give a considerable measure of protection in their basements. I have approved the provision of a substantial measure of overhead cover above the War Room and Central War Room offices, and Home Forces location in the Board of Trade Building. This will take a month or six weeks with perpetual hammering. We must press on with this. But even when finished, it will not be proof. Richmond Terrace is quite inadequately protected, and essential work suffers from conditions prevailing there. The Board of Trade have been invited to move to new premises, and certainly the bulk of their staff should find accommodation out of London. However, this move of the Board of Trade must be considered as part of the general plan.

4. There are several strong modern buildings in London, of steel and cement construction, built with an eye to air-raid conditions. These should immediately be prepared to receive the War Cabinet and its Secretariat, and also to provide safe living accommodation for the essential Ministers. We need not be afraid of having too much proof accommodation, as increasing numbers will certainly have to be provided for. It is essential that the central work of the Government should proceed under conditions which ensure its efficiency.

5. I have already asked for alternative accommodation for Parliament, but no satisfactory plan has yet been made. The danger to both Houses during their sessions is serious, and it is only a question of time before these buildings and chambers are struck. We must hope they will be struck when not occupied by their Members. The protection provided below the Houses of Parliament is totally inadequate against a direct hit. The Palace of Westminster and the Whitehall area is an obvious prime target of the enemy, and I dare say already more than fifty heavy bombs have fallen in the neighbourhood. The Cabinet has already favoured the idea of a trial trip being made by the Houses of Parliament in some alternative accommodation. I propose to ask for an adjournment from Thursday next for a fortnight, by which time it is hoped some plan can be made in London for their meeting.

6. I consider that a War Cabinet Minister, who should keep in close touch with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, should be entrusted with the general direction and supervision of the important and extensive works which are required, and that Lord Reith and his Department should work for this purpose under Cabinet supervision. If my colleagues agree, I will ask Lord Beaverbrook, who has already concerned himself in the matter, to take general charge.

Lord Beaverbrook was thus entrusted with the task of making a large number of bomb-proof strongholds capable of housing the whole essential staffs of many Departments of State, and a dozen of them, several connected by tunnels, survive in London today. None of these were finished till long after the aeroplane raids were over, and few were used during the pilotless-aircraft and rocket attacks which came in 1944 and 1945. However, although these buildings were never used for the purposes for which they were prepared, it was good to feel we had them under our lee. The Admiralty on their own constructed the vast monstrosity which weighs upon the Horse Guards Parade, and the demolition of whose twenty-foot-thick steel and concrete walls will be a problem for future generations when we reach a safer world.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Towards the middle of October, Josiah Wedgwood began to make a fuss in Parliament about my not having an absolutely bomb-proof shelter for the night raids. He was an old friend of mine, and had been grievously wounded in the Dardanelles. He had always been a single-taxer. Later he broadened his views on taxation and joined the Labour Party. His brother was the Chairman of the Railway Executive Committee. Before the war they had had the foresight to construct a considerable underground office in Piccadilly. It was seventy feet below the surface and covered with strong, high buildings. Although one bomb had penetrated eighty feet in marshy subsoil, there was no doubt this depth with buildings overhead gave safety to anyone in it. I began to be pressed from all sides to resort to this shelter for sleeping purposes. Eventually I agreed, and from the middle of October till the end of the year, I used to go there once the firing had started, to transact my evening business and sleep undisturbed. One felt a natural compunction at having much more safety than most other people; but so many pressed me that I let them have their way. After about forty nights in the railway shelter, the Annexe became stronger, and I moved back to it. Here during the rest of the war my wife and I lived comfortably. We felt confidence in this solid stone building, and only on very rare occasions went down below the armour. My wife even hung up our few pictures in the sitting-room, which I had thought it better to keep bare. Her view prevailed and was justified by the event. From the roof near the cupola of the Annexe there was a splendid view of London on clear nights. They made a place for me with overhead cover from splinters, and one could walk in the moonlight and watch the fireworks. In 1941 I used to take some of my American visitors up there from time to time after dinner. They were always most interested.

      *      *      *      *      *      

On the night of November 3, for the first time in nearly two months no alarm sounded in London. The silence seemed quite odd to many. They wondered what was wrong. On the following night the enemy’s attacks were widely dispersed throughout the island; and this continued for a while. There had been another change in the policy of the German offensive. Although London was still regarded as the principal target, a major effort was now to be made to cripple the industrial centres of Britain. Special squadrons had been trained, with new navigational devices, to attack specific key-centres. For instance, one formation was trained solely for the destruction of the Rolls-Royce aero-engine works at Hillington, Glasgow. All this was a makeshift and interim plan. The invasion of Britain had been temporarily abandoned, and the attack upon Russia had not yet been mounted, or expected outside Hitler’s intimate circle. The remaining winter months were, therefore, to be for the German Air Force a period of experiment, both in technical devices night-bombing and in attacks upon British sea-borne trade, together with an attempt to break down our production, military and civil. They would have done much better to have stuck to one thing at a time and pressed it to a conclusion. But they were already baffled and for the time being unsure of themselves.

These new bombing tactics began with the blitz on Coventry on the night of November 14. London seemed too large and vague a target for decisive results, but Goering hoped that provincial cities or munition centres might be effectively obliterated. The raid started early in the dark hours of the 14th, and by dawn nearly five hundred German aircraft had dropped six hundred tons of high-explosives and thousands of incendiaries. On the whole this was the most devastating raid which we sustained. The centre of Coventry was shattered, and its life for a spell completely disrupted. Four hundred people were killed and many more seriously injured. The German radio proclaimed that our other cities would be similarly “Coventrated.” Nevertheless, the all-important aero-engine and machine-tool factories were not brought to a standstill; nor was the population, hitherto untried in the ordeal of bombing, put out of action. In less than a week an emergency reconstruction committee did wonderful work in restoring the life of the city.

On November 15, the enemy switched back to London with a very heavy raid in full moonlight. Much damage was done, especially to churches and other monuments. The next target was Birmingham, and three successive raids from the 19th to the 22d of November inflicted much destruction and loss of life. Nearly eight hundred people were killed and over two thousand injured; but the life and spirit of Birmingham survived this ordeal. When I visited the city a day or two later to inspect its factories, and see for myself what had happened, an incident, to me charming, occurred. It was the dinner-hour, and a very pretty young girl ran up to the car and threw a box of cigars into it. I stopped at once and she said: “I won the prize this week for the highest output. I only heard you were coming an hour ago.” The gift must have cost her two or three pounds. I was very glad (in my official capacity) to give her a kiss. I then went on to see the long mass grave in which so many citizens and their children had been newly buried. The spirit of Birmingham shone brightly, and its million inhabitants, highly organised, conscious and comprehending, rode high above their physical suffering.

During the last week of November and the beginning of December, the weight of the attack shifted to the ports. Bristol, Southampton, and above all Liverpool, were heavily bombed. Later on Plymouth, Sheffield, Manchester, Leeds, Glasgow, and other munitions centres passed through the fire undaunted. It did not matter where the blow struck, the nation was as sound as the sea is salt.

The climax raid of these weeks came once more to London, on Sunday, December 29. All painfully gathered German experience was expressed on this occasion. It was an incendiary classic. The weight of the attack was concentrated upon the City of London itself. It was timed to meet the dead-low-water hour. The water-mains were broken at the outset by very heavy high-explosive parachute mines. Nearly fifteen hundred fires had to be fought. The damage to railway stations and docks was serious. Eight Wren churches were destroyed or damaged. The Guildhall was smitten by fire and blast, and St. Paul’s Cathedral was only saved by heroic exertions. A void of ruin at the very centre of the British world gapes upon us to this day. But when the King and Queen visited the scene, they were received with enthusiasm far exceeding any Royal festival.

During this prolonged ordeal, of which several months were still to come, the King was constantly at Buckingham Palace. Proper shelters were being constructed in the basement, but all this took time. Also it happened several times that His Majesty arrived from Windsor in the middle of an air raid. Once he and the Queen had a very narrow escape. I have His Majesty’s permission to record incident in his own words:

Friday, September 13, 1940.

We went to London [from Windsor] and found an air raid in progress. The day was very cloudy and it was raining hard. The Queen and I went upstairs to a small sitting-room overlooking the Quadrangle (I could not use my usual sitting-room owing to the broken windows by former bomb damage). All of sudden we heard the zooming noise of a diving aircraft getting louder and louder, and then saw two bombs falling past the opposite side of Buckingham Palace into the Quadrangle. We saw the flashes and heard the detonations as they burst about eighty yards away. The blast blew in the windows opposite to us, and two great craters had appeared in the Quadrangle. From one of these craters water from a burst main was pouring out and flowing into the passage through the broken windows. The whole thing happened in a matter of seconds and we were quickly out into the passage. There were six bombs: two in the Forecourt, two in the Quadrangle, one wrecked the Chapel, and one in the garden.

The King, who as a sub-lieutenant had served in the Battle of Jutland, was exhilarated by all this, and pleased that he should be sharing the dangers of his subjects in the capital. I must confess that at the time neither I nor any of my colleagues were aware of the peril of this particular incident. Had the windows been closed instead of open, the whole of the glass would have splintered into the faces of the King and Queen, causing terrible injuries. So little did they make of it all that even I, who saw them and their entourage so frequently, only realised long afterwards, when making inquiries for writing this book, what had actually happened.

In those days we viewed with stern and tranquil gaze the idea of going down fighting amid the ruins of Whitehall. His Majesty had a shooting-range made in the Buckingham Palace garden, at which he and other members of his family and his equerries practised assiduously with pistols and tommy-guns. Presently I brought the King an American short-range carbine, from a number which had been sent to me. This was a very good weapon.

About this time the King changed his practice of receiving me in a formal weekly audience at about five o’clock which had prevailed during my first two months of office. It was now arranged that I should lunch with him every Tuesday. This was certainly a very agreeable method of transacting State business, and sometimes the Queen was present. On several occasions we all had to take our plates and glasses in our hands and go down to the shelter, which was making progress, to finish our meal. The weekly luncheons became a regular institution. After the first few months His Majesty decided that all servants should be excluded, and that we should help ourselves and help each other. During the four and a half years that this continued, I became aware of the extraordinary diligence with which the King read all the telegrams and public documents submitted to him. Under the British Constitutional system the Sovereign has a right to be made acquainted with everything for which his Ministers are responsible, and has an unlimited right of giving counsel to his Government. I was most careful that everything should be laid before the King, and at our weekly meetings he frequently showed that he had mastered papers which I had not yet dealt with. It was a great help to Britain to have so good a King and Queen in those fateful years, and as a convinced upholder of constitutional monarchy I valued as a signal honour the gracious intimacy with which I, as First Minister, was treated, for which I suppose there has been no precedent since the days of Queen Anne and Marlborough during his years of power.

      *      *      *      *      *      

This brings us to the end of the year, and for the sake of continuity I have gone ahead of the general war. The reader will realise that all this clatter and storm was but an accompaniment to the cool processes by which our war effort was maintained and our policy and diplomacy conducted. Indeed, I must record that at the summit these injuries, failing to be mortal, were positive stimulant to clarity of view, faithful comradeship and judicious action. It would be unwise, however, to suppose that if the attack had been ten or twenty times as severe—or even perhaps two or three times as severe—the healthy reactions I have described would have followed.


I was coming in one night to the Annexe when there was a lot of noise and something cracked off not far away, and I saw in the obscurity seven or eight men of the Home Guard gathered about the doorway on some patrol or duty. We exchanged greetings, and a big man said from among them: “It’s a grand life, if we don’t weaken.”

Trepanning consisted of making a hole in the bomb casing in order to deal with the explosive contents.

It seems incongruous to record a joke in such sombre scenes. But in war the soldier’s harsh laugh is often a measure of inward compressed emotions. The party were digging out a bomb, and their prize man had gone down the pit to perform the delicate act of disconnection. Suddenly he shouted to be drawn up. Forward went his mates and pulled him out. They seized him by the shoulders and, dragging him along all rushed off together for the fifty or sixty yards which were supposed to give a chance. They flung themselves on the ground. But nothing happened. The prize man was seriously upset. He was blanched and breathless. They looked at him inquiringly. “My God,” he said, “there was a bloody great rat!”

The reply was reassuring.

These were the official categories: “Yellow” civil servants were those performing less essential tasks and who could therefore be evacuated earlier than “black” ones. The latter would remain in London as long as conditions made it possible to carry on.

4
The Wizard War

A Hidden Conflict—Lindemann’s Services—Progress of Radar—The German Beam—Mr. Jones’s Tale—Principle of the Split Beam of “Knickebein”—Twisting the Beam—Goering’s Purblind Obstinacy—The X Apparatus—Coventry, November 14/15—The Decoy Fires—The Y Apparatus Forestalled—Frustration of the Luftwaffe—Triumph of British Science—Our Further Plans—The Rocket Batteries—General Pile’s Command and the Air Defences of Great Britain—The Aerial Mine Curtains—The Proximity Fuze—The Prospect of Counter-Attack—The Expansion of “Air Defence Great Britain.”

During the human struggle between the British and German Air forces, between pilot and pilot, between anti-aircraft batteries and aircraft, between ruthless bombing and the fortitude of the British people, another conflict was going on step by step, month by month. This was a secret war, whose battles were lost or won unknown to the public, and only with difficulty comprehended, even now, to those outside the small high scientific circles concerned. No such warfare had ever been waged by mortal men. The terms in which it could be recorded or talked about were unintelligible to ordinary folk. Yet if we had not mastered its profound meaning and used its mysteries even while we saw them only in the glimpse, all the efforts, all the prowess of the fighting airmen, all the bravery and sacrifices of the people, would have been in vain. Unless British science had proved superior to German, and unless its strange sinister resources had been effectively brought to bear on the struggle for survival, we might well have been defeated, and, being defeated, destroyed.

A wit wrote ten years ago: “The leaders of thought have reached the horizons of human reason; but all the wires are down, and they can only communicate with us by unintelligible signals.” Yet upon the discerning of these signals and upon the taking of right and timely action on the impressions received depended our national fate and much else. I knew nothing about science, but I knew something of scientists, and had had much practice as a Minister in handling things I did not understand. I had, at any rate, an acute military perception of what would help and what would hurt, of what would cure and of what would kill. My four years’ work upon the Air Defence Research Committee had made me familiar with the outlines of radar problems. I therefore immersed myself so far as my faculties allowed in this Wizard War, and strove to make sure that all that counted came without obstruction or neglect at least to the threshold of action. There were no doubt greater scientists than Frederick Lindemann, though his credentials and genius command respect. But he had two qualifications of vital consequence to me. First, as these pages have shown, he was my trusted friend and confidant of twenty years. Together we had watched the advance and onset of world disaster. Together we had done our best to sound the alarm. And now we were in it, and I had the power to guide and arm our effort. How could I have the knowledge?

Here came the second of his qualities. Lindemann could decipher the signals from the experts on the far horizons and explain to me in lucid, homely terms what the issues were. There are only twenty-four hours in the day, of which at least seven must be spent in sleep and three in eating and relaxation. Anyone in my position would have been ruined if he had attempted to dive into depths which not even a lifetime of study could plumb. What I had to grasp were the practical results, and just as Lindemann gave me his view for all it was worth in this field, so I made sure by turning on my power-relay that some at least of these terrible and incomprehensible truths emerged in executive decisions.

      *      *      *      *      *      

Progress in every branch of radar was constant and unceasing during 1939, but even so the Battle of Britain, from July to September, 1940, was, as I have described, fought mainly by eye and ear. I comforted myself at first in these months with the hope that the fogs and mist and cloud which accompany the British winter and shroud the island with a mantle would at least give a great measure of protection against accurate bombing by day and still more in darkness.

For some time the German bombers had navigated largely by radio beacons. Scores of these were planted like lighthouses in various parts of the Continent, each with its own call-sign, and the Germans, using ordinary directional wireless, could fix their position by the angles from which any two of these transmissions came. To counter this we soon installed a number of stations which we called “Meacons.” These picked up the German signals, amplified them, and sent them out again from somewhere in England. The result was that the Germans, trying to home on their beams, were often led astray, and a number of hostile aircraft were lost in this manner. Certainly one German bomber landed voluntarily in Devonshire thinking it was France.

However, in June I received a painful shock. Professor Lindemann reported to me that he believed the Germans were preparing a device by means of which they would be able to bomb by day or night whatever the weather. It now appeared that the Germans had developed a radio beam which, like an invisible searchlight, would guide the bombers with considerable precision to their target. The beacon beckoned to the pilot, the beam pointed to the target. They might not hit a particular factory, but they could certainly hit a city or town. No longer, therefore, had we only to fear the moonlight nights, in which at any rate our fighters could see as well as the enemy, but we must even expect the heaviest attacks to be delivered in cloud and fog.

Lindemann told me also that there was a way of bending the beam if we acted at once, but that I must see some of the scientists, particularly the Deputy Director of Intelligence Research at the Air Ministry, Dr. R. V. Jones, a former pupil of his at Oxford. Accordingly with anxious mind I convened on June 21 a special meeting in the Cabinet Room, at which about fifteen persons were present, including Sir Henry Tizard and various Air Force Commanders. A few minutes late, a youngish man—who, as I afterwards learnt, had thought his sudden summons to the Cabinet Room must be a practical joke—hurried in and took his seat at the bottom of the table. According to plan, I invited him to open the discussion.

For some months, he told us, hints had been coming from all sorts of sources on the Continent that the Germans had some novel mode of night-bombing on which they placed great hopes. In some way it seemed to be linked with the code-word “Knickebein” (curtsey) which our Intelligence had several times mentioned, without being able to explain. At first it had been thought that the enemy had got agents to plant beacons in our cities on which their bombers could home; but this idea had proved untenable. Some weeks before, two or three curious squat towers had been photographed in odd positions near the coast. They did not seem the right shape for any known form of radio or radar. Nor were they in places which could be explained on any such hypothesis. Recently a German bomber had been shot down with apparatus which seemed more elaborate than was required for night-landing by the Lorenz beam, which appeared to be the only known use for which it might be intended. For this and various other reasons, which he wove together into a cumulative argument, it looked as if the Germans might be planning to navigate and bomb on some sort of system of beams. A few days before under cross-examination on these lines, a German pilot had broken down and admitted that he had heard that something of the sort was in the wind. Such was the gist of Mr. Jones’s tale.

For twenty minutes or more he spoke in quiet tones, unrolling his chain of circumstantial evidence, the like of which for its convincing fascination was never surpassed by tales of Sherlock Holmes or Monsieur Lecoq. As I listened, the Ingoldsby Legends jingled in my mind:

But now one Mr. Jones

Comes forth and depones

That, fifteen years since, he had heard certain groans

On his way to Stone Henge (to examine the stones

Described in a work of the late Sir John Soane’s)

That he’d followed the moans,

And, led by their tones,

Found a Raven a-picking a Drummer-boy’s bones!

When Mr. Jones had finished, there was a general air of incredulity. One high authority asked why the Germans should use a beam, assuming that such a thing was possible, when they had at their disposal all the ordinary facilities of navigation. Above twenty thousand feet the stars were nearly always visible. All our own pilots were laboriously trained in navigation, and it was thought they found their way about and to their targets very well. Others round the table appeared concerned.

      *      *      *      *      *      

I will now explain in the kind of terms which I personally can understand how the German beam worked and how we twisted it. Like the searchlight beam, the radio beam cannot be made very sharp; it tends to spread; but if what is called the “split-beam” method is used, considerable accuracy can be obtained. Let us imagine two searchlight beams parallel one to another, both flickering in such a way that the left-hand beam comes on exactly when the right-hand beam goes out, and vice versa. If an attacking aircraft was exactly in the centre between the two beams, the pilot’s course would be continuously illuminated; but if it got, say, a little bit to the right, nearer the centre of the right-hand beam, this would become the stronger and the pilot would observe the flickering light, which was no guide. By keeping in the position where he avoided the flickerings, he would be flying exactly down the middle, where the light from both beams is equal. And this middle path would guide him to the target. Two split beams from two stations could be arranged to cross over any town in the Midlands or Southern England. The German airman had only to fly along one beam until he detected the second, and then to drop his bombs. Q.E.D.!

This was the principle of the split beam and the celebrated “Knickebein” apparatus, upon which Goering founded his hopes, and the Luftwaffe were taught to believe that the bombing of English cities could be maintained in spite of cloud, fog, and darkness, and with all the immunity, alike from guns and intercepting fighters, which these gave to the attacker. With their logical minds and deliberate large-scale planning, the German High Air Command staked their fortunes in this sphere on a device which, like the magnetic mine, they thought would do us in. Therefore, they did not trouble to train the ordinary bomber pilots, as ours had been trained, in the difficult art of navigation. A far simpler and surer method, lending itself to drill and large numbers, producing results wholesale by irresistible science, attracted alike their minds and their nature. The German pilots followed the beam as the German people followed the Fuehrer. They had nothing else to follow.

But, duly forewarned, and acting on the instant, the simple British had the answer. By erecting the proper stations in good time in our own country we could jam the beam. This would, of course, have been almost immediately realised by the enemy. There was another and superior alternative. We could put a repeating device in such a position that it strengthened the signal from one half of the split beam and not from the other. Thus the hostile pilot, trying to fly so that the signals from both halves of the split beam were equal, would be deflected from the true course. The cataract of bombs which would have shattered, or at least tormented, a city would fall fifteen or twenty miles away in an open field. Being master, and not having to argue too much, once I was convinced about the principles of this queer and deadly game, I gave all the necessary orders that very day in June for the existence of the beam to be assumed, and for all counter-measures to receive absolute priority. The slightest reluctance or deviation in carrying out this policy was to be reported to me. With so much going on, I did not trouble the Cabinet, or even the Chiefs of the Staff. If I had encountered any serious obstruction, I should of course have appealed and told a long story to these friendly tribunals. This, however, was not necessary, as in this limited and at that time almost occult circle obedience was forthcoming with alacrity, and on the fringes all obstructions could be swept away.

About August 23, the first new Knickebein stations, near Dieppe and Cherbourg, were trained on Birmingham, and a large-scale night offensive began. We had, of course, our “teething troubles” to get through; but within a few days the Knickebein beams were deflected or jammed, and for the next two months, the critical months of September and October, the German bombers wandered around England bombing by guesswork, or else being actually led astray.

One instance happened to come to my notice. An officer in my Defence Office sent his wife and two young children to the country during the London raids. Ten miles away from any town, they were much astonished to see a series of enormous explosions occurring three fields away. They counted over a hundred heavy bombs. They wondered what the Germans could be aiming at, and thanked God they were spared. The officer mentioned the incident the next day, but so closely was the secret kept, so narrow was the circle, so highly specialised the information, that no satisfactory explanation could be given to him, even in his intimate position. The very few who knew exchanged celestial grins.

The German air crews soon suspected that their beams were being mauled. There is a story that during these two months nobody had the courage to tell Goering that his beams were twisted or jammed. In his ignorance he pledged himself that this was impossible. Special lectures and warnings were delivered to the German Air Force, assuring them that the beam was infallible, and that anyone who cast doubt on it would be at once thrown out. We suffered, as has been described, heavily under the Blitz, and almost anyone could hit London anyhow. Of course, there would in any case have been much inaccuracy, but the whole German system of bombing was so much disturbed by our counter-measures, added to the normal percentage of error, that not more than one-fifth of their bombs fell within the target areas. We must regard this as the equivalent of a considerable victory, because even the fifth part of the German bombing, which we got, was quite enough for our comfort and occupation.

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The Germans, after internal conflicts, at last revised their methods. It happened, fortunately for them, that one of their formations, Kampf Gruppe 100, was using a special beam of its own. It called its equipment the “X apparatus,” a name of mystery which, when we came across it, threw up an intriguing challenge to our Intelligence. By the middle of September we had found out enough about it to design counter-measures, but this particular jamming equipment could not be produced for a further two months. In consequence Kampf Gruppe 100 could still bomb with accuracy. The enemy hastily formed a pathfinder group from it, which they used to raise fires in the target area by incendiary bombs, and these became the guide for the rest of the de-Knickebeined Luftwaffe.

Coventry, on November 14/15, was the first target attacked by the new method. Although our new jamming had now started, a technical error prevented it from becoming effective for another few months. Even so, our knowledge of the beams was helpful. From the settings of the hostile beams and the times at which they played we could forecast the target and the time, route and height of attack. Our night-fighters had, alas! at this date neither the numbers nor the equipment to make much use of the information. It was nevertheless invaluable to our fire-fighting and other Civil Defence services. These could often be concentrated in the threatened area and special warnings given to the population before the attack started. Presently our counter-measures improved and caught up with the attack. Meanwhile decoy fires, code-named “Starfish,”, on a very large scale were lighted by us with the right timing in suitable open places to lead the main attack astray, and these sometimes achieved remarkable results.

By the beginning of 1941 we had mastered the “X apparatus”; but the Germans were also thinking hard, and about this time they brought in a new aid called the “Y apparatus.” Whereas the two earlier systems had both used cross-beams over the target, the new system used only one beam, together with a special method of range-finding by radio, by which the aircraft could be told how far it was along the beam. When it reached the correct distance, it dropped its bombs. By good fortune and the genius and devotion of all concerned, we had divined the exact method of working the “Y apparatus” some months before the Germans were able to use it in operations, and by the time they were ready to make it their pathfinder, we had the power to render it useless. On the very first night when the Germans committed themselves to the “Y apparatus,” our new counter-measures came into action against them. The success of our efforts was manifest from the acrimonious remarks heard passing between the pathfinding aircraft and their controlling ground stations by our listening instruments. The faith of the enemy air crews in their new device was thus shattered at the outset, and after many failures the method was abandoned. The bombing of Dublin on the night of May 30/31, 1941, may well have been an unforeseen and unintended result of our interference with “Y.”

General Martini, the German chief in this sphere, has since the war admitted that he had not realised soon enough that the “high-frequency war” had begun, and that he underrated the British Intelligence and counter-measures organisation. Our exploitation of the strategic errors which he made in the Battle of the Beams diverted enormous numbers of bombs from our cities during a period when all other means of defence either had failed or were still in their childhood. These were, however, rapidly improving under the pressure of potentially mortal attack. Since the beginning of the war we had brought into active production a form of air-borne radar called “A.I.,” on which the Air Defence Research Committee had fruitfully laboured from 1938 onward, and with which it was hoped to detect and close on enemy bombers. This apparatus was too large and too complicated for a pilot to operate himself. It was, therefore, installed in two-seater Blenheims, and later in Beaufighters, in which the observer operated the radar, and directed his pilot until the enemy aircraft became visible and could be fired on—usually at night about a hundred yards away. I had called this device in its early days “the Smeller,” and longed for its arrival in action. This was inevitably a slow process. However, it began. A widespread method of ground-control interception grew up and came into use. The British pilots, with their terrible eight-gun batteries, in which cannon-guns were soon to play their part, began to close—no longer by chance but by system—upon the almost defenceless German bombers.

The enemy’s use of the beams now became a positive advantage to us. They gave clear warning of the time and direction of the attacks, and enabled the night-fighter squadrons in the areas affected and all their apparatus to come into action at full force and in good time, and all the anti-aircraft batteries concerned to be fully manned and directed by their own intricate science, of which more later. During March and April the steadily rising rate of loss of German bombers had become a cause of serious concern to the German war chiefs. The “erasing” of British cities had not been found so easy as Hitler had imagined. It was with relief that the German Air Force received their orders in May to break off the night attacks on Great Britain and to prepare for action in another theatre.

Thus, the three main attempts to conquer Britain after the fall of France were successively defeated or prevented. The first was the decisive defeat of the German Air Force in the Battle of Britain during July, August, and September. Instead of destroying the British Air Force and the stations and air factories on which it relied for its life and future, the enemy themselves, in spite of their preponderance in numbers, sustained losses which they could not bear. Our second victory followed from our first. The German failure to gain command of the air prevented the cross-Channel invasion. The prowess of our fighter pilots, and the excellence of the organisation which sustained them, had in fact rendered the same service—under conditions indescribably different—as Drake and his brave little ships and hardy mariners had done three hundred and fifty years before, when, after the Spanish Armada was broken and dispersed, the Duke of Parma’s powerful army waited helplessly in the Low Countries for the means of crossing the Narrow Seas.

The third ordeal was the indiscriminate night-bombing of our cities in mass attacks. This was overcome and broken by the continued devotion and skill of our fighter pilots, and by the fortitude and endurance of the mass of the people, and notably the Londoners, who, together with the civil organisations which upheld them, bore the brunt. But these noble efforts in the high air and in the flaming streets would have been in vain if British science and British brains had not played the ever-memorable and decisive part which this chapter records.

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There is a useful German saying, “The trees do not grow up to the sky.” Nevertheless, we had every reason to expect that the air attack on Britain would continue in an indefinite crescendo. Until Hitler actually invaded Russia we had no right to suppose it would die away and stop. We therefore strove with might and main to improve the measures and devices by which we had hitherto survived and to find new ones. The highest priority was assigned to all forms of radar study and application. Scientists and technicians were engaged and organised on a very large scale. Labour and material were made available to the fullest extent. Other methods of striking down the hostile bomber were sought tirelessly, and for many months to come these efforts were spurred by repeated, costly, and bloody raids upon our ports and cities. I will mention three developments, constantly referred to in the Appendices to this volume, in which, at Lindemann’s prompting and in the light of what we had studied together on the Air Defence Research Committee of pre-war years, I took special interest and used my authority. These were, first, the massed discharge of rockets, as a reinforcement of our anti-aircraft batteries; secondly, the laying of aerial mine curtains in the path of a raiding force by means of bombs with long wires descending by parachutes; thirdly, the search for fuzes so sensitive that they did not need to hit their target, but would be set off by merely passing near an aircraft. Of these three methods on which we toiled with large expenditure of our resources, some brief account must now be given.

None of these methods could come to fruition in 1940. At least a year stood between us and practical relief. By the time we were ready to go into action with our new apparatus and methods, the enemy attack they were designed to meet came suddenly to an end, and for nearly three years we enjoyed almost complete immunity from it. Critics have therefore been disposed to underrate the value of these efforts, which could only be proved by major trial, and in any case in no way obstructed other developments in the same sphere.

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By itself beam-distortion was not enough. Once having hit the correct target, it was easy for the German bombers, unless they were confused by our “Starfish” decoy fires, to return again to the glow of the fires they had lit the night before. Somehow they must be clawed down. For this we developed two new devices, rockets and aerial mines. By fitting our anti-aircraft batteries with radar, it was possible to predict the position of an enemy aircraft accurately enough, provided it continued to fly in a straight line at the same speed; but this is hardly what experienced pilots do. Of course they zigzagged or “weaved,” and this meant that in the twenty or thirty seconds between firing the gun and the explosion of the shell they might well be half a mile or so from the predicted point.

A wide yet intense burst of fire round the predicted point was an answer. Combinations of a hundred guns would have been excellent, if the guns could have been produced and the batteries manned and all put in the right place at the right time. This was beyond human power to achieve. But a very simple, cheap alternative was available in the rocket, or, as it had been called for secrecy, the Unrotated Projectile (U.P.). Even before the war Dr. Crow, in the days of the Air Defence Research Committee, had developed two-inch and three-inch rockets which could reach almost as high as our anti-aircraft guns. The three-inch rocket carried a much more powerful warhead than a three-inch shell. It was not so accurate. On the other hand, rocket projectors had the inestimable advantage that they could be made very quickly and easily in enormous numbers without burdening our hard-driven gun factories. Thousands of these U.P. projectors were made, and some millions of rounds of ammunition. General Sir Frederick Pile, an officer of great distinction, who was in command of our anti-aircraft ground defences throughout the war, and who was singularly free from the distaste for novel devices so often found in professional soldiers, welcomed this accession to his strength. He formed these weapons into huge batteries of ninety-six projectors each, manned largely by the Home Guard, which could produce a concentrated volume of fire far beyond the power of anti-aircraft artillery.

I worked in increasing intimacy throughout the war with General Pile, and always found him ingenious and serviceable in the highest degree. He was at his best not only in these days of expansion, when his command rose to a peak of over three hundred thousand men and women and twenty-four hundred guns, apart from the rockets, but also in the period which followed after the air attack on Britain had been beaten off. Here was a time when his task was to liberate the largest possible numbers of men from static defence by batteries, and, without diminishing the potential fire-power, to substitute the largest proportion of women and Home Guard for regulars and technicians. But this is a story which must be told in its proper place.

The task of General Pile’s command was not merely helped by the work of our scientists; as the battle developed, their aid was the foundation on which all stood. In the daylight attacks of the Battle of Britain, the guns had accounted for two hundred and ninety-six enemy aircraft, and probably destroyed or damaged seventy-four more. But the night raids gave them new problems which, with their existing equipment of only searchlights and sound locators, could not be surmounted. In four months from October 1 only about seventy aircraft were destroyed. Radar came to the rescue. The first of these sets for directing gunfire was used in October, and Mr. Bevin and I spent most of the night watching them. The searchlight beams were not fitted till December. However, much training and experience were needed in their use, and many modifications and refinements in the sets themselves were found necessary. Great efforts were made in all this wide field, and the spring of 1941 brought a full reward.

During the attacks on London in the first two weeks of May—the last of the German offensive—over seventy aircraft were destroyed, or more than the four winter months had yielded. Of course, in the meanwhile the number of guns had grown. In December there had been 1450 heavy guns and 650 light; in May there were 1687 heavy guns, 790 light, with about 40 rocket batteries.[1] But the great increase in the effectiveness of our gun defences was due in its origin to the new inventions and technical improvements which the scientists put into the soldiers’ hands, and of which the soldiers made such good use.

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By the middle of 1941, when at last the rocket batteries began to come into service in substantial numbers, air attack had much diminished, so that they had few chances of proving themselves. But when they did come into action, the number of rounds needed to bring down an aircraft was little more than that required by the enormously more costly and scanty anti-aircraft guns, of which we were so short. The rockets were good in themselves, and also an addition to our other means of defence.

Shells or rockets alike are, of course, only effective if they reach the right spot and explode at the right moment. Efforts were therefore made to produce aerial mines suspended on long wires floating down on parachutes which could be laid in the path of the enemy air squadrons. It was impossible to pack these into shells. But a rocket, with much thinner walls, has more room. A certain amount of three-inch rocket ammunition, which could lay an aerial minefield on wires seven hundred feet long at heights up to twenty thousand feet, was made and held ready for use against mass attacks on London. The advantage of such minefields over shell-fire is, of course, that they remain lethal for anything up to a minute. For wherever the wing hits the wire, it pulls up the mine until it reaches the aircraft and explodes. There is thus no need for exact fuze-setting, as with ordinary shells.

Aerial mines could, of course, be placed in position by rockets laid by aircraft, or simply raised on small balloons. The last method was ardently supported by the Admiralty. In fact, however, the rockets were never brought into action on any considerable scale. By the time they were manufactured in large numbers, mass attacks by bombers had ceased. Nevertheless, it was surprising and fortunate that the Germans did not develop this counter to our mass-bombing raids in the last three years of the war. Even a few minelaying aircraft would have been able to lay and maintain a minefield over any German city,