“Churchill’s ‘victory at all costs’ was a call for the kind of total war that Britain had suffered through at the Somme and Passchendaele a generation earlier. And look what that had begot: A million dead, vast shares of the national wealth gone and an empire in tatters.”
By John Kelly
ASKED ONCE LATER IN LIFE what moment he would most like to relive if he could, Winston Churchill replied without hesitation: “The summer of 1940. The summer of 1940, every time.”
Who can blame him? Seventy-five years on, the sights and sounds of that fateful season still linger in popular memory — anxious search lights scanning the London sky, a piano tinkling A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square in the bar of the Savoy, English school boys quoting Shakespeare: “Come the three corners of the world in arms and we shall shock them.” And the most resonant memory of all: The words of Winston Churchill.
Churchill Takes Over
That afternoon Churchill told a hushed House of Commons that the policy of his government could be explained in a single word: Victory.
“Victory at all costs,” he said. “Victory no matter how long and hard the road.” The next day, the press and the pollsters pronounced the speech a great success, and, indeed, it was a success with ordinary Britons; but in certain precincts of the British establishment — most notably London’s “Clubland” and Whitehall – Churchill’s words produced gasps of disbelief and anger.
“Victory at all costs” was a call for the kind of total war that Britain had suffered through at the Somme and Passchendaele a generation earlier. And look what that had begot: A millions dead, vast shares of the national wealth gone and an empire in tatters.
Lloyd George, Britain’s Great War prime minister; Bank of England director Montague Norman; Basil Liddell Hart, the renowned military writer; press baron Lord Rothermere; actor John Gielgud and playwright George Bernard Shaw would normally agreed on very little. But in 1940, all were united by the idea that the Mr. Churchill’s new war policy would end even more disastrously for the country than Gallipoli. The misbegotten 1915 Dardanelles adventure, undertaken by Britain’s new prime minister in his earlier role as First Lord of the Admiralty, had produced almost 150,000 casualties and achieved nothing except lamentation for the mothers of Australia and New Zeeland.
Churchill’s foreign minister, Lord Edward Halifax, also had reservations about the “victory at all costs!” policy. The 61-year-old foreign secretary kept his doubts to himself until May 25 — the day it became clear that the Allies were going to lose the Battle of France. That morning, the 94 divisions of the French army were in a state of collapse. Meanwhile, the 300,000-man British Expeditionary Force, the junior partner in the alliance, was racing toward Dunkirk, the last Channel port not yet in German hands. May 25 was also the day the Imperial General Staff presented Churchill’s war cabinet with British Strategy in a Certain Eventuality, an assessment of the nation’s prospects if the United Kingdom had to carry on the war alone following the fall of France fell (which by that point was a virtual certainty). To say the report breathed despair would be an understatement. Its 12 tightly argued pages led inexorably to the chiefs’ main conclusion: Without the “full economic and financial support” of the United States, a Britain faced certain defeat.
Aware that isolationist opinion in America would make aid on the required scale unlikely, Halifax summoned Italian ambassador Giuseppe Bastianini. There were rumours that Italy was about to renounce her neutrality and Mussolini’s envoy arrived in Halifax’s office expecting to be interrogated about Il Duce’s intentions. But Britain’s foreign secretary wanted to talk about something else. After a few minutes of pleasantries, Halifax came to the point: Would Italy be prepared to mediate a compromise peace settlement between Germany and the Allies? The ambassador advised that he would have to consult Rome before answering such a momentous question. Before leaving he left he told Halifax: “If such a conference were held, the war would be pointless.”
The next day — a raw, damp Sunday in London — Halifax initiated one of the most consequential debates in British history. During a morning meeting of the war cabinet, the five-man body that set British war policy, he told his colleagues that it was “time to face facts”.
“It is no longer a question of imposing…defeat on Germany,” he said, “but of safeguarding our empire.”
Halifax continued in this vein uninterrupted for several minutes. But when he said he had told Signore Bastianini that “Britain would… be prepared to consider any proposal that led to a secure peace in Europe provided our liberty and independence were insured,” Churchill pounced.
“Peace and security were insufficient,” the prime minister thundered. “We must insure our complete liberty and independence. Any negotiation that might lead to a derogation of our right and power” would be unacceptable.
The debate, which began a little after 9 a.m., spilled over into the afternoon and concluded around 5 p.m. with Halifax ahead on points.
The other members of war cabinet — Labor politicians Clement Atlee and Arthur Greenwood — sanctioned an exploration of what Halifax was now calling “the Italian approach.” So did former prime minister Neville Chamberlain, whose principal ministerial duty was to prevent Churchill from perpetuating any more Gallipolis.
Realizing he was outnumbered, Churchill concluded the meeting with a white lie. He told his cabinet colleagues that he also had no objections “to an approach to Signore Mussolini.”
Winnie Strikes Back
Over the next two days, Churchill would employ all the powers of his office and his fertile imagination to convince the war cabinet that a Britain alone could prevail against Germany.
Exhibit A is British Strategy in the Near Future, the paper Churchill commissioned almost before the ink had dried on a Certain Eventuality.
Near Future addressed the same question: Could Britain successfully pursue the war without France? But this time Churchill did not leave the chiefs free to reach an answer on their own. Instead, he insisted that they factor several assumptions into their analysis, including that the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) would reach Dunkirk safely and that Germany would not attack Britain with a paratroop force larger than ten thousand men.
On May 27, both assumption were dubious. Yet factoring them into the analysis gave Near Future, which was distributed to members of the war cabinet that same day, a far more positive tone than its predecessor.
Twenty-four hours later, with the war cabinet still deadlocked over the Italian approach, Churchill pulled another rabbit out of the hat.
Between the afternoon and evening war council meetings, the prime minister briefed the twenty-five members of the outer cabinet on Britain’s position. The members of this lager group were second tier ministers. Individually, none of them carried much weight, but a unanimous show of support here would undercut Halifax and might mute his calls for a negotiated end to the war. Aware that he was playing for high stakes, Churchill knew it would take all the eloquence, charisma and gravitas he could muster. He held nothing back.
Mixed in among his dire predictions about Hitler’s designs on the British Isles was woven a stirring narrative of English national glory. He skillfully evoked Wellington at Waterloo, Drake sailing out to meet the Armada, and the Light Brigade in the Valley of Death. His guests hung on every word, especially Churchill’s finale.
“If this story of ours is to end, let it end only when each of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground,” the prime minister concluded.
Victory at All Costs
He is “the man, the only man, for this hour,” exclaimed Hugh Dalton, minister for economic warfare.
Later that evening, when Halifax tabled a French suggestion that the Allies make a joint appeal to President Roosevelt, the other members of the war cabinet (who by now had all been appraised of Churchill’s rhetorical triumph) evinced so little interest in the question, that Halifax didn’t even bother to call for a vote.
Britain’s flirtation with a negotiated peace was over.
John Kelly is the author of the upcoming book Never Surrender: Winston Churchill and Britain’s Decision to Fight Nazi Germany in the Fateful Summer of 1940. His other books include of The Graves Are Walking: The Great Famine and the Saga of the Irish People; The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time; Three on the Edge; and more. Kelly lives in New York City and Sandisfield, Massachusetts.